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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Year-End Links Dump

I'm not a big one for New Year's resolutions, but this seems like an appropriate moment to go through my Bloglines folders and clean out stuff that I marked "keep new" for later use. Most of those links are now well past their sell-by date, but there are some that are still worth reading:

Happy New Year, unless you operate on a different calendar system, in which case, um, have a nice day?

Posted at 7:29 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Friday, December 30, 2005

Pith-Helmeted Athropological Reporting

Scott Eric Kaufman of Acephalous is blogging the MLA. (I'm sure he's not the only one, he's just the only one I'm reading...)

As I understand it, the Modern Language Association meeting is pretty much the be-all end-all of humanities meetings. It's sort of fascinating to read about, coming off as sort of a cross between DAMOP and Worldcon (look, a Dealer's Room! People getting a little punchy!).

Of course, most of the things that make it fascinating to me are the areas where it diverges from my experience of professional meetings-- the cattle-call interviewing and the people reading pre-written papers (sometimes hilariously badly). Those are both "What are you thinking?!?" concepts to me-- while there are occasionally people doing interviews at physics meetings, there's no one meeting comprehensive enough to make it mandatory (and there's never likely to be one-- the Centennial Meeting in Atlanta in 1999 was a zoo), and there's a strong cultural bias against reading from a script for scientific talks.

It occurs to me that it would be sort of interesting to hear what humanities types think of the way scientific meetings are run. The few times it's come up at happy hours or whatever, people I know in English seem just as horrified at the idea of a meeting full of off-the-cuff presentations as I do at the prospect of spending a whole week listening to people read from a script, and I'm sure there are lots of other aspects of a typical DAMOP that would be baffling to someone trained in another discipline.

It'd be sort of interesting, in a we-need-to-fill-out-our-magazine sort of way, for somebody to send a scientist to the MLA, and an MLA type to a scientific meeting, and see what each of them has to say. At first glance, this might seem unfair to the humanist, but honestly, I get about as much out of Scott's panel descriptions as an English major would get from an invited talk at DAMOP... Of course, for all I know, this has already been done, and I just didn't see it-- I'd be shocked if I was the first person to think of it.

(I didn't take a laptop to last year's meeting, but if you're dying for a look inside a scientific meeting, there's some DAMOP-blogging at Lundblog. I may or may not attempt to do something similar this year.)

Posted at 6:45 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Year in Music

It's that time of year again, when everybody who has the slightest interest in pop culture starts making "Year's Best" lists. I'm usually at a major disadvantage when it comes to this sort of thing, as I can never really remember when any particular album was released, and I buy a lot of stuff that isn't new, so I end up associating all sorts of songs with a given year that aren't really eligible to be the best of that particular year.

Technology has come to my rescue, though, in the form of iTunes, which lets me sort songs by rating and year of release. It's not foolproof (somehow, it claims that "Symapthy for the Devil" by the Stones is a 2005 song), but it's better than what we used to have. So, here's the list of songs from 2005 that I rated five stars:

(That's 36 songs from 2005 rated five stars. There are another 371-odd rated four stars (I haven't gone through to check for misdated old stuff), and 320-some rated three stars. Just in case you were counting.)

What can we learn from this? Well, 2005 was evidently a dreadful year for band names. I mean, really, "Volebeats?" Also, I'm prone to overrating bands that I see live-- I like all those Ryan Adams tunes, but there's no way that was the top record of the year. And it's another banner year for streaming audio, as 24 of those 36 are songs I've never heard on the commercial radio stations around here (though, to be fair, two of them never made KEXP, either-- I got The Silent Type and the Volebeats based on positive reviews from 75orless.

Album of the year honors go to The Hold Steady's Separation Sunday, which only put two songs in the five-star playlist, but got most of the rest of the album onto the four-star list. Honorable mention records would be the Mountain Goats and the New Pornographers (which also has a bunch of four-star songs).

