s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: January 2009

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Christmas carols: All hail to the days

The bad news about this week's selection is that I only found one video of it. The good news is that the recording I found is lovely, so I'm happy to go with it.

This week's carol is "All hail to the days" (or "All hayle to the dayes," depending on how olde you want your spelling to be) and it probably dates from the 16th century.

The version I found is instrumental, so I'll give you the first verse:

All hail to the days That merit more praise
Than all of the rest of the year!
And welcome the nights That double delights
As well for the poor as the peer!
Good fortune attend Each merry man's friend
That doth bat* the best that he may,
For getting old wrongs With carols and songs
To drive the cold winter away.


B. Douvill, 2008:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A brief history of Star Trek

It has recently come to my attention that a close friend of mine has a woefully inadequate knowledge of all things Star Trek. Mind you, I don't care that she hasn't actually watched the show (in any of its incarnations), much less that she isn't a "Trekkie" (or "Trekker," or a person who can wage a long argument over the difference between the two), but I feel it's the an important part of our cultural heritage, not to mention an institution that strongly appealed to me at a formative period of my life. As luck would have it, she reads my blog, so I have some hope of righting this wrong.

I don't intend to write anything like a definitive history of the franchise. (There's no way I could compete with Wikipedia, much less Memory Alpha.) Instead, I plan on cranking out a few posts which summarize my own history with the shows, and what I think are some key points.

So, let's start at the very beginning (a very good place to start):

In 1960, television writer Gene Roddenberry came up with a proposal for a new TV show. A fan of sci-fi with experience writing westerns, Roddenberry conceived of his new show as a combination of the two ("Space the final frontier . . ."), with a dash of naval bravado. Six years and two pilots later, Star Trek premiered on NBC.

The basic plot of the show is that the crew of the starship Enterprise, led by the daring and dashing Captain James T. Kirk, fly around the galaxy, looking for trouble if it doesn't find them first. Along the way, they meet aliens, robots, and deal with technological malfunctions.

One of the striking things about Roddenberry's Star Trek was its utopian vision of the future. In the middle of the Cold War and at a time when much of the United States was still segregated, the Star Trek crew was comprised of traditional rivals working harmoniously together: men and women, black and white, Russian and American, human and alien, Scottish and Japanese. (OK, I may be overstating the "traditional rivalry" in that last case.)

The show lasted for two full seasons and was canceled in the middle of the third, after only 79 episodes had been broadcast. Truly an unlikely beginning for a franchise that would eventually include six TV series, 10+ films (the 11th is in post-production), and hundreds of books and other media, not to mention a thriving fanbase with its own subculture.

Monday, January 26, 2009

T is for Tendon

When I was in college, I was a student instructor for a physics lab. Our physics department had two separate physics tracks: one for engineers and students in the physical sciences, and one for students in the life sciences, many of whom were pre-med. The lab I taught was part of the second track.

Every week, all of the student instructors taught the same lab to a dozen different sections of students. At the beginning of the week, we'd all meet to go over the lab, ourselves, to make sure we understood what we were teaching and how to use the equipment.

One week, we were doing a lab which involved holding a bowling ball and estimating the amount of force being exerted on one's tendon. In order to get an accurate estimate, we had to hold our arms at a right angle and measure the angle of the tendon. One of us held the ball, and a couple of us pulled out rulers to estimate the points of attachment, at which point, we ran into a problem.

None of us knew which one was the tendon.

"Is that the tendon? Or is that a ligament?" "I think that's a muscle." "So where's the tendon?" "Maybe it's a sinew. . . ."

Here we were, a half-dozen physics students, completely baffled by our own elbows, and not sure what to do about it.

Suddenly, I had a thought.

"Guys! At least half our students are pre-med — they'll know which one is the tendon!"

Satisfied, we worked out a general equation with the tendon values left as variables and finished the lab. Sure enough, when it came time for me to teach the lab, my students came to the rescue and got to give me a lecture, for once.

