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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, December 04, 2004

The Recording Industry and Me

So, with all these recent posts about music, you might be asking, just what do I know about the music industry. Or you might not, as you almost certainly have better things to be doing.

In the event that you'd like to pursue this line of inquiry, I'll have you know that one of my Japan pictures (the Japan picture index is here), after some heavy PhotoShopping, is on the demo CD cover of a band from California.

(One of the guys in the band emailed me to ask if they could use it. I initially thought it was spam, but the concept was strange enough that I followed the link, and it's either a band, or a really, really complicated Internet hoax. I'm going with "band," and a sense of annoyance that I even have to wonder about this.

(Obligatory disclaimer: I haven't listened to any of their songs because, well, I'm lazy.)

And if that's not enough, I got a request from someone who read my booklog entry on Jim Macdonald's book of bawdy songs, and asked me to contribute rugby songs to his collection of field recordings of bawdy songs. Clearly, this is someone who has never heard me sing.

(I may yet decide to do that, but I'd feel awfully silly singing rugby songs over the phone. Also, I'd probably need to be half in the bag to remember the lyrics, and I've got a lot to do right at the moment...)

Anyway, that ought to cement my reputation as a musical expert. In the sense of "cement it to something heavy and pitch it into a river," maybe, but you take what you can get.

Posted at 7:52 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Friday, December 03, 2004

Shameful Omissions, Shameful Admissions

One of the nice things about the previously mentioned "Best Songs" list on the Rolling Stone web site is that you can play around with the list, and sort the songs by artist, title, or year. Which leads very quickly to the realization that there are some big gaps that are hard to pick up in the rank-ordered list.

The songs left off tend to be ones that nobody is willing to admit to liking. For example, no "American Pie" by Don McLean? Yeah, fine, it's incredibly cornball, but when you're alone in the car, and it comes on the radio, you sing along just like the rest of us. You know it, and I know it, and it should be on the list. Surely, we could drop one of the lamer songs in the Beatles catalogue?

And then there are the works of batshit songwriting genius Jim Steinman-- shouldn't one of "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" or "Total Eclipse of the Heart" make the list, if not both? Again, you know you sing along to them-- surely, they're more deserving than, say, "The Loco-motion" (to pick a dumb song at random)?

"Well," you say, "the voters just aren't into completely dorky rock epics." And yet, "Bohemian Rhapsody" clocks in at #163. I'm not saying that it shouldn't be included-- it's a great tune. But it makes the list by virtue of having acquired a certain ironic cachet from Wayne's World, which makes it ok for people to like it.

They did put both "Sweet Home Alabama" (which should be higher than #398) and "Free Bird" (#191-- feel the power of ironic cachet) on the list, so it's not all bad. But what about, say, "Come Sail Away"? Sure, it's ridiculous 70's cheese, but then so is "How Deep Is Your Love?" (#366) And it is really any dorkier than Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon" (#488)? No, but Fleetwood Mac has a little ironic cachet (though Bill Clinton was apparently unironic enough to sink "Don't Stop Thinkin' About Tomorrow," which I don't see on the list), while Styx is, well Styx.

I could go on, but that ought to be enough songs to lower everyone's opinion of me, so I'll stop here.

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

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Could You Be A Little More Specific?

Found in this morning's spam:

A huge 300 ft. high ocean wave is moving towards your continent. Your and many other cities are in a real danger. Approximate wave moving speed is 700 km/h.

Please read more about this catastrophe here: [redacted]

We are strongly urging you to evacuate yourself and your family as soon as possible, even though you may live far away from your city. The tsunami will reach the continent in approximately FOUR hours.

Posted at 8:44 AM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

A Whole Lot of Thwarting Going On

Back before I got this job, there were certain things I swore I was going to do when I started my own research lab. Buying the current and temperature controllers for my lasers, for example, rather than trying to save a few bucks by undertaking the incredibly tedious process of building them myself.

Right near the top of the list was "standardize all hardware." Pretty much anybody who's ever worked in a research lab will know what I'm talking about, here. If you work in research, you're forever trying to find the one stupid little part that will let you connect one piece to another piece: longer optical mounting posts, or shorter ones; bigger clamps or smaller clamps; SMA to BNC to MHV to SHV to Type N adapters; NPT to Swagelock to QuickFlange to Conflat vacuum fittings; big QuickFlange to small QuickFlange, big ConFlat to small ConFlat. There are two groups at MIT that haze their new graduate students by sending them to other labs to ask for an adapter from BNC to Swagelock (one's an electrical connector, the other's a vacuum fitting)-- it's funny because after a while, it's almost plausible.

No more, I said. When I get my own lab, all the posts will be 2" posts, all the post holders will be 2" post holders, all the mirror mounts will be the same type, all the QuickFlange fittings will be the same size, and there'll be none of this time wasted rooting through boxes of nearly identical little adapters looking for the magic part that will make two incompatible fittings fit together.

