Monthly Archives: May 2006

Total Request Blog: My research in a nearby possible world

In the requests thread, Kyle asks: If you had to research in a different area than you are now, what would it be? It can be as different as you want, but can’t be too similar. At the least you have to be publishing in entirely different journals.
This is an easy one: philosophy of science. I took several great philosophy courses at Caltech (which you might imagine had a scientific focus in its philosophy department) and got really interested in issues of what science is and why it works. I still think about these topics in idle moments and I could definitely see myself doing research in this field if I hadn’t gone for something more practical and experimental. Indeed, many of you have had to sit through my digressions on problems like the grue paradox (sometimes presented in Dinosaur Comics form). Imagine if I could get paid to do this—although I’d have to write serious papers, unless there’s a Journal of Philosophical Letters as Presented by T-Rex. The downside is that I wouldn’t get to play with expensive high-frequency electronics with lots of buttons, and having qubits to experiment on is pretty cool.

Caltech Reunion Coordination Thread

It’s Ditch Day!
The remainder of this post will primarily be of interest to the people who are going to be in Pasadena this weekend. I’m posting this thread to facilitate planning and meeting up while I’m in town. I’ll be arriving around 4pm on Friday and staying through Monday afternoon; Saturday evening I’m planning to see Josh’s performance in Antony and Cleopatra.
I failed to register for the “official” reunion dinner on Friday, so maybe we should make dinner plans for that night. Saturday is also open for me before the evening, unless I decide to go to the seminars.
Mohi and I were discussing making a beach trip on Sunday (weather permitting) followed by games (video or otherwise) in the evening. Is this a good plan? Post your thoughts here, and let us know if you can make it so we can keep you in the loop.

Total Request Blog

Clearly I need to be posting more often, as there are only four (now five) posts on the front page. In the spirit of customer satisfaction, I am going to try an experiment: request a topic, issue, problem, or question in the comments to this post and I’ll attempt to write a blog post about it. I may not address a request if I truly have nothing to say about it, but no topic is a priori off limits. So, is there anything you’d like my opinion on, or a discussion thread you’d like to see started?

More Noir [Open Thread]

Keep the book recommendations coming! I’m tempted to follow Kevin Drum (and several other bloggers) and read all the Hugo nominees. (I’ve already got two down.) Even better would be to get ahead of the curve and read one of next year’s Hugo nominees, but that’s a little harder to figure out. Meanwhile, all of the noir recommendations are especially timely given the movie I ended up seeing Friday night:
Brick: A detective noir film, complete with complicated plots, beautiful and mysterious women, and an investigator with a troubled past who gets beaten up a lot. The characters all talk and act like they’re in a 1950’s noir flick. There’s a gimmick here, however, which is that the film is set at a high school with students as the principal characters. This could have come off as ridiculous, but the film does an excellent job with this juxtaposition, sometimes making it completely believable and seamless, and other times playing the contrast for laughs. Much like the best episodes of Buffy, the high school is used as a rich source of archetypes, and the noir setting works as a metaphor for the usual struggles of adolescence. All that aside, I love a good detective story, and the movie delivers in that department as well. Rating: 4/5
Calexico: Garden Ruin: I first encountered Calexico through their collaboration with Iron & Wine last year. In fact, their sound is something like Iron & Wine transplanted to the southwestern states. (I’m guessing the name of the band is a blend of “California” and “Mexico”.) Calexico’s latest album is a solid addition to their catalog, moving between a variety of styles—some songs sound more country, some have a more Mexican sound, and the last track “All Systems Red” has more of a straight rock sound. The album doesn’t quite reach the heights of In the Reins, but it’s a good listen. “Roka” wouldn’t be out of place on a Robert Rodriguez soundtrack. Rating: 3.5/5

Summer Reading Thread

It’s another media thread, but at least the medium under discussion is different. As I mentioned in an earlier comment thread, I will be traveling quite a bit over the next four weeks. The first trip, to Pasadena for Caltech’s alumni weekend next week, will merely involve a lot of driving, but the others will require air travel. And while the Nintendo DS remains tempting, I’m also looking for some entertainment that doesn’t run on batteries and can be used during takeoff and landing. So, anyone have summer reading recommendations?
To narrow the field a bit, a few preferences (but feel free to violate any or all of them in your recommendations): recent books preferred to older ones, paperback preferred to hardcover, fiction preferred to non-fiction. (Not that I have anything against non-fiction in general, but I’m not usually inclined to read about Middle East foreign policy when I’m sitting on the beach.) Sci-fi and fantasy are the genres I usually read, but other genres or non-genre fiction are ok too.
Since I should provide some recommendations of my own: the best book I’ve read so far this year has been Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, and my favorite book from last year was Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (which I read during last summer’s travels).

