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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, December 06, 2002

Viva Las Vegas

Kate and I are off to Las Vegas to spend the weekend with a bunch of friends. Cleverly, this has been scheduled for a week before we close on the house that we're buying, meaning that we really can't spend any money while we're there, as we have to hold back cash in case the bank suddenly decides to require meteorite impact insurance for $10 more than we have in the checking account at that moment...

As a result, there won't be any blogging here for a few days. Of course, my absence needn't require you to refrain from wasting time on the web-- if you find yourself in need of a time sink, you could try:

Anyway, you're bright people, with web access. I'm sure you can find a way to pass the time...

Posted at 12:23 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Thursday, December 05, 2002

What Cultural Transformation?

I spent about three months living in Tokyo back in late 1998, and while I was there, I wrote a bunch of emails chronicling various parts of my trip which I sent to friends and family. One of the first things I did after obtaining web space with my Earthlink account was to dig these out and post them on the Web.

In one of those "someone at Google has a strange sense of humor" moments, one of these essays ended up as the top result for some searches for information about Pearl Harbor and the famous Dolittle bombing raid on Tokyo. This caused a huge spike in my web traffic when the Pearl Harbor movie came out, which wasn't equaled until well after the book log got going. It probably confused the hell out of a lot of people who were looking for either actual historical information or nekkid pictures of Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, but then that's the Web for you...

With the Pearl Harbor anniversary coming around again, hits on that page have ticked up slightly. It got me thinking about that essay again, which reminds me of one of the nagging problems I have with the standard "warblogger" line on terrorism and militant Islam. A common sentiment among the hawks of the "blogosphere" is that we need to go to war with any and every Arab country out there (if not every Muslim country) to "teach them a lesson." Then, having destroyed their "poisonous culture" we need to "rebuild them like we did Germany and Japan."

There are a large number of problems with this, beginning the manifest stupidity of the idea that humiliating the Arab world will somehow make them see the light (as noted elsewhere, this is too stupid for words, where "We might define 'too stupid for words' as the certainty that one's opponents will see the same virtues in your actions that you do."), and ending with the creepily racist overtones of the whole thing. Somewhere in the middle is the fact that this grossly overstates our ability to re-shape other cultures.

Japan is the standard example held up when some hawk wants to talk about how invading and reconstructing Iraq will magically transform the nations of the Middle East into peaceful and stable liberal democracies. The problem is that, even with pretty much ideal starting conditions (Japan was almost completely destroyed in WWII, so we got to start from scratch, and we had the Cold War to provide an incentive for us to stick around and do the job right, as well as an incentive for them to go along), we really didn't transform Japan into a full-fledged Western-style liberal democracy.

We wrote them a new Constitution, yes, and they've got most of the forms of liberal democracy in place, but they haven't really gotten the hang of the whole thing. They've had almost continuous rule by one political party since the mid-50's (despite numerous scandals), and Japan suffers from business and political corruption on a scale that dwarfs anything Ken Lay and friends would've dreamed about. They also lack a few things that most Americans would tend to regard as crucial elements of a free society, like jury trials.

But at least we broke up the cult of the Emperor and state Shinto, right? Well, sort of. The status of the Emperor was officially downgraded from "divine absolute monarch" to "the symbol of the State and the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power," but then they've (relatively recently) gone back to recording dates by imperial reign year (which is maddening for a foreigner), which puts the Emperor's status a touch above that of the Queen of England. And as noted in the "Infamy" essay above there are still some creepy elements to Japanese religion, particularly regarding matters which touch on the war.

We didn't even really get rid of the militant nationalists-- as I wandered around Tokyo, I was constantly running into black tour buses full of the Japanese equivalent of Illinois Nazis, blaring hateful slogans from PA speakers. They've been around for years, and have even been used as a veiled threat in diplomatic negotiations. And on a couple of occasions, I heard rousing karaoke renditions of some John Phillip Sousa style military marches, accompanied by videos made from newsreel footage of the invasion of Manchuria. Those were not fun times to be the only American in the room...

There's also a level of frank racism in Japanese society that's not really in keeping with the idea that we successfully re-shaped their society along Western lines (not modern Western lines, anyway)-- insulting stereotypes abound (I tend to wear sunglasses when I'm outside, which is rare in Japan. I had one man explain to me that this is because Japanese eyes are superior to European eyes...), both regarding foreigners of European descent, and other Asian groups (which causes some bafflement for an American who can't tell the difference between Koreans and Chinese and Japanese....). This even extends to an institutional level-- there are Koreans whose families have been in Japan for generations, without attaining full citizenship (the "zainichi" Koreans). And then there's the little-known caste system, and the low status of women, and a host of other disturbingly non-Western quirks.

