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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Thursday, August 12, 2004

A Mystery

Speaking (as we were a couple of posts back) of academic blogging: What, exactly, does this mean? Inquiring minds, etc.

Posted at 8:47 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Random Musical Notes

Scattered comments on musical matters, prompted by the time I've been spending ripping CD's into iTunes:

I'm not sure quite why, but I'm always faintly surprised when rock stars turn out to look like normal human beings. I was ripping Bob Mould's Workbook the other night, and in the photo on the back, he looks like a librarian. A particularly mild-mannered librarian. This is not the image that, say, Beaster projects... His blog (or, at least, the blog that shows up as the first hit on a Google search for "Bob Mould") is more in line with the librarian picture.

It's even more disconcerting when one member of a band looks normal, while the others are freaks. The best recent example is probably the cover picture of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in Spin . Karen O is dressed like a space hooker, Nick Zinner has that "Hair by Robert Smith" thing going, and Brian Chase looks like he has a day job teaching calculus.

I'm blaming Charlie Watts for this one.

I've listened to the Old 97's a bunch in the past week or so, including Wreck Your Life, which includes the song "W.I.F.E.":

I've got my wife, the other women, and the whiskey killing me.
The first two make it so that I see red. The third one makes it so that I can't see.
If I had half a brain left after my debauchery,
I'd give up the other women, and the W-I-F-E.

I'd just like to say that it's a crime that this song never became a gigantic hit on country radio. It would've fit right in in the karaoke bar we went to in New Orleans.

Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices is going to burn in Hell for releasing about a million albums in the last ten years, each with a million tracks. They have a twenty-minute EP with ten tracks, for God's sake. They make Weezer look like Pink Floyd.

Of course, that's nothing compared to the torment that awaits David Lowery of Cracker for putting ninety-nine tracks on Kerosene Hat (85 or so are three seconds long and silent). Funny joke, Dave. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Whoever is putting genre information into the CDDB database is a moron. I might grudgingly allow that the Polyphonic Spree are "Alternative," in the sense of "Not really much like anything else," but they're just about as far from "Punk" as you're likely to get while still sharing an initial. Put another way: assigning these guys to the same "genre" as the Clash is sort of like grouping Tom Clancy with Dorothy Sayers, on the grounds that neither is Virgil's Aeneid.

Not a find from my CD's, but rather a link passed on via a mailing list: The Stairway Suite. Yes, it's "Stairway to Heaven," re-written in the mode of various classical composers. Complete with MP3 clips.

God Almighty, I own a lot of CD's.

Posted at 9:00 PM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

Academics, Happy and Otherwise

PZ Myers has recently upgraded the Pharyngula server, and really should consider donating the old machine to Calpundit Monthly, which is inaccessible more often than not, these days. Anyway, you can tell that the new machine is fast by the posting blitz that has followed the change, including this rumination on blogging and academia.

A lot of talk about blogging in academia is little more than a result of the (in)famous tendency of academics to be analytical to the point of paralysis. Something as fraught with potential Meaning for questions of Identity as running a weblog is just too rich to let pass without exhaustive and sometimes excruciating discussion. Snide comments aside, though, I do think the division between "happy acacdemics" (in the terminology of Steven Krause) and "stressed academics" is an interesting one. (Amusingly, the sites Myers puts in the "stressed" category (Playing School, Irreverently, Just Tenured, Barely Tenured, and Bitch. Ph.D.) are presently more concerned with non-academic issues (to the point of feeling more like LiveJournals than weblogs, though I'd be hard pressed to explain the distinction) than the Invisible Adjunct-type material I was expecting...)

The central issue is really the division between academia as a job and academia as an identity, encapsulated nicely in the Making Contact post that started the whole thing. Those in the "stressed academic" category seem to chafe at the idea of academia-as-identity, while the "happy academics" seem to be more comfortable with the balance between the two.

I'd sort of provisionally put myself in the "happy" camp, in large part because I've never been all that concerned with questions of Identity and self-definition (and, indeed, I'm always a little creeped out by people who are strongly focussed on those issues). But also, I'm fairly happy with most of the intrusive aspects of the job-- I like hanging out with students outside of class, going to on-campus events in the evening and on weekends, and spending time thinking about teaching and research and campus issues. There are aspects of the business that I don't care for-- I'm not wild about having to deal with students having social or emotional problems, because I'm just not trained for that-- but on the whole, I'm happy being a college professor, and identifying myself as such.

Which is not to say that there aren't tensions-- this is a stressful job, and in the middle of the term, there are times when it threatens to become overwhelming. But I think the same is true for almost any job-- most of my friends from college are in the business world, and they seem to be fighting some of the same problems, at least judging from the number of work-related phone calls I've watched them make at various social events. The main difference I see is just that they don't talk about the problem as much.

Of course, blogging does raise some extra questions and problems, and a lot of the discussion of this stuff revolves around questions of whether it's appropriate to be running a weblog or not, and what level of effort needs to be put into self-censorship. A number of academic bloggers, particularly of the "stressed" variety, go to great lengths to hide their identities.

For my part, obviously, I've decided not to do that, not least because I think it would be difficult to maintain-- sooner or later, I'd slip up and use someone's real name, or some identifying characteristic, and then I'd be consumed with paranoia about whether I'd given the whole thing away. I do make an effort to keep direct links to my employer to a minimum (mostly so my political rants don't get attached to the college), and I don't advertise my blog to students and colleagues, but the effort required to really maintain anonymity doesn't seem worth it.

The trade-off is a bit of self-censorship. I try to avoid directly referring to specific students as much as possible (the sole exception being for congratulatory messages and the like), and I try not to discuss internal college business on this site. That's occasionally hard (mostly on Kate, who has to listen to me venting about this stuff in person), but it's easier than trying to hide my identity.

