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    Scientists You Should Know: Gerhard Ertl

    Posted by John Jay on 11th October 2007 (All posts by )

    Congratulations to Professor Ertl on his Nobel Prize.

    Ertl’s work is important because chemical reactions play by different rules when one or more of the molecules is tied to a surface and can’t flop around in solution. All kinds of everyday processes occur only at surfaces – the rusting of iron or the adhering of paint to a wall. it’s really difficult to took at a process that occurs on a layer of matter that is only a few atoms wide. Ertl is a master of adapting whatever techniques get him the answer he needs, and that has made him an analytical jack-of-all trades. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Science | 3 Comments »

    Heavyweight Reading

    Posted by John Jay on 17th August 2007 (All posts by )

    Rob the Bouncer’s book is out. He’s pretty funny in person, and did a damn fine job at his very first signing on Wednesday. Congratulations, Rob.

    I highly recommend it as a good read from a first-time novelist. It’s a pretty good illustration of why I have my doubts about the universal franchise. It’s also a pretty good way to scare your kids out of the club scene.

    Posted in Book Notes, Humor, Morality and Philosphy | Comments Off on Heavyweight Reading

    Random Thoughts

    Posted by John Jay on 13th August 2007 (All posts by )

    Anyone interested in the scientific explanations for atmospeheric phenomena (including the dispelling of some myths that even scientists cling to) should check out Craig Bohren’s Clouds in a Glass of Beer and What Light Through Yonder Window Breaks?

    Also check out Derek Lowe’s observations about his new job in a new lab. Regarding AC/DC’s “Back in Black”? Guilty (it’s also excellent work-out music). Terse and obscene reminders to treat equipment properly? Guilty (at least I didn’t threaten to hang the Chinese grad student who kept putting teflon tape on brass gas-line ferrules – with his own teflon tape!). And keeping strange-looking innards of machinery in my drawer on the off chance someone will want to get it working again? Really guilty.

    Posted in Book Notes, Science | 3 Comments »

    Possibly the Best Quote in All of Russian Literature

    Posted by John Jay on 13th August 2007 (All posts by )

    Or at least the most realistic. The following is from Voinovich’s Moscow 2042, and takes place on a Lufthansa flight.

    Улыбнувшись в полном соответствии со служебной инструкцией, она спросила меня, что я буду пить. Разумеется, я сказал: водку. Она опять улыбнулась, протянула мне пластмассовый стаканчик и игрушечную (50 граммов) бутылочку водки «Смирнофф». Она собралась уже двигать свою тележку дальше, когда я нежно тронул ее за локоток и спросил, детям примерно какого возраста дают такие вот порции. Она понимала юмор и тут же, все с той же улыбкой, достала вторую бутылочку. Я тоже улыбнулся и довел до ее сведения, что, когда я брал билет и платил за него солидную сумму наличными, мне было обещано неограниченное количество напитков. Она удивилась и высказала мысль, что неограниченных количеств чего бы то ни было вообще в природе не водится. Поэтому она хотела бы все‑таки знать, каким количеством этих пузырьков я был бы готов удовлетвориться.

    — Хорошо, — сказал я, — давайте десять.

    Translation: Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Russia | 14 Comments »

    Behind the Woodshed

    Posted by John Jay on 10th August 2007 (All posts by )

    Regarding the comments at Reason and Instapundit and the knee-jerk libertarian response about funding priorities and the Minnesota bridge collapse, Dave E. has this to say:

    So no, this was not a matter of priorities. It was a sudden and unexpected collapse of a thought to be serviceable bridge. I like a little snark as much as the next person, but in this case it’s snark that is wrong and intellectually lazy and downright defamatory if you think about it. As though those of us who live in the Minneapolis area would knowingly fund a stadium versus replacing a dangerous bridge that we and our loved ones drive over every day. If that’s the perspective you want to have in the upcoming discussion then fine, you are a moron.

    Yeah, sometimes people on our side can be jerks, too. “Instapundit adds his one cent”: I like that. If we claim that leftists infantilize debate (and they generally do), we need to police ourselves pretty carefully.

