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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

I Got Your Job Skills Right Here

The Chronicle of Higher Education, sadly, is as prone to ginning up fake controversy as any other publication out there, and has hit on a doozy this week, with an article by Bill Coplin moaning about how colleges and universities don't teach "job skills" (the URL is to a free-with-email reference version of the story, which was sent to me by a colleague. I don't know if it'll work for other people, but the article is aggressicely stupid enough that I'm happy to try an end run around their paywall...).

Were I not on vacation, and de-stressing, I would probably work myself up to a rant about this. I already sort of know how it would go, complete with cheesey 80's pop-culture reference (to The Karate Kid, for those who care). But I'm on vacation, damn it, and I'm trying to de-stress, and this isn't helping.

Happily, PZ Myers does a nice job of shredding it for me. I may expand on the Karate Kid aspect at some later time, but for now, go read him.

Posted at 6:42 PM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Vacation, All I Ever Needed

Despite what I said in the previous rant about FedEx, I decided that it was more important for me to take some time off to restore my mental equilibrium than to be in the office this week to make sure that my vacuum pump finally got where it was supposed to be over a week ago. Of course, this was the cue for a whole bunch of Important Issue to turn up in my inbox, from referee comments to colloquium scheduling, but I've stuck by my determination not to set foot on campus for the last two days.

This has also, oddly, cut into my blogging a little. I spent much of Sunday tearing up some horrible carnivorous plants on the side of the house, and trimming some trees. Yesterday, I spent a good chunk of the day loafing in the back yard reading. Today, my father came up from Scenic Whitney Point, and we played golf. I've gotten away from the computer a little, I'm trying not to think about work, and I'm definitely staying clear of the Republican convention.

Tomorrow will involve more loafing and reading (possibly in a park somewhere, to give the dog a treat before we take her to The Place for the weekend), and then Kate and I are off to Worldcon (as explained in great detail over on my book log. We'll have web access, but I doubt I'll post anything (other than responses to comments).

More regular blogging will resume next week, probably Wednesday. Until then, check out the many fine sites linked from the sidebar, and go recommend SF movies to John Scalzi. The 300th person to mention Forbidden Planet gets a special prize...

Posted at 10:47 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Metric Basketball

The US beat Lithuania to claim the bronze medal in the Olympic basketball tournament the other night, and I don't much care. I mean, I'm vaguely happy that they managed to pull it out to win something, but I really just don't have much interest in Olympic basketball.

It is sort of interesting to note, as Sean Carroll does the extreme contrast between the 1992 Dream Team and the current bunch of misfits and head cases. But I think most of what's been written about the contrast really understates the uniqueness of the 1992 team, which was more a matter of character than talent (though the talent differential is also pretty huge...). Jordan, Magic, Bird, and the rest were not only better players than the current bunch of louts, they were also better people, or at least somewhat concerned with their public image.

There's also a lot of hand-wringing about the brainless system we use to choose the Olympic team, and what can be done to fix it. The answer, barring a return of more team-oriented and PR-conscious players in the Magic/ Bird/ Jordan mold, is really "not much." There's just not anything really in it for the NBA players who should be on the team.

The fundamental problem is that, unlike most of the countries we play against, the US doesn't have a real national team. If we want to really compete in international contests, that's what we'd need-- a national team whose roster changes slowly over a period of years (Sarunas Jasikevicius, the former Terrapin who shot the lights out in the first game against the US, was on the Lithuanian national team back when he was at Maryland, and will probably be on the team in 2008 as well), and who play together on a regular basis as a national team. The half-assed approach of trying to scrape together an NBA all-star team at the eleventh hour just doesn't cut it.

The thing is, we don't have a national team because we don't particularly need one. It's sort of like the metric system-- the US continues to run on the English system of measurements because we're a big enough market that we can use any damn fool system we like. Manufacturing companies can make a healthy profit just turning out English-measurement models that will only be used in the US. No European country really has the resources to pull that off-- if Sweden were to decide to adopt cubits as their standard measure of length, it would be a disaster, because it's not worth anybody's while to make products that can only be sold in Sweden. (This is also part of why paperback books are half the price in the US that they are in the rest of the world.)

Basketball-wise, we're pretty much in the same position. The US population is large enough, and the talent pool deep enough, that the NBA is more or less self-sufficient. Yeah, they're drawing in a fair number of foreign players these days, but even without them, there's enough American talent to put together several very good teams (I don't think either the Lakers or the Pistons were really relying on foreign players, for example), and have a high-quality competetive league that's entirely home-grown.

That's not really the situation in most other countries. Most countries have their own leagues, but get competetive teams by spreading their best players around, and filling their rosters out with second-raters. To get really top-notch competition, they have to pool their best players, and play against other countries. (It helps that in Europe you can frequently reach a national border with a well-thrown rock... Playing international competition is a slightly more involved process for the US...) Which is why most other countries have a real national team, that plays together on a regular basis.

There's really not much incentive for the US to form a regular national team at present. Dividing the best talent among the NBA teams doesn't dilute things badly enough for anyone to really complain about the level of play, and there's not really anybody for them to play right now, if we did put such a team together. Which, in turn, means that there's not much in it for the players you'd need to get to play on the team. It's not going to earn them any money, and the NBA champion gets more attention in the US than the Olympic team ever did.

(I should note that this is not the result of any intrinsic quality of the US. If China or India were to decide to adopt some daft system of measurement, or set up their own self-contained sports leagues, they'd eventually be in the same position the US is.)

It's sort of vaguely possible that this year's poor performance might provide some sort of incentive to change. I doubt it, as the financial issues for the NBA and its players are still too big an obstacle to overcome.

On a more general level, though, I'm not really sure why the loss of absolute American hegemony in Olympic basketball is some sort of crisis situation. The Cold War is over, after all, and we no longer really need to have a quadrennial proxy war to prove that we're better than everyone else (especially now, when we're working on having actual wars with an alarming number of people...). This is no doubt a reflection of my America-hating liberal tendencies, but my reaction to the story that the US didn't win the gold medal in basketball is basically "So what?" If the rest of the world has become competetive with American basketball, that's great for them, and great for the sport, and that's pretty much the end of it.

Posted at 8:44 PM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

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