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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, December 19, 2003

Name That Tune

It's Friday, and tomorrow begins the annual holiday rampage around the Northeast, so I should probably post something frivolous to keep people entertained while I'm off gallivanting around New England. The obvious candidate would be something to do with That Movie That Just Came Out, but it's nearly impossible to say anything sensible about it without massive spoilers, and Blogger doesn't offer an easy way to do cut tags (that I know of), so I'll hold off for a few more days for the sake of those less geekish than Kate and myself, who won't see it until the weekend.

For lack of better inspiration, then, let me steer people to Skot Kurruk's Izzle Pfaff (which you ought to be reading anyway), and his "guess the song title based on two words" contest. The list of two-word phrases:

1. choking smokers
2. devil too
3. grey eyes
4. fruit cage
5. supple wrist
6. silver spoon
7. sixty-five degrees
8. watch dynasty
9. needs sweeping
10. halfway there
11. done died
12. god money
13. don't dance
14. face north
15. stand naked
16. baggage carousel
17. city walls
18. slicing up
19. loves horses
20. hickory stump
21. 'til touchdown
22. be double
23. lost myself
24. late September
25. be abused

For the record, I've got a solid idea for fourteen of these, and another half-dozen where I can almost hear the phrase in the song, but I can't come up with the title.

Colorful comments are available on Skot's site, along with more details on the contest. Or you can feel free to post guesses here, if you're bored on a pre-holiday Friday at work.

Posted at 9:08 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Thursday, December 18, 2003

I Blame Bud Selig

Kevin Drum laments the modern distaste for unions:

Unfortunately, current federal law is so hostile to unionization activities that the entire movement seems stuck in time. Old unions are still around — teachers, government workers, etc. — even though they've mostly served their purpose and often seem reduced to a dogged and unpopular insistence that no one ever be fired no matter what the cause. At the same time, desperately needed new unions — retail, janitors, service industries — are hellishly hard to get organized. So the public view of unions is largely one of coddled workers who make a pretty good living and continue to demand ever more, while the genuinely poor who need unions are shut out.

Of course, he's missed the most important source of anti-union feeling: Baseball. The highest profile unions in the country are not public service unions or teachers' unions, they're sports unions, where strikes literally involve millionaires squabbling with billionaires over how to divide vast sums of money. There's probably nothing that harms the labor movement more than the greedy intransigence of the baseball player's association (and, to a lesser extent, the NBA's players union).

(On a more serious note, I would reject the claim that teachers' unions have "mostly served their purpose," but that's based on my father's many years as an officer of the local teachers' union, and not a subject I can discuss calmly.)

Posted at 8:02 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Interesting Math Problems

Brad DeLong asks the all-important question "Can there possibly be as many as one hundred interesting math problems?"

Well, OK, strictly speaking, he's assuming that there are at least one hundred interesting math problems, and is compiling a list as an aid to getting his kids to see the utility of math. This makes it more of a proof-by-contradiction problem: since he's asking for help from his readers, he may be close to the end...

Part of the problem with trying to compile such a list is defining just what counts as an interesting math problem. A bunch of the list to date are more puzzles than calculations, a few others are demonstration exercises, a few are Fermi Problems, and four are freshman physics problems (numbers 3, 14, 15, and 23). Very few of them bear any resemblance to math as practiced by mathematicians, and the physics ones come close to failing the "interesting" criterion.

Of course, there's a tight constraint placed on the set of possible problems by the fact that they're meant to inspire kids (kids who are apparently Very Smart Indeed, granted). That sort of rules out a lot of problems involving various forms of calculus (I'll throw one in at the end of the list, just for kicks, though).

The other main problem also has to do with goals. It's not entirely clear what Brad's after-- if the goal is to demonstrate that mathematics makes a useful tool for other disciplines, these are good examples, but I wouldn't expect them to awaken a deep love of the subject for its own sake. Inspiring an interest in pure math is a trickier business, and I'm probably the wrong person to make suggestions about how to do that (I have a decent math background by virtue of being a physicist, but the things I like about physics are precisely those bits that are least like pure math...).

Nevertheless, here are a couple of suggestions (see also Andrew Northrup's list):

More Freshman Physics. The current list includes a couple of kinematics problems, and a couple of force problems. If you've already deemed objects sliding on inclined plans to be an Interesting Math Problem, there are reams of problems involving the same sort of math-- tension forces in ropes suspending signs, connected object problems, etc. Two specific suggestions:

1) The Kansas City Walkway Collapse. 114 people were killed in the collapse of a hotel walkway because the engineers in charge of the project didn't realize that changing the way they suspended the walkway would double the stress on one of the components. It's a freshman physics level calculation, and not doing it cost 114 lives.

