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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, August 08, 2003

Random Notes

A few items from around blogdom that have struck me as interesting, but haven't quite led to full-blown posts:

Posted at 9:33 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

What a Drag it Is Getting Old

A few months back, I posted a sort of dramatis personae of pick-up hoops, listing off a bunch of Types of players you're sure to find almost anywhere. It wasn't a complete list by any means-- anybody who plays can probably come up with quite a few more.

One of the most obvious omissions on that list was the Bionic Man. This is the guy who shows up half an hour early, so he has time to strap on his two spring-loaded knee braces, tape his wrists and ankles, strap on his elbow pads, unfog his goggles, and do a long series of limbering-up exercises before clanking onto the court like the future governor of California at his most robotic.

I didn't mention this guy last time, because we don't really have one in the lunchtime crowd. There's one guy who screwed his knee up a few months ago, and wears a brace, and a couple other guys who tape their ankles, but that's about it.

I was reflecting on the oddity of this Tuesday, in the empty gym before the games started, as I laced up the brace I wear on my left ankle (which I sprained a few months back, and which just hasn't quite been right since), pulled on the neoprene brace I wear on my right knee (which I injured so long ago, I forget what started it all), put another neoprene brace on my right ankle (better safe than sorry), and jogged a couple of laps trying to loosen up my right shoulder (which I separated playing rugby ten years ago, and which acts up from time to time)...

Shit. I am that guy.

Posted at 9:03 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Score One for Astrology

The debate over whether The Onion has lost it has raged for a few years now, and will undoubtedly continue to rage until we're all driving fusion-powered flying cars.

For my money, though, they're still remarkably consistent as comedy goes. Yeah, they run too many extremely lame "Local Man" stories, but they usually have at least one bit that gets a chuckle, whether it's one of those headlines without a story (This week: "Cheney Regrets Buying Bush Laser Pointer"), or one of the "What Do You Think?" responses (this week: "Why does it always have to be troops we send? Let's send [Liberia] something nice, like a pretty candle."). It's not a great batting average, but comedy is even harder than science.

They really nailed it with my horoscope for this week, though:

Your plans to find love, fortune, and happiness utterly ignore the Second Law Of Thermodynamics.

Ain't that always the way?

Of course, someone even more cynical than I am would probably note that this may be the perfect Generic Horoscope. It's either that, or the Taurus horoscope for this week...

Posted at 10:37 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Well, That Explains-- Huh?

Looking for a link to illustrate the syndrome referenced in the previous post, I Googled for "Helsinki Syndrome" (the name used in Die Hard), which turned up this site giving the correct term (and the actual link used below). It also contains one of the most puzzling statements I've seen all morning:

Many people still have the event hopelessly confused with the terrorist kidnappings of the 1972 Munich Olympics (source of the misnomer, "Helsinki Syndrome").


Posted at 11:37 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Grad School in Stockholm

The title refers not to any of the fine universities in Sweden, but rather to the "Stockholm Syndrome" where kidnapped people form an attachment to their kidnappers. How is this relevant to graduate school? Derek Lowe explains:

It takes (in chemistry terms) some activation energy to get out of grad school, to polish off a project, write it up to an acceptable dissertation, and (not least!) figure out where on earth to go next. And that, of course, usually means picking up and moving across the country, to either a post-doctoral position (or a real job,) and starting all over as the lowest form of life again. It's a big disruptive decision, and wouldn't it be better if you could just put it off for a while?

And that's what some folks do. Grad schools around the country have these people haunting their hallways. They're people who've been working on their dissertation for three years, who are still trying to finish their total synthesis of a molecule that no one cares about any more, who have put down roots in a place that they shouldn't have. Telling someone like that to get a life isn't accurate: they have one. It consists of being a grad student.

This phenomenon is hardly unique to chemistry. Anybody who's been to grad school, in any field, can probably think of a couple of examples of people who might fit that description.

The one I remember was a mad Russian who hung around the physics department. He probably had better reason than most to hang around in grad school forever-- if he actually graduated, he would've had to go back to Russia, which wasn't that attractive an option in the mid-90's-- but he was definitely a fixture. Department gossip had it that he would sign up with an advisor doing the most arcane theoretical physics he could find, hang around for three years, and then switch. Somehow, the switching re-set the clock for graduation, and let him string things along for another few years.

