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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Saturday Links

In the category of "Advice You Never Thought You'd Need," via Setshot: How to Suck at Basketball.

In the category of "Things You Thought You'd Never Read": Matt McIrvin writes video game fanfic.

I'm not all that impressed by "Quentin Tarantino's Republic Dogs" (there's more to Tarantino's style than cursing and ultraviolence), but lots of other people seem to like it, so here's the link. Much more to my taste is John M. Ford's recipe for Hot Gingered Pygmy Mammoth & Jumbo Shrimp Salad ("Feeds your whole tribe").

I'm headed into work today to disassemble and reassemble part of the vacuum system, and then see if my turbopump survived this week's misadventure. Whee.

Posted at 8:22 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Thursday, October 27, 2005

How Does it Feel?

A little while back, I caught part of No Direction Home: Bob Dylan on PBS. This was the documentary project involving Martin Scorsese, and a whole bunch of previously unreleased Bob Dylan footage and interviews.

They're also selling a "soundtrack" disc, as Volume 7 of the Bootleg Series, consisting of twenty-odd tracks used in the film, most of them live recordings or alternate versions. I picked it up from iTunes along with Greatest Hits Volume 2 (which I didn't have on CD), and both have been in the shuffle-play rotation for the past couple of weeks.

As with most rarities collections, it's mostly of interest to those who are already fans. The early tracks include a handful of cover tunes and folk standards ("This Land is Your Land," "Man of Constant Sorrow"), which even I don't find terribly interesting-- Dylan's not famous for either his voice or his guitar playing, and these songs don't do much other than highlighting his early influences. Of course, I'm not as fond of his early folk-singer stuff as I am of the electric period stuff, so others may feel differently.

The live tracks are a little more interesting. I've seen Dylan in person twice, once in 1991 or so at Tanglewood, and once in New Haven in 2000. The first show was pretty bad, actually-- he mumbled horribly, and changed the songs around so much that they were nearly unrecognizable. The later show was absolutely terrific-- he played with a lot of energy, dipped pretty deep into the catalogue for a few tracks, and the changes he made to the songs were musically very interesting.

The live tracks collected suggest that (in keeping with conventional wisdom) the 1991 show was a down period, and the second time I saw him was a return to form. The album-ending live version of "Like a Rolling Stone" (I believe he's backed by the Band for that one) is the standout track of the album-- it opens with a fan calling him "Judas," and Dylan telling the band to "Play it fucking loud," and they blow the doors off the song. The tempo is slower and the cadences are different, but it's got even more of an edge to it than the original, and a terrific ragged energy as he drags out the words of the chorus.

The most interesting songs in the collection, though, are probably the alternate versions. At least, they're the most interesting tracks if you've listened to Bob Dylan for countless hours already. It's fascinating to hear different takes of classic songs, and get a glimpse into the way he played around with different approaches.

There's nothing here as surprising as the waltz-time version of "Like a Rolling Stone" off the original Bootleg Series-- most of the alternate takes collected on this record are a little more subtle in their differences from the well-known versions. (Other than the version of "Mr. Tamourine Man" on which he either overdubbed backing vocals, or found a drunken doppleganger to duet with, anyway.) It's interesting to see how fine the line can be between a brilliantly successful song and one that doesn't quite work. And also how good his instincts were for what worked and what didn't-- the alternate versions of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" is hardly changed musically, but there's a slight shift of tone that makes all the difference between a classic song and an historical curiousity (the well-known version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" is a little harsher and more nasal, which actually works for the song).

Some of the other stylistic shifts are a little more significant. "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" started off as more of a shuffle than the bluesier version on the album, "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" had a sort of rolling gait rather than the steady drive of the final album version, and "Tombstone Blues" had both more electric guitar and regrettable backing vocals. The alternate versions of "Desolation Row" and "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" presented here both have a more sinister edge than the album versions, which doesn't work that well, especially for the latter, which is really very silly. Ditto the angry take of "Visions of Johanna," which is better served by the softer, more wistful version on the original album.

Anyway, if you're a big Dylan fan, you should probably go ahead and buy this. If his voice is like fingernails on a chalkboard to you, stay well clear. And if you're a casual fan, give iTunes a buck for the live "Like a Rolling Stone" (you might also grab "Song to Woody" while you're at it), and give the rest a miss.

Posted at 8:01 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Signature Turnovers

In one of our lunchtime pick-up games last year, one of the regular players (who we call "Dave" because that's his name) got the ball on the break, and attempted to throw a bounce pass between the legs of the guy guarding him. As the guy guarding him doesn't play defense very well, he had his legs too close together for this to work, so Dave's pass slammed into his shins.

