Wednesday, June 30, 2004

I am a Citizen of No Mean City

I went to "Taste of Chicago" last night, and that's just what I got, a taste of Chicago...

Children and the elderly and couples holding hands, fat people, thin people, rich people, poor people, southside, northside, every race and creed, all shoulder-to-shoulder and nose-to-armpit...

We have spires and lights and fountains and gulls and wind from the lake on a summer evening, and we have overpriced falafel, pizza, and beer.

For me the experience was even more interesting, because I was the only one in the group who didn't speak Chinese (though by the end of the evening, I had learned a few words.) We killed some time in an apartment on the 32nd floor of the fanciest apartment building I have ever been in, looking at the city lights, before the evening ended.

Free Comic Book Day

A link that I did not steal from another blog, although I'm sure others will have it:

Find a store near you which is giving away Free Comic Books on July 3rd.

(Link via a.f.p.)

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Information Theory

I was planning to write a entry on Fahrenheit 9/11 and Control Room and Thomas Friedman and Nick Berg today, but I didn't end up seeing Fahrenheit 9/11 after all. Check back Thursday.

In the meantime, I'll post this link:

"If English were written like Chinese"

(I think I originally found that via Snarkout)

Of course, Chinese orthography is interesting in its own right, but if you've wondered a bit about information theory, it's even more interesting. Information theory was invented by Bell labs engineer Claude Shannon, whose original paper on the subject I've more-or-less read. In fact, it's just about all I've read on the subject. In the paper, Shannon asks us to imagine a machine which generates letters. Perhaps it generates "A," "B," or "C" with equal probability. So you don't know which of the three you're going to get, and when you see the output, it's a little bit of a surprise; it's news to you, information. Now imagine it almost always generates A's... You already know that the next symbol is probably going to be A, so it's not very surprising when you see it. You don't get much new information -- you already had a reasonable guess what the answer was. But when you see "B," you're suprised. "B" carries more information.

Now you use those probabilities again to figure out what the average "surprisal" any letter of the alphabet would be, and that tells you the amount of "uncertainty" you have when confronted with a single unknown symbol from this alphabet, and thus it's "information" value. This is useful because...

Wait a second-

Hold on-

This page I'm using for reference, to write the blog entry? I wrote this page! I googled, and I turned up my old paper on information theory and didn't even recognize it... No wonder I kept finding myself agreeing with the descriptions, and thinking how pleasantly simple it made everything sound... Gosh, I hope it's right.

Okay, anyway, Shannon figures that if one or two or however many of the sybols can spontaneously change to other symbols, then you still have some uncertainty (depending on the probability of the switch) after reading the symbol, about what was actually transmitted. So in order to send the same amount of information, you have to send a string which is longer by an amount that you can calculate, using this probability stuff. If you're an engineer who has to deal with noisy telephone lines and sources of error, this is very handy to know. You can calculate how much redundancy you need to get your message through, with whatever degree of confidence you like. (Of course, this is actually more difficult if you're sending sounds instead of symbols, but if you encode everything digitally, so that you're sending zeros and ones, it gets simple again. Shannon has a whole section on analog sources, but I really only skimmed that, as a native of the digital age. When Shannon talked about discrete signals, he was thinking dots and dashes, as sent over telegraph wires. He did this work in the late 1940s.)

Now what does all of this have to do with Chinese orthography? Well, Chinese has a lot more symbols. So the surprisal of each symbol is much, much higher, and so the information content, the average surprisal, is as well... (That is, if you choose the describe the language on a symbol-by-symbol basis, and not a word-by-word or sentence-by-sentence or phoneme-by-phoneme basis.)

But a sentence in Chinese is also going to be shorter than the same sentence in English... Does it work out exactly? Do two sentences which mean the same thing have the same information content in both languages? Does Shannon's mathematical information actually relate to the everyday kind, to meaning? Can you quantify meaning at all?

To work it out, I would have to know a bit about Chinese orthography first... Hence the link.

(My friend Carol is studying this stuff more formally, and I sent her this link first. I owe her an e-mail, and my thanks, for correcting some misconceptions I'd got hold of.)


I'm not planning on doing the blog-as-list-of-links thing (though I'm aware that's the original purpose -- mine would all be stolen from the blogs that I list down the side of the page anyway, which would be a bit pointless) but I want to share one or two...

In particular, "What's That Stuff?" via John Scalzi has a biography of the baseball that I personally find fascinating. Did you know Rawlings now has a baseball, for pitching practice only, which has its own built-in radar gun and LCD display? Or even better, that "MLB's official game-ball preparation calls for umpires to rub the balls with Lena Blackburne's Rubbing Mud, which one representative of the Major League Umpire's Association describes as smooth and creamy, but with a fine grit. The composition of the mud is a closely held proprietary secret, but the base ingredient is known to be mud from a specific site in a tributary of the Delaware River."

Isn't that great?

Friday, June 25, 2004

On Being a Grad Student, part two

So, today was my first day in a real lab. If I don't screw it up, this could be the world's coolest job.

All I actually did was wind a some wire around some plastic pipe and then glue them together, to make a solenoid (you wouldn't believe the amount of wire, pipe, and epoxy I wasted in this process... Or how long it took me. In the end, the epoxy still wasn't holding properly, so I tied some rubber bands around the whole thing.) The impressive thing was that I made a solenoid. I didn't buy it, or even buy a kit. It seems like there's no way anything I make, out of bits of spare wire and pipe, with all of this clumsiness and waste, should actually work, but George seem satisfied. So next he had me assemble a mount (for a photon detector), which was like playing with tinker-toys. He had to coach me on pretty much every step, embarrassingly, but in the end, he used the thing I made.

I love the guys and the work they're doing -- making atoms do tricks, like a quantum flea circus, by poking them with lasers -- and I can't get over how cool the lab itself actually looks. Red readout displays, tinfoil-wrapped vacuum chambers, turquoise laser beams, wires draped from the ceiling, glowing crystals (if you take the cover off the infrared lasers they've built, anyway) and even a giant cannister of liquid nitrogen.