Of course, that quickly evaporated, for a variety of reasons. Some of it isn't my fault-- I had no idea that there was such a thing as an SMB connector, but one manufacturer puts them on its acousto-optical modulators, and it's $30 for a stupid little part that will convert that to a type of connector that sane people use. And then there's my spiffy new turbopump, which has a ridiculously small QuickFlange connector on the backing line, leading to some time lost while I waited for stupid little parts to be shipped out to me.

And, of course, ThorLabs managed to thwart my dreams of an orderly lab by redesigning their basic mirror mounts. It's not just the new shape of the mount-- they now require separate screws to hold them onto the posts, rather than providing tapped holes that the posts can screw into.

But mostly, I've been thwarted by not being in the Infinite Money Limit. I didn't just buy nine million 2" posts and post holders, which means that I've run out of posts and post holders on several occasions, and needed to scavenge some from other labs, which has left me stuck with a bunch of optics at odd heights. I've gotten a bunch of electronic gear out of the teaching labs, which means I'm stuck with whatever dumb-ass connectors happen to be on them.

And despite spending $20,000 or so at the Kurt J. Lesker Co. this summer, I've gotten a lot of vacuum gear by stealing things from the department's stock of old equipment. Which is why I spent 45 minutes this afternoon pawing through boxes and drawers full of eighteen different types of stupid little brass fittings that look almost exactly like 3/8" Swagelock, but aren't.

When I have my own well-funded research lab, I'm definitely going to have standardized hardware...

Posted at 6:50 PM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Memphis Is That Bad (UMD-Wisconsin)

Hey, did you know that Notre Dame fired Ty Willingham yesterday? If not, you clearly didn't watch the Maryland-Wisconsin basketball game last night, during which play-by-play announcer Brent Musburger mentioned it every five minutes, and the sideline reporter was running around the arena flagging down random people to ask completely irrelevant questions about football.

I've long rated the tandem of Musburger and Vitale as the second worst announcing combo in sports (after Vitale and Patrick, who just shriek all the time), because of their tendency to wander off and talk about, well, anything at all except the game in front of them. I thought this was mostly Vitale's fault, but I was wrong. With three minutes to play in a four-point game, Musburger was talking about football. (Color guy Steve Lavin was presumably buffing his hair.)

Ye gods, what a horrible broadcast.

As to the game itself, it answered the question raised last week by Maryland's thirty-point whipping of Memphis (the final margin was 24, only because John Calipari left his starters in after Gary Williams cleared the bench): Is Maryland that good, or is Memphis that bad?

Not that it's all that shameful to lose a close game on the road to a pretty good Wisconsin team (who ran their home winning streak to 31, so it's not an easy place to play). But John Gilchrist and Nik Caner-Medley (whose name Musburger kept mispronouncing) were both terrible (2-14 and 2-9, respectively), and Ekene Ibekwe was the only Terp who could put the ball in the basket for most of the game. Travis Garrison suffered a leg injury due to an illegal crack-back block, and showed that he's no Willis Reed in the second half.

It's early yet, so it's hard to say that this game means anything. The problems Maryland was having looked awfully familiar, though: poor half-court offense, nonexistent outside shooting, idiotic fouls (though the officiating crew had awfully quick whistles throughout, on both teams). They'll need to play a lot better come the ACC season.

It'll be interesting to see what happens this weekend, with the Terps in the BB&T Classic potentially playing a Michigan State team that gave Duke a pretty good run in Cameron. That game, in the friendly confines of the MCI Center, ought to tell us something, if it happens.

Posted at 3:53 PM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

This Is Why I Have an iPod

Sean Carroll quotes a colleague on the problem of making small talk with strangers on planes:

On the other hand, if the idea of talking to this stranger ("outreach" in NSF-speak) is less appealing than having three hours of root canal work, you just say, "I'm a physicist." Somehow, that always produces a social retreat, leaving you in your own cocoon of noise-cancellation to compose letters of recommendation that skirt the inside edge of perjury.

I can't say I've ever claimed to be an astronomer, but "I'm a physicist" hasn't worked all that well for me. I've had a half-dozen different crackpots try to tell me about their personal interpretations of quantum mechanics as applied to alternative medicine, parallel universes, and gambling. I tend to think these are the same people who ask astronomers for their horoscopes.

Really, the only thing that works when I want to avoid talking on planes is to play music loudly on headphones.

Posted at 10:37 PM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

I Know How to Say Hello In Lots of Languages... Not Yours...

I never know quite what to think when I discover that I'm being blogged about in a language I don't speak (in this case, I'd guess that it's Finnish, but I really don't know). On the one hand, it's another reminder that this here Interweb thingy is pretty darn cool. On the other, I hate not knowing what's being said...

(I've got at least one permalink in Portugese, and I think there are more, based on the number of hits I get from Brazil. Those are the two that show up on the first page of Technorati results today.)

Posted at 10:17 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Science, Society, and Open Letters

In response to a despairing post by PZ Myers, Timothy Burke posted an open letter on Cliopatria last week, talking about issues of science and society. In broad terms, I agree with it, but there's some stuff at the end that I'm not happy with. (Myers also has a reply at Pharyngula, with some lively discussion in comments.)

