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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Obscure Band Update

Here's alittle pop culture to smooth the transition into the weekend: assorted comments on some recent iTunes purchases:

Eels, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. I really enjoyed Shootenany, their last album, so when I heard the new single "Old Shit/ New Shit" on the radio, I added this to the iTunes list immediately. I didn't realize that it was a double album, and mostly in a much mopier style than the previous record. Some of the songs ("Son of a Bitch," now playing) sound basically like second-rate Tom Waits.

There are some good tunes here, but they're buried in a lot of undistinguished other material. I like "Railroad Man," "Going Fetal," and "Hey Man (Now You're Really Living)" quite a bit.

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Cold Roses. Another slightly uneven double album, with some good stuff mixed in. "Meadowlake Street," "If I Am a Stranger," "Dance All Night," and "Life Is Beautiful" rank with his very best stuff. It's much more country than the last couple of albums, though.

Stereophonics, Language, Sex, Violence, Other?. This is another case of "I liked their last album a lot, so I'll grab this one right away." It's decent, but not great. The standout track is the single, "Dakota," which you get in two different versions if you buy the album from iTunes.

Weezer, Make Believe. On the one hand, it's Weezer-style power pop, and it's pretty hard to screw that up. On the other hand, "We Are All On Drugs" may be the stupidest song they've ever recorded, and yes, that includes the idiotic sweater tune that was their first novelty hit. Then again, "Beverly Hills" is a great song.

Rilo Kiley, More Adventurous. Not really a new record, any more, but somehow I never got around to buying it before now. I assume "Portions for Foxes" must've been used in some silly teen drama on Fox, or something, because it's all over the radio all of a sudden. It's a pretty solid album top to bottom, though.

Fruit Bats, Mouthfuls. This has kind of gotten buried in the new music shuffle-play (thanks to those double CD's mentioned above). I bought it because of the song "When U Love Somebody" (which, spelling aside, does not appear to have been written by Prince), which is a wonderfully catchy little song. The guitar line reminds me of "Stuck in the Middle with You," but not so much that I see Michael Madsen dancing with a straight razor, so that's a good thing.

Nic Armstrong and the Thieves, The Greatest White Liar. I bought this becuase I heard "Broken Mouth Blues" on the radio and said, "Ah-hah! Here's a song to go with 'Hotel Yorba.'" And while that tune does indeed sound a lot like the White Stripes (their good songs, anyway), most of the rest of the album sounds like a lost recording by some brilliant but forgotten British Invasion band-- Herman and the Animal Pacemakers, or something. That's not a bad thing, by the way.

The Libertines, The Libertines. Prior to buying this, all I really knew about this band was that critics really like them, and that one of the main guys is trying to be Iggy Pop-- he's on drugs, he's off drugs, he's in jail, he's out of jail, he's in the band, he's out of the band.. Given that, I expected the sound to be more punk rock and less Pulp. And, well, they sound a lot like Pulp to me. That's not terrible, or anything, but it was unexpected.

The Mountain Goats, The Sunset Tree. The first pass through this, I was badly disappointed, but it's really grown on me since. I guess I'm just a sucker for weird pop-culture references (the chorus to "You or Your Memory" goes, "St. Joseph's Baby Aspirin, Bartles and Jaymes, and you, or your memory"), and oddball classical references (the chorus of "Up the Wolves" is: "Our mother has been absent, ever since we founded Rome, but there's gonna be a party when the wolf comes home."), and how can I not like an album with a song titled "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod"?

I've got another list of singles from KEXP to go looking for, but I also just acquired the Anthology of American Folk Music (borrowed from a co-worker), so I may be on an O Brother, Where Art Thou sort of kick for the next few weeks. Tough to say.

Posted at 8:55 PM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

A Rare Flash of Sanity

I've been consciously trying to limit the amount of political stuff I post here, laregly because I don't like the way I sound when I start talking politics these days. I do want to take this all-too-rare opportunity to highlight a bit of good news from this morning's paper:

House Votes to Curb Patriot Act

The House handed President Bush the first defeat in his effort to preserve the broad powers of the USA Patriot Act, voting yesterday to curtail the FBI's ability to seize library and bookstore records for terrorism investigations.

Bush has threatened to veto any measure that weakens those powers. The surprise 238 to 187 rebuke to the White House was produced when a handful of conservative Republicans, worried about government intrusion, joined with Democrats who are concerned about personal privacy.

