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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, March 07, 2003

Good Idea, Bad Cause

The biggest story going in college sports at the moment is probably the bizarre saga of the St. Bonaventure basketball team, and their decision to not play their remaining games after one of their players was declared ineligible, and they were forced to forfeit six games and banned for their conference tournament. This has caused no end of hue and cry, from sports columnists denouncing the team, the coaching staff, and the university for this decision. Their conference is even making noises about kicking the school out entirely, an unprecedented move (evidently, the Atlantic Ten has a certificate from the Richard Cheney School of Diplomacy).

I have to say, though, that my initial reaction on hearing this was "Good for them." In recent years, the NCAA has become infamous for bizarrely draconian eligibility decisions, and there's really nothing that coaches or players, or even university presidents, can do about it. NCAA decisions can be appealed to... the NCAA. Shockingly, the NCAA is batting close to 1.000 on such appeals. Or, you can move to the federal courts, where you probably won't win, but the case will drag on for years, during which time the NCAA will continue to hold absolute power over the team and players.

On an abstract, tactical level, then, I approve of the St. Bonaventure kids' decision. It's the only weapon they have to fight what they consider an unjust decision by the NCAA and the conference, and it strikes at the one vulnerable spot the NCAA and the conference have: the wallet. Refusing to play the games means lost ticket sales, and lost tv revenue, and the only thing that makes the NCAA sit up and pay attention is an attack on the cash flow. The counter-arguments all appeal to the purity of sports, which is a load of crap-- sports have been impure for years, and the NCAA is all about the money. The only way to fight them and win is by going after the money.

On the other hand, though, they could hardly have picked a worse cause. This whole thing is over a junior college player who was allowed to transfer in, not with the required Associates degree, but with a welding certificate. I can't even begin to imagine what was going through the minds of the geniuses who thought this one up. That would be beneath even Jerry Tarkanian or Jim Harrick.

I'm all in favor of the method, but pick a better cause, fer Chrissakes. You want to cancel some games in protest, how about protesting the absurdity of a system where the NCAA gets somewhere in the neighborhood of ten billion dollars for the rights to televise its basketball tournament, but players aren't allowed to earn spending money during the school year? I'd love to see, say, Duke and Michigan schedule and then boycott a pre-season game to boost the cause of getting some sanity into the scholarship system.

But over a welding certificate? I don't think so.

Posted at 9:34 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Sport-cum-Ritual-cum-Bogus Science

The recent Bob Park article on bogus science has gotten a lot of play in blogdom, with occasional attempts to apply the criteria to some favorite form of quackery. Of course, at this time of years, the minds of basketball fans turn to the very junkiest of junk science: "Bracketology", or the attempt to predict the eventual form of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship brackets.

For those who are just dying to get a jump on their office pools, of course, ESPN's been running predictions of the full brackets since November, more or less. I find this endlessly amusing, as even in early March, "bracketology" is a science of such low repute as to make Republican party economics look like quantum electrodynamics. In November, even the geniuses at the BCS would hold off picking anything until they had better statistics.

You can get your predictions in numerous different forms, of course, from the office-pool bracket linked above (and also available at, which appears to fund itself by field-testing the world's most annoying pop-up ads), or in a more text-heavy form which attempts to provide some justification for the various choices, and doesn't attempt to predict the actual seedings. These all result from attempts to combine the various poll rankings with the supposedly-objective Ratings Percentage Index (or some facsimile thereof-- the actual RPI formula used by the official selection committee is a closely guarded secret, but there are lots of people who duplicate the rankings on their own computers), as well as information about "good wins" and "bad losses" and the phase of the moon at high tide in China on the third Sunday in February.

Even by the lax standards of junk science, this is a ridiculous project. For one thing, the actual seedings are done by a committee of sports people from various colleges and universities, who spend a week or so holed up in a hotel suite in the Midwest, figuring out what teams will be admitted to the Tournament. Once you've got people making judgement calls as part of the process, all bets are off, as far as I'm concerned. I've secretly believed for a few years now that they actually use "Rock Paper Scissors" as the final determinant, and crack up laughing when they watch ESPN personalities poring over the final brackets as if all the secrets of the Universe could be gleaned by working out the rationale for giving Southeastern Montana State College of Nursing a twelve seed in the Midwest regional.

The other reason why the whole forecasting game is absurd is also the glory of the whole thing: the "automatic bid" system. Every March, there's a bunch of carping from fans of the seventh-place team in the Big Ten, who got left out, arguing that the automatic bids should be scrapped, but I think that's foolish. The automatic bis are what lifts the NCAA Tournament above all other sporting events, for me: every year, something on the order of ten teams who have no business competing with the Marylands and Dukes and Arizonas of the world are given one crack at the title-- even the lowly (in sporting terms) Patriot League gets a shot at the championship. And every year, a few of them surprise everybody.