Yet Another Music List

Via Matt Yglesias, Blender magazine has a list of “The 500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born”, for those of us who were born around 1980. You may recall that this publication previously did a list of the worst songs ever, correctly selecting “We Built This City” for the top slot. (I was pretty sure I blogged that list, but can’t find any evidence of it.)
A list this long will inevitably contain some really good and some really bad choices, but should at least name one song by My Bloody Valentine. I had to scroll down to #290 before I discovered that they couldn’t decide between “Only Shallow” (Loveless) and “Swallow” (Tremolo), and so named the nonexistent song “Only Swallow”. However, the correct answer is “Soon” (and “To Here Knows When” should also have been on the list).
The second thing I did (after looking for the MBV song) was look for the most inexcusable song on the list, which I found more quickly: Nelly, “Hot in Herre” at #80. Another contender appears twice: “Where’s Your Head At” by Basement Jaxx. There’s also a strong preference for cheesy 80’s ballads, but I will chalk this up to nostalgia.
It’s harder to argue for the biggest omission: I can always find some obscure song that I really like but wouldn’t appear on such a list. However, several of my favorite songs by the better-known indie bands are in fact present (usually around the 400s). Given what does appear, it’s a little surprising they didn’t include a song by the New Pornographers, either “Letter from an Occupant” or “The Laws Have Changed”. In another type of omission, they included three New Order songs but none of them are “Bizarre Love Triangle” or “Blue Monday”.
I’ll have to wait until after next year’s survey of ’80s music to compile my own version of this list, but in the meantime the rest of you can point out other omissions.

The Part Where I Always Get Killed [Open Thread]

I wasn’t going to buy a Nintendo DS, but the New Super Mario Bros. is making me seriously rethink that. Meanwhile, in music:
The Boy Least Likely To: The Best Party Ever: This is twee pop in a highly purified form, so sugary I suspect I’m getting cavities just by listening to it. There’s a song called “Sleeping With A Gun Under My Pillow” and yet it sounds like something that could appear on Sesame Street. I do enjoy a certain amount of tweeness (see: Architecture in Helsinki) but this record is pushing the limits. On the other hand, the aforementioned “Sleeping With A Gun” is the only song that’s actively annoying, and there are several really good tracks: “I See Spiders When I Close My Eyes” and “Hugging My Grudge” are both extremely likeable, and “I’m Glad I Hitched My Apple Wagon To Your Star” is fantastic. This latter song wins philosophical points for including the line, “I never would’ve got here if I’d followed my heart.” Usually one is encouraged to follow one’s heart, but for some of us these intuitions are really bad (especially when coupled with shyness) and can lead to a pretty dull existence. A much better strategy, as per the song, is to find some more adventurous and dynamic person to use as a guide until better intuitions develop. So let me thank those people to whose stars I’ve hitched my apple wagon over the years. As for the CD, it’s very cutesy but generally enjoyable. Rating: 3.5/5

Grad students in popular culture

The above was the title of a slide in Jorge Cham’s talk yesterday (discussed below). The slide cited four films: The Seniors (1978), Real Genius (1985) [this one prompted cheering from the audience], A Beautiful Mind (2001), and Hulk (2003). This is a pretty good list already, but I suspect there are more, and it seems like a good topic for a Friday thread. Make suggestions in the comments. No need to stick to film, either: it was at least implied that Fred was previously a physics grad student in Angel, and there are probably plenty of novels with grad student characters (some of them not written by Neal Stephenson).
For that matter, there are lots of mad scientists but rarely do you see their grad students. It’s hard to imagine they’re doing all that mad science themselves. Sure, Dr. Frankenstein had Igor, but Igor seems like more of a postdoc. And Frankenstein operates the apparatus himself—what kind of PI does that? A more realistic portrayal would be something like:
[Dr. Frankenstein’s group meeting. Igor, exhausted from taking data all night, presents a graph.]
Igor: So the data clearly indicate increased mobility of the subject.
Frankenstein: IT’S ALIVE! [pause] Start writing it up, I want to submit this to Physical Reanimation Letters by next week.

Jorge Cham, New York Times on/as distractions

Jorge Cham, who writes/draws PhD Comics, is doing a book tour and gave a talk at Berkeley yesterday. (He did his grad work at Stanford and is now an instructor at Caltech.) This is one of those comic strips that hits home a little too often, but in doing so is frequently pretty funny. Cham is also funny as a public speaker, with an excellent sense of comic timing. He sometimes played the straight man with jokes appearing on his Powerpoint slides, and sometimes reversed this dynamic.
The talk was about staying sane under the pressures of grad school, and the main theme was that procrastination is a powerful tool for this, both for taking the pressure off and regaining motivation and creativity when one returns to work. Needless to say, I had already figured this out, as the three-plus years of archives on this blog will attest. It turns out that there is also scientific confirmation of a sort: via Chad Orzel I read in the New York Times that distraction is key for relieving dread.

The first study ever to look at where sensations of dread arise in the brain finds that contrary to what is widely believed, dread does not involve fear and anxiety in the moment of an unpleasant event. Instead, it derives from the attention that people devote beforehand to what they think will be extremely unpleasant.

Grad students in the Berkeley physics department have their share of unpleasant events to devote attention to, beginning with the prelim exams and ending with actually writing the thesis. My personal source of dread lately has been the qualifying exam, and maybe my ability to find new distractions lately is related to this. However, I definitely plan to take it next semester. (I’ve been saying this for three semesters now, but that’s the power of procrastination for you.)

Best Search Requests of April 2006

Another installment of search requests from my referrer logs. Not much of interest this month, except for the guy trying to use it to ask me questions.

  • arcanegazebo what are your thoughts on iran ? You may get a faster response by using the open thread.

  • acura integra 95 weird noises for 5 minutes Dammit Jim, I’m a search engine, not a mechanic!
  • shyness saliva Two great tastes that taste great together!
  • lent as tarditions or superstitious This searcher has inadvertently produced an ingenious word for dumb-ass traditions.
  • searching for church hime You’re in the wrong place, but I have some relatives who may qualify as Church Himes.

315 searches for “gazebo” last month, down a bit from March. My third most popular search (behind “gazebo” and my name) was “lacrosse culture”, interestingly.