Kill the Matrix
I finally got around to seeing Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill (Vol. 1) a few hours ago (there might possibly be a movie that Kate would be less likely to want to see, but I'm sure I couldn't name it, so I waited until she was out of town for the weekend...). I've enjoyed all of his other films immensely, and this was no exception. Seeing the film got me thinking about Gregg Easterbrook's titanically stupid essay about the movie, though, and I realized that most of the people talking about Easterbrook's comments are really missing the point.
For those who have been living in a cave for the past month or so, here's the backstory: Easterbrook wrote a blog post/ essay for The New Republic denouncing movie violence in general, and Kill Bill specifically. In it, he made a dumb comment about Jews that might be construed as anti-Semitic (I doubt that was the intended meaning, but the phrasing he used was awkward enough to make it look bad). This, of course, caused a kerfuffle among the pundit class, with the end result that Easterbrook was fired from his job at ESPN.
All of that is pretty unsavory, but the worst part is that the real stupidity of his column has been lost in what is, essentially, a side issue. The dumb part of his column was not that he said stupid things about Jewish studio executives, but rather that he's attacking the wrong target.
The column in question was an extended rant against violence in movies, taking the bold position that Hollywood violence is a cause of real-world terrorism:
Why do we suppose that, with Hollywood's violence-glorifying films now shown all around the world to billions of people--remember, mass distribution of Hollywood movies to the developing world and Islamic states is a recent phenomenon--young terrorists around the globe now seem to view killing the innocent as a positive thing, even, a norm?
(Let's just pause for a moment to let that sink in. Glorification of violence in movies is the root cause of terrorism in the Islamic world. That's a spectacularly idiotic thing to say-- much dumber than anything he said about Jews.)
The problem is that he's going after Quentin Tarantino for making "violence-glorifying films," when really, Tarantino's movies are anything but.
Now, I'm not half foolish enough to claim that Tarantino's movies aren't violent. They are-- Kill Bill is one of the most disturbingly violent movies I've ever seen. But that's the point-- it's not glorified violence, or romanticized violence, but disturbing violence. This isn't a bang-and-fall-down sort of movie-- the people who die, die messily, and painfully. In the climactic scene, Uma Thurman hacks up a whole army of yakuza with a samurai sword, and as the scene goes on, you can hear the moans and shreiks of the wounded and dying getting steadily louder as the body count grows. This really doesn't do a lot to make the idea of violent death seem attractive.
And this is a common feature of all of Tarantino's films. Reservoir Dogs opens with some snappy banter in a restaurant, but the next scene you see features a gut-shot Tim Roth screaming and crying and bleeding in the back of a getaway car. Pulp Fiction is renowned for its quotable lines, but also prominently features a couple of blood-spattered hit men cleaning bits of skull and brains out of the back seat of a car. These are not romantic images.
What makes Tarantino's movies work is that the violence is always real enough to be shocking. However flashy the camera work, and however snappy the dialogue, his characters bleed, suffer, and die in a way that reaches through the flashiness of the film-making and makes you feel it.
Easterbrook's attack is rather like Bob Dole's famously silly statement that Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting "feature the romance of heroin." (Yeah, the bit where Uma Thurman OD's and has to get an adrenaline shot to the heart was exceeded in its romantic appeal only by the scene where a detox-ing Ewan McGregor gets attacked by a dead infant...). He's mistaking a violent movie for a movie that glorifies violence.
(I probably shouldn't be surprised, given that his sole specific reference to Kill Bill seems to indicate that he hasn't actually seen the movie:
Disney seeks profit by wallowing in gore--Kill Bill opens with an entire family being graphically slaughtered for the personal amusement of the killers--and by depicting violence and murder as pleasurable sport.
(He's 0-for-2 in that one sentence alone.)
If you want to attack movies that "[glorify] the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice," Tarantino's not the guy to go after. If you want to see the killing of innocents glorified, you want The Matrix, where Our Heroes cheerfully slaughter hundreds of innocent people. In The Matrix, you're essentially asked to root for the terrorists to win, and accept that their victims don't really matter, because it's all a computer generated dream.
Kill Bill draws on a long history of violent movies, most of them Asian, as a source of imagery and plot elements. But those movies are generally remarkably bloodless-- people get stabbed, or shot, or decapitated, and drop silently out of the scene. They're like German soldiers in an old WWII movie, or evil gunslingers in a Western. They get shot (or stabbed), they fall down, and that's it. No muss, no fuss, and just enough blood to be artful.
Kill Bill is to its sources what Unforgiven is to the Western genre. It puts the blood and pain back in, and restores the essential ugliness of the fight scenes-- if anything, it almost overdoes the spurting blood thing. It's shot with a fine sense of style, and an eye for the dramatic, true, but its treatment of violence is almost subversive. Even though the mass killing looks really cool, the very intensity of the fight scenes makes them unappealing.
