Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tales of the Weird

For Christmas, we got one of those boxes that lets us stream movies to our TV. One of the things I like about it is that you can watch junk on demand. After all, a truly great movie is not always what you need. If you are just looking for something to absorb a little excess attention while you do chores for an hour or two, then you don't necessarily want to go with Lawrence of Arabia. That would be . . . wasteful.

So yesterday while I did laundry, I fired up the box and selected out one of those "History's Mysteries" programs from the History Channel, just the sort of weird junk I was looking for. Conspiracy theories, the Roswell crash, secret Nazi occultism, the Loch Ness Monster -- I find that all sort of thing endlessly interesting and amusing. The episode I picked was about the legendary "Philadelphia Experiment", the story that the US Navy did a test in 1943 (based on Einstein's unified field theory, of course) to make a warship invisible and teleport it from one place to another.

The program was actually pretty good. It traced the rather curious origin of the story in a strangely annotated paperback copy of Morris K. Jessup's The Case for the UFO, mailed to a couple of naval officers at the Pentagon by a mysterious man calling himself Carlos Allende. It traced the evolution of the story, debunked the details and explored its persistent appeal.

And then, suddenly, things got weird. Taking their cue from the teleportation part of the legend, the documentary took a few minutes to discuss quantum teleportation. And there was my friend Chris Fuchs, discussing Einstein and quantum entanglement. I stopped sorting the clothes and just stared at the screen in amazement.

And I thought: Here I am watching a show about the craziest of all the crazy tales in the paranormal literature, and the the one part I find really startling and eerie is seeing my old friend chat about quantum mechanics, the thing I have seen a thousand times before.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


As an experiment in media disintermediation, I had a bit of fun creating my very own author page and linking my two textbooks and the Teaching Company course. (The second Teaching Company course is not yet available through Amazon.)

To make sure I had enough interesting stuff on the page, I used the automatic Amazon system to create a Kindle version of my novella The Pasadena Rule. You are certainly welcome to spend $1.99 to buy it! (I get about 70 cents of that.) But you can also read it for free on this blog (in four parts (here, here, here and here) or as a six-part serial in the online magazine Ray Gun Revival. (Check their archives beginning with the 01 September 2007 issue.)

Isn't this a fun time to be alive?


Last Sunday I preached this sermon at our church. Not my best effort, I think; it feels like a rough draft for something better. But some people seemed to like it, and it may be of interest here. The Scripture passages appointed for that day (3rd Sunday in Advent, Year A) can be found here. I've also added a link to the Civil War website I mention. (Update: An audio recording, mostly intelligible, can be found here. Weirdly, the last two words are cut off.)

This year my brother Will has been emailing a daily Advent meditation to his friends and family. (I should tell you that this is my brother the theologian, not my brother the rocket scientist or my brother the computer guy. Advent meditations from them might be very different.) Anyway, in one of his first pieces, Will writes how the coming of Christ is the center point, the pivot, in all human history. We reflect this in our calendar; the birth of Christ is the dividing point between BC and AD. We live on the AD side, in the age after Christ has come into the world. But according to Will, during the season of Advent, for a little while we inhabit BC.

It's all very nice. But I confess to you that when I read it, a part of my reaction was, Oh, isn't that a little hokey? I don't think of Advent as a kind of personal exercise in historical re-enactment, like going to the Renaissance Faire. Now, I enjoy going to the Renaissance Faire. I walk around, see the costumes, listen to the music, maybe take in the swordsmen show or watch the joust. It's fun -- hokey, but fun. It isn't very much like the real Renaissance. There is no hardship, no sickness, no human tragedy. And of course, nobody wants to have such things at the Renaissance Faire. The point of it is to have a good time. It's pretend, not real.

But a "let's pretend" approach to Advent cannot really satisfy me. I'm a serious sort of fellow. Costumes and pageants and so forth seem to ignore the serious business of following Christ, here and now, 2010 years AD. I am looking for a present reality, not a pretend historical re-enactment. And that is why I rolled my eyes a bit when I read that passage in my brother's email.