He had been at this for at least eight years when I met him, as he took Bill Phillips's class on Atomic Physics (offered every other year) for the fourth time when I was in the class. Two years later (fall 1997), I ran into him on campus, and he asked whether Bill would be offering the class again in the spring, so he could take it a fifth time-- Bill told me to tell him that he'd used up his eligibility. (In any case, the Nobel committee rendered that a moot point...)

Every department and program has a couple of these people-- get a few physicists together, and you can almost always get a lively conversation going about deeply insane Perpetual Grad Students they knew. I'm sure this extends to other disciplines as well, though I haven't asked my colleagues in the English department if they have any particularly good stories.

(The extension of the "Stockholm Syndrome" analogy into the professoriate is left as an exercise for the interested reader.)

As Derek notes, it's actually sort of tempting to think about hanging around in grad school for long periods. After all, I spent six years in DC-- I knew all the good bookstores, many of the good restaurants, I had friends in the area, and a fairly comfortable life (courtesy of my serial credit card abuse). Actually graduating, and moving out of the area, was a difficult step to take-- I still miss a lot of those restaurants.

On the other hand, though, it gets to be a grind after a while. You get sick of not having any cash in your pocket, and not having any real ability to put cash in your pocket. (I used to give up the occasional Saturday to proctoring standardized tests at Johns Hopkins-- the hundred-odd bucks that would net me was a substantial fraction of my disposable cash...). You get sick of jumping through academic hoops, and of being perpetually in not-a-real-job limbo.

One of the postdocs who passed through NIST while I was there once asked me "How close are you to graduating?" I replied that I didn't really know-- it depended on how some of the experiments would turn out, and so forth. "Well," he asked, "are you sick of it yet?" Not really, I replied. "Then you're not ready to graduate," he declared. "Nobody is really ready for a Ph.D. until they're absolutely desperate to not be in grad school any more."

That's not too far off. I wasn't entirely desperate to get out-- I stuck around long enough to finish the one big project I had started-- but it was definitely time to be done. I miss some aspects of the experience-- it's a hassle to actually be in charge, and I'm not wild about some of the other responsibilities that come with being a professor-- but on the other hand, it's nice to finally be in a position where I'm not actually living paycheck to paycheck.

Posted at 11:23 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Sunday, August 03, 2003

Cooking in the Gernsback Continuum

Kevin Drum posted a day or two back about the future as seen from the past, looking back at an article from 1950 about what life would be like, well, now. Most of the predictions are dismal failures, on the specific details, at least, though often the general idea is better than Kevin lets on. A lively comment thread sprang up debating the various elements, with a sub-thread consisting of a debate about whether "Cooking as an art is only a memory" (Kevin said yes, others say no).

At around the same time, over in the parallel blogging universe that is LiveJournal, Jo Walton posted an impassioned article decrying gender stereotypes. Again, a lively comment thread ensued, and while it was annoying to see a number of people follow up to Jo's condemnation of female stereotypes with posts amounting to "Yeah! Stereotyped men suck!" there were some good bits thrown in, mostly having to do with cooking (hence the relevance to Kevin's post...). I particularly liked Avram Grumer's comment that:

Traditionally, the way men get to be proud of cooking is by becoming gourmets. This lets them treat cooking as a complex technical endeavor, which makes it something a man is allowed to get good at.

Taken together, the two struck me as pretty funny. Here in Chateau Steelypips, I do (somewhat) more cooking than Kate does, and Kate comes closer to the male-aspected "Have One Thing That They Make" option than I do (she makes several Things, most notably tiramisu, but prefers to work exactly from a recipe). While "art" is probably a stretch for what I do, "complex technical endeavor" probably isn't too bad. As I realized earlier tonight, when I spent five minutes holding forth on the correct way to prepare grilled cheese sandwiches. The fact that I even have a strong opinion about how to do something that basic is probably a bad sign, as is the fact that it's actually a really slow recipe.

