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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, December 02, 2005

I've Forgotten More Music Than Some of You Own

It's hard to come up with new wrinkles on the "Ten Random Songs" thing, but here's an attempt: Ten songs that I probably don't know anything about.

I've rated a bit less than half of the songs in my iTunes library, because, well, there are 7639 of them at present, and I usually listen to only the most recent acquisitions. Every now and then, though, when I get tired of whatever I've been listening to (Kanye West, in this case), I switch the "Party Shuffle" source over to the "unrated" playlist, and listen to (and rate) some stuff I've forgotten about.

So, rather than taking ten random songs off the four-and-five-star playlist, as I usually do, here are ten that haven't been rated until now.

Farther down the Party Shuffle, we find excellent tracks by the Flaming Lips ("Do You Realize?"), the Jackson Five ("The Love You Save"), the Magnetic Fields ("All My Little Words"), and Dinosaur Jr. ("Start Choppin'"), but this selection is pretty typical. A few gems here and there, but lots and lots of forgettable (and forgotten) album tracks off discs I bought to get one or two good songs.

I'll probably do another iTunes purchase this weekend, but for the moment, I'll keep going through these. Most of these songs will probably never be heard again, save for those rare times when I shuffle the entire library-- at work, I mostly use the four-and-five-star playlist, and only a few of the songs listed above rate more than three stars (Sam Cooke and Rustic Overtones got four, and Sugar five, the rest three). Every now and then I stumble on something worthwhile, though, so I keep going.

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

Thursday, December 01, 2005

A Little Something for the Atheists

If you'd prefer secular silliness, here are a few links that have been piling up in Bloglines:

Posted at 8:11 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Because Christmas Comes But Once a Year

We're past Thanksgiving now, so the annual blizzard of kitsch has begun, with otherwise respectable radio stations switching over to an all-Christmas-music format, and giant inflatable figures sprouting from local lawns like Lovecraft-style monster fungi. It's, um, the most wonderful time of the year?

If you'd like to innoculate yourself against this incursion of forced gaiety, you could do worse than looking at the Cavalcade of Bad Nativities at Going Jesus (via What Now?). It's hard to pick a favorite, but this is close:

This is a set of costumes for those geese people have on their porches, the ones that get dressed up to match the current holiday or season. Those geese. The best detail is of course the baby Jesus. Since I guess there are no cement/resin/plastic baby ducklings available, well, rubber ducky, you're the one.

Lo, I have come to make bathtime so much fun!

The same site also provides Angels We Have Heard Are High, a collection of angel kitsch, and The Stations of the Kitsch, a collection of tacky Jesus memorabilia.

Also the "WTFWJD?" T-shirt goes on the list of CafePress shirts that are so brilliant I'm almost moved to buy one.

Posted at 7:48 AM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Multiplication Problems

One of the many tasks I need to complete over the break (classes don't start again until Jan. 3, an odd consequence of our trimester-based academic calendar) is to develop a lab for our junior-level lab course ("Methods of Modern Experimental Physics"). We don't have any labs in our intermediate-level class, but we've collected the good modern physics labs together into a fairly intense course where students work through seven complicated experiments (Rutherford back-scattering, Mossbauer spectroscopy, a couple of labs on laser spectroscopy), and do a whole bunch of lab writing.

Starting this year, we're dividing this course among four of the experimentalist members of the department, so we'll each do a couple of labs over a two-week span in the middle of the term, rather than one person spending the full ten weeks working through all the labs. I'm one of the lucky ones this year, and while I've got a reasonable idea for an activity, I need to make sure it all works before February, when I have to actually do the thing with live students.

There are a number of issues involved in trying to set this up. The basic idea is a pretty straightforward extension of a paper I did with a thesis student from a few years back, and after a few snags involving diode lasers (can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em), I got the thing working. But now that the proof-of-principle stage is past, I need to go through the process of making it student-ready: figuring out what material they'll be given before the lab, what exactly they'll be expected to do during the lab, what I'm going to ask for in the analysis, and all that fun stuff. The key question in all of this is what is the appropriate time multiplier.

There are time multipliers all over the place in academia, to account for the difference between trained academics and college students. The most common multiplier is the exam multiplier, which is widely known to be a factor of three. That is, if I'm trying to make up an hour test for one of my intro classes, it should take me roughly twenty minutes to write out the full solutions, starting with a blank exam paper. If it takes me twenty minutes to work through, it will take an average student about an hour.

The time multiplier isn't as well-established when it comes to lab work, though. It doesn't seem to be anywhere near as consistent-- in the intro classes, some groups will take ten or fifteen minutes to do some preliminary activity that takes the rest of the class two minutes. Some students can find a really dizzying variety of ways to make simple procedures take forever to get through. And the worst part is that they're not even consistent-- the group that takes fifteen minutes on a trivial task one week will whip through a twenty-minute task in five minutes the next week.

