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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Where Have You Gone, Invisible Adjunct? A Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You

This past week, the National Labor Relations Board reversed an earlier decision, and ruled that graduate student TA's can't form a union. This is, of course, being denounced as yet another crime of the current administration, as the three members who voted for the new decision were Republicans appointed by Bush.

For a contrary view, somewhat surprisingly, you can turn to Bob Park, who writes:

The National Labor Relations Board ruled that the relationship between graduate students and universities is primarily for educational purposes. Therefore, graduate students at private universities have no right to union recognition. This was the right thing to do. Unions typically negotiate job security and wage levels. Standardized wages might be a boon to twelfth-year students of 13th century Turkish ballet, but they would certainly hurt physics students. The harm that a diminished supply of graduate students could do to a research university far outweighs the benefits of job security. The last thing a student needs is a permanent career doing graduate work.

There's a bunch of stuff here that's worth looking at. Park is right about one thing-- while many graduate students are undeniably badly exploited by the current system, the students who are badly exploited are generally not physics students, or even science students in general-- when I was at Yale, the across-the-board salary being demanded by the nascent union was actually $1-2,000 less than the students in our group were already getting, and with a much lower teaching load. This is why grad student unionization movements often have trouble getting traction in the sciences.

From a strictly self-interested viewpoint, Park is right (snide, but right): unionization of grad students would not be a big gain for physics. (Though he's implicitly using the idea that minimum wage increases destroy jobs, which I gather from Crooked Timber and elsewhere is no longer really believed by sensible economists...)

On the other hand, though, as members of the academy, we should feel some obligation to care about the bigger picture, and the welfare of students in general, not just within our own discipline. Grad students in the humanities really are in a bad spot, and the benefits a union would provide for them would almost certainly outweigh the harm to students in the sciences. It's not enough that we don't abuse our own students-- we should try to ensure that no students are exploited, and allowing them to organize is one way to do that. From a broader perspective, this decision is a Bad Thing, even if it is a short-term benefit to some fields.

It occurred to me that this dilemma almost exactly parallels the relationship between tenure-track and adjunct/visiting faculty, that was the subject of so many posts by the late, lamented Invisible Adjunct. I'd love to know what she (and her many smart commenters) thinks about this, but alas, she's shut her site down, and moved on to other things...

Posted at 9:10 PM | link | follow-ups | 20 comments

Friday, July 16, 2004

This Explains Everything

A few of us from the department helped one of our colleagues move from one apartment to antother this morning. Driving from the old place to the new, we had to pass under the railroad tracks, where there are a couple of large billboards to the right of the road.

The right-hand billboard proclaimed in large letters:

Sex Education Begins At Home

and in smaller type underneath that,

We can help you have "The Talk."

The left-hand billboard is a large advertisement for a strip club.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the American relationship with reproductive biology in a nutshell.

Posted at 4:39 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Fountains of Wayne

The band Fountains of Wayne played a free show last night at the Empire State Plaza ("Rockefeller's Folly") in Albany. The show nominally started at 6:00, but there were two opening acts (one that I missed, and one band with a female singer who wanted very badly to be Gwen Stefani, who covered Lita Ford's "Kiss Me Deadly." Which seemed like an odd choice, but worked for them), so the main show didn't start until 8:30. Additionally, it's been miserably rainy here this week, so the show was moved infdoors, to a room with less-than-ideal acoustics, so things didn't start off especially well.

Once they finally got going, though, it was a good show. Sort of an odd crowd, though-- much more families-with-small-children than the college-age kids I would've expected. Of course, it is the summer, so colleges aren't in session, and free outdoor concerts are probably too dorky to attend. The majority of them seemed not to really know anything but the singles off the current album, and stood perfectly still through the first half-dozen songs from the previous records. They did perk up a bit for the office worker anthem "Hey Julie," and a few people were bouncing up and down for "Stacy's Mom," but overall, it was about as calm as I've ever seen for a headline act.

There wasn't much of a stage show to wow those who didn't already know the songs. For one thing, it's not like they're an incredibly photogenic band-- it's four really skinny and slightly awkward-looking guys. They pretty much came out on stage, stood in front of the mikes, and played the songs straight up, with very little chatter (aside from a few saracastic comments about the big sponsor signs strung up over the stage), and not much modification. It didn't really help that the lighting guy couldn't seem to figure out that lead singer Chris Collingwood doesn't play the guitar solos, and kept the spotlight on him even as actual lead guitarist Jody Porter pulled guitar faces off to the side. Collingwood took to turning his back during the solos, which is about as much motion as we got from him, aside from the occasional semi-ironic guitar flourish.

