September 30, 2004

Silly Poll of the Day

Posted by Ed

I'm not terribly familiar with the Orange Prize for Fiction, a literary award open only to women, but I do know one thing about it: the organization that awards it loves to conduct frivolous opinion polls. Earlier this year, the prize's organizers ran a poll of 1900 British women to find out which fictional character they'd most like to go on a date with or invite to a party. Fitzwilliam Darcy, from Austen's Pride and Prejudice, came in first in each poll.

I was first alerted to this story by an article in The Guardian, in which a writer named Cherry Potter questions the wisdom of this choice. Would you really want to invite Darcy to dinner, after all? As Potter points out, "surely Mr Darcy would spend the evening either gazing at the ceiling grunting with boredom or glowering at the guests." But the article focuses most of its attention on Darcy's success in the first poll question, about potential dates:

Of course, Austen's novel betrays nothing of Darcy's actual sexuality or lack of it. Apart from being subject to the obvious restrictions of a female writer in Regency times, she may also have realised that the best sex scenes reside in the secret imagination of her readers. But what she does provide is a perfect blank screen on to which Darcy's admirers, by identifying with Elizabeth Bennet, can project that most archetypal of all female fantasies - that they will be the one and only woman to discover the key to unlocking a man's tortured soul, thus setting free his hidden passions.

It's natural that such a fantasy held sway over women two centuries ago. When society was deeply patriarchal, men like Darcy really were severe, remote and all-powerful - in the novel, Darcy even describes himself as "selfish and overbearing". Women were separated from men by all sorts of formal conventions which left them little opportunity to get to know men until after they were married. The question is, why does Darcy continue to have a compelling hold over women, particularly educated literary feminist women, in the 21st century?

Here is the rub - Austen leaves us to assume that her heroine's marriages are happy despite portraying very few idyllic marriages in the rest of her texts. Also, Austen's deification as a novelist is such that one hardly dares to point out that when it comes to marriage and what goes on behind the bedroom door, she herself had no first-hand experience. But as modern women with our wealth of relationship experience and all the benefits brought about by feminism, we should know better. The fact is that dark, smouldering, moody, charismatic, arrogant Darcy types, whom we hate at first sight and then later find ourselves falling in love with, often - particularly after we have married them - turn out to be rigid, dominating and controlling.

Potter's article isn't the most profound, but there's some amusing stuff in it--and it's undoubtedly more serious an article than the poll deserved.

In case you're curious, here are some more detailed poll results. When asked which fictional character they'd most like to go on a date with, women provided these ten answers most frequently:

1. Mr Darcy
2. James Bond
3. Superman
4. Hercule Poirot
5. Inspector Morse
6. Heathcliffe
7. Sherlock Holmes
8. Rhett Butler
9. Prince Charming
10. Sharpe

There's an obvious lesson in this: if you're a British man desperate for a date, become a detective. (Poirot, Morse, and Holmes all did well in the poll.) Or, failing that, become a superhero or a secret agent.

The second poll question asked 1900 women to name three fictional characters they'd invite to an imaginary dinner party. Here are the most popular answers:

1. Mr Darcy
2. Hercule Poirot
3. Sherlock Holmes
4. James Bond
5. Miss Marple
6. Bridget Jones
7. Jane Eyre
8. Inspector Morse
9. Gandalf
10. Elizabeth Bennett

I'll refrain from commenting on this question, except to say that Gandalf--while surely a charming guest--wouldn't be the most delightful Middle Earth resident to invite to dinner. Besides, he might bring 13 dwarves with him, and that could lead to all sorts of problems!

Posted by Ed at 01:01 PM | Comments (0)

September 28, 2004

The History of Superstition

Posted by Ed

One of my missions in life, as some of my readers may know, is to write a reference book. (Fair warning: my book will contain at least one fake entry.) I've haphazardly collected random biographical information on Soviet politicians in the vague hope of someday putting together a reference book about them, though I don't consider this an especially realistic goal; the main point of my data collection has been to satisfy my own curiosity. There's a part of me, however, that would love to write something more frivolous someday. I used to joke that I planned to write a reference book on evil people called "Who's Who in Hell" until I found out that my title had already been taken.

I was intrigued, then, to find this Guardian review of an amusing-sounding book: Steve Roud's Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland. The book sounds like fun:

Unlike many books on superstition, Roud's argues that the commonly accepted notion that modern superstitions are the vestiges of ancient beliefs simply doesn't hold water. According to him, most of the best-known superstitions originated in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. If, as some popular writers have argued, beliefs in the number 13 being unlucky stem from the 13 present at Christ's last supper, why, Roud asks, is there no mention of unlucky 13 in the historical record until the late 17th century? The earliest mention of the belief is in a letter written by the antiquarian John Aubrey in 1697, and it has nothing to do with Christ. Prior to this there's a blank. In fact, gathering in groups of 13 was considered a beneficial, Christian thing to do, until the Reformation banned such practices as "superstitious".

