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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Fiddle and Burn Answers

Here are the song titles to go with the lyrics posted earlier. As I said, these are pretty obscure, even by my standards. I'm very happy with the tape as a whole, though.

Side Two:

Posted at 8:53 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Friday, June 11, 2004

The Last Word

I've mostly refrained from comment on the Reagan-a-thon of this past week. I didn't care for the man when he was actually President (favorite Reagan memory: he did a campaign stop in Binghamton, NY (solidly Republican territory), and opened his speech with "It's great to be here in Bimmington Binginnton Bennington Bimm-- it's great to be here!"), and time has done nothing to improve my opinion of him. At-home dentistry is probably preferable to a week of watching Reagan haigography, and I've tried not to dignify the sorry spectacle with a comment.

I can't let it pass without saying anything at all, though, so I'll take this opportunity to highlight Bob Park's response to the attempts to plaster Reagan's face on our currency:

Reagan is too big for a sawbuck. Too big even for Rushmore. So why not go for the moon? Everybody loves the moon, and it’s badly in need of a real name. Other planets have moons with dynamite names like "Phobos" and "Titan." What do we call our moon? "The moon." It’s an embarrassment. Why not call it "Reagan"? We were there first, and we should name it. But we’d better do it before China gets there and names it "Mao."

Indeed. How about a little ambition, guys?

Of course, it would be more in character for the current Republican leadership to build a giant laser and use it to sculpt a picture of Reagan onto the surface of the moon...

Posted at 10:45 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Don't Fix What Ain't Broke

I've often said that I regard the NBA as a sort of methadone program for real basketball junkies, a way to ease down from the peak of the NCAA Tournament to the long, dull summer when there's nothing on but baseball. That program is drawing to a lose, as the NBA Finals have finally rolled around, with the Lakers facing the Pistons. This has led to some banter among the heavyweights of the lefty blogosphere, with Kevin Drum backing the Lakers, and Matt Yglesias opposing them.

I'm sort of torn on this issue. On the one hand, the Lakers' run this year is powered by aging stars making a cynical last grab at a championship, and I sort of object to that on principle. On the other hand, I actually like Karl Malone, so I wouldn't mind seeing him win one (though I'd've been happier had he done it with John Stockton). Plus, the Pistons currently feature Rasheed Wallace, who was a blight on the game as a Tar Heel, and hasn't exactly improved in the NBA. It's hard to know who to root for, so I'm basically not watching.

One of the hot topics in sports talk these days, though, is the "ugly basketball" being played in the NBA these days. Scoring is way down, and this is blamed for the fact that the audience for NBA games has dropped in recent years. Sports pundits blame this on everything from Pat Riley to the recent influx of high-schoolers who don't know how to shoot the mid-range jumper, but I'd like to propose a different theory: The NBA brought this on themselves by monkeying with the rules of the game.

My disenchantment with the NBA really traces all the way back to the "glory days" of the mid-80's, when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird dominated the league, and Michael Jordan was on the rise. Looking at games then, I realized that what they were playing wasn't really basketball as I know it, because the rules were very badly skewed in a way that led to lots of great individual play, but very little good basketball. The short shot clock, the lack of a five-second rule, the general neglect of things like traveling and three seconds, the "illegal defense" rules: these are all rules that work to turn the game into five loosely connected games of one-on-one (or one very nice two-on-two game, when Stockton and Malone played).

The rules were skewed in a way that favored one-on-one play, so there was very little in the way of good team basketball. At the same time, there seemed to be a general agreement not to expend a great deal of effort on defense. This produced the classic NBA product: teams with a few big stars, who made lots of flashy plays, and scored lots of points. The league is still built around that kind of offensive game, and they're still trying to market it that way.

The problem is, the combination of that attitude and the short shot clock makes it really easy for teams that choose to play defense to dominate, which is what we're seeing now. The 24-second shot clock means that, by the time you get the ball into the offensive end of the court, you've got maybe twenty seconds to get a shot off, and probably closer to fifteen. It's just not that hard to play good man-to-man defense for fifteen seconds, particularly if you know that the guy with the ball will be looking for his own shot first. A team like Detroit, that's willing to really commit to playing tough defense, can easily force their opponents into one bad, rushed shot after another. It's also much easier to find players who can force great offensive players to take bad shots than it is to find guys who can make spectacular offensive plays, so defense can be a relatively quick route to success.

The ultimate solution to the current scoring problem is for the league to rediscover team basketball on the offensive end, and for players to focus more on working off the ball for good shots. That's going to require a major change in the attitude of the players, though, and a re-thinking of the way teams are built and marketed. You can already see it starting to happen in some places-- the Spurs, for example (and notice that the NBA doesn't quite know what to do with them, in a marketing sense). This would be a positive development, overall, as it would lead to the NBA playing something that would be recognizable as basketball.