But all of this enthusiasm comes after a really sickening final month or so of the quarter. I was TA'ing, taking three classes, and preparing for qualifiers. As a TA, I had to deal with formal reprimand and a crisis which was a part of the reason for the reprimand, involving vanishing exams. (Not my fault, as it turns out, although I'm irresponsible enough that I assumed, like everyone else, that it was.) The classes were frustrating and made me feel stupid. Particularly one which ended with a final presentation like everyone's public-speaking anxiety dream, complete malfunctioning computers and heckling. And the qualifiers meant I couldn't justify, to myself, wasting any time on frivolous things like novels and internet discussions and social outings. I felt like I was doing nothing but physics, and also like I was getting nothing done. (The only indulgence I allowed myself was watching baseball, and then only because I could, more or less, do homework at the same time.) In spite of all of that, or because of it, I still failed two of my three qualifiers, and now I have to spend the summer trying to learn this stuff for real. (I'm TA'ing over the summer too, along with the research. Actually, technically I'm an "Adjunct Lecturer," because TA's have to be enrolled in classes, but the department doesn't pay for summer classes.)

So, the recent memory of disgust, but the prospect of delight. I find myself swinging dizzily from optimism to pessimism and back again within the space of seconds. To make it worse, I still don't know what's a flaw in the system and what's a flaw in myself, or how normal all of this up-and-down is.

But at least I feel less isolated, and I had a solenoid and an instrument mount to show for my efforts, at the end of today.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Terrorism and Publicity Stunts

I wrote this nearly a year ago, for a now defunct little webmag called "The Second Hand," but it seems to be worth posting, as long as I'm posting all of the things I've got stored up. I could just link to it instead. I only ever wrote four columns for our little 'zine, and one of them was just an introduction.

But this one still feels relevant. I still think this way, still worry about this stuff. So here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to link to the other two Second Hand Columns, and post one.

Here's one about "New Political Directions"

Here's a sort of meditation on what duty might mean in the modern world.

And here's the one on terrorism and publicity stunts, which I originally entitled "Desperate, Dangerous, Democratic."

What do you do to advance a lost cause? If you want independence for your people, or animal rights, or a ban on billboards, or maybe to stop a war, and you fear most people couldn't care less... How do you change anything?

There seem to be a limited number of options. Either you figure out who has the power to do what you want done, and convince them, or you replace them, or you do your best to get the world's attention, to apply the (eventually) irresistable pressure of popular opinion.

Consider the relative merits: lobbying your leaders works only if your leaders listen. Ultimately this means you have to have something with which to negotiate. If you have power to broker, money or an audience or influence or information, then you can play politics and hope to win your cause as your prize. This is diplomacy and espionage and spin and Josh's job in the West Wing.

But what if you've got bubkiss? In that case, you call yourself a "grass roots movement" or "people's army." The people who do have power call you subversive, or, this is worse, they ignore you entirely. You can run a third-party candidate or you can plan a coup d'tat. You will have better luck with either of these in a former Soviet state than in America. Success gives the status quo enormous intertia.

So that leaves option three. You get everybody's attention. It worked for Gandhi, twice. It worked for Martin Luther King. It worked for Martin Luther. When it works, it becomes impossible to imagine a world in which it hadn't. Go ahead--picture a 2003 with segregated schools. Doesn't the end of Apartheid seem historically inevitable? Like the Protestant Reformation. When people say that history is the result of social forces, they mean that, somehow, once everybody buys into an idea, its consequences start to happen. You can see it now on a different scale with cigarettes; you can't imagine movie stars lighting up in every scene or politicians waving cigars today. But tobacco has been killing people for centuries, and in the fifties nobody could have imagined it would be banned in bars in several states. You make your own inevitability.

That's if you win. First you have to make your beliefs into conventional wisdom. First people have to hear you, or at least hear of you. That's tough. Stand on a soap box? Buy a full page ad in the New York Times? Here's one I heard recently: anti-nuclear activists climbed on the roof of a power plant (a security scandal) and spray-pained their message in huge letters. You can picket; you can march; you can go out on a Green Peace boat. All of these amount to the same tactic--courting the news cameras. Court cases are good for this as well, and hunger fasts worked for the suffregettes.

But here's the thing: suicide bombs work even better. There's nothing like violence to make people take notice. The World Trade Center had no military value. But now everybody (at last) knows Osama Bin Laden's name, and watches his tapes. Make your own list of terrorist groups and their causes--all they want is for you to know what they're doing, you and as many people as possible.

Sometimes this kind of violence comes from violent personalities, psychosis, wherever other kinds of violence comes from. But sometimes these are desperate measures from desperate people. Sometimes the causes are good. Consider John Brown. What if to right the wrong you see in the world, you have the start the Civil War?

The problem is particularly poignant for war protesters, because they absolutely can't resort to violence without hypocrisy. There have been such hypocrites, of course. Vietnam protesters blew up university science buildings. People where I live worried some about the February 15th protests in Seattle, because of incidents during the WTO protests there. I rode in an airport van with some men--steelworkers' union and carpenters' union, I think--who'd flown in for that and they made me a little nervous, I admit, squeezed between them three to a seat. I knew other people who attended these protests, though, who insisted that they were essentially peaceful, that "the media" focussed on the few real rioters.

But there wasn't any violence in the recent war protests for the media to focus on. As a result, they were hardly reported at all. Compare what you remember of the WTO protests to what you heard about February 15th, 2003. There were somewhere in the neighborhood of ten million protesters in six hundred cities world-wide, but they probably got less coverage put together than did those few window-breakers in Seattle in 1999.

I was one of the ten million, part of an amazingly diverse crowd of about 700 in Tacoma, Washington. People held hand-made signs variously shrewd ("We Are Not Distracted From the Real Issues") and shrill ("No Blood for Oil"). Some of them had relatively long arguments like, "Would we be so cavalier about starting a war if it were our children being bombed?" and on the back "Intermediate steps save innocent lives". Some made more interesting points: "Pro-Troops, Pro-Peace" and "Honor Dr. King, Oppose War with Iraq" and "Let's Hear it for Old Europe" and "This is What Democracy Looks Like". But here's the one that one of the speakers mentioned from the stage, approvingly: "Frodo Failed! Bush has the Ring." Some of the chants from the handout that went around: "Not a penny, not a dollar, we won't pay for war and slaughter!" "1,2,3,4, Not in our name any more!" and, with even less convincing scansion, "Let the inspections work: no war!" There were dozens accusing Bush of planning the attack purely for cynical economic reasons (rarely was his name spelled without a dollar sign in it) and for oil, demanding his impeachment. One group carried a huge carnival clown face with "Bush" in red paint on the forehead. And a few of the speakers were, frankly, nuts.