I hasten to point out that I'm not mentioning this stuff to slam Japan per se, or claim that Japanese culture is flawed or evil or inferior to Western culture. There are disturbing aspects to Japanese culture, but there are some parts of American culture that I'm not all that fond of, either, and many more parts of Western culture that would upset Japanese people in the same way that some of their quirks bother me. The point is just that Japan is not a shiny, happy, Western-style liberal democracy. And despite extravagant claims to the contrary, in many ways, post-war Japanese culture bears a stronger resemblance to pre-war Japanese culture than it does to Western culture of any era. Our ability to "transform" other cultures is greatly overrated.

Now, to be sure, Japan hasn't been a military threat to its neighbors since the American occupation, and we'd probably be happy with that degree of "transformation" in the Middle East. But even that reflects more a change in strategy than a change in national character-- the Japanese renounced military conquest as a means of empire building, replacing it with a drive for economic dominance. It could also be argued that the violently acquisitive Imperial Japan of the WWII era was something of an aberration to begin with, and that post-war Japan was less a new creation than a return to an earlier state of affairs. Finally, there's the question of what you're starting with-- Japan was devastated during the war, but had previously had a functioning government at the major world power level, so there was some foundation on which to build. The same can't really be said of most of the Middle East.

In the end, Japan is not nearly as encouraging an example as the "blogosphere"'s hawks would like it to be. A from-the-ground-up rebuilding of the country over the period of about a decade, starting with a population ground down by years of warfare and deprivation, ultimately effected a transformation that was more cosmetic than anything else. The idea that a similar project on a far grander scale (depending on who you believe, the reconstruction could be just Iraq, or could expand to cover Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and most of the rest of the Middle East), carried out by an administration that's uneasy at best with the idea of foreign aid, would produce better results speaks of breathtaking arrogance and no small amount of ignorance.

Posted at 1:56 PM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

Best Two of Three? (UMD-IU)

Maryland lost to Indiana in overtime last night, in a re-match of last year's national title game. I'd be more upset about the loss if it hadn't been such a great game (and if I hadn't stayed up way too late watching it)-- the players went at it like this game were for the national title, instead of a basically meaningless early-season contest. It was a better game, in fact, than the actual title game back in April.

The first three-quarters of the game were eerily similar to the title game-- Maryland ran out to a big lead, courtesy of some serious bricklaying by Indiana, then the Hoosiers found their stroke, and rallied to take their first lead with about ten minutes to play in regulation. The halftime score and the score when Indiana took their first lead were within two or three points of last year's values. Down the stretch, though, last night's game went back and forth, with neither team managing to build much of a lead. Some serious heroics were turned in by both point guards-- Tom Coverdale (who, in the play-by-play guy's words, plays "without the benefit of speed") made clutch shots and impossible-looking drives to the hoop, while Steve Blake scored a career high, and hit a key three-pointer. Unfortunately, Blake's most heroic shot, a 55-footer at the buzzer was a couple tenths of a second late, and Maryland lost in overtime.

The game was played with incredible intensity on both sides, with bodies flying all over the court, and was a lot of fun to watch-- so much so that I would be petty to complain (at length, anyway) about the somewhat spotty officiating (to their credit, the officials handled the buzzer-beater very well), and ragged offensive play from both teams. This wasn't your typical meaningless December game (yeah, yeah, it's for conference bragging rights... That and a buck will get you a candy bar...).

This game really slipped through Maryland's fingers in an unusually literal sense. Drew Nicholas dropped an inbounds pass with under a minute to play and a one-point lead-- had he caught that ball, he'd've been shooting free throws, but he took his eye off it, and the rest is history-- and Steve Blake let another pass sail out of bounds in overtime, down by a point. But as I said, it's hard to be too down about such an entertaining loss.

Here's hoping they get the chance for a rubber match at the end of March.

Posted at 11:52 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Ask Uncertain Principles

This week's letter comes from the Midwest, where permalinks don't work:

So, Dr. Principles, in your experience, what is the best way to damage the career of a fully tenured professor at a college which is supposedly as much a teaching-oriented institution as a research institution? And more importantly, in that situation (and assuming that the majority if not the entirety of the class had every intention of turning in similarly negative reviews as well, because I canvassed them all prior to evaluation time) what do you figure is the worst that will actually happen?

Irritated in Illinois

I should first warn you that, as a junior faculty member at a small college, I have no expertise in ruining the careers of tenured professors. (Nor do I have any interest in ruining the careers of tenured professors, especially tenured professors at my home institution, who might someday sit on my tenure review committee...) If you want someone with real experience in the field, I suggest contacting a University President.

