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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, July 02, 2004

I'm In My Happy Place

On a more upbeat note than the last article, the same Signal + Noise post sent me to the New Scientist, where they have a short article on changes in the fine structure constant, which is something I heard about at DAMOP. The Flambaum group mesurement mentioned in the article is really something, and I'll probably write something up about it later. Their technique is complicated enough that I'm not sure how much confidence I'd have in their results, but it's a clever trick.

Also, as every nerd in the world is aware, Cassini made it into Saturn orbit, and is sending back way cool pictures. They haven't gotten around to false-coloring them yet, but when they do, look out...

Posted at 10:15 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Disappointment Without Limit

As has been discussed at irritating length here, the academic tenure system is a popular target of people attempting to "reform" academia in one way or another. While I generally view these attempts as some linear combination of misguided and malicious, every now and then, I start to think they may have a point, though not the one they mean. Were it not for the worry about the tenure and promotion process, the lives of junior faculty in tenure-track jobs (not to mention the invisible adjuncts of the world) would be much more pleasant.

The tenure process is a constant obsession with junior faculty, and as a result, we're sort of like monopolists in the famous Adam Smith quote: we seldom meet, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a discussion of the tenure process. Part of the idea of the process is that it should serve as an extra spur to productivity, but there are days when the stress of the process is more of a demotivator, making me want to curl up in a corner and gibber quietly.

Articles like Dana Mackenzie's Tenure Chase Papers really don't help. (Via Signal + Noise) There's some interesting stuff in that article, but it's pretty depressing, so if you're a junior faculty member, don't read it. Also, don't think about an elephant.

The one real positive thing I can take away from the article is that, much as we occasionally gripe about it, the tenure process here is nowhere near as bad as what he describes. We've got a complicated system here (which I won't attempt to describe), but there's a lot more openness and accountability than what's in the article. I've occasionally described the process here as being "just open enough to be really nerve-wracking." But every time I hear a description of what goes on elsewhere, I begin to think that (to paraphrase another famous dead Brit), what we've got is the worst possible system, except for all the others.

Posted at 9:45 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Depends on What the Meaning of "Movie" Is

Via a mailing list that I'm on, ESPN has a list of "The 25 Best Sports Movies" of the last 25 years. This is part of their 25th anniversary celebration, which features them making 25-element lists of all sorts of stupid things. I'm waiting for "The 25 Best Players to Wear #25," and "The 25 Best '25 Best' Lists" (at which point the entire network will vanish into a giant singularity of self-reference, and we'll start over with a channel that actually shows sports. But I digress.

A couple of comments about their actual list. First of all, I was a little surprised at how many of these I haven't seen. I mean, I like sports, and I like movies, so logically, you would think I'd've seen a lot of sports movies. But no-- I've seen seven of the top ten on the expert's pick list (Chariots of Fire, Seabiscuit, and Remember the Titans are the ones I haven't seen), but only 12 of the top 25 (and I'm not sure I've actually watched enough of 61* and The Color of Money to count...). The other striking thing is that I really don't have much interest in seeing the most of the other 13-- Bend It Like Beckham (suggested alternate title: "Twenty Feet Over the Cross-Bar." Sorry, English football fans...) is about the only one I have any interest in seeing.

Another interesting thing about the movies on the list is that several of them really aren't sports movies, in the sense of movies that are fundamentally about the sport featured in them, as opposed to movies about something else that happen to involve sports. Jerry Maguire is probably the best example-- it's not a sports movie, it's a romantic comedy with a few football scenes. Similarly, The Hurricane and Finding Forrester aren't really sports movies (from what I know of them), while I have my doubts about The Color of Money and Searching for Bobby Fischer, as pool and chess aren't Real Sports. (Yes, I know, ESPN televises billiards all the damn time. But if that's the standard, why isn't The Big Lebowski on the list? They show bowling on ESPN, too...)

My standards in this area are probably just higher than most people's, though. I'm not sure I'd class Caddyshack as a sports movie, in the purest sense (it's really a proto-American Pie with golf scenes).

That said, I don't really have many complaints about the list. Raging Bull is probably a better movie than Hoosiers, but basketball is a better sport, and Hoosiers is more fundamentally about basketball (Raging Bull is a great movie about a boxer, but not really a movie about boxing), so it gets the nod. I'm only a little biased, here. After that, the movies that I've seen in the top ten are all better than the movies that I've seen in the bottom fifteen, so it's fairly reasonable.

