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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, May 16, 2003

You... Me... Paul Krebs... Everybody.

We had a colloquium today that dealt with what is locally termed "converging technology," the buzzword around which the engineering program is being reorganized. (The talk, for those who care, was about "spintronics," and had a bunch of nanoscale fabrication material to boot.)

With that in mind, I sent the announcement to the engineering faculty and students as well as our usual list of people, and was rewarded with a slightly bigger crowd than usual, including a few new faces. When I got up to introduce the speaker, it took a real effort not to start off by saying "I'm so glad to see so many lovely people here tonight, and I'd especially like to welcome all the members of the Illinois law enforcement community who have chosen to join us in the Palace Hotel ballroom this evening."

Sometimes I hate the way my brain works. Those who know me know that I tend to drop odd snippets of pop-culture references into conversation all the time. What you don't know is that I manage to stop about half of what my mind coughs up before it can get to my mouth. What slips through is enough to make most people think I'm a lunatic.

It doesn't help that my college experience was radically different than that of most of my colleagues. There are maybe three people I work with who have even seen This Is Spinal Tap, and none of them have the obsessive knowledge of the dialogue that I do. I don't think any of them are Coen Brothers fans, so I get nothing but blank looks when I say "Hell, Leo, I ain't afraid to say it-- it's a question of ethics." Doing the John Polito voice doesn't help. I've so far managed to avoid dropping any of Dennis Farina's lines from Midnight Run, which is a good thing, as I doubt that "Not a word, Sidney, not a fucking word, or I'll bury this phone in your head" would go over well in a faculty meeting.

It's not just movies, either-- I walked into an office at NIST one day, to ask my supervisor a question, and the postdoc who shared the office (and the affliction of pop-culture obsession) said, "'Ancient Chinese secret, huh?' Where's that from?" "A commercial for laundry detergent-- Calgon, or something like that." "How do you know that?" the other postdoc in the room asked incredulously. I don't know why it is that I remember this stuff, when I can't remember to call Earthlink and shut down my old email account, but these weird fragments creep into my head and get lodged there.

The worst of them are the lines that are so specific to my own experience that there isn't a ghost of a chance of anyone else picking up the joke. The phrase "None more black" acquired a significance out of all proportion to its role in the movie, back in the day, so other people end up mystified as to why I find it amusing. Other lines-- the post title, for example-- are drawn from things my friends and I used to say, so there are maybe a dozen people on earth who might recall the origin and crack a smile, and none of them work here. And, of course, there are a whole host of semi-obscene snippets of rugby songs that drift through my head all the time, which aren't fit to be quoted in polite company. Some of those verses contain very... enduring images, though.

Probably the single worst inescapable fragment dates from the first Gulf War, in a local tv ad shown over and over again on CNN. In the middle of an otherwise unremarkable car commercial, full of testimonials from satisfied customer urging you to buy your car from some dealer in southern Vermont, a rather fat old woman appeared on screen, with a red-and-blue bandanna on her head, and loudly commanded "Don't you buy no ugly truck!" in a hick accent that had to be heard to be believed. I'm not sure I can explain why that cracked me up every time back then, let alone why I still find it hilarious.

Describing it now does it no justice, of course, and won't help anyone else to see the humor. It will, at least, provide some hint of an explanation, should you hear me mutter those words, and chuckle to myself... I'm not actually crazy, it's just the strange workings of memory that make it seem that way.

Posted at 7:27 PM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Thursday, May 15, 2003

You Can't Tell The Players Without a Program

The bathroom scale had me at 278 lbs this afternoon. That sounds like a lot-- I've still got a hundred pounds on Jim Henley-- but this is the first time I've seen the short side of two-eighty since shortly after I got back from Japan. I'm a good fifteen pounds down from last summer, when I first started tracking my weight again, and probably a bit more than that from the high point some time before (I'm not sure I ever broke three bills, but that's more "plausible deniability" than anything else-- I stayed away from scales for a good long while...).

This, of course, counts as a resounding success for my half-assed exercise program of playing pick-up hoops at lunchtime a few days a week. Which is nice, because basketball is a hell of a lot more fun than most of the other options that suggest themselves, and I'd hate to have to give it up in favor of real exercise.

A side effect of this is that I've started to obsess about the game to a greater degree than at any point over the past eight or nine years. Not to the point of watching the NBA playoffs-- the NBA, in my view, is a sort of methadone program to ease actual basketball fans down from the glory of March, and get them into the Great Sports Desert of the summer with the minimum possible number of Trainspotting-style withdrawal sequences-- but I find myself thinking about playing the game a lot, which hasn't happened in a while.