(Ironically, when lab day arrived, it turned out we were missing another key piece of information, namely, the weight of the bowling ball. We'd been provided with scales, but they only measured up to 2500 g, and the balls didn't have their weight printed on them. Happily, yet another student saved the day. He was an avid bowler, so he knew what each standard bowling ball weight felt like to carry. We just handed him each ball, in turn, and he told us what it weighed. Good times.)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Christmas carols: Gaudete!

"Gaudete!" (lit. "Rejoice!") was published in 1582 as part of the collection Piae Cantiones. (However, this source gives only the music for the refrain; the music used for the verses dates from an early 15th century source.) The text of the refrain means "Rejoice! Rejoice! Christ is born of the Virgin Mary; rejoice!" The verses celebrate God made man and include a reference to the gate of Ezekiel, a metaphor for the Virgin Mary. (She's worth a lot of metaphors, apparently.)

The text and music of the refrain have been criticized for being poorly matched — the first "Gaudete!" has the second and third syllables stressed, while the second "Gaudete!" lacks a stress on the first syllable (which is where it should properly be) — so other words are sometimes paired with this tune. Nonetheless, the original version remains quite popular.

Les Petits Chanteurs de Laval, 2007:

King's Singers, from their album A Little Christmas Music, 1990:

I found a video recording of the King's Singers performing this carol, but the quality was terrible, so I settled for this audio-only recording, instead.

University of Southern Mississippi, Carillon Handbell Choir, 2006:

Another audio-only version, this time instrumental.

Bonus track: Steeleye Span, 1973:

"Gaudete" was a 1973 hit single for British folk band Steeleye Span. Of course, it wasn't very representative of their other work, being that it was sung a capella and, you know, entirely in Latin. (It's got to be a bit harsh when you're best loved for being the least like yourself.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Syntagms, paradigms, and a gallon of milk

In semiotics, we sometimes speak of "syntagms" and "paradigms." "Paradigms" are words or signs which are related by the property of being able to substitute or stand in for each other. So, in the sentence

The cat sat on the mat.

"Cat" and "dog" have a paradigmatic relationship with each other, because the word "dog" could substitute for the word "cat." (The sentence wouldn't mean the exactly same thing, of course, but the point is that the new sentence would still be grammatical.)

"Syntagms" are words or signs which are related by the property of appearing together in a group, often in a sequence. So, in the same sentence as above, "cat" and "sat" have a syntagmatic relationship with each other, because they appear next to each other in the sentence.

Clothing is another area where we look for syntagms and paradigms. Two pairs of socks have a paradigmatic relationship, because they can substitute for each other. And socks and shoes have a syntagmatic relationship, since they appear together in the same "group" (i.e., outfit).

So, I actually think about this a lot when I go grocery shopping. (Why, what do you think about when you're grocery shopping?) The reason I think about this, aside from being an incurable nerd, is that grocery stores are largely organized on syntagmatic and paradigmatic principles.

Take cake frosting, for example. Between various brands and flavors, you can probably find 30 different types of cake frosting at a good-sized grocery store. Nobody comes into the grocery store for 30 different types of cake frosting, though — most people just want one or two types. So, why bother to put all 30 together? Why not organize them some other way, maybe alphabetically, so you can go straight to the one you want?

Well, you might come into the store wanting some type of cake frosting, but not knowing exactly what brand or flavor, so the current setup allows you some leeway in that regard. (At least, that scenario seems more likely than coming in wanting either vanilla frosting, vanilla pudding, or vanilla wafers. Not to mention the fact that alphabetizing a list isn't necessarily as straightforward as it seems — do you go by "Vanilla frosting" or "Frosting, Vanilla"?)

Moving down the aisle, why are frosting and cake mix invariably together? Well, one may not be able to substitute for the other, but they do commonly go together. So, even if you don't go to the grocery store looking for either cake mix or frosting, many people do come in looking for both. (This also goes to explain why birthday candles are also in the same aisle.)