On the other hand, there is an exercise in historical re-enactment, an ongoing commemoration, that does truly capture my imagination these days. Let me tell you about it. Last month was the 150th anniversary of the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, the event that sparked the Civil War. And since last month there has been an internet website called "The Long Recall" about the history of those days. Each day, the authors of the site put up a new post telling what happened in the country exactly one and a half centuries ago. They include links to reprints of newspaper stories and editorials from New York, Richmond, Philadelphia, Charleston and other places. They pass on rumors. They give the financial news. They report on world events too, whenever steamships arrive from Europe and Asia. For Sundays -- which actually appear on the website on Thursdays -- they reprint the texts of sermons preached in notable churches across the land.

It is fascinating to see how the history of that era unfolds day by day. It is fascinating -- sometimes bracing, sometimes sad, sometimes ironic -- to read what the people of those days say about the crisis they face. It is fascinating because, to put it plainly, those people have no idea what is coming. They do plenty of talking about secession and conflict and so on. But they do not really comprehend that they are standing on the threshold of a vast, heartbreaking, almost unimaginable war, a war that will change everything. They do not know. But then, how could they? They are living inside their time. They do not stand outside of it, as we do. The great and terrible shape of history, so obvious to us, is almost invisible to them.

And it only requires a little reflection to realize that you and I are in much the same situation today. We live inside our own lives, inside our own time. What great or terrible history is being shaped now, we are not really in a position to see clearly. Like the people of 1860, we do not know. And the fact that we do not know, that we cannot know, is a fact worth remembering.

John the Baptist is a prophet, which means that God has gifted him with a vision of the true shape of his own time. He knows that God is about to do something stupendous. He thinks he knows what that is, and he thinks that, in Jesus of Nazareth, he has found the One that God has sent to do it.

But a lot has happened. He has been thrown into prison for preaching against the immorality of the King. His head is almost literally on the chopping-block. And meanwhile, the career of Jesus is not quite what John has been expecting. There is a lot of preaching and healing going on, and not much judgment and unquenchable fire. And it seems that John, even John the Baptist, now finds himself in doubt. His prophetic vision has faded. Like the rest of us, he does not know. That is why he sends his disciples to Jesus. They bring a direct question: Are you the One? Or should we be looking for Somebody Else?

And Jesus's answer is, in fact, pretty direct. He does not tell a parable or answer the question with a question. He says: Tell John what you see and hear. The blind see and the deaf hear and the lame walk. The lepers are cleansed and the dead are raised. The poor have good news preached to them. Tell John all that.

Jesus is not merely saying that there are some good things going on in Galilee. He isn't just saying that these are signs from God. He is telling John, reminding him really, that these are the signs, the signs that Isaiah and the rest foretold long ago, the signs of the beginning of the regeneration of the world. This may seem like an ordinary time, but it is not. This is the pivot point of all time. Blessed are you, John, if you can open your mind and take it all in.

And it only requires a little reflection to realize that John's question is my question too. Yes, I think I know what is happening in the world, in my life. I think I know that Jesus is the One that God has sent. But then the vision fades, and things happen, and I struggle with doubt. I find myself languishing in my own metaphorical prison, hemmed in by grief or pain or sin. And I want to ask yet again, Are you really the One? Or should I be looking for Someone Else?

It is the very heart of our faith that the Great Thing that happened once in history, the Advent of our Lord, also happens for each one of us. This is not some kind of pretend historical re-enactment. As far as I can tell, it isn't even a metaphor. It is the literal truth. The coming of Christ into the world of time at that joint between BC and AD is actually part of the same eternal reality as when He comes to me, or to you. Today seems like an ordinary day, but maybe it isn't. Maybe for us, this is the pivot point of all time. Maybe for us, this is the beginning of the regeneration of the world.

If you and I could stand a little way outside of our lives and see their true shape, I think we would know this. We would see how near we are to that realm that Isaiah describes. Without realizing it, we are standing almost on the threshold of the realm of salvation and freedom and joy. And when it is our time to enter into that realm, we will find ourselves reborn, remade in Christ. The wounds and the deformities of our souls, our doubts and our fears and our sins, will all be mended. For the least in that kingdom will be greater than the best that we have ever known.

