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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, January 29, 2005


As more people read this site than my booklog, I'll note here that I've posted some lukewarm comments on Locus's recommendations for 2004 books. Think of this post as the Law and Order episode where Richard Belzer inexplicably pops in from Homicide (which was a much better show).

On the subject of books, though, has anyone read any Jon Courtenay Grimwood? I waffled for a while last week about whether to buy one of his books, as his is a name that UK-based reviewers like to throw around. I ended up not getting it (and can't recall the title), but general comments would be welcome.

And while I'm ragging on Locus, here's one of the most stubbornly un-parse-able review sentences I've ever encountered, from Damien Broderick's review of The Year of Our War:

On its British release in April 2004, commentators noted at once that in tone and logic it is remarkably structured backwards, with shambly divagations and amusing or piquant asides.

I can't seem to make that resolve into anything that makes sense, and for some reason that really bugs me. I just thought I'd mention that.

Posted at 9:37 AM | link | follow-ups | 12 comments

Truth in Spamming

Seen among the detritus in this morning's inbox cleanup:

Earn Up to $000,000

The candor is refreshing.

Posted at 8:27 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Friday, January 28, 2005

Strange Calculations

So, there's been a lot of talk about the strange assumptions going into the Cato's agitprop calculator. If you want to know why the basic financial assumptions are whacked, Kevin and Matt have you covered.

I've got a different problem with it, that's strangely appropriate given some of the recent posts here: There's a "gender" button on the calculator, and it makes a big difference in the "private accounts" results-- If you start by considering a thirty-year-old making $40,000, a man retiring at 67 should get $47,316/year under their optimistic assumptions, while a woman gets $46,044/year.

"Well, duh," you say, "Women live longer than men." Which is true, but if you look at the account value, the difference is even larger, and of the opposite sign. A woman at 67 should have $552,995, while a man would have only $496,885.

Now, I'll freely admit that I'm bad with money, but this seems screwy, and none of their deceptive footnotes even mention gender. So what's going on, here? Is there some basic economic principle that I'm not aware of that shows that women are better investors then men?

(For what it's worth, the current Social Security system provides the same annual benefits to both men and women, according to their calculator. Let's hear it for equality.)

Posted at 7:19 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Killing the Game

At halftime in last night's Duke-Maryland game, Maryland trailed 34-30, on the road, to undefeated and second-ranked Duke. At that point, I did something I've never done before in that situation.

I stopped watching the game.

I blame Mike Patrick and Dick Vitale. I had already turned the sound down to the point where the sound of the dog chewing her rubber toys was enough to drown out the alleged commentary, and the inane chants of the Duke students were nothing more than a vague muttering, but it wasn't enough. The worst announcing team in sports has corrupted the production crews at ESPN as well-- not only are we subjected to shrieking commentators who don't feel any obligation to, you know, talk about the game they're at, now we've got camera operators and producers who don't feel any obligation to show the game.

Basketball is not a difficult sport to broadcast. The action takes place in a tightly circumscribed area. Unlike football, where a wide shot turns the players into indistinct dots, a shot wide enough to show the offensive half of the court is still perfectly comprehensible. You can cover a whole game with one camera at mid-court, and minimal panning. A couple of extra cameras for replays are great, but the main action requires a single camera.

But that's not what we got last night. I mean, we got wide shots of the court, but on numerous occasions we were taken away for shots of students with paint on their faces, cheerleaders determined to remain perky, and unidentified groups of middle-aged white people in the stands. And this is while play was going on.

I've long since given up any expectation of having Patrick and Vitale provide any useful information about what happened on the court, meaning that I have to watch games in my living room the same way I do in a noisy sports bar, and try to figure out what happened from the referee's hand signals and the players' facial expressions. The crappy production last night robbed me of even that. I felt like a European watching baseball-- every now and then, play would stop, and it was never entirely clear what had happened to cause it.