The same is true of crossing fingers, which is supposed to be the sign by which persecuted Christians recognised each other, the gesture mimicking the crucifix. Roud points out that crossed fingers bear little resemblance to the cross. More damning is the fact that the first reference to the practice comes no earlier than 1890, when it was touted as a charm to offset the evil effects of walking under a ladder - another popular superstition that didn't take root until the late Victorian period.

These conclusions won't come as a surprise to anyone who's read Eric Hobsbawm, and the book doesn't sound especially deep or profound, but I'm guessing that it's a fun read.

Update: I'm not the only person ob sessed with reference books, it seems. (via Maud Newton)

Posted by Ed at 09:19 PM | Comments (3)

September 27, 2004

The Bookstores of Harvard: A Lament

Posted by Ed

University of Chicago students love to complain about the lack of good shopping in Hyde Park, the neighborhood where the university is located; this summer, Jacob Levy wrote an interesting post on "the stunning lack of commerce" in Hyde Park for the Volokh Conspiracy. But there's one area in which Hyde Park shopping is fantastic: books. The Seminary Co-op is easily the best academic bookstore I've ever seen, Powell's is an excellent used book store, 57th Street Books is better than the average Barnes and Noble, and there's even a Borders to go to if you're really desperate.

Until recently, I'd have ranked Harvard Square alongside Hyde Park as one of the country's premier neighboorhoods for book shopping, especially if you're interested in academic books. As recently as 20 years ago, the square was home to 15 bookstores, including a fantastic used bookstore and three other stores that would put most Borders to shame; now the total number of bookstores has nose-dived to three. What's more, at least two of the three remaining stores have a much worse selection than they used to, and one of them just declared bankruptcy. Now I find it a little depressing every time I visit the square. You'd think that the world's most famous university would be able to keep the Cambridge book business in good shape!

Unconvinced? Here are some more details:

  • The square's biggest and most prominent bookstore is the Harvard Coop, where most Harvard students buy their textbooks. The Coop has suffered the least from recent changes, I think; if I'm looking for a recent book on Russian history, the Coop is more likely to have it than any bookstore chain is, and the Seminary Co-op is the only non-used bookstore I can think of that I can definitively say is better. (I'm sure it helps to have a captive audience of student textbook buyers.)

    Even so, the store has still changed a lot. It's now managed by Barnes and Noble (though officially it's still the Coop), and the store changed for the worse after the takeover: supplies of Harvard merchandise became more prominent, and a big cafe was added to the second floor (taking up old bookspace.) Back when I was a freelance writer, I was always inclined to write an article about changes in store architecture that made things less convenient for shoppers, and the Harvard Coop was a case in point: the store's stairways were redesigned so that if you want to get from the first floor to the third, you have to walk through the second-floor fiction section or visit the new cafe. I find decisions like that really annoying, especially since it seems to be part of a trend whereby stores try to force their customers to look at more of their merchandise.

    As it is, the Harvard Coop is still a pretty good store (better with nonfiction than with fiction, I think.) I've occasionally had trouble finding a title I wanted (neither Sheldon Stern's Averting 'the Final Faillure' nor David Hoffmann's Stalinist Values was available when I checked last summer), but the store probably isn't dramatically worse from the way it was in the old days. It's the rest of the square that's suffered most.

  • The Harvard Bookstore--which, for the record, is completely unaffiliated with the university--used to be one of the best academic bookstores I know, probably second only to Chicago's Seminary Co-Op. It used to be that if I wanted a recent academic history book--the kind that's current, interesting, and reasonably prominent in the field, but unlikely to draw in a big general audience--I could almost always find it there. The browsing, moreover, was fantastic. I first discovered the works of Robert Darnton at the Harvard Bookstore, including titles that you often can't find at your average Barnes and Noble or Borders.

    The pickings are much slimmer at the Harvard Bookstore these days: the selection of academic books is far better than at most stores, but there are big gaps in what you'll find on the shelves. I haven't had a lot of time to browse, but the store has struck me as really inconsistent the two times I've been there this month: the section on historiography had some good stuff, but the selection of Soviet history books was lousy. (There were no books by my adviser on the shelf, even though she's one of the most prominent living historians of the Soviet Union; the Harvard Coop, meanwhile, had four of her books, and a local Barnes and Noble had five when I checked.)