Meanwhile, of course, you and I are living inside of these days, and that clear wide view of things is available only to the angels. We do not know, not really. We do not see how near the kingdom is to us, or what is already beginning to happen. And so today may be hard for us; tomorrow too. The kingdom often seems remote, or unreal. Yet we must never forget that our own viewpoint is limited. We do not know. And therefore, as James says, our present task is to learn patience. We must strengthen our hearts and make ready for the Lord's coming.

So it turns out that my brother the theologian was onto something after all. John's question is my own; Isaiah's hope is my own. In our lives, even today, we do always have both BC and AD -- with Christ in the center of everything. That is not pretend. It is not some kitschy historical re-enactment. It is the true shape of our lives, the beginning of our new lives in Christ, even if we do not always perceive it clearly.

I guess I should send my brother an email and apologize for that crack about the Renaissance Faire. Or maybe not. Maybe I spoke better than I knew. For now that I think about it, what is renaissance after all but an old, old Frenchified word for rebirth?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Summary dismissal

Not every civil court case proceeds to trial. Some are settled "out of court" by the parties involved. Others are settled by the judge in a "summary dismissal" or "summary judgment". The suit is deemed to be unworthy of trial, even without a full hearing. In this way valuable time is saved and litigants are discouraged from bringing frivolous lawsuits.

We often do the same thing with ideas. In fact, a great deal of what appears to be debate about ideas actually takes place in a "pre-trial" phase, in which people discuss whether an idea should even be granted a serious hearing. Many – most? – discussions go no further.

Now, this is no bad thing. A serious logical and factual argument – a full case for trial, so to speak – is not all that easy to put together, even if we are attacking a very bad idea or defending a very good one. And many ideas are so stupidly wrong or so transparently wicked that they do not merit that kind of response anyway.

So I am not opposed in principle to the "summary dismissal" of an idea – a rejection that precedes a full discussion of the factual merits. Such judgments are necessary and inevitable. They are a legitimate part of the practical art of reason. Yet I am uneasy, because this kind of preemptive action carries obvious risks. After all, the idea that I reject might be a good one. If I never grant it a real hearing, how will I ever find out?

But even when this possibility seems remote, there is a deeper snare, a subtler temptation. If we can get the opposing point of view summarily dismissed from discussion, then we win. Our ideas not only prevail, they prevail without challenge. We know this, and the advantages of it are so great that we work very hard to win the preliminary phase of the debate.

The reason I call this a "temptation" is because such "pre-trial" actions take place, by definition, prior to the start of serious factual debate. These actions involve claims of consensus, invocation of social norms, emotional appeals, rhetorical strategies, and so on. The tools used in this phase of a debate remain largely unexamined because the whole point of this phase is to avoid the arduous business of careful examination. And if someone cries foul – if the "motion to dismiss" an idea is challenged as being out of order – then this suggestion itself can be attacked in the same way. The locus of discussion creeps backward to questions of mere form and propriety; and in my experience, it usually happens that the actual issue is never actually engaged.

I do think that "summary dismissal" is the rational way to deal with a great many ideas. But on what grounds should we invoke it? In other words, when should we not discuss the factual merits of a proposition? When is it proper to arrive at a "summary dismissal" without, so to speak, going to trial?

This is a hard question. As a start on it, I've tried to identify some ways in which "summary dismissal" is actually employed in public and personal debates. Imagine that X stands for some proposition, and let SD stand for the summary dismissal of X. That is, SD means, We should not discuss the factual merits of X. It seems to me that SD has several forms.

Weak form

The simplest and weakest form of SD is, A discussion of the factual merits of X is unnecessary. There are a couple of possible justifications for this proposition.
  • It may be that X has already been shown to be false. I should not spend my time logically refuting your proposed angle trisection, because such constructions have been proved to be impossible.
The second justification involves an estimate of likelihood, and this depends on my own rational judgment. That's okay. I'm not looking to get around such judgments; I simply want to understand them.

Strong form

In the previous version of SD, the basis for summary dismissal was that debate of X was a waste of effort. Sometimes a stronger sort of claim is made, however: A discussion of the factual merits of X would be bad and harmful. Again, I see two possible justifications for this position.

