Monthly Archives: July 2005

Tea, Earl Grey, Hot

I had a number of weird dreams last night; I overdid the cayenne pepper on the tacos I cooked for dinner so maybe that’s to blame. I only remember one of the dreams with any clarity:
I’m going for a run in the Berkeley hills, when I come across two of the guys I met in Italy. They join me on my run, and we talk for a while. My route is going steadily uphill, but sometimes the street I’m on becomes too steep and I have to detour around. At one point I miss one of these turns, because I’m following the conversation, and we are climbing a very steep slope. Everyone is looking pretty tired and I explain that I usually take a different route, but I missed the turn. At that moment a car comes up the hill and stops next to us. There’s an old British man behind the wheel offering us a ride. We gratefully accept and climb in. This man turns out to be a professor emeritus of philosophy at Berkeley. He’s also from a wealthy British family, and owns a large estate at the top of the hill, which is where the car takes us. The architecture of the estate is reminiscent of the older buildings at Cambridge: big stone blocks and so forth. The professor takes us to a room which appears to be a bar, but the bar only serves tea. A number of the professor’s friends and acquaintances are seated at tables talking amongst themselves. The four of us sit down at an empty table and place an order (I order Earl Grey), and we sit around talking philosophy for a while. [At this point my memory of the dream fades, although there was more to it, but I think it transitioned into a different dream which involved the characters from Scary Go Round.]
Here’s my unlikely but amusing interpretation: The dream is a religious allegory. The old professor is God, and his estate is heaven: it’s at the top of the hill, all God’s friends are there, there’s no booze… The other two runners and I are attempting to gain knowledge of God through the long and arduous process of science, but we are unable to reach the goal this way—only after we die and are taken up into heaven are we able to know the truth. Now, if only I had dreamed that the car had broken down from the strain of driving up the hill, I could say that his Chrysler died for our sins.
(If we are to take this interpretation seriously, there needs to be another level of interpretation—since I don’t believe in a literal God or heaven, these things must themselves be metaphors for something else.)

The rest of the Italy photos

Yes! They’re only three weeks late. These are photos from my various excursions over the course of the summer school.
Locations: Florence Siena San Gimignano Pisa
Full Italy set
Most of these photos are of architecture, art, or landscapes. There’s one photo of me, which in cropped form appears in the poll below. The full version is here. No photos of the other IS3E participants, sadly.
Speaking of which, another student posted his photos (here), and I make a couple of appearances: at the back of this one and the front of this one (but unfortunately I am facing away from the camera). Both of those were taken on the wall in Lucca.

Friday Frivolity: Photo Poll

It was suggested in the open thread that I update the photo of me that’s at the top of the sidebar. In the interest of democracy promotion, I am conducting a poll. Here are three recent photos of me that could potentially replace it:

Photo 1
This is from my yet-to-be-uploaded Italy photoset, taken in Florence.
Pro: Exotic location!
Con: Lighting is all weird since I was almost directly in front of the sun, and the photo was subjected to clumsy digital processing so that I wasn’t just a big shadow.

Photo 2

Phi took this photo back in January.
Pro: One of the better recent photos of me.
Con: Friendly demeanor may seem out-of-place next to my more virulent posts on topics like religion.

Photo 3

I was struck with inspiration a few months back and generated this based on a classic piece of Soviet propaganda.
Pro: Eyecatching!
Con: Confirms my conservative readers’ worst suspicions.

Your thoughts?

(If you’re not seeing the poll, you may need to turn Javascript on.)

Physics Education—Specialization and Fundamentals

In a post at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll makes a side remark that, “Sadly, there are still plenty of physics grad students who have never been exposed to [general relativity].”
I’m one of those students, and I’ve always had the vague sense that GR is something I should know about, since it’s one of the pillars of modern physics and a fundamental part of our understanding of the universe. It’s because of the highly specialized nature of most physics research that a lot of students don’t take a GR course—it simply isn’t relevant to a lot of subfields. Likewise, I could say something like “Sadly, there are still plenty of physics grad students who have never been exposed to the BCS theory of superconductivity.”
But the more I think about it the less defensible it is that I’ve not had much contact with GR. I’ll spend at least six years in grad school, and for most of that time I won’t be taking any classes, just doing research. Surely I could take a little time to audit a GR course? (In fact, a student who recently graduated from our group did exactly this.) It seems more than a little ridiculous to accumulate all the tools necessary to comprehend one of mankind’s greatest intellectual achievements, a profound description of nature, and then not make any attempt to learn it. That’s a pretty high level of incuriosity. I think there’s a certain amount of information overload the first few years in grad school, that made it feel like such a relief to be “done” with classes and just take some data for a while. But I seem to be past that stage.
And while I’m at it, it would be nice to know more about quantum field theory and the Standard Model…

