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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, October 01, 2004

An Open Letter to the Computer Industry

You may or may not be aware of my existence; you certainly appear to be logging my every move, but it's not clear that that information is ever seen by human eyes. At any rate, I am a consumer of many of your fine products, and many more products that are much less than fine.

I am writing to bring one important fact to your attention: I am not a complete moron. I am a fully functioning adult, and capable of making my own decisions about what software I want to use, and how I would like it to be arranged.

This means that when I have set my monitor resolution to 1280 by 1024, it is because I have a large, clear monitor, and I would like to maximize my usage of space. It was not the result of some sort of random flailing at the keyboard, and I have not been sitting here just wishing that Windows Update would run the resolution back down to 640 by 480, or whatever cartoonishly huge pixel size you set it back to.

In a similar vein, I have a large number of icons on my desktop, and I have carefully placed them where I want them. I have not been sitting here paralyzed, just wishing that Windows Update would alphabetize them for me. Nor have I been itching for a "Wizard" to come along and offer to remove icons that I haven't used in the last ten minutes. I put the icons where they are for a reason, and if I change my mind, I will move them myself. Stop doing it for me.

I will admit to occasional moments of indecision-- I'm only human, after all. I sometimes do things like holding down the Shift key for a few seconds, while I try to think of just the right word. Despite what you appear to think, this is not, in fact, a request to have everything I type thereafter appear in ALL CAPS, FOR THE REST OF TIME. And when I indicate my desire to have my text continue to appear in lowercase, by hitting the "CANCEL" button, you should fucking well cancel the action, and not go ahead and capitalize everything anyway. I particularly enjoyed trying to get my Unix shell account to recognize "LOGOUT" as a valid command.

And speaking of buttons that don't give you any choice in the matter, let's talk about Norton Internet Security (which came pre-installed on my home computer). With its nagware dialogue boxes that pop up every 3.4 seconds. And its update boxes that pop to the front, and can't be moved, as if I just couldn't bear to live without knowing how far along it is in downloading updated parental control lists. And the bizarre requirement that I re-start the computer because I've acquired a new set of virus definitions. But most of all, what I love about Norton Internet Security is that the restart announcement comes in a dialogue box with only one button: "OK," which automatically shuts down and restarts the computer. I really enjoyed that one. And then there's the lovely little Lord Vetinari touch of having a red button up in the corner to close the dialogue box, and then making it do exactly the same thing as pressing "OK".

Look, you have informed me that I must re-start for the new definitions to take effect. I am aware of that now. Your job is done. I will restart when I am damn good and ready to restart; for instance, after I've finished writing the blog posts that I was writing during your interminable update process. Summarily closing all open applications and losing my text will not endear me to your products. In fact, it has driven the chance that I will ever buy anything you make essentially to zero. Once the free demo period is over (in another thirteen days, as your software helpfully keeps reminding me), I will strip my computer of every last trace of your products, if I have to borrow a giant magnet and scramble the hard drive to do it (that'll take RealPlayer out, too, I hope...).

Those companies who have not been mentioned by name, don't start feeling like you're off the hook. These are just the programs that have pissed me off in the last two days-- the rest of you are just as guilty of assuming me to be a moron. Stop that, at once.

I hope this clears things up. I look forward to you making adjustments to address these issues.

Chad Orzel

Posted at 9:13 AM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Tenure Flows Toward the Writer

The war on publishing scams continues unabated at Making Light (here, here, and here), with frequent invocation's of "Yog's Law":

Money flows toward the writer.

This is the number one foolproof way to distinguish a scam from a legitimate publisher: scam publishers charge the author for publishing the book, legitimate publishers pay the author. At least in fiction.

One of the late additions that increased the amount of my grant application was a budget line for "page charges." From the "Information for Authors" page at Physical Review Letters (the only major journal for which I could find an unambiguous statement of the rate):

To help defray editorial and production expenses, authors of published Letters are expected to pay a publication charge of $670 ($240 for a Comment or Reply). Charges are lower ($545 for a Letter, $190 for a Comment or Reply) for properly prepared electronic submissions. Acceptable formats are REVTeX (preferred), LaTeX, plain TeX, MS Word; PostScript figures. Color-figure and reprint charges are separate from these publication charges.

