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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, March 01, 2003

Who'll Be the Third?

There's a running semi-joke that celebrity deaths always come in threes. So far this week, 1) Mr. Rogers died of stomach cancer, and 2) Pioneer 10 stopped working. If I were Big Bird or Voyager 2, I'd be pretty nervous right about now...

On a less flippant note, each of the deaths is significant in its own way. Fred Rogers was, by all reports, one of the most genuinely nice people ever to walk the planet (and with the current vogue for celebrity character assassination, the fact that nobody ever seems to have found anything bad to say about him is astonishing). To be perfectly honest, even as a kid, I was never hugely into his show, but he absolutely defined children's programming for a generation or two, and was four or five steps above the Barney/ Tellytubbies level of insipidity. He had a big role in shaping many of today's adults, and I can't recall ever hearing of a wing nut rabid enough to call him a corrupting influence. The list of people who might fill that role today is, well, nonexistent.

Pioneer 10, on the other hand, being a man-made object, had basically no personality, but is probably the leading contender in the "exceeding design expectations" sweepstakes. Launched in 1972 for a 21-month mission, it kept ticking along for more than thirty years and something like seven and a half billion miles. Two million years from now, it'll confuse the hell out of our distant descendants when it reaches Aldebaran. (To find that the Death Star has just... oh, never mind). It never reached the iconic status of the Voyager probes (or Mr. Rogers, for that matter), but Pioneer 10 was an impressive technological achievement all the same.

(The "exceeding design expectations" debate ran for a few days on a mailing list I'm on. Other suggested candidates for most impressive technological overachiever included the B-52 bomber (40 years old, and still able to rain fiery death on Middle Easterners who have displeased us), and the Viking long ship (shallow enough to sail a long way up most European rivers, but seaworthy enough to reach Newfoundland). Elite company, either way...)

If you're feeling reflective this weekend, raise a glass to the memory of the nicest man in television, and the hardiest little beeping space probe on record. Or, if you're feeling cynical, lay your bets on the third to fall...

Posted at 4:40 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Friday, February 28, 2003

Why Does Anyone Listen to These Idiots?

Via Matthew Yglesias (whose site is inexplicably inaccessible just at the moment, or I'd link to the actual item), I find this gem of a New York Times article in which Vizier for Barbarian Subjugation Paul Wolfowitz disputes the cost estimates offered Tuesday for a war and occupation of Iraq. The best line is buried late in the article:

In his testimony, Mr. Wolfowitz ticked off several reasons why he believed a much smaller coalition peacekeeping force than General Shinseki envisioned would be sufficient to police and rebuild postwar Iraq.

He said there was no history of ethnic strife in Iraq, as there was in Bosnia or Kosovo. He said Iraqi civilians would welcome an American-led liberation force that "stayed as long as necessary but left as soon as possible," but would oppose a long-term occupation force. And he said that nations that oppose war with Iraq would likely sign up to help rebuild it.

There's no ethnic strife in Iraq, 'cause, y'know, that whole business with the Kurds is just a big misunderstanding. It's not like they need, I don't know, thousands of sorties by American and British pilots every year to prevent Saddam from attacking them... And, of course, the Shi'ites and "Marsh Arabs" in the southern part of Iraq are all shiny, happy people with no qualms whatsoever about remaining part of Iraq...

Why would anybody trust these clowns with the keys to a Volvo, let alone the most powerful military machine in the history of the world?

(A more chilling possibility is that Wolfowitz discounts the Kurds as nobody's business but the Turks. That'd be low even for Wolfowitz, though...)

Posted at 8:37 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

That Was the Year That Was

I've always been a little skeptical of the whole "Best _____ of the Year" awards thing, but the folks over at BlogCritics are doing their own awards, so I sorta-kinda feel like I ought to throw in my $0.02 regarding the best works of various categories.