    Posted in Civil Society, Libertarianism, Politics | 10 Comments »

    Why We Need Jackasses in the Academy

    Posted by John Jay on 7th August 2007 (All posts by )

     Ginny pointed out something very important in the comments to this post:

    One of the arguments in Jonathan Rauch’s “In Defense of Prejudice,” is another dirty secret is that, no less than the rest of us, scientists can be dogmatic and pigheaded. “Although this pigheadedness often damages the careers of individual scientists,” says Hull, “it is beneficial for the manifest goal of science,” which relies on people to invest years in their ideas and defend them passionately. And the dirtiest secret of all, if you believe in the antiseptic popular view of science, is that this most ostensibly rational of enterprises depends on the most irrational of motives–ambition, narcissism, animus, even revenge. “Scientists acknowledge that among their motivations are natural curiosity, the love of truth, and the desire to help humanity, but other inducements exist as well, and one of them is to ‘get that son of a bitch,’” says Hull. “Time and again, scientists whom I interviewed described the powerful spur that ’showing that son of a bitch’ supplied to their own research.” Shortly after I taught that essay we went to a family celebration, where one of my husband’s cousins, a geology ph.d. who worked for Exxon, explained to me that he was grateful Exxon had let him work for ten years before he showed he was right and he had found something useful. (I’m no scientist, if he explained it, I didn’t understand it.) But he phrased his explanation in just that manner: Those guys thought I was crazy and wrong; I was determined to show them I was right. In other words, what kept him going was his desire to show those sons of bitches. Of course, there are happier attitudes to have for ten years, but, then, the rest of us can be happy that some of those guys figured out better ways to find oil and to get it out of the ground.

    The scientific method is a mechanism for the evolution of thought. Evolution depends on conflict and stuggle as its motive engine. Conflict requires competitive personalities. Those personalities are not always the easiest to deal with. QED, most good scientists are jackasses. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Education, Science | 39 Comments »

    Pathological Personalities

    Posted by John Jay on 2nd August 2007 (All posts by )

    Continuing with my re-posting from my old blog: in case anyone thought I was being a little harsh on Academics in that last post, go read the Mobius Stripper’s description of her interactions with her first advisor, the Eccentric Genius. Here, I’ll excerpt a little from the comments:

    Jess – ah, the dread of meeting with the advisor. I don’t think mine bad-mouthed me behind my back – my EG was a man of few words, whose MO was to stare at me for long periods of time whenever I asked a question. He might have been thinking that I was an idiot; he might have been thinking about his (unrelated) research. Hell, he might have been thinking about what he was going to have for dinner. Who knows? I sure didn’t.

    Just who taught that jerk that this was a way for one human being to communicate with another, especially a subordinate? I’ll tell you who. Every teacher or peer who ever excused his rudeness because he was brilliant. Every administrator and department head who excused poor behavior because they didn’t want him to go somewhere else. A grad school colleague of mine (a former Marine) used to be fond of saying, “if you can’t be smart, be nice”, but in Industry, smart is necessary but not sufficient if you want to get ahead. In the Academy, it’s necessary and sufficient. Hence we get Eccentric Geniuses who could have also grown a real human personality, but missed the opportunity because of the special environment in which they operate. And lest you think that MS’s experience rare, I’d say that this kind of interpersonal interaction is well within one standard deviation from the mean that I have observed in the Academy. Well within.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Human Behavior, Schedules | 16 Comments »

    Picking Your Poison

    Posted by John Jay on 31st July 2007 (All posts by )

    I said something a little (actually more than a little) harsh about Humanities grad students in the comments of one of Ginny’s posts.  That reminded my of how I began to see myself as a misanthrope in grad school. Upon leaving the Academy, I discovered that I was not misanthropic, I merely didn’t like Academics – either profs or larval profs, all that much. While I have much less patience with people in the Humanities (and they tended to try my patience with educated stupidity much more than techies), scientists are not easy lot to deal with, either. Early in my blogging career I came up with the taxonomy of scientific graduate advisors below. I had always planned to come back and do the grad students, so spurred on by Ginny’s post, I’m going to do both Humanities and Science / Engineering grad students in a future post.  But for those of you uninitiated into the arcane world of gradute work in technical fields, and especially for those of you about to enter that world, I’m reposting this: Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Education, Science | 9 Comments »

    Why There?

    Posted by John Jay on 30th July 2007 (All posts by )

    I have had my attention* directed to the recent publication of some rather interesting predictions about global warming and tropical storm activity in the Philosophical Transactions  of the Royal Society A (Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences). My first reaction was: why Philosophical Transactions A? Especially for two researchers from Georgia? Then I looked at the journal’s internet masthead:

    Philosophical Transactions A is expanding and most journal issues will be dedicated to the publication of Theme Issues in four subject clusters:


    • Nano-science nano–engineering and quantum computing
    • Environmental change and renewable energy
    • Dynamical systems and complexity
    • Biophysics, biological mathematics and medical engineering

    The reason that the choice of journal raised my hackles is that the Royal Society’s Transactions is not the first choice for a meteorological article of such startling significance. It has a middling-low Impact Factor, and most scientists** strive to get their research published in as prestigious a journal as possible in order to win the publish-or-perish games that are the lifeblood of Academy politics. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Environment, Science | 7 Comments »

    Tales That Should Not Be Told

    Posted by John Jay on 27th July 2007 (All posts by )

    In one of the comments to my post Telling Stories, Veryretired said something very wise:

    There are myths so entrenched in our national psyche that facts are simply insufficient to change the story that “everyone knows”.