(The one good thing about last night's game was that, apparently, none of the Duke players have hot girlfriends, so we were spared the disgusting spectacle of the announcers commenting on them. Dick Vitale's years-long obsession with the attractiveness of Jim Boeheim's wives is bad enough, but I think the lowest point in the history of sports commentary came earlier this season when the camera sought out Wiconsin forward Mike Wilkinson's fiancee, and the announcers spent a couple of minute speculating on how attractive their kids would be. As far as I'm concerned, that's over the line.)

Anyway, I gave up on the tv broadcast at halftime. I didn't give up on the game, though-- thanks to the miracle of the Internets, I was able to find the Maryland radio broadcast on the web, and I listened to the second half via streaming audio. It's a good thing, too, because Maryland came back to win. It's not the same as seeing it live on video (basketball, unlike football, is a terrible radio sport), but it was way better than whatever it was ESPN was doing.

(The next time Vitale calls a Maryland game, we'll try putting the web radio on Kate's laptop, down in the living room, and see how that works.)

(Also, for those who care, you can find entertainingly bipolar commentary in the expected place.)

Posted at 9:36 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Speaking of Gender Bias

There's a brilliant bit in Christopher Buckley's Thank You for Smoking in which the main character, a PR flack for a cigarette company, pledges that they will soon be releasing a series of ads designed to combat youth smoking. He then arranges for the worst ads ever-- stilted and static spots in which authority figures sternly lecture watching children about the evils of tobacco-- knowing that they'll have the opposite effect.

I thought of this today because of the "Girls Go Tech" spot that they've been running on ESPN this morning. It's the one in which a mother and daughter are playing cats-cardle on a bed, and taking turns telling a story about a princess "in cyberspace," who "downloaded megabyte after megabyte."

If an amoral PR flack had set out to make a tv spot that would make technical subjects look as completely dorky and unappealing as possible, and prevent girls from studying math and science, it'd be hard to top this. (Well, ok, one or both of them could have coke-bottle glasses...) I cringe every time it comes on.

(Next time on "Improbable Conspiracy Weekly," we'll discuss how American Idol is part of a nefarious plot by social conservatives to drag mainstream culture back to the Fifties.)

Posted at 9:27 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Honey and Vinegar

In the thread about gender issues, the reflexively contrarian Mike Kozlowski comments:

And the obvious question is: Why should we care about whether students take physics at all? Aren't there already an over-supply of physics majors relative to demand for them? Shouldn't programs work at making physics LESS attractive?

Why do we want more students? Lots of reasons.

On the coldly calculating end of things, it's good to have a larger pool of students because that increases the number of really good people in the program. I'm not arrogant enough to believe that the tiny handful of people who go into physics really represent the best of the best of the best-- broadening the appeal of the discipline might draw in some people who would be truly outstanding physicists, but who have gone elsewhere for reasons unrelated to the subject matter.

At the other end, there's the warm and fuzzy (but no less calculating) question of perception. To the degree that people who take introductory physics classes view them as a horrible chore and an imposition, that harms the profession.

One of the speakers at that AAPT meeting played a video clip of Senator Trent Lott taking questions from some group of ridiculous keeners at a "students visit Capitol Hill" event, and saying that being forced to take physics was the biggest waste of time ever. He spent a couple of minutes ridiculing the idea of anyone interested in politics taking physics.

If that's what people in power think of the field, then we're in trouble. Not just as a discipline, but as a nation-- it's not good for politicians to have open contempt for any branch of science. It leads to things like textbook stickers, climate contrarianism, and multi-billion-dollar missile defense programs with no hope of working.

The contempt of people like Lott is fed by having introductory classes that present the field as difficult, remote, and unappealing-- the same things that turn students away from majoring in the subject. To the extent that we can improve our image by widening the appeal of the discipline, it's imperative that we do so. We don't need more physics majors, necessarily (though it'd be nice), but we do need people to think better of us (and, really, of science in general).