    [Random thought of the day: do other grad students measure the quality of a bookstore's holdings by the number of titles by their adviser that it owns? This just might be a sign of the corrupting power of graduate school, which turns even the minor details of bookshopping into a weird little game of seeing which academics are succeeding in the broader marketplace of ideas.]

  • In the old days, Wordsworth was exactly the kind of bookstore that Borders should aspire to be. It wasn't the best place to look for the most obscure academic history books, but it was far better than your average neighborhood bookshop; instead, it offered a wide selection of titles for a more general audience. The selection was broad, fun, and interesting, and it offered shoppers a discount on each purchase. I'd say that it was better than any Barnes and Noble I've been to, and probably had a better selection that Chicago's 57th Street Books. I'm inclined to say that it was better than the current Harvard Coop, but I can't remember for sure.

    Wordsworth seemed to thrive for years. While I was in high school, Wordsworth expanded quite a bit in size: it took up two whole floors of its building and moved its children's section into a separate store down the street. Unfortunately, though, the good days couldn't last forever, and by last summer, the store had given up half its second-story floor space. This really hurt the store's selection: to name one example close to my heart, the Russian history section was scrapped and merged with the European history section, which was only a little larger than the Russian section used to be. It seemed that every time I came to Wordsworth, the selection was a little worse.

    The final blow only came recently. I stopped by Wordsworth today over lunch, and was shocked to see how sparse the store's shelves were; plenty of books had their front cover facing store customers, with the spine perpendicular to the shelf, so they could fill in all the space. I looked around on the way out and found a sign announcing that the store had declared bankruptcy. Wordsworth's owners hope to find investors and keep the store running, but they're in the midst of reorganization. The only bright spot for Wordsworth is the separate children's bookstore, which still seems to be thriving.

  • McIntyre and Moore, a used bookstore that was once arguably the best store on the square, has now moved to Somerville. It's fantastic if you happen to be in Davis Square, but it's two T stops away if you're hanging around Harvard.

These changes aren't limited to Boston or the book industry, of course. When I was a kid on visits to grandparents near Louisville, for example, my family was really impressed by the Hawley-Cooke bookstore chain; those stores declined a lot in quality over the years, however, and this newspaper article describes their purchase by Borders. Meanwhile, Harvard Square's landmark Out-of-Town News isn't doing so well now that people can read the Los Angeles Times, Le Monde, or Der Spiegel online.

What's led to these changes? I'm sure that the rise of and other online booksellers has played a big role--I once heard a Powell's manager telling a customer just how much business the store had lost to online retailers, and the same forces are undoubtedly hitting Harvard Square. I suspect that the rise of big chains like Borders has also hurt Wordsworth; 15 years ago, you had to head into town to get to a decent bookstore, but now the Boston suburbs are full of so-called "superstores" like Barnes and Noble. The Boston Globe published an article several years ago predicting that the Barnes and Noble takeover of the Coop would hurt Harvard Square in the end, and now the worst has come to pass.

I'm always a tad conflicted by the rise of these chains: I think it's great that the bad old shopping mall stores like Waldenbooks have now been wiped off the face of the earth, and that most any medium-sized city will now have a pretty good bookstore. It's quite possible that the book business is now better off, on average, if you factor in the situation across the country. (Should the worst come to pass, and I end up with a job at Eastern Idaho State University, I'll undoubtedly have better access to books than I would have had ten years ago.) But the best bookstores around, I think, often aren't as good as they used to be, and it's much harder to browse online or in a Borders than in a Seminary Co-Op or a Wordsworth.

The consequences of these changes are still subject to debate, of course. In the grand scheme of things, Harvard Square is still a good place to look for books, and maybe we're better off having the ability to order most of what we want online. Even so, I can't help but think that the rise of online book shopping and the decline of good independent bookstores sometimes makes books seem more like objects of commerce and less like inviting items to browse in and enjoy.

Posted by Ed at 09:02 PM | Comments (10)

Someone was listening?

Posted by Matt

My first post on this blog described what I saw as a major flaw in the undergraduate physics curriculum at Chicago: it made little attempt to acquaint students with current research.

Last week one of my spies undergraduate friends told me that a course has been added to address this issue. Jeff Harvey and Sid Nagel are teaching it (a good sign, getting one high-energy physicist and one condensed-matter physicist for broader coverage). Here's the catalog entry:

28000. Current Research Topics in Physics. PQ: PHYS 23500. This course covers several research topics of current interest in physics. Topics, which are chosen by the instructors, may include neutrino masses, the quantum Hall effect, dark matter and dark energy, the physics of grains and glasses, the search for supersymmetry, and nanophysics, as well as other topics. The course is intended to acquaint students with forefront research in physics and to show how ideas from different areas of physics are combined in dealing with real-world problems. Autumn.