The Matrix: Reloaded is a movie makes you want to put on a leather trench coat and take a katana to a high-end SUV. Kill Bill is a movie that makes you want to stay very, very far away from people with swords. That's the difference between a movie that glorifies violence, and a glorious movie that happens to be violent. It's about as big as the difference between a thought-provoking column and an ill-informed rant.
Please Show Your Work and Reasoning to Receive Full Credit
For lack of a more inspired post, here's the text of yesterday's exam on basic quantum mechanics:
1) You're a physics professor preparing a photoelectric effect lab for your class. When testing the apparatus to be used, you measure a stopping potential of 0.6 V for a wavelength of 492 nm, and a stopping potential of 1.8 V for a wavelength of 334 nm.
a) Is this a lab you can safely give to your class? (That is, does the value of Planck's constant obtained from these data agree with the accepted value?)
b) What is the work function of the metal in the phototube?
c) A student hands in a lab report which finds a value of 4.38 10-35 J-s for h. He attributes the difference between his result and the accepted value to the fact that the bulb in his mercury lamp was burning out, and gave lower stopping potentials than expected. Is this a resonable explanation?
2) A physicist is studying a "quantum dot," a structure which is an excellent approximation of an infinite square well potential. An electron trapped in the "dot" absorbs a photon of wavelength 620 nm when moving from the ground state (n=1) to the first excited state (n=2). What is the width of the "dot"?
3) A German physicist setting up an experiment to measure the wave-like properties of matter plans to send fullerene molecules (C60 where each of the carbon atoms has a mass of 12 u) through a double-slit apparatus. If he needs an angular separation of 0.5 degrees in order to observe the first two peaks, how far apart should the slits be placed if his C60 molecules are moving at 100 m/s?
4) An X-ray photon with a wavelength of 0.01 nm hits an electron, and scatters off it at an angle of 30 degrees.
a) What is the final wavelength of the scattered photon?
b) What is the kinetic energy of the electron after the scattering?
5) A particle with mass m has a wavefunction given by:
Ψ(x) = 0 for x < -a = A (1-(x/a)4) for –a ≤ x ≤ a = 0 for x > a
a) Find the value of A that properly normalizes this wavefunction.
b) Find <x> for this wavefunction.
c) Find <p> for this wavefunction.
Matthew Yglesias dips into physics to score points against Glenn Reynolds:
Instapundit is plugging Don Luskin bitching about Paul Krugman calling him a "stalker." Gentlemen, welcome to the wonderful world of the metaphor. For example, Reynolds' punditry is not actually instantaneous. Indeed, no matter how much time he spends at his computer truly instantaneous punditry is impossible since, as Einstein informed us, punditry cannot possible move faster than the speed of light.
Of course, that's not quite what Einstein said. Relativity simply states that nothing can transmit information faster than the speed of light. Given the actual fact content of most punditry, I'd say the jury is still out on Reynolds's moniker...
Always Think to the End of the Sentence
Back in graduate school (and to a lesser degree in my undergrad days), I used to note down particularly memorable professorial comments in the margins of my notebooks. I had occasion to dig through some old notes a little while back, and found a bunch of them.
My all-time favorite was probably the visiting cosmologist who responded to a fifth straight question of the form "Could the missing mass be Invisible Pink Unicorns?" by saying very slowly and clearly, "I do not know this. If I knew this, I would be in Stockholm."
Other gems included a math methods professor resorting to Proof by Invocation, when he noted in lecture that "we see we just integrated through the singularity. However, we know that everyone-- including Feynman!-- has done this, so we continue...," and the rather vehement declaration by a quantum mechanics professor that "I am not an angry person! I have a low tolerance for stupidity, but I am not an angry person!" (For best effect, that should be shouted in a cartoonishly thick Indian accent.)
(He was also the source of the line "I have seen many stupid things published in journals, but never anything so manifestly stupid." I've been tempted to try to work that into a referee report sometime, but good sense has prevailed thus far.)
I've always enjoyed slightly daft professorial sayings, but I can't say I'm entirely happy to have added to the genre. Several of the students in my current class have been razzing me for weeks about a lecture in which I described the photoelectric effect as fairly self-explanatory-- you shine light on a piece of metal, and electrons come out.
Unfortunately, the exact words I used were more like:
Today we'll be talking about the photoelectric effect, which is pretty self-explanatory. "Photo" as in light, and "electric" as in... electric.
This is what I get for working off sketchy notes, and ad-libbing the actual words of the lecture. I got halfway through that before I realized that I'm not sure what the Greek root for "electric" is, and that it wouldn't actually be illuminating if I did know it...
In a continuing display of synchronicity in action, I had a meeting with a student today who commented (this was completely unsolicited, mind you) that "most professors seem to have only two pairs of pants, and three shirts, and they rotate them."
I felt obliged to explain that I do, in fact, own more than two pairs of pants-- I have several pairs of nearly identical khakis that I wear to teach...
Dress for Success
A significant majority of my friends from college are now involved in the pursuit of filthy lucre by means of investment banking of one sort or another. Which means I've overheard a lot of conversations about the expense and hassle of obtaining proper business attire. I often joke with these people that this is part of the reason I went into physics-- I own one suit, which I bust out for weddings and funerals, and my normal working attire of khakis, golf shirts, and sneakers is actually on the dressy side for my department.
