This page will look much nicer in a browser that supports CSS, or with CSS turned on.

Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, August 31, 2002

The First Step's a Doozy

Charles Dodgson comments on my post about Bjorn Lomborg and the Kyoto treaty, pointing out that one of Lomborg's criticisms is that, despite the cost, Kyoto wouldn't help much. He asks, reasonably enough, why I think that compromising on a treaty that does less than the Kyoto treaty would've would do any good.

The point is that politics is an incremental process. In some ways, this is the same point that Lomborg misses with his criticism-- the Kyoto reductions were never intended to be an end unto themselves, and have always been thought of (at least by the people I know who spend a lot of time thinking about these issues) as a first step. A small reduction is better than no reduction, and if nothing else, it buys some time to work for further reductions.

If you're out in the woods, and lop your foot off with an axe, putting a tourniquet on your leg won't be enough to save your life-- you still need to get medical attention. However, the fact that you don't have a trauma team standing by is no reason to reject the imperfect solution of slapping on a tourniquet and trying to get to the hospital. In the same way, the absence of a perfect solution to the problem of global warming doesn't mean we should reject imperfect solutions-- whether they're Kyoto or something less. You do whatever you can right now, and hope that buys you enough time to find a better solution.

The biggest advantage of getting some sort of compromise reduction would not be the reduction itself, so much as the admission that working to reduce CO2 emissions is something that's worth doing. It would require an acceptance, however grudging, of the fact that dumping a huge amount of CO2 into the atmosphere is probably not the best of ideas. Currently, we don't even have that-- the anti-environmentalist party platform has two planks: one is "human activity has nothing to do with global warming," the other is "Kyoto would wreck the economy and wouldn't help anyway." Some compromise reduction, however symbolic it might end up being, would weaken if not remove the first of those. That's progress.

(Note, too, that I don't really believe we're footless and bleeding in a forest, here. All the respectable science I've seen on the issue points to a warming trend, and suggests that human activity is partially to blame. However, the trend being observed is much milder than the more apocalyptic versions some activists would have you believe. Global warming is a problem that will need to be dealt with, but it's not a panic-time crisis, not yet. We need to find a solution, but we've got plenty of time to look for one, provided we start looking.)

The sensible approach would be to hammer out some sort of compromise, and get some reduction in CO2 emissions. And when that fails to wreck the economy, or cripple American industry-- and it won't wreck the economy, or cripple American industry-- then work on a further reduction, and so on. Get business and industry to agree that there is a problem, and start working on something to solve it. If nothing else, that gets the process started. And it should be made clear from the beginning that this is a process, and that whatever compromise is reached is only the first step in that process-- there isn't a one-step miracle cure, here, and it's important not to be seen as peddling one (if nothing else, that leaves you open to the attack Lomborg is using...).

(And who knows, when we force power plants and factories to actually reduce CO2 emissions, some bright businessman may find a way to make money off it-- turn the carbon into diamonds, or pencil leads, or nanotubes for superconducting wires, or whatever-- and improve rather than cripple the economy. Again, it's amusing to note that some of the same people who tout the unlimited power of free markets and technology to find an answer to the problem of running out of fossil fuels ("When oil gets short, other sources of power will become competitive, and we'll find another way to keep things running") turn around and become the next thing to Luddites when it comes to emissions. The cognitive dissonance involved in believing that technology will find a way to make energy production cheap, but can't possibly find a way to reduce CO2 emissions that won't be ruinously expensive is pretty impressive...)

The problem with the Kyoto-or-bust approach is that it allows the opponents to stonewall, and refuse to even admit there's a problem, let alone start the process of fixing it. So we've got a stalemate-- worse than that, really, because maintaining the status quo is a complete victory for environmentalism's opponents. A compromise from the Kyoto position would be only a partial victory for the environmental movement, but a partial victory is better than a total defeat, which is what Kyoto-or-bust is getting.

Posted at 1:47 PM | link | 2 comments

Friday, August 30, 2002

They Gots Allllll the Money

A few days back, I wrote up Carter Scholz's Radiance for the book log. It's a novel about fraud and chicanery at a nuclear weapons lab, and while a number of things about the book annoyed me, there are a few things it nails. The problem of funding is one of them.

Modern science is a horrifically expensive business. Since taking my current job, and beginning to set up a research lab, I've spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $45,000 on various bits and widgets, and you wouldn't really be able to tell where the money went from looking at my lab. A research-quality mirror and a mount to hold it will set you back over $100, and laser experiments need a lot of mirrors. A diode laser will run you $500, a current supply for that laser is $1000, a mediocre oscilloscope is $1500, and pretty soon, we're talking real money. I'm doing this research thing on the cheap, but $100,000 is regarded as "cheap" in the physics community.

The huge sums of money required to get things done force research scientists to put a great deal of effort into finding ways to get more money-- basically, by begging various agencies for money. Some money comes directly from your employer-- I got a large chunk of "start-up" money when I took my current job, and I got an internal college grant to pay most of the cost of the single most expensive item I've shelled out for (just under $4000)-- but to get the really nifty hardware you need to find outside sources of funding. In general, there are three ways of getting this money-- you can tie your work to an industry, and get money from big corporations; you can work directly for the government, and get your money from Congress; or, if you're an academic, you can write grant proposals. You'd have to ask Derek Lowe about industrial research, but I know a (very) few things about the other two channels.

Writing grants is another of those muddled, I-can't-believe-this-actually-works systems, like peer review, that outsiders are often shocked to hear about. Basically, you come up with an idea, marshal facts and references to show that what you propose is original, feasible, and interesting (a tough trio, that), send them off to somebody who has a lot more money than you do (the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, various other government agencies and private foundations), and wait. They, in turn, take this big pile of stuff, and ship it out to a bunch of other scientists in the field, and ask them whether they think the work in question is worth funding. Based on the responses from the reviewers, the constraints of the particular agency, the phase of the moon, and other less quantifiable factors, they decide whether or not to give you a big chunk of change.

(I once described the process to a bunch of students who were anxious for me to grade lab reports: "You know those big term papers you have for other classes that you come in here and ask for extensions on your lab reports to finish? Writing a grant is like that, only if I get an 'A', they'll give me fifty thousand dollars... I'll be a little late getting your reports graded.")

It's another area where the whole structure of scientific research relies upon the good will of those who do research for a living. The people who control the money generally aren't qualified to decide on their own who gets paid, so they need expert advice, which has to come from other scientists. Which is frought with potential problems-- some of the people who might be asked to review your grant proposal may be your competitors, and have a potential interest in seeing your work slowed or squelched, not to mention the mundane fact that reviewing grant proposals is a time-consuming process, and the people called upon to do it would often prefer to be doing something else. For the grant system to work, you need to count on scientists putting aside their personal interests, and providing a complete and honest review, for the good of the field as a whole. Somewhat amazingly, this works a lot more often than it fails.

Things get even screwier when you start talking about big government research, and research on the scale discussed in Radiance. My entire career could be funded from the money the weapons labs lose behind couch cushions, and as the level of funding goes up, the hoops you need to jump through to get the funding become more and more elaborate. When you're talking about funding a weapons lab, or even a smaller-scale program like the NIST labs, you need to get the money more or less directly from Congress (in the US-- your country may vary), and "capricious" doesn't begin to describe them.

I haven't ever worked on the really grand funding scale described in the book-- the closest I've come was my old group at NIST, which I jokingly refer to as the "Infinite Money Limit" because the budget (for five different experiments) could be counted in millions without requiring scientific notation. I was at NIST during the "Contract With America" era, though, so I've seen the contortions researchers sometimes have to go through to keep the money flowing.

At the Big Science level (or even the Medium-Size Science level), the game becomes "figure out how to spin things so as to make what you're already doing fit the trend of the moment." Large research projects have a certain momentum-- you acquire equipment and expertise over a period of years, so it's almost impossible to stop on the metaphorical dime and change to a radically new program. When the requirements for funding set out by Congress change, you can't really change your whole research program, so instead you find a way to make it sound like their new goal will be met by paying you to continue doing exactly what you've been doing for years.

A character in Radiance (who's a sort of Edward Teller analogue) says several times that "funding comes from a threat," and the best real-life examples closely parallel the sordid tale in the book. With the Cold War over, and the Soviet threat gone, "Star Wars" researchers scrambled to find a new justification for continuing their work. In the book, the new threat to justify spending billions on missile defense is asteroid impact; in the real world, it's the ever-popular "rogue states." The threat is different, but the proposed solution is exactly the same (though slightly less credible), and the work goes on as before.

At NIST the swings were somewhat milder-- when I first arrived, the mission being pushed was "directed research" and "partnership with industry." When the Gingrich Revolution took power, "partnership with industry" was derided as "corporate welfare" (largely because Ron Brown was the Secretary of Commerce (the department which controls NIST and NOAA), and trailed only Hillary Clinton inspiring loathing among the Republican majority-- the "corporate welfare" programs they were threatening to cut were set up by Bush the Elder), and we had to re-focus on the core mission of fundamental standards. When sanity returned in the wake of the government shutdowns caused by the stand-off between Clinton and Gingrich over the budget, things swung back to the middle a bit.

These shifts in mission caused much scrambling among the NIST administration, and a few worried group meetings, but through it all, the research goals never actually shifted. And, to be completely honest, nothing I did while I was in that group had any direct connection to either "partnership with industry" or fundamental standards. All that changed was the way we described what we did to the occasional visiting potentate from the Hill.

It's enough to make one sort of cynical about the process... So, despite never working for a weapons lab (where's Jim Hill when I need him?), I find the funding debates in Radiance all too believable.

Dropping back down to the academic level to wrap this up, there's a slightly similar problem in academic funding circles. Because the grant review process is dependent on reviewers from within the scientific community, it's somewhat susceptible to trends within the community. I once spent an awkward ten minutes listening to a rant by a collision physicist whose grant had been denied, which he blamed on "those damn laser people," laser-cooled atomic collisions (my field) being the trendy topic of the moment. The same basic game is played here, albeit for lower stakes-- you try to find some aspect of the project you're already doing that can be tied to something that's "hot," to make your proposal look more sexy.

Bose-Einstein Condensation is a hot topic at the moment, so there are tons of proposals for experiments to work with BEC. Quantum computing is another popular field. If you can figure out a way to use BEC for quantum computing in biological systems, then you can probably open the sort of money spigot that academic scientists can usually only dream of...

As for my own funding, one of the factors leading to this flipping great wodge of babble is the fact that I'm supposed to be re-working my own grant proposal. I got turned down last year, with a couple of reviewers expressing feasibility concerns (which I can readily answer). More troubling is the fact that a couple of other reviewers said, in essence, "this isn't that interesting." I'm not sure how to re-work things to fix that, though I have a faint glimmer of an idea, which needs to be left to mature in my subconscious for a little while yet. I need the money, though, so I'll come up with something or another, and come November, I'll be sending off another $50,000 term paper...

Posted at 11:25 AM | link | 3 comments

Thursday, August 29, 2002

He Who Hesitates is Saved a Lot of Typing

I've been tempted to comment on the thoroughly loathsome "we must humiliate the Arab world to make them see reason" idiocy started by Nick Denton, but it's such an offensively stupid idea that it's hard to write anything coherent about, and anything I did manage probably wouldn't be any fun to read (see "McKinney, Cynthia"). It makes a nice hawkish wish-fullfillment fantasy (which can be awfully tempting), but ten or fifteen seconds of rational thought shows what a horrific idea it is-- as Ginger Stampley points out, the fact that the warblogger crowd adopted it as gleefully as they did pretty much rules out any non-ironic use of "anti-idiotarian"

Happily, while I dithered, Jim at Objectionable Content did the job, better than I would've (scroll down to "Stop hating imperialism or we'll destroy you!"-- Blogspot's archive bug strikes again). He very comprehensively demolishes the whole idea of "humiliation" as a policy goal-- further comment would be superfluous, so I'll shut up now.