  • Some principles are so foundational to civil order or polite society that they must not be contradicted. If the proposition X contradicts them, then public discussion and debate of X – a discussion that presumes, at least in a formal way, that X might be true – is harmful. Examples abound. For instance, even if the thing is easy to refute – or especially if it is easy to refute – it would be harmful to bring up for debate the proposition that Fred is a serial child molester. A discussion of this could be almost as damaging to Fred as an actual accusation, so we should give it a summary dismissal. (The exception, of course, is when there really are serious grounds for believing that Fred is a serial child molester. Since the "pre-trial" action can involve a preliminary look at evidence, such an exception does not undermine our discussion.)
This sort of thing is easiest to see in debates about practical reason – that is, in debates about what should or should not be done. Thus, it would be impolite (at least) to debate the proposition that old Fred should be taken out and shot dead. It would be invidious to give such a suggestion serious discussion, even if we ultimately decide to let Fred live.
  • Another justification for this strong form of summary dismissal is less direct. It may be that a public debate of X might be harmless in theory – X itself does not contradict a foundational principle – but the practical reality could be that any debate of X would almost certainly cross the line. I think that this is how a great many well-intentioned people approach questions of gender or racial differences in IQ. The proposition that Oompa Loompas are on average smarter than Pottsylvanians does not necessarily entail the evils of racial discrimination and so on. It does not contradict the foundational principle that human beings should be equal in dignity and before the law. But in practice (so the argument goes) it will surely be used to rationalize many such evils. Even the proposed debate can awaken them. Therefore it is better to reject the question altogether, to summarily dismiss X without probing its factual basis.
I hope I've made it clear that I do not simply reject this strong form of SD. Nevertheless, we should be aware of the danger: this form recommends that we dismiss debate of X for a reason other than its probable truth or falsehood. Instead we appeal to moral principles or social norms. But what if those principles or norms cause us to reject unheard the case for a new truth? Society may desperately need to recognize and adapt to this truth, but this cannot happen unless the case is made. The history of science has many examples of this – not as many examples as some would claim, but enough to be cause for worry.

Conversely, wrong or bad ideas can persist as prejudices, unspoken but also unchallenged, if they are never admitted to open discussion. In this way, the very action we take to preserve our foundational principles can in the long run weaken them.

Ad hominem form

There is an even stronger and more definite form of summary dismissal, which may be conveniently expressed thus: People who wish to discuss the factual merits of X are bad people. Discussion of X should thus be avoided. In this version, the phrase bad people might either mean defective people or wicked people. The underlying justification for this runs as follows:
  • Let us suppose that either the weak or strong forms of SD hold – that is, debate of X should be summarily dismissed on the grounds already discussed. If this is true, then we must question either the intellect or the motives of those who propose X for discussion. Either they are stupid and ignorant, or they are up to no good. Either one is bad. If they are stupid and ignorant, we should not give them the chance to spread their crummy ideas. If they are up to no good – if they are not interested in truth or wish to do harm by damaging a foundational principle – then their wicked intentions should be thwarted at the earliest opportunity.
As an example, consider Holocaust denial. The basic facts of the Holocaust are well established. What then shall we make of those who wish to bring these facts up for challenge and debate? At best, they are complete idiots. More likely, they are anti-Semites and worse. In the latter case, we must regard them as the enemy, and we ought not grant them legitimacy by bringing their ideas to debate.
  • Alternately, it might be that public debate of X is harmless in theory – but a desire to debate X serves as a reliable "dye marker" identifying people with bad and harmful aims. (These people may, in fact, be using X as a "stalking horse" for worse ideas.)
I think this type of SD describes the arguments of certain fierce critics of the Creationists. Because Creationism is so obviously ludicrous as science, the critics argue, those who seek to have Creationism widely debated – to give it "balanced treatment" in the schools, for instance – fall into two groups. There are the ignorant fools and the intellectual charlatans. What they really seek is to promulgate their anti-scientific fundamentalist religion, to close off the space our society affords for free scientific inquiry. The same critics have a similar reaction to "Intelligent Design" theories. Although ID comes in the form of a debatable secular idea, its proponents are actually the same old dumb and deceitful Creationist crowd with the same bad aims.