When the news helicopter went overhead everybody (except for a few people who seemed to think it was military, or a deliberate disruption) cheered and held up their signs in its direction. There were some signs that I winced to be seen standing behind. And yet, I realized, the stupider signs made better news. They were more interesting, genuinely. There were "Vets for Peace," "Patriots for Peace," "Raging Grannies for Peace," Franciscans and Dominican monks for peace, but none of those is actually as funny as the "Pooches for Peace," a half dozen dogs in specially printed blanket-things. If I were an editor, I'd put a shot of them in the story. Do these ridiculous slogans do more good or harm? On the one hand, attention (your attention, dear reader) is a priceless commodity, and these capture it. On the other hand, they trivialize an issue that is really about human suffering and complex policy decisions. Watching footage of gun protesters in Bowling for Columbine, the parts where ordinary people try to get organized and don't shout anything, made me realize how rarely I've ever seen coverage like that in the news. The people who represent a movement in public are almost always the extremists; the pictures are of dramatic moments with the frenzied pumping of fists.

Cranks, victimhoom, and violent attacks. That's how you get your cause in the news. And victimhood is proving depressingly hard to arrange these days, since authorities have caught on and are not so willing to cooperate by shooting into crowds (though Michael Moore got some kids who were shot at Columbine to protest the sale of cheap ammunition at K-Mart, a tactic that worked beautifully when he came back the next day with local TV reporters).

Here's what I'm worried about. I'm worried that the attention seeking tactics are going to stop working. There are simply too many groups competing for our sympathy, now. Journalists are aware that everyone is trying to get into the news these days, and tend to loftily ignore a lot of the deliberate publicity stunts. Perhaps if Gandhi pulled a hunger strike today, nobody would know or care. There's too much news for anyone to follow, and we already suffer from "compassion fatigue." Along with all of the good causes and real news, we are also inundated by advertising, campaign promises, Martha Stewarts, and celebrity love lives. In reaction to all of this we develop a cynical skeptism to everything we see in the media. It's harder to get us to listen to anything that sounds like a serious message for more than a few minutes, and a lot harder to get us to really care. Doesn't this reduce per-eyeball value of the traditional methods? But if the power of popular opinion is diluted, then the lost causes may have to resort to increasingly desperate measures. More roof-climbers and slogan-spouters at first, probably, but then, more rioters? More suicide bombers and coup attempts? What else can they do?

I don't know how to prevent this, except, perhaps, to follow the news from several different sources and try to care as much as I can about everything, even if I feel helpless. The protest I participated in is pointless if nobody saw it on television at home, and gave the issue some thought. I feel a responsibility to do listening duty as well. I fear the biggest cause of terrorism, in the end, could be more and more people tuning out anything short of an explosion.


Theresa Nielsen Hayden started this meme, and I posted my response there. I might as well post it here too.

I believe...

That everything makes sense, if you look closely enough and think hard enough.

That on large scales and small, the universe is beautiful.

That art is how we turn pain into beauty.

That in telling stories, human beings create meaning for the world.

That in telling stories to their children, human beings create meaning for their lives.

That there is such a thing as "truth."

That we never know the whole truth.

That stories don’t have to true to be meaningful, but they can’t be false.

That human beings are basically good.

That there is such a thing as "good."

That all people are equally valuable, even when they’re not good.

That when people aren’t good, it’s usually because they’ve lied to themselves.

That all people lie to themselves sometimes.

That the truth is almost always complicated, though comprehensible.

That it is always better to forgive, even yourself, but to forgive is not to excuse.

That accidents happen. Not everything is someone’s fault, or someone’s success.

That we’re all in the same boat, and none of us really knows what we’re doing here.

Social Issues

Gay Marriage and Abortion. I'm going to try not to provoke anyone. I just think it's a shame that liberals don't understand at all why conservatives feel so strongly about these issues.

Advocates of gay marriage will say "Marriage is just a legal arrangement between adults." That's exactly what religious conservatives fear it will become. To them it is more. It is the foundation of society. They are often suspicious of government, partly because governments come and go, so the civilizations which endure through all of the revolutions must be based on something else, some other organizing principle. They believe that organizing principle is family. Clan, tribe, kinship group... They believe blood ties, not legal arrangements, hold the world together. People who live atomistic lives in big cities and who are used to selecting and dissolving social groups, really live in a different kind of society altogether than rural people, who don't choose their relatives (or even their neighbors), but inevitably rely upon them. If more urban Americans understood what "family" means to people living less modern lives, we might have less trouble relating to Arabs and South Americans and South Asians as well.

Anyway, conservatives don't think that governments get to define marriage, and thus family, because conservatives think family is more fundamental than government.

People who are strongly pro-choice seem to think that anti-abortion activists just like oppressing women, that they're all men who'd like to see all women barefoot and pregnant... But actually the anti-abortion activists I know (through my mother -- Hi, Mom) are mostly female. They don't hate women. They don't hate sex, either, even if they do wish more people would get married first. They dedicate a lot of money and time to women's charities, because charity is an important part of their religion, and Mary Magdalene is one of its saints. No, this isn't about misogyny or puritanism. The problem is how to define a "person". It's a hard problem. In the past, we've excluded various races, those of several religions, my gender, people with certain disabilities, infants and young children. It's only going to get harder, as we start tinkering with the definition of "human" through genetic engineering, and eventually maybe even artificial intelligence or recorded personalities. (We still haven't worked out what sort of consideration we owe to creatures who are certainly not human -- are standards of animal cruelty different for mammals than for fish?)