However, I can offer one simple an elegant suggestion, that's sure to get the guy in question in hot water. It's actually fairly obvious, but also nearly foolproof: sleep with him. Nothing wrecks academic careers faster than a sexual harassment scandal.

Hope this helps. Have a nice day.

Posted at 8:20 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Monday, December 02, 2002

Kooks Everywhere

Blogging has been nonexistent for a few days now, as I was out of town for Thanksgiving, and too logy from overeating to post much of anything. It's the best holiday we have going, by virtue of being so quintessentially American...

During the break, I got the following spam at my work email (not the address listed on this site):

To Physics of the world

The theory and ability to use magnetic forces as a new source of energy has been developed. It emanates energy economically, and is environmentally friendly.

Please visit our website for a live video demonstration of the running proto-type and in-depth details of this theory.

It will capture you as a new dimension of today's energy theories and sources, and initiate an exciting new field for research and development.

Also contained in the website is an article that identifies a unique case of the law of energy conservation. (All physicists should verify this. It is very different from the law of physics which we are teaching and learning today.)

This is not a commercial ad.

I haven't watched their video, but for those who appreciate semi-literate technobabble, the web site is a wonder to behold. It's a little more coherent than the Time Cube thing, and flirts with actual English grammar. As for the spam itself, the "This is not a commercial ad" disclaimer at the end is stroke of genius.

Kooks like these are among the unadvertised "benefits" of a career in physics. Most normal people, on hearing that I'm a physicist, say either "Eww!" or "I hated that in {high school, college}" or "You must be really smart, or something, huh?" (All of which are somewhat difficult to respond to...) There's a small subset of people, though, whose eyes positively light up at the prospect of sharing their bizarre personal Theory of Everything with a real, live physicist.

The kook theorists tend to divide into two general camps: those who believe that Einstein was wrong, Relativity is a bunch of crap, and the real secret of the universe is found in the realization that the universe is banana-shaped; and those (like the above quoted spammer) who have found a loophole in energy conservation, usually involving magnets in some manner. The latter, of course, are properly part of Teresa Nielsen Hayden's taxonomy of scams (number 7, "selling access to uncommon opportunities"). I'm not sure why it's only those two-- I'd love to run into somebody arguing that Newton was a fraud, and Galileo or Aristotle were the real deal.

Of course, these people also tend not to be content with working the cocktail party circuit and waiting for a physicist to wander by. With a dogged persistence that's really impressive, they try to spread the word of their miraculous discoveries by mailing copies of their Theory of Everything to, well, just about every physicist they can think of. Even before Bill Phillips won the Nobel Prize, he used to get these letters every couple of months, and after the Prize, the rate increased to one a week or so. He (or more likely one of the other group members) used to post them in the coffee room for a laugh-- most were photocopies, some were run off on a "ditto machine" with that wonderful purple ink you used to see in grade school, and one or two were hand-written.

This is only the third or fourth one I've ever gotten directly, not being a very high-profile sort of guy. Interestingly, it's the first one I've gotten in email-- most kooks use the regular postal system. I don't know why that is. I'm sure it won't be the last of these, though at least it's more entertaining than the daily deluge of Nigerian spam I get on my Earthlink account.

It's also amusing to note that the crank theorists subscribe to major journals-- when I was at Yale, we published a paper in Science, and within a week of the article seeing print, each of the authors had gotten their very own copy of the Secrets of the Universe, as revealed to some guy in Colorado. Choosing a fairly typical paragraph:

In other, simple words, ancient energies, like the Earth and the Sun and the planets and stars move slowly compared to faster energy subsets, like light. The Universe was "old" before visible light even happened. It formed and proceeded to take shape in a very elegantly simple, neat and orderly fashion. It did not just blow up one day and come into existence. It continues to grow and form and to be alive and it will never end.

This is another area where I feel faintly guilty for not vociferously denouncing these people the way Bob Park and James Randi do. Particularly the Canadian perpetual-motion spammers-- it's a scam, folks, don't buy anything from them. But, on the other hand, there's something almost charming about the pathetic desperation with which some of these people push their cracked view of the universe (invariably an odd hybrid of Star Trek technobabble and misunderstood Eastern mysticism). At bottom, they're basically harmless, and sort of amusing. In the same way that I enjoy the occasional "aliens built the Pyramids" program on the pseudo-science cable channels, I enjoy these letters.

Posted at 5:11 PM | link | follow-ups | 18 comments

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