Why I won’t see “Sicko”

Every day, reading the newspapers or listen to the radio, we are barraged with reminders of how screwed up our society, our country is. We see these things, and have a realization that there is little to no hope that they will change any time soon.

I can only take so much despair. I can only take so much reminder of just how screwed up things are. I have stopped listening to the radio on my way driving in to work in the morning, because too often the stories are about places in the world where horrible things are going on. Too often, that place is Baghdad, a place that was screwed up and continues to be screwed up because of how poorly my country ran a war it decided to run on reasons that turned out to be entirely smoke and mirrors.

So many things are screwed up, but I really don’t believe that there is any reasonable chance of a lot of them changing any time soon. As such, I have to stick my head in the sand to maintain my sanity. All that Michael Moore’s movie will do is deepen my sense of despair. At least with Gore’s movie, there is some hope that something might happen. I still give you better-than-even odds that a century from now, we have faced a major international crisis as the climate has changed in a way that seriously disrupts the way we feed the world. But perhaps something will happen. The global warming denialists are getting fewer, and what needs to be done often has other reasons. (Yes, there are some extreme nutcases out there, like the one a few weeks ago who was arguing to my face that there is no point in making anything more energy efficient because people will then just use more and more energy as it becomes cheaper. Yes, indeed, it was an argument that greater energy efficiency does not meaningfully contribute to reducing energy use; I was so boggled I didn’t know how to respond, other than to realize I should never put myself in a position to debate with this person again. Alas, I sort of did the next day, in a completely different context, and it ended poorly.)

But with the health care situation? I honestly, honestly do not see any way it can really change. If it turns out that this movie raises consciousness and gets people thinking about it beyond the sound-bite “gotta maintain our freedom” kinds of debates that goes on about health care right now, then all the more power to Moore (even if he is rather a jerk much of the time). Perhaps, somehow, it will make a difference. But at the moment, I have a hard time understanding how my seeing the movie will do anything more than deepen my sense of despair that we’re all riding together on a developing train wreck.

Why am I so negative about the chance of real change in health care?

Look at your mutual fund portfolios if you have them, or if you have retirement accounts. If not, randomly select a few. Chances are, one of the largest industry sectors they are invested in is the pharmaceutical industry. Selling health care is big business in this country. Trying to change it, trying to take the profit motive out of selling health care, would cost a lot of people a lot of money… a lot of people who have a lot of money to spend fighting against any of that kind of legislation. There’s no hope. There’s another card. It’s probably inevitable that any kind of change like that would send our country into a recession. I don’t bring this out as an argument against that kind of change— sometimes you have to make sacrifices in order to make things better in the long run, as those who have ever supported any war have argued. And, indeed, the pain would be transient; the economy would adjust. However, it’s a very strong possibility that there would be nationwide economic pain, and that possibility is another card that those who are opposed to changing our health care system can play.

I simply do not see any hope of meaningful change. Oh, there may be laws passed, but they won’t be any more meaningful than recent “campaign finance reform” laws have really been. Big money is just as much a corruptor of our system as it was beforehand, and all the laws that were passed did was give people something to point at as evidence of progress, or evidence of things going to hell… the real, practical changes are something I simply can’t see. It’s very, very easy to maintain a cynical attitude about the inplasticity of our political system seeing stuff like this.

I’ll give the movie a pass. There are too many things to be outraged about, and I don’t have the energy to keep up with all of them any more.

Friday Galaxy: NGC 7331

NGC 7331 is a spiral galaxy, probably not too dissimilar from our own (except that it lacks a bar), which is relatively nearby. (At a mere 49 million light-years, it’s not in our own back yard, but it’s just down the block.)

n7331mortfields.jpg
Image: Paul Mortfield and Dietmar Kupke/Flynn Haase/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Several years ago, the first time I thought Astronomy 253 (“Galactic Astrophysics”), I had an entire problem set entitled the “NGC 7331 problem set.” In fact, this was a general problem set about the properties and dynamics of spiral galaxies, but I chose NGC 7331 as the example that was referenced in all of the problems.

Before I say the next thing, I want to say that the students in this class were a great bunch of students. One of them the next year would do research with me, and is now in graduate school at Colorado. I really enjoyed teaching this class, and really enjoyed working with that group of students.

So, disclaimers laid, so you don’t read the rest of this the wrong way. I walked into the conference room that the particle physicists on my floor use for meetings and videoconferences; I’ve occasionally used it for the same purposes. That year, sometimes students would work together there. I walk into this room, and what do I see written on the whiteboard?

“I hate NGC 7331.”

How sad.

How to live like a college student

It occurred to me this morning that recently I’ve been living like a college student. I don’t mean that I’ve been going to beer-saturated frat parties, having meals made for me at a cafeteria, and futilely trying to sleep through the thump-thump-thump of stereos playing too loud in the dorm. Rather, what I mean is that I’ve been approaching my life something like this:

livelikecs.png

This is not a great way to live. Indeed, my Freshman year of college, I didn’t live that way. I remember people really being annoyed with me when I would tell them at 10PM or so that I was done with my homework and was going to bed. (The thump-thump-thump made that hard, but I had a white noise generator to help (i.e. a fan).) How could I be done? they would ask. The answer had more to do with starting than with finishing, really. You will be happy to know that by sophomore year I de-squarified a bit, and started to live more like a traditional college student— that is, according to the diagram above. I’ve observed a number of college students both when I was in college and since then living according to this plan.