If I had to boil the above list down into a Top Ten, the winning songs would be (alphabetically by artist): "Catch My Disease," "Soul Meets Body," "Do You Want To," "Feel Good Inc.," "Your Little Hoodrat Friend," "This Year," "Sing Me Spanish Techno," "Van Gough," "Dakota," and "Beverly Hills." ("Diamonds From Sierra Leone" would be #11, lest you think I just hate rap...) Interestingly, about half of those are great tunes off otherwise undistinguished albums (most notably from Death Cab for Cutie, Franz Ferdinand, and Weezer). I'm not sure what that means, but there you go. Three of the top songs ("Do You Want To," "Feel Good Inc.," and "Beverly Hills") are really aggressively stupid, but the Franz Ferdinand song is so catchy that it almost makes even me think that dancing would be a good idea.

Posted at 6:48 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Value Added Testing (or "Merry Christmas, Novak")

One of the more contentious recurring topics around here over the years has been education policy, mostly centering around the question of teacher evaluation and teacher's unions. It's probably the subject for which there's the biggest gap between my opinions and those of some of my regular readers.

As this is a good time of year for peace and reconcilliation, let me point to this guest post at Calpundit Monthly, in which Paul Glastris talks about the problems of "gifted" kids under the "No Child Left Behind" system, and pushes a Washington Monthly article on Value-Added Testing. The idea here is to evaluate teachers and schools based on how much the students improve over the course of a year, rather than how well they meet a single absolute standard. This avoids penalizing schools and teachers who are stuck with student populations that come in poorly prepared, and also provides some incentive to push the more advanced students (who tend to be relatively neglected in a single-absolute-standard system).

It's not a perfect evaluation method-- it increases the number of required tests, and opens the possibility of rewarding schools that turn out lots of students who are below grade level, but not as far below as when they came in, which isn't really a stisfying outcome (not to mention perverse statistical dodges like telling kids to bomb the pre-tests, to inflate the "value added"). It's a step in the right direction, though, and some combination of absolute standards and value-added testing might lead to an acceptable assessment method.

The basic idea is pretty standard among people who do physics education research (see, for example, the well-known groups at Harvard, Washington, and NC State). I've done this with my intro classes the past few years-- you give a pre-test in the first week of class, and a post-test at the end, and measure student improvement using the "normalized gain," which is the post-test score mins the pre-test score, divided by the maximum score minus the pre-test score:

               Gain = --------

This is designed to account for the fact that a one-point gain for a student who starts with a 25/30 is a bigger achievement than a one-point gain for a student who started with a 5/30.

(The test we use is designed so that the scores are generally pretty lousy-- I think the pre-test average nationally is somewhere around 10/30-- and the gain from a "traditional" lecture-format course is usually around 25%. Classes based on "active learning" are found to do a better job, with gains of 40-60%.)

It's a reasonably effective technique, though you can question how much it actually proves about anything (and people do, at length). It's also fiendishly difficult to come up with good tests for this purpose, and it's not hard to find people who complain about even the well-established tests that are out there.

(Let me note, by the way, that I'm not prepared to whole-heartedly endorse everything that Glastris says in his post. In particular, I'm not especially disturbed by a drop in the fraction of students scoring as "advanced" in math as they move up in grade level-- it should be harder to score as "advanced" at the higher levels. I'm also a little skpetical of the oft-cited claim that some sizable fraction of high school drop-outs are really "gifted" kids who are too bored to continue-- in a lot of the anecdotes people use to illustrate this, the problem seems to be more a matter of psychological issues than boredom.

(I do agree, though, that the focus on bringing the bottom kids up to speed-- "triage, rather than teaching," in the phrase of one of the Washington Monthly commenters-- tends to lead to the better students being slighted, particularly in distracts with limited resources. The "gifted" program at my old school was an on-again-off-again thing while I was there (existing only when enough parents made enough noise to get it funded), and was shut down for good several years back. Programs for the "special needs" kids at the bottom end of the class are legally mandated, and have actually expanded over the same span.)

Posted at 7:42 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Why I Could Never Be a String Theorist

I've managed to leave string theory alone for a while, but a post came across Mixed States today that I can't avoid commenting on. Lubos Motl points to a news article about a recent measurement at MIT and NIST, in which Dave Pritchard's group used their cyclotron mass spectrometry technique to mesure the change in mass of a nucleus after emitting a photon. They pitch this as a test of E=mc2, and Pritchard is quoted thusly:

"In spite of widespread acceptance of this equation as gospel, we should remember that it is a theory," said David Pritchard, a professor of physics at MIT, who along with the team reported his findings in the Dec. 22 issue of Nature. "It can be trusted only to the extent that it is tested with experiments."