Anti-abortion activists want to be generous in their definition of humanity. Some of them may even have seen (as I have, in a neonatal intensive care unit) infants born two months too early, almost small enough to hold in your hand, weighing in at a pound, like a tub of butter, with little cigarette-arms and tiny little finger nails and expressive faces. For now, those are about the youngest we can keep alive outside the womb, but I don't expect that to be true for very long. And anyway newborns are still utterly dependent upon their mothers, even meant to go on getting their nutrition from her body. So what's so special about birth? If not there, where do you draw the line? Are you really comfortable drawing it at all? And can you really blame anyone for wanting to draw it as inclusively as possible?

There's one more aspect to both of these issues which is worth mentioning briefly, and that's the role the courts have played in changing our national policy. The problem with court decisions on hotly debated issues is that they bypass the democratic process. Instead of votes among our elected representatives, we get a fiat. This inflames rather than settles the debate. It also requires some rather strained reasoning to argue that a constitution which mentions neither pregnancy nor marriage actually ties the hands of the state(s) on these matters. Debate and voting would be better approaches, slower, but more honest and with a more stable outcome. You can disapprove of the abbrogation of power by the jucial branch even if you support the causes these decisions favor.

On being a Grad Student, part one

I'm still clearing out my stockpile of unblogged bloggables. This is something I wrote several months ago, March maybe, and toyed with submitting to the "graduate voices" column of the graduate school newsletter. I decided it was really much too whiny and a little embarrassing. But that's a little more okay on a blog, which is not going to be stuffed into the mailboxes of uninterested strangers, and it does have some virtues as well. It accurately conveys the mood I was in for most of the last year. It's not as whiny or embarrassing as some things I said or wrote before I wrote this, in which I wondered whether girls who write equations all day ever meet boys, and live happily ever after. At the time I thought this might be a barrier to women in the sciences generally, but now I'm pretty sure it was just my ordinary insecurity, and nothing to do with feminism. I also wondered for a while whether there was something wrong with the whole enterprise of academic life, which might explain my unhappiness. A lot of it seems more like play than work, and perhaps I'd find more meaning in honest labor... Whatever that means, these days. Eventually, though, I diagnosed myself with "too much school."

I'm gonna paste it in here, and then I'm gonna do a seperate post about how I feel now.

There can be something monastic about graduate student life, particularly in the sciences. It's such a focussed, self-contained community, and it can be isolating.

Those of us who have come directly into grad school, having spent our whole lives in education from nursery-age on, may feel the remoteness and smallness of the world we've chosen to enter especially acutely. Or perhaps it's just me. I've been all together angst-ridden on the subject since before I started filling out applications last year. What's been bothering me is the sense that, by entering graduate school, I was really just hiding from the real world.

This does feel unreal, still. I worry that I'm somehow extending my adolescence indefinitely. More school, more homework, more studenty rented rooms and cafeteria food, while cousins my age take jobs as teachers and cops, get married and and have kids, and save up for a down-payment on a house. I wonder if what I'm doing isn't just meaningless self-indulgence, a kind of game that I get paid for, but which, unlike baseball or hockey, doesn't entertain anyone but me. I wonder if I should quit and become a nurse... I would make a terrible nurse. And anyway I can’t quit now, without feeling like I’ve just surrendered, given up on something hard. Knowing that I can’t quit honorably, makes the angst worse.

I wonder what else I can do to feel useful, or at least adult, or at least different from the high-school version of myself. To feel different, I cut off my hair and started wearing a bit of make-up now and then. For a role-model of “adult” that doesn’t include nursing or minivans or monkishness, I’ve chosen Katharine Hepburn characters, and have been diligently watching all the Hepburn movies Blockbuster has. And as for “useful”... I’ve taken up woodcarving. I’ve made a teaspoon and am halfway through a hairbrush. It’s nice to have something other than pencil marks to show for my efforts. These measures are more satisfying than you would expect.

I’ll feel more a part of the real world when I start doing real research, I hope, especially if I do it in a field with practical applications. But even then, I won’t really have escaped the ivory tower. Maybe I could go babysit my cousin’s kids for him, while he’s working in the GM factory, or while he’s at school. He dropped out to get the job and get married, but now he’s going back part time, to work on an engineering degree.


(note: this cousin is now training to be a pilot instead.)

Theories, Stories, Rules-of-Thumb

This mostly summarizes some stuff I posted in a Comments thread at Uncertain Principles.

It comes out of my attempts to learn, this year, a lot of what Hannah Shapero calls "math in bad faith.".

The thing is, I got into this business for explanations. As opposed to calculations. Nothing frustrates me more than formalisms and mathematical tricks that I'm supposed to use "because they work." I mean, it's nice to know that the universe behaves predictably, but I want to know that it also behaves rationally, that there are reasons for particles to take such and such a path (which you can describe exactly by such and such a method.) The natural response to this is, "But we don't know the reasons why the universe obeys Newton's laws and Maxwell's laws and the Schroedinger equation and relativity... Only that it does. You just have to content yourself with proofs that the answers you get are consistent with those rules."

But I just don't trust mathematics that much. Look, I can understand, "a force is exerted upon an electron, and so it moves." Forces making things move are a part of my everyday experience. I know what that means. I know how it works, what it looks like. But I don't understand, "The electron goes over there in order minimize its 'action'". Or "The field looks like this because the potential has to satisfy Green's theorem." Unless the electrons and fields are doing little calculations and adjusting themselves accordingly, this doesn't explain anything.

So I'm still not happy with Lagrangian mechanics, even though I can apply it with reasonable success (assuming I pick the proper coordinate system, which I never do the first time). Why should this apparently meaningless quantity called "action" be minimized? (Actually, there's a paper by a professor at my old university that seems to hint at an answer for this, at least when combined with Feynman's path integral stuff, but I don't understand it.) E&M is even worse. J.D. Jackson, bane of my existence, is constantly appealing to theorems in vector calculus, approximation methods, series expansions, etc. to justify physical laws like "There can be no electric field inside of a conductor." I want to know what physical thing prevents it, J.D. I want you to tell me a little story about electrons moving around.