    As H. Beam Piper said in “Cosmic Computer“: “Well, always take a second look at these
    things everybody knows. Ten to one they’re not so. ”

    Over time that damage to the collective mental model of how the world works can be repaired, but in the short and intermediate timeframes, myths are dangerous. One of the great boons bequeathed to mankind by the scientific method is the creation of a class of people who question received wisdom all the time. One of the recurrent complaints on my blog is that many scientists don’t lead the way in this regard. Oh, sure, we question each other deeply about matters in our own fields, but we don’t carry this over to other areas in our own lives, to say nothing of trying to spread the method to laymen.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Blogging, Human Behavior, Media | 7 Comments »

    Multiple Cultures

    Posted by John Jay on 23rd July 2007 (All posts by )

    After Ralph’s thought-provoking post below, I’d like to take another pot-shot at the multicultural elites who seem to value any other culture more than our own.

    One of the things that persistently puzzles me about the multi-cultural crowd is that, at least when I was a TA, they shied away from intellectually rigorous activity such as studying a foreign language. One would think that actually learning to speak a non-Western tongue would do more for true inter-cultural understanding than any pastiche of factoids, half-truths and generalized misinformation about other cultures that is the general Introduction to Foreign Culture claptrap at most Universities.

    The cynic in me says that most multi-culturalists don’t go in for a detailed study of a foreign language for three reasons – it would take away the focus from their departments, it’s hard (non-Western languages generally come with non-Western writing systems, and in my experience, students run from those like the plague), and, to Ralph’s point, the more in-depth you study some cultures, the more you are thankful you weren’t born into them. Hardly conducive to the facile moral relativism of the multi-culti crowd.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Civil Society, Human Behavior, Immigration, Political Philosophy, Society | 42 Comments »

    Miss Tick Gives Harry Another Lesson

    Posted by John Jay on 18th July 2007 (All posts by )

    After Ginny’s post, I’d like to return to my theme of pressure testing narratives with some concrete examples. Narrative is useful, and it’s fun, so in the previous post I was in now way suggesting that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, Human Behavior, Philosophy | 7 Comments »

    Telling Stories

    Posted by John Jay on 9th July 2007 (All posts by )

    Jonathan beat me to one of the core ideas of a post I’ve been working on for a few days – a post about evil, art, and self-delusion. Here goes anyway.

    Concerning the New Deal, John Updike is a poet in the Platonic sense. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

    The impression of recovery–the impression that a President was bending the old rules and, drawing upon his own courage and flamboyance in adversity and illness, stirring things up on behalf of the down-and-out–mattered more than any miscalculations in the moot mathematics of economics.

    To which the great Greg Mankiw replies:

    When evaluating political leaders, it is better to trust “the moot mathematics of economics” than “the impression of recovery.”

    Wise words, but hardly new ones. In the fourth century B.C.E., Plato is said to have uttered pretty much the same thing:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Human Behavior, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy | 5 Comments »


    Posted by John Jay on 9th July 2007 (All posts by )

    Blog-city is closing my personal blog account, and given their spotty service, I’m not going to pay to upgrade to their premium service. For my personal blog, I am going into a joint venture with my blog-buddy CW (who is much more interesting than I am, and is worth reading just for his sleuthing on the missing 727 alone). For the next few months, I’m going to be recycling some old posts, and given Ralf’s post below, I thought that the links in this one might be interesting to some of you:

    It is well known that a large contingent of German soldiers fought with the British in the American Revolution, most of whom hailed from the Landgraviates of Hesse-Kassel. These troops were not mercenaries in the traditional sense, since rent-a-regiments were common in 18th Century Europe – it gave the home state revenue, it gave the troops something to do other than cause trouble at home, and it kept the troopers at peak combat readiness. As part of the rental agreement, the Hessian state received guarantees of mutual defense from England in case of attack by France, so in a sense the Hessians were fighting for their homeland by serving the British Crown. What is less well known is that some of those troops stayed in America after the war.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Germany, History, USA | 8 Comments »

    You Get What You Measure

    Posted by John Jay on 8th June 2007 (All posts by )

    David Foster, in the comments to my previous post, links to this article. Actually, one of the factors that got me to thinking about the problem of bureaucratic failure about 10 years ago was an article in some British medical journal, probably either  the Lancet or  BMJ (I can’t remember which and if anyone knows this article, I’d appreciate the cite), talking about how measuring specific performance factors in the British Hospital system made things less safe because anything that was not on the government performance evaluation was not given any thought or resources, and the government had missed some pretty big and life-threatening issues. If it jogs anyone’s memory, I believe that the author was an Indian practicing in Britain.

