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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Chastity is Fornication

Siena College, one of the other small colleges in the area, has decided to party like it's 1959:

The Loudonville school is instituting a ban on opposite-sex dorm room visits after 1 a.m. during the week and 2 a.m. on weekends.

[...]"We wanted to emphasize the nature of being a Franciscan and Catholic college," [VP Maryellen] Gilroy said. The policy, which is meant to enforce individual rights and promote respect, falls squarely within Siena's tenets, Gilroy said.

I love the spin, there-- they "enforce individual rights" by banning individuals from dorm-room visits.

Predictably, the students contacted for the piece aren't too happy about this. But that's not a problem, as the school has sewed up the backing of a much more influential community:

For every student miffed at the new policy, though, Gilroy said there's another applauding it.

"I've probably got an equal number of e-mails saying 'Bravo to Siena,' " she said.

As long as the lurkers support you in email, you can't go wrong...

Posted at 8:14 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Friday, August 06, 2004

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Books and TV

I invited a bunch of students over for dinner last night, to celebrate the completion of their summer research talks earlier in the day (they did very well). After people finished eating, Kate retreated upstairs to contemplate the Law in its Majesty, while the students and I played Texas Hold 'Em for an hour or so (just for chips, not actual money). I wound up as one of the two big winners (the other four all went broke eventually, with varying amounts of grace).

This is tremendously entertaining to me, given that what I know of how to play poker is mostly drawn from Sean Stewart's novel Galveston, and to a lesser degree, Tim Powers's Last Call (the main lesson of that book being "Don't play a mystic variant of poker with creepy sorceror types in a boat on Lake Mead"). There's also a small element of ESPN (that I know the rules of Hold 'Em at all is due to the World Series of Poker broadcasts).

Of course, it's not like I'm going to get cocky about this and phone up Steven Brust and offer to play him for money-- the same group played a month or so ago, and I got trounced, while not playing any differently. It's still a game of chance, which explains the relatively large number of newcomers winning the WSOP tournaments.

But, hey, I have bragging rights around the lab for a few weeks...

Posted at 9:12 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

What Do We Want? To Consider Learning More About Sports Reform!

The National Institute for Sports Reform, briefy mentioned in Sunday's post, is probably worth a comment or two. IT's an organization dedicated to combatting the "Crisis on Our Playing Fields" caused by problems with American sports culture. In case you're not immediately sure what they're talking about, they offer a quiz-- the "American Sports Culture Misery Index."

I should note up front that the "Index" has possibly the lamest concluding paragraph in the history of Internet quizzes:

How did you do? Did you answer “yes” to quite a few of the questions? If you did, then you are undoubtedly unhappy about the condition of our present sports culture. The chances are good that you are part of a growing number of individuals who see sports going through a period of national convulsion and breakdown.

"Quite a few?" "Chances are good?" No, no, no, no-- as savvy consumers of dippy Internet quizzes, we demand faux precision and sweeping statements about our moral worth based on these answers. Something like "0-5: You are a Division I basketball coach. Burn in Hell, exploitive pig-dog!"

As for the questions themselves, they're mostly pretty good, with one caveat: None of this is especially new. Take the very first question, for example:

1. Have you ever watched a youth or scholastic sports event and witnessed parents and coaches exhibiting abusive and unsportsmanlike behavior?

I'd answer "yes" to this, having seen an opposing coach threaten to throw my father in the river because of the way he was running his youth baseball team. This was twenty years ago (give or take), when I was one of the players.

The same (more or less) goes for questions 2, 4, 9, 11, 12, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, 25, and 28. A lot of the "recent" trends they cite go back years-- there are some other, similar, questions that I left out because they refer to Bad Things "increasing," when I don't think they necessarily are increasing. Most of the Bad Things they mention have been part of American sports culture as long as I can remember, and some of them (mostly in the area of collegiate corruption) have probably gotten slightly better in my lifetime (you think academic corruption in college sports is bad now, ask somebody about the stuff that went on in the Seventies).

Now, it might be that my home town was just on the leading edge of the changes in American sports culture. If so, that'd mark the first time we were on the leading edge of anything.