One of the things I like most about hoops (and like least about the NBA) is that it's a real team game. Yeah, a great individual player can make more of an impact on a basketball court than on a rugby pitch or a football field, but at the same time, it's possible to make up for the lack of a great individual player in a way that's hard to swing in other sports. Put another way, one of the guys I play with regularly remarked a while back that "You're better off taking five mediocre players who know the game than the two best guys in the gym, and three scrubs." Five old, slow guys with no dribble moves and shaky jump shots can beat a flashy bunch of in-shape frat boys through guile and experience.

Of course, if you're going to try to put together a solid team from the riff-raff who show up at an open gym, it helps to recognize the standard types of players. In the same way that the rules are weirdly constant across different venues, the people who show up for pick-up games always seem to include a few archetypes. If you want to play the game, you need to know what-- and who-- to expect.

One of the classics is the Shit-Shot Artist. Every game has one-- the guy who can be counted on to dribble the ball into the lane, leap into the air, and fling it backwards through his legs, off the board, and in. I swear, some of these guys make the ball do right-angle turns in mid-air. These guys are a mixed blessing as teammates-- on the one hand, they do tend to score points, but on the other hand, they take a whole lot of shots, which means that the rest of the team tends to end up standing around watching. On defense, your best bet is to make him shoot from outside-- most SSA's can't hit a stand-still jump shot to save their lives (they're not to be confused with the Set-Shot Artist, who can hit 80% of his three-pointers, provided you give him five full seconds to get the shot off...).

Hand in hand with the SSA goes the Quick Whistle-- sometimes these two are the same person, and a wonderful package that is. The Quick Whistle is usually a guy who thinks of himself as an NBA superstar, and expects NBA superstar treatment from the officials. Since pick-up games are always "call your own," he can get it, too, by simply calling a foul on every shot he misses. The logic being that he's such a great player, there's no way a chump like you could've stopped him without fouling. This isn't really a player you want on your team-- sure, the calls all go your way, but it pisses the other team off, and that can get ugly for everyone. On defense, your best bet is to just foul him every time he touches the ball. He's going to call it anyway, so you might as well get your money's worth.

On the more positive side, there's the Labrador Retriever. These are the guys who just run, and run, and run some more, and are always on the ball. Throw a lazy pass, he'll jump out and steal it. Throw up a shot, he'll get after the rebound. Wing the ball down the court, out the door, across the street, and into the middle of a pond, and he'll go bring it back. You want this guy on your team, if only so you don't have to go fish basketballs out of a pond. He does tend to cut into the utility of basketball as an exercise program, though-- you end up standing around on the defensive end watching him make lay-ups off stolen passes out near mid-court. On defense, the only thing you can do is hang on, and hope for the best.

Captain Emotion is usually either a Labrador or an SSA, though with an exceptionally short fuse. When the shots are dropping for him, this is a guy you want on your team, because he's generally a good player. A few blown lay-ups, though, are enough to release a torrent of self-criticism. Anything that goes wrong can set this guy off, and once he gets down on himself, he's a huge liability-- he'll start forcing shots, and missing them, and everything spirals down the drain. (On one memorable occasion, one of these players stalked out of the gym in the third quarter of an IM game, and never came back.) Having him on your team is like playing Russian Roulette, and it's best done in a "winners stay" game, where you've got a chance to unload the guy if things go sour, and you lose.

A personal favorite of mine is the Five-Seven Shaq. There's always one of two of these guys around-- guys of average height (at best) who think of themselves as post players. They camp out in the lane, generally being guarded by someone two inches taller, and it never seems to occur to them that if anybody on the team ought to be setting up five feet from the basket with his back to the hoop, it's the guy who runs six-six, two-eighty. I don't actually mind that much, as it's sometimes a nice change of pace to pretend to be a shooting guard, but the absurdity of the situation never fails to amuse.

The archetype who pisses me off the most is the Athuhlete. This guy is the small-scale version of the phrase "million-dollar talent with a ten-cent head." He's usually got all sorts of athletic ability, coupled with all the court savvy of a potted plant. There's an Athuhlete in the group I play with these days, and he can jump out of the gym, but won't play a lick of defense unless it might lead to a flashy steal and an easy lay-up. If you don't pass him the ball, he pouts, and if you do pass it, he'll do something stupid with it. As another regular remarked, he looks like an impact player, and he is. It's just not a positive impact...