Motl dismisses this, writing:

Realistically speaking, the formula - and many other formulae - can be trusted well beyond these experiments. Everything depends on the amount of reasoning that we are allowed to perform with our brains in between the experiments. It is not true in science that every new experiment is really new. The whole goal of science is that we know the result of a huge class of experiments without actualling performing them. We can make predictions. Very general predictions and less general predictions. And science is able to do such things, indeed. If we are allowed to think a lot, the experiment is not terribly thrilling and its result is known in advance. There is just no way how we could design a theory in which the results will be different.

I think this is a nice illustration of what I see as a fundemantal attitude split between string theory and the sort of experimental physics I do. To Motl, it's inconceivable that the theory could work out any other way, so it's hardly worth bothering to do the experiment. To my mind, the fact that any other theory would be inconceivable is that whole reason to do the experiment in the first place. Yeah, you probably won't find anything (and if you did, you'd have a horrible time convincing anyone you were right) but if you did, it'd turn physics inside out.

(I've said this before, without the dig at string theorists, back in the very early days of this blog. It was the combination of trolling through my old archives (for reasons that will be explained later) followed by reading Motl's post on Mixed States that brought this post about.)

A few disclaimers: In general, I have very little use for Lubos Motl: he combines the worst sort of string-theorist attitude with political views that I find obnoxious, and a website design that I find appalling (in fact, if you'd like to read the whole post (which goes off into a big thing about global warming), I recommend using RSS in some form (it's still on the front page of Mixed States as I type this)). It's entirely possible that I'm putting an uncharitable interpretation on what he writes because of this, and because I know Dave Pritchard, and know that he's a smart guy.

Regarding the actual experiment, I suspect it's being over-sold, as Dave is somewhat prone to that, and everybody's all Einstein-happy this year. I can't read the original article at home, because the publishers of Nature are a bunch of bastards, but I don't think it's all that incredibly exciting-- it's the most precise direct test of the equivalence of mass and energy, but there are indirect constraints that are tighter than the current measurement (as Motl points out elsewhere in his piece). I don't think it's a trivial result, though-- if nothing else, it's technically very impressive, and I think there is something to be said for direct measurements over indirect ones.

Of course, that doesn't mean I'd like to be doing those measurements-- this is in a large class of fundamental experiments that I think are important in a philosophical sort of way, and that I'm glad to see somebody doing, but I'm just as glad that the person doing them isn't me.

Posted at 8:02 AM | link | follow-ups | 35 comments

Monday, December 26, 2005

Whenever You Say "Happy Holidays," It Makes Bill O'Reilly Cry

Kate and I went down to spend the weekend with my family in the Land of Slow Dial-Up, so there was no holiday live-blogging this year (not that there has been in the past...). So, um, Happy Boxing Day?

The weekend in Scenic Whitney Point was the usual hectic mess of family parties and big dinners and gift opening. Christmas Eve dinner had a record 25 people, eight of them twelve or under, so the annual oplatek ritual took absolutely forever, and got just a tiny bit chaotic. Still, a good time was had by all, many pierogi were eaten, and my four-year old cousin had a grand time pummeling me. You'll all want to stay out of her way in a few years...

(While I'm linking the Polish Christmas site, I should note that other than being a meatless meal (for Catholic values of "meatless"), the traditional family menu doesn't have a great deal in common with the menu described on-line. Unless "carp in aspic" really means "fish sticks"... We do have an abundance of pierogi, and my aunt makes kapusta (more out of obligation than because anybody likes it), but the soup was an Italian vegetable soup that my mother makes, and while my cousin did make some very tasty haddock, the traditional Mrs. Paul's fish sticks also made an appearance.)

We're back at Chateau Steelypips now, and most of the gifts have been put away, or at least shoved out of sight because we'll be having company soon. The dog is ecstatically happy to have us back, and we haven't even given her her new toys yet...

I hope everybody had at least as good a weekend as we did, whether you celebrated a holiday or not. And I hope the comment spammers who thought yesterday would be a great day to unleash a deluge of pornographic links burn in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Posted at 3:33 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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