This certainly looks like a step in the right direction. I hope that it requires students to do careful and critical reading of new papers.

[Note to anyone at Chicago who might be reading: I notice that quantum mechanics 2 is required as a prereq, and I wonder if students taking it simultaneously would be ok. Physics 234 should give them the basics of quantum mechanics, and requiring 235 will mean that mostly only fourth-years take the course (since both are fall-quarter courses). Hopefully there is enough interest among just fourth-years, but I think taking such a class two years in a row could be a good thing as well.]

(I wonder if all of my grousing at the "town meeting" contributed to this, or if people just decided on their own that it was a good idea.)

My other major complaint: I hope some sort of steps are also being taken to make sure people don't get to the classes on intermediate classical mechanics or quantum mechanics without knowing what an eigenvalue is. (I found myself giving an impromptu lecture on this to some 185 students last winter.)

Posted by Matt at 12:51 PM | Comments (0)

September 26, 2004

Norman Cantor, R.I.P.

Posted by Ed

Last Saturday, the medievalist historian Norman Cantor died at 74. I wasn't terribly impressed by the New York Times obituary of Cantor, and had hoped that another paper (like The Telegraph or The Guardian) would publish something more informative, but that hasn't happened yet.

At Cliopatria, Hugo Schwyzer and Jonathan Dresner have written interesting posts that touch on Cantor's 1991 expose of the lives of other medievalists, Inventing the Middle Ages. (In particular, Cantor criticized the supposed Nazism of several colleagues.) Today's Boston Globe ideas section includes a short piece by Joshua Glenn thatadds to this discussion, describing Cantor as an "anti-obituarist." After Cantor's death, Glenn points out, "none of his peers wrote a letter to The Times Literary Supplement to suggest that his work wasn't up to snuff. That's because Cantor was the only one who might have even considered doing such a thing." Here's a longer excerpt:

After Lawrence Stone died in 1999, for example, Cantor used the TLS's letters page to rebut a eulogy in that publication for the eminent Princeton historian, claiming that Stone's work was "verbose, disorganized, and often erroneous," and that Stone was a "tedious Brit" whose "lavish patronage of Marxists and British and French cronies" was a disgrace to the discipline. And when C. Vann Woodward died in 2000, Cantor wrote to the TLS claiming the Yale historian's legacy wasn't anything he wrote but his success in recruiting 1968-ers enamored of "radical-left historiography" as students.

Questioned about his motivation, Cantor told Lingua Franca, "There are a million copies of my medieval books in print, but I regard myself as a cultural critic as well as a historian. I'm particularly concerned with the training of historians, and who trains them, and how that impacts on the general culture." Later, in his 2002 memoir "Inventing Norman Cantor," he offered a more personal explanation of his acerbity: "The best writing, for me, comes . . . when I have sustained an unpleasant shock . . . or insults and abuse from a group of academic colleagues. Then I write to affirm my own dignity, humanity, and autonomy."

I've written before that I approve (in principle) of the idea of the nasty obituary, but I don't really think this is the way to do it.

Update: Then again, perhaps we shouldn't feel too bad for Lawrence Stone, the subject of one of Cantor's nasty "anti-obituaries." If I recall correctly, Stone himself wrote a really nasty letter to the TLS marking the death of the Soviet historian E.H. Carr. Maybe what goes around comes around.

Posted by Ed at 09:17 AM | Comments (0)

September 24, 2004

Random Musings

Posted by Ed

If there's one thing I should have learned from a year and a half of blogging, it's this: when you quit blogging regularly for a while, you shouldn't casually announce that you'll soon be posting more frequently, even if you think you will. After all, if you do start posting more regularly, you won't need to have warned your readers about your return beforehand, and if you don't, you'll just look silly.

Luckily, I don't exactly have legions of loyal readers, so it's not as if the lonely post that prematurely announced my "return to active blogging" has left very many people feeling disappointed. Even so, I've felt a bit silly every time I've seen that post and realized that I never followed up on it. I've just been really busy lately.

Why have I been so busy ? For the last few weeks, I've been holed up in Harvard's Lamont Library, reading microfilms that discuss misconduct cases against members of the Soviet Communist party. This is the first stage of my dissertation research, which will continue in January when I begin nine months of archival work in the former Soviet Union. I'm studying the process by which the Communist party censured and expelled its members, for infractions including drinking, womanizing, religious observance, workplace offenses, and war-time collaboration with the Germans.