Posted at 8:48 AM | link | follow-ups | 16 comments

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Technology Changes Everything

I had two lab sections this morning, doing a lab which will require a formal lab report, with figures and tables and the whole deal. I told the students that they needed to have a sketch of the apparatus that was sufficiently good to allow them to make a good schematic diagram for the report (which is due a week from Sunday).

Two of them promptly whipped out camera phones and took pictures from a couple of different angles.

If we're going to be living in the future, I want my flying car, dammit.

In a similar "Pervasive Photography" vein: Dogblog.

Posted at 10:14 PM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

Men Are From Earth, Women Are From Earth, Deal With It

The whole Larry Summers kerfuffle is one of the topics of the moment in the science-people blogosphere-- Sean Carroll, PZ Myers, and a cast of thousands have weighed in.

I haven't said anything to this point, because I unaccountably find myself torn. As a male physicist at a liberal arts college, I of course feel obliged to note that sexism is bad, bad, bad, and Summers is an idiot for saying what he did the way he did. On the other hand, as a male physicist, the constant hammering of the profession as a bunch of sexist Neanderthals who repel women kind of gets my back up.

(I have this reaction a lot-- when foreigners attack the stupidity of US policy (Jo Walton has a real gift for this), when militant atheists make Catholic jokes-- and I really hate it. I don't like feeling like I ought to defend the indefensible.)

I do want to remark on a couple of things, though, that are specific to physics, because, well, that's what I know. This is basically a revise-and-extend job on a couple of things I said over at Preposterous Uninverse.

Something in the neighborhood of a year ago now, Physics Today published an article about a study of "thriving" undergraduate physics departments. "Thriving" was defined, in this context, as some combination of a large and steady number of majors, an active research program, and an active faculty. They found a lot of shared features among such departments-- things that they were doing that were probably at least partially responsible for the "thriving" character.

The most interesting tidbit in the article had to do with race and gender. The study found that the "thriving" departments didn't really do any better at attracting women or minority students. This, in spite of the fact that some of the measures they believed were responsible for the "thriving" had been taken specifically in order to attract more women and minorities. And they did get more, in absolute numbers, but they got more white males, too, so the percentages didn't change.

What this says to me is that, as a discipline, we do a lousy job of attracting, well, anybody. The typical physics department is inhospitable not just to women and minorities, but also to white males. If you take steps to make the department more welcoming to one group, you're going to make it more welcoming to everybody, just because you're starting at such a low level. And because, at bottom, people just aren't that different.

This is something that I think needs to be kept in mind when thinking about inequalities in the distributions of majors and faculty and so on. In the specific case of physics, you're really dealing with a tiny remnant of a self-selected sample, and any small effect is likely to be magnified, just by the fact that you're dealing with a small sample.

A statstic that was thrown around a lot at the AAPT meeting I went to a little over a year ago was that only 3% of students who take introductory physics go on to take another course in physics. If you start with 100 men and 100 women, that means you end up with three of each. A small difference in the attractiveness of the subject to one or the other can make a big change in the relative percentages-- if 4 men go on, while only 2 women do, you're already down to a 33% female population. And that's cumulative-- if there's a slight gender differential at each step of the process, by the time you get to the infinitesimal fraction of introductory physics students who become faculty members, any small bias one way or the other can have a huge effect.

Note that this doesn't say anything about the source of the bias. It might be that men are a tiny bit better at physics than women, or it might be that there's a small element of gender bias discouraging women from applying. Either one could produce the same effect, without requiring all women to be "Math is Hard!" Barbie dolls, or all male physicists to be utter chauvinist pigs. The effect in either case can be small enough that nobody would notice it on an individual level, but it can add up to a big shift in the remnant of a remnant who end up in one of the groups being measured for the bias discussions.

The key thing is that that we're talking about a tiny, tiny fraction of the population by the time we're talking about even science majors, let alone professional scientists or science faculty. It doesn't take rampant howling sexism or gigantic biological differences to add up to a big change in such a tiny number.