2) The car-in-the-mud problem. A much more frivolous, but kind of interesting problem: If your car is stuck in the mud, you can dramatically magnify the force you can exert on it to get it out by tying one end of a rope to the car, the other end to an immobile object (a tree, say), and pushing the middle of the rope sideways. It's just a vector addition problem (combined with the fact that you can't push with a rope), but it's kind of cool.

Stochastic Processes. There are a bunch of probability problems on the list already, so why not do something about random walks? The "drunkard's walk" variation with a hard wall on one side is easy enough to set up, and reasonably interesting. You could also talk about Stephen Jay Gould's use of it. Or maybe not, if you don't want hate mail from biologists.

It might be possible to do something with Brownian Motion, too, maybe by way of the Brownian Motor idea. (Check out the nifty applet...)

Tiling the Plane. There's a whole field of math devoted to covering infinite surfaces with odd shapes, including a wealth of material on non-periodic tiles (including nifty puzzles). I'm not entirely sure what you'd do with that (unless you're planning to remodel your bathroom), but it would let you get in the amusing anecdote of Roger Penrose vs. Kleenex.

Least Time Problems. You can actually develop pretty much all of optics starting from the idea that a beam of light will always follow the path between two points that requires the minimum travel time (together with the idea that the index of refraction changes the speed of light in a medium). Yeah, OK, calculus of variations is a bit much for kids, but simple variants like the lifeguard problem (scroll down to Feb 3) could work for the "Hundred Interesting Problems" list.

Mathematical Induction. Math as it's actually practiced relies heavily on the idea of proof, so it might be worthwhile to work in some sort of proof technique, and induction springs fairly naturally from common sense. It's a little hard to see how to show that it's useful in everyday life. Perhaps you could explain how all horses are the same color...

The Car Talk Problem. Here's one that requires calculus, taken from an episode of Car Talk (as related by a colleague):

A truck driver called in to the show, and explained that he had a broken gas gauge on his truck, and was reduced to measuring fuel levels with a dipstick. The gas tank was in the shape of a horizontal cylinder with an opening at the top in the middle of the cylinder. It's trivially easy to recognize totally full and totally empty, and half full is not much harder (fuel to half the distance between the top and bottom of the tank), but if you want to mark the quarter-full and three-quarter-full points, where do you put the marks (as fractions of the diameter d of the tank)?

And that ought to be enough suggested math problems to prove a point of some sort.

Posted at 7:32 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

We Hates It, Precious

So, I was at the mall this afternoon, doing some Christmas shopping, and they had a kiosk set up selling polar fleece hoods. These are odd little headgear things that create the convincing illusion that you have a hooded sweatshirt on, and also have a little mask thing you can pull over your face to keep warm.

They had a bunch of fake heads set up showing various configurations of the thing, and the masked ones reminded me of something. It took a minute, but I realized that the navy blue hood/ mask had a certain Cobra Commander quality.

And instantly, I had Andrew Nothrup's idiotic Cobra song stuck in my head. For the rest of the damn afternoon.

Stupid tricksy Poor Man. We hates you.

Posted at 9:30 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

The Grand Unified Theory of Jargon

While I have a great deal of respect for a number of individual economists (hey to Brad DeLong), I'm a bit dubious (to put it mildly) about the discipline of economics in general. My dissatisfaction with the field can flippantly be summed up by a pin I saw years ago at Fat Cat Books: "If you laid a million economists end to end, they'd point in different directions."

Daniel Davies, who is himself an economist of some sort, provides a longer and more serious description:

The point is this; economics is, as Deirdre McCloskey points out regularly, a form of rhetoric. At its heart, it is and has always been about the construction of a certain kind of argument, which is meant to be persuasive over human action. I state this without argument, in the knowledge that many people at work in the field believe that they are involved in a project of genuine scientific enquiry. I feel no argument of mine is ever going to carry the day on this issue, so if anyone wants to make the case for economics as a science, I’ll simply respond thus: “Sir, I gracefully concede that you yourself and your department are engaged in a value-neutral quest for scientific facts about the allocation of resources under conditions of scarcity. I apologise for having suggested otherwise. But would you at least grant me that the description ‘A form of rhetoric … the construction of arguments aimed to be persuasive over human action’ is a decent description of what all those other bastards are up to?”

This comes toward the end of a long defense of academic jargon, which is well worth reading in its own right. He's got an explanation for the existence of highly specialized academic jargon that would appear to work for a number of different fields: "the formal language of a discipline (its jargon) has, among its other functions, the function of making it more difficult to make the characteristic mistakes of that discipline" (though Brad's addition is also a good point).