Notable omissions: He Got Game, Hoop Dreams (though including a documentary might be cheating). (I was going to mention Slap Shot, but it misses the 25-year window).

Acting note: This list confirms that Kevin Costner is really at his best when playing a sort of Everyman sports guy. I think he leads all actors, starring in three of the top fifteen. Tom Cruise is next, with two of the top eighteen.

Natural Law Note: A collection of writing about rugby that I once read offered the theory that the quality of literature about a particular sport is directly proportional to how much time is spent standing around doing nothing. You might take the ESPN list as evidence to support this theory, as there are only two basketball movies and two football movies on the list, compared to eight baseball movies. (Then again, there are only two about golf, so maybe the theory needs work...)

Posted at 8:50 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Camelot for the Irreligious

PZ Myers has a post about atheism and politics, taking off from a couple of interviews (one, two) with Ron Reagan Jr. The basic thrust is probably summed up by his response to Larry King asking if he's interested in politics:

No, I'm not really cut out to be a politician. You know that I sometimes don't know when to shut up. That could be a drawback. I'm an atheist. So there you go right there. I can't be elected to anything because polls all say that people won't elect an atheist.

I can't help wondering to what extent that's actually true, though. I mean, I know that's what polls say, and like so many other things, it's become part of the conventional wisdom of American politics, but I wonder how much of an effect it would really have in an actual race between actual politicians.

That's the thing about politics, after all-- the general dislike and distrust of politicians always collapses when you get down to specific politicians. Everybody agrees that all politicians are corrupt... except their guy. That's one of the causes of the giant advantage incumbents have.

The same thing works with prejudice-- I have some racist relatives who will make startlingly bigoted statements about blacks or Jews or Arabs in general, but who manage to carve out exceptions for specific blacks and Jews and Arabs who they happen to know personally. It's really remarkable to see in action, but it's also a very general phenomenon.

I wonder if the same effects wouldn't come into play when confronted with an atheist political candidate. Of course, you couldn't start off by running PZ Myers for President-- you'd have to start small, and build up a track record of public service and general good behavior to offset the prejudice.

It would also take a specific kind of atheist. You'd need an atheist, rather than an Atheist, in a manner of speaking-- someone for whom disbelief was just another facet of their personality, rather than a defining personal characteristic. The real problem is that most public atheists are captial-A Atheists, who throw out expressions of withering contempt for theists on a regular basis. Those people are unelectable, because nobody likes to be insulted, and those are the people that the average man on the street will think of when asked about atheists in the abstract. Put another way, PZ Myers would be a lousy candidate, but Kate might not be.

There might be a parallel to be drawn between atheism and Catholicism in politics. After all, as I mentioned in a different context, there was a strong anti-Catholic bias in the early part of the last century, with Kennedy's Catholicism considered a serious issue in his run for office (it'd be interesting to know if there are polls from that time about the electability of Catholics, but I don't care enough to spend time looking for them). These days, that seems faintly absurd, in large part because of Kennedy. He was Catholic, but not extreme about it, and defused most of the fears about his faith by being calm, tolerant, and reasonable.

Maybe what the atheists need is a JFK of their own. Or maybe not. I'm just thinking out loud.

Posted at 10:20 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Incongruous Reviews

Back in the mid-90's, when I was in grad school in Maryland, the Washington Post had a habit of sending reviewers to the wrong movies. What I mean is that when summer rolled around, and the incredibly dumb blockbusters hit the screen, they would invariably end up being reviewed by somebody who was really into art-house flicks. And at the same time, obscure indie films about gay cowboys eating pudding would be reviewed by somebody who really wanted to see a special-effects extravaganza. This tended to produce a lot of unjustly negative reviews, but probably made the movie reviews more entertaining to read than they would've been otherwise.

Anyway, in that spirit, I present the following review of Speakerboxxx/ The Love Below. While those who know me well struggle to regain their composure, let me explain to the rest of you: Contrary to the first guess of a commenter, I'm one of the whitest guys on the planet. I'm not much of a rap fan (though I do firmly believe in the Two Good Songs theory)-- as noted with regard to this very album, I don't even like dance music. So the idea that I would buy a rap (double) album, let alone attempt to review it is probably almost as amusing as the image of me in a Mini Cooper...

I ended up buying this for three reasons. First, it got very good reviews in all the music magazines, so it's at least critically respected rap. Second, thanks to my recent hoops exploits, I had a gift certificate from Best Buy that I could blow on a couple of CD's. Third, and most important, it passed the critical Three Good Songs threshold the day I saw the video for "Roses" while channel-surfing (the songs in question were "Roses," "Hey Ya" and "The Way You Move," for those keeping score at home).