Part of the reason for my recent near-silence is that I don't plan to discuss my dissertation research here in much detail. (I have plenty of other people I can talk to about my work, and I'd rather publish my thoughts on Soviet history in a forum that can someday help me get a job; moreover, I suffer from the paranoia that afflicts most graduate students, and I'd rather not alert other researchers to some of the cooler sources I'm looking at.) Just as importantly, though, it's really tiring to spend 8 or more hours a day looking at microfilm. When I return from a day spent at Harvard with my laptop and a microfilm reader, I don't always want to sit down and blog when I get home. Maybe I'm beginning to understand why Nicholson Baker hates the medium so much!

I hope that my blogging habits are about to change. I have about six different blog posts mapped out in my head, including a book review, a rant about the declining quality of Cambridge's bookstores, a couple movie reviews, and the beginning of a nifty recurring feature that may enable me to write about my research in a way that makes me feel comfortable. We'll just have to wait and see if these proto-bloggings ever appear on the site...

For now, though, I'll end with some rambling thoughts about my recent research. When I tell people that I'm studying the everyday misconduct of Russian Communists, one of the most common responses I get is this: "Wow! You must have to read a lot about drinking and alcoholism!" That's true, though the sentiment behind it rubs me the wrong way, and yesterday I came across a case that beautifully encapsulates a lot of the issues that appear in the Communist party's expulsion of alcoholics from its membership. Why did the party want to crack down on drinking, after all? Because it's immoral? That's definitely true in part--plenty of cases I've come across discuss the issue in moral terms, but there's more to the issue. On one level, it's a great example of what economists call the principal-agent problem: the Soviet regime was trying to rein in its representatives in the workplace and the state apparatus and to crack down on those whose behavior it couldn't control. At the same time, the party was trying to push up economic productivity, to stamp out cultural backwardness, and to produce an elite class of prominent citizens whose behavior would be a model to their peers.

The case I found yesterday tied together all of these threads. It dealt with a poorly educated man guilty of "systematic drinking," who beat his wife and brought down the work level of his colleagues. The man was the chairman of an industrial artel', but when he was supposed to report to the provincial party committee on his artel's work, he showed up drunk and made fun of the local party leaders; he was incapable of providing his workers with leadership, and his artel' had only met 50.5% of its production quota at the end of the year. (He often spent the night drinking with his co-workers, sometimes even at their workplace.) Just as importantly, the man's public drinking "discredited him as a Communist" in the eyes of the population, hurting the reputation of the Soviet state.

The document was loaded with fun details that are hard to sum up quickly, and its conclusion left me stopped in my tracks. The report closed by noting that its subject had left work one day to go to the market, but was so drunk that he ended up falling asleep in public and making a complete fool of himself. He was robbed of 3509 rubles (the property of the artel'), his watch, and his trousers.

When I reached that point in the document, I'd been looking at microfilm for nearly nine hours, and I was sure that I was forgetting the Russian for "pants." (My everyday Russian vocabulary is rather poor, and I'd probably be more successful discussing the nuances of 19th-century tariff policy than describing the inventory of a clothing store, I'm afraid.) My initial translation was exactly right, however, which was enough to make my day. I've read a lot of documents that were much more analytically interesting this week, but few that were quite so amusing--or that did quite as good a job encapsulating as many key issues in the space of less than two pages.

Posted by Ed at 08:36 PM | Comments (1)

September 23, 2004

Links of the Day

Posted by Ed

I'm sure the ancticipation is killing you, and you can't wait to see the exciting stuff I'll be writing for this blog over the next week or so. Until then, here are some links:

  • In The New York Review of Books, Clifford Geertz discusses the story of Ishi, the last of his tribe.
  • I've always been kind of wary of the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, though I've never known much about it. Now, having read this Slate article, I'm a little bit more knowledgeable and a lot more skeptical.
  • The New York Times discusses the publication of a "biographical behemoth": the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. If any of you has a spare $13,000, my birthday is coming next month and I'd love a copy!
  • Simon Winchester, meanwhile, says he's clearing out his library to make room for the afore-mentioned reference work--which will be the longest, heaviest book ever produced in English.
  • Speaking of reference books, The Moscow Times describes the successor to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, the Great Russian Encyclopedia. Kim Iskyan, meanwhile, reviews five new books on Armenian history.
  • A Slate article by Jack Shafer discusses how to beat Bill O'Reilly at his own game.
  • The Wall Street Journal opinion page looks at a new movie about Hitler.
  • Witch? Fairy? Goddess of wisdom? The Independent looks back at Mary Poppins.

More later...