I used to believe that the people who came up with the theories must have had such stories in mind, and that my professors were being willfully perverse in teaching these theories as though they were the rules to a meaningless mathematical game, but recently, I have learned better. (It's funny when you find out the reason you don't understand something is not because you're dumb, but because nobody really understands. Makes you feel a little better about yourself, but on the other hand, it's so disappointing, because now you may never know... As a TA, I like to make a big deal over this stuff [and I try to cop to the stuff that someone understands, but not me. I wish my professors would.] I also tell them they'd better do a good job testing Newton's laws and the gravitational constant in lab, because without new experimental evidence every day, we'd really have no reason to believe these things were true...)

Anyway, it seems that historically, the equations often come first, and then the stories. There's a lot of theory we wouldn't be able to use if we demanded that they come with little movies we could run in our heads, and I do know that now, even as I still go around demanding that someone tell me a story I understand... It seems that there still isn't a really satisfying explanation of the least-action principle, or anyway, not one that I've heard. Max Planck didn't have a clue why energy should be quantized as he described (and no one does now, either.) The second law of thermodynamics -- " Entropy must increase" -- was discovered before anyone had a real definition for entropy in terms of the distribution of particles (it was incredibly frustrating to ask, in my thermodynamics-without-stat-mech class, "So what is entropy?" and be told "It's what you get when you integrate ds=dq/T." As though that's an answer! But it was the only answer 19th century engineers had, and they designed steam engines anyway...) Mendeleev designed a periodic table and made predictions before anyone knew what atoms were. People knew rates of certain diseases were higher in mosquito-infect areas before anyone came up with the germ theory of disease. Copernicus figured the earth revolved around the sun before Newton explained why, and he didn't even figure it for more than a convenient trick for doing calculations, a mathematical formalism, if you will...

But the thing is, sometimes wrong theories fit the facts as well, like the Bohr atom, or epicyles. So fitting the facts may not be enough after all... I like this line of argument, because it allows me to protest that the storyless theories I don't like to learn aren't real science after all, but are in the same category as epicycles. They can become real, but only if someone gives me a decent interpretation, dammit.

However my friends Andy and Sarah point out that you can actually rule out the Bohr atom, and epicycles, on the grounds that they only fit a special case (the hydrogen atom and our solar system, respectively) and aren't general. If something fits the facts and is general, I'm going to have to call it real science after all.

So, are stories really necessary at all? What do we want science to do? Should I quit, and concentrate on writing novels?

Connie Willis

For some time, I have been meaning to make a proper Connie Willis fan site. She doesn't seem to have a really good, thorough one. I got as far as collecting some material, some links, and even designing a background, but the rest of the stuff I'd like to see on it (bibliography, quotes, etc) requires actual work. Maybe I'll get around to it someday. In the meantime, a blog entry seems like a good place to display all of those interviews and whatnot that I collected.

"Who's Connie Willis?" some of my less fortunate readers may ask. Here's what I wrote for the index page:

"Once upon a time there was a woman who told science fiction stories about dogs and death and vampires and jumble sales, about Christmas and church yards and sheep, about bombs and movie musicals. They were sad comedies and witty tragedies, all with the same deft eye for detail and all populated by likable, believable very human beings (plus a few aliens). She won a lot of awards and a lot of fans, many of whom feel an evangelical urge, and that's why this page exists."

And here is what I had on the links page...


Science Fiction Weekly Interview

OmniVision Interview, 1997 "Who is Connie Willis?"

Connie Willis & Gardner Dozois chat transcript, 1998 "Connie Wilson"

Connie Willis & Gardner Dozois chat transcript, 1999

Connie, Gardner, and James Patrick Kelly chat, 1999

EventHorizon chat transcript, 1999

Hugo Nominees chat transcript, 2000

Zone-SF interview, 2001

Science Fiction Weekly Interview, 2001


Listen to Fire Watch as adapted by Seeing Ear Theater, with sound effects and everything.

Bantam-Dell has an "Author Catalog" entry for Connie Willis. Be sure to click the "from the author" link in the top left for her famous last words.

You could also see her entry in The Internet Science Fiction Database and in SciFan.

Author James Patrick Kelley has funny profile from a time-traveler's perspective. ran an enthusiastic article, which is also linked to in "reviews." As this page went to press, you didn't even need to watch an ad.

A blogger called "bluejack" has a nice little summary of the information from the interviews and author bios.

Doing a search on turns up some interesting, mostly relevant stuff... As for searches on Google and Dmoz, they'll turn up things like this crossword puzzle by Jim Kelly, and a couple of Geocities fan sites: "The Connie Willis Page" and this "One-Sided Dialogue."

Finally, if you like Connie Willis, you should also be watching AMC, and reading Jerome K. Jerome and subscribing to Asimov's (where her short stories are published) and to Smithsonianalready, of course.


I read a book recently which feels like it should already be famous. Or maybe it already is, since it's won some awards and a couple of people I mentioned it to had heard of it, but I hadn't. In the interests of making it a tiny bit more famous, I'm going to post here the little summary that I originally posted to

Feed by M.T. Anderson. It's YA SF. The blurb says...

"We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck." So says Titus, a teenager whose ability to read, write, and even think for himself has been almost completely obliterated by his "feed," a transmitter implanted directly into his brain. Feeds are a crucial part of life for Titus and his friends. After all, how else would they know where to party on the moon, how to get bargains at Weatherbee & Crotch, or how to accessorize the mysterious lesions everyone's been getting?"

But aside from the satire it's a sad story. There's a girl who's sick, and she talks about how when she tries to imagine living life to the fullest, all of the images that come to mind are the sort of thing that play over sitcom credits. Dancing, and going to the zoo, and riding the tilt-a-whirl, and going on a safari, and having a splashing fight at the beach. The only thing that comes to mind that's not sitcommy is the Mayan temple. She wanted to do that because she read a Mayan prayer for the preservation of civilization, written sometime before theirs fell. After she realizes that her dreams are cliches, she comes up with a new list. Dancing is still on it. And "Is there any moss anywhere?" And, "I want to see art. Like, I want to remind myself about the Dutch. I want to remind myself that they wore clothes and armor. That some of them fell in love while they were sitting near maps or tapestries." She wants to go to a store that sells only beer and jerky, and to pretend she's from Fort Wayne, Texas, and to actually *be* from Fort Wayne, Texas. And she wants to be old, the kind of old person who has a dog named Mithridates and wears cardigans.