Then again, if you know the songs, there really isn't much need for a stage show. Their specialty as a band is the carefully crafted three-to-four minute pop song, with a heavy emphasis on the clever lyrics. The songs don't really allow a lot of room for extended guitar freakouts, or anything of the sort (though the guitar breaks on songs from the first album (recorded largely as a duo) were expanded a fair bit). The songs are mostly character sketches, though, so they don't need a lot of instrumental embellishment.

Given the make-up of the audience, I was a little surprised at how many of the songs were taken off the older albums (not that this was a Bad Thing-- Utopia Parkway is an excellent record). They opened with "I've Got a Flair" off their first album, followed by "It Must Be Summer," which is a pretty good combination, but confused about half the audience. The first new track they played was "Hackensack," which hasn't been released as a single (as far as I know), but seemed to have some people singing along. Or maybe that was just the crappy acoustics-- tough to say for sure. They didn't skip any of the important tracks off the latest album (I would've liked to hear "Little Red Light" more than "Bought for a Song," but they hit all the key tracks), but they filled the set out with a few odd choices from earlier records ("Go, Hippie" being the oddest. That's probably my least favorite track from Utopia Parkway).

I was a little disappointed that they didn't really do any cover songs-- given the sort of band they are, that's really the area where you would expect something different in a live show. They did work a bunch of stuff into the middle of "Radiation Vibe," though-- a sort of first-verse medly of the Steve Miller Band's "Jet Airlier," Foreigner's "Double Vision," and the Cars' "Let's Go," along with instrumental nods to the Eagles and Boston (and I may have missed one). Of course, they didn't sing any of the choruses, so as Collingwood noted, there were "a lot of confused young people" in the audience.

As I said, a good show. Not a blow-you-away, revelatory-experience sort of evening, but a solid performance. And with any luck, it'll get some of the kids who came to hear "Stacy's Mom" to pick up Utopia Parkway, which remains one of the most unjustly overlooked pop records this side of 1965.

Full disclosure note: the two main guys in Fountains of Wayne (Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger) both went to Williams. They graduated in '86 (I believe), so they were a bit before my time, but the alumni connection does sort of require me to have a strong opinion about them....

Posted at 8:19 PM | link | follow-ups | 11 comments

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

I Love the Smell of Molybdenum in the Morning

I'm spending a bunch of time in the lab this week, building vacuum hardware. This is simultaneously one of the most annoying parts of my research, and also one of the most satisfying. It's satisfying because at the end of the day, there's a large Thing that has been visibly modified, giving me a concrete sense of accomplishment. It's annoying because of, well, everything else involved.

The experiments I'm setting up require a very good vacuum-- you can't hold on to ultra-cold atoms moving at a few centimeters per second if you've got a bunch of room-temperature atoms whizzing around at close to the speed of sound. The standard method of obtaining such a vacuum uses ConFlat components, where the vacuum seal is made by sandwiching a metal gasket (usually copper) between two knife-edged stainless steel flanges. When you press the flanges together, the knife edges cut into the copper, making an extremely good seal-- about the only thing that will penetrate ConFlat at any significant rate is helium, which isn't terribly abundant. Good ConFlat systems will hold vacuum at 10-11 Torr. To put that in perspective, a cubic millimeter of air at atmospheric pressure contains roughly 1016 molecules (10,000,000,000,000,000), while a cubic millimeter of air at 10-11 Torr contains somewhere in the neighborhood of 100.

Of course, arranging this takes some work. To get a good seal, you need the knife edge to press into the copper gasket smoothly and evenly all the way around the flange. Which means that ConFlat flanges are held in place by lots and lots of bolts (6 for a 2.75" flange, 16 for a 6" flange (Yes, we use English units for this. Bite me.)), which need to be tightened down securely-- copper is soft, but not that soft. So building a vacuum system requires rather a lot of time spent using a pair of wrenches (one on the bolt, one on the nut) to crank bolts down. And also some skinning of knuckles on those inevitable occasions when the wrenches slip just as you're putting pressure on, and your hand goes slamming into the corner of a large block of stainless steel.

Better yet, we need to be able to undo those flanges later, when we want to change the system around, so steps have to be taken to ensure that the bolts and nuts don't just weld themselves together under the pressure. This is accomplished by smearing the screw threads with lubricant before putting the bolts in. The lubricant in question is a nasty greyish paste, with molybdenum dioxide listed as the active ingredient. No matter how hard I try, it always ends up all over my hands (making me look sort of like the Tin Man), and once it's there, there's no getting it off-- the color goes away easily enough, but there's a nasty metallic taste that gets on any food I handle after using the stuff. I'm sure it's probably horribly toxic (paging Derek Lowe...), but it beats having to hacksaw through welded bolts in order to get the chamber back apart.