Posted by Ed at 10:09 PM | Comments (0)

September 16, 2004

More Links

Posted by Susan

Like Ed and Matt, I've been really busy over the past couple of weeks, mostly with my prelim exam (which went well, hurrah). A few links until I can think in paragraphs again:

  • This one I found during prelims; I think I stumbled across it while looking for papers on aneuploidy, though I can't quite figure out how I got here from there. It's a neuroendocrinology paper entitled "Periodic emergence of great poets in the history of Arabia & Persia, China and Japan." The abstract reads:

    A periodicity of about 500 years has been discovered in the history of poetry and documented by means of inferential statistics. Great poets of Arabia, Persia, China and Japan emerged periodically every 500 years. Moreover, the waves of poetic creativeness in the West and in the East have been synchronous for the last 3000 years. It is a surprising fact, that this periodicity has been known already before 800 B.C. to the priests of Babylon, who ascribed it to the influence of goddess Inanna. A set of psychological symptoms typical for pubescence recurs on a global (worldwide) scale during these historical epochs every 500 years. One possible explanation would be to search for a cosmophysical factor, which impacts the neuroendocrine system of men.

    I'd be interested in seeing follow-up papers...
  • In Nature this week:

    • A special feature on the election discusses the candidates' stands on scientific issues (not just stem cells). Also, an election blog debuts.
    • A neat paper by Schimmel and Beebe on pyrrolysine tRNA synthetase which discusses the role of mRNA secondary structure in amino acid incorporation. There are some other interesting RNA-related papers (microRNAs!) in the Insight section.
    • Eugene Russo on the changing length of Ph.D. programs in the U.S. and Europe.

  • Not a new link, really, but by Kleckner et al, which explores the role of mechanical stress in chromosome function, is a great example of cool interdisciplinary research.
  • Oakdale and Broadway: dairy mecca? Already home to a seriously fantastic ice cream parlor/Belgian wafflery (Bobtail, featuring such flavors as "Signature Sunset"--merlot ice cream with dark chocolate flakes), this intersection now also features Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread, and Wine.
  • My new favorite thing: Strindberg + helium!!!

Posted by Susan at 07:13 PM | Comments (0)

Meet the Romneys

Posted by Ed

If you're interested in Massachusetts politics (and in now-obscure political figures of the past), you might well enjoy this Boston Phoenix article by Adam Reilly. It's a comparison of Mitt Romney, the Bay State's current governor and a possible 2008 presidential candidate, and his father, former Michigan Governor George Romney. (Romney the elder was widely seen as the frontrunner for the 1968 Republican nomination, but his campaign collapsed after he said he'd been "brainwashed" about Vietnam.)

The article may be a bit over-enthusiastic about George Romney, given that a lot of its discussion of the former Michigan governor was based on interviews with one of his biggest supporters from 40 years ago. Even so, it does a nice job of highlighting what's wrong with Mitt Romney's governorship.

Posted by Ed at 09:40 AM | Comments (0)

September 13, 2004

Links of the Day

Posted by Ed

Some of the articles I've read recently:

  • In The Nation, Ron Suny (a member of my dissertation committee) reviews several new books on Stalin.
  • Stephen Greenblatt describes the life of William Shakespeare in The New York Times Magazine.
  • David Remnick discusses the Chechen crisis in The New Yorker.
  • A Legal Affairs article by Emily Bazelon discusses the unexpected consequences of an Israeli anti-terrorism case.
  • Rolling Stone describes the "curse of Dick Cheney."
  • The Walrus discusses the wild boars of Berlin and the man who hunts them.
  • Drake Bennett looks at the wonderful world of personality testing in the Boston Globe ideas section.
  • Michael Dirda and Henry Farrell discuss Susanna Clark's new book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. (Later this week I'll write my own post on the book.)
  • Alfred Russel Wallace was an interesting guy (via Arts and Letters Daily).
  • Scott McLemee discusses the work of the sociologist Michael Mann.

As always, I may add more later.

Posted by Ed at 07:59 PM | Comments (0)

Return to Active Blogging?

Posted by Ed

As you may or may not have noticed, I haven't been the most prolific of bloggers for the last month: what with a cross-country move, a family funeral, and the beginning of my research at Harvard, I haven't had a lot of free time of late. (It hasn't helped that the last two weeks have involved the most tedious part of my microfilm research, leaving me disinclined to spend much time in front of a computer when I got home each night.) As a result, about the only blog-related activity I've taken part in has been the deletion of comment spam--an annoying task that's wasted quite a bit of my time.

In any case, expect more posts from me soon--maybe tonight and probably tomorrow. I can't guarantee you that my return to blogging will be as fast as I'd like, but I hope to have written several posts by the end of the week.