So, what did I think? Well, it's a weird couple of records (technically, it's a double album, but they're different enough that I'll treat them separately). The first disc, Speakerboxxx is pretty much a straight rap record (at least insofar as I can identify such), while the second, The Love Below, is trying very hard to be a Marvin Gaye album from another dimension. There's really not a lot of connection between the two, aside from a few backing vocal appearances by Andre 3000 on the Speakerboxxx songs, and the very odd Big Boi rap interlude in "Roses."

The Speakerboxxx disc starts off pretty rough, at least for me. "Ghettomusick" manages to combine pretty much everything I dislike about rap songs-- backing music that sounds like it was generated by hacking a Super Mario game from 1990, several extended samples that seem to have dropped in from a completely different song, Big Boi's inordinate fondness for spelling out words. The next couple of songs are better, but not by much, and on first listen, I was beginning to fear I'd wasted my fake money.

It improves dramatically right around "The Way You Move," though, and sustains some reasonable momentum through the next few songs. "The Rooster" has a great hook, and "Bust" is pretty good. "War" is a bit of a misfire-- a little too complicated for its own good-- but "Church" has a sort of doofy charm (a comment which would no doubt get my ass kicked in person, but it's meant well), and it carries on reasonably well from there. The music never really loses that Nintendo quality, but Big Boi's delivery is actually kind of interesting to listen to, and the best parts of the lyrics are pretty clever. There's one guest appearance (Cee-Lo on "Reset") that's a little too Dr. Evil to take seriously, but everything after "The Way You Move" is pretty solid. Not entirely my thing, but there are a few songs I like enough to consider putting on a mix tape, and I can understand how people could really get into it.

Then there's The Love Below. If you took copies of Let's Get It On and Midnight Love, and collided them at high speed with Prince's Greatest Hits and the previous disc, you might expect this to emerge from the rubble. On some levels, it's a major improvement over Speakerboxxx, at least by my standards, in that it features music that sounds like it was made by actual instruments. In places, though, it's some of the weirdest shit I've ever bought.

The inclusion of weird little interlude tracks isn't unique by any means-- there are half a dozen on the Speakerboxxx disc, and I dimly recall something similar from Train's Ice Cube tapes back in the early 90's-- but this record takes the form to new heights, if that's the word. You've got weird prayers, fan mail, and internal monologues, mixed up with a bizarre little Vaudeville routine. It's really sort of puzzling. "God" is sort of amusing, and "Where Are My Panties" isn't too awful, but I have no idea what "Good Day, Good Sir" is doing here, or anywhere else. And "My Favorite Things?" What?

On the brighter side, though, the tracks that are actual songs feature some great stuff. "Hey Ya" is still catchy, and "Roses" is a great tune (people named "Caroline" just can't really catch a musical break, though, can they?). "Happy Valentine's Day" and "Behold a Lady" are strange, but play the same basic role as the "God Is Love" and "Save the Children" tracks off What's Going On-- out of context, they'd be impossibly dorky, but taking the album as a whole, they're weirdly brilliant. "Spread" is a great song for those who think Prince is a bit too subtle when it comes to sexual innuendo, and there's a long run of short songs near the end that are all pretty good.

I could do without "She Lives in My Lap" and "Vibrate," but pretty much everything that isn't a bizarre interlude is actually a good song. But what a weird collection of stuff those interludes are. Listening to these discs, it's a little hard to see how these two guys even find stuff to talk about, let alone manage to record albums together.

Anyway, the two discs together turned out to be about what I expected. I expected to hate more of the Speakerboxxx songs and like more of the tracks on The Love Below, but on the whole, it's pretty good. This isn't going to get me to run right out and build up a huge rap collection, but there's some good stuff here. I wish I knew what was up with the bizarre interludes, though.

Posted at 7:09 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Monday, June 28, 2004

What the...?

Big headline on the Washington Post website this morning: "Iraqi Handover Comes Early":

The United States transferred political authority to an interim Iraqi government in a five-minute surprise ceremony on Monday morning that was conducted two days before the planned June 30 handover date because of security concerns.

Well. This is... unexpected. But hey, at least it doesn't look like we're cutting and running, or anything...

Bremer, who has served as America's viceroy in Iraq, flew out of Baghdad on a military transport plane two hours after the ceremony. The occupation administration he headed for the past 11 months was officially dissolved on Monday and will be replaced by a U.S. embassy.