Posted at 10:10 AM | link | no comments

The Hippest Hobbit

I don't really want to be Boing Boing Lite, but this link (to a whopping huge QuickTime movie-- consider yourself warned) was forwarded to me in email, and it's so, um, interesting that I need to pass it on. Misery, company, etc.

Posted at 9:53 AM | link | no comments

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Sensible vs. Skeptical

Brad DeLong has a very good response to the recent Bjorn Lomborg piece in the New York Times. Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist has made him a darling of the right and a demon to the environmental movement, but his argument fails in a couple of key places, chiefly in his attempt to blur the distinction between "would" and "will." Lomborg writes:

In fact, for the same amount Kyoto would have cost just the United States every year, the United Nations estimates that we could provide every person in the world with access to basic health, education, family planning and water and sanitation services. Isn't this a better way of serving the world?

It's a lovely sentiment, but as DeLong points out:

He may well be right that the resources that Kyoto would suck up would do more for human welfare if spent creating a more human world by boosting public health and economic infrastructure--but that claim needs to be accompanied by a plan to make sure that these resources are devoted to their best alternative use in the global south. "Would" cuts no ice here. "Will" does.

DeLong's response is worth reading, and the comments also provide some interesting perspectives (though you may want to scroll past the bit where somebody spammed his comments section with the full text of a handful of anti-Lomborg articles). I'd only add one point to his comments on the original article: Lomborg is also implicitly assuming that reducing CO2 emissions and helping the Third World are mutually exclusive goals-- that if we spend money on cutting greenhouse gasses, we can't also spend money on clean water for developing countries. There's no real reason why we couldn't do both-- some public health issues in the developing world could be fixed for pocket change.

The really annoying thing about the ongoing global warming "debate," though, is the utter childishness of the whole thing.

On one side, we have the Free Market Uber Alles crowd, who loudly proclaim that the emission targets set by the Kyoto treaty would wreck our economy, often using the sort of rhetorical ju-jitsu that Lomborg demonstrates above to make themselves seem like good guys. On the other side, we have the hard-core Bunny-Huggers, proclaiming equally loudly that the Kyoto agreement is an absolute minimum first step, and nothing less is acceptable. Watching a few go-rounds of this leaves me with the strong impression that everyone involved should have their television privileges revoked until they're willing to behave like adults.

Is the world going to end if we don't immediately implement the Kyoto agreements? Of course not. Lomborg overstates his case, but so does Greenpeace. We don't really know what effect CO2 emissions will really have in the future, though it's probably a safe bet that the more apocalyptic predictions will turn out to be wrong. Will implementing the Kyoto protocols send the global economy into the toilet? Of course not. It'll cost a lot of money, but at the same time, it will almost certainly open up new opportunities to make money, for those clever enough to exploit them.

(Interestingly, some of the same people who vociferously oppose Kyoto on economic grounds are just as quick to argue that the entertainment industry is a lumbering dinosaur reflexively seeking to protect an outdated business model, and foolishly resisting inevitable technical progress. It wouldn't take a whole lot of work to cast the energy industry in the same light-- fossil fuels are the technology of the past, and by clinging to the current oil-and-coal-based model of energy generation, energy companies are missing a big opportunity, etc.)

The real problem, though, is a failure to negotiate. Kyoto's too much for the business community to take? Fine-- make a counter-offer. Pick some level of CO2 emissions that you think can be met with a reasonable expense, and let's do that. That's not enough for the environmentalists? Anything's better than nothing, which is what you're going to get if you insist on Kyoto or nothing-- make a deal, and when moderate reductions fail to ruin the economy, push for more. The second step is easier than the first-- make a compromise, and get the process started.

The bottom line is that there's a fairly plausible model to suggest that dumping huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere might have unpleasant consequences. We can't say for sure that it is, or that it will, but then again, we only get to run this experiment once-- when and if Bad Things happen, we don't get to start over. It's hardly Panic Time, but the sensible thing to do is to start making some reductions now, to at least slow the rate of things getting worse, and ease the pain should future science make it clear that more drastic cuts are needed.

Unfortunately, neither side in this catfight has any incentive to compromise. Continuing the status quo is a complete victory for the business side, so they hem and haw and trump up scientific dissent, and do anything at all but offer a compromise. A compromise would cost money right now which is bad for the stock price, while stonewalling is free, and the consequences of inaction won't show up for years (by which time current CEO's will be dead, retired, or in jail). On the other side, most of the high-profile environmental groups seem to regard global warming less as a technical problem to be resolved (by whatever means possible) than the object of a religious crusade. They're not willing to compromise, because they serve a Higher Purpose, and noble ideals ought to lift them above mundane concerns of reality.

So we muddle along doing nothing, with foot-stamping and name-calling and shoddy science on both sides. It's sickening, really.

Posted at 3:01 PM | link | 2 comments

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Paging Dr. Sapir, Paging Dr. Whorf

I'm back from vacation, and more substantial blogging will follow once I clear a slight backlog of stuff at work. Coming off five days in Montreal, though, I do have a question for the assembled wisdom of the blogging community:

Why is it that speaking French all the time also leads to chain smoking and driving like a complete idiot?

If we could explain this, and also the American compulsion to take a place whose chief attraction is great natural beauty (say, Lake George, NY) and load it up with tacky tourist crap that completely obscures said natural beauty (Do people actually pay to go into wax museums? If so, why? And why would anyone think that the shore of a scenic lake in the Adirondacks would be a good spot for a wax museum?), well, the world would be a better place.

Posted at 11:17 AM | link | no comments

Thursday, August 22, 2002

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

Regular readers may have noticed a pronounced tilt toward the "pop culture" side of things in recent postings. There are two reasons for that: one, the BlogCritics launch (and the recent CD-buying binge) got me thinking about music, which turned up plenty of ideas for blog posts; and two, Kate and I are going on a long-delayed and well-deserved vacation this weekend (running up the road to Montreal for a few days), to try to unwind a little before the new school year. I've been making a conscious effort not to think about class prep until after we get back, which has sort of spilled over into not thinking about physics much at all.

When we get back, it'll be hard-core class-prep time, so there'll be plenty of science-type posts, as I try to work out the best way to explain Relativity and Quantum Mechanics to sophomores, and do some of my thinking out loud on the Web. If you just can't wait to read more about science and education, SciTech Daily provides a link to a Richard Dawkins piece about great science teaching, which is worth a read. It sort of veers off into an anti-religion rant for a few paragraphs in the middle, but then he wouldn't be Richard Dawkins if he didn't veer off into the occasional anti-religion rant.

(I'll also note that Salon has a book review with the absolutely wonderful title "Sometimes a Snake Orgy is Just a Snake Orgy", which is pretty entertaining.)

On the other hand, if you're in the mood for more pop-culture stuff, I'll plug 75 or Less Album Reviews. Leaving aside what may be a grammar error in the title (words being discrete, "fewer" might be preferred, but then "75 words or fewer" doesn't really sound right...), they do exactly what the title says: review albums using no more than 75 words. I haven't heard enough of the records they've reviewed recently to get a good read on their accuracy, but their reviews are sharp, to the point, and often amusing. It's worth a look.

And that's pretty much it. Having stuck Mike Steeves with the image of me singing a Go-Go's tune, I'm off. Back next Tuesday, or thereabouts.

Posted at 10:02 AM | link | no comments

What I Bought Last Weekend

I'd been holding off on buying new CD's for a while, what with the expenses of moving, and the looming need to buy a house, but a recent blitz of new stuff that I want lured me back into the store, and I picked up a whole bunch of stuff. I don't usually buy CD's in blocks of ten, but I did this weekend, and it was a decent scatter of things, which provides another fair guide to my tastes in music, so I'll list them here:

There you go. Nothing all that daring, really, but then these were chain stores in the Albany area, so it's a little tricky to find "daring" at all...

Posted at 9:39 AM | link | 1 comment

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Watch Out For the Crystal Sphere

It's sort of fashionable to pick on NASA, and harp on how far they've fallen from the glory days of the Apollo program, usually with a few digs thrown in about how their incompetence proves the gross inefficiency of government, bureaucracy, or some combination thereof. And, to be sure, the agency has provided its critics with plenty of material for mockery-- the warped mirror on the Hubble, a rash of missing Mars probes, the white elephant of the Shuttle program. Some of these truly are unforgivable-- the persons responsible for the missed unit conversion that blew up one of the Mars probes should be beaten to death with a platinum-irridium alloy meter stick.

But a lot of the criticism of NASA's failures tends to miss the point-- what they're trying to do is astonishingly difficult. Trying to land a spacecraft on the surface of Mars is akin to trying to land a radio-controlled model airplane on the Empire State Building, from Boise, Idaho-- it's not like you could give a bunch of wise-ass pundits a billion dollars and a wrench and get better results overnight. It's fairly amazing that they can get a probe in the vicinity of another planet at all, let alone land one on the surface and do interesting science once it's there (and a lot of the problems they end up with stem from the fact that just getting a probe to Mars no longer counts as interesting science). The impressive successes they have managed are overshadowed by the past-- we've all been spoiled by the Apollo program, from which we picked up the mistaken impression that this stuff is easy, and success should come automatically.

So it's important to take a few minutes every now and then to salute the things that NASA's done right. And two of their biggest successes are the Voyager probes, still going strong after 25 years, and coming up on the outer "edge" of the Solar System. Yeah, fine, these probes date from before the agency really fell on hard times, and they're each basically just a camera and a radio, but still, they're an impressive achievement, and deserve a little recognition.

Here's to the Voyager probes, then-- may they keep running for another 25 years.

And may they still think kindly of us when they're absorbed into the consciousness of a destructive alien space cloud...

(Aside: The post title is taken from David Brin's short story "The Crystal Spheres," from the excellent collection The River of Time (go buy a copy now). The story offers an interesting take on the "Fermi Paradox." Another story in the collection ("Senses Three and Six," if I'm remembering correctly) offers a wonderful explanation for NASA's problems-- the failed missions and cost overruns are all an accounting blind to hide the vast sums being siphoned off into a secret effort to oppose evil Alien Overlords...)

Posted at 11:11 AM | link | no comments

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

"Perfect Albums"

Having suggested that people writing reviews for BlogCritics ought to post "favorite album" lists to provide some context for their reviews, I suppose I'm obliged to post such a list myself. Of course, being a naturally contrary sort, I'll do this in a slightly idiosyncratic manner.

As noted in another recent post, I have some fairly strong opinions on what constitutes a good album, that go beyond just having three or four good singles. A really great album is a collection of songs that all work together, and add up to something more than the sum of the individual tunes-- mediocre songs should be lifted up in the context of a really great album, and sound better than they would on their own. It's also crucial that none of the songs be actively bad or annoying.

I've sometimes referred to this (with characteristic humility) as the "Perfect Album" concept, but it's a little tricky to concisely nail down exactly what I mean. It's important that all of the songs be at least reasonably good, so I've sometimes said "They're records on which all the tracks are good" or "They're records you can put on 'Random Play' in a CD changer without needing to skip tracks," but there's more to it than that-- you can make a good shuffle-play album out of a dozen tracks that all sort of sound the same, and don't really suck. Buffalo Tom has a few such albums, to pick a name off the MP3 collection, but none of them make the Perfect Album list. It's important that the songs all fit together well, which is part of why I exclude "Greatest Hits" packages from consideration, but live albums are off the list as well, just to be difficult.

I should emphasize that this isn't really a "favorite albums" list per se, or a good indicator of the sort of thing I play most frequently. There are lots of albums that make regular appearances in my CD player that aren't listed below, usually because of one or two actively irritating tracks, some of them great records by almost any standard. I'm a big Bob Dylan fan, but Blonde On Blonde misses out because "Rainy Day Women" is so goddamn annoying, and Highway 61 Revisited doesn't make it because "Ballad of a Thin Man" bugs me. It's also limited to records I actually own, so while there's a chance that Born to Run or London Calling might belong on the list, the fact that I don't have them on CD disqualifies them from consideration. And all the usual disclaimers apply: Tastes Vary, all IMAO, YMMV. HTH, HAND.

