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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, July 25, 2003

The Social Construction of Insulting Gibberish

This is going to be a bit of a free-associative ramble, for which I will insincerely apologize in advance (after all, if I was really sorry about it, I just wouldn't post it in the first place...).

Wandering through the "blogosphere" the past few days, I've seen a lot of discussion of Randy Barnett's Glenn Reynolds impersonation, and his claim that "the Left really and truly lives in a socially constructed world." This disingenuous nonsense has been taken down in lots of places, most notably by Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber, who points out that Barnett's co-conspirator Eugene Volokh rightly takes offense at a similar line of argument from the Left. As Kieran puts it, writing to Volokh, "You should send Randy an email with a link to your blog or something -- he'd really benefit from reading it."

(To digress for a moment, The Volokh Conspiracy is one of those "blogosphere" phenomena (doo doo de-doo-doo), like, that I Just Don't Get. Lots of people seem to think highly of it, but whenever I drop by, I'm underwhelmed. Now, granted, I don't read it regularly, so maybe I'm missing something, but the pieces I've seen linked approvingly by right-wingers generally leave me unimpressed, while the stuff I see linked by left-wingers, like Barnett's piece and Tyler Cowen's foolishness about do-not-call lists (again, nicely dismantled on Crooked Timber) strike me as the rankest idiocy.

(I realize that part of the attraction is that the actual Volokhs (Eugene, at least) are important and well-known in Real Life (TM). But even restricting things to Eugene's posts, I've never been blown away by what he writes. He always seems to engage in the same sort of "pick your desired conclusion, and then argue to get to it" reasoning that bugs me about much of political webloggery. Maybe people are just impressed that he writes like an actual law professor, which is relatively rare in blogdom...)

(And that snarky remark conjures unbidden the image of Glenn Reynolds filing court papers consisting entirely of snippets from various Posner and Scalia decisions, separated by single lines of "original" content, like "Indeed," or "Read the whole thing," with the occasional liberal jurist quoted, followed by a "Why do they hate America?" But we're getting way off track now...)

Anyway, my reaction to Barnett's "argument" resonated nicely with Ginger Stampley's post on ideology and character. Like Ginger, I've more or less stopped reading the bloggers who most annoy me, even though that risks some degree of ideological isolation. In the end, though, it's just not worth dealing with people of low character (a nice description Ginger quotes from Rafe Colburn)-- the question-begging, straw-man bashing, and McCarthyite smearing of political opponents on the sites in question irritate me well past useful levels. Barnett's post strikes me as another example of a person setting out to argue that his opponents are not only mistaken, but Bad People, and character doesn't get much lower than that.

Which is pretty much where things sat until this morning, when I read Jim Henley announcing a new blog and highlighting a post regarding A.S. Byatt's comments on Harry Potter. I've mentioned this before (and there's another Crooked Timber citation...), and you can find the whole Byatt article quoted here if you want to avoid the New York Times paywall.

Anyway, my reaction to Barnett is pretty much the standard complaint about Byatt. She's not just saying that the books aren't particularly good, the argument goes, she's claiming that the readers and fans of the books are Bad People. And thus, we hates her forever! Or something.

This came to mind because that wasn't how I read the Byatt article at all. I actually thought she made some good points regarding the books-- the Freud stuff was overdone, but she puts her finger on something that's bugged me about the books for a while, when she notes that "Ms. Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous." Now, granted, she goes on to follow that observation up with some tendentious remarks about cartoons and soap operas, but that struck me as just the sort of thing you need to do to "sex up" an essay to get it in the New York Times, and get people talking about it. I read it as more of an attempt to be "provocative" than an ad hominem attack on Harry Potter readers, and was mildly surprised to see the vehemence with which it was attacked.

I wrote the difference in reactions off as an inside/outside fandom thing. The strongest anti-Byatt responses I saw were via Kate's LiveJournal friends list, and those are mostly people who are part of Harry Potter fandom, while I'm, well, not. I read the books, and I enjoy them in a "I want to see what happens next" sense, but I just don't find them all that captivating. The world strikes me as relentlessly non-numinous (to cop Byatt's term), and has an ad hoc sort of feel that prevents me from getting too involved, while the characters fail to be all that memorable for me. (Which means, incidentally, that critiques of Byatt like the one at Polytropos, based on really liking the books, leave me unmoved.) Militant Potter fandom is another thing that I Just Don't Get.

I do, however, recall what it's like to be part of a fan community and see it attacked from outside. And I remember being grievously offended by "attacks" that were, in retrospect, fairly mild, and generally well-founded. So I can understand how people who hold the books dear might take the Byatt article much more personally than I do, and react accordingly.

Which got me to wondering whether my reaction to the Barnett piece might not be similar. After all, my impression was mostly due to the snippets posted at various liberal weblogs, and the discussion therein. Maybe I'm just a part of "liberal fandom," as it were, and took his piece too personally as a result.

