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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Further Blogging Is Superfluous

Snarkout on the Sox:

The Red Sox, for better or worse, are no longer a symbol for inevitable failure, no longer a metaphor for situations designed to gin up hopes and blow it all at the last possible moment, again and again. They're just a pretty good baseball team in the AL East that wins championships now and again. They spend a lot of money and have irritating, self-absorbed fans. They've become a little bit more like the Yankees.

Fafblog on the election:

Some of you may be saying, "Ah, but the fact that bin Laden is still alive is proof of the Bush administration's failure in the war on terror - proof that we shouldn't vote for him!" The Medium Lobster would laugh at your naivete - if this situation weren't so deadly serious. For only George W. Bush has the pure, hard determination to stand up to terror. And only George W. Bush has the unswerving, unfailing incompetence to allow terror to spread so he can continue to stand up to it.

Jack Balkin on Bin Laden:

Of course, maybe *that's* just what Osama wants us to think. By criticizing Bush, we'll realize that he really wants to support Kerry, but we'll see through his game and support Bush instead, which is in fact just what Osama wanted all along!

Hmmmm. This is just too difficult. Maybe we should just ignore the bastard and vote for whoever we damn well please.

Posted at 8:17 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Guess Who's Back?

Via Kathryn Cramer, there's now an Official Afshar Experiment Blog. This was probably inevitable.

The long-awaited paper is also now available as a pre-print. It's quite long (33 pages of PDF, including quite a few figures), and the site says it's been submitted to the American Journal of Physics, of all places. Not that I have anything against AJP, mind, but it's a journal where I expect to find papers with a more pedagogical slant, and not anything particularly groundbreaking, as this claims to be.

(If you'd like to know more, here's my original post on the subject. There have been numerous updates since, but that's got the basic facts.)

Posted at 7:45 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Friday, October 29, 2004

Take a Deep Breath

There's been a lot of talk in the blogging world lately about the woman who was visited by the Secret Service regarding some things she posted on her LiveJournal. This is generally held to be yet another example of the incipient fascism of the Bush Administration. Now, I haven't read the actual comments in question (the post that triggered this was taken down), but I'd like to strike a note of cautious dissent, here, as I think that this is a case of misplaced outrage.

The thing to remember here is that this is what the Secret Service does. This is what they've always done (I've heard dozens of stories about people getting visits from them over stupid things said in the heat of the moment, going back twenty years). It's their job. They have no sense of humor, and you don't really want them to have a sense of humor, given what their charge is.

If there's someone deserving of condemnation in this, it's the anonymous tipster who forwarded the post to the FBI and Secret Service (point #5 in the post linked above). Turning someone in for what were undoubtedly innocent remarks (though, again, I haven't seen them) is a despicable act, and I hope they get slapped for filing a false report, or whatever the equivalent Federal charge is.

But the Secret Service is, as far as I can tell, blameless in this. Yes, it's scary to have them show up, but they're doing what they have to do.

In a similar vein, it's important to be careful about how and where the outrage is directed in cases like the Wisconsin school thing, or the Iowa "sniper" comment. While I don't doubt that the kid in Iowa really was told that a sniper would take him out if he started protesting, I am equally confident that that statement was not the official policy of the Bush-Cheney campaign. That has the ring of the sort of jackass statement that some local functionary would make on his own initiative, just to scare the kid. (The Wisconsin incident could be the same thing, or it could be a case of teen confusion between "expelled from the event" and "expelled from school." Tough call.)

While the honorable thing to do would be for the campaign to find said jackass, and put him in the stocks in the town square to be pelted with rotten vegetables, focussing on the "sniper" crack (or any of the more extreme statements made by Bush security people) misses the point. The point is not that it's outrageous that dissenters are threatened with execution if they act up at a Bush-Cheney rally-- the point is that it's outrageous to be excluding them at all, no matter how politely they're turned away. The threats and arrests just add an extra layer of melodrama to what's already a pretty deplorable stance.

(And before anyone chimes in with "Kerry did it too!" let me highlight this bit from the Des Moines register article:

The Bush campaign was asked to cite any instances where Republicans or others were denied access to Kerry events in Iowa, but declined to provide any examples.