("Why don't you wear gloves?" you ask. Three reasons: cloth or canvas work gloves don't allow me enough manual dexterity to thread the nuts on the bolts, and the one-size-fits-all latex gloves don't, while the extra-large ones aren't. It's easier to get the thing together bare-handed, and the metallic taste goes away in a day or so.)

It's all loads of fun, really. So much fun that I'd rather write blog posts describing the process than actually do it. And Mary Messall reminds me of the next fun step in the process...

Posted at 10:14 AM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The Agyar Criterion

In a comment to my recent post about music, Mike Kozlowski writes:

You know, I'm a fairly snobbish sort of fellow who looks fondly on looking down on things; but even I couldn't make it through that whole AC Douglas post without thinking it was the biggest load of horseshit I'd read in a while.

I wish somebody would make a more compelling case for the essential worthlessness of pop music, because I'm sure there is a case to be made...

We agree about the horseshit, but I'm not so sure that Mike's case can be made. At least, not when you include the implicit qualifiers with it. What Mike wants is:

That seems like a pretty tall order to me. It'd probably be easier to argue for the essential worthlessness of all music, and then offer classical as the least of many evils.

But then, I'm probably in a bad position to evaluate the possibility of such an argument, because I've never been all that clear on what, exactly, it is about classical music (or jazz, for that matter) that makes it qualitatively different than mere pop.

Douglas offers one of the sillier definitions that I've ever seen, writing:

Metaphorically speaking (and once one gets past technical considerations of craft, one can speak of the core matters of aesthetics in no other way), the singular principal hallmark of all artifacts of the realm of high culture is their aspiration to transcendence; transcendence of the quotidian world of experience, of the culture which produced them, and even of their very selves as works of art. And that singular hallmark is what's singularly lacking in all the artifacts of the realm of popular culture, their singular principal hallmark being an aspiration to the widely accessible here-and-now entertaining.

Now, clearly, this fails on the "pretentious twaddle" criterion above, but even beyond that, it's kind of weak on the grounds of simple logic. After all, it's hardly unique to note that a lot of classical music originated as the pop of its day. What are all those waltzes but the reflection of a dance craze of centuries past?

If Falco can pick up on this, surely Douglas is able to see this. Well, yes, but the plug for this particular hole in logic is almost sublime in its silliness:

Please note, I did not say all the artifacts of the realm of high culture are transcendent. Clearly, only the greatest are. Rather, I said that, in themselves (as distinct from the conscious intentions of their creators), their hallmark characteristic is their perceived quality of aspiring to transcendence. That quality is unmistakable, and can be sensed almost palpably in even, say, the simplest sonata of Mozart's even though Mozart himself may have intended such merely as an occasional composition.

So, even when Mozart set out to write ephemeral pop, he was really straining for transcendence. How can you tell? Well, um, because he's Mozart? In the absence of some criteria for how one can distinguish that which aspires to transcendence, we're left with basically a circular argument. Classical music is High Culture because it was written by a High Culture person. QED.

You could probably try to construct a more sensible version of the "transcendence" argument, but it'll run into problems on both the classical and pop sides of the divide. Not only are there all those pop ditties from ages past, but there's no shortage of more recent music that explicitly reaches for transcendence, ranging from the gospel-influenced work of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green; to the cosmic-hippie vibe of the late Beatles, the Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix; and even to things like the soaring vagueness of U2. Not to mention the art-rock grandiosity of Pink Floyd, Yes, and Genesis.

And you hit similar problems with most of the other criteria I've heard used in attempts to make the distinction. Technical competence is sometimes held up as a key factor, and I will grant that there are many pop bands whose members can barely play their instruments, and "singers" who can barely sing. But that's a question of musicianship more than anything else-- Britney Spears's ouvre will not be raised to High Art simply by being played by a symphony orchestra, any more than a disco treatment of Beethoven's Fifth transformed Studio 54 into Carnegie Hall. And Eddie Van Halen is a pretty good guitar player-- does that put "Volcano" up there with the Goldberg Variations?

You could suggest that the question is really a sort of competence in composing the music, but again, you hit problems. The songs are shorter, but there's as much songwriting craftsmanship in the Holland-Dozier-Holland catalog as there is in some of those "occasional compositions" that are so casually elevated to High Culture status. Writing really good pop songs is hard work, which is why there are so few really notable pop songwriters out there.

The only distinction I really see between most "high culture" music and the pop that people sneer at is what you might call the "Agyar Criterion," after the narrator in Steven Brust's Agyar, who responds to questions about the quality of art by saying "ask me again in fifty years." The main thing distinguishing pop music from classical music is age, and the filtering that comes with age.