It's written in a vernacular that is disturbingly close to my own. "I don't know if the others felt like I felt, about space? But I think they did, because they all got louder. I feel real sorry for people who have to travel by themselves. In space, that must suck."

Anyway, it's great.

Why We Went to War in Iraq

A lot of my fellow democrats seem to believe that we're in Iraq because Bush wants oil and Halliburton contracts and to prove something to his dad.

I really don't think those are enough. I don't think Bush would do it for those reasons.

I mean, they're probably on the list somewhere, along with genunine worry about weapons of mass distruction, and genuine concern for the welfare of the people of Iraq, but even all together, those wouldn't be enough to make us actually invade.

I think it's geopolitical. Rumsfeld and co. have mistaken the middle east for the Soviet Union. Wesley Clark explains how that could happen.

If the Arab states were ever united, they probably could represent a threat to the US. The region is rich, and young, and awash in a powerful ideology which is not wholly consistent with rampant American consumer capitalism. We have as little influence there as we ever did among the Soviet satellite states, but we are dependent on their resources.

(North Korea, by contrast, has little real power even with nukes, is dependent upon us, rather than the other way around. The neocons see it as less of a threat. Yet in spite of that "weakness" we couldn't win a war with North Korea quickly or cheaply, as it seemed we could in the middle east -- if we acted immediately, while we still had the expulsion of the UN inspectors as a fig leaf to cover the aggression, and while Saddam's government was in the doghouse with Europe and with several governments in an internally divided region.)

It was about, "Saddam Hussein can't be seen to defy the US and get away with it," lest it set a dangerous precedent. Richard Perle uses the word "defy" several times in this interview, from about a month after September 11, about why we should invade Iraq before Afghanistan.

By attacking, we got to 1) make an example out of Iraq, to intimidate its neighbors 2) install a friendly satellite government in a hostile region 3) interfere with Arab unity. And in the process, also secure oil reserves, finish Daddy's war, liberate an opressed people (and make ammends, to some extent, for our previous complicity), secure the oil supply, boost the economy, drum up business for Halliburton, and establish American "National Greatness," to inspire the voters and solidify our hedgemony.

We want nothing more than to make the rest of the world look like Europe and America and Canada and Australia. We don't want to own it. We just want it to share our values, so that it doesn't represent a threat. We believe that there can be a democratic "domino effect" just like the one we used to fear from communism.

To tell you the truth, I don't think this is such an awful goal. To want all of those third world countries to look like first world countries, stable and democratic and prosperous, is not evil. Most of the people living on those countries probably want the same thing, more or less.

Unfortunately I don't think you can do it this way. You can't change a culture at gunpoint. We've tried it before -- some of the dictators we supported in the middle east tried to "modernize" it by force, tearing off veils with weapons pointed at women. No wonder they don't it as a blessing. No wonder they aren't grateful. If we just had patience, I think that they would begin to imitate us out of our own free will. It was already beginning to happen in Iran.

But the "Project for the New American Century" folks don't want to wait. They fear America will lose its hedgemony unless it acts, and then Pax Americana will break down, and the world will fall back into the old chaos. The fear the dominoes won't fall unless we push them.

That page says "We need to strengthen our ties to democratic allies and to challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values." This is dated June 3, 1997. That's almost the words "regime change," that long ago. It's signed by Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, among others.

What the neocons want is a world where everyone respects America and lives like Americans (or perhaps slightly less wastefully). But you have to earn respect. You can't compel it with threats.

Incidentally, since I mentioned "Pax Americana"... You know that the analogy between the US and the Roman Empire is a favorite of both its supporters and its critics. Some (on both sides!) may carry that analogy a step further, and say that the American empire, like the Roman Empire, is doomed by its decadence. What I wonder is, if we're Rome, who are the Goths and the Vandals? Wasn't the original Rome, in a sense, brought down by militarily weaker "terrorists"?

National Greatness

I stumbled across this long blog entry, which more or less paints conservatives as Klingons, a while ago, and I've found myself thinking quite a bit about it since. I don't buy a lot of it. In particular, the end seems like psychobabble, and doesn't describe any conservatives I know.

But the central idea, that conservatives are seeking "National Greatness" and suspicious of peace and prosperity, which breed complacency and weakness, seems to me to be true.

[UPDATE: Charles Krauthammer just about comes out and says it. Unfortunately, Krauthammer is an unsufferable twit who makes other Republicans look bad. This argument could be made much better.]

I don't think that's as terrible a thing as the blogger I link above makes it out to be, though. The conservatives are probably right that too much happiness is ennervating. They're probably right that it leads to a frivolous, empty pop culture, a pre-occupuation with tabloids and toys and television.

In other words, they're right that war is a force that gives us meaning. And I think conservatives, more than most democrats and centrists, are frustrated with the shortage of meaning in our national life. (Although the far left wing of the democratic party actually shares a lot of that frustration with our shallowness and "sex sells" values. Witness Adbusters. I think if we couldbuy subscriptions to Adbusters and the National Catholic Reporter for everyone in the Muslim world, it would actually help ameliorate the bitterness people there feel toward America a lot, by showing that some people in America resent the same things about American culture as they do. And are almost as powerless to change it, in the end.)

I had a great conversation with my dad the other day (hi, Dad) which I think might represent fairly the feelings of a lot of Republicans on the subject of "National Greatness." He says he wants a president who will say "follow me," as opposed to pandering. Who listens to his advisors and his party and then says, "Thanks for the input, I'm doing it anyway." He says he liked Reagan for the same reason. Leadership. A determination to go down in history as someone who tried big things.

He believes that changing the middle east was a noble goal, and he still admires Bush for trying. He regrets that they couldn't pull it off. He blames Bush himself, and thinks he didn't really know what he was getting into. My democratic friends will disagree with the "noble goal" part, of course, so they won't be as impressed with the rest of it. In fact, I think there is a decent argument to be made for the Iraq war, though I don't think conservatives are making it. It took me a long time to figure out why any intelligent people were supporting this at all. That'll be my next post. I still don't support the war, because I don't think you can achieve the goals they wanted to achieve in this way. But they're not necessarily evil goals, as the democrats tend to assume (I seem to spend a lot of my time explaining republicans to my fellow democrats. Remind me to post my explanations about gay marriage and abortion, one of these days.)