Even this form of SD, I think, is defensible in some circumstances. Some people might be so completely stupid and wrong that we should not waste time debating their ideas. (I recall one movie reviewer for a university newspaper, for instance, who was wrong so frequently that he was actually quite reliable. If he hated it, you should see it.) I also believe that evil people do exist, and I think that some of them want to use the forms of intellectual discussion to further very wicked causes. We are under no obligation to give them the oxygen to do so.

Yet when I lay this out as a principle, it gives me a queasy feeling. It is too powerful a weapon to be comfortable with.

If I can win a "pre-trial" action on these grounds – if I can have my opponent designated as either ridiculous or reprehensible – then I have won a victory indeed. Not only have I secured my beliefs against the present challenge, but I have also undermined the legitimacy of my opponent. His future standing to insist on debate has been destroyed. It does not matter what he says, because any proposition he advances is tainted at its source. I have not merely won this debate. I have won them all.

A lot of modern political "debate" functions at this level. The actual issues at stake are almost never discussed directly. That would require some costly engagement with facts and logic. Instead, the discussion remains in the messier, more emotional and rhetorical "pre-trial" phase, where everyone is seeking a favorable summary judgment. If I can convince the majority of voters that my opponent is not merely wrong but actually farcical or fiendish, then I win the game, whether or not I can make a coherent case for my own policies.

The example that comes to my mind is sure to irritate some of my friends, but I will invoke it anyway. It seems clear to me that Sarah Palin was the target of exactly such a "pre-trial" attack during the presidential campaign last fall. This campaign was largely successful – completely so in my own social set – with the result that her actual ideas (yes, she does have a few) need never actually be discussed. You can simply ridicule her as a clown or hate her as a witch, according to your taste. I don't think you have to be a fan, or even agree with her at all, to be a little disturbed by the whole thing.

Transitive or associational forms

Believe it or not, I think that there are even more extended versions of SD that are in reasonably common use. Here are two:
  • Proposition X is logically distinct from Y, but X is nevertheless associated with Y in some fashion. (For example, many people who favor one also favor the other.) Proposition Y should be summarily dismissed for one of the reasons above. X "inherits" this property because of its association with Y.
  • People who wish to discuss the factual merits of X are associated in some fashion with other people who are bad. (The association might be via agreement on other propositions Y, Z, etc.) This association is itself sufficient for summary dismissal of X.
In each of these, the grounds for summary dismissal of X are transmitted via a chain of association, either between ideas or between people. (Note that people can mediate associations of ideas, and ideas can mediate associations of people.) I'm trying hard to come up with plausible justifications for either of these, but I have to admit defeat. To me, they appear to be nonsense on stilts.

When we humans reason about the world, we often use heuristic strategies that are difficult to defend on a purely "rational" basis. There are many experiments and studies showing that human beings are actors of "limited rationality". Yet I think that our flawed strategies often represent sensible ways to deal with the real world. We are mortal and have a lot to do, so we take a lot of short-cuts. Our own knowledge is limited; so is our intelligence; and at bottom we know this. We therefore take our own abstractions far less seriously than we might, often appearing to act "illogically" or "inconsistently". (Academics like me, who are trained to take abstractions with deadly seriousness, can mistakenly ascribe to folly what really represents practical wisdom.) In any discussion, our overall assessment of a speaker's smarts and sincerity – a type of judgment we are fairly good at – will likely outweigh any logical or factual assessment of his words. All of these things do leave us vulnerable – just ask a successful confidence man – but they are actually necessary adaptations to our real situation in the world. We can't do without the short-cuts; but we must be wary lest we be led astray.

Yet we must also ask how we ourselves – not quite on purpose, maybe, but not wholly by accident either – abuse these heuristic strategies for our own ends. We are, at root, more lawyers than philosophers. We want to win our arguments, and we do not mind doing so by manipulating the quick and informal process by which we and others decide which ideas merit serious consideration. In this regard, our imperfection as rational beings is of a different order. We are flawed, not merely in the intellect, but also in the will and the heart. We are fools, but also sinners.

