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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, January 30, 2004

Call Me Crowley

In Pratchett and Gaiman's brilliant Good Omens, the demon Crowley, who "did not so much fall as saunter vaguely downwards," brags of tying up every telephone line in London for an afternoon. The act itself isn't especially evil, but it adds to the backround level of stress and frustration in the world, driving thousands of ordinary people to commit small acts of evil, creating a sort of spreading wave of evil, and doing Hell's work far more efficiently than his older and more artistic colleagues.

I bring this up because for the Nth time this term, my morning class ran five minutes over time this morning. I did this with the best intentions-- that last little bit covered material they'll need to do for the homework assignment-- but you could just feel the irritation.

Some might say this is a sign that I need some tips on time management. Some might see this as a sign that I shouldn't spend ten minutes going over homework at the beginning of class. Whatever the cause, I'm doing my part to raise the ambient level of evil on campus...

Posted at 2:33 PM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

A Series of Unfortunate Gentlemen

My teaching schedule this term makes the end of the week into a miserable slog-- I have two classes to teach on Wednesday (morning and afternoon), two labs on Thursday (morning and afternoon), and then two classes on Friday. It feels like an unrelenting assault of Newtonian Mechanics. By the end of the Friday afternoon class, I'm pretty sick of the material, and I'm sure the students are sick of me.

This is also having a bad effect on my reading. I'm way behind in my book-logging-- I have actually read several books this year-- but more than that, I'm finding it hard to read. I have papers to mark almost every night, and when I finish that, I'm just too brain-fried to really focus on books. I'm slowly working my way through David Quammen's Monster of God, but between general fatigue and continuous doggie interruptions, I'm not making much progress.

The few books I have finished recently have been either kids' books (two more Lemony Snicket books), or comics (the second volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which was deeply unpleasant). Those are just about right for my current state of mind, which is a good thing in some respects, but also the answer to a question Jim Henley and other comics bloggers keep asking: why don't people buy more comics?

Jim has been writing about the "wait for the trade" phenomenon, and that certainly nails the reason why I don't read comics in monthly issues. I don't like being left hanging in the middle of a story, and prefer to have the whole thing in one handy package, or at least fairly substantial chunks. In the collections I've read where the individual issues are easily discernable (the breaks in the League book sometimes slip past me), I would be really annoyed to only have one of them.

Collections of the full run of a series aren't a complete solution to this problem, though, as there ends up being a problem of value: trade collections of comic series rarely leave me feeling as though I've gotten my money's worth. The cost is somewhere between the cost of a regular novel in trade paper and hardcover, but I don't get the same amount of diversion from them.

This is, undoubtedly, attributable to the fact that I don't read them right, or something. I realize, intellectually, that the art is part of the story, too, and thus part of the price, and I probably ought to linger over little details in each panel, and take time to appreciate them. I probably ought to eat more fresh vegetables, too.

In the end, if I pay $20 for a text novel, it's generally good for several hours, or a couple of nights of bedtime reading (depending on the book...). A $20 graphic novel doesn't get me the same return on investment-- a good one takes only a few hours to read, and don't demand the same level of concentration as a regular text novel. If it's something truly excellent-- Watchmen, say, or The Kindly Ones-- then that's fine, but when it's something less impressive-- Fables and Reflections, say-- I'm sort of miffed that I didn't get more out of it. And when I actively dislike the result, as with the new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I'm considerably more annoyed at having shelled out good money for it than I would be at a bad regular novel.

In this way, actually, comics have a lot in common with the Lemony Snicket books. Note, please, that I'm not saying that they are thematically related, or that comics are only for kids (if anything, the second volume of League was excessively adult), or anything of the sort. This is strictly a return-on-investment comparison.

I've greatly enjoyed all the Series of Unfortunate Events books I've read to date (Booklog entries on the first four are here: 1, 2, 3, 4), but I've gotten all of them out of the library. The books are more than $10 each, and even I can't quite bring myself to pay that for something I can read in two hours. I'd be happy to buy them in a cheaper form-- $5 each, say-- but not at the current price.

It's the same situation with comics. I have nothing in particular against the form-- Sandman and Watchmen are fantastic (and Jim's discussion of the latter will probably get me to re-read it), and V for Vendetta and the first volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were very good indeed-- but I vaguely resent paying $20 for a Sandman book. And I'm just not willing to take a flyer on other series of unknown quality. Even strong recommendations from smart people like Jim and Pam don't really get me over that threshold.

Can't miss recommendations of books to check out are definitely welcome in the comments, though. Especially given my current mental state...

Posted at 1:37 PM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Sorry About the Pigs

Physicists in general, at least in the United States, are overwhelmingly white and male. This leads to many a soul-searching editorial in various trade publications, asking what it is that we, as a discipline, need to do to attract women and minorities into physics.

I've always tended to view this sort of thing with a bit of skepticism, as I think the problems are mostly economic in nature. Every technical field out there is trying to improve the numbers of women and minorities working in the field, and most of them have more to offer in the way of financial incentives than physics does. Physics jobs that pay well aren't thick on the ground-- it's mostly an academic discipline, with a smattering of industry jobs that tend more toward engineering-- and they mostly require a PhD, which means spending something like 5-10 years in grad school, plus a couple of years of post-doc work before you can even think about finding permanent employment.

