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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, December 10, 2004


Scalzi's back (feel free sing that to the tune of that Eminem song) with a suggestion for the ultimate pop-song length: 2:42. The justification is that the song "There She Goes" is exactly 2:42, and about as perfect a pop song as you can get.

He may be on to something. If nothing else, it's a reasonably good length for soul and Motown songs. Out of the 33 songs that clock in at 2:42, there's:

along with songs like "Baby Please Don't Go" by Van Morrison and "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" by Queen.

There are also more artists with multiple songs here than at the other lengths I've looked at, including:

I'm not actually sure what that means, but it's sort of interesting.

2:42 isn't without its non-pop clunkers, of course:

Along with som "Who dat?" material:

(Yes, that's a cover of the Specials. I had to check, though.)

There are also some great slightly bent pop songs:

Along with the frat-boy classic "Why Don't We Get Drunk" by Jimmy Buffett. And, of course, there's old school material like "Pictures of Lily" by the Who, and "Up Around the Bend" by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Even the louder songs have a certain pop sensibility:

(Please note that I'm not equating Buffalo Tom and Hole in general-- it's one of Buffalo Tom's more up-tempo songs, though, so it more or less fits with the rest.)

The conclusion, here? I'd definitely say that the 2:42 set of songs is more "pop" than either of the other two I've looked at. Also, I'm a huge dork for going through all this, but you knew that already.

(Next up, I export the track data from iTunes into Excel, and calculate the distribution of song lengths...)

Posted at 8:00 AM | link | follow-ups | 21 comments

Thursday, December 09, 2004

I'll See That, and Raise You 93 Seconds

John Scalzi offers an idea for a list-of-songs post:

One of the highest compliments you can pay a songwriter or performer in this era of music is that they write or perform "perfect three minute pop songs." Which leads one to wonder: What songs do you have in your collection that are exactly three minutes long, and are they perfect pop songs? Let's go to the iTunes and find out!

I'm a sucker for this sort of thing, so I popped up iTunes, and sorted my collection by duration, and found that I have 41 songs that are exactly 3:00 in length. Which is more than I'm willing to type in, so I'm not going through the whole list, and you're stuck with selected highlights.

First, the "poppiest" of the three-minute songs. It's a little hard to know how to define "pop," here, so I'm being kind of expansive in my definition: several of these aren't popular by any stretch, but they are all well-crafted, ear-wormy, and basically happy.

Among the least "pop" three-minute songs are the aforementioned "Pinball Wizard" (rock opera is not pop), "No More Kings" and "Unpack Your Adjectives" from The Best of Schoolhouse Rock (pop is not didactic), and "Bitchin' Camaro" by the Dead Milkmen, which is funny as hell, but still not pop.

Of course, the real test is to see whether 3:00 is a more "pop" song length than some other, so we need a control list to compare to. The following songs are each 4:33 in length (a duration which is emphatically not associated with pop), and in honor of the duration, I'll leave it to you to decide whether they're "pop" or not:

Posted at 9:23 PM | link | follow-ups | 19 comments

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

I Think I'm Busy That Day

I'm headed off to a workshop this weekend in Sudbury, Ontario. The chief attraction of Sudbury, at least for a geek like me, would have to be the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, a gigantic underground facility seeking to detect neutrinos from the tiny flashes they make in their rare interactions with normal particles. (There is, however, a one-day suggested itinerary of other stuff, if you're not into neutrinos.)

A tour of the observatory is being offered as part of the workshop. My first thought was, "Wow, cool!" Then I discovered that my return flight leaves early enough that I might not be able to fit the tour in, and was bummed.

At least, I was bummed until I looked in my email today, and was presented with the following conditions:

Suddenly, the airport doesn't look that bad.

Posted at 9:58 PM | link | follow-ups | 11 comments

The Wrath of Lenny

My vague recollection of my long-ago reading of Homer is that a large portion of Odysseus's troubles stemmed from having pissed off Poseidon, god of the sea, in some manner. I no longer recall quite what it was-- maybe earth-shaking Poseidon was just particularly fond of Troy, or maybe Odysseus did something more specific to annoy him-- but once you've upset the god of the sea, it's not a good idea to sail home.

In a similar vein, I appear to have done something to offend Lenny, the God of Indoor Plumbing. As previously noted, I have bad luck with water in lab situations. This has once again come up to bite me in the ass.

I went out to lunch today with a bunch of other people from the department, and after lunch, I made a side trip to the Home Depot to pick up a new front door key and some fuses. On my way back to campus, my cell phone rang, and it was the department secretary.

"Are you headed back to campus?" she asked, and I said that I was. "Good, because we've had a power outage, and you've got a leak in your lab. There's water all over."

Sure enough, when I got back, the lights were out, and there was half an inch of standing water, well, everywhere.

What happened is this: I have a spiffy new turbopump that requires water cooling. Without something to keep them cool, turbopumps heat up and eventually break, which is Bad. For one of my pumps, disaster is avoided by means of a very large computer case fan mounted on top of the pump; for the other, there's a metal block with cold water piped through it.

Now, cooling things by running cold water through them is a technology centuries old, and here's the way it works in a sane system: cold water enters through one pipe, flows through the thing to be kept cold, and leaves via a second pipe, never to return.

