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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, December 20, 2002

Master of None

I'm a lousy plumber.

I'm also a mediocre electrician, a machinist and carpenter of indifferent ability, a fairly bad computer programmer, and a decidedly poor electrical engineer.

These are all job skills, as much a part of being a physicist as the ability to do clever math tricks. For some reason-- disciplinary arrogance, free grad student labor, the innate superiority of physicists-- physics as a field is organized a little differently than some other sciences. As a general rule, we don't have lab techs, and in a weird way, this is a point of pride. A working physicist is presumed to be able to do a variety of tasks that most normal people would quite happily contract out to somebody else-- not as well as professionals in those areas, but slowly and laboriously running water pipes to cool a high-power laser is a part of the business. To be a good physicist, you also have to be (at least) a lousy plumber, mediocre electrician, and so forth.

Small electronic widgets, as a rule, are home-built, sometimes, even when the specs are very demanding. Unless you need a really exceptional amplifier, you generally build what you need yourself-- I can't recall which end of a diode is which without cracking open a copy of Horowitz and Hill, but if I need to boost a small signal by a factor of five or ten, my first impulse is to grab a bunch of op-amps and a soldering iron. The design and construction of feedback circuits are routinely assigned as undergraduate summer projects. Some groups go so far as to do all the wiring in the lab themselves (sometimes with unfortunate results, as when a laser at NIST was wired directly into the mains, which eventually started a fire...).

Simple machined parts (laser mounts, for example) are generally made by hand-- any physics department worth its salt will have a fully-equipped machine shop, and learning to use a mill is as much a part of (experimental) physics training as learning to do complex integration. My junior high shop teachers get a huge chuckle out of the fact that I occasionally go into the shop and build stuff (though these days, I mostly shuffle that off onto students, supervised by the resident machinist). I actually sort of enjoy this stuff-- at the end of a day spent in the shop, you've got something solid to claim as an accomplishment (usually a chunk of aluminum or copper with holes drilled in it).

Even groups that are primarily experimental will do their own computer coding-- the difference between theorists and experimentalists, as far as I can tell, is that theorists doing theory write Fortran or C code, while experimentalists doing theory use MatLab or Mathematica. I've written data analysis routines in C++, and spent more time than I would've liked wrestling with the arcane syntax of Mathematica to check data against (simple) theory.

In a very real sense, being a physicist requires you to be a jack-of-all-trades. This disciplinary versatility has good and bad points, on a number of levels.

Some of the consequences are obvious. As noted above, it's very satisfying when you spend a day actually building stuff, and end up with something concrete to show for it. The flip side of this, though, is that the job isn't necessarily done as well as it could be (and it's never done as quickly as a real professional could do it). Most experimental physicists have at least a few stories of electrical wiring disasters, and I've never seen a lab containing water-cooled hardware (all plumbing done by physicists, naturally) that hadn't suffered at least one debilitating flood.

A less obvious consequence of the jack-of-all-trades nature of the field is that it changes the nature of the physics job market dramatically. In chemistry and biology, you can get good technical jobs with a Master's degree. In most engineering fields, the MS seems to be the real professional degree-- only hard-core academics go for the Ph.D.. In physics, however, there's not much you can do with a Master's degree that you can't do with a Bachelor's degree-- even Ph.D.'s in physics are expected to be able and willing to do work that, in other fields, would be assigned to people at a lower degree level. It's a Ph.D. or bust sort of field-- there are jobs you can get with a BA or BS in Physics (as Nathan "Frodo Lives" Lundblad could tell you, but they're not all that common, and an MA or MS does little other than easing the certification process for teaching high school (which is a worthy profession, don't get me wrong...)

That makes it sort of difficult to find jobs for students graduating college who aren't quite ready to commit to five or six years in the grad school salt mines, but don't want to leave the field entirely, either. There are a lot of jobs in other sciences that you can get straight out of college, and still more good technical positions you can get with only a year or two of grad school, but physics, for whatever reason, is an all-or-nothing sort of gig, which is tough on students who would like to actually use their degree after graduation, but don't want to continue being a student. As a profession, we sort of waffle between shoving these people toward graduate school, or telling them to spend a couple of years on Wall Street, and then go to grad school. I wish I had better advice, or a wider range of options to suggest to these students...