I cross a threshold

What's new since the last post?
  • I've finished taping the new course for the Teaching Company. Now all I have to do is finish the written materials -- a big job that I'm behind on, true, but a little less of a crisis. The course should be a fun one.
  • A total of four "Friday Afternoon Physics" videos are up, including my favorite, Episode 4 (in which we blow things up). Episode 3 is on quantum physics, and it has some fun computer animations that I made.
  • Mike and I have corrected the proofs of the new quantum mechanics textbook, which is supposed to be out in the US in March. We created the cover image, which was fun. It's a circular diffraction pattern. On one side, it fades into a scattering of discrete dots; on the other side, it turns into 1s and 0s.
  • I gave a talk at a Theological Symposium sponsored by my brother's seminary. To make things weird, the whole thing is posted, in both audio and video formats, on iTunes U. So you can watch my lecture, and my brother's reply, there. This means I've officially crossed the threshold from "user" to "content provider" on iTunes.
I'm hoping all this means that I'll have some more time for blogging and other kinds of writing. The next post should get things going.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Friday Afternoon Physics

On Friday afternoons, when we do not have any regular labs scheduled, our department sometimes indulges in "Friday Afternoon Physics". This can be anything from playing with Lego Mindstorms robots to a "Bungee Barbie" contest in which 12-inch fashion dolls go plunging down the stairwell at the ends of long rubber-band chains.

We've decided to produce a set of videos showing some of the fun. The first, which we made last Friday, is now posted on YouTube. In it we play around with our new Canon EX-F1 high-speed video camera. You can watch the resulting video here. Tell your friends! I'll announce further episodes as they are finished.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Movies: Time Travel on a Budget

One of the things I like about Netflix is that it gives me a chance to watch lots of obscure, independent, often low-budget science fiction movies. This time, I'll review a trio of time travel films that I've watched in the last couple of years. (Minor spoilers ahead.)

Time travel is a natural theme for this kind of film, since a lot of the really cool ideas about it require no glitzy special effects. You just need an intelligent script and sufficient acting and production quality to put it across. Such movies can have twisty plots and complex narratives. The same scene might appear several times, each time imbued with new significance. Because of this, I often like to watch a good time travel movie more than once.

Primer (2004). This movie, shot in suburban Dallas for something like $30K by Shane Carruth, has a reputation as a superb "underground" science fiction movie. In my view, the reputation is well deserved. Two guys -- engineers at high tech firms during the day -- are trying to invent antigravity in their spare time. They invent time travel by mistake. The process of discovery is wonderfully portrayed, and the operating rules of time travel are extremely well thought out.

At one point, we learn that one of the guys, at the very beginning of their time travel experiments, built a "failsafe device" -- an additional time machine to allow someone to go back to the beginning and fix problems that might arise. This idea is a great example of why I like this movie so much. It is clever, but also naive; so instead of being a safety measure, it turns out to complicate things immensely. (Especially after it turns out that a time machine can be folded up to fit inside another time machine....)

The movie is complex and makes the viewer work to "get" the plot. It soon becomes apparent that you are not watching the first "iteration" of the time travel loop. You are already being presented with a timeline that has been changed many times, recursively. Not everything is explained, so even after two or three viewings you may still have questions. If you like, you can check out one theories on one of the web pages devoted to discussion of this movie. I still find myself pondering certain aspects and scenes of this movie, long after I watched it.

Feedback (2002). Another extremely-low-budget movie about time travel. This go round, the device is a telephone that can call six hours into the past.

I did not like Feedback as much as I did Primer. For one thing, I did not identify with the characters as much. (One review, with less kindness than accuracy, called them "low-rent hoods".) The tension is provided by conventional dangers such as criminals with guns. There is one rather cool special effect -- I will not spoil the surprise -- but the film budget was similar to Primer's. Like Primer, though, it manages to look quite good.

12:01 (1993). This movie is often compared to Groundhog Day, which was made about the same time. The movies differ in two important respects: Groundhog Day gives no explanation for its basic premise, which puts it more in the fantasy category; and Groundhog Day is a truly great movie, while 12:01 is merely somewhat charming. In each movie, the central character has to live the same day over and over again, trying to learn enough to make everything come out right. (12:01 is very loosely based on a short film from 1990, which is included in the DVD. The short film is much, much darker -- real Twilight Zone stuff. The original source material is a short story by Richard A. Lupoff.)

