Sunday, January 27, 2008


  • Some blogger recently used an offensive word that I think a lot of people don't realize is a slur. I forgot exactly who and I don't want to call attention to anyone. However, consider this a PSA that words such as "gypped," and "welsh" are slurs. Remarkably, it seems "chintzy" is safe.
  • I think we've got some good candidates this time, so I really haven't paid any attention to the subtle differences in policy between the three, Edwards, Obama, and Hilary. But I really am opposed to dynasties, and would prefer Obama on that count alone.
  • I have been tagged to answer the question

    Why do you teach and do the work they do and why academic freedom is critical to that effort?

    I've always enjoyed teaching...till I started getting paid for it! No, seriously folks, I enjoy about one class a semester. Anything more becomes a burden. I like the challenge of seeing something from many viewpoints. I like having people ask me strange questions...these can challenge me and show me perspectives I never would have thought of on my own. I like seeing people light up with interest (well, it happens sometimes). As an agnostic solipsist (you might exist!), everytime as a kid I thought about the purpose of life, it all came down to my senses...cram it full. Learning, listening to music, eating, and doing stuff outside. That's what life is about. I'm no good at music and couldn't make a living outside, so I stuck with the learning. In fact, I doubted I'd become a professor. As opposed to many in the blogosphere, my professors did make me quite aware of the chances of getting a position. For me graduate school was just the logical conclusion to keep learning physics. I figured I'd eventually leave the field and go to Wall Street or some other society-sucking profession (such as patent lawyer...I even took the LSAT).

    So I've been teaching for a long time. Tutoring all through high school and college, some TA positions in undergrad and grad, and then this job. I've got lots of ex-students that have liked my classes, but I'm not one of those with uniformly good student reviews (about whom I tend to be quite skeptical). I can do a pretty decent job of it without sacrificing on my research much. And I usually like it. So I teach.

    My friends tell me I could never hold down a "real" job. I'm not so sure, but certainly I couldn't do it without some crushing of my soul. When I was a teenager I worked thirty hours a week (during school) in typical teenager jobs. During college summers I had a couple internships at your standard big employer. The challenge was to look busy after completing a two-week task in a day or two. I have a great job now. On the best of days, I get to figure out ways to do things no one else has *ever* figured out. On the worst of days, I have silly meetings, and grading to catch up on. On other good days, I'm in some far off country listening to a good talk after which a bunch of us head out to a great restaurant. On other bad days, I get nothing done and simply decide to open up a long dormant book or magazine and read about some other cool physics.

    As for academic freedom, I'm not sure it's really been an issue for me. Certainly I was more outspoken before I got tenure.
  • I keep meaning to discuss some of the issues by the Incoherent Ponderer, but he is
    just too prolific.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


  • I long ago stopped buying music. I can't stand the RIAA. I know there's independent music out there, but the days when I could afford the time to just listen to great music and be transported elsewhere are long gone. But if I were younger, the overprocessing of music these days would bother me.
    Funny, I remember in college an EE major was trying to argue with me that CDs were demonstrably better (neh, perfect) than analog recordings with some simple sampling arguments. So this stuff doesn't affect me much, but I have a similar complaint w/r/t the audio on current movies. The first of which is why do movie studio movies lack reasonable audio sometimes? Two people talking outside but sounding like they're in a small room really bugs me. And then you watch a movie on DVD at home, and the movie is super loud in the action sequences but the conversations are so low you can't hear it. Here's we need such audio compression. As a followup, you might read on Slashdot about the return of vinyl.
  • A surprising amount of physics in a NYT article on the role of heat in cooking.
  • If, like me, you've wondered how people can possibly vote as they do, you might enjoy this article. Update: Sean has some more comments on this.
  • I go through notebook computer batteries pretty quickly. I think because I actually use it as an extra desktop. So this time, every time I park my laptop on my desk for any extended length of time, I switch out my recent, good battery for the old one. I'll let you know how well this works. And yes, I know I could just leave the battery out, but it's nice to have a battery in there in case I have to move it or the power goes out or something.
  • The Incoherent Ponderer has some posts on faculty pay and on tenured folk's ability to say "no." Regarding the former, I wanted to mention that one of the nice things about this job is that I can look forward to someday simply changing what I research. I can simply take a sabbatical and learn a whole new field. Regarding the latter, there are many who abuse tenure. I've pretty much thought of it the same way I do about welfare. Yeah, people abuse it, but it's still a good idea. However, I'm becoming more and more skeptical (of tenure that is, not welfare programs).
  • Chad turned me on to this new physics blog, which discusses refereeing. I can certainly concur that there's way too much which gets published in my field. This over-abundance means that I'm hesitant to respond to an editor that the paper is out of my field. Basically, I give the paper a quick read (e.g. a "smell test"). If I can tell it's probably bad and if I have a chance of making a convincing case of it, I take it. If I can't make much of it or can't argue against it, then I pass it back. What's more interesting is that, for some reason, I'm often called in essentially to arbitrate papers when either the authors and referees are getting hostile or different referees wildly disagree. I get a small ego boost out of such requests, but I imagine it is only because I basically make it a rule to pretend that my reports might become public with my name attached.
  • I went to a show the other night, and a woman from behind me tapped me on the shoulder. She just wanted to let me know that if her daughter, who was directly behind me, kicked the seat or acted up it was because she was autistic. I didn't know quite what to say, and basically just said that was fine, and thanked her for letting me know. Indeed, I was quite thankful because I could easily dismiss such behavior in that case, but it would drive me nutty otherwise. It turns out, the girl behaved quite well with only occasional kicking and a couple very brief exclamations. A boy who appeared to be her brother however was very loud and buggy, but I suspect he's not autistic (I didn't say anything).