Just another demonstration of how Crooked Timber is one of the most essential weblogs around.

Posted at 10:18 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Strategic Illiteracy

Over at Crooked Timber, Kieran Healy presents a list of the best unread books of 2003. I'm proud to say that I haven't read any of those, either.

I'd post my own list, but I'm six or seven books behind on listing the books I have read, so it's just too big a job.

Posted at 9:58 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Monday, December 15, 2003

Trial by Ordeal

Preface: With my jury duty experience receding into the past at one day per day, I'll try to write something semi-coherent about the whole thing. I won't do a moment-by-moment recap: while it might be entertaining, and possibly even satisfying to write, it'd also be a little too LiveJournal. A quick summary, though ("Buttercup is marry Humperdinck in little less than half an hour..."): I was called for jury duty back in September, and postponed it until December so I wouldn't have to deal with it during the academic session. I had to report at 10:00 last Monday. The case for that day was a burglary trial in county court, and I spent the whole day (save for a long "lunch" break) at the courthouse, and had to return Tuesday at 9:30. At 11:00 (give or take), the judge came in and announced that the defendant had taken a plea bargain, and a trial would no longer be necessary.

I should also note up front that in terms of natural temperament, I am about the worst person you could possibly imagine to spend a day and a half sitting around in a courthouse. I can't even wait on line at the grocery store without getting pissed off, so you might want to take some of what I say with a grain of salt.

OK, on with the actual post:

The most well-known fact about jury duty is that everybody wants to get out of it. The undesirability of jury duty is a staple of bad stand-up comedy, and one of the instruction handouts we were given sternly admonishes prospective jurors not to try to slant their answers to get themselves excused.

The orientation material we were given also spends a great deal of time hammering on the importance of jury duty, and how deeply the State appreciated our willingness to come in and serve. A good example can be found on the New York juror information web site, in the introduction to the jury handbook:

While I recognize jury service is a burden, interrupting your personal and business lives, it is also a unique privilege we enjoy as citizens. Jury service is thus not only your responsibility but also your opportunity to participate in the American justice system, to learn firsthand how it works, and to help us make it work better.

The jury commissioners who signed people in said something similar, the jury orientation video (available on-line, though I haven't watched it to see if it's the same one) featured several 60 Minutes anchors telling us the same thing, and the judge said it about five times over the two days. We were told many times that jury service is critically important, and that the court deeply appreciated our taking time to come serve (under threat of legal sanctions, mind, but we did at least show up the first time we were called).

I agree wholeheartedly about the importance. Trial by jury is, indeed, one of the most important and fundamental rights we have as citizens. That's why the extrajudicial measures used to handle alleged terrorists are so disturbing-- denying the right to trial by jury to anyone, American citizen or not, is a violation of this country's founding principles.

About the concern for our time, though, I'm not so sure. While the people involved expressed appreciation for our service in very nice words on several occasions, their actions belied those words. The actions of the court officers and attorneys involved expressed a deep disinterest in our personal affairs.

The handbook and video approach the question of jury service with an almost charming sort of bafflement that anyone would be the least bit hesitant about serving. They worked hard to convey astonishment at the idea that anybody might find jury service anything less than an enlightening and uplifting experience. This was very much at odds with the fundamental lack of respect with which the jury pool was treated in fact. Jury duty was a tedious and frustrating experience, made worse by the fact that none of the officials involved seemed to care in the slightest.

In the unlikely event that anyone reading this has the power to effect changes, I have three simple suggestions for how to make jury duty less of a burden. Adopting these wouldn't eliminate the hassle, but they would go a long way toward reducing the irritation many of us in the jury pool felt.

1) Start on time. At the end of the day on Monday, we were instructed to show up promptly at 9:30 the next morning. The attorneys and defendant were told to be in the judge's chambers at 9:15 for preliminary discussions. As I went through the security check at the courthouse door at 9:25, the defense attorney was coming in behind me.

Monday wasn't any better. We were told to report at 10:00, and the vast majority of the people called were in the courtroom by 10:10. The people from the jury commission didn't show up to tell us what to do until 10:20, and at 11:00, we were told that the judge wasn't ready yet, and we should go out for lunch, reporting back by 1:00.

If you want to give potential jurors the impression that you actually care about them, you owe it to them to start on time. If you say you're going to start jury selection at 10:00, be ready to start at 10:00. If you're not going to be ready until after lunch, don't make people come in three hours earlier.

2) Don't Waste My Time. This is sort of an extension of #1, but it deserves to be expanded on. Every aspect of the process was handled in a manner that suggested a special committee had been charged with finding the least efficient way of processing jurors.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 people were called to be in the jury pool, and as we came in, we were required to sign in on a blank form with our names and juror numbers. Having obtained this information, they then proceeded to spend ten minutes taking attendance ("Juror number 1... Juror number 2... ").

