Monday, June 26, 2006

Why God Made Television

If you were from the past, and I told you that I had invented a technology which would allow you to watch people do things long after the event, and far away from it, what would you want to watch?

Surely the same things people have always loved to watch: Acrobats! Jugglers! Dancers and daredevils! Spectacle!

For some reason, American television hasn't really gone this route. Circuses remain popular in this country as they have been throughout history... (Ken and I saw the Greatest Show on Earth last year, featuring the amazing Sylvia Zerbini and Crazy Wilson. I've had those pages bookmarked for a long time now, waiting for a blog post I could work them into.) Do television producers here think this stuff won't sell on TV? But it does in other countries! For that matter, it does fine in this country on the Spanish language channels. And what do you think professional wrestling is, really, besides wildly successful? And then there are stunt-based reality shows like Fear Factor. And, prosaic by comparison, all of the different talent shows, from Star Search to whatever this new Simon Cowell thing is to "Ice Skating with Celebrities" or whatever it's called.

But the country best known for pushing the limits of the ridiculous is Japan, and it is from Japan that the concept for the purest spectacle on American television comes:

Master of Champions. You've got to love it for the name alone.

The format is, weirdly enough, almost exactly like "Iron Chef." Three judges (including Oksana Baiul!) and inappropriate sports-caster commentary from confused hosts (one of whom is apparently married to the White Sox's Scott Podsednik.) Only there are more competitors, and the judges don't really get to choose the winners. They -- look, don't try to understand it. How the winner is chosen really doesn't matter. They're all champions.

The series premiere started with people doing donuts in their cars around a block of cheese. There was a cheese grater attached by a long arm to the top of their cars. They had to grate as much cheese as possible by driving around it.

Pure, delicious absurdity? You may think so, but to the drift car driving community it made perfect sense.

The next act pitted a contortionist who shoots arrows with her feet (and was blindfolded for this trial) against a group of acrobat/dancers with spring loaded stilts and fireworks. In that kind of competition, the it's the audience that wins.

The final segment was a competition between two unicyclists. These guys are apparently well known in the unicycling community. (People who think skateboarding or stunt biking is too easy, I guess.)

There's a photo gallery on the official site, if you want the flavor.

The winner was the contortionist, Princess Elayne. This was as it should be.

Okay, I understand that this kind of thing isn't exactly intellectually demanding. But there's no reason why it should be. Are parades intellectually demanding? Are fireworks? Does anyone dislike fireworks? (Other than America-hating communist terrorists, of course?) No!

This is what you call "innocent fun." And we need it. Watching this stuff makes us all kids again. Complete with sense of wonder and childlike glee. Helps us resist the temptation to take ourselves too seriously. Helps us relax and enjoy. What I'm saying is, the world is a better, happier place, and we are better, happier people because of this kind of show.

So all of you, if you can't run off and join the circus, at least do your part to keep this show on the air. You know you want to. It's your civic duty.

Thursday, June 29 at 8/7c on ABC. This week features a low-rider car jumping rope.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Candidate Ken

No, he's not running for anything. Ken gave his thesis proposal today, and it was accepted by his commitee, which raises him to the status of "PhD Candidate" (at least, as soon as the paperwork is done.)

And I've got to say -- as a colleague -- he kicked butt. Hardly any "ums" and "uhs" even when unexpected questions forced him to try to explain complicated concepts not covered in his prepared talk. Didn't have to rush, never got boring or bogged down, covered all the material, transitioned smoothly, kept the audience engaged, and clearly knew more than anybody in the room about the project, and knew he knew it. Made a couple of jokes, and got into a couple of interesting side discussions. In short: professional.

But what does this "candidacy" mean? Well, Wikipedia says that at some universities it's an actual degree:

All But Dissertation or All But Degree, abbreviated ABD, or Candidatus Philosophiae or Candidate in Philosophy, abbreviated C.Phil. is a formal academic degree awarded to a student, or an informal status that says a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) student has completed all graduate study leading up to the final dissertation. This typically includes graduate coursework, preliminary/cumulative/qualifying examinations, and defense of the dissertation prospectus, advanced to candidacy.

Sometimes "C.Phil." or "Ph.D. (ABD)" is used as a title. In the U.S., ABD is an unofficial status, and C.Phil. is an official degree at very few universities.

In some schools a student can write an additional thesis at this point and receive a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) degree; in others, the MA, MS or MPhil (sometimes Candidate in Philosophy, CPhil) is conferred on an ABD student who has been advanced to candidacy for the Ph.D. Additionally, some American universities award the Master of Philosophy to students who have completed the coursework necessary for a Ph.D. but who have not completed the dissertation.

What it means at our university is 1: He can't take classes anymore for credit. He's done being a student, officially. His job now is research. And 2: his tuition (which is paid for mostly out of our advisor's grant money) is now therefor much cheaper. This makes our advisor happy. And of course 3: the last formal requirement left for him for graduation is actually defending his thesis.

My turn will come after I've completed all my required classes, which I'm not planning to do until next winter (which is when the classes I want to take are next offered.) I hope I do as well.

Monday, June 19, 2006


Marginally science related fun:

How to levitate a frog. Via Ken. Make sure to click the "direct link to video" under the picture.