But again, I don't think this is really a problem unique to academia. I read at least three pseudonymous LiveJournals written by people who are hiding their names so they can spout off about problems at work, and none of them are faculty members.

Interestingly, the majority of the named academic bloggers I know of are in the sciences, while most of the anonymous or pseudonymous academic bloggers seem to be in the humanities. There also seems to be a larger number of "happy academics" on the science side, with a larger number of "stressed academics" in the humanities. This is probably just a reflection of the differences in the job markets in the two areas (the science job market is merely awful, while the academic job market in the humanities is almost inconceivably horrible).

Since this has wandered quite a bit from what I thought it was going to be, I'll just note here that the best blog I discovered from this process was Yes, YelloCello, which wasn't linked in the original, but was linked by most of the other sites. Just, y'know, FYI. I'll stop now.

Posted at 4:12 PM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Monday, August 09, 2004

Afshar Speaks

For better or worse, I seem to be committed to an endless series of updates on the Afshar Experiment. In comments to my most recent post, Dr. Afshar has posted a few remarks. As the post in question has slipped far enough down the page that most people have probably stopped checking it, I'll reproduce his comments:

The technical details of the experiment are irrelevant to the discussion regarding the interpretation of the results. The basic schematics are shown in the New Scientist article, and if anyone can find a mistake in my arguments reflected in the NS article, I'd like to hear it. I am more than happy to be proven wrong! There are some letters and responses to them in this week’s NS, and there may be some more soon. One thing that needs to be clarified regarding the NS piece is that in my experiments, there are 6 wires of thickness 127 microns (200 the wavelength), separated by 1.3 mm, which can block only 6% of the incident light. This is not in any sense comparable to a diffraction grating that typically has around 1000 wires (or etches) per mm, and only allows a small portion of the incident light to pass.

As to the arXiv posting, you should ask their administrators as to why they wish not to post my experiment (while hundreds of dubious papers have been posted!) despite my many attempts.

If you wish to read my papers just drop me a line, but please do not post them on the internet before they have been published.

My reply (in the same comment thread):

The technical details of the experiment are irrelevant to the discussion regarding the interpretation of the results.

Yes and no. It would be useful to know some more details of the technique, just to have a better idea of the confidence level of the results: What sort of laser is used? How do the measured reductions compare to the intensity fluctuations of the laser itself (depending on the type of laser, you can easily have intensity noise above the 10% level)? What is done to correct for any effect of intensity noise? How are the comparisons between data with wires and without wires handled? What steps have been taken to rule out alternate explanations of the results? What other experiments have been done in this system?

I'm not questioning the veracity of the reporting, but these kinds of details are always useful when evaluating experimental results, even before you get to questions of interpretation (which I will leave to Matt and Aaron and other commenters for the moment, as I'm already running late this morning).

I'm sorry to hear that you're having trouble with the arXiv administrators-- my knowledge of their normal operation is minimal, so I can't provide any comments. I would like to see the papers, though, so feel free to send a copy to the email address over in the left-hand column.

For the record, I have not yet read the New Scientist piece (I don't have free access to their site), though I may go over to the library today and see if they have it, just to get away from the endless chain-sawing outside my window.

Posted at 11:08 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Lego Engineering

A few years ago, now, the College built a new science building. I't actually more of a classroom building than anything else-- the Geology department has their offices there, and there are a few labs in the basement, but mostly it contains electronic classrooms and computer labs used for classes in all sorts of subjects.

This building is vaguely round, and connected to the older Science and Engineering Center (where my office and lab are) by an underground tunnel. A short distance away around the arc of the circle (20 or 30 degrees of arc), there's a second underground hallway, leading to some of those basement labs.

Almost as soon as it was completed, they started having problems with the basement. Water leaks in constantly, and the foundation began cracking in the are of the two underground halls. Numerous leak abatement programs have been undertaken, and they've done a number of interior repairs to try to stop large and alarming cracks from appearing in the walls. None of them have worked (this is what you get for dealing with the lowest bidder).

The most elaborate project to date is now underway, outside my office window and twenty or thirty yards to the left. They've decided that the cause of all the problems is that pressure from the dirt in between the two underground halls is pushing those two parts of the building apart, leading to cracks in the foundation and all the rest. The solution they've come up with is to reduce the pressure on the foundation by removing the dirt, and replacing it with something of lower density. Without the weight of the dirt pressing down, the sideways pressure on the foundation should be less, or so the logic runs-- one of the geology professors is pretty dubious about the whole concept, but they evidently didn't consult him. I'm not sure who they did consult, actually, because I've never heard of this sort of thing (though admittedly, I'm not up on construction techniques)-- I really hope we're not pioneering this scheme.

In order to carry this plan out, they've spent most of the summer digging a gigantic pit-- some 20 feet deep-- in between the two halls, and trucking the dirt away. And now, they're filling the pit back in with styrofoam. Yes, styrofoam-- big rectangular blocks of polystyrene, probably 4' by 4' by 8'. They look like God's own Lego bricks.

The blocks are being carefully positioned in the pit by a team of three or four guys, and occasionally forced into place by the simple expedient of having one guy climb on top of the block and jump up and down. They've put down two full courses of blocks already, and have at least two more to go. Once they've filled in the pit, they'll cover the last course with dirt, and re-do the landscaping. I'm not sure if this will actually solve the problem, but it's certainly interesting to watch.

Of course, the pit isn't an integer number of styrofoam blocks across, so some of them need to be cut down to size. With a chain saw. Right beneath my office window. Yeah, this is going to be a productive day...

Posted at 10:47 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

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