    As a small “l” libertarian, I tend to take the same approach to civil society and business regulations that I take to parenting. Laugh if you wish, but I came across an expression of this philosophy when I was 7 or 8 in a children’s book, The Great Ringtail Garbage Caper. It’s a book about a bunch of raccoons who take matters into their own hands and “borrow” a garbage truck to make their own rounds when two new garbage men start cleaning up too efficiently. Pretty libertarian book, now that I come to think of it. It resonated, and I even thirty years later I still recite the line verbatim:

    “Make as few rules as possible, but don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

    Posted in Human Behavior, Libertarianism, Political Philosophy | 4 Comments »

    The March of Folly

    Posted by John Jay on 7th June 2007 (All posts by )

    Derek Lowe recently touched on a topic I’ve been noticing for all of my adult life, and for which I’m only starting to develop a general theory. Bureaucratic and governmental solutions tend to work in the near and medium term, but usually degenerate into a mess that is either worse than the original problem, or that ultimately fails to solve the original problem, usually within a decade.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Human Behavior, Libertarianism | 19 Comments »

    Calculus and Pernicious Myths

    Posted by John Jay on 18th April 2007 (All posts by )

    Most of the Arts as we have them today are largely an outgrowth of the philosophy of Rousseau  and his Romanticism. That is dangerous. Silly atheist cant to the contrary, Atheistic Romanticism, in the form of Communism and Fascism, has killed more people than any other faith or ideology in the history of the world. With the growth of journalism schools embedded in the Leftist academy, we now see that the modern flavor of Romanticism has crept out of the Arts and English Departments and in to our news outlets. Romanticism creates myths such as Rousseau’s Noble Savage, and keeps on believing in those myths in the face of contrary evidence. A highly dangerous habit in the Press Corps. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Education, Media | 15 Comments »

    O-5 and the Peter Principle

    Posted by John Jay on 11th April 2007 (All posts by )

    Frequent commenter Tatyana and I have a friendly disagreement. She thinks Putin’s a putz. I don’t. Basically, Putin was a mid-level manager of spies in the KGB. A light colonel. An O-5. I do not find that much of a condemnation, although one could argue that someone who could not rise in their own hierarchy is incompetent.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Human Behavior, Military Affairs | 8 Comments »

    The Left Tail of the Distribution

    Posted by John Jay on 16th March 2007 (All posts by )

    Ginny’s post got me to thinking about a topic I muse over every once in a while. I have two firm beliefs about scientists. One is that they do not need to be as much of a bunch of egotistical buggers as they tend to be. (I have devoted multiple posts on my blog to that effect.) The other is that the natural political state of the scientist (and of most engineers) should be libertarian / conservative, because the core non-technical skill required for scientific work above the B.Sc. level is the ready acceptance of personal responsibility.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Science, Society | 13 Comments »

    Thinking Your Way Out of a Paper Bag

    Posted by John Jay on 14th March 2007 (All posts by )

    I’m a bit surprised that no one has commented on Zenpundit’s recent post about creativity. This is one of the most important issues facing our society, because it calls into question our will to innovate, which has propelled the West along our current trajectory. As a society we don’t appreciate creative people or the wellsprings of creativity enough.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Education, Human Behavior, Society | 6 Comments »

    With Apologies to Sergio Leone

    Posted by John Jay on 23rd February 2007 (All posts by )

    [Author’s Note: David Foster made a comment about texbook pricing in Zenpundit’s latest post. In response, this is a reposting of a piece I wrote in October 2005 (before I joined the Chicago Boyz) on texbook pricing at the college level. I did a quick check, but if there are any broken links here, please let me know.]