So I went back and re-read it, keeping the fandom problem in mind.

Nope. It's still one of the most idiotic and insulting things I've read since... Well, in quite some time. What's more, his follow-up piece, billed by some as a partial retraction of the original, is equally stupid.

But then, I would think that, wouldn't I?

Posted at 11:23 AM | link | follow-ups | 25 comments

Obligatory Cheap College Joke II

Via Ted Barlow, who's back to blogging (for the moment), a probably-inevitable development in the story of Amherst student and etiquette maven Paul Kelly Tripplehorn Jr.: his own fan page.

Of course, this just goes to show you that there is nothing so utterly trivial and ephemeral that someone won't put a page up on the Web about it... If only Andy Warhol had known-- fame is fleeting, but the Google cache is forever.

Posted at 9:00 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Thursday, July 24, 2003

If You Think That's Bad, You Should Hear the Simple Explanation...

In the comments following my intro to particle physics, Matt Reece notes that "things are simultaneously more complicated and more clean than [I] suggest," pointing out that I omitted the fact that most particles can decay in several different ways. He goes on to note, though, that:

I know you were simplifying things for the general reader, but I think the really amazing thing I would want to get across to non- physicists about the Standard Model is its essential simplicity. Simpler than that table, in a lot of ways. Essentially, all the rules for what interacts with what come from gauge theory - the symmetries specify the interactions - except the things that come from the breaking of electroweak symmetry through the Higgs mechanism, which, while ugly, is still fairly simple.

This isn't an uncommon occurrence when attempting to explain things in physics. Ideas that sound horrifically complicated and arbitrary when explained to one audience frequently turn out to be remarkably simple and elegant when expressed at a slightly higher level of mathematics. There's another example lurking in the body of that original post-- the Modern Physics textbooks I have start off by discussing the whole weird zoo of subatomic particles, and the weird rules governing their decays, which sound horribly complicated. As I said in that post, though, the whole thing makes much more sense when you start looking at particles in terms of the quarks that make them up.

My favorite example of this, though, starts at the most basic level of physics, with kinematics and Newtonian mechanics. Like pretty much every department in the country, we teach two different versions of intro mechanics: A calculus-based course for science and engineering majors, and an algebra-based (non-calculus) course for "Life Sciences" (read: "pre-meds who need it to pass the MCAT"). The remarkable thing is that, in many ways, it's actually harder to deal with the non-calculus version.

Algebra-based physics is basically what most people have in high school, and generally revolves around the memorization of various equations and rules for applying them. Kinematics (the mathematical description of motion) is reduced to a set of equations that students just have to memorize:

vf = vi + a t
xf = xi + vi t + (1/2) a t2
vf2 = vi2 + 2 a (xf - xi)

(Apologies if this causes any bad flashbacks...) These let you describe the final position and velocity of an object in terms of its initial position and velocity, provided it's subject to a constant acceleration the whole time. If you want to describe acceleration that changes in time, you need to memorize a different set of equations, describing things in terms of the accelerating acceleration. This method doesn't generalize very well to problems beyond the scope of those few equations, and it doesn't leave students with that clear a picture of how things work.

If you know a bit of calculus, on the other hand, this stuff all makes a little more sense. In the calculus version, all you really need to know is a couple of definitions-- velocity is the derivative of position, acceleration the derivative of velocity-- and you can construct whatever else you need. The first two equations above follow directly from those definitions, and the condition that acceleration is constant, and they take about two minutes to generate. What's more, once you have the calculus-based definition, you can generalize this process to any random problem you want to deal with. Non-constant acceleration is no problem.

Now, in practice, most of the students in the calculus-based intro classes just memorize the same set of equations as the students in the non-calculus version, and plug ahead blindly without any deep understanding of how things fit together. But for some students, the calculus version ties everything together in a very satisfying way. The first time I saw that explanation laid out, I thought it was the coolest thing ever-- all the silly rules suddenly made sense. (This is probably a good litmus test for identifying future physics majors...)

Similar things happen as you move to more complex areas in mechanics-- problems that are viciously intractable using basic calculus and Newton's Laws are solved simply and elegantly with calculus of variations-- and also in other subjects. The Uncertainty Principle, written out over in the left-hand column, pops in out of nowhere when you first encounter it, while later classes show that it arises quite naturally from the conjugate relationship between position and momentum. This even occurs between fields-- a colleague here says he went to college planning to be a chemistry major, but switched to physics after seeing where the Schroedinger Equation comes from (his chem classes used it, but never explained it).

It's one of the weird ironies of science that the simple explanation of things is often more complicated and less comprehensible than the more advanced explanation. This probably underlies a lot of the problems we have attracting students into the sciences, and explaining science to the public, but I'm not sure what, if anything, can really be done about it.