The real problem is, with both books and music, I have neither the memory nor the cultural background to really make sensible comments about the best anything of a given year. Memory is a problem in that I can usually never remember in what year a given book or album first appeared-- this is aided somewhat by things like the book log, but even there, all I can really find is the year when I first encountered a given book. The larger problem is that I don't tend to restrict my reading and listening to books or albums from the current year, as I'm always reaching back to pick up some key work that I missed when it first came out (often by virtue of not being born yet, but let's leave that aside for the moment...).

For example, two of the best albums I've acquired recently are Revolver by the Beatles, and a Richard and Linda Thompson best-of collection (the Island Records one). Neither of these is a new record in a grand sense, but they were both new to me, and both very, very good. Inevitably, those things I buy that are new to the wider world will get lumped together in my mind with those that are simply new to me, sometimes to the detriment of new stuff.

Of course, I've never been one to let an inability to say anything really sensible stop me from saying something (I don't really qualify as an introvert...), so I'll make a stab at it.

Cribbing shamelessly from the best-album list put together at BlogCritics, I have to say, well, I didn't actually listen to most of those albums. Of the three that I actually did buy last year, I'd have to give the nod to The Rising by Bruce Springsteen. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is good, but goes in a bit too much for the "dissolve into weird noise" ending that inexplicably gets critical acclaim, while Sea Change is a good record, but sort of... indistinct. There's a sameness to all the songs that keeps them from really standing out. I like "Lost Cause" a whole lot, but I'd have a tough time naming any of the others without a lyric sheet in front of me..

The Rising is also the most self-consciously Significant of last year's records, which is both good and bad. Straining for Importance has sunk many a lesser album-- see, for example, Jerusalem and The Last DJ, but Springsteen mostly gets away with it. And, of course, the album is notable for catapulting Bruce Springsteen back into Working Class Hero status, which he'd come dangerously close to losing after the whole "41 Shots" thing-- it's interesting to recall that Springsteen was booed and derided by the police and their supporters in his last pre-9/11 appearance in New York. It's a funny world.

Other albums worth noting that came out last year? I wasn't really blown away by the whole "garage band" movement, but others thought highly of them. I enjoyed Solomon Burke's Don't Give Up On Me quite a bit, and also Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Rhett Miller's The Instigator is a wonderful bit of pop ephemera. I'm also kind of fond of OK Go, and Drunk Enough to Dance, as previously noted, but I wouldn't claim either as the best album of the year.

When it comes to books, matters are somewhat clearer, in that I have a list of everything I've read recently, and when I read it, but it doesn't really help with the whole publication date question. I'm almost positive that both Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon are really 2001 books, but they're probably the two best books I read last year. I'm less sure of The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, but I think that may be from 2001 as well.

The most enjoyable books I read last year that were published last year were probably The Apocalypse Door by James D. Macdonald and The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. The latter is probably Literary enough to be a reasonable pick for "book of the year," but then it's hard to pick against anything containing the sentence "Yeah, I'm a Knight of the Temple"...

Actually, I guess this shows the real reason why I dislike "best of" awards-- I'm not very good at settling on a winner...

Posted at 4:10 PM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

An "Amen!" From the Choir

A bit behind the curve, as usual, I want to link to some posts cited earlier by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, in particular this one. The money quote is:

Moderates and liberals in this country believe that discussion will get them somewhere. It will not. The opposition does not speak; they spout, they preach, they revile, they attack. We spend a lot of time on the defensive: "but Bill Clinton didn't..."; "no, I didn't say that..."; "but that is not what happened..." By forcing us to defend ourselves, they make us repeat their lies until they are the only thing people hear. When did we forget the simple sentence: "you are lying?" Why do we have to be mealymouthed about it, and look for euphemisms? Why can't a Democratic politician look one of those blowhards on tv straight in the eye and say: you, sir, are a liar?