There are two kinds of Hero out there, with two different sorts of game. The Anti-Hero is the guy who, when the score is tied 14-all in a game of straight fifteen, can be counted on to fling up the first shot that he thinks he might be able to make. Typically, this shot is taken from about two steps over the half-court line, with nobody on his team in rebounding position. Some small fraction of these will actually go in-- just enough of them to encourage him to keep taking them. (I am this guy, more often than I'd like...) In all other respects, this is usually a guy you want on your team: solid defense, reasonably good shooting, a good sense of the game. Just don't pass him the ball when the game is on the line.

True Heroes are much rarer, and hard to spot. The True Hero is usually one of the best players in the gym, but you might not know it to look at him. He usually has the game to score at will, but he won't force it, and in fact tends to pass the ball off to others, rather than shooting it. Until the game is on the line-- if you find yourself down two, with game point coming up, he'll take the ball, and score three straight baskets, with a couple of good defensive plays mixed in. This is a guy you definitely want on your team. If he's on the other team, be sure to run hard, because you'll be sitting on the sidelines pretty soon.

This is by no means an exhaustive list-- other common Types include Basket or Bust, Forty Minutes of Heck, and the Foul-Line Lamprey-- but it gives you some of the idea, both of what goes on on the basketball court, and just how obsessed I am with the game these days. But, hey, I'm too fond of Italian bread to go for the Atkins Diet, and I don't have the attention span for jogging, so I have to pursue self-improvement through sports addiction...

Posted at 11:47 PM | link | follow-ups | 11 comments

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Not Only Weirder Than You Think, But Weirder Than You Can Imagine

I often end up manually pinging after blog updates, and usually poke through the list of recent updates, and look at a few cleverly-titled sites. Today turned up The Burden of Sentience, which in turn produced a delightfully silly 404 page, and the majestic spectacle of Parliament discussing spam.

How did I ever get through the day before the web?

Posted at 10:11 PM | link | follow-ups | 6 comments

Advantage: ... Blogosphere?

We had a little "Careers in Physics" thing here yesterday, featuring speakers from a couple of local industrial outfits (GE R&D and Intermagnetics General Corp.), a speaker from the local MAT program, and a recent alumnus to talk about grad school. It went pretty well, I think, though I need to do some unscientific polling of the students before I can say for sure.

An interesting question was raised, though, that none of the panelists could really answer: There must be dozens of companies out there doing technical work who would at least be willing to talk to graduating physics majors (or possibly even hire some), if only we could find them. The question is, where do you look? If we didn't have an alumni connection with Intermagnetics, I wouldn't know a thing about them, and certainly wouldn't know to tell a student to ask them about jobs.

My colleague and I know a fair bit about how to get into grad school, and how to locate academic positions-- after all, that's what we did to get where we are. But real jobs, in the real world, with actual salaries? Not a clue. And, of course, the panelists were people who have jobs (and they aren't HR types), so they didn't know anything, either.

So I'll toss this out to... whoever. Is there a good, centralized resource to find information about technical positions (something that would make use of a bachelor's degree in science) at small-ish companies? How about a resource for finding small companies (i.e. not GE or IBM or other obvious candidates) doing technical work that might not be actively seeking new employees, but would be willing to at least entertain the idea if approached by students?

Posted at 10:51 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Searching for a Heart of Gold

Going on two weeks ago,Thomas Nephew posted about a Scientific American article on parallel universes. I made some remarks in his comments, and he asked a few follow-up questions. My lengthy response to those questions got eaten in a browser crash, and then I got busy. I still feel like I ought to respond, though, so I'll move the whole thing over here.

The article in question is on the topic of "parallel universes," which here means something along the lines of "hypothetical other worlds that are identical to this one." The article spends a bunch of time outlining different "levels" of "parallel universe," from the relatively mundane example of a planet identical in every respect to Earth at this instant, but located a very large distance away, through "bubbles" predicted by inflationary cosmology, and the infinite branches of the many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics to the wonderfully vague "Other Mathematical Structures." The "Level I-IV" terminology used in the article strikes me as an example of taxonomy run amok (the different phenomena are vaguely related at best), but then it's not my field.

Most of the question Thomas raises relate to the "Level I" case, which refers to identical planets, solar systems, and galaxies located in the same physical universe as our Earth, but very, very far away. At bottom, this is essentially a monkeys-with-typewriters argument: in an infinite universe, there must inevitably be an infinite number of exact copies of the Earth, as well as an infinite number of exact copies of any volume of space you care to name.

The author goes on to estimate the "distance" to the nearest exact copy of the Earth by a nifty bit of probabilistic sleight of hand, which is perhaps better illustrated on a small scale. Imagine a partitioned box which can hold a finite number of balls-- say, ten of them-- but which doesn't have to contain any particular number of balls. You could imagine describing the possible states of the box as binary strings, with a "1" indicating a ball that is there, and a "0" indicating a ball that is absent. There are then 210 possible states of the interior of the box, ranging from 0000000000 to 1111111111. States with the same total number of balls, but a different distribution among the compartments (1000000000 and 0000000001) are counted separately.