Now, granted, in a realistic analysis, this is one of the least scary items in the "Patriot Act" (if ever a bill title deserved scare quotes, this is the one), and removing it is only a minor victory. But anything that shows the slightest sign of actual principles on the part of Republican lawmakers (well, 17% of House Republicans) is a positive development.

And, of course, schadenfreude is a wonderful thing:

House Republican leaders are not accustomed to losing, and they did not hide their anger about the result. One aide to a House leader referred to the victorious coalition as "the crazies on the left and the crazies on the right, meeting in the middle."

As a bonus, the amendment was introduced by Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a socialist.

Posted at 7:21 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Post-Literate Literacy

Bookslut has an interview with Jon Scieszka, author and founder of "Guys Read," a program to try to get boys more interested in reading. I don't agree with everything he says, but some of the things he says make sense:

In fact, that's what gotten us where we are today, where we just keep telling kids, like, you know, "Take your medicine. Reading tastes bad, but it'll make you a better person, so suck it up." But it's not happening! Boys are just leaving reading in droves. And that's not right.

Part of the Guys Read program is where I go around and talk to teachers and librarians about [doing] exactly the opposite. Don't try to beat kids into reading. I think what we have to do is to motivate them to want to learn how to read. That's a difficult thing, so I think the best way to do it is to give them things they like to read. And what we haven't done with boys is we haven't really given them a broad range of reading. In schools, what's seen as reading is so narrow: it's literary, realistic fiction. It's feelings and problems, stuff that a lot of boys just aren't drawn to. So we're setting boys up for failure, because we have a literacy model that's just easier for girls.

I'm not generally wild about gender-specific educational initiatives, in whatever field, but I do like what he's doing. I think he's got the right approach to trying to improve literacy in general-- namely, working on giving kids things that they want to read, and not worrying so much about what they ought to read.

I'll also note that this is where I think the real transformative potential of the whole weblogging phenomenon may lie. The really interesting consequences of the rise of blogs won't come from the political side of things (idiots in bars have been spouting off about politics for as long as there have been idiots, bars, and politics-- tranferring that to the Internet is not a really dramatic leap in the process of civilization). Sure, some talented young pundits will get pundit jobs more quickly than they might have otherwise, and some low-level reporting will be done that might otherwise be lost in the noise of the mass media culture, but this isn't really revolutionary, no matter how many self-congratulatory posts people make about it.

Ironically, the areas of blogdom that have the most potential to transform the world are the areas of blogdom that are the least readable-- all those dozens of 1337-speaking teenagers griping about how lame their math classes are, talking about how totally hot that girl or guy in their third-period class is, and taking an infinite number of dumbass personality quizzes. Unbearable as a lot of it is to the casual reader, it's still text, and anything that gets a large number of young people into the idea of reading and writing text has the potential to really shake things up.

I'm not sure what the consequences will end up being (and it's entirely possible that the whole thing will fizzle out and not change anything much), but an increase in mass literacy would be a Good Thing. And giving people the idea that their own thoughts and opinions are worth broadcasting to the world is the sort of thing that could lead to massive and unpredictable changes in the way people relate.

Anyway, I generally support the Guys Read project (and I sent them some recommendations, back in the day). But when I looked at their web site, I was appalled. What a grotesquely overdesigned piece of crap-- it's all a big Flash thing, so you can't navigate it like a normal web page, and all the links spawn pop-ups containing tiny little bits of text, so you've got to look at a dozen different pages (each with its own annoying Flash crap) to get any real information.

Now, granted, half of the site is deliberately targeted at people who are at best uncertain about reading. But even the "for adults" part of the site appears to be designed for people who have trouble with lists that extend past three bullet points.

If we've gotten to the point where even people who support literacy programs are semi-literate, there may not be any hope after all...

Posted at 9:11 PM | link | follow-ups | 16 comments

Monday, June 13, 2005

Links Dump

Stuff has been piling up in my Bloglines feed for a good while now, so I'll unload some of it:

Sean Carroll has been blogging less of late, but he's been producing lots of good stuff, including nice posts on CERN and the Auger observatory, looking for extremely high-energy particles. I do have to quibble with one comment, though:

For the last 25 years or so, particle physics has been in an extremely unusual position -- the theory just worked so well that all the new experiments kept finding particles that had already been predicted. This is the opposite of the historically common state of affairs, in which experimenters keep coming up with unexpected new phenomena that the theorists have to scramble to understand (as we've seen in cosmology in the last decade). I fully expect the tables to turn once again when CMS and ATLAS start releasing new results. We have lots of ideas about what might be around the corner -- one or more Higgs bosons, supersymmetry, extra dimensions, various forms of strong dynamics -- but my suspicion is that what we see won't fit perfectly well into any pre-existing framework, at least not at first. That's when we theorists will really have to earn our salaries, and physics at the high-energy frontier will be as exciting as it ever was.