If you just want a stop-gap measure to increase scoring, though, I have a counter-intuitive suggestion: increase the length of the shot clock to 30 or 35 seconds. Give the offensive players more time to operate, and force the defensive players to have to work for a longer time on each possession. You'll end up with fewer forced shots, and more open looks at the basket. Yes, there'll be fewer possessions in a game, but more of them will lead to reasonable scoring opportunities. It'll probably still be crap from a basketball purist's point of view, but at least there'll be better highlights.

Posted at 9:58 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

PowerPoint Doesn't Confuse People, Stupid People Using Power Point Confuse People

Sean Carroll describes a recent workshop at which he was somewhat relieved to give a blackboard version of his talk, rather than an electronic version. This reminded me of a post from a while ago that I'd meant to comment on, in which Doron Zeilberger rails against visual aids beyond the use of a chalkboard (via Michael Nielsen, who has some interesting additions in comments to his post).

As one who never gives a conference talk without prepared transparencies at least, and who lectures with PowerPoint in the intro classes, I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, Zeilberger makes some good points regarding the pace at which people tend to talk with PowerPoint as opposed to the chalkboard. On the other hand, though, there's a strong "don't shoot the messenger" aspect to this. I've sat through any number of baffling and incomprehensible blackboard talks, in the form of classes on various subjects, some of which would've been immeasurably improved by the use of PowerPoint, or, really, anything that would've made the chalkboard scribblings more legible.

That is, in part, why I use PowerPoint in the intro classes-- my handwriting is quite bad, particularly on a chalkboard, and it's important that the notes be legible. (I also dislike the physical sensation of dragging chalk across the board-- I don't like writing in pencil, either, for much the same reason...) I've done chalk-talks for the upper level classes I've taught, because the density of equations is such that PowerPoint becomes too much of a time sink, but I might reconsider that at some point.

The other thing I like about doing PowerPoint lectures is that I can easily make the notes available to students who want to look at them to clarify any issues they may have. This is not without problems-- some students tend to rely on this too much, to the point of not taking notes in class-- but I think it helps more than it hurts.

There's a major difference between classes and research talks, though, and while I have no problem with the idea of doing classes on a chalkboard, I wouldn't even consider giving a research talk without at least an overhead projector. The difference here is disciplinary: Zeilberger is a mathematician, and Carroll and Nielsen are theorists.

If you're giving a talk on mathematics or highly mathematical physics, chalk-talking may very well be a good idea, for the reasons that Zeilberger cites. If you're just working with equations, it doesn't much matter whether you project them on a screen, or draw them on a blackboard, and the reduction in pace from having to write them out may well prove valuable. Many of the most inscrutable theory talks I've seen would've benefitted enormously from having the rate of equation display reduced.

If you're presenting experimental data, though, there's no substitute for the real thing. There's a really big difference between sketching your results on a chalkboard and displaying the actual graph for the audience. While I don't doubt that you could faithfully reproduce each wiggle of the data on a chalkboard, the time it would take to do well would just be absurd. And forget trying to do quantitative comparisons of theory and experiment.

For an experimental talk presenting experimental results, I don't see a good way around at least having overhead transparencies for the data slides. And that means you're doing multi-media at a minimum, even if you chalk-talk the rest, at which point you don't lose much by going for prepared slides all the way through.

The ultimate problem here really lies with the speakers. Someone who is likely to give a bad talk using PowerPoint is likely to give a bad talk using overhead slides, or the chalkboard, or any other medium. They might be slightly less bad in a form where they have to move more slowly, but the central flaw of bad talks is bad design, not anything to do with the medium. (If I knew where to look, I'm sure I could find some humanities type ranting on the Internet about what a horrible idea it is to use any kind of visual aids at all, and how everybody should just read fully prepared statements...)

Public speaking, like technical writing, is something that's absolutely essential for a career in science, a fact which most students entering the field fail to appreciate. Both of these skills are also things that grad students are expected to pick up by osmosis, with little or no formal instruction. That's one of the bigger flaws in the scientific education system-- it works fine in some communities, where people who are good speakers and writers train their students to be good speakers and writers, but fails miserably in others. In an ideal world, students would be taught how to give effective presentations in a variety of media, and to a variety of audiences. And, more importantly, they would be taught how to orgainze their material in a way that makes the presentation clear from the start.

Posted at 8:51 AM | link | follow-ups | 18 comments

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Living Vicariously

One of the strange things about spending a lot of time reading weblogs is that I find myself becoming weirdly invested in the personal lives of people I've never met. I scan new entries at Diary de la Vex for mentions of Alex, because the entries when they first met were so wonderfully smit, and I hope they're still happy. And I was weirdly cheered by the discovery yesterday of Sabine sensei's recent courtship and wedding) (no permalinks that I can find-- look for April 26th and May 25th. Yes, those are hardly new entries. It's not updated frequently enough to be a daily read.)