And, weirdly, the ball bounced directly back into Dave's hand. Whereupon he tried to throw the exact same pass a second time, with the same result. I just about fell over laughing.

Setshot talked a while back about "signature moves", the little tricks and shots that regular players, particularly aging hoopsters, rely on as a major part of their game. Everybody who plays regularly has one or two of these moves-- mine are a one-dribble-to-the-right pull-up jumper from about fifteen feet, and a ridiculous little jump-hook from the blocks.

You don't really know a player, though, until you can recognize their signature turnovers-- those moves that are so ingrained that they do them even though every other person in the gym knows exactly what they're going to do with the ball. No good can come of these moves, but they do them all the same.

Dave's between-the-legs passes are a signature turnover. He tries that pass at least once a game (usually three or four times), and it never works. On the rare occasions when he manages to get it past the legs of the defender (who knows perfectly well that the pass is coming), the ball comes out so hot and at such a low angle that the guy he's passing to has basically no chance of catching it. I've sprained more than one finger trying to snag hose passes, and I've decided that it's safer to just avoid getting open in a position where he might throw me that ball.

Signature moves easily turn into signature turnovers, if you're not careful. I've had a huge number of shots blocked over the years because I tried one pull-up jumper too many. You need to shake things up every now and then-- I'll even take the occasional lefty jump-hook, just to keep the defender honest, even though I shoot it like I had a foot at the end of that arm.

A lot of signature turnovers are sort-of shots. There are a few guys who play with us sometimes who can safely be allowed to drive toward the basket in certain directions. Whenever they do, they flip up a shot that's very likely to miss, and it's easier to just get in position to pick up the rebound than to play defense.

Most of the rest are pass attempts. Lots of players have some variant of the behind-the back pass as a signature turnover. Some guys prefer to make their behind-the-back passes out near mid-court, and just throw the ball out of bounds. Others like the behind-the-back pass in traffic, which is a less certain turnover, but more likely to lead to gruesome collisions as multiple players try to catch the ball.

Another classic is the lob pass that goes three feet over the head of the intended recipient. I've watched more than a few of those sail past my hands out of bounds. Apparently, I look even taller than I am. We've also got a few guys who like to throw the hospital ball-- a high, arcing pass that takes so long to arrive that I get fouled by all five defensive players before it even gets to me.

Probably my favorite signature turnover of all time was a move used by a player I really didn't like (I almost got into a fight with this guy on a couple of occasions). He had this little head-fake move that would get him past pretty much any of the regular players, but when he got into the lane, he always did the same slow scoop shot with his right hand. I used to volleyball spike those shots out past half-court-- that always felt good. It wasn't necessarily productive, but it was fun...

Posted at 10:08 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Nature Abhors a Vacuum (Pump)

In hindsight, it was obviously karmic payback. I violated the sanctity of Lab Day by spending an hour or so calculating grades and e-mailing lab reports back to students this morning. (I got most of the grading done last night, but didn't have time for consistency checks before the Nader thing.)

When I did get down to the lab, something struck me as odd. One of the mechanical vacuum pumps was making a louder noise than usual. When I went over to take a closer look, I noticed that the floor looked a lot shinier than I remember it being (the cleaning staff generally stay out of my lab, which is fine with me, because I don't want anyone touching my expensive optics with Windex and a greasy rag...). A quick inspection revealed this to be a half-inch layer of oil. The pump blew a seal, and leaked all over the place.

This in itself wouldn't be all that bad, as the pump itself was free-- I dug it out of a stockroom, and we have three or four others like it. The real problem is that it was supposed to be backing a $13,000 turbo pump, which was now rather warm to the touch.

(Quick vacuum explanation: a turbo pump is more or less like a big fan that spins very, very fast-- 27,000 rpm in this case. That acts to pull gas out of the chamber you're pumping on, but that gas needs to go somewhere, so you hook up a second, lower-tech pump to the output side of the turbo pumnp, and pump the gas away. When you don't pump that gas away, your turbo pump sits there spinning at 27,000 rpm in a full atmosphere of gas, and the air resistance causes it to heat up. A lot. Eventually, it heats up to the point that the lubrication fails, and it seizes up, leaving you with a very expensive doorstop.)

So, rather than doing science-y things, I got to spend a day being a mechanic, and learned how to change the vacuum seals on a Welch Duo-Seal 1402. This requires mopping up all the oil that leaks out when the seals fail, removing the belt and using a wheel puller (which looks like a sci-fi movie prop) to remove the main drive wheel, pulling the broken seal assembly off with pliers, scraping the old gasket out with a razor blade, and putting the whole thing back together. More or less every part in this process is absolutely dripping with oil.