If I had a billion dollars,... well, I'd probably squander it on sports teams, or tropical islands, or buying my own college. But if I had two billion dollars, I'd use some of the money to run for President on the "That's a Damn Lie" ticket. I wouldn't have any particular platform, I'd just buy tv ads pointing out every time one of the major-party candidates lied. Or, more practically, I'd hire the guys from Spinsanity to do it, as they could probably manage the job without saying "fuck" quite so often.

I don't know how it got to be the conventional wisdom that the American people like being lied to, but that seems to be the current state of politics-- one lie after another, each more brazen than the last. It's disgusting. Worse yet, standing up and saying "That's a lie" in a campaign is held to be political suicide, because people like "nice" candidates.

These are not positive developments, and the sooner somebody decides to buck the trend and start pointing out that Papal Nuncio Ari Fleischer (to choose an obvious example) lies every time he draws breath, the better.

Posted at 2:56 PM | link | follow-ups | 22 comments

Monday, February 24, 2003

One Ordinary Day, Hold the Peanuts

One of the vague goals of this weblog is to provide some insight into what it's like to be a physics professor at a small liberal arts college. Toward that end, here's a quick description of last Thursday.

8:30 am: Arrive on campus to double-check set-up for lab. Slightly groggy from staying up to watch Maryland vs. Duke. And The Daily Show Discover that one of the nine set-ups is missing the electronic rotation sensor needed for the lab, while a second apparatus is hopelessly snarled in string. As there are actually only eight groups, this isn't a major problem. Move the working apparatus to the sensor-less lab station, and get an eighth working set-up.

9:15 am: Class begins. This is nominally a two-hour lab period, but as there's an exam being given in the evening, I plan to spend the first hour doing the data collection portions of the lab (pushing the analysis off until later), and spend the second hour on reviewing the material for the test (by popular request).

9:35 am: Discover that the "working" set-up pieced together before class, well, isn't. The computer at the new station won't talk to the rotation sensor. I have no idea why. Move sensor and apparatus (and students) to a different computer, and it works fine. I hate computers.

10:05 am: Explain the use of a vernier caliper for the eighth time. Duck out of lab for a minute to check on arrangements for the visiting speaker scheduled to arrive at 11.

10:35 am: No plan survives contact with the classroom. Last group finishes data collection. Spend five minutes re-focusing class on exam review.

10:40 am: Inadvertently draw vaguely obscene symbol in the course of diagramming a problem. Much tittering from class. Spend five minutes re-focusing class on exam review.

11:10 am: Lab gets out. Promise to see some students at 2-3 pm office hours.

11:15 am: Duck into office to check email before staff meeting, and find several messages from students seeking help with one thing or another. Dash off quick response to student most in need of help.

11:20 am: Late for meeting to talk about staffing and scheduling for next year (it's never too soon to start planning, and, in fact, it's usually too late...)

12:10 pm: Staff meeting ends. Track down visiting speaker for lunch colloquium, get him steered into right room. Grab some of the pizza used to bribe students into attending, but can't find any potable beverages. Inexplicably, nothing but diet soda and Dr. Pepper has been sent.

1:35 pm: Colloquium ends (slightly over time, but whatever-- it was a good talk). Herd people out of room so that 1:35 class can get in. Encounter research students in the hall, spend a few minutes talking about progress of projects.

1:55 pm: Visiting speaker is discussing graduate school with two senior majors. Students from my class are already hanging around outside my door, waiting for office hours. Promise to be back in "like, five minutes," after running visiting speaker downstairs to get lab tour from another professor.

2:35 pm: Get back upstairs after giving a more-comprehensive-than-intended lab tour to the visiting speaker. Students waiting outside office have multiplied, so the impromptu help session gets moved into an open classroom.

3:45 pm: Help session breaks up. Run back to office, check email (no catastrophes in progress, thank God), drink water.

4:00 pm: Go to "Junior Faculty Forum" organized by one of the Deans. Fail to locate visiting speaker to make sure he's dealt with reimbursement paperwork.

