Monthly Archives: April 2004

Fast Food Etiquette

The local Jack in the Box has recently set up their drive-thru speaker to play a recorded message when a car pulls up: “Welcome to Jack in the Box, how may I help you?” This has led to some hesitation on my part since, while the recording seems to be asking for my order, there’s no guarantee that anyone is actually listening. I can think of at least three approaches:

  1. Assume that the same mechanism which triggers the message has alerted someone within to my presence, and give my order. This approach typically prompts a response of “Hi, may I take your order?” which indicates that this may not be correct. (But if not, what’s the point of the recording?)

  2. Wait for a greeting from an actual human, on the grounds that I am under no obligation to speak to inanimate objects. This has worked so far, but I envision a scenario in which the clerk waits for me to speak in response to the recording (or assumes I am still reading the menu) and we reach an impasse while the line builds up behind me.
  3. Say something with the intention of ascertaining whether anyone is actually listening. “Hello, anyone there?” seems a bit rude but I imagine there is a better phrasing. This is a non sequitur from the recording’s “how may I help you”, so I suspect this is not the sort of behavior that the architects of this state-of-the-art drive-thru technology intended to promote.

So what’s the correct action in this delicate social situation? (Keep in mind that your comments will determine my future behavior at Jack in the Box.)

I’m Not Dead

My blogging time has been sucked away by other activities this week, and it’s difficult to brainstorm interesting posts when one is thinking about networks of copper tubing all day. Maybe this weekend I’ll have more opportunity for recreational thought and can be more active in this space.

(Physics) Graduate Students and Technology

There are a number of interesting posts on Crooked Timber today, notably this one on Graduate Students and Technology, which raises the question: “How much technical knowledge/ability should we require our graduate students to have[?]” The author, a philosopher, suggests:

Here?s some suggestions for skills graduate students should have.

  • How to use Powerpoint in lectures

  • How to manage a large course website, including interactive features
  • How to setup maintain a large database for administrative tasks

This has spawned a debate in the CT comments on the value of Powerpoint. In this regard physics is a bit different from philosophy, insofar as the large volume of mathematics in most physics courses makes a blackboard much more suitable than a slideshow. (There are exceptions, such as a course I took as an undergrad in Low-Noise Electronic Measurement with lots of plots and block diagrams. Some professors insist, with disastrous consequences, on using Powerpoint even for courses like Classical Electrodynamics. Other Berkeley physics students may know of whom I speak.) On the other hand, Powerpoint is an essential skill for presenting research at conferences/seminars/colloquia and is nearly universal (the second most popular tool is viewgraphs on an overhead projector, which is basically just a lower-tech equivalent of Powerpoint). I’ve observed quite a few physicists who could use some better training on how to prepare a Powerpoint talk, which is different in some subtle ways from preparing a class lecture in Powerpoint.
As for maintaining large administrative databases, I believe this is usually something physicists leave to their secretaries, but I gather secretarial resources are rather less abundant in philosophy departments.
In experimental physics there are a number of technical skills which are important for graduate students to learn, but the importance of knowing them decreases thereafter in one’s academic career (since one has one’s own graduate students to do these things):

  • The principles of operation of certain general classes of instruments

  • When faced with a specific unfamiliar instrument, the ability to master its interface without having to pore over the manual.
  • Automation of measurements using computer control (in my case, with LabVIEW)
  • Computer-assisted data manipulation (in my case, with Mathematica)

Ideally the student is prepared to acquire these skills with certain undergraduate courses; the advanced physics lab for the first two and a couple good computer programming courses for the second. In retrospect, it’s very odd that as a physics major at Caltech I had no requirements in computer science.

Kerry-oke songwriting contest!

(Or: Contribute to my public humiliation)
On Tuesday, May 4 I will attend Kerry-oke, a John Kerry fundraiser at a Berkeley karaoke bar. The event is described as follows:

Sing for Kerry! Come out and show your Karaoke skills. Rewrite lyrics to your favorite song for John Kerry, for America, or for the 2004 election.

Most of my readership is too remote to attend, but I would like to invite you to participate by writing Kerry-themed song lyrics and posting them in the comments. I will select one of these entries and sing it at Kerry-oke. The songlist is here. Don’t miss this excellent opportunity to help me embarrass myself!

Spoiler-free Kill Bill comments

Since Kill Bill was originally one movie, split into parts, once I had seen the first part it was natural to try to extrapolate what the second part would be like. The first thing I will say about vol. 2 is that my extrapolation was very far off; I was surprised by how different it was, in a lot of ways, from the first part.
Anyway, I’m still absorbing all of it, but it was very good. The second part spends much more time on character development than its predecessor, and it really pays off; The Bride, Budd, Elle Driver, and Bill are all incredibly interesting and well-drawn, and at the end my deepest impressions of the movie are centered on these personalities.
Also, Tarantino seems to have been reading his Joseph Campbell. I think all the elements of the classical hero myth are in there.
On another note, the audience was very well-behaved except for one really obnoxious guy. So naturally he was sitting almost directly behind me. Since my copy of Quicksilver was sitting on my lap, I considered re-enacting this Penny Arcade strip, but that would have required taking my eyes off the screen.

Killing Bill soon…

At about 8:30 this evening I started to feel a rather intense need to see Kill Bill vol 2, and it occurred to me that midnight showings might exist, even though my chances of getting a ticket seemed rather slim. Two hours later, having watched the first volume on DVD, I was driving across the Bay Bridge with Battle Without Honor or Humanity playing on the stereo. Now I’m updating by phone from the (very long) line at the theater. Spoiler-free review to follow later.

Twain didn’t have trackback, either.

My post yesterday got me thinking about statements of the form “X is a gift from god” where X is actually some human achievement. In particular I was reminded of Mark Twain’s treatment of this in Letters from the Earth. What he wrote was even more appropriate than I remembered. It’s a little humbling to see that yesterday’s blog post was a poor imitation of something written 95 years ago:

If science exterminates a disease which has been working for God, it is God that gets the credit, and all the pulpits break into grateful advertising-raptures and call attention to how good he is! Yes, he has done it. Perhaps he has waited a thousand years before doing it. That is nothing; the pulpit says he was thinking about it all the time. When exasperated men rise up and sweep away an age-long tyranny and set a nation free, the first thing the delighted pulpit does is to advertise it as God’s work, and invite the people to get down on their knees and pour out their thanks to him for it. And the pulpit says with admiring emotion, “Let tyrants understand that the Eye that never sleeps is upon them; and let them remember that the Lord our God will not always be patient, but will loose the whirlwinds of his wrath upon them in his appointed day.”
They forget to mention that he is the slowest mover in the universe; that his Eye that never sleeps, might as well, since it takes it a century to see what any other eye would see in a week; that in all history there is not an instance where he thought of a noble deed first, but always thought of it just a little after somebody else had thought of it and done it. He arrives then, and annexes the dividend.

Letters from the Earth should be taught in high school instead of Huck Finn. Kids might actually learn something.