Of course, there are limits to the grocery store as a perfect model of syntagms and paradigms. By extension, eggs and milk should also be located next to cake mix, but the practicalities of food preservation intervene and dictate that all refrigerated foods be stored together. (Even if they didn't, some foods are such common staples that they're syntagmatically related to many different other foods. So, while cake mix and frosting are more closely tied with each other than with any other products, eggs and milk are ingredients in many different kinds of mixes and recipes.)

As interesting as it is to ponder the underlying semiotic structure of frosting and cake mix, I find myself really thinking about this sort of thing when I'm looking for something obscure. Take bread crumbs. What are they like? Flour? Corn meal? Bread? (Paradigmatic analysis.) What do they go with? Meat? Vegetables? (Syntagmatic analysis.)

In the end, I think I found them on the same aisle as rice and beans, go figure.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

S is for Setting Shari Lewis Straight

Once when my brother was very young, he was watching an episode of Lamb Chop's Play Along. Shari Lewis was singing a Swahili (?) song translated into English whose lyrics were roughly:

Zoom, zoom, zoom!
Little baby bee!
Zoom, zoom, zoom!
Little baby bee!

He stood watching the entire thing with his thumb in his mouth, then pulled it out and said, dismissively, "A baby bee is a larva."

Way to tell her!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Christmas carols: Past three o'clock

Past three o'clock draws its inspiration from the calls of the London waits — pre-17th century musicians who patrolled the town at night and sang a signature tune on the hour. The refrain which precedes each verse echoes the watchman's signature tune, and is based on what is known of the old hourly calls. The verses are newer, having been composed by George Ratcliffe Woodward in the early 20th century.

MCLA (Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) Women's Chorus, 2008:

Coral Polifónica Sagrada Familia, 2006(?):

As promised, here's a Spanish choir singing an English carol.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Cat. & Reference: Serial order

When it comes to organizing library serials (i.e., newspapers, magazines, and journals), there are a couple of different schools of thought. One theory is that you should just organize them alphabetically, by title, so that they'll be easy to find. Serials collections are usually much smaller than monographic (book) collections, so it can be a workable system for this sub-group, even if it wouldn't work for the whole library. Plus, it means that you don't have to consult the catalog every time you need to find a particular title. However, there are some drawbacks.

For starters, you'll get a big glut of titles in the "J" section because so many serials are called The Journal of X, Y or Z. Also, you have to figure out what to do with titles in languages that don't use the Roman alphabet. (The Slavic Library at the University of Illinois solves this problem by splitting the serials into a Roman alphabet group, which is alphabetized from A-Z, and a Cyrillic alphabet group, which is alphabetized from А-Ю.) But, the biggest problem, in my estimation, is that they aren't grouped by subject.

The other day, I found myself needing to look at the covers of a bunch of different art, design, and photography magazines for a work project. Unfortunately, I didn't have a good way of finding all of them at once, because our serials are organized alphabetically. (I grant that Artforum, Art in America, and Art Journal were all together, but that's only three out of . . . I don't know how many, because I can't find all of them.)

The second school of thought is that you should organize serials by call number order, same as the books in the rest of the library. (Actually, both Dewey and LC schedules call for serials to be mixed in with the books, but most libraries have serials in a separate section, because they have such different circulation needs.) Having the serials in call number order means that it's harder to find one title you're looking for, but once you've found one, you've automatically found all the rest in the same subject area. (BYU's library has signs which point out the location of the most popular serials, to help address the finding issue.)