Posted by Ed at 07:33 PM | Comments (0)

September 08, 2004

My first stab at theory research: towards a realistic Higgsless model

Posted by Matt

You might want to go back and read my earlier account of the fundamental forces and what we mean by "electroweak symmetry breaking." Briefly, the current theory we have of particle physics that's valid up to the energy scales we can test so far at colliders is called "the Standard Model," and all of it is very well-tested except for the Higgs boson. The Higgs was introduced because the Standard Model breaks down completely at a scale somewhere around what we're currently testing, and it's pretty much the simplest thing you could add to the theory to keep it from giving you nonsensical results at those energies. But so far the Higgs hasn't been discovered where people thought it would be, and it introduces all sorts of other problems in the theory.

I said a bit more about this in this post, where I suggested that we should try to understand supersymmetric theories better to get a sense of what sort of strongly interacting possiblities there are for electroweak symmetry breaking. What I'm about to describe is another fairly easy-to-understand example along those lines, albeit not supersymmetric.

(Aside: the Hindustan Times recently published this article about physicists wanting a Linear Collider to find 'God.' Presumably this comes from Leon Lederman's odd dubbing of the Higgs "the God Particle," but it leads to amusing quotes like "nobody has seen God and some even doubt its existence.")

Read on for how we hope to build a realistic model with no Higgs boson. I'm afraid it gets a bit too technical at points, but hopefully the general ideas will be of interest.

Right now I'm working toward starting a project of researching a certain type of Higgsless model. (I say "working toward" because I'm in the stage of reproducing in detail earlier results of Csaba Csaki and others, before I start trying new things.) The idea behind these models is a fairly attractive one, in my opinion.

It all starts with something called the Randall-Sundrum scenario. One fairly comprehensible way to learn a bit about this is from this interview with Lisa Randall at Roughly, the idea is to take a five-dimensional space where the fifth dimension stretches between two four-dimensional "branes." (Note that our universe as we observe it is four-dimensional: three space dimensions, and time.) The geometry of this fifth dimension is "warped," so that as you move along the fifth dimension things shrink in a certain way. It turns out that this can naturally explain why the scale of the electroweak interactions -- the scale of this mysterious Higgs boson that we haven't seen yet -- is so much smaller than the natural scale of gravity. (Phrased a different way, it explains why gravity is so much weaker than the other forces.)

Now, any particle we know about corresponds to a quantum field, and, like the different harmonics on a violin string, there will be different "modes" of this field in the fifth dimension. From the point of view of four-dimensional observers like us, these modes look like independent particles, with increasingly higher mass. These are called "Kaluza-Klein modes," after the people who originally conceived of the idea that there could be more spatial dimensions.

What Csaba and others realized was that this "tower" of additional modes of the W and Z bosons -- the ones that are involved in carrying the electroweak force -- can in some sense play the role of the Higgs boson. (Specifically, they can keep the WW scattering amplitude unitary.) Even better, in the specific five-dimensional "warped" geometry Randall and Sundrum considered, this can be done in a way that's consistent with experimental observations. This was explained in this paper, and more detailed calculations were done in this paper.

This all is very nice, but the Higgs does more than just fix problems with W scattering. It gives masses to fermions! Thus this paper on how to incorporate fermion masses in these Higgsless models. The real challenge proves to be the top quark. It's very heavy -- a top quark has the mass of a gold nucleus! This is huge, when you consider that that's about 175 proton masses. The proton is made of three quarks, but almost all of its mass is binding energy. The up and down quarks in it contribute almost nothing to its mass. The top is just amazingly heavy for a fundamental fermion.

One can achieve a high enough top mass in the Higgsless models by adjusting enough parameters, but the top and the bottom quark are related to each other. It's hard to mess with them independently. So what happens when you try to fix the top in these models is that you tend to mess up the couplings of the bottom quark, which have been experimentally measured.

So, the goal of this project I'm working towards will be to try to solve these problems and produce a fully realistic Higgsless model. This will probably involve adding a new scale in these theories. This isn't so surprising when you consider that these theories are AdS/CFT duals of a theory like walking technicolor, and technicolor generally needs such an extra scale. (See, e.g., these lectures on technicolor by Kenneth Lane.)

One more note, of a more technical nature: some of you might be familiar with recent papers by Howard Georgi, Maxim Perelstein, and others arguing that electroweak corrections to "deconstructed" Higgsless models are in unacceptable disagreement with experiment. These papers don't address the equivalent of bulk fermions, however; the fermions in these are charged under only the gauge groups at the end of the "moose diagram," and so are more like brane fermions. Electroweak corrections in the 5D models seem to be under control, although the whole question hinges on whether that is still true once we include the third generation in a realistic way. Once I get up to speed on all the work that's been done so far, this is what I will have to start computing.