I'm not sure why I'm bothered by that-- there's nothing wrong with being happy for happy people, but somehow it feels a little creepy.

On the other hand, one of the nice things about reading lots of weblogs is that when something Significant happens that I don't quite know how to write about, I can usually find somebody else out there on the Internet who has said basically what I would say, were I to find the right way to say it. In this case, it's John Scalzi who saves me the trouble of finding something to say about Reagan's death.

So, y'know, win some, lose some.

Posted at 8:02 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Monday, June 07, 2004

Fiddle and Burn

I'm giving a final exam today, which means I really ought to be grading papers so that I can just plug the final grades in and be done quickly. I don't quite feel like doing that, though, so I'll write blog posts instead.

In the exam week spirit, though, here's another guess-the-song list of lyrics. Because, well, I'm not feeling especially inspired. This is a very recent tape, so these are mostly recent songs. They're also harder to identify than the last couple, in part because the songs are more obscure (thank you KEXP), and in part because some of them are mumbled so badly that I can't quite figure out what the singer is saying. Finding even speculative lyrics to #19 was tough, even with Google, so good luck with that one.

Anyway, here's the list. Show all work for partial credit.

Side Two:

Posted at 10:46 AM | link | follow-ups | 12 comments

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Cover Songs That Should Not Exist, #1,989 in a series

Another discovery from yesterday's basketball game, or, rather, the music that they piped in during the game. Somebody has done a cover of Biz Markie's "Just a Friend," with the chorus sung by people who can actually sing.

"Missing the whole point" is such an inadequate description of this situation. Without a fat black man in a Mozart wig banging on a piano and howling "Yooooouuu, you got what I neeeeeeed!!!" it's just not a very good song...

(Not to mention that nobody should really be doing cover versions of songs that were popular when I was in college, fer chrissakes...)

Posted at 11:25 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

It Doesn't Take All Kinds, We Just Have All Kinds

Via the sidebar at Steve Cook's Snarkout, a blog with an interesting perspective on film:

[High Noon] on a recent viewing leaves a big void. It is anti-American in that it shows a town of no-goods with no courage who take without giving. It was written to show why all countries should join the UN, and shows the obvious collectivist tilt and hatred of America of its writer, Carl Foreman.

Well. I can't quite think of what to say about that, but I thought I should share it.

Posted at 10:50 AM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

Best of the Old

I played in a charity basketball game yesterday, on a team of faculty drawn from the regular lunchtime pick-up crowd. Our opponents were a team of students, who we were initially told would just be random students who were asked to play by the sorority who organized the whole thing. Then we were told there were one or two actual basketball players on the team. When we showed up, it turned out to be basically the entire varsity basketball team, plus a couple of random guys. We were maybe a tiny bit overmatched.

Happily, they weren't especially interested in taking the game seriously, and spent most of their time trying to set each other up for dunks. Including one very nice back-screen on me leading to an alley-oop slam. (I had a great view of the play-- it was pretty sweet.) We only lost by 11 (85-74), and that was on a three-pointer at the buzzer (by one of my former students, no less...).

Our team, on the other hand... Well, I might've taken it a little too seriously. That thought did cross my mind after I dove on the floor after a loose ball near the end of the second quarter... I did score a bunch of points, though (a career high 26, by my count), including a couple of three-pointers. (They gave me the MVP, which brought with it a Best Buy gift certificate. This is a big step up from the last time I won any kind of MVP award (at a rugby alumni game), which brought with it an enormous trophy cup full of beer that I had to chug...)

I realized when we were shooting around before the game that this was the first game I've played with referees and uniforms since I played IM ball at Maryland in 1994 or thereabouts. Granted, the uniforms were cheap solid-color T-shirts provided by the sorority, and the referees were hung-over students who had shown up to watch the game (one of them looked like they'd bailed him out of jail just to ref the game), but there was a faint air of official game status to the whole thing.

Anyway, it was fun. I probably could've had 30 had I not spent the morning doing yard work. Then again, it's probably good that I did the yard work yesterday, considering that my back is stiff, my legs are aching, and I messed up my right hand when I inadvertently punched the opposing point guard in the face. (What a drag it is getting old...) I don't think I'll be cutting down any more trees today.

It was also a nice reminder of just how good really good basketball players are. I'm not a terrible player, and there was very little I could do to stop any of the guys I had to guard. And these guys are only Div. III players... Against the best Div. I players, they wouldn't fare any better than I did against them.

It's sort of humbling, really.

Posted at 10:26 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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