5:30 pm: "Junior Faculty Forum" breaks up, having accomplished little. Head back to office, find stack of exams left on chair by secretary.

5:45 pm: Check regular mail, find stack of formula sheets for the exam, which didn't get attached to the actual tests.

6:00 pm: Run out to Subway to get something for dinner.

6:40 pm: Student drops by office with last-minute question. Provide unhelpful answer.

7:00 pm: "Hour" exam begins.

7:15 pm: Start writing exam solutions.

7:20 pm: Discover that Problem 2 is way too complicated. Curse colorfully, but quietly.

7:45 pm: First students hand in papers and leave. Maybe this won't be so bad.

8:00 pm: Announce time, by way of dropping a subtle hint to wrap things up. 15 of 17 students still working. This is going to be so bad...

8:15 pm: Decide against playing video games on mobile phone as a way to pass the time.

8:30 pm: Announce time, by way of dropping a subtle hint to wrap things up. 13 of 17 students still working.

8:45 pm: 8 of 17 students still working. Start poking around demo stockroom.

8:50 pm: We have some weird shit in the demo stockroom.

9:00 pm: 4 of 17 students still working. Announce time, by way of dropping a subtle hint to wrap things up.

9:15 pm: 3 of 17 still working. Despair setting in.

9:30 pm: 1 of 17 students still working. Tell him flat out to stop, take paper (one other section had a student keep working until 10:15).

10:00 pm: Arrive home, mutter vague greeting to Kate, face-plant on bed. Another day in the academic salt mines...

(Now, the fact that we gave an exam Thursday means that this is "typical data" in the traditional sense of "the best data we ever got," as far as making my job look difficult. But, really, the actual collection of tasks was fairly typical-- the exam just meant that things were a little more compressed...)

Posted at 8:03 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

I Got Yer Bioweapons Right Here

Between the coming war, and the crappy economy, and the rotten weather, and sports, this story sort of slipped through the cracks:

U.N. health officials confirmed today that a disease killing scores of people in Congo Republic was an outbreak of Ebola virus and warned that the highly lethal hemorrhagic fever could still be spreading.

"We're not suggesting that this is over or even contained. We're treating it as an active outbreak," said Iain Simpson, a World Health Organization spokesman in Geneva.

So far, 73 people have been infected, of whom 59 have died, according to WHO investigators. Government health officials in the tiny West-Central African nation report 80 cases and 67 deaths.

This is something that's been on my mind off and on since the Laurie Garrett talk I blogged about last fall.

People are trying, with varying degrees of success, to whip up a frenzy over the bioweapons labs that Saddam Hussein may or may not have, while the truly terrifying biological threat slips by under the radar. You want to find a facility for churning out biological weapons of fearsome potency, look no farther than central Africa. Shaky governments, almost nonexistent public health infrastructure, desperate poverty, dense population centers with inadequate sanitation, and a fecund jungle ecosystem-- it's a killer combination. Tinfoil-hat ranting about the CIA aside, this system has already most likely given us AIDS and Ebola, and it'd be foolish to think that there aren't more nasty surprises waiting.

And yet, nobody really seems to give a damn.

In the end, I'm not all that scared of terrorists and dictators, even terrorists and dictators with Very Scary Weapons. However fanatical and nihilistic they may claim to be, terrorists and dictators are at least doing threatening things with concrete goals in mind-- in the absolute worst of all nightmare scenarios, at the very end of the options, there's still a way to buy them off. That's not the case with Ebola, and AIDS, and whatever's next.

You want a cause that deserves to have millions of dollars spent on it, and thousands of people shipped halfway around the world, here it is. Screw the Middle East.

Posted at 7:58 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Sunday, February 23, 2003

Books and Stuff

After a long and grueling academic term (to date...), I actually got some time to read this past week. It didn't hurt that I acquired a few really short books...

Anyway, after a long dormant period, I've posted some updates to my book log. With most of the house painting done, I hope this will be a more regular occurance, and not blog-worthy news...