As part of an attempt to provide explanations other than "people are idiots" for the recent polls on creationism, Burke notes that "some skepticism about the applied claims and demands of scientists, particularly as they manifest in demands for particular orthodoxies in education and other social institutions, is a pretty rational (indeed, scientific) reaction to the real history of American public science in the past fifty years." He cites a few examples of cases where various forms of quackery lowered the public perception of science.

I don't really disagree with any of this-- my opinion of most public health science is not much higher than Burke's-- though I'm not especially happy about his definitions (he notes in comments that "the public conception of 'science' folds in narrowly academic scientists, popularizers and public health officials who act in the name of science, and some individuals who move between all three categories," and thus, he's using the same definition). The problem comes with his proposed solution:

It may be worth thinking about how to help a weary public make meaningful distinctions between different kinds of science. However, I also think that scientists may need to do something that sits very poorly with academic culture at the moment, and with all professionals of any kind, and that is very, very aggressively self-police access by their fellows to the public domain, to make the barriers to accessing policy and public institutions extraordinarily high. You’d better not just have a few scraps of data about acrylamide before you start blowing your bugle: you’d better have a rock-solid demonstration of a link between its rising consumption and cancer or some other disease, a link which isn’t just demonstrable but where there is an effect size that actually matters.

Withdraw recognition of the experts-for-hire who appear at every trial and find a way to appropriately authenticate scientists in this role. Restrict the flow of public money to science and the reverse flow of scientists into the making of policy. Restrain scientists from easy or casual advocacy of public initiatives and applications of their work. You can’t stop scientists from saying what they want, but academic institutions provide a certification that is supposed to separate out people who use junk science as the authority for junk policy and those who exhibit much more judicious care.

There are two problems here (aside from conflating scientists and public health bureaucrats). One is a question of time scales-- it can take years to build up the kind of overwhelming proof that it takes to get even scientists to agree that some proposed theory is correct. This is particularly true in the areas of science that are of greatest interest as a matter of public policy: health studies of things like links between environmental factors and cancer in humans are necessarily very long-term projects, and a multiple studies are really required to get it right. You're talking years if not decades to really nail down the science.

And if there is a plausible case for a link between some environmental factor and a public health problem, it's prudent to try to reduce the ill effects, even if the link isn't absolutely certain. If you spend twenty years establishing the link beyond a reasonable doubt before attempting to make it a public health issue, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that you've only used well-established science, but that's twenty more years of a public health problem that could've been prevented. Failure to act on something that increases cancer risk by five or ten percent isn't exactly on the same moral plane as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, but you're still potentially talking about thousands or tens of thousands of lives.

(Not to mention that "a rock-solid demonstration of a link" is a moving target, particularly on politically charged issues of public health. Look at the way the tobacco industry resisted the evidence showing a link between smoking and cancer, and the way the energy industry is working to fend off climate science. A sensible skepticism about incomplete science is easily turned into an obstinate refusal to admit facts that will cost you money.)

The bigger problem with this proposed solution is a question of attitude, and this is the question that really drives my interest in this subject. Much of the public dissatisfaction with science stems from a deep misunderstanding of what science is, and how it operates, a problem which Burke's proposal will only make worse.

I've spoken before about the question of "Gen Ed Science" classes, the non-major classes that we offer to students who need to take some science to graduate. I'm deeply ambivalent about these classes. On one level, I think that explaining science to non-scientists is an extremely important part of what we do. But I also think that the hidden message of these classes is "Science is Really Hard, and the only way you can hope to understand it is through special classes," and I'm not really comfortable with that.

It's that hidden message that's the real problem here. People expect science to be some sort of magic and infallible enterprise, with scientists descending from on high to bring absolute TRVTH to the masses. Because Science Is Hard, it's thought of as something completely beyond the comprehension of normal people, and thus, they don't want to have to think about it. When science turns out to be messy, incomplete, and fallible, these people get annoyed.

Burke's proposal is, essentially, an attempt to drag reality closer to the public image of science: for scientists to only get involved in policy when there's a "rock-solid" certainty that they're right. Through careful choice, we can arrange it so that science is the magic trump card, brought into policy discussions only when it really does offer infallible absolute truth.

The problem with this is that science really is messy, incomplete, and fallible, more often than not. But at the same time, it's also comprehensible to anyone who's willing to think carefully about it-- that's what makes it such a successful system. Computers, cell phones, and antibiotics don't require special knowledge or beliefs in order to function properly.

Pulling science and scientists back out of public policy might have a short-term benefit for the image of science, at the cost of having people think we're even bigger geeks than they do now. But I think that reinforcing the attitude that Science Is Hard, and not something that normal people can deal with is ultimately a bigger harm to society than the poor image people currently have of science.

Posted at 7:42 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Monday, November 29, 2004

Fun With Physics

It was a long, long weekend, and I'm still pretty tired, so no lengthy new content today. In keeping with the iron laws of the univese, of course, there were a bunch of interesting comments here and posts elsehwere while we were off on our whirlwind tour of New England, and I'll try to get to those before they get too stale.

For now, though, I'll just post a link to the Trebuchet Challenge. Which is, you know, kind of vaguely physics-related. Sort of.

Posted at 1:57 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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