I'm not going to attempt to claim that all pop music is the equal of Mozart-- the occasional channel-surf past MTV would make clear that that's a foolish idea. Sturgeon's Law ("90% of Everything is Crud") applies to music as well as literature. 90% of what people listen to these days is total garbage, but 90% of what people listened to in Mozart's day was also total garbage. It's just that nobody remembers the garbage from back then. It's the same phenomenon that makes people think that books and movies and tv shows were all better back in the day-- the actively bad and merely forgettable books and movies and tv shows have all been forgotten.

Of course, this theory has its own problems when it comes to considering modern composers of classical-style music. Are they really "high culture," or are they just granted honorary "high culture" status because they're working in (roughly) the same artistic mode as the "real" classical composers?

Ask me again in fifty years.

Posted at 10:25 AM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Monday, July 12, 2004

I Deeply Resent, etc.

As everyone left of Limbaugh has already noted, the Bush administration is considering a plan that would allow postponement of an election in the event of a terrorist attack. This is, of course, generating about the reaction you would expect--- see, for example, the oft-quoted PZ Myers:

There is no credible reason to postpone an election. These are despicable wanna-be autocrats trying to lay the foundation for a coup in the event that the campaign doesn't run the way they want. I am astounded that anyone could think this proposal is anything but a desperate, illegitimate, and unconscionable idea from a gang of unprincipled thugs.

As with most things this administration proposes, this is not necessarily as bad an idea as most people are saying. The fact that this is being proposed doesn't necessarily mean that they're planning to do an end run around the Constitution, any more than the ratification of the 25th Amendment (setting up the Presidential succession order that Al Haig never did learn) in 1967 meant that shadowy forces were planning to knock off a half-dozen top officials of the Johnson administration. It's not inconceivable that there might be some circumstances (not those that Billmon envisions, though) where democracy would be better served by pushing the election back a day or two, and it's not absurd to suggest that we might want a national policy to govern such cases. I'm not sure it's a high priority (if this never came up during the Cold War, it's hard to see why it should be incredibly important now), and it's a tricky business because it would pretty much provide a blueprint for any group of nutjobs with explosives to mess up the process of democracy, but it's something that probably ought to be considered carefully.

And had it been proposed by almost any President in my lifetime (I wouldn't've trusted Nixon), I'd be willing to consider it. Proposed now, by this administration... If these clowns had drafted the 25th Amendment, I'd be half convinced that it was all part of a plot to throw the Presidency to Tom DeLay.

Frankly, the only thing that could reassure me at this point would be for Scott McClellan to state definitively that it is part of a conspiracy to establish Bush as President-for-Life. Then I'd know he was lying, and feel better about the whole thing.

Posted at 9:04 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Sunday, July 11, 2004

High Fidelity

I bought a new computer this week-- the old one didn't die, but had gotten a little too creaky to continue with-- and presented with both Windows XP and a gigantic hard drive, I quickly downloaded iTunes, and have spent a bunch of time ripping CD's to MP3's (I'm not enough of an audiophile to care about the small loss in sound quality relative to other formats).

This is probably the best process ever for reminding myself what a cultural cretin I am. I'm going through my collection in alphabetical order, more or less, and by the time I post this, I'll be up through the C's, having ripped somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 songs, but a measly two discs that my colleagues at work (a very NPR sort of crowd) would recognize as worthy of note. (John Coltrane, Blue Train and Live at the Village Vanguard, for those who care.) It's not like this is a really skewed sample, either, as the remainder of the alphabet includes all of two more jazz albums, plus a couple of big-band collections, in the category of "things the rest of the department might listen to."

Compare this to, say, the three Blink-182 albums I ripped last night (not all the tracks, mind-- only the ones that are actual songs, as opposed to dick jokes set to music), and, well...

This process necessarily involves rather a lot of time spent sitting in front of the computer waiting for iTunes to finish copying tracks, so I've been poking around through blogdom, and playing with Technorati, and all the rest of the things I do when I have broadband access and time to kill. Completely by coincidence, this led me to Alex Ross's list of ten essential classical CD's (via Scott Spiegelberg's Musical Perceptions, which I've just added to the blogroll). As noted just about a year ago, I'm not a big classical music fan, in part because it's hard to sort out what's worth listening to, and classical fans (not unlike jazz fans) tend to give unhelpful recommendations (lists of several hundred "essential" CD's, incredibly obscure suggestions, weirdly inaccessible records).

Ross's list is probably as reasonable an approach to this problem as I've seen-- in addition to trying to provide a wide range of stuff, he also specifies reasonably priced recordings (the whole list is supposedly $150). I probably still won't do anything about it, but if you're in the same boat, you might give it a try.

Elsewhere on his blog, Ross has some interesting thoughts on musical elitism (in contrast to the agressive elitism of fellow critic AC Douglas).

Posted at 3:45 PM | link | follow-ups | 12 comments

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