Instead, I think the problem is a matter of changes elsewhere in our culture that have driven more children into organized sports. I've noted for years that I hardly ever seem to see kids playing sports any more without adults running the show (though to be fair, our next-door neighbors are a good counter-example, as their boys spend most of the summer involved in a self-organized wiffle-ball championship with rules of their own devising). I'm not sure why this is, but if I had to venture a half-assed guess, I'd put it down as part of our increasingly safety-obsessed society-- parents don't feel comfortable just turning their kids loose to run around the neighborhood on their own any more, but prefer to put them in situations where there's some adult supervision at all times.

Whatever the reason for it, I think it's the increase in the number of children involved in organized sports programs that has created the perception of a crisis. It's not that the problems have gotten any worse, but rather that people who weren't previously aware of the problems (because they wouldn't've put their kids in the program) have been made aware of the issues, and characteristically insist that Something Must Be Done.

Of course, what to actually do is a Hard Problem. Even the Institute for Sports Reform (people who are presumably dedicated to figuring this out) offer maddeningly vague suggestions (scroll to the bottom):

Anyone who wants to become involved with sports reform must first recognize that there are multiple problems and that they exist at every age level of sports, in every region of the country, and in every sport that is played. On a local level, become involved with your own community and participate in the dialogues that take place in school athletic associations, school committees, booster groups, youth and amateur leagues, as well as collegiate groups. The health, safety, and welfare of kids should drive all decision making for pre-professional sports. Ironically, however, one of the most significant problems in sports reform these days is that there are not enough individuals involved in sports governing bodies that think this way. Too often, the policies that end up directly affecting young athletes are made by individuals who have competing agendas such as the winning of games or commercial interests.

In one sense, though, this is about all you can say. The problems with organized sports are largely a function of the people who organize them, and it's true that they're often not the people you want in charge. The way to fix these problems is to get better people in charge, but that requires more active involvement on the part of parents, some of whom are just using the programs as day care with uniforms. Their lack of involvement leaves the field clear for those who want to re-live their own real or imagined athletic glories, which is how we got where we are.

It's a tough situation. My personal preference would probably be for more unstructured time for kids (he says confidently, as the parent of no children to this point...), but that's probably a hard sell ("I plan to turn the kids loose in a big fenced area with miscellaneous sporting equipment available to them, and let them figure out what to do. That'll be fifty bucks a head.").

Anyway, I agree that there are problems here, and it's worth looking at ways to improve the experience for more kids. I don't agree that this is a crisis point in any meaningful sense, though-- most of this stuff is nothing new, and American sports culture will continue to muddle through pretty much the same way it always has.

(Note that in the above, I'm restricting myself to talking abotu youth sports. The interplay between athletics and education is a fascinating topic in its own right, and I may take it up in another post. This is enough sports babble for now.)

Posted at 7:57 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Web Comics Are the Answer

OK, so I was a little cranky earlier. That's what I get for, you know, reading the news...

The solution is to focus on something more positive. Such as, well, Something Positive. And Piled Higher and Deeper, and Daily Dinosaur Comics. I feel much better now.

Though, really, when helpful advice about attending Worldcon is making me vaguely uneasy about the whole affair ("Carry your vital medical information (if you have any) on your person at all times." Um, OK. Should I expect to be gored by a rhino, or something?), it may be a sign that the ambient paranoia level has crept up to the point where I should go to full Media Isolation Mode for a week or so.

Or maybe I just need to hire Gibwatch Security...

Posted at 9:35 PM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Not "Are You Cynical?" but "Are You Cynical Enough?"

From this morning's Washington Post piece on the terror update that has Max Sawicky contemplating mortality:

Most of the al Qaeda surveillance of five financial institutions that led to a new terrorism alert Sunday was conducted before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and authorities are not sure whether the casing of the buildings has continued, numerous intelligence and law enforcement officials said yesterday.


"There is nothing right now that we're hearing that is new," said one senior law enforcement official who was briefed on the alert. "Why did we go to this level? . . . I still don't know that."

Gee, why could that be? Let's ask Frank Luntz:

"What do you think?" I ask him, in a tone that indicates that I'm not talking about last night's Sox-Yankees brawl.

"Kerry will win," he says. I feel myself jump back slightly.

"Wow," I say. "How can you be so sure?"

"Bush's numbers on the war are bad, and it's spreading."

This administration disgusts me, not so much because they think this way, but because they've gotten me to think this way.

(MaxSpeak link via Electrolite, Gadflyer link via Brad DeLong, dot-connecting thanks to Karl Rove.)