I really love the game of basketball, which is one reason why I watch college hoops, and not the NBA. The other reason is for the kids who have no shot-- guys who are out there playing who will never get so much as a cup of coffee out of the NBA, but who play every game as if it's their last. They're nicely symbolized by the automatic-bid teams in the "Big Dance"-- they get one chance to play, to leave everything on the court, and try to take down the favorites. As a Maryland fan, I loved the sight of Gary Williams cutting down the nets last year, but as a basketball fan, the image that will stick with me longer is of Hampton's Steve Merfeld kicking his feet as one of his players hoisted him into the air after Hampton beat Iowa State a few years ago. They won exactly nothing-- the right to get beaten badly by Georgetown a couple of days later, and that's about it-- but they celebrated like they'd been declared Champions of the Known Universe, and that's fun to see.

So, anyway, attempting to predict the make-up of the tournament field is a fool's game, and the most bogus science around. But at this time of year, it's also my favorite science, heralding as it does the imminent arrival of the best event in sports...

Posted at 8:17 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Thursday, March 06, 2003

Science is Hard

Mary Kay Kare emailed me a link to this brilliant example of a student lab report:

Electron Band Structure In Germanium, My Ass

Abstract: The exponential dependence of resistivity on temperature in germanium is found to be a great big lie. My careful theoretical modeling and painstaking experimentation reveal 1) that my equipment is crap, as are all the available texts on the subject and 2) that this whole exercise was a complete waste of my time.

(I also like this, from the same site.)

This hits a topic near and dear to my heart, namely the pain of grading formal lab reports. Which, coincidentally, I was doing a little over a week ago.

Lab grading is a gigantic pain in the ass not just because of some of the strange things people say (I won't quote anything directly, lest my students read this, but my personal favorites include statements along the lines of "Here's the answer I got. I'm pretty sure it's wrong, because I made a math error somewhere." Yes. Well. Thanks so much for your dedication to your work...), but because it's so subjective. Homework and exam grading is a snap by comparison-- there's only one correct way to work a problem, and it's easy to spot deviations from the correct path, and assign point values accordingly. Assigning points to writing errors is next to impossible.

This isn't an "I'm a scientist, I don't need to know how to write" argument-- indeed, I'll argue quite vehemently for the importance of good writing in science. There's nothing quite so painful as puzzling through a badly garbled research paper, trying to decipher the author's fractured syntax in order to glean some crucial bit of information needed for your own research. If anything, I hold scientific writing to a higher standard than I do literary writing.

The problem is more of the form "I'm a scientist-- I'm not trained for this." I can recognize good technical writing, but it's under a sort of a Damon Knight or Potter Stewart rule. I can even generate reasonably good technical papers (in my not-all-that-humble-opinion), but that's the result of practice, not training. If pressed to articulate formal rules for technical writing (or just regular English grammar), I could come up with something, but at least half of what I said would probably be wrong-- there are plenty of rules that I know only in a sort of intuitive way, and plenty of others where my intuition is wrong (as Kate, or any reader of this blog, could testify, I'm a serial punctuation abuser, and I have a major problem with the distinction between "which" and "that").

My only real "training" in how to write in a scientific manner comes from writing technical papers in grad school and as a post-doc. Back when I was at NIST, any work submitted for publication first went through a process called "paper torture" (who was actually being tortured is open to debate...), where one of the co-authors would do up a draft of the paper, pass it around, and the other co-authors would rip it to shreds, sentence by sentence, and word by word. In one (in)famous case, a three hour meeting was spent entirely on the first paragraph of the introduction, and concluded not with a satisfactory first paragraph, but rather an agreement that they wouldn't talk about the first paragraph again for a good long while (happily, I wasn't an author on that one). Physics journals are subject to very strict length and formatting requirements, so a good deal of effort went into brutally excising all unnecessary adjectives and superfluous connective words ("however" being a common target), while struggling to keep the paper as readable as possible. It was a fairly unpleasant process for all concerned, but it worked well-- the papers produced by my old group are some of the clearest and most comprehensible journal articles I've ever read.

Unfortunately, this is the only way I know to generate and assess technical writing. Even now, when I'm working without the safety net of a bunch of co-authors, I generate technical papers (and grant proposals) by first writing a draft, and then going over it with a red pen and removing every third word (approximately). Then I give it to Kate, who corrects the grammar in what's left. Most of what ends up in the final drafts gets through because it "sounds right" in some poorly defined way.