(This is, by the way, what brought this topic to mind-- I've got a student in this category working in my lab at the moment, who's doing great stuff, but has no idea what he's going to do after graduation. Anybody looking to hire a talented and hard-working physics major with a good computer background for a technical job in the general Springfield/ Hartford area, let me know...)

On an even less obvious, and more personal level, the above package of skills that I sorta-kinda possess probably leaves me well prepared for the thrills of home ownership and maintenance. Which will come in handy, what with our buying a house (closing this afternoon, in fact), and all that... It's in reasonably good repair, but needs a few coats of paint, and some general patching and tweaking, and quite a bit of yard work, so it's sure to keep me busy in the coming months, and provide plenty of excuses for slow blogging down the road...

Posted at 8:25 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Thursday, December 19, 2002

We Hates the Thief Baggins and Can Thus Totally Relate to the Films

Kate and I would lose serious Geek Cred if we failed to see The Two Towers as soon as it opened, so we went to the theater last night, with a host of other people who had their own reasons for seeing it opening night. And, geek-boy that I am, I'll post some general comments here, because, of course, it's so hard to find other comments about this movie.

As with the first movie, this is both a good fantasy flick (a rare beast, that), and a good movie in its own right. In the end, it's not quite as moving as the previous movie, but that's really sort of Tolkien's fault-- there isn't anything in the second book to match the one-two emotional punch of Gandalf's fall from the bridge in Moria followed by Boromir's fall and redemption. Peter Jackson milks the Rohirrim refugees in Helm's Deep for all the pathos he can get, and Gollum's internal struggle is nicely done by Andy Serkis and a bunch of CGI wizards, but nothing here beats Sean Bean taking arrows in the chest.

Still, there's a lot to like, here. Andy Serkis's Gollum is the first entirely CGI character in a movie that hasn't made me want to chuck garbage at the screen. The battle of Helm's Deep kicks major ass, as does the storming of Isengard (finally, Christopher Lee's "Evil Jesus" 'do gets a bit mussed...). And it was nice to see that they kept some of the language of the original-- I'm no great fan of Tolkien's poetry, but the "Where is the horse and rider?" bit was very nice.

There are mis-steps, as well. The exorcism of Theoden rivals the "wizard fu" battle of the first film for schlock value, and Sam's impassioned speech toward the end made me want to hum "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" mockingly. I sort of understand why they did what they did with Faramir, but I'm still not wild about it (even though the Faramir of the books utterly fails to make a deep impression with me). The scenes of Aragorn wandering in the wilderness were a bit odd, and seemed to be there primarily to set up the slo-mo shot of him pushing open the doors in Helm's Deep, while half the female members of the audience sigh wistfully...

A few of the changes are actually slight improvements. Condensing Eomer and Erkenbrand makes sense, and it looks like Eowyn will come off better than she does in the books, as the annoying speech criticizing her gets put into Wormtongue's mouth, where it makes more sense (it's not clear to me, though, why anyone would ever have hired somebody as pasty and oily as Grima as a counselor...). And while Liv Tyler continues to be vaguely annoying as Arwen, her interaction with Aragorn did set up the situation with Eowyn a little better than the book does.

Earlier in the week, we watched a bunch of the technical features on the four-disc DVD set, which really changed the way I looked at some parts of the movie. In particular, after watching the stuff on digital color grading, I noticed the tricks they were playing a lot more. It's hard to say whether that's a Good Thing or not. Also, having seen Andy Serkis in a wetsuit flopping around in a river (in one of the "making of" tv shows they put on to whip up more hype) really changes the scene where Gollum goes fishing...

I could babble on geekishly for a good while longer, but I'll stop here, and leave other material for the comments. The bottom line: it's a good movie. I don't agree with The Onion that it's better than the first, but I'll definitely see it again, and I can't wait to see the final chapter.

Posted at 11:44 AM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Who Cares About Campus Apathy?

This David Brooks article on the current state of college campuses is, in fact, very good, as noted by Aaron Bergman, Kevin "Calpundit" Drum, and Matthew Yglesias (who gets screwed by alphabetical order again...). It doesn't focus as much on politics as you might think from those entries, but paints a pretty accurate picture of what college students are really like. His depiction fits both my recollection of what life at an elite school was like ten years ago, and what I see now that I'm teaching at a $30K+ liberal arts college.