Why am I living like this right now? It’s not good. Especially since a bunch of the things I need to get done aren’t “due,” per se, which means that I never make progress on them. An utter lack of motivation to get stuff done is one of the major effects of a clinical depression, of course. It is also an effect of one of the things that’s driven me into a clinical depression, that is, the sense that I have no future at Vanderbilt or in academia, and don’t have enough control over my situation (thanks to the terribly competitive situation of grants) to be able to create a future. This has seriously damaged my motivation to get things done that don’t have a due date on them for at least a year, and perhaps two, which of course just feeds into a vicious cycle of being in a worse position….

I realized this morning that I am just completing things as I have to, and that I”m not getting ahead on anything. It’s a stressful way to live. The thing is, when you live like that as a college student, you have the end of the semester to look forward to. You’ve got a really big crunch, and then it’s over and you get to start with a clean slate. In real life, we don’t have that. I’ve been living like a college student for too long without an “end of a semester” to tie off everything I’m working on. (There are, of course, ends of semesters for classes, but they don’t represent the vast majority of my responsibilities now they way they do for a college student.)

Friday Galaxy : NGC 5135

NGC 5135 is a barred spiral, similar in some ways to NGC 1365. Both galaxies are members of the IRAS “Bright Galaxy Sample,” meaning that they are very luminous in the infrared as a result of vigorous star-forming activity. Both have very strong bars. Both harbor an active galactic nucleus at their core. (All large galaxies are believed to have a supermassive black hole at their core, but only a small fraction of those black holes are actually being fed; it is the feeding of the black hole that triggers the AGN.) And, both have been observed by Katie Chynoweth and I as part of our (sadly unfunded) project to build maps of the relative Doppler shifts and spectral line intensities of the ionized gas throughout the galaxy.

ngc5135.png

This image was taken in April 2007 at the CTIO 0.9m, on the same run as the image of ESO 264-G057 that I posted previously.

Two aspects of the word “privilege”

In a recent post, I expressed frustration with the observation that those who sometimes question the tactics and language of some fighting for gender-equality then get lumped in with “everybody else who is clueless and oppressive,” even if we care deeply about the issue. One of my complaints was irritation with the word “privilege,” which generated a lot of hostility and confusion which, unfortunately, ended up obscuring my core point.

I would like to thank Annie (commenter in the previous thread, who continued the conversation with me in e-mail) for her calm and reasoned and non-attacking e-mail on the subject which helped me understand where it was all coming from. At the same time, I would like to say “foo” to those of you who thought that my objection to the phrases “white privilege” and “male privilege” were a denial that there was any unfairness or that anybody else has it harder than I do. I have seen a few have those sorts of reactions— and objecting to those sorts of reactions were exactly the point I was attempting to make with the previous post.

Continue reading

Why go to grad school in science? Nod to R. Ford Denison

In this post at the blog “This Week in Evolution”, R. Ford Denison hits the nail squarely on the head.

Why should you go to grad school? Because you want to do grad school.

If you are viewing grad school as something you have to grind through in order to get the faculty job you covet, don’t go. Your chances of getting that faculty job are too low.

If you want the faculty job, you have to go to grad school. But you should believe that when you come out the other side, you will find grad school to have been a worthwhile experience even if you don’t get the faculty job, and end up doing something (e.g. teaching high school, working in industry) that you might have been able to do without the PhD.

If you want to be a doctor, go to med school. Grind through it. You may not get a top job posting, but you can be pretty sure to be a doctor somewhere.

Even though grad school at least in Physics is still entirely designed to replace the faculty– to make people into researchers in Physics– the same very much does not apply. We produce way too many Physics PhDs for all of the faculty jobs and government research lab jobs that are out there. You have to want to go to grad school itself to rationally go to grad school.

Read the post I link to above. It’s good.

My 10 favorite science fiction movies

I’m just back from Hypericon, the Nashville area science fiction convention where, as I mentioned previously, I gave a couple of talks about science stuff— although one was about science in science fiction movies.

I was also on a panel with two other guys, Jim Messer and Fred Grimm, where we each constructed a list of our top-10 favorite science fiction movies. We presented that list and said something about why they were on our list, and compared the lists with each other… and sometimes made fun of each other for having such bad ideas. We also talked with others in the room about why these movies were interesting and how they compared to other movies.

Part of the ground rules is that we weren’t allowed to use the biggest franchises– Star Wars, Star Trek, the Matrix, Alien, and the Terminator. (I think that covers it.) The goal was to try and tease out, hopefully, some of the movies others haven’t yet heard of in addition to the ones you suspect might be on the list.

I think of this right now because… well, because I’m just home from the convention, but also because Chad has just posted a “top 20” science fiction movies from Rotten Tomatoes.

So here’s my list:

Continue reading

Hypericon

This weekend I will be hanging out at Hypericon, a small Nashville science-fiction convention that is in its third years. I’ve met a number of people and made local friends there. I have also managed to finagle myself free admission by doing work in kind….

I’ll be giving two talks:

  • Why “Was Einstein Wrong?” Is the Wrong Question
  • Newtonian Physics in Science Fiction Movies and TV: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I”m also going to be on a panel where the panelists each list their top 10 favorite science fiction movies (excluding the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Matrix movies), and an argument ensues. A friend of mine who’s been to a whole lot more science fiction conventions that I say that most panel discussions are this anyway, so this one has the brilliance of being titled honestly.

If you aren’t a part of the witch hunt, you’re a part of the problem

Anybody who’s been reading my blog for a while knows that I’m aware of, very concerned about, and even active in the plight of women and minorities in science. See, for example:

I’ve stuck my neck out on this issue. I’ve even gotten whacked for sticking my neck out on this issue.

I have blind spots, but I’m not the typical clueless male who sticks his head in the sand and ignores the issue.

However, I am seriously considering becoming one. Why?

Continue reading