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

Monday, August 02, 2004

No End of Interpretation

The latest entry in the never-ending saga of the Afshar experiment is a column by John Cramer for Analog. For those not familiar with it, Analog is a magazine famous for its strong "hard SF" slant, so it's not completely ridiculous to have a discussion of recent experimental results in a science fiction magazine.

There are a number of things about the article that bug me, beginning with the first sentence ("This column is about experimental tests of the various interpretations of quantum mechanics") which gives me bad student lab report flashbacks. I'm also not especially fond of snark like:

I predict that a new generation of "Quantum Lawyers" will begin to populate the physics literature with arguments challenging what "is" is and claming that the wounded interpretations never said that interference should be completely absent in a quantum which-way measurement. And most practicing physicists who learned the Copenhagen Interpretation at the knee of an old and beloved professor will not abandon that mode of thinking, even if it is found to be inconsistent with the formalism and with experiment.

Then again, this is a magazine that gave Jerry Pournelle a column for many years (and may still-- I'm not a regular reader), so this is probably right up their alley.

The biggest problem I have with the article, though, is that it adds basically no new information. This is, perhaps, an unfair complait to raise regarding a pop treatment of the subject in a fiction magazine, but it's part of a pattern. The same pop-level explanation of the experiment has been presented several times, always with the same slightly muddled explanation of the theory, and not quite enough detail of the experiment to really figure things out.

Nothing I've read about it really undermines the interpretation advanced in comments to my original post, namely that the measurement that's being done by the wire/ les combination isn't enough to really cause problems for quantum theory. This stuff is notoriously slippery, and I can easily believe that there's an honest mistake being made in the interpretation-- God knows, quantum theorists has bewildered better physicists than me.

The marketing of this is slipping from "clever but oversold" to "pure kook," though, and that bothers me. It's been at least six months since the results were in, and all we've got in print are pop treatments of the experiment. This would've been a natural fit for DAMOP, but it wasn't presented there (that I saw), and I didn't hear any buzz about it. Supposedly, the paper has recently been submitted to Physical Review Letters, but it's still not on the preprint server, and there's no reason why it couldn't be put there.

It's irksome.

Posted at 11:06 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Use the Technology Available to You

During my Sunday survey of the state of the world, I noticed an interesting headline for an op-ed piece in the local paper: "Competitive sports play a vital role in education." The interplay of sports and education is a topic that comes up again and again, and I think it's a subject worthy of some discussion. The article in question, however, serves mainly as an illustration of the problems with the half-assed approach most news organizations take to the Web.

The first two paragraphs of the article contain pretty much everything you need:

After reading Bruce Svare's June 6 Perspective article, "Bad sports," I have come to the conclusion that he is so far out in left field that he could not play in Fenway Park.

In addition to reading the article, I visited the Web site of the National Institute for Sports Reform, of which Svare is the director. What I read there was difficult to follow at best. I am still at a loss as to what his organization is trying to accomplish other than to remove interscholastic athletics from our public schools.

Given that this piece is a direct response to the Svare article, it seems to a web-centric person like myself that it might be a good idea to, you know, link to the piece, which was, after all, published by the very same organization publishing the current article. But, of course, they can't do that, because they've buried it behind a paywall (the Times Union's archive policies are even worse than those of the New York Times). Those of us who didn't read the original article, and don't happen to have a two-month backlog of print issues sitting around can either pay $2 to read the original, or remain more or less in the dark about what Svare actually wrote (as opposed to John Metallo's probably slanted description of what he wrote), provided we even bother to look for it.

Then there's the National Institute for Sports Reform, whose Web site is mentioned in the second paragraph. This is even worse, because not only is there not a link to the site, they don't even give the address. Granted, it takes five seconds to locate via Google, but why make it difficult for people? Put the link right in the piece, so the interested reader can find it. They don't even do the old-style Washington Post thing, and put links to off-site resources at the end of the article (of course, the Post doesn't even do this any more, so I probably shouldn't complain...).

I'm not a big fan of the sort of blogger triumphalism that holds that weblogs are some sort of transformative force destined to sweep "Old Media" away, but there are areas where the "Old Media" could certainly stand to learn a few things from the world of weblogs, and this is one of them. Somebody's already taking the time to transfer the article copy over to postable form-- have them take the extra seconds to embed links where appropriate, and the site will be a much more useful tool for readers.

Posted at 11:27 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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