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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, July 18, 2003

Money Flows Toward the Student

Via Invisible Adjunct, your one-stop-shopping source for depressing information about academia, a "Thomas H. Benton" essay about graduate school. This is a follow-up to the previous piece which kicked off a series of posts about graduate school (scroll up for more) here.

The previous article argued that students shouldn't even think about going to graduate school. This one provides advice for those who will not be deterred. Some of the more pessimistic stuff is fairly specific to the humanities, but it's solid advice for those considering science grad school, too. In particular:

Do Not Pay for Graduate School.

Not even if it is the best program in your field. Do not accept future promises (e.g., a job) instead of fair payment in the present.

If anything, this is probably more generally true in the sciences than the humanities. We flat-out tell our students that if they're accepted to a program that doesn't automatically provide tuition waivers and, at a minimum, teaching assistantships, they should turn it down.

It's a variant of Yog's Law in publishing: Money should always and only flow toward the student. If you're in grad school in the sciences, you will eventually be doing your advisor's research for them-- you should expect to be compensated for this labor. If the department or school is insisting that you pay tuition, you're getting screwed. (And don't get me started on the frequent attempts to amend the tax code to treat tuition waivers as taxable income...)

Another critically important bit of advice from Benton is:

Advising: Your adviser will be the most important person in your academic career, and your final choice of a graduate school should also take potential relationships with a few, specific advisers into account.

It's hard to overstate the importance of this choice. Grad school with an incompatible advisor can be hell on earth. You will be directly accountable to this person for the next several years, and your future will be entirely in their hands. If you can't get along with your advisor, your life will be utterly miserable. On the other hand, if your advisor has a bad reputation in the field, or a history of graduating students who have trouble getting jobs, it doesn't matter how wonderfully nice they may be, you don't want to work for them.

I tend to disagree with a lot of the commenters over at the Invisible Adjunct about the degree to which grad school is a trap, and strands people in career limbo-- it's a big decision, yes, but it's not the end of the world. But while it won't necessarily irretrievably wreck your life if you slip up, deciding whether and where to go to graduate school is a major decision, and it's important to do it right. Benton's advice on these points is well worth reading.

Posted at 11:55 AM | link | follow-ups | 11 comments

Operation: Beyond Parody

Pat Robertson is praying for God to lay some divine smack down on the Supreme Court. Why does anyone listen to this jackass any more? Why does he hate America?

And, more importantly, if enough people refuse to join his campaign, is it possible that God might "call him home" instead?

Posted at 10:36 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Cue the Black Helicopters

Kevin Drum and Mark Kleiman are all over the latest outrage from the White House. It seems that the Bush administration as part of a smear campaign against former Ambassador James Wilson in retaliation for kicking up the current furor over specious uranium claims, has decided to out his wife as a CIA agent. From Time, we have:

Some government officials, noting that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, intimate that she was involved in his being dispatched Niger to investigate reports that Saddam Hussein's government had sought to purchase large quantities of uranium ore, sometimes referred to as yellow cake, for the purposes of building nuclear devices.

The same basic statement appeared in a Robert Novak column, attributed to "senior administration officials."

As Kevin and Mark point out, Plame is not openly a CIA agent, and if she is working for them, these statements have effectively ruined her career, and potentially put her in personal danger. As her husband, the former Ambassador, put it, "This is the stuff of Kim Philby and Aldrich Ames" (quoted in The Nation).

So, we're in a War On Terror in which intelligence sources, agents, and methods are so sacrosanct that accused terrorists can be denied the ability to mount an effective defense, or even whisked out of the normal justice system entirely to face a military tribunal, for fear of the "national security" implications of having to actually present evidence in a court of law. Not to mention the fact that our intelligence is so incredibly secret that it can't be revealed to the public when attempting to build a case for an unprovoked attack on another country.

