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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Web Idiocy and Incredible Depth

Let me first note that ESPN is run by a pack of idiots. Not only have they felt it necessary to start a crappy morning show, but they've been pushing this "Silver Anniversary Team" business incessantly for the last week or two of college hoops games, while there's not one word about it on their Web page. In fact, the phrase "silver anniversary team" is one of the top searches at their site right now, and it turns up nothing relevant.

What's the deal, guys? Are the computer systems run by an Ivy League grad who's bitter that they didn't rate a team? Is Jay Bilas having an affair with the webmaster's wife, and he refuses to update the college basketball section? This is what the Internet is for, dammit...

Anyway, during the Duke-Maryland game the other night, they announced their ACC team. It's a little harder to comment intelligently on this one, because, as noted in my previous post on this, I spent most of the 80's following the Big East closely, and only got interested in the ACC when I got to Maryland for grad school. I remember Michael Jordan only from the NCAA Tournament, Ralph Sampson only as a frequently-injured NBA player, and Len Bias only as a cautionary tale.

Anyway, their selections:

It's really much harder to argue about any of these. I disliked Laettner intensely, but he was on back-to-back title teams, and Michael Jordan wasn't Michael Jordan when he was in college, so I think that's been skewed by his pro career, but he was a very good player on a title team. I'd've liked to see Tim Duncan make the list, as he's one of the best big men I've ever seen play the game, but he did grow into that over his four years at Wake Forest, while Sampson was better early in his career. (I also think Duncan gets underrated for not being a flashy small forward, or a showboating asshole, but that's a problem that afflicts all sports. See also "Harrison, Marvin.") Price's spot I might've given to Bob Hurley, who ran those Duke title teams as well as any point guard I've ever seen. He didn't score like Price did, but scoring is overrated in a point guard (see also "Blake, Steven").

The really striking thing about this team, though, is the unbelievable quality of the players that have to be left off. Danny Ferry, Grant Hill, Jason Williams, Shane Battier, James Worthy, Rasheed Wallace, Antawn Jamison, Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter, Joe Smith, Juan Dixon, Steve Blake-- these are all great players, and none of them have a shot at the first team. And the chief criterion for the list (players within the 25 years of ESPN's coverage) excludes a whole slew of other great players from the 70's-- Len Elmore, David Thompson, etc. And this doesn't even touch a lot of the second-tier guys, who were excellent basketball players, and are fondly remembered, but just not quite on the top level-- Keith Booth, Rodney Elliott, Harold Deane, Randolph Childress, Greg Buckner.

The ACC really has been an incredible basketball conference over the years. Of course, they're going to fuck the whole thing up for the sake of football money, but that's a rant of a different color...

Posted at 8:18 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Double-Blind Smoke Screen

A week or so ago, there was a little flurry of blogging in the political world, noting how clever it was to schedule the State of the Union the day after Iowa. This, of course, was the work of Eeeevil Soooooper Geeenyus Karl Rove. It was carefully calculated to rob the Iowa winner of crucial momentum and media coverage by focussing the attention of the political world back on Bush.

Of course, it's only now that the true evil majesty of the plan has become clear. Because, you see, the real beneficiary of this strategy is Howard Dean, who's going to get a day or so to re-group while everybody talks about what a goober Bush looked like talking about steroids in the State of the Union Address. (Lest you dismiss that as typical liberal chatter, here's an actual conservative on the same topic.)

You see, of course, Rove actually wants Dean to win the Democratic nomination, because he's a sheep in wolf's clothing, and his Angry Guy persona will make him easy to defeat in November. And, of course, Rove used his Secret Evil Psychic Powers to divine that Dean would get thumped in Iowa, and need a break from the media hammering he'd take after that in order to recover before the next round of primaries. So they scheduled the State of the Union right after the Iowa caucuses, knowing that Bush's animatronic delivery of a series of absurd non sequiturs would deflect media attention and allow Dean to collect himself, right the ship, and bulldoze to the nomination by sweeping the rest of the primaries.

It's a trick, don't you see? It's a malign trick to throw the nomination to the thoroughly unelectable Howard Dean. Don't fall for it! The only way to avert disaster is to vote for-- hang on, let me run the calculations... Kucinich.