So, if you're in a public library with a few dozen serials subscriptions, alphabetical order is probably fine. Otherwise, I think that call number order is the way to go.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Christmas carols: Riu, riu, chiu

Riu, riu chiu is a Spanish carol from the 16th century. The first verse of the carol is about a shepherd who guards a precious ewe from a wolf. ("Riu, riu, chiu" was the traditional call of Spanish shepherds to their sheep.) The verse is a actually metaphor for God protecting Mary from Satan. (Oddly, Mary is the metaphorical lamb, and not Christ.) The rest of the verses go on to celebrate the birth of Christ, how it was foretold, and what his glorious mission would be. This isn't a carol that you're likely to hear in an LDS Christmas program any time soon, given that it celebrates the Immaculate Conception (i.e., that's how God was able to protect Mary from sin), but it's still pretty cool.

After listening to many, many renditions of this carol on YouTube, I have learned a few things. One, good pitch is crucial in this song. A soloist who can't hit his high notes just ruins it. Two, it sounds terrible with piano accompaniment. I like it best a capella, but it also sounds nice with recorders, other period woodwinds, or strings. (I assume this has something to do with the piano's even-tone tempering clashing the harmony of the song, but a more music-y reader may know better.) Here are three favorites, plus a couple more.

Coro de la Catedral de San Isidro, 1997

Here's a very traditional arrangement, sung in a cathedral by a Spanish choir, accompanied by a small orchestra. (One bonus of hearing it sung by a Spanish choir is that at least their pronunciation is good!)

Black House Ceilidh, 2008(?)

This is a lovely instrumental version performed on period instruments. (And in period dress, for what it's worth. Also, pay no attention to the fellow who says that "Riu, riu, chiu" is the call of the nightingale. My source is The New Oxford Book of Carols, and I'm sticking with it.)

CBHS Jazz Choir, 2006

Although this high school recording has lower production values, this a capella performance with its tight harmonies is by far the best of all the YouTube videos I listened to.

Bonus track: The Monkees, 1967

OK, I have to confess that I actually first heard this carol on a Monkees LP that my aunt had when I was growing up. (And, for many years vaguely thought that it was a Monkees song, but then I also thought that there were eight days in a week, thanks to the Beatles. What can I say — I was an impressionable child! Anyway, enjoy!)

Honorable mention: Terry McDade and the McDades for their Celtic-style rendition of the carol. (I was going to include this one as #2, but then I found a true instrumental version so it got bumped down.)

Monday, January 05, 2009

Bad reviews

My name is Katya and I like bad reviews.

Sometimes I like them because they're funny, as in Eric D. Snider's review of the movie She's the Man:
During the occasional brief moments when Viola is remembering that she's supposed to be a guy, her behavior is so bug-eyed and jittery that there's no way anyone would buy it. The reason is that the director, Andy Fickman (making his theatrical feature debut), thinks that kind of overdone reaction will be funnier, so he's instructed Bynes -- who is no comic genius to begin with, I hasten to point out -- to play everything up big-time. "Don't just stammer 'er, uh,'" I hear him telling her. "Make a panicked face and flail your hands a little when you say it! Yes! Just like that! Only BIGGER! More ridiculous! Yes! Now do that over and over again for 100 minutes! Now go out into the audience and STAB ERIC D. SNIDER IN THE FACE WITH A FORK!!" Then I wake up, cold and sweaty and unable to sleep for hours.
As you might guess, he gave it an F grade.

I wouldn't call the editors of "Cooks Illustrated" funny, generally, but their reviews can be interesting in terms of what can go wrong in the world of cooking design. Here's their review of a $200 mandoline:
"Completely unintuitive," "uncomfortable," and "overbuilt," this brawny French model's only saving grace was its incredibly sharp V-blades. The spring-loaded guard "boinged" food across the counter.
FYI, their top rated mandoline only costs $50, and their second place finisher is a steal at under $30. So, price doesn't always correspond with quality.

There's something more to it than just "funny" or "interesting," though, because it's not like bad reviews have cornered the market on either of those things. So, if there were no bad reviews, no negative criticism . . . what would be missing in my life?

