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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, April 03, 2004

Joe Schmoe, Douchebag for Liberty

Kevin Drum's acquisition of the Washington Monthly has brought him a spiffier web address, but alas, has not turned up a better breed of comment trolls. Still, even a blind pig will find the occasional acorn, and thus we have this truly remarkable comment by "Joe Schmoe" to a post about the ongoing creation/ evolution debate:

Leftists just love bashing the religious right. The fact that, as a practial matter, these people have no real power or influence never seems to register.


Leftists pick on the fundies becuase they are an easy target. They are advocating crazy views that really don't have much scientific support.

But I confess that I see a more sinister motive here: Class prejudice.

Leftists like bashing fundies becuase they represent the masses...the great unwashed, the common man. They pick on them becuase it makes them feel superior. Of course, they are supposed to be champions of the common man, but...


Yep, the creationists are just a bunch of fat, slack-jawed hayseeds! They are working people who spend their days praying and raising children...let's demonize them! Let's build them up into a sinister force in society so that we can feel good about ourselves!

I admit that some members of the religious right can be hateful and intolerant. That's a whole other issue, and one where I tend to agree with the leftist point of view. But that's not what the creation science debate is about. It's just a harmless, nutty belief.

To paraphrase Jon Stewart, who knew this deck even had a class card?

But let's look at this closely for a second. Leave aside the claim that religious fundamentalists don't have any real power or influence. And forget for a moment the dodgy use of "really don't have much scientific support" as a stand-in for "actively reject all of modern science." Let's just focus on the class issue.

On the one side, we have a group of mostly-liberal scientists and educators, who believe that working class people everywhere are smart enough to comprehend the basics of modern biology, and deserve to be taught the true facts about how scientists understand the world.

On the other side, we have people who believe that it's "harmless" for large numbers of those same working-class people to hold beliefs about scientific issues that are not just "nutty," but fundamentally and perniciously wrong.

Which of these two is guilty of "class prejudice," again?

Posted at 12:41 PM | link | follow-ups | 15 comments

Biology Overseas XV

On a related note, welcome The Panda's Thumb to the blogroll.

People need to stop starting good blogs whose titles begin with "P", though. Work on something that begins with "X," why don't you?

Posted at 12:35 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Friday, April 02, 2004

A Question of Economics

I know that I have at least a few readers who run their own blogs, and include ads on their sites. I'm sort of curious: How much money is actually involved in this? How much do the ads bring in, and how does that compare to, say, the cost of Web hosting for a site with enough traffic to attract advertising?

I hasten to add that I have no intention of actually putting advertising on this site. For one thing, I have no illusions that I'm important enough that an implicit endorsement from me would help sway a Senate race in South Dakota. More importantly, I'm far too lazy to actually redesign this site in a way that would allow me to include ads.

I'm just sort of curious as to the economics of the whole thing. If you've got a blog with ads, and don't mind telling me how much you get from them, I'd like to know.

Posted at 2:22 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

The comments associated with this Atrios post citing Jim Henley's April Fools post serve as a nice reminder that the rise of a "Liberal Instapundit" is not wholly a Good Thing.

(For what little it's worth, Jim had me going for about two paragraphs, but an approving link to Den Beste was just too much to be believable...)

Posted at 2:16 PM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Oustanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence

Weblog quote of the week:

Note that the introduction of eternal, immortal beings into higher ed faculty is going to really cause problems in the tenure system.

No cash, just glory.

I miss Invisible Adjunct already.

Posted at 9:01 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Henry Farrell linked to a "Nasi Lemak" post containing a graph of Bush's poll numbers over time, which has, predictably enough, caused a minor kerfuffle in the comments there. There are a couple of different arguments going on, one about whether it's appropriate to have the axes on the graph run between 47.5% and 90%, a subject about which I have already expressed an opinion.

Personally, I would've had the axes run from 0 to 100%, to provide the most neutral picture possible, Edward Tufte be damned. I would've included a horizontal dotted line at 50%, though-- as Daniel Davies noted in the Crooked Timber comments, 50% approval is a very important threshold in electoral politics.

Another argument in the comments points to a compilation of data for several presidents, posted at Radio free Monkey. Of particular interest is this graph of approval ratings which makes the important point that if you're going to plot six data series, each with several dozen points of roughly comparable magnitude, you need to distinguish them by something more than just point color. Ye gods, what a mess.