Posted at 9:18 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

This Is Spilifantrr

A two-fer in the Maryland basketball update, as I was too busy Thursday to write about the Duke game.

1) No Complaints: The Terps lost to Duke Wednesday, and I have no complaints. Well, almost none-- Ryan Randle and Drew Nicholas played pretty terribly, but then Steve Blake and Tahj Holden ran the pick-and-roll like Stockton and Malone, so you take the bad with the good. On the whole, though, considering the situation-- a fast turnaround after their weather-delayed game against Wake Forest, playing in that hellhole Duke calls a gym-- I'm pretty happy with them having had a chance to tie in the closing seconds.

I'd've been happier if the announcing team of Mike Patrick and Dick Vitale had been stranded due to inclement weather, or hit by a bus, or something, but caterwauling aside, it was a good, hard-fought, entertaining basketball game. I also could've done without Dahntay Jones doing a little dance after every basket, but that might have something to do with the number of baskets he scored (I don't think so, though, as I'd really probably be happier without Dahntay Jones, period-- he's the sort of player I used to admire Duke for not having...).

2) All Point Guards, All the Time. Then we come to Saturday afternoon's game with North Carolina. Maryland led by thirteen at the half (thanks to a late run and some great play by Blake), and, in all-too-typical fashion, came out flat to start the second half. The Tar Heels quickly went on a run to cut the lead to seven. "Oh, no," I said to myself, "here we go again."

Almost immediately, though, the lead was back to double digits, and hovered between ten and twenty for a few minutes. Then North Carolina came completely undone at the prospect of guarding backup point guards John Gilchrist and the 5'7" Andre Collins. If you said "Who?" after "Andre Collins," you're not alone-- Gilchrist doesn't get enough minutes backing up Blake to make it into Jed Tai's Best Point Guard calculations, and the diminutive Collins is essentially Gilchrist's backup... But he had eight points in ten minutes yesterday. Meanwhile, Gilchrist (according to the box score from ESPN) had a double-double, with thirteen points and ten rebounds. And suddenly, it was a thirty-point lead.

That was easily one of the strangest collapses I've ever seen. It's like Carolina went into the huddle at the twelve-minute TV timeout, and was replaced by the Washington Generals. A strange, strange game. Which, alas, has led the Washington Post to tempt the Mighty Woof Gods:

Washington Wizards center Brendan Haywood, a former Tar Heel, was in attendance; surely he could have helped his alma mater's ailing inside game. Maybe Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, seated courtside in the front row, could have aided North Carolina's porous defense.

Perhaps the Tar Heels should have stayed in traffic or maybe hoped for more leaks in the Comcast Center roof; before the game started, building managers had employees on the roof, stopping a pair of leaks dripping onto the playing floor.

The Tom Ridge comment in particular is a cheap shot...

Obligatory meta-commentary: Bobby Cremins should not be allowed to do color commentary. He was a good coach, for some values of "coach," and he's a reasonably funny guy, but he has trouble pronouncing a number of ordinary words, let alone the names of players. To say nothing of his accent...

Regarding Maryland in general, they're looking pretty good at the moment. The loss at Duke muddles the Mythical ACC Regular Season Championship picture considerably, and they've got some tough road games left (at NC State, and at Virginia), but they're playing good basketball. Blake in particular seems to be asserting himself a lot more, and he's toned down the number of ridiculously over-reaching passes somewhat. Many claims to the contrary, this is his team, more than anyone else's, so it's good to see him taking charge (Blake's probably my favorite Maryland player since Keith Booth).

Anyway, the season's either winding down, or cranking up, depending on how you look at things. The Terps are playing as well as anyone at the moment, and in a year without a real clear favorite, they might have a chance to break Gary Williams's jinx at the ACC Tournament. Or maybe not-- we'll see what happens in the next few weeks...

Posted at 9:54 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

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