This is not really an independent movie, since it was made by an established (third-string) Hollywood studio and has fine, recognizable actors (like Martin Landau and Helen Slater). There are some funny parts. The technobabble is especially babbly.

I suppose I need a ranking system for the movies I review. Here goes. Each movie gets three grades: Smart/Exciting/Pretty (S/E/P). "Smart" refers to how intelligent the plot and premise are; "Exciting" refers to how entertaining the movie is to watch; and "Pretty" recognizes striking images and cool special effects. All rankings are purely subjective; your mileage may vary.
  • Primer: S/E/P = A+/A/B+
  • Feedback: S/E/P = B/C/B+ (extra credit for one scene)
  • 12:01: S/E/P = C/B-/C
All of them pass in all categories, but then I'm not a very hard grader. If you can only watch one of these, watch Primer. If you can watch two, watch Primer twice! But if you have lots of time, check out one of the others.

Next time -- two movies about forbidden knowledge.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Return of the Blog

I haven't posted here in more than a year and a half. I had taken on a couple of huge projects, and something else had to give -- in my case, blogging. The projects were:
  • I did a course of 24 DVD lectures on quantum mechanics for the Teaching Company. Devising and recording these was a fascinating business; I'll probably do a blog post on it later on. The course is selling pretty well -- the folks at TTC seem happy -- and it has generated some interesting email correspondence with my new "students".
  • My friend Mike and I finished the manuscript of our quantum mechanics textbook, which is now in the clutches of the copy editor. The book will probably be out just after the first of the year.
I'm pretty happy with the way both projects have turned out. Each one, I think, has something new to offer. The two projects -- one for a lay audience, one for advanced undergraduates -- interacted with each other in an interesting way. There are things in each that I wish we'd had room for in the other.

Right now I'm putting together another Teaching Company course, this one on "The Physics of Impossible Things." We'll do the taping in August and October, and the course itself should be out next spring. This is going to be more fun and wide-ranging than the quantum mechanics course. Less math, too. You can get something of a preview by watching the public lecture I did at the Perimeter Institute in December.

I have been giving lectures on "The Physics of Impossible Things" since the mid-1990s, and I've always wondered whether there was a book or something in the subject. Then Michio Kaku's book Physics of the Impossible came out last year, and I figured that I must have been right. Having looked at Kaku's book, though, I think my own take will be quite different -- sufficiently so that I don't have to worry about encroaching on his territory in my TTC course. (His book will certainly be high on my "Recommended Readings" list.)

Besides quantum physics, here are updates on some other interests:

Politics. Those who know me or have read a bit in this blog will not find my opinions of political developments terribly surprising. In the last election, my guy did not get elected. (Actually, I'm not even sure "my guy" -- whoever that might be -- was nominated.) I'm not very happy with many of the policies of the new administration and definitely count myself as part of the Opposition. More about this, no doubt, later on.

Theology. This fall I'm giving another lecture at the seminary where my brother teaches, as part of a larger symposium on science and theology. Now all I need is something to say.

Writing. I continue to work on other writing projects, though the two big quantum projects ate up a lot of my writing time. Last Lent the rector of our church asked me to write a short (10 min) play for an event called "The Good Friday Project". When in doubt, turn to the classics -- in my case, the book of Job. The result, called "Comforters", can be watched here.

Books. My favorite book of the last year and a half, by far, has been Neal Stephenson's Anathem. Also, I love my Kindle (though mine, unlike the one at the link, is a 1st gen machine).

Movies: Movies released in the last year and a half that I saw and liked: Be Kind Rewind, Vantage Point, The Forbidden Kingdom, Iron Man, Prince Caspian, WALL-E, The Dark Knight, Frost/Nixon, Coraline, Knowing, Star Trek, and Up. I also saw and really loved the HBO miniseries on John Adams, plus some rather cool indie science fiction movies (about which I hope to blog in the near future).

That'll have to do for now. More bloggery later. I promise.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

"On being wrong"

I wrote a piece with that title for the faculty "Musings" column in our Alumni magazine. Here it is, if you are interested.