At least, it's accurate regarding a particular slice of the student body-- as Matthew Yglesias notes, Brooks is quite likely suffering from some serious sample bias. The students he's interacting with are those who think that hanging out with David Brooks would be a cool thing to do. It's not especially surprising to me that he found himself talking to a lot of students who were entrepreneurial and headed in the direction of Wall Street, law school, or medical school-- the first two, especially, are groups of students I would expect to seek out David Brooks's class. I'm also not surprised that he found very few "eccentric" students to talk to, as the "eccentric" members of a typical college community aren't likely to be enchanted with the prospect of spending a few hours a week listening to an editor of the Weekly Standard. If you want to find the really weird students, you need to look in either the sciences or the arts...

There's also probably a connection to be made between Brooks's observations about the relatively apolitical nature of college students (or at least the lack of radicalism in the general campus community) and the fact, noted on Shadow of the Hegemon and Beauty of Gray that most of the American population is actually outside both the Echo Chamber of the Right, and that of the Left. It's certainly not true that voter apathy is due to a lack of education, as it's hard to drum up any real enthusiasm for one of the major parties even on a college campus.

There's probably a connection, as I said, and I'm sure that grand, sweeping conclusions about the future of the electorate could be drawn from the combination of these two ideas. Unfortunately, I just don't care enough to spend the time working it out...

Posted at 2:48 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

The Sports Reporters, on Uncertain Principles

In a comment responding to a remark about miserable basketball announcers, John Casey asks:

Ever listen to Tommy Heinsohn and his partner do a Celtics game? They know stuff, they know how to say it, and they know when to shut up. Couldn't be better.

According to a bio on the web, Heinsohn did games for CBS for a while. I'm pretty sure I recall hearing him call some NBA games back when the Bird and Magic were still playing, and we wouldn't've been getting the Celtics broadcasts in Central New York.

Heinsohn's spluttering over the officiating in the Boston-Phoenix game last week was pretty funny, at least as excerpted on SportsCenter (I liked the line "This guy should go home to his wife, 'cause nobody loves him here"). He's got the luxury of being able to do that, though, being employed by the team. I actually really enjoy listening to the ridiculous homers they put on the various team "networks," partly because their partisanship is so amusing.

(I've gotten to like the Giants radio announcers enough, having listened to many games on the radio in the car, that I mute the tv, and listen to them instead of whoever the tv networks have on. It's great stuff: Bob Papa and Dave Jennings are ridiculously biased, but like true New York fans, they don't hesitate to blast stupid decisions by the Giants themselves. And Dick Lynch is good for a dozen or so faintly addled Rizzuto-esque comments. I particularly enjoy it when he interrupts the commentary to say "hi" to distant relatives...)

It's even better when you can flip back and forth between two competing networks-- on one Sunday drive back across Pennsylvania from a visit home, I listened to a Giants-Cowboys matchup on two different radio stations that were fading in and out-- one had the Giants feed, the other the Cowboys. It was hard to believe they were watching the same game. On one particular play, after a hit on Troy Aikman, the Cowboys announcers were screaming that the Giant responsible should be flagged, fined, and run out of the league as a brutal thug, while the only comment from the Giants announcers was "The Dallas coaches are upset about something, but I don't know what."

The Maryland basketball broadcasts aren't actually all that bad as team networks go-- for one thing, Johnny Holiday is a little too professional to refer to the team as "we"-- and they're infinitely better than Packer and Vitale. When we move, and get broadband, I'll be muting the tv in favor of the webcast once again.

(Speaking of Packer and Vitale, they sparred amusingly on ESPN this weekend, along with cave wight Sonny Vaccaro (looking like Jerry Tarkanian without the healthy glow...), arguing about the hyping of LeBron James et al., and the pernicious influence of money in college sports. It's an interesting question, but as always Vitale and Packer generated more heat than light. I'll come back to this issue later, but my ill-thought-out opinion in brief is that I'm not particularly bothered by the idea of college players getting some cut of the millions they generate for their schools, but I am a little bothered by the people (and Vitale figures prominently on this list) who convince manifestly unworthy players that they should go pro early.)

Posted at 10:29 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Monday, December 16, 2002

Squiddy Snacks and Canadian Christmas

In a more positive development, Project Snack has been updated. If you've ever beheld the terror that is Japanese junk food, you'll probably get a chuckle out of this. There's less squid this time out, but it's still pretty funny.