Again, this applies primarily to physics, which is really about the worst of the sciences for gender bias (at the undergraduate level, I think bology may have tipped in the other direction, with more women than men). You can probably make the same argument for all of science, as scientists in general are a small fraction of the population, but I don't know the numbers as well.

Posted at 2:48 PM | link | follow-ups | 12 comments

Monday, January 24, 2005

Overproduce with Dignity

Big Media Matt jumps on a new study showing that selective colleges don't provide a big salary boost to their graduate, with a number of snarky remarks about teaching at Harvard. By itself, this is fairly unremarkable, and wouldn't require comment save to note that if he thinks that people in academia don't worry about this stuff, he's not hanging around the right academics. I haven't been in the professoriate very long, but there are days when it seems like we don't talk about anything else, ever. (Including the faculty meeting I'll be going to in a little under two hours).

However, his comments did draw my attention to this excellent Timothy Burke essay on academic priorities. I don't agree with everything that Burke says, but his comments on the institutional goals and evaluation of faculty do resonate with a lot of the things I've been obsessing about recently.

I can go on about this stuff for hours (at least two people who read this have heard me rant on these topics) but it cuts a little too close to the "internal college business" line for me to feel comfortable blogging about it. Also, I've got papers to grade, classes to teach, and meetings to go to. So just read Burke's essay.

Posted at 7:37 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Say Something Boring

Everything you need to know about Patriots coach Bill Belichick can be summed up in this one incident: last night, ESPN abandoned their live coverage of the winning coach's press conference to show remarks by Ben Roethlisberger, the losing QB. Would they have done that to Bill Parcells, or Jimmy Johnson, or, dare I say it, Ditka? No.

But then, Belichick is as boring as he is brilliant.

Congrats to the Patriots, and not just because Kate likes them. You've just got to like a team with a wide receiver who plays cornerback, a defensive end who plays fullback, and a linebacker who plays tight end. In the carnival of ego that is the modern NFL, these guys are a real team.

Posted at 7:29 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Coulda Shoulda Woulda

Ted Barlow over at Crooked Timber offers a fun pop-culture topic to while away the hours betwen the end of snow shoveling and the start of today's NC State- Maryland basketball game (Football? What football?):

You’ve been hired as the program director at a new satellite radio station. You’ll be playing songs that should have been huge hits, but weren’t. You’re looking for songs from any period that you liked the first time you heard them, songs that are immediately catchy and pleasurable, songs that would please your coworkers rather than the clerk at the local independent record store. The artists could be obscure or famous, but the songs should not be in regular rotation on terrestrial radio stations.

Now, I have to take some liberties with this, because, of course, many of my co-workers aren't all that clear on which end of the guitar you hit with a stick, while I have no use for classical. There aren't a lot of songs in my music collection that would please them. But it should surprise no-one to hear that I have opinions on this subject.

Someone in the comments thread over there suggested "Taillights Fade" by Buffalo Tom, which is a good choice. I'll go even more obscure than that, though-- my favorite Buffalo Tom song is "Torch Singer", which doesn't even make it onto their own best-of package. It's a great little song, though, with an ear-wormy little acoustic guitar riff, and the sort of lovelorn dork lyrics that I'm a sucker for.

Another Crooked Timber commenter suggested an Afghan Whigs song, "Crazy," from 1965. Again, it's a great song, from an unjustly neglected album, but I think my choice from that record would be "John The Baptist". I'm a sucker for songs with big horn parts, and it's got the full Greg Dulli package-- the soul-crooner bit, a little bit of screaming, and slightly dark lyrics. The combination of the sinister guitar behind the opening come-on lyrics, and the big kick when the horns come in at the start of the chorus makes it just about my favorite song in their catalogue.

