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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, April 01, 2005

Do the Happy Dance

My NSF grant was approved (well, officially, it's "recommended for award," but the only thing remaining is supposed to be a rubber-stamp step). Pseudo-Deep Thought blogging will be postponed for a few days while I caper about laughing maniacally. Also, I really need to get to work in the lab.

Here's a set of song lyrics (because that never gets old. Or something.), from the "happy cruise tunes" playlist on shuffle. There are 22 listed, because one track was an instrumental, and one was just too easy. Three are covers, so you want to think about the possible artists carefully.

And I swear to God, #22 is the actual lyric. I looked it up, and everything.

Posted at 7:00 AM | link | follow-ups | 19 comments

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Spinning Gold Into Straw

In a little-noted move earlier this week, the Bush Administration released revised guidelines for Title IX compliance in the area of college athletics. In this context Title IX mandates gender equity in sports, and has normally been interpreted to require equal participation of men and women in intercollegiate athletics.

The strict numerical equality requirement has been loosened just a little bit:

The new guidelines say schools can show they're offering adequate opportunities by periodically asking students to fill out an Internet survey designed to determine what sports interest them. The Education Department says schools may notify students of the survey via e-mail.

Even if many students don't fill out the surveys, schools will be able to use them to argue they don't need to create new sports teams for the underrepresented gender, usually women. The Education Department acknowledged "rates of non-response may be high with the e-mail procedure" but added it "will interpret such non-response as a lack of interest" by the underrepresented gender.

I've always been a little ambivalent about Title IX. Gender equity is a worthy goal, but I think the previous intepretation has led to some unfortunate results, of the sort alluded to in the article. Any school with a football team (which accounts for 50-ish male athletes) is going to have a difficult time meeting the strict equal participation requirement, and this has led in many cases to the elimination of less profitable men's teams. I think equality in sports is worth striving for, but the "Harrison Bergeron" approach is the wrong way to do it.

This story is a wonderful demonstration of the Bush Administration's ability to spin gold into straw, though. Even when they undertake some action that I might in principle approve of, they manage to put some odious little twist on it that I can't possibly support.

I'd like to think that it's possible to find a better way to assess Title IX compliance than what they were using in the past. But Internet surveys? Everything you need to know about this decision is contained in the final paragraph of the story:

Two years ago, a presidential commission reviewing Title IX considered proposals to permit schools wider use of surveys to prove compliance. Then-Education Secretary Rod Paige rejected those proposals.

This idea was floated two years ago, and it was too crass for Rod Paige. But now it's official policy.

The mind scarely has the courage to boggle at the gall of this administration.

(This could also be seen as more evidence for Kevin Drum's thesis that it's all about sex with these guys...)

Posted at 8:16 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Link Salad

I have a doctor's appointment this morning, and am still running around doing a bunch of other stuff, so you get the links dump a day early:

First and foremost, belated congratulations to Kyle for completing the 100 Games Project. He's already missing it, so somebody get that man a book deal, already...

Via the sidebar at Making Light, a look-quick-before-it-goes-behind-the-paywall article on the DC Police Gay and Lesbian Liason Unit, containing this brilliant example of proportionate response:

When Parson joined the D.C. police in 1994 as an openly gay officer, someone taped heterosexual pornography to his locker. He responded by taping gay porn photos on all 375 lockers in the 4th District squad house.

Yep, he's a cop.

Via Sean Carroll, a new blog called Deepen the Mystery by Lauren Gunderson, a playwright who wrote a play about Ralph Alpher and the Big Bang. Alpher was on staff here for many years (he only recently moved to Florida), and I met Gunderson briefly when she came up to meet Ralph and attend a staged reading ("With Professional Actors," as it noted on all the flyers) of the play.

Via PZ, an Internet-age variation on the old trick of letting someone copy wrong answers from you. This being the Internet, the whole sad saga spun to completion before I got around to writing this (the end of the story).

Via The Comics Curmudgeon (a comment there, actually), a new-to-me web comic, Medium Large.

Via I-don't-remember-who-any-more, the Flash video for the song "Everyone Else Has Had More Sex Than Me. Whether it's "work-safe" or not depends on where you work, and your definition of "safe," but the singing, dancing, weeping bunny kills me.

