Thursday, December 30, 2004


So here's what I've been doing for the past week or so, my excuse for neglecting my small-but-faithful audience: nothing.

And I've loved it. Nothing like -- riding in the car fifteen hours each way from Chicago to Denver and back reading out loud to keep Ken awake (The Sword in the Stone, which we finished, reading about the Boxing Day Boar Hunt on the day after Christmas) and watching the New Lemony Snicket movie and reading books seven, eight, nine, ten and eleven of the Series of Unfortunate Events.

The movie just about lives up to the books -- a high standard. All that's missing is the joy the books take in words themselves. In obscure vocabulary and playful definitions, in codes, puns, alliterations, anagrams, and literary allusions. I was extra-pleased by the mention of C.P. Snow's Corridors of Power, and I love all the T.S. Eliot. It's great that you can recognize villains by their fondness for Edgar Guest, while the well-read heroes prefer Herman Melville. I need to look-up some of the references which went over my head -- "Morel" Behavior in a Free Society, Archy and Mahitabel, Comyns, and Carl Van Vechten. I should also read the Gulag Archipelago, one of these days. But I think I got most of the references to Nietzche and Beverly Cleary.

Anyway, even some of that fun makes it into the movie, through Jude Law's pitch perfect narration. So it's worth the ticket price. We also rented "King Arthur" (which doesn't completement The Sword in the Stone as well as you'd think) and "Shaun of the Dead" (which does complement "Dawn of the Dead" -- Ken's favorite movie -- very well indeed.) I give it four stars, and I'm not the zombie-lover.

I picked out a wedding dress with my mom. Wedding plans are being revised, although I'm not making any more announcements yet.

Took Ken to Midnight Mass and to Casa Bonita. He's a good sport.

Christmas shopped up to the last possible moment, and then reaped an amazing haul on Christmas morning -- thanks for the cell-phone service especially, Dad and Mom.

And since we got back, I've spent a lot of time hanging out with Ken while he plays "Fable," which I got him for Christmas, after heavy hinting. I like watching video games. It makes more sense than watching sports -- at least I know the person I'm cheering for. And this game has a great story. I got totally caught up. The most hilarious part was when he took off his helmet and all of the game characters fell in love with him. His "renown" level was very high, as was his "attractiveness" score -- since his hair had grown back after his stint in prison.

There was a lot of recorded West Wing and Gilmore Girls to catch up on (thanks Becca) and more video games, movie rentals, books, and snow ball fights, and walking around on frozen ponds, somewhere in there...

It feels so good to do nothing, for a while.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Even Though My Sister Hates the Poetry Posts...

The Journey of the Magi
by T.S. Eliot

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Running Out of Classes

I feel ripped off.

I thought by this point in my education, I would know a lot more. I still look at papers, and feel like they're in a foreign language. I still look at the math, and feel like you'd have to be much smarter than me to understand it. (Including math that I've written.)

I do not feel like an expert. And this is bad, 'cause they're letting me help teach classes...

You know how they promise you, your whole life, "You'll understand when you're older"? They say, "Well, we can't explain this to you yet. You don't have enough math. You have to learn all this other stuff first."

But now I've done all that, I've sat through all their classes, almost. They haven't lived up to their side of the bargain. There's still so much I don't understand. And now I begin to suspect that they don't really understand either.

There are still lots of people above me, but they are not so far above me now. I'm getting to the point where it's not so much about people who know more than you, as people who know about different things than you, where we start to specialize.

So now, when I listen to physicists talk, I'm much less likely to believe they really know what they're talking about. I don't, and I've gotten this far, so why should I believe they do? And I feel the same way about people in other fields now, too. A doctorate is so much less impressive now that I think I actually might get one. Any club that would have me as a member, etc...

So running out of classes has made me feel a little cynical. Also smug, though. And old. (But I like feeling old.) Mainly, though, I'm just outraged about all the questions I now see I'm never going to get answers to. After so much work, and such a long time... Man! That sucks!

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Everything I Know About Quantum Field Theory

Okay, this is not going to be a great explanation for three reasons. First: because my understanding isn't great. Second: because I'm going to try to write for a reader who hasn't taken quantum mechanics. And third: because the theory itself is young, only about forty years old, and there isn't a complete consensus among professional physicists yet on how to interpret it.

