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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, November 02, 2002

Winged Swine and Synchronicity

For no reason I can really put my finger on, something I heard last week reminded me of the old Pink Floyd oddity "Pigs on the Wing." I've had the song stuck in my head off and on since, which hasn't been helped by that bizarre Time Warner Cable commercial with the flying pigs. Finally, yesterday, I dug the tape of Animals out, and listened to it on the way to work. Where a later blogroll turned up (via Blogcritics) Laurence "Amish Tech Support" Simon referencing the lyrics of "Pigs on the Wing" regarding the story of an inflatable tank gone astray. Winged swine, everywhere I look.

I used to be a big fan of Pink Floyd (yet another reason why I'd never make it as a rock critic...), but mostly stopped listening to them somewhere around my junior year of college. It was interesting to learn that, despite not having listened to the record in ten years or more, I still know as many of the lyrics as I ever did (I bought it on cassette, and thus didn't get the lyric sheet, and Roger Waters doesn't enunciate as clearly as one might light...), and still know most of the guitar solos.

I read a biography of the band once, which mentioned that Animals was, in part, the band's reaction to the rise of punk music (which was, in turn, a reaction against bands like Pink Floyd. Johnny Rotten famously wore an "I Hate Pink Floyd" shirt, about which David Gilmour (I think) remarked "He never would've gotten as much mileage out of an 'I Hate Yes' shirt." (*). When I first read that, it didn't seem to make a lot of sense-- there's only five songs on the album, and "Dogs" pushes twenty minutes. But then, on reflection, it does make a certain amount of sense-- it's a very angry record, and there's also a certain ragged quality to the songs, quite unlike the almost antiseptic precision of Dark Side of the Moon. There's still plenty of weird synthesizer noodling filling space in the songs, but the guitar noodling at least is some of the least pointless in their catalog.

That raggedness may be part of why this was always one of my favorite Floyd albums (and Dark Side one of my least favorite). It's an odd transitional album for them-- wedged in between Wish You Were Here and The Wall, it's a big, bitter concept album, but Roger Waters hasn't reached the absolute pinnacle of his rock-opera madness yet, and there are still some rock-star flourishes from David Gilmour (the solos in "Dogs" are among his best work).

It's also held up better than I would've expected, after all these years. I'm no longer as impressed by weird synthesizer noodling as I once was, so a lot of the songs seem to sag in the middle (there's also a perfunctory quality about some of the syth breaks-- you can sort of imagine Roger Waters sighing heavily, and saying, "Oh, all right. Rick, diddle around on the keyboards for a while. I'm off for a smoke."). I was never wild about Waters's voice, which hasn't improved, but it's well suited to these songs, and the lyrics are pretty sharp, with some nice touches. And there's some great guitar stuff on this record.

Having mostly lost patience with the extended synth breaks, I'm not likely to put this one back in the regular rotation. But it's been interesting to hear this record again, and see how the songs sound after all this time. It falls somewhere in between "enduring classic" and "fuzzy nostalgia material." When I've listened to this one enough to get "Pigs on the Wing" out of my system again, I'll have to dust off some other old favorites, and see how they are.

Note: I couldn't find that specific quote in the vast wealth of Pink Floyd material on the Web, but I did turn up an interview where Gilmour is asked "Be honest. When listening to the 'Great Gig In The Sky', have you ever thought, 'Oh put a sock in it, you silly cow?'" That ought to be worth something.)

Posted at 8:42 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Friday, November 01, 2002

Of Chickens and Eggs

Jim Henley, in the course of his sniper coverage, implored the police to "make us a pack, not a herd," and Patrick Nielsen Hayden picked up the theme in another recent post. Jim returned to the idea in a post last night, musing on pack behavior as a basis for law enforcement. While he's generally in favor of it, he sees a few possible problems, which he tries to address in his post:

I see two problems that we need to think about. The first, obvious one, is vigilantism. Now, call me a fire-breathing right- winger (please!) but I'm not convinced that vigilantism is the unalloyed calamity Progressive Humanity considers it to be. At which point the reader demands, But what about the whole, abominable history of lynching in the Jim Crow South? What about mobs with pitchforks shouting "She's a witch!" What about avengers gunning down acquitted molestation defendants on their front lawns?

It's a fair question. And I'm not settled on this stuff. But wasn't the real problem in the Jim Crow South racism rather than vigilantism as such? It's not like the government-approved law enforcement system did so well by blacks. Lynchings, as I understand them, took place as an all but official auxiliary of the media-law enforcement complex. Moving on to the "Try telling that to an angry mob" front, surely far more "witches" and "heretics" were killed by secular and religious authorities in the course of their official duties than were slaughtered by rampaging villagers. And what did prosecutors, media, judges and the "helping" "professions" do to sex-offender jurisprudence with superstitions like recovered memory therapy? Only recently has that tide of official madness begun to recede, and it has stranded numerous innocent men and women in prison on its way back down. That's not counting the suicides and estrangements where the state can say "Look ma - no hands!"

This is sort of the standard libertarian response to these kind of complaints-- accepting that private individuals have done Bad Things, but pointing out that the state has done even more Bad Things-- but there's a little bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here. Yes, in most of these cases more damage was done by the apparatus of the state than by ravening mobs of villagers with torches, but these state actions didn't take place in a vacuum, and they were not the actions of a hostile occupying government, but rather the chosen representatives of the local population.

The spate of recovered-memory sex-offender cases some years back owed as much to a wider public hysteria about such things as to the individual decisions of a crusading DA's office. It may have started with one or two overzealous individuals, but news reports at the time were full of this stuff (I was a teenager at the time, and it was lurid enough to make an impression), and there was something of a mania for finding sex offenses by dubious means. The rash of prosecutions was in part a response to a public desire for prosecutions of these cases-- if anything, the colossal inertia of the legal system probably reduced the number of these cases.