From the same source, be sure to check out the descriptions of Canadian Christmas Traditions (follow the link and scroll up for more):

Today began at the crack of dawn as my brothers and I prepared the dog sleds for the hunt. Normally, we use six to ten dogs per sled, depending on the size of the animals we hunt. Today, we supplemented the dog team with a handful of lemurs, for our quarry is the spotted snow emu, which can grow to at least 4 metres in height and weigh about 300 kilograms. Its wingspan dwarfs a small airplane. The snow emu is a dangerous predator while in flight, and emus tend to flock together in squadrons of three or four. For safety, we hunt them at night when they're sleeping in their burrows.

I wonder if he'll tell us about the fridge bears?

Posted at 8:33 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

All Class, All the Time

Gore is out. The former Vice President, on the heels of a really vicious Saturday Night Live spoof of Trent Lott ("Playing Lott, Gore also called Thurmond 'a genius' who ... had 'great ideas for raising tax revenue, like making black people pay to vote.'"), announced that he wouldn't run for President again in 2004. Toward the end of the Post's article, we have:

There was no official comment from the White House, but a senior Republican official said Gore "wants to keep his position in history as the guy who should've been president" and that "to run again and get trounced would diminish that."

I know Bush pledged to "change the tone" in Washington, but I confess, I hadn't really thought he and his handlers could make politics more sophomoric than it was before...

Posted at 8:16 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Sunday, December 15, 2002

All About Fundamentals (UMD-Florida)

Maryland lost to Florida yesterday in a game that ought to serve as a teaching tool to demonstrate the importance of basic fundamental play. Maryland lost by five, while shooting 4-11 from the free throw line, and giving up 16 offensive rebounds, mostly in the form of uncontested put-backs. If they hit some free throws, it would've been a different game, and if they had just boxed out, they would've won by ten.

The boxing out thing is a recurring peeve regarding Maryland basketball. It's probably a matter of their preference for up-tempo basketball-- they don't box out and crash the boards because they're looking to get out on the break-- but whatever the cause, this drives me nuts. You can't win if you don't rebound, whether you're talking about lunchtime pick-up games or major-college Div. I games on national TV.

This was an incredibly frustrating game to watch, because Maryland played a reasonably good game, except for these two staggeringly stupid lapses. They ran their offense fairly well (not great, but fairly well), and played solid defense for the most part, forcing Florida into taking some tough shots (not that it's hard to get Florida to take bad shots...), and pissed it all away by bricking free throws and giving up offensive rebounds for easy lay-ups.

Adding to the frustration was the Third Worst Announcing Team in All of Sports (trailing Patrick-Vitale and Musberger-Vitale), Jim Nantz and Billy Packer. Nantz desperately wants to be the voice on one of those classic sports calls-- "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" or "The Giants win the pennant!" or "The band is on the field!"-- and spends every moment reaching for Deep Significance, while Packer is mystified by obvious things (he expressed amazement that Matt Bonner was still on the floor with three fouls, when there hadn't been a whistle to stop play since he picked the foul up, and a sub was waiting at the scorer's table), hammers relentlessly at any decision by a coach or player that goes against his preferences, and weirdly praises strange decisions. The only thing keeping these two out of the top spots is Vitale's tendency to deliver his comments at bleeding-eardrum decibel levels.

As for the larger significance of this game in Maryland's season, it's tough to say. It's early enough still that they could learn from these mistakes, and get their collective shit together (sort of like the Final Four team from two years ago, which hit an early rough patch, but pulled together), but it's also possible that this will end up being one of those horribly erratic teams that will yo-yo up and down. I wouldn't care to guess one way or the other-- the slack rebounding effort and lack of clear leadership are disturbingly reminiscent of the Simpkins-Rhodes team the year after after Joe Smith's departure, but there are some bright spots, notably the strong play of freshman point guard John Gilchrist.

One final note: The sports media make a big deal out of the fact that this loss snaps an 87-game non-conference home winning streak, marking the first loss at home to a non-ACC team in thirteen years. This is one of those slightly dodgy sports streaks, as the competition hasn't really been that good. Most of those wins are against complete patsies-- Maryland has always played a few good non-conference games every year, but those have mostly been played in other places. The best opponents they faced when I was in grad school were mostly in tournaments at neutral sites, or at alternate home courts like the MCI Center in DC, or up in Baltimore. Home non-conference games tended to be against directional schools (Maryland- Eastern Shore, for example) and other foes they could beat by thirty. So, while it's disappointing to see the streak end, it's not as big a deal as you might think.

Posted at 10:57 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

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