Posted at 1:04 PM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Women Are From Mars, Men Like Pushing Buttons

During the summers here, there's a weekly seminar series in which students who are on campus doing research give fifteen-minute talks about what they're working on. This is sometimes irritating-- the talks are scheduled opposite my lunchtime basketball, and missing out on hoops irks me-- and sometimes interesting.

Yesterday's seminar proved to be one of the interesting ones. A student in the Psychology department talked about a study they're doing regarding gender bias in the treatment of pain. (A very readable abstract describing the study is available on-line.) It seems there are a number of studies out there showing that women (and minorities, but the talk yesterday focused on gender) receive lower levels of treatment for pain than men do. There are all kinds of arguments about what causes this-- some references and discussion can be found in this site aimed at doctors-- most of them having to do with the direct doctor-patient interaction.

The student speaking yesterday talked about two different studies trying to get around issues of interpersonal interaction in this area. One looked at self-medication of post-surgical patients (people recovering from surgery were given an apparatus that allowed them to push a button to dispense more analgesic; the study kept track of how often they pushed the button, and what the results were), while the other was a vignette study, asking doctors to prescribe medication based on a written description of a patient (the descriptions were identical except for the name, and the study looked at the dose prescribed under various circumstances). Three significant results jumped out at me from the talk.

The first notable result was that women were more likely to experience bad side effects in the self-medication study. This is basically a manifestation of the fact that gender affects everything, including the experience and treatment of pain. A few minutes' Goggling shows that this is a thorny problem, and the subject of much debate and experimentation.

The second result is more a matter for stand-up comedy. It was found that men in the self-medication study were much more likely to push the button for more painkillers, by something like a factor of two. According to the faculty member heading the project, they pushed the button even when the device was in the lock-out period, and wouldn't dispense more drugs. "Apparently," she commented, "men just enjoy pushing buttons." The extension of this study to TV remotes is left as an exercise for the reader.

The third one was the really striking finding, though. In the vignette study, they found no significant difference in how drugs were prescribed, unless they took the gender of the physician into account, and there, the difference wasn't what you would expect. They presented results in terms of the average prescribed dose, and male doctors prescribed about the same dose for both male and female patients (something like 33 and 31 mg, respectively-- not a significant difference). Female doctors, on the other hand, prescribed about the same amount of analgesic for female patients, but about 2/3 as much for male patients. In other words, contrary to the studies mentioned above, they found that female doctors were under-prescribing for their male patients.

There's a bunch of interesting stuff here, most notably the fact that the vignettes differed only in the gender of the name attached to the description. Probably the most surprising thing from my perspective, though, is the fact that two different studies of the same issue give results which are diametrically opposed-- or, rather, the fact that neither of them is obviously wrong.

That doesn't happen a whole lot in physics. You sometimes see two different experiments which produce different results, but generally, that can be traced back to a glaring error in one or the other. If nothing else, a third experiment will usually pin down the real result.

This sort of thing is distressingly common in medicine, though. Or at least, it seems to be, based on my glancing encounters with medical research via the mass media. You seem to get an awful lot of contradictory results, and dramatically contradictory ones, at that.

Some of this may be attributable to the medical profession's dodgy use of statistics (in particular, I'm not sure I have any real confidence in the self-medication study, which involved 200-odd patients recovering from all different kinds of surgery), but it's not that hard to believe that subconscious factors involved in interacting with real people could completely change the results. (It would be interesting to see a similar study using video vignettes, with actors reading scripts...) This is an inevitable result of involving actual human beings in the process, with all the complicated biochemistry and muddled psychology that entails.

Anyway, the moral of the whole thing seems to be that men shouldn't go to female doctors looking for drugs. At least, until the next study comes along...

Also, buttons are cool.

Posted at 12:11 PM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

"Too Much Free Time" Doesn't Begin to Describe It

Lacking a "Particles" section, I have nowhere else to put this: The ASCII-Art Matrix.

(Warning: this is a 4-5 MB file, and will take forever to download on a dial-up connection. It has to be seen to be believed, though. Via a mailing list I'm on.)

Posted at 1:45 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Monday, July 21, 2003


So, I have two students who've been working for me so far this summer, with a third arriving today, to take over for one of the first two. She's spent the last five weeks working on a computer data acquisition program, and the plan was for her to get the new guy up to speed on that, so he can use it to implement a feedback loop for the laser locking scheme that we're planning to use. Things have been going well so far.

This morning, the new guy showed up, and we went down to the lab to get him set up, only to find a chilling message on the computer: "No operating system found." In happier times, I might ask how this is really distinct from successfully starting Windows, but in happier times, I would be able to access my data.

I hate Mondays. And computers. And especially computers on Mondays.

Posted at 10:27 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

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