Kucinich? What the...? Stupid computer...

Posted at 9:00 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Hicks and Politics Mix in the Sticks

I suppose I really ought to spend some time deconstructing the results of the Iowa Caucuses, and speculating about what this means for the New Hampshire Primary. After all, everybody else is.

In the end, though, my heart's really not in it. I mean, I know it's the kickoff to the political season, and all, but it's Iowa, followed by New Hampshire. The real significance of these states is pretty close to zero-- New Hampshire isn't even representative of New England, fer Chrissakes-- and the fact that they have any influence at all on the selection of candidates is one of those weird quirks of American politics that make the rest of the world look at us sideways, sort of like the annual round of biology textbook debates with creationist whack jobs. I mean, come on-- I'm from a small town in the back end of nowhere, and while I love my home town, I don't have the gall to pretend that the opinions of people in Scenic Whitney Point should carry any special weight. Why do people pay any attention when Iowa and New Hampshire claim special importance?

As for the actual Democratic primaries, I keep waiting for something that will make me really take an interest in the race, and it keeps not happening. Dean and Clark are sort of intriguing, in that I-don't-know-anything-about-this-person way, but the rest are sort of a mess. Gephardt's been hopeless since back when Berke Breathed was making fun of him on the comics pages, and my almost completely uninformed opnion of Kerry has been that he's sort of the Democrats' equivalent of Bob Dole in '96: you should vote for him because he's been trying to become President for a long time, and it's his turn, dammit.

I probably ought to endorse Edwards, not just because every time I've seen him cited, he's said really good things, but also (more importantly) because the Edwards Grassroots Blog (now redirected to Win With Edwards) linked to this site. It's all about the Web traffic, baby (though, really, I suspect they linked me because Jack O'Toole set up the site, and copied his blogroll...). Really, though, the only things I know about him are that he's from North Carolina, and the Washington Post must've picked the single worst picture ever taken of the man to adorn their page about his campaign. Yeesh. Liberal media, my ass.

Ultimately, it makes essentially no difference to me who wins the Democratic primaries. The only truly bad candidates still running (Al Sharpton, I'm looking at you. And don't think I've forgotten you, Joe Lieberman...) can't possibly win, and any of the candidates with a serious shot at the nomination would be a fine choice. And, quite frankly, even if the entire Democratic Party lost its collective mind, and threw a brokered convention to Bill the Cat, I'd still vote for him over Bush (and probably send him money). So there really isn't much suspense in the whole thing, is there?

Posted at 8:46 PM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

Monday, January 19, 2004

Beasts of the East

The Super Bowl teams have been settled, which means only one thing (other than that "the Patriots are the best team ever at boring their opponents to death."): College basketball is about to hit the really interesting part of the season. Which means a lot more tv watching at Chateau Steelypips.

Watching the UConn-Pitt game last night, I got to see ESPN's new list-maniac shtick: this is their 25th year of operation, so they're announcing "Silver Anniversary Teams" for the major conferences they cover (weirdly, there's nothing about it on their College Basketball page). They kicked things off with the Big East team (appropriately enough, given that the Big East was created right around the same time as ESPN). Selections were made by a panel of experts associated with the conference, and were positional (two guards, two forwards, one center). The final list they came up with:

It's an interesting list, and there are solid arguments to be made in favor of all five players. Of course, there are arguments to be made for lots of other people, too, and every fan will come up with a slightly different list. Unsurprisingly, I have my own opinions...

First of all, Ewing and Mullin are locks, and you're on drugs if you think otherwise. End of discussion.

After that, there's an interesting constraint placed on the list by league history. The Big East was arguably the premiere basketball country in the conference for a stretch of several years in the mid-80's, and it's inevitable that that era will dominate any "all time" team. During those years, though, the league was absolutely dominated by three teams: Syracuse, Georgetown, and St. John's. Villanova was pretty good as well, but in the league's glory days, a number of the other teams were just awful.

On the other hand, in more recent years, UConn has been the dominant team in the league. But with the exception of their title team in 2000, the league hasn't had the same kind of national success, so it's hard to really put more recent players on the same level as Ewing and Mullin. On top of that, UConn's success has mostly been based around teams of solid players, but not so many great stars.