So. The list, in alphabetical order by artist, because that's how the discs are shelved:

And that's ten, which is a nice round number, and a good place to stop. There are dozens of albums hanging just below the level of this list (Fight Songs was the last one on (I've been on a country-ish kick for a little while now, and needed something to represent that), while Exile On Main St. and Utopia Parkway were the last two cut, and might well make it into the top ten if you asked me again in a month), and dozens more which were excluded on the basis of one arbitrary criterion or another. But these ten are consistent favorites, and probably as good a quick indicator of my tastes in music as anything else I could provide.

Posted at 10:54 AM | link | 19 comments

What Kate Said

For the benefit of the few people who read this, but haven't already seen this link on Outside of a Dog or Making Light, or Boing Boing, or any of the other places that have linked it, John M. Ford is a genius. From 110 Stories:

The firemen look up, and know the time.
These labored, took their wages, and are dead.
The cracker-crumbs of fascia sieve the light.
The air's deciduous of letterhead.
How dark, how brilliant, things will be tonight.
Once more, we'll all remember where we were.
Forget it, friend. You didn't have a choice.
That's got to be a rumor, but who's sure?
The Internet is stammering with noise.
You turn and turn but just can't turn away.
My child can't understand. I can't explain.
The towers drain out from Boston to LA.

Read the whole thing, link to it (with proper attribution-- that's John M-as-in-"Mike" Ford, author of (among other things) Growing Up Weightless and The Last Hot Time and From the End of the Twentieth Century, not the director of Westerns...), and go buy every one of his books.

(Update: Minor editing to correct an embarrassing typo and mention the many links I hadn't yet seen when I originally posted that.)

(Update II: Link changed to point to a copy at, for bandwidth reasons.)

Posted at 8:44 AM | link | no comments

Monday, August 19, 2002

Tanned, Rested, and Ready

The hot political topic of the moment in the "blogosphere" is, of course, the "coming war with Iraq." I'm sort of torn on the whole issue-- in principle, I have no problem with the idea that Saddam Hussein ought to be removed from power. He's a vicious asshole, and just about everybody would be happier to see him gone. On the other hand, though, it's not clear that this is a can of worms we really ought to be opening at this time-- there's no clear replacement for Saddam, there's no real support for the war outside the US and the "blogosphere," and this doesn't strike me as an incredibly urgent and pressing concern. I'd probably be all in favor of removing Hussein by military force, if we were to go about it in the right way, but I'm not convinced we need to rush into it right now.

What I am sure of is that the way we're actually going about it is completely wrong, and frighteningly so. There was an article in yesterday's Washington Post under the headline "White House Push for Iraqi Strike Is on Hold: Waiting to Make Case for Action Allows Invasion Opponents to Dominate Debate" which had a couple of quotes that nicely sum up the problems. First, from uber-hawk Richard Perle, we have this:

"Timing is everything when you do this," said Richard Perle, a former Reagan defense official who is close to key figures in the Bush administration. "If you launched [a public campaign] too far in advance and nothing followed, that would raise questions and fuel a debate that would not be helpful to the administration. . . . If you join the debate now, but don't act for months, you pay a worse price."

(Let's ignore the patented Josh Marshall complaint about Perle's real status within this administration...)

You pay a worse price than... what? Than backing our way into an ill-thought-out and poorly-justified shooting war? 'Cause, you know, we've done that, forty-odd years ago in Southeast Asia, and it was pretty bad...

(Please note, I'm not saying that involvement in Iraq would automatically be a quagmire like Vietnam was, or that it we'd end up losing like we did in Vietnam. Iraq is not Vietnam, and the constraints on our actions that were present during Vietnam are no longer there. War in Iraq, at least at the start, would be a straight up two armies face to face sort of affair, and there's no force in the world that can go toe-to-toe with the US military machine-- the complaints that the New York Times and other publishing "leaked battle plans" are "compromising the war effort" are laughable. We could email Hussein detailed copies of the war plans, and tell him the date and time that we'd commence firing, and he'd still lose.

(A future war in Iraq would not be a bloodless affair, though. "Regime change" will require something more than Gulf War II. American blood will be shed, and things have the potential to get rather messy. And any sensible approach to the aftermath (indulge me in a hypothetical...) will require a significant commitment of American resources to the region, for a long period of time. This is not a trivial undertaking, and if the current Administration wants to embark on this course with the same sort of hazy half-assed justifications we used when we backed our way into Vietnam, they're setting themselves up, potentially, for the same sort of fall.)

The really creepy quote comes later in the piece, though:

Advocates of quick action against Hussein say Bush will get automatic support and opponents will retreat when he moves against Iraq. "It'll be a piece of cake to get public support," said Ken Adelman, a former Reagan official with close ties to senior Bush aides. "The American people will be 90 percent for it. Almost nobody in Congress will object, and the allies will pipe down."

This is what I find really frightening about the whole war issue, and this administration in general. It's not just that they're endorsing dubious policies, and setting a questionable course with only the flimsiest of justifications. Anybody with half a brain knew going in that Bush the Younger is all about dubious policy-- it was the whole basis of his campaign.

What bothers me about the administration's conduct of the run-up to war is that they go beyond disinterest in what people think of their ill-thought-out policies, to actual contempt for public opinion. Because that's what these two quotes amount to-- we don't need to have public debate about policy, or provide the American people with an explanation of what we're going to do, because when the bullets start flying, everybody will fall in line like the sheep that they are. This isn't just undemocratic, it's downright imperial.

I've long thought that G. W. Bush was not so much Bush II as Reagan II-- a genial halfwit elected on a promise to cut taxes. Quotes like these, from people "close to key figures in the Bush administration" are starting to make me think we've actually gotten Nixon II.

Posted at 11:41 AM | link | 1 comment

Sunday, August 18, 2002

Absolutely Critical Springsteen Opinion

So, where do I stand on the all-important question of "Mary's Place"? Is it the standout track on the album, as Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Jim Henley claim, or is it "thoroughly embarrassing" and "an apparent concession to Boss diehards stubbornly stalled in the '70s".

I'm not quite prepared to declare it the very best track on the album (I'm just philistine enough to really like the title track), but I'm inclined to agree with Jim and Patrick. The disconnect between the subject matter and the music is fairly extreme, but it's a terrific song. I was put off by the mismatch between the music and lyrics the first time I heard it, but it's been growing on me.

Jim rightly points out the parallels to Sam Cooke's "Meet Me at Mary's Place" (and if you haven't read his discussion of the lyrics, go do that now), but misses another parallel. The "Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain" chant seems like another reference to the musical past, to songs like "I Wish It Would Rain":

Day in, day out, my tear-stained face is pressed against the window pane
I search the skies desperately for rain
'Cause raindrops will hide my teardrops
And no one will ever know
That I'm cryin', cryin' when I go outside

It may not be the very best song on the album (though I may yet come around to that opinion), but it does combine most of the best features of the album in a single song-- the lyrics nicely evoke the pain and loss of the widower, and celebrate the redemptive power of music, with the band in fine form, and the gospel-ish "Waitin' for that shout from the crowd (Turn it up)" back and forth buildup to the ecstatic "Turn it up, turn it up, turn it up" that shows the music "transmut[ing] the pain (and the love that abides) into something like joy" (as Jim puts it).

I'll stop talking about this now, before I start to sound any more like Anthony DeCurtis. It's a great tune, leave it at that.

Posted at 10:44 AM | link | 1 comment

Come On, Rise Up

I finally got around to buying Bruce Springsteen's The Rising, along with a bunch of other stuff, and can't resist throwing my $0.02 into the discussion about it.

This is a difficult record to write about, in a number of ways. For one thing, it's a rather long album (pushing the limits of the CD format), and could easily have been trimmed by a few songs without losing any quality (I'd suggest "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)", "Further On (Up the Road)", and "The Fuse"). It also sprawls in a musical sense, covering pretty much all the bases you can cover with the E Street Band. (Which are a lot of bases, given that it's basically a band built around excess-- two keyboardists and three guitars, for God's sake. Were Clarence Clemons a smaller man, they'd probably have two saxophone players as well...)

The biggest difficulty by far, though, has to do with the subject matter. As anyone who hasn't been living in a cave knows, this is Springsteen's September 11 album, with the bulk of the tracks touching on one aspect or another of that horrific event. There are songs about lost loved ones, songs about firemen, and songs about the anger and rage of the aftermath. It's hard to separate the album from the trauma (despite the big uplifting gospel shout of the title track, knowing what it's about gets me all choked up), and that's the sort of thing that can easily get in the way of determining whether the album is any good or not. (See, for example, Neil Young's Sleeps With Angels, about Kurt Cobain's death, which Rolling Stone gave five stars at the time of its release, but now pretends not to have reviewed, because, well, it's just not that good an album...). The important question to ask about a new record is not "Is this a good album right now?" but "Five years from now, will I still think this is a good album?" It's a difficult question to answer, made more difficult by the fact that this album, and these songs are so inextricably bound up in recent history.

That said, the answer is almost certainly "yes." There are some tracks that are probably slightly over-inflated by their currency (chief among them being "Worlds Apart" which gets lots of critical attention for including qawwli singers, but aside from that inspired touch, isn't that great a song), but for the most part, Springsteen manages to avoid the trap of excessive topicality. The songs gain an added resonance from the context of September 11, but with a few exceptions ("Into the Fire," "Empty Sky," "Worlds Apart," and possibly the title track), most of these songs would work nearly as well in a different context. They're about loss and separation, true, but the cause of the loss is unspecified-- Mary's Place" is about a wake, but the singer's wife could as easily have been killed by a drunk driver as a terrorist. And even "My City of Ruins," one of the songs which might seem to be most strongly linked to the September 11 tragedy, was written before the attacks, and is about more general urban decay.

And those songs which are inescapably about the attacks are, for the most part, really, really good. Springsteen has a real gift for writing songs that sound like you've known them for years, with infectious choruses that you can't help singing along with. Yeah, "Waitin' On a Sunny Day" is repetitive, but it's catchy, and by the second time through the chorus, it's really hard not to join in. Ditto "Countin' On a Miracle," "Mary's Place," and the title track. The slower songs ("Nothing Man," "You're Missing," and "Paradise") aren't nearly as catchy, and take a little more work to really appreciate them, but they're some of the most effective tracks on the record. The only real clunker here is "The Fuse."

It's a slightly different sound for the E Street Band. There's a heavy gospel tone to the album, with the prayerful chorus of "Into the Fire," the exhoration to "Come on, rise up!" in "My City of Ruins," and, of course, the title track. It's a more spiritual record than his other big rock albums-- Rolling Stone rightly proclaims it "The Gospel According to Bruce"-- but it's fitting, and the band absolutely nails the material. Of course, you'd expect nothing less.

So, is this a five-star album, as Rolling Stone declares? Well, no, as it's a little too long, and sags a bit in the middle. But then I'm awfully picky about rating albums, and this comes about as close as you can get. It's a great album, and the four people reading this who haven't already bought it should go do so immediately.

(Update: I decided to join up with the cool kids, and posted this to BlogCritics. I'm a trend-hopper, no doubt about it...)

Posted at 10:36 AM | link | 4 comments

Friday, August 16, 2002

We're From the Government. We're Here to Help.

While on the subject of chemists and acronyms, Derek Lowe has a post about journal acronyms, or how to pretend to be a research chemist. (Yes, it's Lagniappe Week here at Uncertain Principles...). Similar things happen in physics, though there are slightly fewer journals to keep track of. All the Physical Review journals get shortened to "Phys Rev" whatever (e.g. "Phys Rev A" or "Phys Rev Letters"), or sometimes just letters ("Pee Are Aye" or "Pee Are Ell"). The only thing I look at with any regularity (and that's not much) that gets pronounced as words is the Journal of the Optical Society of America B (JOSA B), which gets pronounced something like "Joe's a bee."