So, the question is, if it takes me twenty minutes to line up a Fabry-Perot interferometer, how long should I allow for students to do this part of the lab? It's a critical question, because it determines what I'll be able to have them do as part of the lab, and what I'll have to set up beforehand. It's not an easy question to answer, either, as there are a whole host of tricks involved in the art of optical alignment that seem completely obvious to me after years of training, that may not be quite so obvious to students doing this for the first time.

(A further complication is that some of the students taking this class may have done optics research in the summer, while others are theorists in training. I may need to sort them into lab groups based on previous experience, and make different groups do different amounts of the full procedure. This conflicts with one of the other goals of this process, though, namely to minimize the amount of work I need to do making up different versions of the lab materials....)

I may end up dragooning somebody else's research student into testing part of the procedure for me, but that creates problems down the road when that student comes through the class. Or, I may do something radical, and bring Kate in to test it out.

Of course, having Kate test it just introduces a new time multiplier, one that sounds like a joke word problem: If it takes forty minutes for a lawyer to align a Fabry-Perot interferometer, how long will it take a junior Physics major, and who can she sue?

Posted at 7:36 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Covers Are For Wimps

Scalzi has suggested a music "meme": "Find a song with at least five cover versions (i.e., a version other than the most famous version) and give a quick review of each cover."

In a fit of cat-vacuuming a while back, I actually created an iTunes playlist consisting of all the tracks with duplicated titles in my music library. Surprisingly few of these end up being covers, and I don't actually own five cover versions of any single song (I do have five versions of "All Along the Watchtower," but three of the five are by Bob Dylan...).

I can go this one weirder, though, and review groups of songs that happen to have the same title, but are otherwise unrelated. For example, I've got four songs named "Angel":

Weirdly, the most duplicated title in my collection is "Anthem," with either five or six (depending on whether you count "Anthem, Pt. 2" as a separate song):

And that's probably about enough of that.

Posted at 7:25 AM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

Monday, November 28, 2005

Decoherence is Unavoidable

I'd be remiss in my geekly duty if I failed to mention Mixed States (found via Technorati), a new-ish site collecting together a bunch of feeds from physics-themed blogs (this site included).

Amusingly, this feed aggregating site offers its own feeds (here's the RSS 2.0 version, for example). Which means that now my RSS feed will feature a link to an RSS feed containing a link to my feed linking to their feed linking to my feed...

If the entire Internet collapses into a singularity of cyclic self-reference, well, sorry. But if it hasn't happened yet, I think we're probably safe.

Posted at 8:44 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Take Some Message Discipline, and Call Me in the Morning

I'm well behind the curve on this, but I didn't want to post something political just before leaving to spend Thanksgiving in the Land of Slow Dial-Up. The topic's probably all but dead, but I'll say my piece anyway.

Patrick links approvingly a post by Avedon Carol guest-blogging at Calpundit Monthly, containing advice for the Democratic Party:

I've been thinking for a long time that there has to be some way to put pressure on the party leadership to read the damned weblogs!

Really, it's shameful to see them going on television and falling for - and even repeating - RNC spin and falsehoods. They need to study-up, and it's just plain stupid to ignore the fact that the information is available gratis and easy to find.

It's pretty obvious that the level of discourse at places like Liberal Oasis, Daily Kos, MyDD et al. is significantly higher than the stuff that comes out of the party itself, and it's about time they acquainted themselves with what's really going on. A rep could do worse than to check The Daily Howler, Media Matters, and Eschaton every day just to get a handle on what kind of bull is being spit out by the right-wingers and that it really is just lies.

I agree to a point, but only to a point. While it's true that the blogs she cites often have good things to say, I don't think that the Democrats' problem with media management has to do with the quality of their talking points. The problem is the lack of cohesion.

After all, if you look at the things that the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy puts out there, many of them are downright farcical. They're not winning the media battle because they're saying things that are so stupefyingly brilliant that the public is just blown away. They're winning because they pick a message, and run with it. Even if their chosen message is stupid, they get dozens of people out there saying exactly the same thing, in exactly the same words.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are always all over the damn map. There's usually at least one Democratic official out there saying something that's both good policy and good rhetoric, but there'll be ten others saying ten different stupid things. You can't even predict from one issue to the next which Democrat will be the one with the good lines, and which ones will be the idiots.

Picking up talking points from liberal blogs is as good an idea as anything, but they could pick their talking points by looking at the entrails of free-range chickens, for all the difference that makes. The important thing is getting everybody on the same page. That page could be Daily Kos, or it could be Fafblog, just as long as everybody's reading from the same script.

Look, I know it seems stupid, and Jon Stewart will make fun of you for it, but repetition works. The people making up the news media are just people, and people are lazy. If every single person on the Republican side steps up and repeats the same line, while the Democrats say fifty different things, it doesn't matter that the Republicans are all blowing smoke, and the Democrats are all perfectly correct, people will incline toward the Republican position, just because it seems more consistent.

And, honestly, Jon Stewart is going to make fun of you either way, so you might as well get mocked for running a halfway competent media operation, rather than being a bunch of anarchic losers.

Posted at 9:17 PM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

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