But one former diplomat gets a little mouthy, and it's OK to spill the beans in an attempt to discredit him. A really pathetic attempt, I might add-- even if true, I don't see how this accusation reflects on Wilson's credibility at all. Or has it really come to open warfare between the White House and the CIA, to such a degree that any candidate proposed by the CIA is automatically assumed to be "objectively pro-Saddam?"

This is disgusting. I know Bush promised to "change the tone" in Washington, but I didn't realize that post-Clinton politics would actually be more petty and childish than what came before. I didn't think it was possible...

This is why I've been trying to avoid writing about politics-- every new story just makes me more disgusted.

Posted at 8:40 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Obligatory Cheap College Joke

Via Electrolite, we have the worst break-up letter ever. I especially like the part where he writes: "Well I am just going to stop writing because you are just absolutely beneath me." At the start of a 487-word paragraph...

Patrick jokingly attributes it to the corruption of power, but the real cause is right there in a quote from the Washington Post:

"As soon as it was brought to the attention of our internship coordinator, they had a very frank discussion, and he was dismissed," Kevin Schweers told us about the late-June incident involving Tripplehorn, a 20-year-old Amherst College sophomore, and his ex-girlfriend, an unnamed 20-year-old University of Texas student.

Emphasis added. Friends don't let friends, and alla that.

And, of course, sometimes, any further comment is superfluous:

Tripplehorn disputed that he was fired and said he's now interning in the office of a Republican House member he refused to identify.

Posted at 8:28 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

It Sounded Cool in Junior High

Currently atop the long list of "Ways in Which I Am a Great Trial to Kate" is my odd obsession with VH1's "I Love the 80's". The shows are sort of a hanging curve over my pop-culture plate, and I find them weirdly hypnotic. If I stumble across it while channel-surfing, I'll sit and watch it, even if I've seen the episode in question three times before (for some reason, they show the same three or four years over and over).

This is, of course, largely a matter of the Golden Age of pop culture in general being twelve (1983, in my case)-- that's about the point where your tastes in music, books, clothes, and so forth stop being received wisdom from your parents, and start being a matter of active personal choice. However regrettable those choices may appear in retrospect, it's hard not to harbor a little bit of nostalgia for the major pillars of whatever era you came of age in.

There are a whole bunch of aspects of 80's culture that I never fully partook of-- I couldn't stand most of the top TV shows at the time, for example, so I have a hard time working up any enthusiasm for "Dukes of Hazzard" tributes-- but my fascination with ephemeral pop music was born in the early 80's, which accounts for my continuing fascination with Dexy's Midnight Runners...

This is all by way of a long lead-in to another mix tape post, mostly because we were talking about the VH1 show over the weekend, and I'm not feeling all that inspired to write about anything else. This isn't one of those deliberately random tapes, though-- this is my cheesy 80's mix tape, that I keep around for when I need comfort music of an especially dippy variety.

The tape actually has its origin in my sister's career as a competitive swimmer. Back in the mid-90's, she and the rest of the swim team were stuck in a hotel at some away meet in some desolate corner of the Midwest, and sometime during a long, strange, weekend, one of them phoned in and ordered the Totally Eighties collection that was being hawked on TV at the time. (They weren't actually aware of this until it showed up in their mailbox back on campus, but that's what happened...) She taped a selection of songs, and sent me a copy, and I edited it to replace some of the more ridiculous acts (Tone Loc, Billy Ocean) with other stuff I had lying around.

Here's what I ended up with:

Side One

Side Two:

Hardly a comprehensive survey, but good for cornball nostalgia on long road trips. It's a good "stuck in traffic" tape, too, because it's hard for me to stay in a bad mood with these songs playing.