That's not how it works in my lab, though. Or, rather, that's not the whole story. See, that second pipe empties out into a big barrel under the sink. In that barrel is a sump pump, which kicks on when the water reaches a certain level, and empties the barrel out.

Unless, of course, the power is off. In which case, the water just builds up in the barrel until it splits a seam and floods the lab. Happily, one of my students came back to the lab shortly after the power came back on, and shut the water off, or else things would've been much, much worse.

Why is a high-tech research lab dependent on such a cockamamie system? And why isn't the sump pump on the emergency generator line? Those are excellent questions, which will be put to somebody from Facilities tomorrow. Today, my main concern was using a ShopVac to get rid of as much of the water as possible.

The day after tomorrow, I'm going to drown a goat in the basement toilet, in hopes of propitiating Lenny. I can't take much more of this.

Posted at 9:36 PM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

"I Don't Know. Baked Alaska."

About the most interesting thing going on at the moment in the corner of the blogosphere that I read is the discussion of sex and literature over at Making Light. I'm not sure what this says about me and the corner of the blogosphere that I read.

Anyway, I've posted some thoughts on the subject over on my book log. Because, you know, it has to do with books.

If you care, go read that. If you don't, well, dance for my amusement, because I've got nothing else to work with right now.

Posted at 10:20 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Shocking Musical Revelations

The little guitar thing that plays in the background of those annoying Cialis commercials that are broadcast every ten minutes during sporting events? Thanks to iTunes, I've discovered that I own it. It's from a Tom Waits song, "$29.00" (as in "you got the twenty-nine dollar blues").

Let me just note that Tom Waits's voice is not something I would associate with four-hour erections. "Seek immediate medical attention," maybe.

(Yes, I'm a little punchy this morning. It's been a tiring couple of weeks, and it's not going to get better soon.)

Posted at 8:47 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments


After an epic quest, we purchased a digital camera the other day (Canon Powershot A95, for those who care). I've been playing around with the camera, and the rudimentary image software that come with it, in between work-related stuff and collapsing due to exhaustion.

Thus, the evil Emmy in flight.

And to think we were afraid that buying a digital camera would cause me to turn into John Scalzi...

Posted at 8:36 AM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

Monday, December 06, 2004

Pseudo-Journal Club

I'm sort of falling down on the job, Journal Club-wise, but it's been a hectic few weeks. I haven't even looked at last week's current papers, let alone this week's.

To provide a little science content to offset the mawkish sentimentality of the previous post, though, let me plug Science magazine's special issue on "Fundamentals of Measurement," which has some good stuff.

The long review articles are definitely worth a look if you've ever wanted to know more about measurement standards, particularly "Standards of Time and Frequency at the Outset of the 21st Century," by S.A. Diddams ("It's Welsh.") et al., and "The Route to Atomic and Quantum Standards" by Jeff Flowers. The former has one of the most readable descriptions of the current state of atomic timekeeping that I've ever read, while the latter gives a nice overview of the move away from physical artifacts as standard references in a variety of areas.

There's a third review, about sub-shot-noise measurement techniques, that I haven't read yet, but it's probably also worth a look.

Posted at 3:54 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Growing Up

When I was a kid, my parents heated the house primarily with a wood-burning stove in the basement, and fires in the living-room fireplace. I didn't really notice it then-- I was just conditioned to think of this as the normal state of affairs (which is why today Kate wears three sweaters around the house, while I lounge on the couch in shorts).

(It's not that we were poor, though my father was a public school teacher, so we weren't wealthy. It was mostly because the central heat in the house is electric, meaning it would actually have been more cost-effective to heat the house by burning huge stacks of dollar bills than by running the radiators.)

Of course, to get through a New England winter (and Central New York is part of New England, at least in terms of climate) required a great deal of firewood, some of which we bought, and some of which we cut ourselves on land owned by another teacher. Cut wood would be stacked across the road from the house during the summer, split down to burnable chunks in the fall, and hauled across the back yard in a wheelbarrow, and taken into the hosue through the basement window during fall and winter.

Dealing with the firewood was the bane of my teenage existance. It was one of the few chores I was asked to do, and I was an insufferable pain in the ass about it. I bitched and moaned constantly about being made to move wood, and it was probably more hassle for my parents to make me move the wood than it would've been for them to do it themselves (maybe not, given that they kept making me do it...).

They got rid of the clunky old wood stove several years ago, replacing it with one that burns pellets of compressed wood (which come in sacks that are less annoying to deal with than the split logs used to be), but they still have the fireplace, and still buy a couple of cord of wood every year, which still gets stacked across the road, and still needs to be moved over to the house every winter.

My father's back is acting up again (he's hoping to avoid what would be his fifth or sixth disc surgery), so yesterday, I drove home to help them get a Christmas tree, and to move half a cord of wood across the road to the house. Which means, I drove a 260-mile round trip to do a job that I couldn't be bothered to do when I was fifteen and living in the house.

To the extent that growing up involves realizing what an asshole you used to be back in the day, I guess that means I'm an adult now.

Posted at 3:34 PM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

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