On a more serious note, it's an interesting chart for several reasons. For one thing, it's interesting that all the approval ratings start at roughly the same place, regardless of how close the election was. Reagan's relative landslide over Carter didn't really give him a boost beyond the lesser Bush's Elecotral College photo finish.

You also may be able to see the growth of the news industry in the shape of the data. Nixon's early numbers are all over the place, while Clinton and GWB have a relatively tight distribution. This might well be an indication that there are a lot more polls being done now than there were then (Lemak averaged ten polls to get Bush's overall rating). I may be reading too much into this, though, as Nixon's post-Watergate swoon has very little scatter in the plunging approval rating.

The most interesting thing, though, is the comparison between Clinton and Reagan. With two exceptions, a downward blip for Clinton around the time of the health care debacle, and a late drop for Reagan that probably correlates with Iran-Contra, they're almost identical. That's an interesting bit of data to show to Republicans who revere Saint Ronnie while vilifying Clinton.

It's also worth noting that the dip Clinton's numbers took while he was actually being impeached for l'affaire Lewinsky is about a third of the hit Reagan took for Iran-Contra. Which suggests that, whatever the Congress may think, the American people care less about lying about blow jobs than they do about actual executive malfeasance. That probably won't cheer up Teresa's commenters much, but it made me feel good about the electorate for the first time in a long while.

Posted at 2:50 PM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The Wogs Begin in Westchester

Kevin Drum defends David Brooks from Sasha Issenberg's much-blogged "Boo-Boos in Paradise" article nit-picking Brooks's "public intellectual" book on "bourgeois bohemians." I'm really sort of torn on this issue. I haven't read Brooks's book, but the excerpts I've seen make me think he's an ass-- he's stealing Joe Queenan's act, and trying to pass it off as Deep Thought. On the other hand, I tend to agree with Kevin that "finding exceptions to Brooks' generalizations is both trivial and pedantic," and Issenberg's piece really isn't a big step up from Brooks's.

The amusing thing about the whole issue is that Brooks and Issenberg are both making exactly the same mistake: assuming that statistical descriptions of large geographic areas are a complete description of those areas. The map is not the territory, and the statistical abstract is not the population. This is something of a hot button for me, as I've spent an inordinate amount of time trying to convince people on three continents that points west and north of White Plains are still part of New York.

Issenberg does a good job of documenting Brooks's failings in this area, but turns around and commits exactly the same sort of errors. consider, for example, this remarkably silly paragraph:

"In Montgomery County we have Saks Fifth Avenue, Cartier, Anthropologie, Brooks Brothers. In Franklin County they have Dollar General and Value City, along with a plethora of secondhand stores," Brooks wrote. In fact, while Franklin has 14 stores with the word "dollar" in their name -- plus one Value City -- Montgomery County, Maryland, has 34, including one that's within walking distance of an Anthropologie in Rockville.

It starts off with a dumb assertion from David Brooks. First of all, Montgomery County, MD covers a large swath of territory in the DC suburbs, from the run-down working class areas of Takoma Park to the soulless yuppie developments of Gaithersburg and Germantown, to some honest-to-God rural areas out toward Damascus. Taking the upscale bits of Bethesda as emblematic of the whole thing is the same as assuming that Manhattan is a good stand-in for Buffalo, as they're both in New York.

I spent five years living in Rockville, MD. It would've been a long walk to Anthropologie (which I believe was down by the White Flint Mall, the most relentlessly upscale mall I've ever seen), but I was in Rockville. I was a grad student paying $365/mo for a room in a crackerbox Cape Cod house, sharing a kitchen and bathroom with sporadically employed high-school dropouts. Across the street from me were public housing projects, and there were honest-to-God crack dealers down the block.

The key point Brooks overlooks is that somebody has to work in all those yuppie stores, and staff the kitchens of the fancy restaurants. And those people aren't shopping and eating in the White Flint Mall. Issenberg is exactly right to point out that there's another social layer in Montgomery County that Brooks is ignoring.

Of course, going to the other extreme is foolish as well. While my immediate neighborhood was pretty downscale, it was a pocket within generally affluent suburbia (though it should be noted that the area on the other side of the Metro station was fairly solidly working-class). There were half-million-dollar houses a few blocks away from me, provided you walked in the right direction. And I had a greater variety of really good restaurants (Hard Times Cafe, Bombay Bistro, Taste of Saigon) within walking distance of my house than anywhere else I've lived, and dozens more a short drive away.