    I’ve been kicking around a screed on textbook prices for a while, and it’s mushroomed so that I think I’ve managed to write something that will upset everyone involved in the debate. Which is probably reasonable, give how much blame there is to go around. I have a hunch that an unpopular and lasting social or market phenomenon always has multiple roots, or else social and market forces would sweep it away in short order. I think the rising price of textbooks in the US is a good piece of evidence for that theory.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Education | 2 Comments »

    Dirty Jobs

    Posted by John Jay on 20th February 2007 (All posts by )

    I’ve heard that smell is the sense that most easily evokes memory. Derek Lowe has an interesting post about smells in the lab. In my less charitable moments I am wont to say that Organikers become Organikers because they smelled too much Toluene in Sophomore Organic. But I, too was surrounded by smells in graduate school that I now miss once in a while. The smell of vacuum pump oil. The acrid smell of concentrated acids, especially the aqua regia we used for cleaning Ostwald Viscometers. The smell of burnt target paper as the laser fried it. The smell of burnt skin as the laser fried you. The smell of phosgene coming up the drains from the fume hoods on the roof . (Just kidding – when you smell cut grass in a chemlab, it’s time to grab your ankles and kiss your butt goodbye. But the drains did often carry unusual odors). One commenter reminded me of TEMED. I really do not miss coming home smelling like a fish market during the year I was using that stuff.

    So, for all you non-techies out there, what are the smells of work and school that take you back?


    [Update: not being an Organiker I managed to avoid thiols (mercaptans to you old fogies) after sophomore year. However, it was my misfortune to work in a lab two floors down from a lab that did use thiols. Derek’s commenter’s description that some of them smell like “burnt ass” is right on.]

    X-posted at TPwithpagenumbers.

    Posted in Human Behavior, Science | 13 Comments »

    Mysteries of the Orient Revealed

    Posted by John Jay on 15th February 2007 (All posts by )

    Culture shock is a good thing because it makes you wonder what kind of stupid things you do out of habit while wondering why all these furriners do the things that they do. The best method to deal with culture shock is laughter. Which is why I’m glad to see the “Kind of Crap” archives back up. Galvin Chow is a bit juvenile, and a bit of a potty mouth, so be warned. But he has some of the funniest Japan stuff I’ve seen on the web. Perhaps it’s his unique perspective as a Chinese-American. Some of his stuff explains a lot of the odder adult behavior I saw around me in Japan. If I were his older brother, I’d slap 7 kinds of sense into him so that he’d make a career out of writing, instead of the inevitable slacking path through a big company or government organization that he seems destined for.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Human Behavior, Humor | 2 Comments »

    Wooden Horses

    Posted by John Jay on 10th February 2007 (All posts by )

    Liberty benefits from asking practical questions. When someone wants to save the world, or at least a piece of it, a free man or woman ought to ask just how that goal is going to be achieved. That is often as important as the goal itself. Everywhere I look, I see colored ribbons symbolizing something that should be eliminated from modern life. What never gets discussed is the amount of acceptable bad behavior or acceptable cost or acceptable loss, and the balance of the level of enforcement or investment required to eliminate a behavior, disease or what-have-you, versus the amount of fungible resources or freedom lost per incremental advance for the social cause. The people in the cause often say things such as “one life lost is one too many”. Really? Every activity has a risk / benefit calculation. We know that more people die in highway accidents at higher speeds than at lower ones, but the speed limit is 65 in most states (still too low in my opinion). If we were really serious about eliminating highway deaths, we’d drop the speed limit to 20 mph and make all our cars out of PVC and Styrofoam. But the level of highway death at 65 mph is acceptable to pretty much the majority of people*.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Education, Libertarianism | 11 Comments »

    Whatever Hits the Fan is Never Evenly Distributed

    Posted by John Jay on 24th January 2007 (All posts by )

    Consider a bullet. I had one sitting on my dresser as a kid – a Civil War Minnie Ball. Toss it into the air. It tumbles. It hovers, for a split microsecond, pointing at you as it falls. Consider that same bullet in 1862 (I found it on a farm near Antietam). Consider standing in front of the line of Blue (it was clearly a Yankee bullet) with your fellow Virginians. Consider that same bullet again. Fired from a Springfield, heading your way. Take a split microsecond, same length of time as before, and focus in on only the bullet. The situations are almost indistinguishable if looked at on a short enough time scale. The 1862 bullet points at you in the same way the modern one does. In that split microsecond, an observer who happened to just drop in and observe only the bullet would be hard pressed to decide which situation he or she’d rather be in. Practically the same mass of metal. Same shape. But look closer. The 1862 bullet should be warm – evidence of the kinetic energy stored in it. The present bullet should have a coat of oxidation. But there were bullets fired in 1862 that had been dropped in the crick the month before they were fired, and the modern bullet might have been sitting in the sun for a while. There’s always something for the naysayer to latch on to. But take another snapshot a couple of milliseconds later, and the difference between the two situations is instantly clear – the bullet in 1862 has traveled a lot further – and in a much straighter line than the arc of the falling bullet tossed from your hand. Now which situation would our hypothetical observer rather be in?

         Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Conservatism, Leftism, Libertarianism, Political Philosophy, Predictions, Society | 47 Comments »