Ambitious Projects [Open Thread]

I totally intended to post the rest of the Italy pictures this weekend, but… well, the reason I didn’t is really lame. I may not have an opportunity until this coming weekend, as this week is slightly busier than usual. (But I won’t be one of those bloggers who promises to post something and then never does. Despite my doing this in the past.)
Batman Begins: A pretty cool retelling of the Batman origin story, with lots of ninjas as an added bonus. However, I suspect this is redundant information, as it’s been out for quite some time and you all have already seen it. The climactic fight scene is ripped from an episode of Buffy, but at least they picked a good one. Also: Free Katie.
Knights of the Old Republic: And you thought I was late with a review of Batman Begins. I finally got around to playing this, and it’s not bad. Although I’m playing it on an Xbox it’s more of a PC-style RPG, with a streamlined version of the d20 system. There’s a good mix of combat and role-playing, and the Star Wars setting is nicely implemented, with decent voice acting (including Simon Templeman of the Legacy of Kain series playing some Sith troopers—although, somewhat distractingly, he frequently sounds like Kain wearing a Sith helmet). Unfortunately, all this just made me want to play Fallout 2. Friday night I finally gave in, dug out my old Fallout 2 disc and install it, figuring I’d get tired of it somewhere in the introductory quests. And suddenly it was Monday morning. (Fallout 2 is addictive for me in a way that no other game has ever been. I have no idea how I passed Ph 12 the term it came out, because I distinctly remember being totally unable to do the homework sets when that game was waiting for me.)
Sufjan Stevens: Illinois: This is the second installment (following Michigan) in Stevens’ project to record an album for each of the 50 states, which at the current rate will be finished well after his 100th birthday. The music is predominantly indie-folk in the vein of Iron and Wine (I see that Amazon is packaging the two artists together), although he is often sillier and lighter than Sam Beam. (Just peruse the list of track names for a sense of this.) There’s lots to like here, as Stevens manages to fill the CD with 74 minutes of Illinois-themed songs, some of which reflect vast amounts of historical research and some of which are more fanciful (the song about Decatur is pretty much a catalog of rhymes for the city’s name). I particularly like “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”, and not just for the title; its instrumentation and pop quality are reminiscent of Architecture In Helsinki.

Spitzer Strikes at Radio Suckage

Eliot Spitzer nails Sony for payola:

The state investigation found that Sony BMG, which releases music by acts including Jennifer Lopez, Good Charlotte and Beyoncé, had provided stations with entertainers for station-affiliated concerts or paid for station equipment or other bills in exchange for having its songs played. It also provided vacations and electronic goods for on-air giveaways in a direct trade for airplay. And it hired independent promoters to funnel money to radio stations.
In addition, the investigation found that the company had tried to distort industry airplay charts – creating the false impression that a song was taking off – by paying stations to play its songs as sponsored advertisements. It has also used interns and hired vendors to call radio stations with requests.

I always had the impression that this practice is pretty widespread, and indeed Spitzer is planning to go after the other majors as well. Presumably this can only improve the quality of radio, but I’m inclined to think the Internet and/or satellite radio will continue to marginalize it. And what’s up with this:

The company also said it would no longer use “spin programs,” in which it pays stations to play songs as commercials, to manipulate the charts.

No! The average mass-produced, paid-for song is still better than the average radio commercial. If the record companies want to buy up commercial time to play music, let them—just don’t count it on the charts. (Admittedly, I have a slightly irrational hatred of insipid radio ads.)

I knew they were hazardous

What’s this? A David Brooks column I actually agree with! His topic: the horrors of children on airplanes.

Anybody who thinks it takes a village to raise a child has never sat near a crying baby in first class. In these circumstances, if it were up to the village, somebody would be stapling the brat’s mouth shut and somebody else would be locking mom in the overhead storage compartment.

We proles flying coach would be even less civilized. Speaking of which, as someone who frequently has cram diagonally into plane seats because the distance from my back to my knees is longer than the space provided, it seems incredibly wasteful to see children in first or business class. They’d be perfectly comfortable in my seat.
The most interesting part of the column, though, was this revelation:

The final hour of the flight is aptly captured by Picasso’s painting “Guernica.” Parents are strewn about in heaps, hardened air marshals are weeping under the strain, the kids look like flesh-eating Beanie Babies, and the pilots emerge to complain that because of the kids’ crying they can’t hear the air traffic controllers (this actually happened to my family).