This doesn't provide much of an algorithm for paper grading. There are a few things that are easy to catch-- failure to spend thirty seconds running a lab report through a spell-checker is punished harshly (this is met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, most memorably by a student whose next report started with "We preformed this experiment in order to..." costing him another 20% of his grade)., but a lot of the complaints I have with student reports amount to "I wouldn't've written it that way," which is sort of hard to quantify. I have real trouble docking points for stylistic complaints-- there are other ways to write things than the particular phrasing I would choose, many of which are just as valid..

The compromise position I end up with is to mark up student reports paper-torture style (an experience which many students probably find unnerving), but only deduct for really egregious writing errors. It's probably not the most effective way of teaching writing, but in an intro class where lab reports are only 20% of the total grade, we can't spend time on the revising and re-writing that's the only really effective way to learn this stuff. At least, I think it's the only really effective way to teach it-- I'd be happy to hear advice on other, better ways to teach and grade writing. Especially since I'm collecting another batch of formal reports this afternoon...

I did write up a long guide to lab writing (modified from another professor's shorter guide), and a sample lab report (PDF), both of which I hand out to the class. I'm not sure how much good they do-- the guide to lab writing contains the sentence "I will pay the sum of one dollar to each of the first five students to mention reading this sentence" (actually, it's not in the on-line version), but only one student out of forty-odd has taken me up on that-- but, anecdotally at least, this year's reports have been better than last year's.

Posted at 7:08 AM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

There's No Greys, Only White That's Got Grubby

Via "Charles Dodgson", a great post at Late Night Thoughts (at the time of posting, the permalink doesn't work, so look on the front page) regarding the handing over of Khalid Sheik Mohammed for "interrogation" in an "undisclosed country."

The human gene pool sometimes throws out monsters. There are psychiatric terms for them, but their common denominator is the inability to sympathize with others. At the deepest darkest end are those who feel delight in others' pain; these are damaged humans, and we must understand that even as we remove them from society.

But when a healthy human finds it expedient to categorize others as "lesser than I" he has stepped across a line that ultimately leads to the destruction of the soul. I am not being mawkishly pacifist. I would have no difficulty in killing to defend myself, my loved ones, or my country. But there is a difference between killing someone and savaging his spirit, and we cross that line at our own peril. In Christian terms, when we destroy a human spirit, we are destroying God's image, and that is an iredeemable act. What does it matter that we gain our revenge if we lose our souls?

The title of this post is taken from a satirical comic fantasy novel, and it's the sort of moral philosophy that only really works well in satirical comic fantasy novels. But there's an element of truth to it, and it's what resonates (for me) with Emma's comment above: the world may not be a black and white place, but it is never acceptable to start treating people as things.

In the weeks and months since September 11, 2001, we've heard over and over again that Al Qaeda and the Arab world in general "hate us because of our freedom." We're supposed to be the Good Guys, here-- the city on a hill, a beacon of light to the world, a nation of inalienable rights and liberties and freedoms. But every action taken since has stated louder than words that the rights and liberties of our own citizens are all too alienable, to be discarded by executive fiat when it's more convenient to do so.

And other countries' citizens? To us, they're things.

If we're the Good Guys, and hated because of our freedom, we should at least act the part. Because in everything other than rhetoric, we've been playing the part of the Dread Empire.

Posted at 8:53 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

That's Brilliant, Socrates!

Kevin Drum notes in passing something that's bugged me for a while:

Now, Den Beste's essays usually strike me as being bastard stepchildren of JFK assassination conspiracy theories: long, closely argued tracts that are full of facts and surface plausibility, but drawing conclusions that any rational person recognizes as fantasies. So I didn't take this very seriously.

But as with all conspiracy theorists, Den Beste has his own cult following and his speculation about French motives quickly made the rounds of the warblogosphere.

"Cult following" manages to be both a nice description of the situation, and a serious understatement. "Understatement" in that Den Beste's following isn't the small but fevered clique that "cult following" would suggest-- he's very widely read, God only knows why. It's a good description, though, in the sense that there's a certain cultish quality to his fans. Back when he used to have comments, I read them for a while before giving up due to the excessively sycophantic tone of most of what got said. It approached a Socratic dialogue, in the sense that all the other speaking parts were limited to "You're right, Socrates!" or "How clever, Socrates!" or "I never would've thought of that, Socrates!"

And this is the thing that puzzles me: why is it that the most tediously Libertoonian right-wing bloggers, who drone on at length about freedom and personal responsibility, and the primacy of individual rights when it comes to things like private ownership of artillery pieces have the most cultishly sycophantic following? If you read Ted Barlow's comments, or Matthew Yglesias's, you'll find active disagreements ranging from civil to heated, but Den Beste's long-vanished comments, Andrew Sullivan's reader emails, and the occasional thread where Instapundit turns comments on all have a slavishly worshipful tone that's quite at odds with their rhetoric. Something of the same tone shows up in many of the approving links to them I encounter elsewhere, and the comments that turn up when one of the "higher beings" directs readers to an unfavorable item. Frankly, I find it sort of creepy.