"Declined to provide any examples" is a phrase which here means "were talking out their asses, and got called on it.")

Posted at 7:50 AM | link | follow-ups | 17 comments

Thursday, October 28, 2004

I Transcend Bubble Sheets

I received a survey recently that's meant to "collect basic data on college faculty, including background and demographic information, attitudes and values, pedagogy, and professional activities." (That's a quote from the cover letter. I'm not going to name the organization, though, out of some vague sense that it would be better not to.) As usual, it served as a nice reminder of just how different the sciences and humanities are in academia, and the degree to which "faculty" is assumed to mean "humanities professor."

A fair number of the questions concerned what I think of as humanities-specific issues. Every one of the pedagogy questions asked specifically about race and gender issues, and there were a bunch of "values" and "spirituality" questions. And, you know, there's just not much chance that I'm going to assign any readings on women and gender issues. I mean, there'll be the occasional woman mentioned-- it's hard to teach physics without mentioning Marie Curie-- but that's not really the focus of anything we do.

As with most bubble-sheet surveys, I was left wanting some more options. I feel like a heel filling out the "Not Important" oval for a question on my opinion of the importance of promoting racial diversity. I do feel that it's an important thing in a very general sense, but it's just not something that comes up in my classes, and there's no "Not Applicable" bubble on the form, so "Not Important" is the best available answer. There is a question asking for information about your discipline, so they can make the correlation, but I'm a little afraid that this will just lead to people thinking that scientists are a bunch of sexist, racist bastards.

It's also striking to notice how the sciences get shorted in the pedagogy questions. In a question about elements used in courses, along with the obligatory race and gender questions, there or lines for "Community service as part of coursework," "Essay mid-term and/or final exams," "Multiple drafts of written work," and "Reflective writing/ journaling." There's no line for anything remotely like a laboratory component ("Hands-on instruction" or some such would be nice), and class demonstrations are grouped together with "recitals." I suppose exams consisting of free-response problems might be construed as "Essay exams" in some sense (that's how I answered it, anyway), but it's not a particularly good fit.

I'm also puzzled by the repeated questions about "spirituality" and "spiritual development." A couple of mentions are to be expected, but it showed up often enough that I almost suspect an agenda.

Anyway, I filled out the survey as honestly as I could, and I'll send it in. I can't help thinking that it's a deeply flawed instrument, though, and flawed in a way that reflects some really fundamental misunderstandings of the science side of academia on the part of the people who put this together.

Posted at 9:30 AM | link | follow-ups | 28 comments

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Smit Isn't Hip

Calpundit Monthly has an executive summary of the Slate office poll, which comes down 45-4 Kerry over Bush (with one vote each for David Cobb, Michael Badnarik, and "I'm a Canadian"). Despite the huge margin, Kevin notes that "Genuinely enthusiastic Kerry endorsements were hard to find."

Of course, this shouldn't really be surprising to anyone. Slate isn't quite as painfully hip as Salon, but they're still part of the web-media culture. That's why you get all those cutely contrarian pieces from Hitchens and Kaus and Landsburg-- clever is hip (in the elite web-magazine-reading set, anyway), and they're going to position themselves as "clever" even if it means tap-dancing along the thin line separating it from "stupid."

There are a great many things in this world that are not the kind of clever that Slate wants, and genuine enthusiasm for a political candidate is right at the top of the list. It's so painfully earnest and unironic, like an early U2 album, that they just seem to flinch away from it, and find ways to run down both candidates (see, for example, their 2000 statements which are equally tepid in their support for Gore). Because, really, how can you seriously justify a statement like Timothy Noah's:

Sen. John Kerry is the least appealing candidate the Democrats have nominated for president in my lifetime. I'm 46, so that covers Kennedy, Johnson, Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, and Gore.

(It's also worth noting that these are people coming off several months of writing columns excoriating Kerry for failing to do or say exactly what they wanted done or said at every significant or insignificant point in the campaign. Spending months being professionally critical of a person can't help but color your opinion of them.)