Knitty.com is a free online magazine for knitters which publishes patterns, articles, and reviews. It's a really great site in a lot of ways: It's one of the best resources out there for free, contemporary patterns, I like a lot of the articles, and I appreciate the reviews in terms of bringing new books and products to my attention. However — you guessed it — they don't publish bad reviews and it drives me nuts.

When I'm buying a knitting book from Amazon (or even considering doing so), I always check out the really bad reviews. I want to know the worst that can be said about the book before I buy it. If the worst that can be said is "I didn't like the patterns" or "The range of pattern sizes was too narrow," that doesn't necessarily affect my decision. But if the negative reviews say that the instructions are confusing or full of errors, I'll take that into account and maybe not buy the book after all. So, first, I want a range of opinions on any one thing so that I can get a better idea of its strengths and weaknesses.

Of course, sometimes you have to stick with just one or a few opinions on something. Happily, I know a few people whose opinions on various matters I've come to trust. Even better there's a larger community out there of people who've made it their life's goal to have an informed opinion on something, either as a paid profession (movie critics, taste testers, the folks at Consumer Reports) or as a personal interest (members of LibraryThing and Facebook and, of course, bloggers in general). But how do you know if someone's opinion is worthwhile? Well, looking at how many positive vs. negative reviews is a decent first approximation, because it tells you how picky someone is, which influences the weight of a positive rating.

For example, Eric Snider has reviewed 21 movies in the past 30 days. Of those movies, only 9 have been "graded" in the B-range or higher and only 1 (!) got an A grade. Because of this, I give a lot more weight to a positive review by Eric than I do to a positive review by the Knitty editorial board, where everything is just "happy, happy, nice" all the time.

Now, I recognize that there are social ramifications in giving out ratings and reviews. After all, I'd be very nervous to have a food critic over for dinner, even if I appreciate the work that he or she does. So, it's possible that the Knitty board wants to say only nice things because they don't want to make enemies in the knitting publishing world or hurt the feelings of knitting designers (since, after all, they're always looking for new designers to contribute free patterns to publish). That said, if they'd even tell me "We privately reviewed 100 books this year, and here are the top 20," I'd take that into account and pay more attention to their reviews.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Christmas carols

So, I had this odd idea last month. My odd idea was that I would pick some random subject and become a quasi-expert on it by inter-library loaning book on the topic from the four corners of the earth. (I've been making research bibliographies off and on all semester for a few people, and I think I wanted a chance to use my vast librarian powers for my own benefit.)

After much deliberation, I finally selected the topic of treasuries of Christmas carols — I'd review a bunch of them and select the best. Unfortunately, the first book I came across (The New Oxford Book of Carols) proved to be pretty much the best collection I'd ever seen, so that abruptly cut the search short.

Having discovered this fabulous volume, though, I decided that my new knowledge quest would be to pick an individual Christmas carol every week and write a little about its history. (Really, I just want to be cool like Becca and post a regular feature.)

I realize that this is an odd time to begin such a venture, being as the Christmas season is nearly over. (I say nearly because today is actually the 9th day of Christmas, thank you very much.) So, if you hate Christmas music at non-Christmas times, you'd do well to avoid my blog on Fridays from here on out. (That said, I'm going to be talking about very old Christmas music which you may never even have heard of, so don't worry about getting something like "Santa Baby" stuck in your head every week.)

Thursday, January 01, 2009

New Year's

I hardly ever make New Year's resolutions, except that I quit smoking every year. (No matter that I've never taken it up in the first place, I still feel a sense of accomplishment every December that I've kept my resolution.)

However, this year I am making two resolutions:

(1) I will knit an adult-sized sweater.
(2) I will not assume that people are Mormon. Ever. Like, even if it's my bishop or the missionaries. (Actually, it would be really fun to ask the missionaries what church they go to.)

As regards #2, I don't think I'm terrible about it, but it bothers me when people do it too much, and I do it more than I'd like to, so I'm going to try and cut back.