Is this just a function of wider readership, or what? I confess, I don't read Atrios with any regularity (too many link-only posts-- I want some context before I go clicking through to eighty-seven pop-up ads and Flash animations), so I don't know if his comments suffer the same problem, but I haven't seen it in the threads I've read over there.

Posted at 9:42 AM | link | follow-ups | 19 comments

Monday, March 03, 2003


Maryland beat NC State yesterday on a wild buzzer-beating three from Drew Nicholas (who otherwise had a subpar game) with a little over a second left. The win gave Gary Williams his five hundredth victory as a head coach.

Meanwhile, in another part of the state, Jim Phelan won his last game as the head coach for Mt. St. Mary's (a Catholic school in Emmitsburg, MD. I used to drive by there a lot when I was in grad school...). Phelan improved to 830-524 over the last 49 years, a fairly mind-boggling total (and an NCAA record for number of games coached). A dozen or so big-name coaches wore bow ties in honor of Phelan on Saturday (Phelan wore a bow tie for his first game coaching, which he won. He wore a bow tie for every game since-- never let it be said that sports isn't a haven for superstition...).

Following that, there's not much to be said about the Maryland game that wouldn't sound sort of anti-climactic. For some reason, these two team just plain don't like each other, so the game featured more than the usual amount of pushing, shoving, jawing, and technical fouls. Adding to the ugliness were periodic and half-hearted attempts by the officials to "regain control" by whistling a bunch of ticky-tack bullshit, which kept the game from developing any real flow. State built an 11-point lead with under ten minutes to play, then Maryland chipped away, scoring a bunch of points off their press, and came back to tie, before Nicholas's last-second heave.

The hero for the Terps, other than Nicholas, was backup point guard John Gilchrist, who came in in the second half and really provided a spark. He only had four points, but his intensity had a much bigger impact on the game than his stats indicate. Steve Blake had a quiet night, scoring only two points, but they were an important two (tying the game late), and he had seven assists.

It wasn't a pretty game, but I'm sure Gary Williams will find it memorable. Now he only needs 330 more wins to catch Jim Phelan-- another 514 games ought to do it... Say, twenty more years?

Posted at 9:32 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Sunday, March 02, 2003

Am I Lucky, Or Am I Just Good?

Every week, I read through a couple of the Sunday Book Review editions, and every week, there are reviews of big, serious books that sound interesting, in an abstract sort of way-- usually, these are books about topics that come up regularly in political debates in blogdom or elsewhere. For example, the New York Times book review this week offers a review of a book on testing the assumptions of the school voucher debate (a topic I've held forth on before), while the Washington Post reviews a book on how capitalists undermine the free market ("'Capitalism's biggest political enemies,' they say, are 'the executives in pin-striped suits extolling the virtues of competitive markets with every breath while attempting to extinguish them with every action.'"). Had I world enough and time, I'd like to read these books.

Of course, more realistically, if I had infinite free time, I'd waste most of it, as I did this morning, in frivolous activities like watching Midnight Run-- a movie I've seen so many times I can play it frame-by-frame in my head-- on TBS.

The movie loses something when you edit out the near-constant stream of F-bombs (ineptly, as the Turner networks are wont to do), but it's still a great piece of work. Charles Grodin bugs the hell out of me in every other movie I've seen him in, but he's terrific here, and Robert DeNiro chews scenery with the best of them. Dennis Farina works the "profane wiseguy" role to perfection ("You and that other dummy better start getting more personally involved in your work, or I'm gonna stab you through the heart with a fuckin' pencil. Do you understand me?"), and Yaphet Kotto is great as the hapless FBI Agent Alonzo Mosely ("Is this going to upset me?" "I think it's safe to say that."). Even Danny Elfman managed to turn in a score that doesn't have me saying "Hey, there's Danny Elfman" every time the music starts. It may not be Action Jackson, but it's pretty damn entertaining all the same.

This is very much a "guy movie," consisting primarily of car chases, shooting, shouting, cursing, and smoking phenomenal numbers of cigarettes, but damn, it's entertaining. It's also interesting to see how much things have changed since 1988-- airline ticket agents still ask "smoking or non-?" in the movie, and nobody really seems to think twice about carrying guns in airports. The times, they have certainly changed.

Anyway, there's my life in a nutshell-- I make the occasional attempt to be highbrow, to read Serious Books, and see Academy-Award-winning movies, but in the end, I'll take Midnight Run, and watch DeNiro lighting his fiftieth cigarette of the movie for the five thousandth time, over Chicago any day...

Posted at 11:44 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

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