Of course, I see now, via Arts and Letters Daily, that a lack of personal vanity may be hurting my student evaluations. The linked article from the Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a study that found that "attractive professors consistently outscore their less comely colleagues by a significant margin on student evaluations of teaching."
Like I don't have enough to worry about.
As with all good stories from the Chronicle, the Invisible Adjunct has already commented on this, and the always-sharp commenters over there have some good things to say as well.
I actually almost commented on this a few months back, when it was brought up in a meeting that professors in the humanities routinely get critiqued on their appearance (which came as a shock to the scientists at the meeting), but I decided it was too much inside baseball. In a weird moment of synchronicity, though, the Chronicle piece reached me at a point when the question of classroom attire had recently been brought up elsewhere.
We had a workshop on campus this weekend for local high school physics teachers. The main focus was on in-class demonstrations, with a number of examples presented by a retired teacher who has gone into the physics demonstration business. These were mostly standard stuff. The really interesting element of the program was the final bit, in which the director of the campus theater was brought in to talk about lecture as performance. He praised the demo demos as great theater, and highlighted a number of things I never would've thought of, including dress-- he pointed out that the presenter had opted to wear all white clothing, which contrasted strongly with the large, black chalkboard that forms the backdrop to most lectures.
(As an aside, I suspect that this, like many of the other aspects he praised (at least one of the style elements he mentioned had a physics basis), was purely a coincidence (the presenter's white short-sleeved dress shirt (I know that's an oxymoron) was practically a geek uniform in bygone days). Still, it's an interesting point...)
It's certainly true that there's a strong performance aspect to teaching a class-- I'm definitely aware of the way my whole demeanor changes when I'm lecturing. I speak at a different pitch and a faster pace when I'm running through a prepared lecture (even though I'm ad-libbing the exact words) than when I'm just chatting with students before class, or even answering student questions in class. It's part of what makes teaching so tiring-- you're "on stage" in a sense, and it's hard work. There are probably plenty of things to learn about the process from people who perform for a living-- in my case, it's not particularly calculated (unlike the case described in another Chronicle piece), but I'll definitely think about some of the things he said.
As for the study cited in the original article, there are a number of concerns to be raised about the methods, but on the whole, I think the effect is probably mostly due to two factors noted by commenters at the Invisible Adjunct site. "Matilde" notes:
First, the experiment does not control for the age of the professor being evaluated. It would not be at all surprising if the better-looking professors were also younger. And I can think of a number of competing hypotheses why younger professors might be better teachers other than the fact that they are better looking - better incentives (i.e. tenure), better rapport with students, more energy.
That's a very plausible explanation, and additional support can perhaps be found in the Adjunct's observation that " adjuncts get higher evaluations than tenure-track faculty" (adjuncts being somewhat more likely to be younger faculty).
Another good point is raised a couple of comments later, when "Albion" notes that "contempt for fashion often indicate[s] a contempt for the world," and that people who are generally unkempt often have other issues that may influence their evaluations. In fact, I'd probably rate this slightly higher than youth in the "probable innocent explanation" sweepstakes-- I'm no great fashion aficionado, but you'd have to be an idiot to think that the clothes you wear don't send a message.
This is why I dress the way I do. I have a personal rule that I won't wear jeans, shorts, or T-shirts when I have to teach. It's as much to keep me focused as anything else-- a constant reminder that I'm "on" that day, and need to behave accordingly. Whether I'll extend this to incorporate the principles of good theatrical costume design remains an open question.
Lend Me Some Sugar
Those who know me, know that I am one of the least dancingest people on the planet, except when very, very drunk. I can do the Wedding Shuffle (sway semi-rhythmically in a small circle), and dress it up with the occasional half-ironic spin, but in general terms, I'm not really prone to shakin' it on the dance floor, as the kids (don't) say.
I'm not sure which way the causality runs, but I also tend not to like most dance-type music. Thumping techno beats just aren't my thing, I remember just enough of the Seventies to have a residual bad reaction to disco (at least, disco without irony), and I'm not much of a hip-hop sort of guy (again, this will be no surprise to anyone who knows me).
This puts me in an awkward sort of situation on those rare occasions when I actually like something that's essentially dance music. Such as now, for example, when a song by OutKast ("Hey Ya") has mysteriously slipped into heavy rotation on the local alternarock station, and turns out to be really catchy.
See, while I like the song (it's been stuck in my head all day, after hearing it both in the car and in a record store), I'm 90% certain that I'll actively dislike the rest of the songs. This makes it hard for even me to justify plunking down the plastic to buy the album. Worse yet, it's a double album, so I'd be paying for two CD's to get one stinking song. And CD singles are just as big a rip-off.
It's a dilemma. Or, it would be a dilemma, if not for the fact that iTunes is now available for Windows... Every now and then, computers turn out not to suck all that much, after all.