You don't actually need to wait for the next generation of particle accelerators-- some of the beyond-the-Standard-Model theories are already being pushed pretty hard by table-top experiments. Various groups working to measure the electric dipole moments of elementary particles have already put pretty tight limits on what's possible. Depending on who you ask, the basic version of supersymmetry is either very close to being completely ruled out, or already dead.

Annoyingly, there's damnably little on the Web about EDM results. The best summary I found is in a collection of PDF presentations by the Romalis group at Princeton. These are terrific experiments, though, and are doing more to actually push the limits of theory than the accelerators that are currently on-line.

Sean also has a piece on the worst teaching evaluation study method ever. Actually "" has to be one of the worst ideas ever... (I'm not looking, dammit, I'm not...)

Sticking with physics for a bit, Peter Woit agrees with Lee Smolin that the structure of academia is inhibiting the "next Einstein." Personally, I think this theory is well into the yellow zone on the Crank-O-Meter, but it's moderately interesting to read.

Speaking of the culture of academia, Bill Tozier shows that some ideas never get old:

When I started graduate school an embarrassingly long time ago, it was the age of the "silver platter": all the old dead wood were “about to retire”, and tenure would be readily available to all us new starry-eyed youfs shining (somewhat by default) in our fields. We would have multiple job openings to choose from, up-bids on our salary offers, clamoring departments vying for our brains with poshness and perqs galore.

Needless to say, it didn't happen fifteen years ago, but just the other day, I heard a colleague repeat the same basic theory with a straight face.

The Little Professor offers some thoughts on the popularity of the Chronicle of Higher Education. It's a short post, but it nails both the reason why I think I could repackage some bloggy writing and make money off it, and why I hesitate to do so.

Elsewhere, I continue to get all my good astronomy news from LiveJournal, in this case a pointer from James Nicoll to an article on the discovery of a rocky extra-solar planet. Also in LJ-land, the oft-linked Matt McIrvin takes on the recurring issue of consciousness in quantum mechanics.

And finally, because I like to post the occasional silly link, The Periodic Table of Haiku (via Peg Kerr). Sadly, all of the haiku for elements I've been associated with kind of suck, so instead, I'll close with the quote I used in the front matter of my Ph.D. thesis (on collisions in metastable xenon):

"Can you name the six noble gases?"

[...] I rattled them off in their prper aristocratic order. "Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon, and-- er-- Radon. All were raised to the peerage in the eleventh year of England's George Fifth, and Neon was awarded the Order of the Seraphim by Gustav the Sixth of Sweden for its compassionate service in guiding to bars and beaneries guys who roll into towns late at night."

(From The Moon's Fire-Eating Daughter by John Myers Myers.)

Posted at 9:18 PM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Graduation Day

The two hundred and mumbleth commencement exercises of Union College were held this morning, in sweltering heat (90 degree temperatures, and 9000% humidity)-- a wonderful day for parading around in black robes. (And bagpipes. Why is it always bagpipes?)

The day has basically been a big social whirl for me-- first, the graduation itself, then a quick trip home to put on a dry shirt, then a celebratory lunch with my thesis student's family, then a party thrown by one of our neighbors (that had nothing to do with the College, though a few faculty were in attendance). The dog has been crated for most of the day, except for three short walks (I would've taken a her on a longer walk, but she was panting alarmingly after about a block and a half), and will undoubtedly want a lot of attention tonight. And Kate won't be back for another hour or two.

I do want to take a minute, though, to mark the graduation of the first class I've seen through from start to finish. These guys started the same year I did, and they've been a good bunch, especially our majors and minors (of course, every department says that).

So, congratulations Ryan, Alyssa, Garrett, Evan, Mike, Barnaby, Emily, and Lori. Best wishes for your future careers, and if you should happen to make a billion dollars, please remember that Schenectady needs more lasers.

Posted at 7:32 PM | link | follow-ups | 13 comments

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