Posted at 9:13 PM | link | follow-ups | 16 comments

Monday, July 14, 2003

Strife is Good

Kate and I spent the weekend down in Boston, visiting various people. Before heading out yesterday, we swung by Readercon for a few hours. It was a pleasant way to kill a few hours-- I heard Patrick O'Leary read a couple of poems and a short story that I have to own (it was done all in dialogue, and featured numerous Midnight Run references), spent rather a lot of money on books (I bought Iain Banks's Dead Air and Steven Erikson's Memories of Ice from Glen Cook (who said he was halfway through the latter, and "they just keep getting grimmer and grimmer..." When Glen "Black Company" Cook is calling your books grim, that's really something...), and let myself be talked into buying a couple of Bradley Denton collections), and attended a fairly entertaining panel on the influence of Catholicism on SF, which wound up being more about the influence of Catholic school on SF, among other things.

One of the panels we went to was on "Psychology, Myth, and Fantasy," which had promise, but wound up being a little bit of a disappointment. The description sounded like it had real potential to be interesting, opening as it did with a slightly loaded quote:

Guy Gavriel Kay said: "...the genre [at the time The Fionavar Tapestry was written] seemed to be utterly lacking of any awareness of psychological underpinnings of myth and legend forms ... being clued into myth, to legend while being very uncomfortable with, say, the sexuality that underlies [them] ... the contribution of Freud is to suggest that these myths and legends are powerful for reasons that Tolkien would have been very uncomfortable with." What other works of modern fantasy appear to be psychologically informed? Which works rely on the Jungian, and which seem to adopt a neuroscientific perspective? Is a psychological understanding of myths and legends necessarily helpful? A sword, after all, is sometimes just a sword...

It ended up fizzling, though, because all six of the panelists wound up agreeing with one another that it not only wasn't important to have an awareness of the psychological underpinnings of myth, but that it was actively bad to consciously think about such things while writing. Which may well be true, but doesn't exactly make for gripping theater. Lacking any real dispute over the stated topic, they sort of wandered off into other areas, which provided a few amusing anecdotes, but I couldn't help thinking that the whole thing would've been more interesting had there been at least one panelist willing to stand up and defend Kay's statement.

In this specific case, the problem may well have arisen from the detailed mechanics of putting together SF con panels, a subject about which I know even less than I do about particle physics, but this is a problem I've encountered with a lot of panel discussions, not just those at SF cons. In late 2001, some people on campus put together a panel discussion about the "War on Terror" featuring a couple of professors and professional former weapons inspector Scott Ritter (who happens to live in the area). Again, it was an idea with the potential to be really interesting, but wound up being pretty lame, as all the panelists basically agreed with one another that the whole situation was very disturbing, and while attacking Afghanistan was basically justified, they had real concerns about our ability to win the peace. I agreed with them at the time, and events have shown their concerns to be well-founded in general, but I can't help thinking that the whole thing would've been vastly improved by the addition of a "bomb 'em all into the Stone Age" right-winger.

Ultimately, serial agreement just isn't that interesting to watch. When each speaker on a panel opens with "the person to my right is exactly correct..." and goes on to reiterate the points made by the previous panelist, my eyes start to glaze over. As they move along, adding more cozily agreeable statments, I start hoping that the next person to speak will open up with "Jane, you ignorant slut..." Once it's established that all the panelists are in general agreement, the fun's over, and you might as well adjourn to the nearest pub, unless you can find a vocal supporter of the opposite point of view in the audience. At times, I've been that vocal proponent, even when I actually agree with the panelists, just on the principle that no point of view should go unchallenged.

(I did the same thing back in college-- a couple of people in a PoliSci class I took were convinced that I was a complete right-wing tool, because I argued against them all the time. In reality, I didn't actually believe that much of what I was saying in class, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity for a good argument.)

This can be taken too far, of course-- see "Brin, David" in the index-- but then, I still think I'd prefer to err in the direction of lively disagreement, rather than soporific agreement. If nothing else, when putting together a panel whose description contains a vaguely controversial quote, you should try to include at least one person who's willing to pretend to agree with it, for the sake of theater...

But then, as noted above, my knowledge of the mechanics of these things is basically nonexistent, so the above opinion may just count as a very good reason to never let me near the organization of any kind of argumentative panel...

Posted at 3:56 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

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