If you're being led toward non-evil goals, there is indeed something attractive about that kind of leadership, which calls upon us to make sacrifices, which does not balk from an ideal just because the approach to it is complicated. That kind of leadership can make us all feel more noble.

So, I think that blog I linked to is right that many conservatives believe armed conflict has some value in and of itself, that it is good for our national character, and right to think that this has a lot to do with why we're in Iraq. But I think it is wrong to judge them so harshly. This veneration of the virtues (or even "virtu") of warriors is as old as civilization. It was conventional wisdom in the Roman empire, and in the Old Testament, and in almost every fantasy novel every written, that battle builds character.

Here is what I wrote in the novel that I'm going to try sell, maybe, someday:

Yolanda has said, "Simon, don't die."

Simon makes a speech: "Life. Yes? You get it for free. You don't have to do anything much to keep it. But then it's not worth anything. It doesn't mean anything. It's like money- it only has value when you spend it. Which explains why war is so popular and always has been. People like to die for a cause. They like to sacrifice their lives- pool them with other people and buy something much more important than any of them could ever purchase one hour at a time. Peacetime, you can spend your life on your family, or your work. But in war, you can buy hundreds of families, the work of centuries. Good bargain, really."

She stared at him. "And what if it doesn't mean anything anyway? What if you give your life and the world is still stupid, and the city still burns?"

He shrugged. "What difference does that make? You still died for the same reasons."

She followed his gaze, stared at his hands with him. Scarred and red from the firelight. She wondered if they were still sore.

"Simon- don't kill."

War is a Force that Gives us Meaning

I've got a sort of campaign, to make a book a part of our culture. I want it to be the standard work on the subject of why wars happen. It's called War is a Force that Gives us Meaning by Christopher Hedges.

Here's an interview with him that effectively condenses the book. And here are the notes my friend Andy wrote on it.

What follows is the review I wrote about it when I first read it:

This is one of the most important books I have ever read. This book is medicine. It is an antidote for a poison which rots flesh, which leaves festering wounds, which ends in madness and death. It offers a little immunity, could slow the spread, if not cure us. It is bitter, but potent.

The poison is addictive, Christopher Hedges says. He compares war to a drug more than once, to heroin, eating away at victims who can't get enough of it. He was a war correspondent for fifteen years, he says, and he was an addict. He can explain how it happens. He knows, he's seen, how men become monsters, ordinary people cutting trophies from corpses, shooting children for sport, raping and multilating. The big secret, he reveals, is that it happens in every war, on every side. All those obscure conflicts in unpronouncable places, the places he lived, bring with them the same depths of inhumanity as a world war, and World War II, our quintessential "just war", shared the same depravities with Vietnam.

Here is how it can begin: "We discover in the communal struggle, the shared sense of meaning and purpose, a cause. War fills our spiritual void. I do not miss war, but I miss what it brought. I can never say I was happy in the midst of the fighting in El Salvador, or Bosnia, or Kosovo, but I had a sense of purpose, of calling. And this is a quality war shares with love, for we are also, in love, able to choose fealty and self-sacrifice over security." It is not just the adrenaline rush, he says, that brought him back after he was captured and freed, after all the near-deaths and the deaths of friends. It was the sense that everything mattered, in a way it never could in peacetime, all of the life and death decisions. And it was the moral clarity of having an enemy, the comradship of having a the same enemy as someone else, and it was the opportunity for courage, the sweetness of small kindnesses against the huge cruelties. It was the meaning.

But chapter titles count the costs. "The Destruction of Culture": war obliterates the kind of art and literature that is self-examining and replaces it with platitudes. We all learn to speak in the same cliches, so that we can't express doubt about our purpose, and we consume sentimental songs and movies that afterward will seem meaningless. "The Seduction of Battle and the Perversion of War": warzones have no rules, not even about death (especially not about death) and that is an attraction in itself. The people who prosper are the most ruthless, the most corrupt. "The Hijacking and Recovery of Memory": all warring powers try to rewrite history, until it becomes impossible for witnesses to trust even their own memories. Churches and cemetaries, monuments and cities, are destroyed by bombs and bulldozers so that the victors can claim they never existed.

The other chapters ennumerate the forces that open this abyss: "The Myth of War" in which we are all heroes, the patriotism which in extolling the virtues of our society becomes a kind of self-worship. "The Plague of Nationalism" which causes us to invent differences, to idolize cookies and cartoon characters and flags, any symbol of our separateness. "The Cause" which must be santified at all costs. The first thing to die for the cause is always the truth, which is why veterans so often come back silent--what can they say to the rest of us, who live in a different, a manufactured reality? And the final chapter, "Eros and Thanatos," the struggle between love and death and how easy it is to confuse one with the other. Both love and war offer us meaning. But we can't have both at once. War extinguishes love, he says. It encourages temporary connections, lends them the same importance which it lends to everything in life by contrast with death, but these connections are annonymous, whereas real love is inherently individual. "Happiness withers if there is no meaning. But to live only for meaning makes us fanatic, self-righteous, and cold." Love at its best offers both, but war is a fine substitute for those who have only ever known unhappiness.

Hedges holds a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard University, which is not so much obvious from his writing as consistent with it. He is literate and humane. By "literate" I mean that he communicates the way people who love to read do, referring to the Iliad and to Orwell's essays, to Shakespeare and to Dante and to Hume, using book titles as a vocabularly, incorporating and encapsulating a whole spectrum of complex ideas by judicious reference. He is humane in his attention to the sufferings of real people, which are more important than the abstractions. He is compassionate, but part of his honesty is revealing the way fifteen years of war can deaden compassion. He has the courage to write in the first person, to confess to his own cowardice, boredom, and shame, from which no one is immune. It is hard to list the places he went, horrors he saw, and risks he took without making his experiences sound glamorous, which would defeat his purpose entirely. But because of them he is able to incorporate, along with his poetry quotations, first-hand descriptions of mass graves and ugly deaths, reducing the human body to meat and reducing the killers to less than beasts, laughing while they defile their victims. There is no conflict between the literary and the all too real: attempting to reconstruct the poetry he'd memorized is, he says, what kept him occupied when he was arrested in Iraq and his books were taken from him.