That probably explains why Ray Allen makes the list-- he was a terrific player in college, but a good case can be made that he wasn't the best player of his era, let alone worthy of inclusion on a "Silver Anniversary" team. Much as I disliked him at the time (he was a punk, and he played for the hated Hoyas), Allen Iverson was a more dominant player than Ray Allen, and probably should've gotten the nod.

As for the other spots, I would've taken Sherman Douglas over Pearl Washington. Washington was a great flashy point guard, but he was a little flaky. On defense, he tended to go for the steal in the back court, then jog back, and he could get a little wacky from time to time. Douglas was rock steady, and one of the real leaders of the team that lost in the '87 title game. And I've never seen anybody else throw the alley-oop pass as well as he did.

Derrick Coleman is another problem spot. He was a great player at Syracuse, but even in college, you could see the seeds of his eventual meltdown in the NBA. He was a great rebounder, and the recipient of many of those alley-oop passes, but he was always a little bit erratic.

It's tough to pick somebody to take his place, though. The league isn't lacking in great big men-- Alonzo Mourning of Georgetown and Walter Berry of St. John's are a couple of names that come to mind from either side of Coleman's era, as well as people like Jerome Lane ("Send it in, Jerome!") and Charles Smith of Pitt, or you could look at some more modern players. If you want to get goofy, you could even consider someone like Pat Garrity of Notre Dame, who was a one-man team for a couple of years. And you could always go for a sentimental sort of choice, like Ed Pinckney, the stand-out player of the Villanova team that provided one of college basketball's all-time great moments, by playing a perfect game to beat Georgetown for the national title. In the end, I'd probably lean toward leaving Coleman on the team, but Pinckney comes close.

Of course, the really fun part of thinking about this sort of thing is remembering all the oddball players who made an impression for some reason, but don't rate mention on an all-time team. There was Matt Brust of St. John's (no relation to author Steve Brust, I think, as they pronounce it differently), a crew-cut forward built like a tailback who shot free throws without bending his knees. Or Gerald Greene from Seton Hall, who dribbled the ball like he was trying to knock a hole in the floor. Or his teammate, Aussie ringer Andrew Gaze, who couldn't miss from three-point range, provided he was falling down when he threw the shot up. Or Tom Greis from Villanova, one of the slowest-moving human beings ever to stalk a basketball court. Or that goateed little bastard Charles Smith from Georgetown, who beat Syracuse with a couple of ludicrous scoop shots. Or Syracuse's Stevie Thompson, who could jump out of the gym, but couldn't hit a free throw to save his life. Or Herman Harried, who made Thompson look like Chris Mullin at the line. Or...

Sorry-- I'm going into 80's hoop nostalgia overload. Looking up the Big East Tournament history pages was a bad idea...

Anyway, it's a fun topic for sports geeking, and I'll comment on some of the other lists as they come out...

Posted at 9:51 PM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Space Trilogy, Volume 4

In the comments to the previous post about the Moon/ Mars proposal, Jake McGuire raises a number of interesting points, which deserve a full response. Having sat on that response for several days, I may as well spin it off into a separate post.

Jake writes:

In every way which I can think of, if there's an aspect of the Martian environment which we can't simulate in LEO or in a Mars Chamber on Earth, the Moon is different from Mars in ways that matter a great deal. We can simulate landing on another planet on Earth - just turn off the GPS receiver and barometric altimeter, and strap on bigger rocket engines. They run satellites through thermal vacuum chamber tests on Earth, and it would be easier to simulate the Martian environment in one than on the moon. We can stick three people in an off-road RV and have them drive around for a month to test EVA planning procedures for a million dollars here; to do the same thing on the Moon would cost hundreds of millions, and still wouldn't point out issues with actual Mars EVA hardware, because you can't use Mars EVA hardware on the Moon. And since most of the cost of a Mars mission is going to go into designing the hardware and software to go there, if you have to design different hardware for the Moon, you have to ask what you're really gaining.

I have two basic responses to this. One is just to note that the "safety net" factor of the relative closeness of the Moon weighs pretty heavily with me. Going directly to Mars is very much like flying without a net, and before we go trying that, I'd like to see us get a lot more practice running manned missions beyond low Earth orbit. (After all, we're hardly batting 1.000 on sending robots to other worlds...) Missions to the Moon offer the chance to do that, in a situation where something might conceivably be done should disaster strike. I wouldn't want to gamble the whole manned space program on one mission to Mars.