Contrast that with the other physical sciences and engineering, where students coming out with an undergrad degree can often find jobs that pay about the same as what a PhD physicist can expect to make, and where a Master's degree has some additional financial benefit. On top of that, majors like biology and chemistry can naturally feed into medical school, which is a long slog, but is at least believed to offer significant financial rewards in the long term. That's pretty hard to compete with when it comes to recruiting students, and female and minority students who are being wooed by all the science departments are quite rationally going to be drawn more toward the more lucrative fields. Indeed, I've heard it argued that minority students in particular are more likely to feel a strong push toward the fields most likely to bring faster financial rewards.

(In a similar vein, I tend to attribute the fairly sharp drop in physics majors through the 90's to the dot-com boom. Students with the mental tools necessary to be good physicists discovered that they could make five times the money that they could get with a physics degree by learning to bang out stupid little Web applications-- of course enrollments suffered...)

All that said, every now and then, I run into horror-show stories like this piece about the Duke University physics department:

Julie Zeigler came to Duke University last year with plans to earn a doctorate in physics. She will leave at the end of the spring semester with a master's degree instead.


Her situation is just one example of a problem that female graduate students and faculty members alike say has persisted for years in Duke's physics department and is now threatening to tear it apart. They say male physicists have kissed and grabbed them, mistaken them for secretaries, pushed them out of the way in laboratories to keep them from moving large pieces of equipment, and met their questions and suggestions with hostility.

What a thoroughly odious pack of swine the faculty described in this article are. It makes me feel vaguely ashamed of my whole profession. On behalf of sane male physicists everywhere, I'm sorry about these assholes.

Posted at 8:24 AM | link | follow-ups | 16 comments

Monday, January 26, 2004

One to Spin on His Head, One to Sit on a Throne and Watch

Via a mailing list that I'm on, this story about breakdancers at the Vatican, complete with a fantastic picture of the Pope watching the show (you can get video of it, too, but that might be too much to take....).

During Sunday's show, one dancer -- part of a Polish group that helps poor and marginalized youths -- planted his head on the inlaid marble floor of the Vatican hall and spun to loud applause from his group and from Vatican officials.

Really, it's like the set-up to a bad ethnic joke...

Posted at 2:19 PM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

The Aimless Blade of Science

While I realize that it's probably too much to ask for a product called the "Wavemeter Jr." (a cheaper version of the Wavemeter that they made a few years back) to be accurate to the 0.01 nm level suggested by the readout, the presence of the 0.01nm digit in the readout does seem to suggest that it ought to be good to, say, ten times that value (+/- 0.1 nm).

Nope. The laser cooling line I was looking for is at 811.29 nm according to NIST, but 811.57 nm according to the Wavemeter Jr. Somehow, if you're going to put a hundredths place on your display, I think you ought to deliver better accuracy than +/- 0.3 nm. This is doubly annoying, as I wasted several hours tuning the laser in the 811.1-4 nm range looking for the transition, and not finding it.

Having the normally excessively moist air in the lab turn out to be so dry that a giant spark leaped from my hand and fried the temperature controller was just icing on the cake...

(I did have a spare, which I swapped in, but it's still annoying. At least it didn't kill the laser-- diodes are notoriously sensitive to death by static shock. The expensive diode current controller I bought just proved its worth.)

Posted at 8:58 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Sunday, January 25, 2004

And Now, Our Senior Middle East Correspondant...

Speaking of Islam and reform thereof, I should plug a new(ish) article by Official Uncertain Principles Middle East Expert Paul Schemm, about changes in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt tends to get overlooked in the focus on Saudi Arabia's loony theocrats and Pakistan's nukes, but it's an extremely important country in the region and for the "War on Terror" (a good chunk of Al Qaeda's membership comes from Egypt). It deserves more attention than it's getting.

Posted at 8:54 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Know Your Audience

Part of my Sunday morning routine is reading the book review sections of both the Washington Post and New York Times on-line. I don't read all of the reviews, as a good 80% of what they review is stuff I just don't have any interest in reading, but they provide the occasional pointer to a good book that I wouldn't've picked up otherwise, and some of the reviews themselves make for interesting reading.

Of course, some of the reviews also make for bafflement. Consider, for example, the Post's review of Gregg Easterbrook's new book. Easterbrook has written a book talking about how the huge increase in American and European prosperity since World War II has not, in fact, led to general happiness, and attempting to explore the reasons for this.

It's not a topic I particularly want to read Easterbrook writing about (he should stick to football), but there might be an interesting book in there. It's a little hard to tell from the review, though, as they got a senior editor of Reason to write it. There's a certain amount of amusement value in paragraphs like:

Polls he cites attest that, in 1997, 66 percent of Americans believed the lot of the average person was getting worse. I suspect that the only way people could believe this is that they have no understanding of how and why market economies in the West deliver as they do, and why there is no reason to expect them to stop now.

But really, this tells me more about the person writing the review than it does about the book.

Of course, you can go a little too far in the other direction, too. Consider the Times review of The Trouble With Islam, a book by a Muslim woman arguing for an Islamic Reformation, and against unthinking fundamentalism.

Again, a worthy topic, and quite possibly an interesting book to read. Who did they get to review it? Andrew Sullivan. Yes, well. I guess Charles "Little Green Footballs" Johnson was busy this week.

Posted at 8:42 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

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