A couple of references, for those with some physics knowledge looking for a way to learn about extra-dimensional scenarios and warped geometry in particular: try Csaba's TASI lectures, and the article on "Holography and Phenomenology" by Nima Arkani-Hamed, Massimo Porrati, and Lisa Randall.

I'll try to find some articles for non-physicists on things like the Randall-Sundrum "brane world" and the Higgs, to supplement this probably confusing and overly digressive sketch.

Posted by Matt at 11:18 PM | Comments (0)

Doing my part to keep up a post a week....

Posted by Matt

Miscellaneous things of interest:

  • There's an amusing thread over at Crooked Timber on favorite first lines of books, to which I added perhaps a bit too much Nabokoviana. As well as a Borges quote. The musical equivalent of that discussion is at Opiniatrety.
  • Cross-posting from myself: There's a small chance you're wondering whether to pick up the new Clinic album Winchester Cathedral. I did the other day. It might be better than Walking With Thee -- which I don't own and have only heard in its entirety once -- but mostly it feels like old material being rehashed. "Falstaff" strikes me as a good song. Which might be related to how I really like the softer songs "Distortions" and "Goodnight Georgie" and "Porno" from the early albums, except that I don't feel like this is directly repeating them. Other songs here feel like slight variations on old themes. I wouldn't say the album is bad by any means. But I'm not sure it's worth owning, really. Buy Internal Wrangler, and buy the collection of EPs. They're good stuff. If you like them enough, try the newer albums. But I'm not convinced they add anything.

    (I don't remember if I ever mentioned going to see Clinic in concert last spring here, so if I didn't: it was cool. Of course they're known for playing in surgical scrubs, which is a nice gimmick. But it was a good show, if very short. Really disappointingly short, from my point of view, but keeping in mind that their songs are very short, they did play a fair number of them. And, wow, that bassist sings high for being such a large guy.)

  • This collection of 80's TV show theme songs (including those of many cartoons) seems particularly entertaining for people near my age who watched too many cartoons as kids. (I also had the comic book versions of many of those. Still do, boxed up somewhere, I think. Even M.A.S.K. and Air Raiders and Visionaries. And of course Thundercats and G.I. Joe and Transformers. Imagine, such a dorky child growing up to be me.)
  • If you're not reading Small Shelly Fauna, you're missing out on fascinating information about Godzilla. Really.
  • Apple's Airport Express with AirTunes is very cool. I'm streaming music to my living room speakers wirelessly from iTunes on my laptop. No more choosing between wearing headphones or going to the trouble of getting up to put CDs in the CD player. Mabe I'm just lazy.

To follow: a post on research and possibly other academic things I've been thinking about.

Posted by Matt at 10:09 PM | Comments (1)

September 02, 2004

Unexpected Film Credit of the Week

Posted by Ed

Last night, as I finished watching Mira Nair's new adaptation of Vanity Fair, I was surprised to see the following film credit: "Salaams to Edward W. Said for continuing to inspire." One doesn't usually expect to see a post-colonial theorist thanked by the makers of a Holloywood movie...

Then again, the movie probably would have been better if Mira Nair weren't quite so interested in Orientalist critiques of colonialism. Nair's Vanity Fair had several India-inspired scenes that--I'm told--did not appear in the book, and whose presence, I felt, was jarring; in one scene, Becky Sharp performs an Indian dance number for King George IV, and in another, she tours India with Joseph Sedley on an elephant.

Overall, the movie was decent but uninspired: the acting was pretty good, the music was excellent, and the script included some great lines and amusing scenes, but the movie as a whole just didn't have much bite. My sense is that Becky Sharp should have been nastier, and I felt like her character ended up muddled by Nair's attempt to make her more straightforwardly likeable. Then again, who am I to judge? I've never read the book... (One of the joys of reading reviews of Vanity Fair is watching movie critics who've obviously never read the book fall over themselves trying to look like Thackeray experts.)

Update: According to this Globe and Mail article, Mira Nair was once Said's next-door neighbor.

Posted by Ed at 10:52 AM | Comments (0)

September 01, 2004

Thought for the Day

Posted by Ed

Thought for the day: Arnold Schwarzenegger may be the only man in history who was inspired to enter politics by Richard Nixon.

[The main point of this post is to make sure that there's something on our main page. It will be a few days before I begin posting again, since I'm moving out of my apartment tomorrow and will be returning to Boston on Friday. Frequent updates will return next week, when I plan to write at least two movie reviews and to post several entries on history or politics.]

Posted by Ed at 12:02 AM | Comments (0)