(There's also a decent case to be made that there is interesting science to be done on the Moon. Granted, it's not particularly sexy science (though the telescope idea is kind of cool), but as multi-billion-dollar science projects go, it's not really any less practical than another whopping huge particle accelerator.)

The second response I have is, in many ways, the more fundamental of the two, and goes to the question of what, exactly, we're going to Mars for. If we're doing it as an Apollo-style proof-of-principle mission, then there's no real reason to mess with the Moon first. If Mars is the only goal, then it makes sense to spend the minimum possible amount, and just go to Mars. If that's the goal, going to the Moon would be a waste of time and money.

On the other hand, if this is really intended as a first step toward a permanent human presence beyond low Earth orbit, I'm not so sure it's a bad idea. Yes, going to the Moon doesn't provide that much direct help in getting to Mars, but it does get humans into space, and working in a different environment, and if this is really a part of a long-term program of manned exploration, we're ultimately going to want as much experience as possible in many different sorts of off-Earth environments. In the context of a decades-long, multi-trillion-dollar push into space, a few extra billion on Moon missions is nothing to complain about.

(This is, of course, in the Infinite Money Limit world in which everybody agrees that a manned space program is a thing worth spending sizable sums of money on, and spending that money doesn't cripple anything else that we're trying to do. It is manifestly obvious that we do not live in such a world, but as in the last post, I'm going to pretend that we do, as a purely academic exercise in discussing the technical merits, goals, and aspirations of such an idealized manned space program.)

To justify this, I need to clarify my views on what "permanent human presence" means, here. I'm not talking about what I called the "Paranoid Chicken" theory of space exploration in a previous post, of trying to start as many colonies as possible before some sort of inevitable disaster wipes out all life on Earth. While I wouldn't go as far as Bruce Sterling does in dismissing colonization, I don't have much regard for this view. Establishing a self-sufficient colony on another planet, even a relatively hospitable one, will be a project of a great many years. "Self-sufficient" here means "able to continue normal operations even after the Earth goes kablooie." That's not just a matter of producing food and air and water-- those are relatively trivial-- it also requires the infrastructure to keep everything running with locally produced resources. Which means mining and smelting metals, manufacturing computer chips and other electronic objects, extracting and refining something to serve as rocket fuel, etc. For any technology on this side of Eric Drexler's loopiest nanotech dreams, this is a gigantic undertaking.

Getting any really substantial number of humans set up on another planet will probably require some sort of terraforming project (and years of tedious debates about the ethics of such a plan), to get to the point where space suits and airtight habitats are no longer required. Not to mention the problem of just shifting enough bodies into space to have a viable population. This isn't anything that's going to happen any time soon, certainly not soon enough to make it the exclusive focus of a space program. Luckily, I don't believe there's any particular urgency about it, either.

There's another way to go, though, which is to recognize that interest in other planets will remain primarily scientific (rather than commercial or imperialistic) for years to come, and treat it that way. The focus then is on treating manned bases not as the beginning of off-world colonies, but as research stations. They needn't be small, sealed tin cans-- people will be spending months if not years there, after all, and any decent research program will involve a sizeable number of people to support it-- but it's not necessary to build cities, either. Space bases can be something like Antarctica, only much farther away, and tremendously harder to reach. But there's nothing particularly wrong with that, because space is also infinitely more interesting than Antarctica.

And if take that kind of approach, Mars really isn't an end unto itself. It's just the closest point of significant interest. But, really, there are plenty of other interesting places to go, and plenty of other interesting things to see. Once you can put people on Mars on a regular basis, and build up some sort of permanent presence there, Jupiter's a pretty interesting place to think about going look at, and its moons provide enough variety to keep generations upon generations of scientists occupied. And, of course, we know next to nothing about the asteroid belt, or Venus, and everybody knows the alien monolith is really in orbit around Saturn...