[Emphasis mine.] I can’t believe they make us turn off our harmless laptops and iPods, while allowing truly dangerous items like screaming babies on board. I assume, however, that the FAA will continue to ignore my recommendations.

Friday iPod Divination: Chaotic Edition

Since the last one worked out so well, it’s time for another edition of iPod Tarot. My iPod has been giving me unsolicited advice anyway by serving up certain songs (or even Certain Songs) on shuffle; clearly this is its natural calling.
Technically speaking, one is supposed to ask a question of the iPod oracle before proceeding. Since I got back from Italy, I’ve settled back into the lab routine and everything has seemed very orderly and low-intensity. I feel like I need more chaos in my life. O all-knowing iPod, where can I find my own Shuffle Songs button?

  1. The Covering: The Reindeer Section, You Are My Joy
  2. The Crossing: Franz Ferdinand, Auf Achse
  3. The Crown: The Duke Spirit, Cuts Across The Land
  4. The Root: Belle & Sebastian, Dog On Wheels
  5. The Past: Sleater-Kinney, Banned from the End of the World
  6. The Future: Caribou, Subotnick
  7. The Questioner: Seelenluft, I Can See Clearly Now
  8. The House: The Libertines, Don’t Be Shy
  9. The Inside: Sleater-Kinney, Jumpers
  10. The Outcome: Ladytron, ladybird

(The interpretation key is here.)
A very literal interpretation of this would be pretty grim, given the subject matter of ladybird and (especially) Jumpers, so something metaphorical is in order. The iPod is saying that I need to be more social (um, duh), but is acknowledging that this is not as easy as just saying “Don’t be shy”, that jumping into a social situation can be as terrifying as jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge (the subject of Jumpers). As for the outcome, the iPod is warning me that some heartbreak is inevitable (but I did ask for disorder and variety, not contentment). Or it’s suggesting that I’ll turn into a manipulative bastard breaking hearts left and right like the character in the song, but that seems pretty dubious.
As usual, the comments are open to alternate interpretations or your own iPod readings.

Thursday Cat-dream-blogging

I had a dream last night in which I was hosting a party. (My apartment had conveniently expanded to about three times its actual size to accomodate this.) I was out on the patio talking to guests when Omen showed up. As usual, I gave him a cat treat, but when I did so a second cat appeared with a demanding look. So I gave this cat a treat as well—which prompted the appearance of a third cat. Things proceeded in this manner until I had twenty-six cats looking at me hungrily. (Is it significant that I knew the precise number of cats, and that this number is equal to my age?) I decided this had gone on long enough, and put away the bag of cat treats.
That’s when the cats jumped me.

Roberts and Executive Power; Also, Robots

I’ve been thinking this John Roberts guy isn’t so bad, but this Slate piece gives me a reason to worry:

The opinion [that Roberts joined last week in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld] says that Congress authorized the president to set up whatever military tribunal he deems appropriate when it authorized him to use “all necessary and appropriate force” to fight terrorism in response to 9/11. While the president has claimed the authority only to try foreign suspects before the tribunals, there’s nothing in the Hamdan opinion that stops him from extending their reach to any other suspected terrorist, American citizens included. This amounts to a free hand—and one Bush is not shy about extending. The administration has already devised its own tribunals to review its claims that the Guantanamo detainees are all enemy combatants who are not entitled to the international protections accorded to prisoners of war. As of February, 558 hearings had resulted in freedom for only three prisoners. The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the legality of these tribunals—a question that Roberts may now help decide.

It seems to be something that only civil libertarians worry about, but the Bush administration has made a consistent effort to expand executive power, especially when it comes to detaining anyone for any reason without any judicial oversight. Needless to say, we have ample reason not to trust this gang with that sort of power, and so I’m extremely wary of judges who are inclined to give it to them. This is also why I’d be firmly against an Alberto Gonzales appointment—as White House Counsel he expressed the opinion (in the infamous “torture memos”) that the President should have the authority to ignore the law in wartime, a doctrine that should have been put to rest by the Glorious Revolution in 1688. (However, the opinions of judges may not matter in the end: the Supreme Court has already ruled that the Bush administration must bring charges against the Guananamo detainees, and Bush has mostly just ignored them.)
Another disturbing thing about Roberts is that when I saw his picture, my first thought was: Robot Ted! in reference to the Stepford husband played by John Ritter on an episode of Buffy. It’s something about the look in his eyes. And really, robot Ted with his 1950’s social programming would be the perfect Supreme Court nominee for Bush, wouldn’t he?

Supreme Court Nominee
John G. Roberts

Was it Ted? ‘Cause I always said there could have been more than one of him. —Dawn Summers