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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, April 09, 2004

It Could Be Worse

Having bitched about my jury duty experience a few months back, I suppose I should note that it could've been worse. A guy I know from my college days was on the Kozlowski jury. His conclusion:

I certainly hope there will be a retrial. I believe that the defendants committed crimes and that the law demands that they be held accountable. If it's all the same with the state, though, I'm going to sit the next one out. I've served my time.

Posted at 3:35 PM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Why Should Biologists Have All the Fun?

After devoting a bunch of time to knocking creationists around, it would be easy to start feeling all superior about being a physicist. Happily, I have Physics Today to bring me back to earth, with a report on our own brand of kookery:

The cold fusion claims made in 1989 by B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann didn't hold up. But they did spawn a small and devoted coterie of researchers who continue to investigate the alleged effect. Cold fusion die-hards say their data from the intervening 15 years merit a reevaluation-- and a place at the table with mainstream science. Now they have the ear of the US Department of Energy.

Granted, as scientific menaces go, it doesn't approach the "Threat to the Republic" level of "Intelligent Design," but this is almost certainly a waste of scarce resources. The article even hints that this has more to do with political connections than any merit to the claims. (But then, they would say that, wouldn't they? The APS, after all, is the professional society for the sort of physicists who laughed at Galileo...)

Of course, part of me wants to get even more corrosively cynical, and say that this is part of a darker plan. By having DoE sink money into investigating cold fusion, they get the best of both worlds: they can claim to be funding "alternative energy" research, while running no risk of actually finding something that would reduce the importance of oil. Everybody wins-- everybody who owns an oil company, anyway.

I deeply resent... Oh, you know the drill.

Posted at 1:43 PM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

CSI: Creepy Storylines Incorporated

Taking a break from banging on creationists, here's a weird idea that occurred to me the other day.

We walk the dog at least twice a day (she's the Best Emmy Ever, after all), which means we spend a remarkable amount of time carrying around bags of dog crap. It's always a relief when trash day rolls around, because that means that I don't have to carry the bag all the way home, but can ditch it in somebody else's trash at the curb. It's always a little bit surreptitious, as if some homeowner might object to me adding a small bag to their outgoing trash, but nobody's complained yet.

One morning last week, I noticed that lots of other dog-walkers do exactly the same thing, and had one of those bizarre thoughts that strike me from time to time: "That," I thought, "would be a great way to get rid of a body." After all, there's trash collection every day in some neighborhood or another, and nobody really pays any attention to people with dogs dumping noxious bags into other people's trash. Get a big dog, and chop a corpse into smallish pieces (of a size that might plausibly be dog droppings), and you could ditch most of a body in a couple of days of dog-walking in different neighborhoods.

I originally thought of this as a mystery novel sort of plot, but it's really more of a CSI type plot:

Scene 1: A man with a large dog (a Rottweiler, say) walks down a suburban street lined with trash cans, carrying a bag of something unpleasant. He stops at the end of one driveway, glances around, then puts the bag into a trash can.

A cranky old man (the owner of the house) objects to this, loudly-- some sort of "I pay for the trash collection, throw your dog crap away somewhere else" thing. The dog walker looks startled, then runs away. The cranky old guy looks puzzled, then wanders down to remove the offending bag, and discovers that it contains not dog crap, but a human hand... Cue Who song here.

Future scenes can include the dorky lab guy explaining how he identified the victim through some deeply improbable technology, the big dumb guy and the black guy with the hair sifting through dozens of different trash cans, one of the women putting together a sketch of the dog walker using some other deeply improbable technology, the unflappable pathologist cracking wise while reassembling a few dozen pieces of dead body, and William Petersen steadfastly refusing to act while working out how to identify the killer by matching the bags used to dispose of body parts to a roll of plastic bags found in the suspect's glove compartment.

It's perfect for them: it's the sort of absurdly clever scheme that actual killers never come up with, it allows plenty of room for ridiculous technobabble, and there are numerous opportunities for incredible disgusting re-enactments of corpse dismemberment. I can't think of any really horrible puns to work into the plot, but I haven't thought about it all that hard. If any enterprising writer type wants to take a whack at writing it, good luck, but give me credit...

(Yes, it's really disturbing, the sort of stuff that comes into my head when I'm insufficiently caffeinated and being dragged down the street by a hyped-up dog.)

