Monthly Archives: August 2006

Yo La Tengo and Hold Steady collecting videos

Two of my favorite bands are requesting videos from fans: Yo La Tengo simply want a reading of their upcoming album’s title, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. The Hold Steady have more open-ended instructions: “We want to you know about what you think about the opposite sex, relationships, love, the whole shebang.” They’re both posting submitted videos on their respective sites.
Video’s not really my preferred medium, so I won’t contribute to either unless I get really inspired, but I like the concept. The YLT album comes out on September 12, and Hold Steady’s on October 3.

Uniformly good [Open Thread]

In which I review something from almost every media category (but I should read more books) and give them all the same rating. Maybe I should go to increments of 0.1 instead of 0.5, so I can make finer distinctions: I would rate Asobi Seksu’s Citrus (reviewed last week) slightly higher than The Knife’s Silent Shout (in this post) for example.
The Descent: A heartwarming British film in which six women forge strong bonds of friendship during a spelunking expedition. At least, that’s what it looks like until monsters show up and start eating them. Hell yes. I mean, we’ve all been stuck in boring dramas where we wish it would turn into a monster movie and kill off the most annoying characters, and this movie actually does it. Except that it’s not boring at all; one thing this film excels at is ratcheting up the tension well before the monsters show up, with a series of plausible but legitimately scary or shocking events leading up to the gory climax. The cave where most of the movie takes place is itself a source of much of this tension, filmed in a way that conveys the claustrophobia and disorientation of the spelunkers. The descent referred to in the title isn’t just the literal descent into the cave but also the descent into madness of one of the characters, and this is paralleled in the increasing chaos and confusion as the caving party disintegrates. Overall, a very well-done horror movie. Rating: 4/5
Arrested Development – Season One: I kept hearing that this show was excellent, but didn’t really know much about it. Josh was happy to educate me, and we fairly rapidly went through the first season’s worth of episodes. The show is best watched in bursts of several 22-minute episodes at a time; it is very self-referential and excels at recurring jokes. Arrested Development centers around the Bluth family, most of whom have freeloaded off the wealthy patriarch George Sr., until (in the first episode) he is arrested for massive fraud. Most of the episodes have Michael Bluth, as the voice of responsibility and moderation, trying to rein in his flakier relatives. It’s the quality of the writing that makes the show stand out; the dialogue is very funny on several levels, and a narrative voiceover (by Ron Howard) is used to create an ironic interplay between an omniscient observer and the very self-unaware characters. Rating: 4/5
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow: The portable Castlevania games have been improving incrementally since Circle of the Moon on the GBA, and Dawn of Sorrow is the latest iteration, a refinement of (and direct sequel to) Aria of Sorrow. As with its predecessors it is a side-scrolling dungeon crawl, and preserves Aria’s mechanic of earning new abilities from defeated monsters. There are a few token uses of the DS’s touch screen (admittedly, finishing off boss monsters by drawing a magic seal is especially satisfying) but otherwise the gameplay will be familiar to veterans of the series. This installment does an especially good job with an interesting dungeon layout, smooth control, and challenging but not frustrating difficulty. The free-fall boss battle is particularly inspired. Rating: 4/5
The Knife: Silent Shout: The Knife, mentioned in yesterday’s post, has a new album out this year. Different in mood from “Heartbeats”, it’s a dark and ghostly record, perhaps another candidate for a Call of Cthulhu game soundtrack. Indeed, Josh and I listened to this in the car before and after seeing The Descent, and it was creepily appropriate to a claustrophobic horror movie. This one strikes a stronger emotional resonance than the similar atmosphere of Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead, and is also more danceable. Listen to “Like A Pen” and “Silent Shout” at their MySpace page; in further recent-post-synergy, the latter track appears to be a free download for Facebook members this week. Rating: 4/5
Live: Zero 7 with Jose Gonzalez at the Fillmore: Sure, I panned their latest album, but their earlier work is really good and I love going to the Fillmore. (I am ignoring Jessica’s suggestion that I post an entry titled “I Went to Zero 7 with Three Hot Girls”, but this might also have had something to do with it.) Jose Gonzalez’s opening set was a mellow and competent performance on acoustic guitar; afterwards he did vocals for Zero 7 along with Sia Furler. (The band proper is just two British guys on synths, but here they had a backing band and the two vocalists. The lack of their other singers meant certain songs couldn’t be played; “In the Waiting Line”, which appeared on the Garden State soundtrack, was particularly missed.) Naturally much of the set was devoted to songs from The Garden, but there was a good fraction of older stuff as well so I can’t complain too much. Sia seemed pretty drunk (or otherwise chemically enhanced) and her vocals were much more slurred than in the recordings, which detracted a bit. Fortunately they played a number of instrumental pieces, which tend to be my favorites out of Zero 7’s catalog. It would have been nice to hear “Speed Dial No. 2″, though. Rating: 3.5/5

Fillmore Scene

At the Zero 7 concert, opening act Jose Gonzalez is covering The Knife’s “Heartbeats” on an acoustic guitar.
Guy: Does the original version sound like this?
Me: No, The Knife is an electronica band—it’s very different.
Guy: When were they big?
Me: Well, currently.
Guy: That’s weird, I’ve never heard of them.
Me: [realizing] Well, “big” in the sense—
Guy: Oh, in that particular scene.
Girl: Travis, are you a scenester?
Me: No! I just… listen to scenester music… by coincidence.
I don’t think she believed me. Will “Travis, are you a scenester?” replace “Travis, are you a math major?” I don’t get the latter question much anymore.
(The Knife’s version can be heard here [except it may not be working, so also try here] and Jose Gonzalez’s version here and also in that cool Sony commercial with the bouncing balls in San Francisco.)