Note that I'm not trying to say that they're consciously choosing to pretend to not like Kerry in an effort to appear hip and clever. I'm just pointing out that they're in the business of "hip and clever," and have been for so long that everything they write ends up having that tone. Which isn't necessarily a Bad Thing-- I liked Seinfeld as much as the next person who isn't Kate-- but it means that they're not the place to go if you're looking for genuine, unstinting enthusiasm for, well, much of anything, really.

Of course, that just means I'm accusing their writers of being incapable of expressing genuine enthusiasm, which is probably more damning than accusing them of cynically feigning disinterest. But, hey, that's why I'm a crank with a weblog.

This is the one area in which I do agree with some of the talk about the special power of blogs. One thing that you get from weblogs that you really don't from traditional media is a sense of the author's real, unforced enthusiasm for whatever it is that they're into. Sometimes this can be a little uncomfortable-- LiveJournal people sharing too many personal details, PZ Myers expressing his love of critters with too many legs (or too few), unnamed physicists getting carried away with their liking of unnamed New Wave bands-- but it's more... I hate to say "real," as the term has been hopelessly corrupted by Great Plains propaganda and dreadful television shows, but "genuine" seems too stuffy a term for what I'm talking about.

There's nothing less hip than real unqualified emotion, but done well, it's vastly more compelling than self-conscious contrarianism.

Posted at 8:24 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

4.5 Minutes of Community Service

Politics: Given what I said in the Making Light "October Surprise" thread, I feel some obligation to post information to enable people to actually do something about protecting the validity of the coming election. Happily, Mary Kay Kare has made it easy for me, posting a large compendium of election protection information.

So, here's your Public Service Announcement, brought to you by this station and the Blog Council: Vote. Preferably for Kerry, but whatever floats your boat. And do whatever you can to make sure that all the votes get counted-- volunteer if it's convenient, send money if it isn't, write emails or blog posts or whatever if you're broke.

I'm not so far gone in despair and paranoia that I think the current crop of thugs and felons would really try to cling to office in the face of a clear vote against them. But let's not make it a close thing, OK?

Posted at 8:20 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

There But for the Grace of Geography

I realized last night that on the local level, this is probably the least interesting election ever for me. There's some suspense on the national level, and I'll admit to becoming an addict, but I just don't care at all about anything local. For this, I blame Tom DeLay.

It's not that he's done anything personally in upstate New York, you understand. It's just that so long as he and his band of apocalyptic Texas wing nuts hold power within the Republican party, I will not vote for a Republican for any office on any level. If you caucus with maniacs, you don't get my vote.

As a result, the only thing reason to even look at the piles of local campaign literature that keep showing up at Chateau Steelypips is to try to deduce the party affiliation of the candidates (which they make a little game of hiding). If they're Republicans, it goes straight into the trash. If they're Democrats, well, those flyers also go straight into the trash, but with the knowledge that I'll be voting for that person.

Of course, it could be worse. I could live in a swing state.

Posted at 8:15 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Quantum Hyperbole

Speaking of odd games and quantum mechanics, Dennis Overbye, science writer and Red Sox fan, has a column in the New York Times today explaining the role of quantum measurement in baseball. There's an I told you so element to this, too.

While I'm on the subject of baseball, a couple of items I forgot in my last post: Lay off the hyperbole, folks. Yes, Alex Rodriguez's slap at the ball in game whatever was clearly illegal. However, it was a long, long way from being the most disreputable and unprofessional action ever in the history of the game, as many Red Sox fans would have you believe. It's several orders of magnitude down from, say, spitting in an umpire's face. It's not even the most assholish base-running thing ever done-- if you call up Pete Rose, I'm sure he'd be happy to give you a highlight reel with a dozen examples of more obnoxious plays. And also fifty bucks to put on the Bengals.

Similarly, while Curt Schiiling's game six performance against the Yankees was impressive, it was not the most impressive example of playing through pain in any sport, ever, as the sports pundits would have you believe. Granted, this is colored by the fact that I think he's a dick, but I'd say that he's got a long way to go to match Byron Leftwich in college being carried down the field by his linemen so he could continue the drive.

"But that was just a meaningless college football game," you say, "while Schilling was on a much bigger stage." That's exactly my point: it was a college football game, with nothing but pride on the line, and the kid stayed out there playing quarterback on an ankle so bad he had to be carried down the field. He put his NFL future on the line, for nothing but pride. That's impressive.