Likewise, more "witches" and "heretics" were killed by secular and religious authorities than ravening mobs in part because of a popular desire to see "witches" and "heretics" killed. The authorities gave the people what they wanted, and prevented the forming of unruly mobs.

I haven't decided what I really think about the "pack, not herd" theory, yet-- there may be something to it, but other bits make me nervous-- but I don't think you can write off this particular problem as easily as Jim does. It's not technically "vigilantism" when it's done under the auspices of the state, but whatever you call it, it has the same root cause as vigilantism, and I think it's a significant problem with the "pack, not herd" theory.

(Usual disclaimers apply-- I am not a historian, nor a political scientist, nor do I play either of those things on TV...)

Posted at 9:01 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

While We're On the Topic of Self-Promotion...

Back in my rugby-playing college days, I read an anthology of literary snippets about rugby, whose editor put forth the theory that the quantity and quality of literature about a given sport is directly proportional to the time spent standing around doing nothing in particular during the game. This undoubtedly means that there are vast mountains of Great Litratchure regarding the game of cricket, about which I can only express my fervent thanks that I'm an American, and don't have to read it.

The general rule seems to hold on this side of the Atlantic, though, as there are far more books about baseball and the mythic significance thereof (Kinsella's Shoeless Joe, for example, which became Field of Dreams) than there are books about the cosmic meaning of football, let alone basketball, which is superior to both.

Michael Chabon (of Kavalier and Clay fame) has added yet another book to baseball column. Summerland is a Gaiman-esque journey through a world of fractured mythology, epic questing, and baseball.

I generally don't have much use for baseball, as I'm terrible at any game which requires me to hit a ball with a stick, and don't go in for the level of stat-wankery that baseball seems to require ("He has an 0.035 ERA against right-handed blondes with mustaches, but a 7.67 ERA against bearded brunettes..."). The highest praise I can give this book, then, is to say that reading it got me interested enough in the game to watch a few innings of a World Series not featuring the Yankees.

(Haven't flogged the book log for a while, but what the hell...)

Posted at 8:47 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Speaking of Publications with Annoying Web Policies...

While I'm linking to things found via SciTech Daily, I'll mention this article on Quantum Information in Scientific American (I link to the printer-friendly version because I hate their regular web page) by Michael Nielsen, who I sorta-kinda know from his grad student days at New Mexico. He's now a famous textbook author, and back in his native Australia doing the professor thing.

Never one to pass up an opportunity for shameless self-promotion, I'll also link to my old posts about quantum computing and quantum teleportation. Just, y'know, because...

Posted at 8:34 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments


There's an article in The Scientist (via SciTechDaily) about people who got screwed out of Nobel Prizes. A full week after I posted about it here.

Were I even more annoying than I already am, I'd say "Advatage: Uncertain Principles!" But, really, I suspect that any actual advantage goes to the person who actually got paid for writing about this...

(The article restricts itself to talking about the Medicine and Chemistry prizes, and may require you to go through some registration song-and-dance before you can read it.)

Posted at 8:23 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

When Smart People Say Strange Things

Aaron Bergman, string theorist, proprietor of "Blogs Suck", and sometime commenter here has a couple of pieces about an apparent hoax in string theory (see also his follow-up). A couple of Russian (or at least Slavic-named-- I'm not sure of their nationality) brothers seem to have published a number of papers consisting of nothing but jargon and gibberish. Given that a lot of string theory stuff looks to me like it was put together by some technical variant of the postmodernism generator, I'm not tremendously surprised that they got away with this, but I'm also not in much of a position to judge.

I agree with Aaron that, if true, "this is a serious indictment of the refereeing process at these journals [where the Bogdanovs were publishing]." I've commented on some of this stuff before, talking about the Schoen fraund (aside: there's got to be a bad pun in there based on the vague similarity between "Schoen fraud" and "schadenfreude"...) and the refereeing process in general.

We part company, however, when he goes on to say:

I think that this is less an indictment of string theory than of the journal process. In string theory these days, nobody actually pays attention to journals anymore. Instead, we receive pretty much all the information from the online preprint archive which is unrefereed.

Um, what?

That appears to parse as "These guys snuck a bunch of papers past journal referees, but that's OK because all us cool kids prefer to use completely unrefereed preprints as our main information source." Which just makes no sense to me-- if the refereed journals didn't catch the fraud, how would this problem be fixed by (effectively) removing the referees from the equation? Aaron, did you become a Republican when I wasn't looking?

The most sensible spin I can put on this comment is that this fraud is not actually a problem with string theory because nobody would've tried to duplicate or build off the Bogdanov papers, since string theorists are too sexy for paper journals (basically the line taken at Musings, minus the open-source analogy...). Or that it's not the case that actual string theorists were gulled by the fraud, because none of them would actually deign to referee a paper for a print journal. But that's sort of like saying "Sure, Worldcom went down the toilet due to massive fraud and corruption, but hey, nobody smart invested in them in the first place..." If real researchers in the field weren't refereeing these papers, who was? And if real string theorists weren't reviewing these papers, why weren't they?

I've long been deeply uncomfortable with the shift in high-energy physics to doing science by preprint and press conference. This case does nothing to ease my mind. Yeah, fine, the Bogdanovs didn't take advantage of the unrefereed channel to pass off phony work, but that doesn't mean that somebody smarter couldn't defraud the community through a lack of peer review.

(Update: Added the Musings link, which I forgot when I originally posted this.)

Posted at 8:07 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

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