And that ought to be enough to keep you out of trouble for a day or so.

Posted at 7:48 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Make the Connection

Matt's complaining about Harvard again, in response to an article about how unhappy Harvard students are:

Harvard students are unhappy because Harvard attracts lame, unhappy people who make each other even less happy. You could plop a bunch of Harvard kids into the most fun-friendly campus design imaginable and they'd still be lame, un-fun people...

...At the same time, it's simply not the case that Harvard students are hugely smarter than the people at other elite schools. Basically, the admissions office seems to me to put a high premium on psychologically disturbed obsessive individuals who are unlikely to become well-adjusted members of human society.

(Again, I am compelled to note that this isn't exactly news...)

This is interesting to me not just because I enjoy poking fun at people who went to Harvard, but because it fits nicely with an earlier post of Matt's, on the psychology of the ultra-rich. He notes that income inequality (in absolute terms, not can-I-provide-for-my-material-needs terms) actually increases as you move up the income ladder, and that this has odd consequences:

This is an important and, I think, problematic social phenomenon. Not especially because we need to cry for the sad case of the average member of the top 20 percent, or even the average member of the 60-80 percent bracket, but because it distorts a lot of people's thinking. This extreme inequality at the top does a lot to explain, I think, why you see a lot of people who make more than 85-90 percent of the population refusing to think of themselves as rich. Once you enter into the Rich Zone, you start coming into contact with people who are way, way, way, way richer than you are. If you run into somebody who has twice -- to say nothing of 10 or 100 -- times your earnings, it's hard to think of yourself as rich.

These two posts are not unrelated, or, rather, I think they're describing the same basic phenomenon. The way that you get to be ultra-rich is by being very rich, and thinking you don't have enough money. The distinction between the ultra-rich and the very rich has more to do with obsession than ability or moral character (no matter what the libertoonians may tell you). It's personality, not inequality that makes these people think they're not really rich.

Similarly, while the Harvard admissions office is not really trying to get "psychologically disturbed obsessive individuals," they've set up a situation in which obsession is the clearest path to admission. Absent real genius, or family connections, part of the process of getting into Harvard involves never being happy with what you've got, and feeling you need to do more. If you put a whole bunch of Tracy Flick obsessives together in one place, it shouldn't be a big surprise that they're not especially happy.

(I should note that this general phenomenon is true for any elite school, though Harvard seems to have it worse than most. Also, it should be noted that Matt's experience of Harvard probably isn't entirely representative-- I know people who went to Harvard who were very happy with their time there.)

In both cases, you've got people who got where they are by not being happy with where they were (when most people would've been satisfied with less). It shouldn't be all that surprising to discover that they're still not happy, though I'm sure Gregg Easterbrook will be along to proclaim this startling any minute now.

You can apply this to lots of different fields, and find the same basic thing. It's part of the reason why national politicians tend to be power-crazed weasels-- the system we've got tends to reward power-crazed weasels. In the same vein, there's probably a way to explain the problems with the American health care system in terms of the ridiculous tortures we inflict on people who want to be doctors, and what that means for the people who actually make it through. But I'll leave that to someone else.

Posted at 8:33 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Know Your Audience

I'll be visiting Argonne National Lab next week, to talk to the group who pioneered the technique of Atom Trap Trace Analysis, which I'm proposing to adapt to radioactive background measurements. There are a number of purposes to the visit, the main one being to get a look at a working ATTA system, to learn about all the fiddly little technical problems that the experts know how to solve, and the amateurs (i.e., me) don't know exist. As is traditional with such things, I'm giving a talk during my visit.

This is going to require a significant re-writing of the talk I gave at the LRT2004 workshop back in December. That talk was to an audience of people from the astrophysical detector community, who already knew more about the detector systems than I do, but knew nothing at all about laser cooling. There, I was able to make a 20-minute talk from ten minutes of basic atomic physics, and ten minutes of explaining how ATTA works.

In this case, that won't really fly, given that I'm talking to the people who invented the technique. There's a certain amount of hubris involved in giving this talk there at all, but it would just be insulting to spend a majority of my time telling them things they already know...