And that's for a maximum of four two-column pages (including figures), or roughly ten pages of double-spaced 12-point text (not including figures). PublishAmerica is a bargain, relatively speaking...

(Yes, I know that academic publishing is a different business entirely, and the APS isn't turning a profit on this, and the authors of journal articles are not expecting to live off the revenue from their articles (not directly, anyway). It just struck me as funny that Teresa spends so much time trying to convince would-be authors not to pay to see their work in print, and here I am, asking for money to help me pay to see my work in print...)

Posted at 8:35 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Alea Iacta Est...

...or "Brother, Can You Spare $130,485?"

The proposal has been submitted.

I feel like it's got a pretty good shot-- the idea is solid, and I got very nice letters of support from members of two of the big astrophysics collaborations who will ultimately use the measurements. But funding is always a little bit of a crapshoot, and I'm not coming in with a real long track record.

This is an awfully draining process to still be so chancy. I might as well just auction an unfinished novel on EBay, and fund my lab that way...

Now, back to Science...

Posted at 2:22 PM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

No Expert Left Behind

Big Media Matt has caused a minor kerfuffle by complaining about the amateurism of the blogosphere:

One thing I thought was sort of unfortunate about Klam's article -- though I understand why he did it -- is that it left out the most boring, but probably most valuable, sub-sector of blogging. Namely, the expert blogger. The folks who do this well are creating some extremely useful stuff, especially for those of us whose business it is to be semi-informed about a wide range of things. And, in my opinion, we don't have nearly enough of them.

There's a rich vein of irony to be mined from this, starting with the fact that it comes close on the heels of both the 411blog rollout (via Sean Carroll) and a tedious bout of navel-gazing over the professionalization of blogging. Most people commenting on it (see, for example, Brad DeLong and Dan Drezner) have jumped on a later remark where he characterizes academic bloggers as egomaniacs, but like Sean and PZ, I think the original declaration is more interesting than the follow-on comment.

In order to see a lack of "expert" bloggers, you really need to be using a fairly narrow definition of "expert." There's really no shortage of science blogging out there (as one would expect, given the nature of the medium)-- see, for example, the Tangled Bank. But Matt's not especially interested in science, so he doesn't notice-- the absence he's noting is more specific: what we're lacking is expert blogs on the social sciences and humanities covering topics that happen to be of interest to Matthew Yglesias. Which may or may not be a real lack-- not being Matt, I couldn't say.

Of course, if you really stop to think about it, the blogosphere is hip-deep in experts. Pretty much anyone with a Ph.D. is (or at least was once) the world's leading expert in something. That is, after all, the chief requirement for the Ph.D.: you must do enough research to become the world's leading expert in some field or another. For a while, there, I was the world's leading expert on ionizing collisions in metastable rare-gas atoms at ultra-cold temperatures (though I suspect someone else has probably taken over that title by now). The press never stopped knocking on my door, I can tell you.

The same is probably true, regarding even narrower fields, of holders of MA or MS degrees, though I'm not that clear on what's required for a MA/MS (the degree is essentially useless in physics, so most students go directly on to the PH.D.). Which means that, on the academic side at least, the "blogosphere" is positively awash in experts. The problem is that most readers, like Matt, don't particularly care about our areas of expertise.

(Of course, you could also take "expert blog" to mean "blog that is nearly exclusively dedicated to the author's area of expertise." In which case, he's got a better point, though failing to at least name-check Brad DeLong is still inexcusable...)

Posted at 8:40 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Monday, September 27, 2004

Welcome (Back) to the NFL

After another week of nasty public squabbling, the Giants beat the Browns, and pretty convincingly, at that. That's two weeks in row that they've looked like a professional football team (on the field, anyway), a pleasant change from last year.

This sets up a confrontation next week with the Packers, who lost to the Colts 45-31, in a game featuring all the stifling defense of the pickup games we used to play in college when it snowed. Yeesh.

Now, if the Football Gods can just arrange for an ignominious 0-0 tie in the Cowboys-Redskins game tonight...

Posted at 8:29 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

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