Most of the stupid acronyms in physics come in as people try to find names for new devices or processes that can be used to spell words. These range from the entirely reasonable (MOT for "Magneto-Optical Trap) to the slightly strained (STIRAP for "STImulated Raman Adiabatic Passage") to the faintly ridiculous (ROBOT and UBOAT for "ROtating Beam Optical Trap" and "Ultra-Blue Optical Atom Trap"), to the cringe-worthy (the "ROBOT" concept was dubbed "RoDiO" (pronounced "rodeo") by another group, for "Rotating Dipole Optical" trap) . Eric Cornell has used this as a joke, referring to his Time Orbiting Potential (TOP) trap as "Part of the larger set of Cute Acronym Traps, or CATs."

Of course the reigning champion in the production of dippy acronyms is the federal government, where they occasionally reshuffle agency names, for no real better reason than to make the acronyms better. Hence, the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) became the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) (though it remains the "Bureau of Standards" to about 80% of the population of suburban Maryland...).

The best silly government acronym story involves the collaboration between NIST and the University of Colorado in Boulder. For many years, this was called the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, or "JILA," generally pronounced as a word (or a hesitant naming: "Jill, uh..."). Eventually, it was pointed out that they really didn't do any astrophysics, let alone astrophysics in the laboratory, so the name was pretty inaccurate. So a decision was made to change the name to: JILA. It's the same name everyone was already using, but officially, it no longer stands for anything. I guess they wanted to save the money they would've spent on printing new stationary...

(No, I really don't have much of a point, here. But it passes the time while I wait for someone to call me back...)

Posted at 10:53 AM | link | 4 comments

It's Funny 'Cause It's True

Back in my undergrad days, there was a faculty colloquium given by a physical chemist, who started his talk by defining what, exactly, a physics chemist does: "A physicist is a scientist who builds an apparatus, buys a sample, and then does an experiment. A chemist is a scientist who buys an apparatus, makes a sample, and then does an experiment. A physical chemist is a person who builds an apparatus, makes a sample, and then does an experiment."

OK, it's not side-splittingly funny, but I was reminded of it yesterday when we got another batch of student chemistry talks at lunch. I'm used to physics talks, where the first few minutes are spent giving a schematic of the apparatus, explaining how it works, and how it was put together. Chemistry talks, on the other hand, tend to have statements like "We did fluorescence measurements using an HP 8675309 Quantum-o-rama Fluorometer," followed by five minutes of mind-numbing (to a physicist) reaction diagrams and acronyms ("We titrated this with a 7 micro-molar solution of methyl-ethyl-iso-butyl-fluoro-ketamine (MEBUFUK), mixed with PDQDDT, and did a HARVEY assay to see that we'd produced..."). I can't really recall a physics talk where the speaker just gave the manufacturer and model number for the apparatus, without explaining what it did.

It's not that there's anything wrong with that-- when you're sticking together as many atoms as chemists deal with, you need to describe the arrangement in some detail; when you're a physicist working with single atoms (or maybe diatomic molecules), if you could buy an apparatus to do the experiment, it wouldn't be worth publishing-- but it's an amusing cultural difference between the fields.

(As for the original joke, the obvious question is "What do you call a person who buys an apparatus, and buys a sample, and does the experiment?" The flip answer is "An engineer.")

Posted at 10:24 AM | link | 4 comments

Highway Driving Tips

Just a bit of friendly advice to the person four cars ahead of me on the NYS Thruway this morning: When you're driving a minivan, and pull out into the far left lane to, say, pass a line of four or five large trucks, pass the goddamn trucks. I don't care if your preferred highway speed is 67 mph, and they're doing 66 mph-- take the governor off, give it some gas, and pass the goddamn trucks. That way the people behind you don't have to cruise along for five miles with a four-ton load of gravel eight inches from their right window and small rocks pinging off the windshield, let alone have to squeeze between lumbering highway behemoths to avoid missing their exit. The truckers will also thank you, as they won't need to worry about a long chain of passenger cars riding in their capacious blind spots. You can slow down again once you're past the goddamn trucks, and back in the right lane where you belong.

Thank you for your cooperation.

(Oh, yeah, I'm happy to have a highway commute again...)

Posted at 10:04 AM | link | 2 comments

Thursday, August 15, 2002

More Science Stuff

While I'm talking about science stuff, I'll note that Douglas Turnbull of The Beauty of Gray has a nice essay on how science works (via Shadow of the Hegemon, who made the original comment that led to the essay).

I'll also mention a couple of science news web logs, by David Harris and Timothy Paustian. They don't provide a lot of detail, and tend to cite original research articles which may not be accessible to many readers (due to a combination of opaque writing and subscription-only web sites), but they highlight a lot of interesting new stuff as it comes out. They'll get added to the links bar the next time I get around to updating my template.

Posted at 11:23 AM | link | no comments

Shut Up and Calculate, Already

It's been a while now since I talked about science stuff, mostly because there hasn't been any news that I felt strongly enough about to put in the effort to write long posts about. There's been a very recent up-tick in the number of interesting science stories out there, most notably this Australian report (and what's gotten into the Aussies, anyway?) that the speed of light may be changing on cosmological time scales, which I'll get around to once I find a less garbled description of it than the Yahoo story, and get some time to think about it. (Irritatingly, the paper in question was published in Nature, whose obnoxious subscription policy makes it impossible for me to get an on-line copy of the actual paper, and forces me to-- shock! horror! walk to the library to find a physical copy of the article...)

There is a good jumping-off point for some science stuff that doesn't require me to drag my fat ass out of my office, though, as Derek Lowe's been reading Feynman and asks a number of questions about the nature of scientific knowledge, specifically quantum mechanics. Sadly, the easiest of these ("Why does a p-orbital take six electrons?") has already been answered, though I would've phrased the answer a bit differently (it's basically an issue of nomenclature-- what chemists call a "p-orbital" is really three atomic states with essentially the same energy (you're not too far wrong if you think of them as orbitals aligned along the x, y, and z-axes), each of which gets two electrons. Likewise, a "d-orbital" is five states, an "f-orbital" seven, and so on... The distinction between these states doesn't matter all that much for chemistry, but it's the stuff careers in atomic physics are made of.), leaving the difficult philosophical questions behind ("Why is angular momentum quantized in the first place?").

I haven't actually read the Feynman book in question (The Character of Physical Law), though it's on the vague list of "books I really ought to read one of these days." These philosophical and meta-physical questions also aren't the sort of thing I spend a lot of time thinking about (I subscribe to the "Shut Up and Calculate" interpretation of quantum mechanics), for the simple reason that you very quickly start banging your head against the wall. The questions are always there, though, and as Derek notes, at bottom, they all come down to "the peculiar effectiveness of mathematics." We live in a Universe that behaves (or at least appears to behave) according to very simple and elegant mathematical rules, and it's not clear why that should be.

At the level of physics where I work, there are a handful of rock-solid mathematical principles that everything else comes out of:

Depending on how interested you are in the enumeration of rules, you can add several other rules to this list (the Second Law of Thermodynamics probably belongs, and high-energy physicists probably consider a few other conservation laws), or you can re-cast them in more formal terms (conservation of momentum is a consequence of the translational invariance of space (the structure of space-time doesn't change if you move in a straight line), conservation of angular momentum is a consequence of the rotational invariance of space), and you can even find violations of those rules on very short time scales for very small objects. You can also hand-wave your way from microscopic to microscopic versions of the rules (the angular momentum of macroscopic things is conserved, and that property has to arise from some properties of the original atoms) or vice versa (angular momentum is conserved in atoms, and thus is still conserved when you stick a whole bunch of atoms together). In the end, though, all of that just amounts to pushing the pieces of a puzzle around on the table-- you can shuffle them around all you like, but eventually, you still need to make them fit together. You're still stuck with a Universe that runs off a handful of simple mathematical rules, and you're no closer to understanding the ultimate origin of those rules.

The trivial and unhelpful answer is to invoke the Anthropic Principle in one of its many forms, which basically amounts to saying "If the Universe didn't work the way it does, we wouldn't be here to ask that question, so it doesn't matter" It's a useful way of pushing the question off, and getting it out of the way to allow yourself the room to get some work done. I suspect that, consciously or not, most scientists have a point at which they invoke the Anthropic Principle or something like it-- without it we'd get stuck on these questions forever, and all end up gibbering quietly in corners, with caring family members making sure we don't get hold of sharp objects or graph paper.

Unfortunately, I haven't heard any better answer to the fundamental question of why the Universe behaves the way it does. There's no obvious reason why the Universe has to behave in a mathematically regular way-- scientists find it very satisfying that it does (to the point that some categories of string theorists use mathematical elegance as a standard of proof), but there are other groups of people who would be happier to think that it's all Divine Providence, or invisible pink unicorns pushing objects around with their horns. There's no obvious reason why mathematical rules should work to describe the behavior of the Universe, but they do work, and they work astonishingly well. It provides a real sense of awe and wonder if you think about it a bit (though you'll go crazy if you think about it too much).

I mention this stuff to my intro classes, in passing, when I run down the conservation laws at the heart of mechanics. Mostly, I get glassy stares in response, probably the same reaction I'm getting out there in blogland. And, on some level, this really isn't material for science classes, being more the province of philosophers, or late-night dorm-room bull sessions. But it is stuff that scientists have to think about, on one level or another, and impulse to ask these questions springs from the same source that drives most of us into science in the first place.

This having been kicked off by Feynman, I should wrap it up with Feynman, in this case a famous footnote from the Feynman Lectures (by way of James Gleick's Genius):

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars- mere globs of gas atoms. I, too, can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination- stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million- year-old light. A vast pattern, of which I am a part.... What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not hurt the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it.

He's talking about astrophysics there, but the same basic sentiment applies to Quantum Mechanics, and even down to the most basic level of "why does the Universe follow mathematical rules?" We're not really close to the ultimate TRVTH, if such a thing even exists, but the truth we do know is marvelous indeed.

Posted at 11:09 AM | link | 3 comments

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Great Moments in Fuzzy Math

More from Blogcritics, this time regarding their interview with Cary Sherman of the RIAA.

Mr. Sherman writes:

Furthermore, we've been studying this for awhile (no surprise there). In a study we'll be releasing soon conducted by Peter Hart Research Associates for us, we learned that -- by more than two to one- those who say they are downloading more say they are purchasing less. To be fair, some said they were purchasing more. But only 19% said they purchased more, while 41% said they purchased less.

It sounds impressive, but it's a classic attempt to befuddle the public with statistics. 19% plus 41% is only 60%, and having covered "purchasing more" and "purchasing less," the only options left for the missing 40% are "purchasing about the same number of CD's" or "don't know/ no answer."

40% would be an awful lot of "no answer" responses, so at least some of those are probably "about the same." If it's half "about the same" and half "no answer," well, then, we have what statisticians would call "a wash" -- 41% purchasing less, 39% purchasing about the same amount of music, if not more. If you put all those people into the "about the same" category, an arguably more accurate spin on these numbers would be that 59% of people surveyed bought at least as much music after file-sharing as before.

Now, 41% is still much larger than 19%, so it's reasonable to believe that there's been a net reduction in sales, but that's not necessarily true. If those 41% halved their music buying, and the 19% doubled it, it would basically be a wash. If the 19% doubled their purchasing, and the 41% reduced their spending by a third, it'd be a net gain. Without knowing what they actually asked, and the relative sizes of the increases and decreases, it's impossible to say whether file-sharing is really decreasing sales. Sherman's initial citation of this study is the sort of dodgy use of statistics that should raise a red flag for anyone who can do math.

The right thing to do here would be to use this study as a starting point, and use it to craft a sensible approach to file-sharing technology. The RIAA should go back and find out what the factors are that put a person into the 41% who buy fewer CD's as a result of file-sharing. Is it the price of CD's? Personal finances? Information-wants-to-be-free zealotry? A general distaste for the current state of pop music? Then they could try to figure out how to push some of that 41% back into the other 59%. What price would they have to charge for a download, and what features would they have to offer to get the average file-sharer to buy a legitimate copy, rather than downloading an illicit one? Is there a way to put together a system for distributing singles on CD that isn't a complete joke?