How did "Duck Hunt" know where you were shooting?. Search inspired by a conversation with my brother, who couldn't believe Ken and I fell for the Back to the Future hoverboard scam, but had to admit there were technological wonders of the '80s he couldn't explain either.

Speaking of which, I also seem to remember a TV segment from the '80s about flying cars that we could expect on the market any day. Turns out, this company has been making them (prototypes of them at least) since the sixties. Link via UserFriendly's Link of the Day

Beautiful High Res Hubble Images via Jaquandor. One of these is now our desktop wallpaper.

Optical Properties and Optical Phenomena in Gemstones Strange to see dispersion and diffraction and total internal reflection and atomic crystal lattices mentioned in the context of jewels. As far as I can tell the physics here is all correct, but approached very differently than what I'm used to. Birefringence is described without ever mentioning polarization, for instance... Via Making Light. (I take it back, they do mention polarization further down, with a lot of neat pictures of gems taken through crossed polarizers.)

That's all I've got for now.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

If I Were a Republican

I've noticed that when I mention politics on this blog, it's usually to explain the thinking of conservatives to my liberal friends. But I think I make myself sound more conservative than I really am. For the record: I'm anti-war and pro-environment. I don't believe the free market can solve every problem. I believe public education and a welfare safety net benefit everyone, and I'm willing to pay higher taxes to fund them. I think corporations have too much power today. I support unions as the most direct counter-balance for that power. And I don't feel my marriage is threatened by gay marriage, even though I understand why some people do.

I'm a Democrat. And I'm really glad I am. Because if I were a Republican, I'd be feeling pretty betrayed, right now. Especially if I were a fiscal responsibility *, personal * liberty * kind of Republican.

Those links go to the federal debt, Patriot Act, and wiretap stories everyone already knows about. Everyone also knows about Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. But I've realized that if I were a Republican, there'd be a lot of stories I wouldn't really know about. Because these stories haven't made it into the national media much at all, much less to Fox News. So for the benefit of my Republican readers (I hope I haven't alienated them), here's a couple of stories that are old news on the blogosphere:

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose death was recently announced as a victory by American forces, could have been killed or captured a long time ago. He was deliberately allowed to operate in the American patrolled no-fly zone. There is speculation that he was not interfered with because his base provided justification for connecting the invasion of Iraq to the "War on Terror."

The Pentagon is trying to remove Geneva Convention policies from the Army Field manual.

Bush has excused publicly traded defense contractors from normal accounting and securities-disclosure obligations.

President "Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution." That's a quote from the lead paragraph of the Boston Globe article.

And then there's the human trafficking stories. Some measures have been taken to put a stop to this, but they were delayed, and appear to have been driven by a general using his own authority to give orders, not as a matter of policy change by the administration or pentagon.

I understand why people voted for Bush, understand that most of the people who did so are intelligent and sincere and decent. But Bush and co. aren't what they pretended to be. I'm glad I'm not a Republican right now, because I would be pissed off at being so deceived.

As a Republican, I wouldn't like finding myself identified with the-- they're the villains of these stories.

Actually, as an American, I don't like it. These are the bad guys. But they say they're on my side. That makes me a bad guy too, at least in the eyes of the rest of the world. I don't like finding myself in that position.

So, I can sympathize with the Republicans...

Sunday, June 04, 2006

May and June Poems

For May -- this one I really couldn't resist:

The Bathtub
by: Ezra Pound

As a bathtub lined with white porcelain,
When the hot water gives out or goes tepid,
So is the slow cooling of our chivalrous passion,
O my much praised but-not-altogether-satisfactory lady.


For June -- this one relates to the post below:

The Logical Conclusion
by: Ezra Pound

When earth's last thesis is copied
From the theses that went before,
When idea from fact has departed
And bare-boned factlets shall bore,
When all joy shall have fled from study
And scholarship reign supreme;
When truth shall "baaa" on the hill crests
And no one shall dare to dream;

When all the good poems have been buried
With comment annoted in full
And art shall bow down in homage
To scholarship's zinc-plated bull,
When there shall be nothing to research
But the notes of annoted notes,
And Baalam's ass shall inquire
The price of imported oats;

Then no one shall tell him the answer
For each shall know the one fact
That lies in the special ass-ignment
From which he is making his tract.
So the ass shall sigh uninstructed
While each in his separate book
Shall grind for the love of grinding
And only the devil shall look.

Against the "germanic" system of graduate study and insane specialization in the Inanities.

"Optics man is busy preparing to wrap the coils."

Searching the internet to see if I could find out what the boiling point of Rubidium at pressures of ~10^(-6) Torr is (anyone know? Or know where to look it up?), I came across a site made by some students who seem to be trying to build a rubidium atom trap, but on a much smaller scale than our setup -- I guess they don't have to fit a cavity in their trap. Compare their pictures with ours -- there's no way we're building an oven around our system. We just wrap the heater coils around it and cover the whole thing with tinfoil, when we need to bake.

I am of course fascinated by this. It's weird to see someone else suffer through the same things, and weird to see their different approach to some of the problems.

They don't say whether they ever succeeded or not. The story ends with the coils still nonexistant. But I love "optics man." I'm totally going to build his brother, for our lab.

Also on the topic of seeing other people suffer in familiar ways: "Colst" explains the ways in which graduate student life is completely and utterly different than undergraduate life, which most people, including undergraduates who are considering grad school, completely fail to grasp.