I sure hope some right-wing hack comes along soon to explain how this is actually a Glorious Victory.

Posted at 7:29 AM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

Sunday, June 27, 2004

My Parents Drove it Up Here From the Bahamas

We had company over yesterday afternoon, and while I really should've gone in to work today to write up the annual report on my grant that's due on Wednesday, I was still in a good enough mood that I really didn't feel like working. Of course, I've become more hyperactive in recent years, so Kate's suggestion that I just loaf in the back yard and enjoy the nice weather wasn't really going to work either-- I needed to do something. So I went out shopping.

Now, I did legitimately need to buy a few things, and my birthday was last week, which means I had a little bit of extra cash to spend on things I don't actually need (the new David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, and a bunch of CD's). The real purpose of the trip to the mall, though, was to give me an excuse to get out and drive around.

I really enjoy driving, particularly driving too fast on twisty back roads. I blame this on my rural upbringing-- Scenic Whitney Point is way out in the sticks, and getting a license was a huge rite of passage thing. Largely because there isn't much that you can do for amusement at age eighteen in that part of the state without a car. I spent most of the summer after I graduated high school driving around in my parents' Ford Escort, tearing up and down all sorts of dodgy back roads, going to and from various friends' houses, and just killing time in the car.

I've gotten a big kick out of driving ever since. I like going places, rolling down the road with music blaring, and I particularly like going places by one back route or another (as much as I like driving, I hate being stuck in traffic even more). Whenever I move someplace new, I end up spending at least a couple of afternoons in the car taking turns at random in the new neighborhood, just to find out where all the roads go. I'm not really happy knowing only one way to get someplace-- two is better, but I'm only really happy when I can come up with at least three different ways to get from A to B, even if one of the three involves visiting points C-K on the way.

Kate doesn't really share this enthusiasm for roundabout paths, largely because she gets carsick (particularly when I'm driving). I thought for a while that this indicated it was really a Guy Thing, but several of my suburbanite students turned out not to know the most obvious (and faster) back way from campus to one particular group of local restaurants, so I'm tentatively identifying it as a rural thing. Which doesn't explain Stan Murch, but New York City is its own little reality.

Of course, my love of driving is vaguely troubling, in two ways. First, as a basically liberal guy, I tend to believe that Americans drive too much as it is (and too frequently in SUV's). Taking convoluted back roads to the mall for no reason kind of goes against the idea that we ought to conserve fuel and take public transit, and all that sort of thing. The bigger problem, though, is that in a very fundamental way, I don't really get cars.

It's not that I don't know how cars work-- I'm an excellent driver (shut up, Train), and I understand the basic principles of engine operation. I could probably fake my way through an explanation of what most of the major pieces of a car do, and I know enough about how they're put together to not get completely screwed whenever I take a car in for repairs. I just mean that I don't geek out on cars: I don't know a whole lot about types or features of cars, I have no real interest in working on or talking about cars, and I don't even harbor any deep ambition to own a really impressive car. I don't even know how to drive stick. I'm just not a Car Guy.

Cars to me are just tools. I drive a Ford Taurus, which is good enough for me: It has just enough power to go entertainingly fast, handles well enough that I'm not really worried about losing control of it, and it's fairly low maintenance. There are times when I would like it to be bigger, but I'm basically happy with it, and will keep driving it until it needs to be replaced for one reason or another. At which point, I'll probably get an equally boring vehicle, because I'm just not interested in anything really fancy (and at my size, I don't fit comfortably in a lot of the really cool kinds of cars).

This puts me in sort of an odd position vis a vis American male popular culture. My lack of interest in cars cuts out somewhere between a quarter and a third of the foolproof conversation topics with other men. Happily, I've become a sports fan since my junior high days. Before that, I was really hopeless: cars were out, sports were out, and I didn't know enough to talk about women. For someone who likes to talk as much as I do, it was hell on earth...). I can sort of feign enough knowledge of automotive matters to not be run out of the room immediately as a suspected Communist, but I try to steer the conversation to another topic as soon as possible.

Given the fact that I really enjoy driving, I've occasionally thought that it would be a good idea to learn more about cars. It might add to the experience, and if nothing else, it would give me something to talk about with people who don't follow and sports other than NASCAR. In the end, though, I've got other things to do, and I just can't work up any enthusiasm for it. And when I do have free time, well, I've always wanted to know where that road that runs past the golf course goes...

Posted at 9:36 PM | link | follow-ups | 12 comments

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