This was during the doomed Shiite uprising in Basra, and it was the
Republican Guard who arrested him, an incident which like most of his Gulf War and post Gulf War stories echoes today's headlines eerily, though the present war had not begun when the book was published last year. The "War on Terror" was, of course, already in progress, and it is somehow strange to be reminded of that unfinished (unfinishable) campaign, to read his words about Afghanistan and wonder, whatever happened to Afghanistan anyhow?

In the beginning the events he relates seem just as unreal as any newspaper account, distant, incomprehensible. In fact, he says, these atrocities seem just as incomprehensible to the witnesses. When we see women and children die, in spite of our myth, we refuse to believe our eyes. Nothing is believable in war. But at book length, with the author's role in the story exposed and fates put to names, the implicates of these descriptions start to sink in. One gets used to the idea of brutality as one reads the story of massacre after massacre. One can get used to seeing massacres or their results in person as well, he says, and then it is this life, the peacetime world, which begins to seem distant and "uncanny". This is how people can begin to think of the unthinkable, and then do it, and make the next stage of perversion more plausible.

For all of this, he admits reluctantly at the beginning, he is not a true pacificist. Like many reporters covering the conflict in the
former Yugoslavia, he prayed for American intervention. As someone who opposed that intervention, speculating cynically on our real reasons, I was taken aback by his approval of it, in this context which makes it clear that no one could despise war more legitimately. There is a blurb on the back of the book from general Wesley K. Clark, former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, and Hedges professes to admire him. He says that the first Gulf War was about oil, but he also argues the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime much more convincingly than the Bush administration has been able to, precisely because his point had nothing to do with justifying an invasion. It was about how regimes are able to disguise their crimes. He was with Kurdish diggers who uncovered the remains of 1,500 soldiers who had refused to fight in the war during the 1980s against Iran. He reports other mass graves, torture chambers, elaborate prison systems and secret police files, and between one and two hundred thousand Iraqi Kurds "vanished." I would like to know what he makes of our present "liberation". Even if we are doing it again for oil... He doesn't argue that war is ever moral, he simply argues, consistent with Christian theology, that it can be less immoral than the alternative. No one is moral.

In the end, he offers no easy solutions to anything. That is not the purpose of the book. He is trying to show us that war is sickening whether it is "just" or not. He is trying to expose its fatal allures, trying to innoculate us against "freedom fries" and nationalist archeology and the over-eager press the fanatical worship of the state and "the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro Patria mori." He's trying to stop people from confusing war with love, and that difference is the only redemption he can offer, the note of hope he strikes at the end of an unrelentingly bleak book. There is another source of meaning. Love, not in the pop song sense but in the religious sense, can restore sanity, can make us stop seeking death for its own sake. That's all the happy ending he can give us, the only promise he makes. It may be enough.

Science and the Death of Traditional Culture

So I'm going to clear out a sort of backlog of thoughts I've been saving up for a few months.

A lot of those thoughts, which might have been blogged in bits and pieces if I'd had a blog a few months ago, I collected in an essay instead. Science and the Death of Traditional Culture.

It's about a culture war that I think people have forgotten, because the "culture of science" (a tough to define term) won it already. But it's important, because it explains a lot about how the world got to be the way it is. And it's interesting, because it happened so quickly, and so recently, and so dramatically all over the world. Well, you can read the article for yourself, if you're interested. I don't need to reproduce it here.

I bow to inevitability

Yes, all right, fine, I'll start a blog. Twist my arm, why don't you.

I've been accused of blogging before. I wrote bi-weekly updates while I was in England, which I posted on this website, along with some pictures I was proud of. But I insisted it was just "letters home."

Blogs seem more like those Christmas newsletters some people send. I don't really like the idea of personal newsletters, anymore than I like the idea of public journals. It seems very self-absorbed.

I also didn't think it was likely to revolutionize journalism, because it's one-to-few instead of one-to-many. We've already got outlets like that, which usually do report the relevant news, to their small audiences, sooner than the big outlets do. Actual letters, sent from the front and passed hand to hand, in wars going back to the beginning of written history. Flyers and pamphlets. Mimeographed newsletters passed out at official Podunk county Communist Party meetings. Personal webpages, in the early days of the internet. Even small-time broadcasting outlets.

None of those changed the world. Nor did the literary magazines or short-lived personal publications I helped write in college and high school. And why should they? Who am I, that anyone should care what I have to say? Why should strangers want to know my thoughts on topics I choose? I'm not really an expert on much of anything. I'm out of every loop. Nobody really needs my perspective.

I don't think I've really changed my opinion about any of that, but now I read more than a dozen blogs on a daily basis, and I get excited when I see a news story there (like the coronation of Sun Myung Moon, not to mention the torture at Abu Ghraib) before it hits the major media, or reading dispatches from front line soldiers and Iraqi civilians that reporters couldn't really hope to imitate. I find myself posting to the comments sections, in spite of the fact that I already spend too much time arguing on the internet (I went on a date with someone who googgled me in advance, a while ago. I suddenly wished I'd never heard of the internet.)

Some of the blogs I like best seem to be by people who are just as ordinary as I am, and so I can begin to convince myself that maybe there is some value in the perspective of someone who just stands in the corner, out of the way of the revelers and deal makers, and pays attention. Hence the title.

I know I'm too opinionated and too introspective and do too much of my social interaction through the cowardly medium of writing already, but just knowing I have those flaws doesn't mean I can resist something which plays to them as perfectly as blogging, especially when it's easy, and free, and so socially acceptable. All of my friends are doing it, and a couple of them have encouraged me to give it a try. And since I suddenly discover that a large number of my thoughts really seem to belong on a blog, rather than e-mailed to random innocent victims... I give. I'm blogging.