I managed to get the whole thing back together, and turned it back on this afternoon. If anything, it works better than it did before it failed, which I guess isn't all that surprising. I also washed my hands about fifty times today, and they still feel oily.

Of course, the really interesting question is whether the very expensive turbo pump survived this little misadventure. I'm not sure yet-- I've been meaning to make some changes to that particular vacuum system anyway, but haven't wanted to shut the pumps down to do the work. As long as the pump has been shut down for me, I might as well make the modifications before I fire the turbo back up.

I guess I know what I'm doing this weekend...

Posted at 7:48 PM | link | follow-ups | 13 comments

Monday, October 24, 2005

Reflection Symmetry

It occurred to me tonight that in a very deep way, Ralph Nader is a libertarian.

Not in any traditional sense, mind. It's just that the way he pisses me off is fundamentally the same as the way that a certain brand of libertarian pisses me off.

The fundamental problem with most annoying libertarians is that they believe that there is something uniquely awful about government power, but that similar powers accruing to corporations are no problem at all. Naderism is this brand of libertarianism reflected through the origin-- corporations are the root cause of everything that is wrong with the world as we know it. This position is exactly as stupid as the corresponding libertarian view.

I didn't make it through his whole talk-- he was forty minutes in before he brought up Unsafe at Any Speed, and an hour and ten minutes in before he started on the indistinguishability of Democrats and Republicans. At an hour and a half, I left (he was starting to rant about the Commission on Presidential Debates). Apparently, he was working up some sort of Fidel Castro epic oration, and I decided I had had enough. Which was particularly annoying, because I was less interested in his stump speech than in seeing what he would have to say during a question-and-answer period.

The stump speech was chock-full of muddled anti-corporate blather, though, so there was plenty to annoy me. My favorite bit, as you might guess, was where he started on how corporations retard scientific progress. There was a little bit of Derek Lowe's favorite topic, how drug companies are suppressing research into vaccines for deadly diseases because they can make more money pushing treatments. There was the expected rant about how the only reason we don't have cheap solar power is because the oil companies don't want to lose their monopoly. And, most baffling, there was the bit where he appeared to cite the 1939 World's Fair as evidence of corporate suppression of fuel-efficient cars.

Let's leave aside for the moment the fact that those 70 mpg cars were also supposed to fly, and look at another potential idea of about the same vintage (give or take a decade): grand unification. Scientists of the 30's and 40's were promising us a theory that would unite General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and despite decades of work and millions of dollars of NSF funding, we still don't have grand unification. Curse those damned corporations!

Of course, it's ridiculous to say that we don't have a unified field theory because of nefarious corporate action. We don't have a theory of quantum gravity because it's a really hard problem. The same is true of most of the other technological issues Nader trots out. Finding a vaccine for the disease of your choice (tuberculosis and malaria were the two he cited, many others prefer AIDS) is a really hard problem. Designing a practical system for the generation and distribution of solar power is a really hard problem-- you're butting heads with the laws of physics, and the laws of physics always win.

Of course, the Cris Carter conspiracy theory stuff is rivaled for sheer stupidity by the bits where he attributes general human characteristics to corporate activity. He blamed big timber companies for destroying the rain forests, which sort of glosses over the fact that most of North America's forests were pretty effectively wiped out in the 1700's and 1800's without modern corporate structures. And he blamed corporate fisheries for depleting fish stocks, which ignores the big dent people managed to put in the whale population using wooden ships. And, for that matter, the extinction of North American megafauna pre-dates the invention of the limited liability corporation by a hundred thousand years or so...

He also got fairly exercised about the fact that people are more scared of street crime than corporate crime. He seemed to blame the (corporate-controlled, of course) mass media for people being more concerned about small immediate threats than big, diffuse ones, which I'm sure will come as a surprise to a couple of generations of scholars. We have phrases for this sort of thing-- "tragedy of the commons" is a good one-- and the effects they describe pre-date television.

The sad thing here is that I don't actually disagree with many of his broad points. Corporate influence in politics has many bad effects. A lot of the things that big companies do are bad. But again, it's the same thing with the libertarians-- I'm perfectly willing to agree that unchecked abuses of government power are a Bad Thing.

Both of these worldviews are good to a point, but quickly become ridiculous when you start running with them. And boy, do they run with them. I just wish they'd run away from me.

Posted at 9:33 PM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

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