And the dollar store counting argument is just ridiculous, given that the total population of Montgomery County is almost certainly higher than that of Franklin County, and the population density in the Rockville/Bethesda area is much higher. Dollar stores per capita might mean something, but absolute numbers are useless. The same thing holds for the NASCAR and QVC points made elsewhere in the article-- NASCAR's top TV markets are in big cities because that's where the people are.

The problem here is that county-size geographic units are too big for any sensible comparisons on the level of detail where both Brooks and Issenberg are trying to work. This, in turn, means that the ever-popular "One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State," articles are too stupid to even be insulting.

Feh. A pox on both their houses.

Of course, while I'm insulting people, there's no reason Kevin should get off scot free. He cites marketing data in support of Brooks:

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Brooks is hardly alone in thinking this. In fact, it's practically gospel among anyone who markets products of any kind to consumers of any kind. "You Are Where You Live" is the slogan of Claritas' widely-used PRIZM market segmentation system, and it's no joke. People spend billions of dollars based on the results of market segmentation like this, and they do it because it works. Your intuition (and Brooks' thesis) are correct: people in different parts of the country really are different.

This is still inaccurate, though the mistake is more subtle. PRIZM is an effective tool for measuring who buys stuff in a given area, which doesn't necessarily give you accurate information about the actual population. The ZIP code for my old neighborhood (20850) doesn't mention crack dealers and plumbers and furniture delivery guys, though they almost certainly outnumber the actual members of the "Upper Crust" and "Winner's Circle" demographics. The wealthier groups are responsible for more of the economic activity in the area, though, so if you're going to pitch products there, that's the market to pursue. There are probably more people shopping at Dollar Stores than at Anthropologie, but there's more money to be made selling to the wealthy few, so they define the marketing category.

Posted at 10:57 AM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Unreality Television Update

I generally don't have much interest in reality shows, whether they're the contrived and unpleasant Survivor type, or the mock-the-untalented format of American Idol, but I've become weirdly fascinated with ESPN's Dream Job. Largely because it's been on on Sunday nights right before SportsCenter, and I had to watch the tail end a couple of times in order to get to hoops highlights, but it's oddly compelling.

For those who haven't watched it, and who can't navigate the thoroughly awful web page to find the description, it's one of the talent-show type of reality shows, where a bunch of contestants compete in a particular area, in this case sportscasting, in order to win a fabulous prize, in this case an anchor slot on SportsCenter. They're down to the final four contestants (having started the show with 12), and the last episode is tonight at 9.

It's fascinating stuff for a bunch of different reasons, among them the chance to see what, exactly, the people who host SportsCenter are expected to do. There's a lot that goes into making a tv show, and the behind-the-scenes aspect is kind of cool. It also doesn't hurt that the people involved are actually all pretty good. The one contestant who was a train wreck, relatively speaking, was a lot better at it than the talentless dopes who turn up on American Idol.

Of course, shows in this format are really about the judges as much as anything else, and they're a big factor here, too. One of the women from ESPN2's godawful morning show is there to be the token nice person, LaVar Arrington of the Redskins is there as the token athlete (and his decisions seem to be almost completely random). The "people who know what they're talking about" slots are filled by Tony "Pardon the Interruption" Kornheiser (who's shutting down his radio show, removing any need for me to listen to ESPN radio any more) and Al Jaffe, the hiring director for ESPN.

If you'd asked me beforehand which of these people would be the most interesting, I would've said Kornheiser, as he's consistently entertaining. PTI is the only reason to watch ESPN at all between June and September-- he and Wilbon alomst manage to make baseball interesting. I would've been wrong in that guess, though: the most interesting judge has turned out to be Al Jaffe, just because he evidently doesn't watch his own network.

On various episodes, he's chided contestants for referring to their own college backgrounds (obviously, he's never seen Stuart Scott and Scott Van Pelt do ACC highlights), reprimanded them for trying to be funny (an episdoe that was followed by a three-minute lead-in to SportsCenter in which Karl Ravich and Scott Van Pelt discussed the "Dominant Animal Theory" of picking college basketball games), and stated flatly that "mispronunciations are simply not acceptable" (followed by a SportsCenter in which no-one could seem to decide how to pronounce "Terrell Owens," "Xavier," or "Nevada"). It's really remarkable just how out of touch he can be while ostensibly running things.

You'd think he was the National Security Advisor, or something.

Posted at 3:49 PM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

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