Self-sustaining colonies anywhere off Earth are so far off in terms of the technology needed to make them work that they're hardly worth worrying about. Permanent bases on Mars and the Moon are not-- those are within reach in a reasonable time scale. And human exploration of the rest of the Solar System is comfortably to this side of self-sustatining colonies. If you want to start setting lofty but reasonable goals for manned space exploration, that strikes me as more reasonable than talking about colonies as an insurance policy against Earthly disaster.

(Yeah, it'd be cheaper to explore the rest of the Solar System by sending out a zillion tiny robots to do it for us. But somehow, that just doesn't compare to having humans there on the scene looking at it....)

If you want to go that route, you don't necessarily want to strike directly for Mars. A fast manned mission to Mars risks being another Apollo-style game of planetary tag: great PR, quickly abandoned when people get bored. To set up a real, permanent presence in space, you want a broad, slow, incremental approach. You want to build up a large base of experience and infrastructure, so that each mission supports further pushes. (And, to interrupt this pie-in-the-sky dreaming for a little corrosive cynicism, the more you build in space, the harder it is to retreat... A few flags and some miscellaneous junk are easily abandoned. A manned base on the Moon is harder to cast aside. Note the reluctance to cast aside the ISS, which is actually pretty much useless...)

(Why the Moon rather than a gigantic rotating space station at a Lagrange point? Because years of mucking about in orbit have demonstrated pretty conclusively that living in free-fall sucks. If we're going to put people in space on a permanent basis, we're going to have to put them in places with gravity. Which means planets and moons, so why not focus on that from the start, rather than spending years of constant work in free-fall to generate a giant simulation of a planet or moon?)

Is this grand vision the sort of thing you can pull off at $10 billion/year? Sure, if you're willing to spend enough years at it... Obviously, this would require more funding at some point down the road. But $10 billion/year, spent right, could make a start at it, finding a replacement for the Shuttle, and making the first steps toward getting back to the Moon.

The bigger problem is one of leadership. Even a basic Mars mission would require a solid commitment to the manned space program over a decade or more, in the face of the inevitable setbacks, political shifts, and complaints that the money would be better spent somewhere else. Those qualities are even harder to come by in Washington than money. But it's a lovely dream...

Posted at 7:47 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Sunday, January 18, 2004

GenEd Daydreams

Courses taught by any academic department at the college or university level can generally be divided into two categories: major requirements, and "general education" classes for non-majors. There's a slight grey area when it comes to physics, with the "physics for pre-meds" track being somewhat more difficult than the "physics for poets" level that most people associate with GenEd, but the basic division between classes for majors and classes for non-majors is pretty standard.

I haven't taught any GenEd classes other than the pre-med track at this point in my career, largely because the pre-med track is the main component of our GenEd program, at least on the physics side. The department offers a couple of very popular GenEd astronomy courses, but I'm not qualified to teach those, and the other classes are pretty well tied to the specific professors who made them up (including the team-taught course on "Nazi Science," which is an amusing thing to have turn up on a Google search).

I'm not likely to teach any GenEd courses in the next couple of years, and I'm definitely not going to propose a new class before I get tenure, but every now and then I get ideas for things that would make good GenEd courses. Lacking a more formal outlet for them, I might as well post them here:

How to Lie With Statistics. This would be a terrific course to offer this Fall, as an election year is what you might call a target-rich environment for a discussion of deceptive data handling. You probably wouldn't even need a textbook, just an Internet connection and Fox News Channel. Ideally, this would be team-taught with somebody from Political Science, or History, or Economics, to allow a full discussion of the corrosive effects of science abuse on policy-making. And you needn't restrict it to politics-- there's no shortage of data abuse in the fields of quack medicine.

(You might object that a course of this sort would more properly belong in the Math department, rather than Physics. I'm the one making these up, though, and anyway, there's a long and proud tradition of physicists as debunkers.)

A Brief History of Timekeeping. OK, it's a dreadful pun, but there's a lot of interesting science in clocks, clock-making, and time-keeping. You could start with astronomical methods (marking of equinoxes, sundials, etc.), move on to pendulum clocks and the importance of precise timekeeping for navigation (Longitude and all that), then an explanation of how atomic clocks work and what we get from that. Time permitting (heh), you could even throw in some bits of Special Relativity.

It would be hard to do right, but if you could pull it off, it would probably be Very Cool Indeed. Several years from now, I may give it a try.

Posted at 10:39 AM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

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