That's how a scientist would approach the problem-- figure out what's really going on, and then find a solution which takes the facts into account. Unfortunately, the RIAA isn't looking into this in order to find the truth, they're looking into it to find justification for a policy they've already decided on. They're not interested in trying to find the right answer to the problem, they're interested in using statistics as a weapon to beat back opposition to their favored policies.

This practice is hardly confined to the RIAA, of course. It's a large part of my general distaste for the way American politics is conducted these days-- nobody looks for truth in statistics, only justification. So we've got Greenpeace claiming that the world is ending, and John Lott claiming that guns are the answer to everything, and if either of those analyses crossed my desk in a paper to referee, there'd be red flags and alarm bells all over the place.

(It's fascinating to see what's acceptable in other fields, in terms of mangled statistics and data analysis. Bob Park does a fantastic talk about statistical chicanery in epidemiology, and Brad DeLong posted some graphs about monetary policy matters a little while back, and mentioned various supposedly prominent features that I looked at and said "Huh. Nothing but noise." Happily, DeLong's point was basically that those weren't useful measures of anything, confirming my impression that he's a smart guy...)

Various critics in the "blogosphere" will no doubt take this as evidence that I'm one of those pointy-headed academic types who wants nothing more than to keep doing more studies, and never reach any conclusions. (Well, actually, they'll just never read this, but if they noticed me, that's what they'd say...) Maybe. I am an academic, after all, and more drawn to curiosity-drive research than anything productive. But then, "this needs more study" isn't necessarily a stall tactic-- sometimes more study, and sensible study, is exactly what a problem needs.

What we're getting, though, is one slanted poll after another, conducted and presented by people who know the solution they want to apply, and will massage the data until it supports their position. And, quite frankly, I think inaction through endless studying would be an improvement over policy-making driven by statistical shell games that serve only to prove Disraeli right.

(The initial paragraphs of this were posted, in a slightyl different form, in the Blogcritics comments thread following the Sherman interview.)

Posted at 11:48 AM | link | 7 comments

Great Moments in Music Criticism

It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads even a moderate number of weblogs that Blogcritics, the brainchild of Eric Olsen of Tres Producers is up and running. The basic idea, as I understand it, is to get a bunch of bloggers together to take free promotional CD's, and write reviews of them on the Web.

It's a brilliant idea, in principle, and I almost signed up for the project myself (I didn't because I've got a bit too much on my plate already to commit to writing music reviews as well as book log posts, web log posts, and lecture notes for the upcoming term...). I applaud the idea, and hope it works out well in practice.

The one catch here is that taste in music, like taste in literature, is a very idiosyncratic thing. A song or a book that one person loves may strike another person as utter dreck. For example, I just put comments on The Big Sleep up on my book log. I think it's a wonderful book, and have spent the last couple of years trying to find some other author who punches the same buttons Chandler does, with little success. Other people reading it, though, might well be appalled at the sexual politics of the book (the tone of the narration is very sexist, and some nasty remarks are made about homosexuals), and be put off from the whole thing. There's no accounting for taste, and all that.

This makes criticism, in literature or music, a difficult business, for both the critic and the consumer. The critic needs to find a way to get across what it is about the book or record that he likes, while the consumer needs to figure out how the critic's tastes compare to his own (it needn't be an exact match-- some people I know regard Gerald Jonas's SF reviews for the New York Times as very useful, because they know that if Jonas likes a book, they'll hate it, and vice versa). It's not enough for the critic to throw in a comparison to some classic album-- London Calling, say-- because it's not necessarily clear what they mean when they make that comparison-- are the lyrics similar? The melodies? The politics?

The only real way to make reviews a useful tool is for a critic to establish a track record with the consumer. If you read enough reviews by a given critic, and compare their impression of the book or record to your own, you start to develop some idea of the predictive value of those reviews. It's sort of a slow-motion version of the associational database trick used by groups like AlexLit (they've branched out into e-book publishing, but they started with just the "recommender").

That's one of the reasons I continue to subscribe to Rolling Stone. Yeah, fine, it jumped the shark a while back, as a magazine, but I've read it for long enough that their reviews are useful to me. Based on what Peter Travers says about a movie, I can make a pretty good guess as to whether I'll like it or not. Their album reviews are a little dicier, as they're written by lots of different people, but they're not a bad guide for me. I'm not saying that I'll buy anything they give four stars to, but the combination of their rating and the things they say about the record gives me a fairly reasonable idea of what I'll think of the actual album. The most consistently accurate reviews I've found, for me, are those on The Onion's AV Club, which also benefit from being more sharply written than those in more mainstream magazines, but again, that's been established over a few years of reading and comparing their reactions with mine.

Which brings us around to the problem with Blogcritics (which, I hasten to add, I think is a brilliant idea)-- what we've got here is an assemblage of a hundred random people writing about music, each from their own perspective. It's a great idea, but it's not really a useful tool, yet. It'll take a good while before it becomes truly useful, as we, the readers, will need to see a bunch of reviews from the various critics before we can really judge whether Ken Layne liking an album will mean that I will like the same album, or my wife will like it, or whoever.

A humble suggestion, then, or at least as humble a suggestion as you're likely to get from anyone arrogant enough to run a web log: The process could maybe be sped up a bit by getting the various blogcritics to provide some sort of reference point from which to judge their tastes. Something like a Ten Favorite Albums list (at the risk of sliding into High Fidelity territory), with a few sentences (say, 75 words or less) saying what they like about each album. Then provide a link to that list from the blogcritics site, either at the end of the reviews, or off the front page, so that when, say, Brian Linse says an album reminds him of London Calling, we can get an idea of what, exactly, he means by that.

Anyway, I applaud the launch of the site, and hope it works out well. Check it out, if you haven't already.

Posted at 10:45 AM | link | no comments

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

As I Was Saying...

Well, I'm back. Sort of. The Big Move is basically complete, Internet access in the new apartment has been established (though I'm writing this from work), and I can resume blogging. As usual, all sorts of things have come up and been hashed out-- weblogs run on a faster time scale than even Usenet-- so I've got a wide variety of topics to choose from, none of which anyone cares about any more.

So, for lack of a deep interest in pseudonymous blogging (I've spent enough years answering to nicknames that I really don't give a rat's ass what anyone chooses to call themselves online-- a real name would be nice, but it's not like I'm going to look them up and check...), I'll resume babbling about the music industry.

Last Friday (circa 1978 in blog time), Glenn Reynolds quoted Arnold Kling taking issue with Janis Ian's prescription for the music industry (which is a follow-up to her (highly recommended) earlier comments):

I think that her solutions will not work, because the problem with the music industry is much deeper. I think that the problem is that CD's are obsolete, and the music industry is trying to use the legal system to crush more efficient means for storing and distributing music. I believe that you cannot use a web site as a loss-leader for CD's, because CD's are an expensive storage medium compared to hard disks. You cannot charge 25 cents per download, because that would add up to overly expensive charges to the people who download most frequently.

His Instapunditness comes down on the side of CD's, saying:

At the same time, though I get a lot of my music online, from independent artists who make it available for free, I still buy a lot of CDs. And I'm not thrilled with the idea of hard drives as the main residence of music: that kind of storage is too impermanent. I have CDs from almost 20 years ago. My mom has Louis Armstrong records from the 1920s, long before she was born. Who's going to have MP3s of the Tumblin' Sneakers song The Secret World of Charles Kuralt in 50 years? (Media junkies -- you must listen to this song, which is a hoot).

Maybe I'm wrong about that, but when I really like music, I want hardcopy, not just hard- drive copy. Perhaps there will be a technological fix. In the meantime, CDs have actually gotten pretty damned cheap -- until you factor in the markup needed to pay for record execs' cocaine and fancy cars.

I'm not sure I buy the permanence argument-- CD's are more durable than vinyl, yes, but a format is really only "permanent" if it remains popular enough to support players. CD players are plentiful at the moment, but then it was easy to find a record turntable fifteen years ago, and that's no longer trivial. And let's not even mention 8-track tapes... Should some other storage format catch on ("This here's going to replace CD's in a couple of years. Means I'll have to buy the White Album again."), those CD's could be as useless as 5-1/4" floppy disks are today.

Which is not to say that I disagree with the Instadude-- I'm not happy with the idea of getting rid of CD's, either, but I get to that position from a different direction. One of the few things I like about the current music distribution scheme, and fear will be lost if file-swapping really takes over, is the idea of getting an album of songs, rather than just a collection of singles.

As a true music junkie can tell you (and as Jim Henley's line-by-line, song-by-song coverage of the new Springsteen album may end up showing), there's more to a really great album than just a collection of songs that happened to be recorded at about the same time. When an album is put together the right way, all the songs fit into something that's greater than the sum of the individual songs. I'm not necessarily talking about the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band sort of concept album (anyway, Abbey Road is a better album)-- sometimes, that works, sometimes it's self-indulgent crap-- but in a really good album, all the pieces fit, maybe not into a grand edifice of rock opera, but into a coherent whole. The songs all sound good together and even minor filler pieces work better in the context of the record as a whole. If you heard "Buckets of Rain" off Blood On the Tracks by itself, you wouldn't think much of it, but put together with the rest of the album, it sounds great, and brings the record to a fitting close. The same is true of something like the sinister instrumental "Brother Woodrow/ Closing Prayer" off Gentlemen-- it's a decent enough tune, but takes on a greater meaning because of the songs that come before. It's even true of silly fluff like "Les Boys" off Making Movies, or the oddball fragments like "Kicker of Elves" (memorable mostly for the title) off Bee Thousand-- the albums around those songs are good enough to lift up less memorable material.

This is why original albums, even with the occasional dud track thrown in, tend to be better than "Greatest Hits" packages-- if the artist and producer are doing their jobs right, there's more to the album than the singles. And, indeed, sometimes the best songs on a record are the album tracks, not the singles. The best tracks on Some Other Sucker's Parade don't even make it into the review, let alone the "Best Of" album. Ditto Big Red Letter Day.

These two factors-- the cumulative effect of a well-put-together album, and the possibility of finding hidden gems in album tracks-- are the real reasons I buy CD's. If I just wanted the singles, I could download them, but I like the idea of getting a bunch of songs that the artist thinks ought to go together. I bought Full Moon Fever to get "Free Fallin'" and "Yer So Bad," but the fact that it comes with "Zombie Zoo" and "A Mind With a Heart of Its Own" is an important part of the process. Or, to strike a slightly hipper pose, I bought Cracker's first album to get "Teen Angst" and "Happy Birthday to Me," but getting "Mr. Wrong" and "Don't Fuck Me Up (With Peace and Love)" is an important part of the process.

That's not to say that there aren't albums which are little more than a collection of singles, or that buying a whole bunch of songs to get one single doesn't sometimes backfire. I've got lots of those sorts of albums clogging my CD shelves, and were I two steps farther away from being one of the record-store guys in High Fidelity, I'd probably get rid of them. There are also plenty of cases where the extra inclusions get a little too cute (the eighty-odd 3-second silent tracks on Kerosene Hat, for example, or the one track that's just construction noises). But even with that, I think the benefits of the album format are worth the occasional extra hassle (even the really dire cases like the "Primitive Radio Gods" guy who did that really catchy song with the B.B. King sample-- the rest of that album sucked, and sucked hard).

Some of these cases would be unaffected by a shift to file-swapping. I'd still pick up anything new by Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, or Bruce Springsteen, among others. But if music distribution shifted to a one-track-at-a-time file-swapping sort of model, I'd wind up missing a bunch of good tracks, because it'd be easier to just grab the one song I had heard before, and skip the rest of the album.

There are probably ways around this-- package deals for downloading an album's worth of songs, or some such, rather than a straight pay-per-track model-- but the current distribution model doesn't really seem compatible with a download-based format. And while this may make me the net-based equivalent of those freaks who insist that their scratched and pitted vinyl LP's sound "warmer" than CD's, I like the current system, and would hate to see it discarded...

