Archive for September 23rd, 2008

Why is This Class Necessary?

Do Pre-Meds Really Need That Year of Organic Chemistry?

Feel free to replace this, mentally, with physics, and it can be applied to other endeavors. But here’s a joke that was posted on this topic at slashdot (which I found via another conduit)

A college physics professor was explaining a concept to his class when a pre-med student interrupted him.

“Why do we have to learn this stuff?” he blurted out.

“To save lives,” the professor responded before continuing the lecture.

A few minutes later the student spoke up again. “Wait– how does physics save lives?”

The professor responded. “By keeping idiots out of medical school.”

I'm Not a PC

OK, so Microsoft has come out with it’s “I’m a PC” ad, and it’s supposed to be a counter for the Apple “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ads. Except it isn’t.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball sums it up pretty well

The high concept of Apple’s long-running “Get a Mac” TV campaign is that the characters portrayed by John Hodgman and Justin Long are personified computers. It’s right there in the opening lines of every ad in the series: “Hello, I’m a Mac.” “And I’m a PC.” Hodgman is not “Windows”; Long is not Mac OS X. They are not representative or average PC/Mac users. They are computers.

I thought everyone got that. I was wrong.

Another reason I think these ads work: While I think the Apple ads are effective in pounding in one message (Macs are more dependable than PCs), I don’t believe they’ve been effective at convincing people that users of PCs are losers. Why? Because, at the end of the day, we all love John Hodgman, the “I’m a PC guy,” way more than the straight-man hipster dude who plays “I’m a Mac.”

Hodgeman isn’t a “PC guy.” He’s the computer! There are some ads that point out that Windows runs on Macs! The point isn’t that Windows users are losers, or that people using Windows aren’t doing anything cool. It’s that maybe you could do even more with a computer that gave you a better user experience.

But that’s not the point of writing this post. It’s this:

Microsoft’s ‘I’m a PC’ Ads Created On Macs

Flickr user LuisDS found that metadata on the creative copy of the “stereotyped PC user” and other photos appearing on Microsoft’s “I’m a PC” website revealed that they were produced using Macs running Adobe Creative Suite 3.


When LuisDS checked on the photos again this morning after publishing the metadata details on Flickr last night, he found that Microsoft has scrubbed the revealing details from the work, an effort that also resulted in the 272 KB photo ballooning to 852 KB.

I’m writing this because my irony meter exploded and I’m waiting for the smoke to clear so I can fix it. Bwahahahahaha!

Point Counterpoint

Greg Laden has some valid beefs in The Truth Is In There

Yes, the LHC people should have disclosed the faulty transformer immediately. It was an absolute mistake not to do so. No disagreement there.


The hubris. It hurts. That these scientists think that they can and should do this is wrong and, frankly, scary. I for one do not believe that the LHC is going to make little black holes that would eventually suck the earth into themselves. But I’ll tell you this: The reason that I know that this is not going to happen is not because any scientist ever explained this to me. I asked for such explanations, and I got bullshit, I got incomprehensible formulas, I got insults, I got “a we’re very smart and this is what we believe” and I got hubris. Then, I went and looked into the science and figured it out for myself. I had to do that because the science community that is linked to or interested in this project seems often to act with a misguided sense of self importance, and an insulting belief that others cannot possibly comprehend what they are talking about on any level. And now, we see evidence that this same community seems to feel that actual truth about actual complexity about actual complex things is something we should not be allowed to share in.

There’s a different perspective to this, and perhaps there are other scientists who share in my frustration when I hear/read such complaints about the accessibility of science.

You want explanations, you want to be informed. That’s great. I’m all for it. And there are a lot of conduits for information about the LHC out there, as well as other research. And scientists should do even more to make their research accessible.

But (you knew there was a “but” coming. Either that or “Jane, you ignorant slut”)

Nonscientists have to meet scientists partway. I can explain my research to a lot of people — what we do, why it’s useful. Any researcher should be able to do a five-minute summary like this. But this isn’t all that you’re asking for here. You, and others, want to understand what I’m telling you at a level that is simply not possible without all the equations and “incomprehensible formulas.” They aren’t incomprehensible if you’ve spent some time learning the relevant material and the use of that description is very telling. The problem is that the relevant material took me years to learn, and I simply can’t pass along that level of understanding to you in five minutes. And there’s an attitude, possessed by some, that not only should I be able to do this knowledge transfer, but that it should be easy to for them learn.

And that attitude is, frankly, crap. This isn’t easy stuff. The five-minute summary I can give you is just that — a five-minute summary. You won’t be qualified to do much with it. It isn’t enough to give you interactional expertise unless you have already put in the extensive time to learn enough of the underlying science. And if you haven’t, or aren’t willing to do so, don’t blame me. I can’t speak to the hubris to which Greg feels he was exposed, but I’ve had several similar exchanges myself in discussions with nonscientists where I can see how my attitude might be interpreted as hubris, but was really frustration. You want me to explain relativity or quantum mechanics to you, in detail, and you have objections to it because it’s not intuitive, yet you don’t even have a semester of physics under your belt? Sorry, but that’s just not reasonable in a brief exchange. And you think that’s my fault? No, it’s not. I didn’t answer a question to your satisfaction, only it turns out the question was poorly phrased? Again, not my fault. Similarly, a detailed explanation of why the LHC is not going to destroy the earth is complicated, and to get a good answer you have to ask the right question. You go to a website, and you get one layer of explanation, and even that may be discussion by analogy (which has inherent shortcomings), because they are going to assume you don’t have a physics degree.

By asking for extensive detail and demanding accessibility, you have overconstrained the problem. There is no solution that fits all of the requirements. Removing that extra constraint is up to you.

BTW CERN’s has a FAQ on the matter. Was this the hubris? I just don’t see it.