(It's not 45-minute scrambled eggs a la Nero Wolfe, but slow cooking is critical. The goal, after all, is to get a sandwich where the cheese is melted all the way through, while the bread is golden brown but not burnt. So, you put the burner on very low (just above the "simmer" region on our stove), melt a little butter in a frying pan (some people butter the bread, but if you're using good bread (and why wouldn't you be?), it's hard to do that without messing the bread up), mop up the melted butter with the bottom slice of bread, and cover the pan. When the bottom is sufficiently toasted (it takes a few minutes), take the sandwich out, melt some more butter, and repeat the process for the other side. If you do multiple rounds, it goes a little faster on the later ones, as the pan is already hot-- you may even need to lower the heat to keep from burning the bread.

(And while I'm on the subject, I'll note that putting a spoonful of salsa or a dab of ketchup in between the layers of cheese (you do use two layers of cheese, yes?) livens the flavor up a bit. Kate considers this heresy, but what does she know? I've done grilled cheese and bacon a couple of times (inspired by Clark's Dairy in New Haven), but not often enough to have a good feel for it.)

I tend to blame the six years I spent in grad school for the fact that I know how to cook at all. There are lots of other things I could know, but don't (I'm not a whole lot more adept with a car than Skot "Izzle Pfaff" Kurruk, for example), but I learned to cook because I was getting awfully sick of Ramen Deathnoodles. It doesn't take long to learn a few basic tricks, and you can eat a whole lot better for not much more money if you buy fresh ingredients and make your own food. Cooking from scratch takes a little more time, but it's actually sort of relaxing, and Chicks, as they say, Dig It.

A decent cookbook or two will help, but it seems to be a law of nature that you'll make no more than a handful of recipes from any given book, so you might as well buy them off the remainder table at your local chain bookstore. I do recommend both Alton Brown's I'm Just Here for the Food, and James Peterson's Essentials of Cooking for explaining the right ways to do basic things, and The Cook's Thesaurus for interpreting ingredient lists, but good cooking isn't rocket science.

(I had the weird experience not long ago of having my mother call me and ask for a recipe. My mother is an excellent cook, and we've had numerous phone calls involving food, but these are usually structured around me asking questions like "Where, exactly, would one look for corn starch?" or "What temperature do I set the oven to when I re-heat the frozen lasagne you sent home with me?" so having her ask me how to cook something was novel, to say the least... It was especially weird, because the dish in question is idiot simple.

(The recipe, for those who care: Get a bunch of asparagus, and some bacon. Take two asparagus spears, cut them in half, and wrap the four resulting pieces with half a strip of bacon. Hold the whole thing in place with a toothpick. Repeat until you're out of asparagus, bacon, or patience for this. Then put the pieces in a pan on medium-low heat, and cook (turning occasionally) until the bacon is done. This was a staple at a yakitori place I went to in Japan.)

In addition to sparking weird ramblings, though, Kevin's post and the attendant comments raise an interesting question about futurism, and futurists. Predictions of this sort are a staple of last century's futurism-- "Cooking as an art" is always just about to vanish, and everybody remembers the "food pills" of the Gernsback Continuum. For some reason, people who set out to predict the future almost invariably assume that the food will suck-- it will be nourishing, but uninteresting, and strictly utilitarian. (Of course, it could be worse-- if Hollywood is any indication, we can expect the music of the future to be actively painful...)

I can't quite figure out why this is. If anything, it would seem more reasonable to predict that food and cooking will get steadily better in the future. After all, we need something to do in all the extra time that will be freed up by the remarkable labor-saving conveniences of the future. "Cooking as art" would seem to fill that niche nicely.

Indeed, you could argue that this is what's been happening in the decades since the article Kevin quoted. A big part of the Yuppiefication of America has been a dramatic increase in the quality of the food we have available. It's been a slow process, but there are more good restaurants around now, even in somewhat remote places, than ever before, and more people seem to care about cooking than I recall in the past. There's a case to be made that not only is "cooking as art" not a memory, but it's thriving like never before.

So what's the deal? Are futurists invariably such incredible dorks that they don't appreciate good food? It seems a particularly glaring blind spot in most of the predictive articles I've read.

Posted at 10:05 PM | link | follow-ups | 22 comments

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