Anyway, feel free to mock me for being a Luddite, or make fun of my tastes in music. I'll get back to posting science stuff later, after I have a bit more time to recover from hauling every goddamn thing I own from one side of the Hudson to the other.

Posted at 4:10 PM | link | no comments

Thursday, August 08, 2002

Kids These Days, #976 in a Series

There's been a lot said about the utter lack of originality in the music industry recently, by "Charles Dodgson" and Ted Barlow among others. (Barlow also links this piece by Steve Albini about the moral bankruptcy of the industry, which is worth a look.) There's nothing to really get the point across like listening to Top 40 radio for a little while.

I've been subjected to one of the dire local Top 40 stations while working out for the last several weeks, and have heard the dance re-make of the Bryan Adams shmaltz-o-rama "Heaven" more times than I care to remember (it's the Bryan Adams song sung by a woman, more or less straight up, over Generic Pounding Dance Beat #5). It's fairly bad, but I never much cared for the original, so it's not anything I can get all that worked up about. It's a little depressing to think that they need to mine the 80's for dippy lyrics, but maybe they couldn't get the rights to the Frank Sinatra catalogue, or something.

This evening, though, I heard an even worse travesty. The exact same treatment, down to the same rhythm-section-by-computer beat, applied to Don Henley's "Boys of Summer." Now, I'm not going to claim that Building the Perfect Beast was an immortal album, but God damn it, I like that song. It brings back warm fuzzy memories of those halcyon days when MTV actually played music videos, and CD's were a novelty, and I don't appreciate having my nostalgia trip crushed by some talentless bint with a Casio keyboard and the Totally 80's Song Book. It's not even a dance-pop sort of song, as would have been obvious if the people behind this musical assault had taken the trouble to have somebody explain the lyrics to them.

The sooner file-swapping takes down the whole creaking edifice of brainless RIAA drones pumping out unoriginal crap, the better.

Posted at 8:43 PM | link | 7 comments

Wednesday, August 07, 2002

Words, Words, Words

On the general topic of words and writing and so on, I should not that this is the one-year anniversary of my starting The Library of Babel, due to a question from Teresa Nielsen Hayden. The book log eventually led to this weblog.

A few anniversary comments have been added, and there are a couple of new entries since the last time I shamelessly plugged it. Check it out. Or don't.

Posted at 12:51 PM | link | no comments

Video Killed the Rhetoric Star

Matthew Yglesias notes that the one-year-later Sept. 11 memorial will feature a reading of the Gettysburg Address (and also the Declaration of Independence, which is sort of an odd choice, as after the ringing "we hold these truths" preamble, it's mostly a laundry list of grievances, and hardly the stuff of inspiring oratory). Matthew asks:

Of course, not every speech can be the Gettysburg Address, but is it really too much to ask that we not just totally give up an America as a possible source of great oratory? Don't we have a duty to add to the total stock of commemorative words? Was 9/11 not a big enough deal to be worth the effort of someone trying to come up with some new text? I say give it a shot.

The problem is that oratory pretty much is dead, and has been for many years now.

When I was in grad school, just outside Washington, DC, we used to get a lot of foreign post-docs in the lab, and at some point, they always got a tour of the big memorials downtown. There's nothing to drive home the mealy-mouthed inadequacy of modern political rhetoric like standing in the middle of the Jefferson Memorial and looking up at the words that ring the dome:

I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

If there's a sentence that better deserves to be carved in marble, I can't think of it. Granted, that's from a letter, not a speech, and Jefferson was a bit of a nut, but has there been any statement from an American President in the last three or four decades a tenth as ringing and unequivocal?

Then there's the Lincoln Memorial, whose walls are covered with text from great speeches, most prominently the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. Again, this is brilliant stuff:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

(This bit would be at least as appropriate for the 9/11 memorial as the Gettysburg Address, by the way...)

No President in the television era has managed anything to match this. Part of the problem is that television itself changes the game-- there are things you do when speaking to a large crowd that just don't work on tv. You can see a little of it in the annual Kabuki drama of the State of the Union address-- frequent pauses for applause, etc.-- but even there, it's played for the camera.

When people are going to hear the words once, and maybe see them written down, you need to work hard on crafting the phrases to be especially memorable, so that they roll off the tongue and stick in the mind when spoken, but also look good on the printed page. (Or even when it's incompetently read-- I've heard more stammering high school students mumble through the Gettysburg Address than I care to remember, but even haltingly read with no flair at all, there's an undeniable power to the words.) The appearance of the speaker is completely unimportant, since very few people will see him during the speech.

On tv, traditional oratory takes on a certain William Shatner quality. When the speech is broadcast to a nation on television, it's important to look sincere, and not as critical to orate in a classical sense-- indeed, it's better to avoid the suspenseful pauses and other tricks that good speakers use, as they look overdone, and overly ornate phrases sound stiff and theatrical. The lack of memorable phrasing can be made up in smarmy delivery and sheer repetition, as clips get played over and over.

This is why Clinton was effective as a speaker. His words were nothing all that special, but he had a certain oily charm, and could carry off mediocre material through his huge repertoire of (often parodied) gestures and facial expressions. His speeches were deadly dull to read, chock-full of policy-wonk material as they were, but nobody read the speeches, they watched them on tv, and the combination of phony sincerity and folksy Ol' Bubba was a killer.

Reagan's another example. For my money, the most memorable thing he ever aid was the opening to a campaign stop in Binghamton, NY in 1984, when he began with the immortal words:

It's good to be here in Bimmington, Bingington, Binhampton-- It's good to be here!

He was no great orator, though there were occasional flashes of good stuff, but he worked very well on tv. In person, on a distant stage, you couldn't escape his occasional tendency to mumble, and the occasional lapse into complete incoherence, but on tv, he came across as America's Grandpa-- a kindly old gent, maybe not all there, but if you're nice to him, he'll give you candy. People ate that up, the same way they ate up Clinton's Bubba routine.

The other problem crippling oratory in the television era is the sheer frequency of broadcasts. You can already see a bit of this in the FDR memorial, where there are at least twice as many quotes cut into the walls as for any of the other greats. He did stump speeches, he did addresses to Congress, he did "fireside chats," he did addresses to the nation via radio, and all of it was recorded for posterity. When you're giving only a couple of major speeches in a year, you need to make them count. When your every word, and every gesture is picked up for broadcast, you make it up on volume. You don't need to hit a home run every time you get up to bat, but in rhetoric, unlike baseball, the occasional homer is lost in a sea of singles and sacrifice flies. FDR was very good, but even he was starting to suffer a sort of dilution of rhetoric.

Kennedy is the ragged edge of political oratory. He figured out most of the tricks to be effective on television, but tv hadn't yet come to completely dominate the political landscape. He had some pretty good moments-- "Ask not what your country can do for you" is smarmy but effective, and the "Ich bin ein jelly doughnut" speech is cornball in the very best way. After Kennedy, it's pretty much a desert, oratory-wise. Good speakers still come along, but they tend to be fringe figures-- Jesse Jackson is the best example. The man's a nut, in political terms, but man, can he give a speech. There's nothing to beat that preacher-man routine in terms of giving a stirring speech, these days, but it's a mixed bag on tv. Still, I'd pay to hear Jesse Jackson read Green Eggs and Ham before I'd take money to listen to Bill Clinton read the Gettysburg Address.

It's been a long time since we had good political oratory with any regularity. The only post-Kennedy speech that really stands out in my mind as deserving to be carved in marble is King's "I Have a Dream" speech (feel free to suggest others in the comments section). You just don't get lines like:

I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man

from politicians any more. Some humorless atheist would take offense at the "altar of God" bit, and a foreign policy advisor would object that the Saudis might be offended at the "every form of tyranny" bit, so couldn't we water it down a bit, and a political consultant would point out that there's nothing there for the swing states, and... And Jefferson would bludgeon the lot of them with a copy of the collected works of John Locke.

Returning to Matthew's original point, though, does the death of political oratory excuse the lack of an attempt to "add to the total stock of commemorative words?" No, not at all. The occasion deserves at least an attempt at rhetorical grandeur (though given the list of politicians who will be involved, it's hard to imagine that nobody will give it a go). I just wouldn't hold out any hope for a success to compare to the Gettysburg Address.

Posted at 11:41 AM | link | 3 comments

Tuesday, August 06, 2002

Free Ice Cream Downsizing

Kate and I got married on June 1st, and moved up to Schenectady, where I returned to work for the last week of classes, and Kate started Bar Review classes. The Thursday (June 6) after the wedding, I found a note on the stairs from my landlord informing me that he wouldn't renew the lease when it runs out on August 15th (next Thursday). When asked why, he rattled off a litany of complaints ranging from the halfway reasonable (I often left the windows open when it rained) to the stupid ("You never put a rug down in the hallway." "You never told me you wanted me to put a rug down in the hallway. I happen to like wood floors, but if you had told me to put a rug down, I would've.") to the insultingly stupid ("You never put curtains in the windows." "And what does that have to do with anything?"). I suspect he has a friend or relative he'd rather be renting to, but whatever the real reason, we're out.

Ultimately, this is for the best, since the landlord lives on the first floor and chain-smokes cheap cigars (hence the windows left open). Even in high summer, with all the windows open and fans on, the kitchen smells like an ashtray when he's home (which, thankfully, is rare-- he and his wife have a camp on a lake somewhere where they spend most of the summer)-- in winter, it's almost unbearable. Still, we had hoped to be able to avoid the hassle of moving twice, and stay in the current place until we could find and buy a house.

Instead, I'm spending my evenings packing up books to be moved into storage, and renting a truck on Friday to move my larger furniture from the current apartment to new digs on the far side of Albany. A colleague was pushing the idea of hiring some local group of short-distance movers to move my stuff, but I'm opting for the time-honored college tactic of bribing a bunch of undergrads with pizza to get them to help with the heavier stuff, and moving the smaller stuff a bit at a time over the next several days.

This is basically a long-winded (surprise!) way of saying that blogging will be light to nonexistent until the middle of next week. I may post some stuff from work, as I'm doing now, but the move is going to louse up my home internet access over the weekend, and the chaos associated with moving will probably rule out blogging for the next few days.

(Of course, there's a non-zero chance that my Captain Procrastinator personality will take over, and I'll post eighty-seven short articles in lieu of doing the actual work of packing and moving. You never can tell.)

Posted at 3:23 PM | link | 5 comments

Monday, August 05, 2002

Not the Kid in the Hall, Alas

More McKinney. I'll try to move on to more pleasant topics soon, but I want to address one more point.

Reid "PhotoDude" Stott leaps to the barricades to help defend Scott Koenig's earlier remarks, by means of a strategic withdrawal to the new position that it's not the nationality but the Zip code of the contributors that matters-- namely, that the real issue is the large fraction of McKinney's support that comes from outside the district.

To which the only sensible response is "So?" There's nothing illegal there. There's not even anything unethical there. Plenty of representatives draw funding from outside their districts, including Republicans-- to choose an example more or less at random, at least 63% of J.C. Watt's contributors come from outside his district (249 of 400 contributors listed on OpenSecrets were from states other than Oklahoma; I didn't tally the money, nor do I have the patience to attempt to figure out whether the Oklahoma contributions were all from his district). Stripped of the loathsome fear-mongering about "Arab names" and the 9/11 donations, there's just nothing to this. It may be of interest to her constituents, depending on how parochial they feel, but this is hardly a scandal deserving of splashy national coverage.

Stott goes this one better by attempting to bolster his case with quotes from various sources. Sadly, these are badly marred by selective editing. His quote from the Washington Post, for example:

At least three-quarters of the $234,299 that McKinney has raised from individuals this year is from donors with Muslim or Arab American surnames, the great majority of whom live outside her district.

seems to imply that the Post finds this scandalous in some manner, while the actual article has a much different tone, better represented by the opening paragraph:

Members of the Muslim American community are providing extensive support for Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), defending the five-term incumbent against a challenge financed in part by Jewish leaders critical of her stand on Israel.

