Know When to Walk Away, and Know When to Run

Every now and then there’s a kerfuffle about people treating other people badly. These things need to be talked about, but I wish we could do a better job of it. You might guess that this is prompted by the recent Feynman posts and responses/comments, and you’d be right. Before that it was “not all men”, and before that, Bora. But I’m not going to go into specifics about any of those, I’m going to tell you why such discussion is off the table for me. Even (perhaps especially) in the light of declarations that others must speak up — that silence is assent, and similar assertions.

I used to be active on various discussion boards other than the one that hosts this blog, and I’d go and visit when physics discussions at SFN were slow. I was reading a thread where someone (a crackpot, if I may) was proposing an alternative to relativity, which was almost certainly wrong, and there were posters making note of that in no uncertain terms. I noticed a problem, though — one of the equations the crackpot was using was actually correct — I think it was the gravitational time dilation formula gh/c^2, which is the approximation you get when you can assume g is constant — and I made a post pointing this out: I said that there were a lot of questionable claims being made, but this equation was not one of them. Adjust criticism accordingly. No problem, right?

Not so much. At that point, a number of other posters set upon me, accusing me of defending the crackpot, and concluding that I must therefore be a crackpot. There was one who went so far as to say that no real physicist would ever use an approximate formula (!), because we had computers and could run code using an exact formula. Actual examples, including physics papers using similar approximations were not enough to dissuade these folks from their positions. I had been branded a crackpot and once that had happened, no facts mattered. At that point I was was wrong by fiat so anything I had to say was dismissed, and my support for the entirety of the crackpot’s position was assumed. After that, the only dialog directed at me was sarcastic. I was a leper.

It was not a pleasant experience, and this in a relatively mild atmosphere. It gave me some perspective in moderating discussions involving those who are not enamored of the scientific mainstream — look at the facts, and do not assume more is there than is written, and don’t attack the person. Snark is a signal that any serious consideration is over, so one has to be sure all reasonable discourse has been exhausted. It can happen, and I’m guilty of that from time to time, but it’s after going over the same ground three or four times and making no progress. (Sometimes a claim is so outlandish that ridicule is the only response — but those are exceptions, not the norm.)

I’ll use, as an example, the use of the term I’m not particularly fond of: “fanboy” (or worse, fanboi). I usually see these in discussions about Apple products (as an observer — I rarely participate), aimed at someone who likes Apple products. A: I like X about my iPhone. B: Fanboi! To me, it’s a signal that the party isn’t willing to discuss any merits of the argument. It’s dismissive and no better or more productive than an eight-year-old engaging in name-calling. In the Feynman discussions, I have not checked to see if it was deserved or not (probably yes, but I don’t know), but to my mind any useful conversation is over once someone has dropped the fanboy flag or other blatant sarcasm on the pitch. It’s a big Do Not Enter sign.

Another danger about snark is it’s an invitation for others to jump in. It’s a sort of mob mentality, I think. Scientists having discussions generally keep to the issues and don’t typically degenerate into mockery, but something happens once that first window gets broken. People in the mob probably don’t recognize they are in one, at least at the time.

Pointing out an error in an evolution paper does not make you a creationist, pointing out a mistake in a global warming paper does not make you a denialist, just as pointing out an error in a critique of crackpottery did not make me a crackpot. Correcting the facts is what we should be expecting in discussions, so the “if you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality absolutely does not fit. We, as scientists, recognize the dangers of that in formal science, and go to great lengths to point out to science detractors that we are not promoting dogma. That attitude needs to be more pervasive in discussions about the culture that surrounds science.

I have opinions on matters, and perhaps something to add to a discussion. But the entirely predictable response that gets played out gives me pause about participating. Perhaps that’s an unfixable part of the internet. But it may also be true that some of what many agree are social issues in STEM that don’t seem to be getting better very quickly are being hampered because some people feel shut out of the discussions as they become polarized so quickly. Think about that: people you want to reach are possibly being shut out of the conversation because of the fear that they will be verbally pummeled and shunned at the slightest inkling that they don’t agree with you, because they see how others are treated. You will not hear their voice, and if they feel that they are being attacked, they will not listen to yours.

I want the broader social situation to improve. These conversations need to happen, so we must do a better job of encouraging the conversations. I can disagree with details of something you say without disagreeing with your conclusion. Finding fault with some fact you’ve quoted does not automatically mean I agree with your opponent — I want you argument to be stronger, unassailable, and I’ve found a chink in it. I’m trying to help you. But having been burned by this before, under milder circumstances, I have no wish to jump in to a much hotter fire.

These conversations need to happen. We must do a better job of encouraging the conversations.

An Anniversary, of Sorts

This isn’t going to be about physics. In fact, the only connection is that I was teaching physics when this happened. This is about what happened one night, 28 years ago: Ex-sailor Releases Hostage After Siege At Navy Base. LT Steve Gabriel (who taught Chemistry, Materials and Radiological Fundamentals, aka CMR) was taken hostage by a former student.

About the same time, Gabriel also called security while he was being held

“Security” would be me, since I was standing the Command Duty Officer watch at the time. CDO is a 24-hour watch that one stands, and you are responsible for, well, everything when the commanding officer (CO, aka captain) is gone. Imagine borrowing a car from someone — you’re responsible for it until you return the keys. Except that the CO doesn’t actually own the car — s/he was assigned to it by someone else, and is ultimately responsible for it. If the car starts making sounds, you’re going to call the captain up and make sure it’s not a problem, and the CO is not prone to yell at you for checking, because the last thing they want is to get the car back with a surprise problem. “My CDO was an idiot” is not an excuse, because that only prompts one to ask why you lent the keys to an idiot. The navy is not fond of excuses, especially ones that sound like they are passing the buck.