Speaking of bands that I push pretty hard, The Weakerthans deserve more airplay. "Plea From a Cat Named Virtue" is the most obvious choice, appealing as it does to people who like cats, but the song that sold me on the album is the the title track, "Reconstruction Site". One listen on KEXP, and I knew I had to buy the album. In this case, though, I understand why it can't be a huge pop hit-- it doesn't really have a conventional song structure, the lyrics don't rhyme, and it just sort of stops. But it's a great song all the same.

Given the amount of critical acclaim they've gotten recently, it's not entirely clear to me that I should have a Wilco song on the list, but my favorite oddity of theirs is "A Shot in the Arm", off Summer Teeth, which has this tinkly little piano hook that just drills into your head. I have no idea what in hell he's talking about, but it catches the band right at the peak of the transition between "standard alt-country" and "American Radiohead," and it's insanely catchy.

Of course, if you want to talk about country-ish music, it would be foolish to leave the Old 97's off the list, and it's one of the great tragedies of modern pop music that "Big Brown Eyes" was never a huge hit. OK, maybe it's a bit too country, but it's got terrific lyrics, and a great country swing to the verses. I prefer the slightly angrier version on Too Far to Care, but the more wistful take on Wreck Your Life is pretty good, too. (Also, "W.I.F.E." ought to be a huge karaoke hit in the South, but it's a crazy mixed-up unjust world...)

Closing out the selections from bands that my usual readers have probably heard of, I feel like I ought to include "Through All That Nothing" by Del Amitri. It's the one genuinely nice song (most of their pretty songs are about people cheating on each other) in their catalogue, and another case of a great song that doesn't make their own best-of collection. Of course, if it were a huge radio hit, then Kate and I would lose the indie cred of having danced to it at our wedding. Tough call.

I sort of feel like I ought to use this opportunity to push bands that nobody has ever heard of, though, so let me round out the list with some songs by more obscure artists. Starting with the least obscure of the lot, there's the DC ska band the Pietasters, whose "Out All Night" got used as theme music for ESPN's basketball coverage back in the late 90's. "Without You" is a stronger song in some respects, being more of a straight love song than a lot of their other stuff. It's got a lot of energy to it, too, which is always nice.

Sticking to obscure DC-area bands, another single song that got me to buy an album is Emmet Swimming's "Sunblock". They're obscure enough that it was hard to find lyrics, but it's a great tune with another of those brass choruses that I'm a sucker for. Alas, as an online review notes, its "escapist, mariachi-tinged vibe [was] indirectly beaten to the FM punch by that darn Fastball track," and it sank without a trace. It's a reasonably good album, too, more's the pity.

I heard "Sunblock" on the late, lamented WHFS when I was in DC, where it got played because they were local. Another great song getting only local airplay (this time on WEQX) is the Rustic Overtones "Hardest Way Possible", another ska-type tune, with plaintive lyrics that mention winter, but a sound that's pure summer. It was released as a single in February or thereabouts a few years back, and I think that killed it. (That, plus they're a ska band from Maine...) They've since split up, with a number of them re-froming as Paranoid Social Club, with another shoulda-been-a-contendah track in "Two Girls" , which has that certain combination of thumping beats and faintly misogynist lyrics that should've had it blasting from a hundred thousand car steroes across the nation. Instead, I can't even get it on iTunes. Go figure.

Finally, a band that I've hardly even heard of, as I only have one single, bought via iTunes: "Maybe You're Here, Maybe You're Not," by Milton Mapes (which I think is a band, and not a single person or a planned community outside London). It sounds a lot like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, actually with jangly acoustic guitar and harmonica over the top of a pretty full sound, with an uncomplicated song structure. They don't have those Benmont Tench keyboards, and the vocals aren't as nasal, but it's a great tune. I'm not sure why I didn't buy the whole album (I can't find lyrics, but there are a few reviews out there), but I may pick it up this afternoon.

I could keep this up for hours, but this has already become a gigantic post, and I do have exams to grade, so we'll cut it off at ten songs. Other suggestions are welcome in the comments.

Posted at 10:51 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

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