I'm still not happy to see this garbage picked up by major media outlets, but their approach of viewing the McKinney-Majette race as some sort of proxy fight between Israel and the Palestinians, while vacuous, is a far cry from the deeply offensive "McKinney's in the pay of America's enemies" line taken by the "blogosphere."

Better yet, he quotes this bit from Neal Boortz:

McKinney has only the smallest amount of campaign financial support from Georgia, let alone her own district. My guess is that she’ll probably be reelected anyway. Most of the voters in her district who are actually bright enough to see what is going on here will be playing tennis or golf on primary day.

while being careful to leave out the preceding paragraph (quoted by Koenig):

The law says that a campaign must report a donation showing a date that donation was received. Do you care to make a guess as to when “most” of Cynthia’s donations from people with Arabic names – and who live outside of Georgia – were received? That day would be September 11, 2001. Yup, THAT day. On the very day that Arabs are flying airplanes into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, Arabs are pouring campaign cash into the coffers of Cynthia McKinney.

presumably because it exposes Boortz as the odious, fear-mongering gasbag that he is. (Though, to be fair, the "tennis or golf" line does a pretty good job of that as it is...)

As for my statement that "[t]he people crowing about this on the Indepundit site and elsewhere are lower than the slime that pond scum scrapes off its shoes?" From the comments section in the original post, we have this gem (among others):

And yes, the FBI needs to get busy in Las Vegas, which is obviously a hot bed of them (Why would Arabs in Nevada give to a heretofore obcure Georgia Congresswoman?) and yes, why is one of them a pilot for Southwest Airlines??? "This is your Captain speaking, [Arabic name deleted]"?! I don't think so! Who are these people????

If anyone should be insulted by my statement, I think it's the pond scum.

Posted at 6:07 PM | link | 6 comments

Sunday, August 04, 2002

Way Better Than Pond Scum

In the comments thread following yesterday's rant, Patrick Nielsen Hayden rightly points out that I was too harsh to Jim Henley, lumping him in with the lower-than-pond-scum folks at the In*Pundit sites. I didn't actually intend to do that, but I was a little upset, and didn't edit carefully enough-- Jim's post wasn't "crowing" about the finding, but was actually as reasonable and responsible a take on the matter as is possible within the constraints of the hobbyist-blogger mode of operation.

I do find Jim's post regrettable, though, in that the necessarily incomplete nature of his coverage helps give legs to a story that, ultimately, is little more than an especially hateful political smear. (Worse yet, Rep. McKinney's crack public relations team sprang into action and threw out some idiotic comments about Jews, to make sure that neither side in this mess is able to see the slightest scrap of the up-slope to the foothills of the Moral High Ground...) In email on the topic, Jim refers to the journalistic contrast between the "WashPost get bits of the story out and correct as you go approach favorably with the LAT keep it under wraps until you're sure it's right approach," coming down on the side of the former. I can't agree with that, for the simple fact that the inevitable correction will be less "newsworthy" than the initial screaming allegations. "Georgia Democrat Cleared of All Charges" will be in small type below the fold, and the finest hackers in the world would be unable to make such a link appear on InstaPundit or "Best of the Web," while the original loathsome smear will linger forever.

McKinney's a nutcase, and obviously employs cranks, but her worst crime is nothing more than speaking her mind in public without adequately thinking things through. This is hardly a sin for which the "blogosphere" (your humble correspondent included) can start queuing up to cast the first stone. It certainly doesn't deserve to be met with the implication that she's been bought by America's enemies (Mr. Koenig later claimed he only meant to imply that "her objectivity may have been compromised," which is the sort of close parsing that would be met by withering scorn were it to emerge from the mouth of a Clinton appointee), simply because she happened to take money from people with Muslim-sounding names.

More may follow when I get back to my own computer (I'm writing this from Boston, where we're visiting the in-laws), but I wanted to correct my comments about Jim. (Especially since he was good enough to link to my post anyway...)

Posted at 12:07 PM | link | 1 comment

Saturday, August 03, 2002

Communists in the State Department, Arabs on the Donor List

Right up front, I'd like to apologize to those who come here looking for funny physics stuff. The following will be a bit of a rant, so if you're put off by bile, well, go hang out in MC Hawking's Crib, and give the rest of this a miss.

Yesterday, I stumbled across what may well be the most disgusting thing I've read since September 11th last year. In a world containing both Ted Rall and Ann Coulter, that's really saying something. Just linking to this filth makes me want to take a shower.

It seems that Scott Koenig over at "The Indepundit" decided to look into the fund-raising records of Rep. Cynthia McKinney, the outspoken Democrat from Georgia who has drawn the ire of the warblogosphere, basically for failing to get behind the current program of raining fiery death upon Middle Easterners who have displeased us. (To be fair, she's said some astoundingly stupid things in the process, and I am no huge McKinney fan). Mr. Koenig's big finding? She reported $13,850 in campaign contributions on 9/11/01, from people with Arab-sounding names. He ends his post with a smug "Probably a coincidence," but the implication is clear: McKinney's taking money from Arabs, and therefore must be entirely in Al Qaeda's pocket, paid to spout anti-American gibberish. The people in his comments thread certainly jumped all over it.

Let's leave aside for the moment the mind-boggling idiocy involved in thinking that Al Qaeda might judge it a good investment to buy the allegiance of a single member of the House of Representatives, let alone a member of the minority party, let alone a member of the minority party who was already know as a bit of a wing nut. Their $14,000 would've been better spent buying the allegiance of a Yemeni busboy at the Hawk and Dove, in hopes that he might be able to slip Tom DeLay a mickey, but let's leave that aside.

Let's also leave aside the fact that the donations listed on OpenSecrets' web site tend to be reported on only one or two days a month, almost certainly recorded by either the date on the paperwork filed with the FEC (or whoever it is that gets that stuff), or the postmark on the envelope it was mailed in. That incriminating "9/11/01" was almost certainly the work of either a congressional staffer filling out forms late on 9/10/01, or a postmark stamp from the USPS (and even on that darkest of days, the mail still came). But let's forget about that--let's assume for the sake of argument that all of those checks really were donated exactly on September 11th.

Let's leave aside all of the justifying arguments, and elided details, and rational explanations, because, at the core of it, none of that matters. Stripped down to its thoroughly vile essence, what do we have here? A list of Arab-sounding names on a fundraising report.

Well, thank God for you, Tail-gunner Joe! We'll string her right up from the nearest tree. I mean, everybody knows those filthy camel-jockeys are all terrorists, and anybody who took money from them must be tainted.

And hey, while you're at it, you better ship me off to Guantanamo Bay, too-- a close colleague of mine is of Iranian descent, and we all know they're Evil (the President said so!), and I have lunch from time to time with another Iranian, who's a devout Muslim. Yep, slap on the cuffs, and strip me of my civil rights, I'm consorting with terrorists.

I am thoroughly sickened by this. This argument is so utterly revolting, I have trouble keeping my hands steady enough to type. McKinney's said some idiotic things, but nothing she's said or done can possibly justify this McCarthyite horseshit. The people crowing about this on the Indepundit site and elsewhere are lower than the slime that pond scum scrapes off its shoes, and I would've expected better of Jim Henley.

Several people, myself among them, have raised the dark spectre of the Japanese-American internment camps, and McCarthy-style blacklists, when discussing the civil rights concerns raised by recent government actions. Until this weekend, I've always thought that was little more than a rhetorical scare tactic, that the memory of those dark chapters in American history would be enough to restrain the worst excesses of the War on Terrorism. With this poisonous idiocy entering the major media, I'm no longer so sure.

If we're going to go down this road, and I fervently hope we're not, I hope we can at least get a Joseph Welch to stand up and ask "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" before irreparable damage is done.

Posted at 2:10 PM | link | 6 comments

Friday, August 02, 2002

May There Be No Moaning of the Bar When I Choose Answer "C"

Kate took the New York Bar Exam this week, on Tuesday and Wednesday, which got me thinking about the topic of horrible transitional professional rituals. Academia in general (and physics specifically) lacks the sort of standardized, institutional trial by ordeal that the Bar provides (plunging your bare hand into boiling water might be preferable to two hundred multiple-choice questions about English Common Law), but there are a couple of roughly similar trials most Ph.D. scientists face. Three, if you count the GRE (the Physics GRE is a miserable experience), but we'll leave that aside.

The first big hurdle most people face in graduate school, and the closest thing academia has to a Bar Exam, is the Ph.D. qualifying exam. This is usually at the end of the first year of grad school (some places put it at the end of the second year, and a few forgo it altogether), and takes the form of a long comprehensive exam covering everything you're supposed to have learned in the required courses for the program. At Maryland (and many other places), this was stretched over two days, the first day (for the Chemical Physics program I was in) consisting of questions of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and "quantum chemistry" (basically molecular physics), the second day consisting entirely of questions about quantum mechanics.

I actually bombed this exam thoroughly. The first two (of three) problems on the first day were a cake-walk, but the third was completely out of left field. It asked about a topic we had never covered in class, and I couldn't get anywhere with it. I spent close to an hour staring at the damn thing, and couldn't get past sub-part a). I wound up writing the pathetic little "If I knew how to solve the first part of this, I'd take the answer from that part, and do the following..." essay that you write in hopes of getting at least a tiny amount of partial credit. (In the unlikely event that any of my students are reading this, and you find yourselves in this predicament, know that I have the utmost sympathy for your plight, and will actually give a fair amount of partial credit for that...)

That question rattled me so badly that I went into the second day in a very fragile state. When I didn't immediately see how to answer the first question, or the second, I was done. The third was something I knew how to do, but by that point I was a broken man. That night, seeking to get my mind off physics, I went to a movie. Unwisely, I chose to see Natural Born Killers, and found myself thinking "Well, the physics thing hasn't worked out, but I could still shave my head and go on a multi-state killing spree..." (On top of that, it's really not a very good movie...)

(Obviously, I didn't end up shaving my head and killing a lot of people. I had to take an oral exam as a make-up, some months later, which I passed with little trouble. The quantum questions, seen in calmer circumstances, were actually not all that bad, though I still have no idea how to do the miserable thermodynamics question that wrecked the whole thing for me...)

The other big liminal ritual in academia is the Ph.D. thesis and defense. After passing the qualifying exams, you're mostly done with course work (most people take a few more classes, on specific areas of interest for their research), and throw yourself full-time into research. In order to receive a Ph.D., you're basically required to become the World's Greatest Expert on something nobody else really cares about. (In my case, that was ionizing collisions between laser-cooled atoms of xenon in a metastable state. See, you don't care about that, do you?) You spend several years (Nathan helpfully provided the statistics on time-to-graduation for physics in a comment thread associated with an earlier post) piling up research results, and hopefully a few publications, and then you sit down and write a book about the results. Then you get together a moderately large group of professors, give a short research talk about the work, and then they quiz you on the presentation, the book, and, incidentally, anything else they happen to feel like asking you about.

This is an exceptionally trying time, summed up reasonably well in, of all things, an article on ESPN's Page 2 site (the thesis stuff is buried in an otherwise daft article about the glories of the Rocky soundtrack):

All your insecurity demons come out of the closet when you write a dissertation. Every sentence, every phrase, is a chance to become more convinced of your inadequacy. Somehow -- hypnosis, therapy, fear of disappointing your parents, a stout glass of wine at noon and another one at 5 o'clock every day -- you get it done. But that's all it is: done. It's not good, and it's not worth reading and it's nowhere near the project you hoped you'd have when you started. You can barely stand to look at it.

That's what makes the last days before the defense so painful: You're sitting around waiting for the committee to ask you what the hell you thought you were doing when you tried to put this flimsy, illogical piece of sham scholarship over on them.

In my particular case, the problem was compounded by two things: first, my advisor at NIST, Bill Phillips, is legendary in the Atomic Physics community for asking tons of questions of speakers. And since he's a brilliant guy, and usually grasps the point of the talk very quickly, these are generally very good, and very difficult questions (and if he starts a question with "don't you really mean to say.." the answer is always "yes"). Years of working in the Laser Cooling Group had left me with a mortal dread of hearing Bill say "now, before you leave that slide..." when giving a talk.