Posted at 3:31 PM | link | follow-ups | 12 comments

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Class and Evolution

I really don't mean to turn this into KevinDrum', but I can't help myself. The evolution debate continues apace over at Calpundit Monthly, with the always reliable Reg stepping out from under his bridge to try a slightly different tack:

Anyway, if the people of Kansas want to ignore evolution, what business is it of yours in California or New York? So Kansas won't have a lot of biology majors, they lose the competitive advantage not you.

Comments like this are what make American conservatives so very entertaining. I mean, first we get an accusation of "class prejudice" on the part of liberals, followed by a shameless display of, well, class prejudice. (Joe Schmoe, who posted the original accusation, uses a less quotable version of the same argument elsewhere in that comment thread.)

Let's be absolutely clear about this: if "intelligent design" makes it into the schools, it's not going to affect the upper classes. Their children aren't in public school, anyway, and if they are, they can easily be removed when the curriculum falls into disarray. The people who will be affected are overwhelmingly poor people in rural areas, who don't have any other options.

And those are precisely the people for whom education has the most to offer. Luck of the genetic draw aside, education is the surest path to a better life, particularly for the rural poor. A good high school education can lead to a chance to go to college, which provides a basis for a career in something other than dirt farming. Without a shot at a decent education, the poor will stay poor, and so will their children, and their children's children.

That's what's under attack here. This is more than a matter of a few bits of trivial factual knowledge here or there-- it's a question of attitude. The attitude of conservatives who promote "intelligent design," and even those who shrug and say "who cares, it's only Kansas," is that it just doesn't make any difference what you teach poor people in public schools. It's not just an attack on biology, it's an attack on education, which is a direct attack on the best shot the lower classes have at making a better life for themselves and their children. The issue goes beyond the number of biology majors at the University of Kansas-- it's messing with the American Dream.

This is the subtext to the battle over evolution in the pulic schools. Some of the same subtext is there in the school vouchers debate. It's the difference between caring that every member of our society is given the best possible chance to make something of himself, and "I've got mine, who cares about the poor?"

The fact that the very same people whose words and actions convey such a deep contempt for the prospects of the lower classes will then turn around and claim to be the true champions of "Real Americans" is one of the sickening ironies of American politics.

Posted at 9:25 AM | link | follow-ups | 12 comments

Monday, April 05, 2004

In the Eye of the Beholder

Over the weekend, Georgia Tech denied Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton his first posthumous national championship, and UConn edged Duke to set up a Huskies-Yellow Jackets match-up for the national championship tonight. I haven't said much about the games because I missed big chunks of both (the first for a family party, the second answering student questions), but I'd be a poor hoop junkie indeed if I didn't say anything.

For lack of a better topic, let me highlight this Michael Wilbon column about the Duke-UConn game. The big story here, for those who haven't been following it, is that the referees worked the game like they were getting paid by the whistle. Wilbon rightly takes them to task for doing a shoddy job, but he wouldn't be Michael Wilbon if he didn't take it a little too far:

There was never any kind of flow or back-and-forth rhythm, even though both Duke and Connecticut are polished teams offensively. And neither is particularly physical or foul prone. U-Conn. vs. Duke isn't Michigan State vs. Oklahoma. U-Conn. and Duke don't hack it up. They rely on skill; both play beautifully.

Let's not get carried away, here. Yes, they're both very good teams, and yes, neither relies on Georgetown-style thuggery to win games, but come on. The last time a Duke player set a legal screen was in 1997, and Greg Newton got benched for that, and they play a clutching, grabbing style of defense that would make my old coach turn purple with rage. And UConn plays in the Big East, a league famous for its thuggery. They're no strangers to physical play.

Both teams do a good job of playing within the way the rules are presently interpreted, but look at a rule book and some game tape, and you could make a case for there being a whistle every time up and down the court. Is a national semifinal game the place to start trying to enforce the rules as written? No. But let's not pretend that Duke and UConn would warm Dr. Naismith's heart with their beautiful play.

As for tonight's game, I don't have a real strong preference either way-- I root for both conferences, so either team would be fine on that count. I sort of lean toward UConn, if only because Jim Calhoun has the best accent in the business, but Tech's never won a title before, so that would be nice, too. Whichever way it goes, it should be an interesting game, though I might need to try to find it on the radio, to avoid Billy Packer's relentless negativity, and Jim Nantz's straining for Significance.

Posted at 7:49 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

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