Now, of course, hyperbole and lack of perspective are the bread and butter of sports pundit shows. Whatever happened this week is the best ever!!!, with the possible exception of things that happened so long ago that they've accreted layers of myth so thick that nobody can remember how things really happened. But there's no need to be stupid about it.

Actually, that isn't restricted to sports pundit shows-- pretty much any pundit show thrives on hyperbole and lack of long-term memory. This is why ESPN is a useful corrective for CNN: watch The Sports Reporters, or Around the Horn, and while you're gnashing your teeth at the manifest idiocy of whatever Mike Lupica or Woody Paige just said, pause and reflect that they know exactly as much about their area of expertise as, say, Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala do about theirs. And probably more than Bob Novak.

It puts Crossfire in perspective, even better than Jon Stewart.

Posted at 8:10 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Monday, October 25, 2004

Dismal Game Theory

There's a surpassingly silly physics argument going on over at Crooked Timber. It all started with a post by Daiel Davies objecting to a weird variant of a Prisoner's Dilemma type game discussed by Steven Landsburg (author of a regular series of overly clever columns for Slate).

Landsburg is imagining a scenario in which the separated persons of the "Prisoner's Dilemma" scenario are placed in two different places, and not allowed to communicate. Each is asked one of two yes/no questions, and depending on the answers to both questions, they will either be punished or rewarded. He claims that the best strategy for this situation in a classical world is to agree beforehand to just say "yes" or "no" no matter what, which for the particular scenario he's using gives a 75% chance of winning.

However, this chance can be boosted to 85% through quantum mechanics (he says). If the two "prisoners" are allowed to consult an entangled pair of particles that they've prepared beforehand to have a particular correlation, and base their answers on that, they can do better. Davies objects that this is nothing more than a dodge around the "no communication" rule for the scenario.

Now, a great deal of the silliness of the ensuing argument traces directly to the fact that Landsburg himself appears to be a giant prating ass. He attempts to defend himself in the comments by slinging around accusations of ignorance, and poor reading comprehension, and all sort of other things that I find really irritating. Which is not to say that Davies isn't an arrogant SOB in his own right, but Landsburg's use of the medium of online argument is Shetterly-esque.

Anyway, among the annoying defenses he throws out there, he does make one legitimate argument to attempt to prove that there's no communication between parties involved, suggesting a convoluted alternative scenario using tennis balls and colored glasses. Davies responds with a second post showing that he can reproduce the same correlations by having one party determine his answer with a coin flip, and the second take instructions from a butler who knows both questions and one of the answers, but doesn't give any of that information to the other participant, just "yes" or "no."

Now, in the world of quantum information (at least, to the limited degree that I'm aware of the state of that world), this actually poses some interesting problems. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has really nailed down where the "magic" comes in in quantum information processing. A couple of years ago, it was shown that you could reproduce one of the really important quantum algorithms using classical modes in a laser cavity, which raises some really fascinating questions about the whole business.

Something similar might have grown out of the current argument. My personal feeling (without having read the original paper that Landsburg got all this from) is that if it can be reproduced with a classical method, the scheme in question isn't using any of the really interesting parts of the quantum nature of the state, but just relying on the two particles being correlated in a particular way. But there might be some subtlety that's been missed, here, or some refinement of the scheme which would make it more intrinsically quantum.

Landsburg's actual response, in comments:

My response is that no butler would actually behave that way, so the potential existence of such a butler does not suffice to make this model interesting. Quantum entanglement does behave that way, so quantum entanglement—-insofar as you believe it will someday be technologically relevant—-does suffice to make this model interesting.

So, to summarize, you're proposing a no-communication coordination game in which the players are asked weirdly arbitrary questions and rewarded or punished based on their answers and some fairly arbitrary rules, but they're allowed to take entangled quantum particles into their isolation chambers (along with the apparatus to measure same), and base their answers on the results of measurements of those systems.

And you're slagging off the butler analogue for being unrealistic?

And people wonder why physicists have such a low opinion of economists...

Posted at 9:07 AM | link | follow-ups | 13 comments

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