The other big factor was the "outside the program" member of the committee. As a check against distinguished professors putting together sham committees to rubber-stamp favored students through, each dissertation defense committee is required to have at least one member who comes from outside the degree program in question. As there were tight time constraints on my defense, this person was found for me by the chairman of the Chemical Physics Program, and turned out to be a very sharp Condensed Matter physicist from the superconductivity center. Unfortunately, he was also a very demanding guy, and when I met with him to schedule the defense, he presented me with a list of conditions that had to be met before he would agree to be on the committee, and regaled me with stories of past students who had failed to meet these criteria, and had "had a very hard time of it, I'll tell you that." My insecurity demons working overtime, I was completely convinced that he would find something absolutely dreadful in my thesis, and nail me to the wall.

Of course, I was overreacting-- if they thought I wasn't qualified, they never would've let me schedule the defense, and, it would be bad form for an advisor to hammer a student during that student's thesis defense. And, of course, as I noted when I talked about research talks in general, if you're any good, you know the subject matter inside and out, upside down and sideways. The outside-the-program committee member blew up at one point when I used a term that's often misused in his sub-field ("ballistic"), but once I understood his objection ("Who came up with this term 'ballistic,' anyway?!?!" "Um, Galileo? I don't know-- is this an etymology question?"), I was able to answer it.

There's a famous story about Isaac Asimov's thesis defense (he says coolly, and then can't find a good link for it... It's recounted near the bottom of this page, which is really about something else entirely), where one of the examiners asked him a question about a spoof research article he'd published under a pseudonym in a pulp magazine. He said later that at that moment, he knew he'd passed. I didn't publish any spoof articles, but I had a similar moment when one of the committee members asked "You've told us a lot of wonderful things about xenon, but do you know who discovered it?" ("I don't know. Lord Kelvin. Do you have a real question?")

(The answer is Lord Rayleigh. In case you care. Which you don't.)

So that's the physics version of the trial by ordeal. I'm not sure how the academic versions of this really compare to the Bar Exam-- I didn't shell out two grand for eighty pounds of review books and six weeks of taped classes on how to pass my thesis defense, but then I did spend six years making a pittance working with lasers in a room with no windows. Tough call.

The clearest common point between the Bar, the qualifying exam, and the thesis defense is that just finishing the damned things is a huge relief. The best part of passing the test (I have little doubt that Kate passed (she is, after all, smarter than I am, however much she denies that)) isn't the official reward that awaits, but rather the knowledge that, whatever else might happen, you never have to do that again.

Posted at 10:16 AM | link | 12 comments

Thursday, August 01, 2002

Another point from the same article about the drop in grad school enrollments:

One interesting note is that the enrollment of "traditional" science students (white males) has been declining for a long time, much longer than the last 10 years, according to the NSF study.But the overall number of graduate students remained unchanged, due to increased numbers of both female and foreign students.

Enrollment of foreign students, in particular, ballooned in the '80s and '90s. Many of these students ended up settling permanently in the United States, but statistically, about half returned to their home countries. These top-ranked scientists then set up university departments of their own, and continued collaborating with their US colleagues. Now, for the first time in decades, foreign enrollment in American science programs is actually declining. That's probably good for global well-being, but it also means that an important source of science students (as well as American-immigrant scientists) is drying up.

There's a sort of inside-baseball element to the foreign student situation that's not really touched on here. While part of the problem is that foreign universities have improved to the point where students will remain in their home countries rather than come to the United States for grad school (a net positive, in the long run-- the more good universities there are in the world, the better), there's another aspect as well: in many ways, foreign students started to become more trouble than they were worth.

In 1999 and 2000, I had a lot of conversations at conferences about the foreign student problem, mostly in regard to Chinese students (the Chinese were the worst offenders), who were causing all sorts of headaches at a number of universities. First of all, the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores submitted for Chinese students turned out to be an absolute joke. It's not clear whether there was institutionalized cheating in China, or they had just figured out how to game the test, but a distressingly large fraction of the Chinese students entering physics graduate programs turned out to speak essentially no English. (One professor I talked to said that their department had been fortunate enough to have a faculty member spending a sabbatical year working with a collaborator in Shanghai. They paid for Chinese applicants to go to Shanghai and be interviewed in person, which let them weed out the ones who really didn't speak English.)

An even bigger problem was with students who would enroll in a physics program, then show up and take a bunch of computer science or engineering classes before transferring into a CS or engineering program. The CS and engineering programs would fill up their classes faster than physics programs did, so students were using physics programs (and physics department funding) as a way to get into the US, despite having no real intention to pursue a physics degree. Worse yet, they would frequently take two or three TA jobs in different departments, to get extra money. Put together with their lack of English ability, this meant that everyone, from the faculty (whose cheap labor pool was draining into other departments) to the other graduate students (who were squeezed out of TA jobs), to the undergraduates (who had to take classes taught by disinterested foreign students with minimal English) was miserable.

Most of the decline in foreign student enrollment is probably due to students choosing to remain home in greater numbers, as the article suggests. (Further foreign student reductions may result from post-9/11 monkeying with the INS-- then again, maybe not. It's hard to say what's going on with the INS). Some chunk of it, though, is due to the fact that many universities (at least based on an informal and unscientific survey a couple of years ago) have decided to crack down on some of these abuses-- applicants are screened more carefully, and the rules governing transfers between departments have been tightened up.

So there's your juicy physics gossip tidbit for the week...

Posted at 11:55 AM | link | 6 comments

SciTech Daily links to an interesting article in the Christian Science Monitor about the recent drop in the number of grad students:

For several years now, a complaint has been heard in the hallways of our top universities: where have all the graduate students gone? Every year, there seem to be fewer and fewer qualified students applying for positions in science and engineering doctoral programs.

The problem is far from anecdotal. Now, with statistics compiled by the National Science Foundation, professional science organizations, and the federal government, it's official. Prospective students are turning away from careers in science. Since a peak in the early 1990s, the number of science and engineering students has tanked. In some fields, the decrease has been as much as 5 percent per year, according to a study published by the National Science Foundation. In electrical engineering, enrollments have dropped nearly 30 percent in the last 10 years. Overall, the number of Ph.D. students in science and engineering is at a 40-year low, and there is little sign of a turnaround.

The author goes on to attribute this to a number of factors, chiefly the fact that professional scientists aren't all that well-paid, and that working conditions for junior scientists, particularly post-docs, aren't all that great. Being a junior scientist, and one who did a post-doc (and wrote a letter arguing that it wasn't all that bad), this is a topic somewhat dear to my heart.

I think the piece hits on the right explanation, but for the wrong reasons. Obviously, I can't speak for scientists in other fields, but the salary I received as a post-doc at Yale (in the high $30,000's) wasn't "appalling", and wasn't too far down from what a junior faculty member is paid at a small liberal arts college. Or, for that matter, a recent law-school graduate taking a job in public interest law. Colleagues of mine who did post-docs at large government labs (NIST, LANL, LLNL, NIH, etc.) would take a pay cut to move to a small college academic job, and NRC post-docs would probably take a hit at a research university as well (I'm less certain of the pay scale at larger institutions). Now, granted, I worked for a very well-funded group, but I wasn't three standard deviations off the mean salary for a physics post-doc.

In a larger sense, though, anybody going to graduate school already knows that a science PhD isn't a path to vast riches. You should only go to graduate school-- in science or anything else-- if you really, truly love doing research in your chosen field, and are prepared to put in long hours for little pay to pursue that goal. The work has to be its own reward, or you'll never make it through (particularly when you get to the Thesis Hell stage, which Brad DeLong describes fairly well (albeit for economics, not a physical science)). In physics, at least, being a post-doc is a significant step up from being a grad student, and science post-docs are treated much better than medical doctors at a similar stage in their careers.

What's reduced the supply of grad students is not just the lousy pay and long hours-- the people who are inclined to go to grad school aren't in it for the money. If it were just about money, nobody would ever go to grad school in the sciences. Coming out of college, I easily could've taken my physics degree and gotten a job on Wall Street making four times what I made going to grad school. I didn't do that because I would've been bored blind by the work, and the hours they expect really aren't any better than grad student hours, which are at least spent doing interesting work. Hell, I could've becomes a high school teacher, and doubled my salary.

What's drawn students out of grad school over the past ten years or so has been the tech bubble. Physical science, engineering, and computer science all draw on roughly the same pool of proto-geeks-- people entering college with some interest in pursuing their education in a technical field. Some of these students will be locked into a particular track from the beginning, but many of them are a little vague, and could end up in any of those fields, given a slight push.

The dot-com madness of the late 90's was a very big push. Truckloads of money (well, OK, stock options) were being rained on anybody who could find the power button on a computer and use "Java" in a sentence, a set of people that includes most of the tech types who could end up in grad school. And while computer coding strikes me as fairly dull work, it's a whole lot closer to the sort of thing I find intellectually stimulating than Wall Street work is. Had I been on track to graduate college in 1998 rather than 1993, I would've been sorely tempted to take more computer classes, and get a job working for a dot-com, tempted in a way that I simply wasn't tempted by financial jobs. (A friend of mine who worked for Goldman Sachs after college tried to talk me into applying for those sort of jobs, but they really held no interest for me.) People with a less clearly defined interest in physics than I had almost certainly would've gone the computer route-- they would've been fools not to.

With the bottom dropping out of the tech sector, and a lot of those jobs drying up, I'd actually expect to see graduate school enrollments start to tick up. It'll take a few years to clear out those who are already in the computer pipeline, as it were, but in a few years, other sciences will start to seem more attractive to incoming students, and more of them will choose graduate school. Especially if the economy continues to flounder a bit-- grad school is a fairly recession-proof occupation. The numbers won't come back to their early-90's high point (even though the bubble has popped, there are still more jobs for right-out-of-college computer types than there were in the early 90's), but they'll creep up a little, and reach a new equilibrium, at least until the next technology-driven speculative bubble hits.

Posted at 11:16 AM | link | 2 comments

ΔxΔp ≥ h / 4 π

My stuff
What's with the name?
Who is this clown?
Does he know what he's talking about?
Archived Posts
The Library of Babel

Δ E Δ t ≥ h / 4 π

Other People's Stuff

Arts and Letters Daily
Ted Barlow
Aaron Bergman
Boing Boing
Steven Chapman
Brad DeLong
Diary de la Vex
Grim Amusements
James Lileks
Making Light
Mind Over What Matters
Charles Murtaugh
Off the Kuff
Off the Pine
The Poor Man
Protein Wisdom
SciTech Daily
Shadow of the Hegemon
Talking Points Memo
Through the Looking Glass
Unqualified Offerings
What She Really Thinks
What's New
Writer of Fortune II
Matthew Yglesias

Often Irritating Stuff

Andrew Sullivan
USS Clueless

Book Stuff

Book Slut
Neil Gaiman
Pam Korda
Outside of a Dog
Reading Notes
The Tufted Shoot
Virtual Marginalia
Weasel Words
Woodge's Book Report

Δ N Δ Φ ≥ 1 / 2


75 or Less Album Reviews
Rotten Tomatoes
The Onion A.V. Club

Geek Stuff

Annals of Improbable Research
Astronomy Picture of the Day
BEC Homepage
Britney Spears's Guide to Semiconductor Physics
The Comic Book Periodic Table
The Onion
Physics 2000
Sluggy Freelance
Web Elements
Physics Central (APS)
Science News (David Harris)
Science News (Timothy Paustian)

Useful Stuff

Web Design Group

While it is my fervent hope that my employers agree with me about the laws of physics, all opinions expressed here are mine, and mine alone. Don't hold my politics against them.

Weblog posts are copyright 2002 by Chad Orzel, but may be copied and distributed (and linked to) freely, with the correct attribution. But you knew that already.

Powered by Blogger Pro and BlogKomm.

Steelypips main page.