In talking about "parallel universes," the author imagines the same enumeration with a box the size of the entire universe. The balls which may or may not exist are protons, and the compartments are the different quantum-mechanical energy states those protons could be in in a "box" the size of the visible universe. The maximum total number of states is determined from the "Fermi Energy" of the states-- if you started filling the box up with protons, putting each one in the lowest-energy state available, how many would you need to put in before the lowest energy available corresponded to a temperature of 8000 K (14,000 Fahrenheit, give or take a bit). That number turns out to be 10118 protons, meaning that there are 2 to the 10 to the 118 possible states of the Universe. That's a lot of states.

(You can quibble that the real possibilities aren't binary-- you could have neutrons or electrons in those states, instead of protons, for example. That really doesn't amount to much, though-- multiplying 2^10^118 by four really doesn't change anything...)

Based on that figure, and assuming a roughly uniform distribution of stuff, you can determine the relative frequency of identical zones of space of various sizes, which leads to the distance estimates presented-- 10^10^28 meters to your nearest identical copy, 10^10^92 to the nearest identical 100-light-year-radius sphere, and so on. It's a clever little hand-wave, though the predictions are subject to Detritus's Law of Large Numbers: by the time you get to 10^10, let alone 10^10^28, you might as well be counting "One, two, many, lots" for all the sense you can make of those magnitudes.

The interesting problems, and the stuff that bothered Thomas, all comes in when you start talking about what it means to have identical volumes of space in different places. If there's an exact copy of me 10^10^28 meters away, is he thinking the same thing I am now? Is he typing an identical blog post about an identical pop-science article? Does Windows suck in his world, too?

The answer ends up being, essentially, "Yes and no." The article sort of assumes a deterministic universe, saying:

About 10 to the 10^92 meters away, there should be a sphere of radius 100 light- years identical to the one centered here, so all perceptions that we have during the next century will be identical to those of our counterparts over there.

I think that's a slight mis-statement (as noted in my comment to the original post), in part because of quantum mechanics, and the fundamental uncertainty that gives this blog its name. I'm not willing to go the full Roger Penrose route and assert that consciousness is inherently quantum, but the world we live in is a quantum one, and inherently probabilistic, which means that systems which are identical at some particular instant need not remain identical into the future. the counterpart to an atom which decays after ten nanoseconds here could hang on for twenty over there, and the two "universes" would diverge: our cat is dead, their cat remains alive.

As with the shift from protons only to the full particle zoo, though, this is a relatively minor change, and only shuffles the already too-big-to-have-meaning numbers around a little. It's another monkeys-with-typewriters issue-- an infinite universe must contain not only a copy of the Earth which is identical to the Earth at this instant, but also a copy which is identical now, and will remain so for the next billion years or so. In fact, a truly infinite universe will contain an infinite number of such copies, as well as any other permutations you might care to imagine.

It's a headache-inducing thought, but infinity's a bugger that way.

Of course, this raises the question "is the universe truly infinite?" As far as I can tell, the answer appears to be "Near enough as makes no difference." The best current observations are consistent with the predictions of a model assuming an infinite universe, and there are credible models which predict a universe which would be, if not truly infinite, pretty astonishingly huge.

Of course, as Thomas notes in the comments, there's really not any proof that the universe is that big, as opposed to just seeming that big. Which is true, and essentially inescapable in a relativistic universe. There also isn't any proof that the Universe doesn't just stop shortly beyond the edge of what's currently visible, and, for that matter, there's no particular proof that the cause of the expansion of the universe isn't a large spherical shell of matter just beyond the boundary of the visible universe, which is gravitationally attracting everything else outward.

The arguments against the other options are all essentially Occam's Razor arguments-- sure, there could be some improbable arrangement of phenomena that just happens to fool us into thinking our current model of the universe is correct, but that would be, well, improbable. Assuming that world works in one of those other ways is needlessly baroque, when a simpler theory does just as well. There's still the problem that "if you were standing in the middle of the Sahara, Occam's Razor might prompt you to think the world was all sand," but there's not much you can do about it.

Which sort of brings us around to the question of "what's the point of all this?" I really don't have a good answer for that one. I mean, it's a fun exercise in numerology, and the article is packed with things to make you go "whoa" like a stoned frat boy, but is all this parallel universe stuff good for anything? I suspect not, but ultimately, I don't know.

But somewhere within 10^10^118 light years, there's somebody who does.

Posted at 5:24 PM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

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