Pope considering creationism

Via Dynamics of Cats, the Guardian reports that Pope Benedict is apparently preparing to give official support to creationism in the form of Intelligent Design. Of course this is not exactly the first time the Catholic church has taken an adversarial stance towards science, but it’s a big step backward since John Paul II had effectively accepted evolution. As I’ve noted before, the current pope approves of the way the church treated Galileo, so this development probably shouldn’t be too surprising.
This will make it that much harder to teach evolution in countries where the Catholic church is influential. (In case you missed it, there was disturbing survey data a few weeks ago showing the support for creationism across developed countries, with the U.S. being particularly bad.)

Science apparel

Stick figure webcomic xkcd, which was discussed in a recent open thread, is now selling t-shirts. The first one is excellent; I can’t decide if the second is cute or just sad (speaking as someone who sometimes needs to make the clarification written on said shirt).
Since this post is too short, here are some other science-oriented webcomic shirts: Music + Science = Sexy from Questionable Content, and Professor Science from Dinosaur Comics.

“Qual Season!” “Prelim Season!” “Qual Season!” “Prelim Season!”

Gordon Watts and Chad Orzel have some thoughts on qualifying exam season. This confused me until I realized that what other departments call the qual is what Berkeley’s physics department calls the preliminary exam. Incoming grad students take the written prelims as soon as they arrive: these are a pair of six-hour exams given on consecutive Saturdays, one on classical physics and one on modern physics. After passing the written exams, one then takes the oral prelims which are an additional two hours (again divided evenly between classical and modern). One must pass the whole fourteen-hour suite before joining a research group.
This is every bit as stressful as the links above describe; the grading is set up so that only about two-thirds of the students pass each round, and officially you only get three tries. (In fact, almost everyone passes by the third attempt.) I don’t really have any advice for the written portion, but for the orals I had my faculty mentor give me a practice run that was incredibly helpful (especially since I got asked many of the same questions in the actual exam).
We do have something called a qualifying exam; it’s a two-hour oral exam set up on an individual basis, and meant to be taken after two years in research. The first hour is a presentation by the student of a proposed topic for the dissertation, and the second hour is an exam on the subfield relevant to this research. As it happens, I will be taking the qual “soon”. Some of you may note that I have been doing research for four years, and have been about to take the qual for two years now. Indeed, it is quite common for students to put off the qual until just before writing the dissertation, where the “proposal” actually becomes a presentation of results. Most departments call this the “thesis defense”.
On the other hand, we don’t have a thesis defense, so it all evens out in the end.

A different Monte Carlo method

A recent preprint appearing on the arxiv:

Do superconductors violate Lenz’s law?
Authors: J.E. Hirsch
When a magnetic field is turned on, a superconducting body acquires an angular momentum in direction opposite to the applied field. This gyromagnetic effect has been established experimentally and is understood theoretically. However, the corresponding situation when a superconductor is cooled in a pre-existent field has not been examined. We argue that the conventional theory of superconductivity does not allow a prediction for the outcome of that experiment that does not violate fundamental laws of physics, in particular Lenz’s law. Instead, an unconventional theory of superconductivity predicts an outcome consistent with the laws of physics, through the creation of angular momentum. We discuss how to test these assertions experimentally.

The argument, which I’m not sure I buy, relates to the angular momentum in the body of a superconductor when magnetic fields are expelled in the Meissner effect. But the author challenges me to put money behind my skepticism with this:

Comments: Readers are invited to place a wager on the outcome of the proposed experiment, this http URL

Yes! Now you can gamble on experimental physics! Next: bribing experimentalists to throw the results.

Rough Superconductor

Niobium is a metal that we frequently use here for its superconducting properties (Tc = 9.3 K). At lunch today we were wondering where it comes from: are there niobium mines somewhere? Perhaps, I suggested, it is mined in Africa under highly exploitative conditions, and we’ll find protestors picketing the lab for our use of blood niobium.
Turns out this is disturbingly close to the truth:

Coltan is the colloquial African name for (columbite-tantalite), a metallic ore comprising niobium and tantalum.
Coltan smuggling has also been implicated as a major source of income for the military occupation of Congo. To many, this raises ethical questions akin to those of conflict diamonds. Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate mining operations, several electronics manufacturers have decided to forgo central African Coltan altogether, relying on other sources.

On the other hand, it looks like coltan is more important as a source of tantalum, and most niobium comes from Brazil and Canada. So probably our research isn’t built on slave labor and exploitation (postdoc salaries aside).