Thus, the need to completely re-engineer my talk, which is going to consume most of my attention this week.

Talk re-writing is as important a part of science as writing talks in the first place. As with any other performance art, it's important to know your audience, and make adjustments to pitch your talk at the right level. There are few things more maddening than going to a colloquium that's given for an audience that's quite different from the one in attendance.

You wouldn't necessarily know it from looking at my CV (which is slightly out of date), where I list no less than ten talks with the same title. That's an illusion, though-- those are really six different talks (I'm bad with titles, so I tend to find one and stick with it). There's a twenty-minute conference talk (two different versions, as the data evolved after the first version), a forty-minute seminar talk for research universities, a fifty-minute colloquium pitched at undergrads (two different versions, with and without PowerPoint), and the 90-minute NIST colloquium (which was actually the same slides as the twenty-minute conference talk, plus an hour of answers to questions).

Each of those talks has been given more than once, but even within groups, each talk is slightly different. The job talk I gave at Union was basically the same material as the talk I gave at Williams, but the delivery was substantially different. That's mostly a matter of on-the-fly adjustment, putting in little jokes and references appropriate for the different audiences. When I spoke at Union, the students in the audience had just finished an exam on quantum mechanics, so I threw in a few comments about that. At Williams, I made a few references to department icons, and cracked wise about the new science building.

(It sounds a little cheesey, but I do think it's essential to a good talk, at least for me. I'm the sort of public speaker who gets very nervous leading up to a talk, but I relax completely if I can open with a joke, and get people to laugh. The more audience-specific the joke, the better-- I've used designed-in jokes from time to time, but they start to get stale.)

Of course, the most important thing is to redesign the talk itself for the appropriate audiences. There's nothing quite so dangerous to a speaker as trying to give a colloquium for undergraduates using slides designed for a research university. If you're good, you can kind of adapt things on the fly, but too many slides with confusing extra information on them (particularly scary-looking equations), and you'll start to lose the audience. And skipping over inappropriate slides altogether (whether it's paging through stacks of excess transparencies, or clicking rapidly past PowerPoint slides) tells the audience "I don't care enough to prepare ahead of time," and that's always a bad message to send.

The slides that I use for the small-college and research-university versions of the BEC talk are pretty similar, and the data slides are basically identical. But the differences are important-- I stripped most of the equations out of the small-college version (because equations are death if your audience doesn't know what they are), and I added a few picture slides to help explain key concepts. It adds some preparation time-- the time needed to cut down a research talk to an undergraduate colloquium talk is not much less than the time needed to prepare a talk from scratch-- but it's absolutely essential.

(I think I do a pretty good job of this. I have it on good authority that the talk I gave during my visit is what got me my current job.)

And then, of course, there are situations like what I'm facing next week, where I've got to take a talk prepared for a group of experts in one area, and re-cast it for a group of experts from a completely different area. Which is why my bedtime reading last night was not Robert Charles Wilson's new novel Spin (dammit), but rather an inch-thick stack of preprints from the ArXiv, as I try to learn enough about cryogenic-rare-gas neutrino detectors to talk sensibly about them at Argonne.

And, hey, after that, constructing an undergraduate seminar with the same title ("Radioactive Background Evaluation by Atom Counting") will be a snap.

Posted at 9:37 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Who to Root Against?

And so, we're down to four: Illinois, Louisville, Michigan State, and North Carolina. UNC has the second most annoying fans in college hoops, MSU plays hockey, and I dislike Rick Pitino intensely. Illinois is the least offensive of the lot, but I just can't quite bring myself to root for them. The only way to make this a less appealing Final Four would've been for Cincinnati and Duke to replace Illinois and Michigan State.

I guess I'm stuck pulling for North Carolina, on the grounds that it would be nice to see Roy "Deputy Dawg" Williams win one. And I'm kind of sick of seeing him cry at press conferences.

On the bright side, though, Maryland is still alive in the NIT. Granted, nobody gives a rat's ass about the NIT, but, hey, they're still playing...

Posted at 8:49 PM | link | follow-ups | 12 comments

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