On a quiet watch, the kind you hope for every time, there are no incidents to worry about. You do your rounds, do the paperwork that’s required and get a few hours of sleep. If it was during the week you’d teach and not have to worry about the CDO part during the day, while the captain was there. After you took charge the other watchstanders all did their jobs (there was a duty chief petty officer for each building, and someone from the first lieutenant’s staff, in charge of the evening cleaning crews and other duties, plus a dozen or so people as unarmed security watchstanders, working the phones and checking traffic into and out of the buildings, making sure you had your security badge, or weren’t leaving with any classified documents)

On a good night, aside from a stroll or two around the buildings, you got to sit around and hear the enlisted guys tell sea stories. I was 23, just a year out of college and still an Ensign and had no stories to tell (yet), other than some drunken stupidity, but even then, exotic-port navy drunken stupidity made for much better stories. It was fun to listen to that, and some of the things that happen at sea. But on this evening, there wasn’t going to be much time for sea stories.
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Letting the Air Out, Thank Goodness

I was gearing up for a rant about how the sequester, and in particular the furloughs, were sucking all the air from the room, but it was just announced that they will stop at six days, which means just one more week of this nonsense. So that kills the worst part of my rant, thank goodness.

The lesson of the first four-and-a-half-weeks is that scheduling time, especially with more than two people, becomes incredibly more difficult when you lose a day per week if your furlough days aren’t synched up. Any interaction where you need information from someone else, or vice-versa, becomes strained; there is no quick turnaround when key people are absent on random days, and you have your own work you are trying to get done. Work in the lab has slowed considerably because that’s one of the variables, while bureaucratic nonsense seems to be a constant, and when you reduce hours, the constants don’t seem to shrink. This was not a 20% reduction of useful work output — it was more than that. These are probably some of the reasons academic researchers work the long hours: they can, because they are on salary, and the research part of the job is where the extra hours are spent, after teaching and doing all of the bureaucratic overhead.

The people up on top of the food chain, to their credit, have been insistent that nobody sneak in unpaid overtime to compensate. It was recognized that a furlough meant that work would not get done. It seems to me that many were irked by the political narrative that there’s all this fat and bloat in the military, so that the sequester will have no effect on operations, because the fat would be cut. Well, guess again. It’s more that the DoD part of government actually is big-boned, and what looks like fat is more of a system bloat that needs to be restructured, which doesn’t happen simply by starvation.

Here’s a rough example of what I mean: spending money has a huge overhead of paperwork. One of the reasons for this is that government employees need to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars they get, so there are a whole bunch of rules to follow to make sure money is not mishandled. But all of the paperwork and regulations make the process inefficient, which wastes taxpayer dollars. However, nobody is willing to streamline the process, because eventually there will be some misuse of funds (or even just something that has an appearance of impropriety), and too many members of congress, and the general population, will go absolutely apeshit over the revelation. So we spend many dollars in order to safeguard fewer dollars. That’s a systemic problem, and not one that can be solved simply by reducing budget.

But my creeping malaise seems to be somewhat better now that the end of furloughs is in sight, even though the larger sequester problem still exists. I had joined a colleague in meaningless protest by not shaving (anywhere). He started while I was on vacation, so I got a late start, but even the shorter duration doesn’t change the fact that I had one of the worst beards grown by anyone of drinking age. Glad to be rid of the non-goatee portion of it.

The Horror, The Horror

The nightmare of any and every PhD student writing his or her thesis: My laptop was stolen with all my thesis work on it.

I was so paranoid about the lab catching fire and destroying my thesis that I had it on two computers and had about five backup copies. On floppy disks, which was the style of the times, at least one of which was always at home. If the whole science building imploded, I would have a copy that was at most one day’s worth of writing or set of revisions out of date.

Also, having grown up and done high school and college papers in an era before word processors (ask me about my fun with carbon paper!), I am quite aware how much time I saved being able to write my thesis on a computer.

The Answer Guy

I was cleaning up my inbox the other day and accidentally opened up the box below Admin, which is Answerguy, and one I had forgotten about. Several years ago I was “The Answer Guy” (or at least I had his email address) for our web page, back in the days when I took care of my research group’s web page. The legacy site is still present but in some sense is no longer “official” and has not been maintained in some time (the cesium fountain page has been dormant even longer). The current official page for work is much more sterile and doesn’t even discuss the clock details at all.

I got a number of inquires over the three or four years that the email address was active. A few crackpotty ones, several good questions, and a few from people who couldn’t find contact info on the pages other departments were maintaining, so there were several moon phase and time-of-sunset inquiries I punted. But I like this one, in particular:

To whom it may concern, My name is Christopher I am a sophomore in highschool and conducting a science fair project on time travel. I am not sure if this is the appropriate email address for this, but i am trying to obtain an atomic clock that measures to the nanosecond. If you have any information please please email me as soon as possible.

Sincerely, Christopher

Status Update

Not much time for blogging recently — getting together with family, travel (made longer because it involved a snowstorm), a stiff back from the car ride and the lugging of that which is lugged, and now, apparently, the fruit of the traditional holiday first sharing of germs. To be followed by the inevitable second sharing, when everyone returns to work/school.


Apologies. I’ve been suffering from a sore neck and shoulder for a bit, and decided to minimize typing on a keyboard for a bit to see if that can help speed my recovery.


Power restored (after only 90 hours!), but still no internet at home. My fridge hasn’t been this empty since I moved in. I noticed one set of traffic lights still out on my commute this morning, so there is still work left to do in the area.