After a few explanatory words, we were shown a juror orientation video. Now, the information that a prospective juror really needs to have takes about five minutes to explain. The video was twenty minutes long, and filled out with a dramatic re-enactment of "trial by ordeal," an exploration of the historical origins of the jury system in ancient Europe, and a bunch of clips from old Perry Mason episodes. This was a gigantic waste of time, serving only to cover for the fact that the judge wasn't actually ready to start (see above).

Once we were in the courtroom, and a panel of jurors had been randomly chosen (I was the first one called), we were asked a series of platitudinous questions ("Our legal system holds that the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Will you be able to respect this presumption of innocence?"). We weren't required to answer out loud, just to nod vaguely, and notify the judge if we had a problem with any of the questions. After a couple of people were excused (for stating that they could not possibly treat the testimony of police officers the same as anyone else's), the empty seats were filled with new people, and the judge started back at the beginning. More people were excused and replaced, and we started over.

If you want to give potential jurors the idea that you actually care about them, you owe it to them to streamline the process as much as possible. If everybody coming in has signed in, you already know who's there-- there's no need to call the roll. If you're ready to start on time, there's no need to pad out the orientation video with historical trivia. And if you're going to ask vague questions without requiring a specific response, you should ask them once, of everybody, and not go through the list ten times (this last was especially grating, as we had spent the previous hour going through the entire jury pool, exploring connections to the lawyers involved, which predictably turned up a whole lot of irrelevant information ("My kid plays soccer with the kids of [a member of the DA's staff who isn't involved in this case]." "Is this likely to affect your ability to be impartial?" "No." "Thank you for wasting everybody's time.")).

3) Tell Us What's Going On. On Tuesday morning, I showed up at 9:30 (trailed by the defense lawyer), and reported to the courtroom, as instructed. At 11:00, the judge came in, and informed us that the defendant had worked out a plea bargain, and thus there wouldn't be a trial after all.

Between those two events, the sole official contact with the jury pool was at a little after ten, when the bailiff stuck his head in the courtroom, and said "About ten more minutes." For an hour and a half, we were stuck sitting in the courtroom (or pacing angrily around the hall outside), with no information whatsoever. They didn't tell us why there was a delay, how long the delay was likely to be-- nothing.

Jurors are adults, not mushrooms to be kept in the dark and fed bullshit. If there's an unavoidable delay, tell us what it is. You don't have to provide lots of details-- Kate pointed out that "They're trying to work out a plea agreement" could've been prejudicial if the case had actually gone to trial-- but something along the lines of "The judge and the attorneys in the case are here, and are discussing the case. They may be some time." would've gone a long way toward damping out my rage.

If the case is held up by discussions pertaining to the case, tell the jury that (ideally, you should allow enough time for the discussions to take place before the jury shows up-- see #1 above). If the case is held up because another hearing ran late, or the judge got stuck in traffic, tell the jury that, too. The jurors are interrupting their business and personal lives to be there in court-- you owe it to them to let them know that their time is not being wasted for no good reason.

It's unlikely that any set of reforms could ever make me happy to sit through the jury selection process, let alone serve on a jury. I have other things to do, and while I'm not the most diligent person you'll ever meet when it comes to getting my own work done, I do like to be in control of when and how my time is wasted.

That said, a few simple changes to the process to ensure that jurors feel they've been treated with some respect would go a long way. Had the process been arranged to minimize the amount of wasted time, and keep the jurors informed regarding the source of any unavoidable delay, it still wouldn't've been enjoyable, but at least I wouldn't have left the courthouse wanting to beat someone senseless.

Posted at 8:11 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Keep Up the Good Work

The big news of the morning is that we appear to have captured Saddam Hussein. (Big news indeed, since an extremely old woman stopped me on the street while I was out walking the dog to tell me about it. She may well have been a witch, though, as the dog really didn't like her...)

This is obviously a preliminary report, and might conceivably change (he was, after all, known to use decoys and doubles), but lest a lack of sufficient enthusiasm damn me forever as objectively fascist (or whatever the pejorative of the moment is), let me offer congratulations on his capture. A job well done by the military units involved, and humiliating capture in a basement hole couldn't happen to a nicer despot. Here's hoping we can come up with a legitimate Iraqi government soon and turn him over for trial.

This just goes to show that if you spend a lot of time and resources looking in every rat hole in a country, even a fairly large one, you can find fugitive Very Bad Men. And now that we've got him, I hope some of the resources freed up can be shifted back to Afghanistan, where they should've been from the beginning.

Posted at 9:32 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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