That said, the math predicts experimental results with incredible precision, and this description, unlike the quantum mechanics I've studied up until now, is consistent with our other knowledge of physics, with the theory of electromagnetism and relativity.

Here are the assumptions you have to make to get a working theory: 1. The particles of which everything is made behave, in many ways, like waves. 2. If you insist on thinking about particles instead of waves, you'll find some paradoxical properties, such as the idea that a particle which has a definite momentum does not have a definite location. Note: I didn't say that we can't know its location. I said it doesn't have one. 3. Time is a dimension almost exactly like length, width, and depth. It helps to think of "later" as "over there."

Now I'm going to explain these ideas further, but please understand that these are assumptions, not conclusions. It is not true that modern physics "proves" any of this. But if you make these assumptions, you can develop a theory of how particles interact which exactly matches, in every experiment to date (and there have been a lot of them, in those giant expensive particle accelerators) the way particles do interact. It is very possible that another description would match these results equally well, but we haven't found one yet (though some candidates -- incorporating large parts of Quantum Field Theory -- do exist.)

Okay, so what do I mean by that assumption number one? In what ways are particles like waves?

When waves encounter an obstacle, they spread out around it. (Imagine a box sitting in a pool, and ripples reflecting off of it in wide arcs.) Particles do something similar. If a beam of electrons encounters an obstacle, they too will spread out in different directions. Contrast this with billiard balls. If I send a bunch of billiard balls one at a time, from the same direction and the same speed toward some box, I expect them all to bounce off at the same angle. Electrons do no behave like billiard balls in these experiments. They also diffract around edges (billiard balls don't turn corners) and even show effects that are analogous to rainbows. Then too, like waves on Lake Michigan (I've watched them) and like light and sound waves, beams of electrons can interfere with each other, cancelling out in some places, and adding up in others (where electrons add up you get extra bright spots on your screen. Where water waves do, tall peaks and low troughs. Where sound waves do, loud noise, Etc.)

So why don't we just give up and talk about waves all the time, without ever mentioning particles? The fact is that both a beam of electrons and a beam of light are detected as a series of discrete collisions. Click, click, click, goes you photon detector or Geiger counter, one click at a time, whenever you shine your beam at it. (Photons are what we call the "particles" of light, the individual clicks on our devices.) You find charge and energy only in discrete lumps, whenever you go to measure it. So both electrons and light move like waves, but look like billiard balls, to our instruments.

The way physicists handle this is to say that the wave tells us something about the probability of detecting a particle. The bigger the waves at any given point in space and time, the more likely a detector located there is to go "click." So in the areas where the hypothetical waves add up to bigger waves, in these interference experiments, I detect lots of particles. That's my bright stripe of electrons or photons. In the places where the waves cancel out, I detect no particles.

Okay, now about that second assumption. That's called the "uncertainty principle." There's actually a couple of variations on it. The one I quoted, about a particle not having definite location and a definite momentum at the same time, is the most famous. It's experimentally testable -- just try measuring the positions of a beam of particles whose momentum you know, or the momenta of particles you've got trapped in a specific place. You'll find that under identical circumstances you get different results.

In fact, this is not nearly so confusing if you think about waves. A perfect wave repeats itself forever and ever at a uniform wavelength, so it doesn't really have a location. Everywhere looks just like everywhere else. By contrast if you have a single blip, where the water splashed up into one little peak, I can talk about the location, but not, really, about the wavelength. In traditional quantum mechanics, the wavelength tells you the momentum, so saying you can't know the momentum and the position at the same time, is just saying something obvious about waves.

Now picture a barrel full of water. Drop stones in the exact center of the barrel, and you may be able to create a circular wave pattern that holds its shape. The ripples spread out in circles, hit the circular wall of the barrel, reflect back as shrinking circles, and, if the wavelength is just right so that the reflections overlap the original waves, you get what's called a "standing wave pattern." It only works if the wavelength is just right, though, and the stones hit right in the center. This kind of pattern looks a little bit like the blip (it never spreads out past hte barrel) and a little like long train of incoming waves. I can talk about both its location and its wavelength, although both are a little ambiguous. And this kind of wave can persist, can hold its shape, but only if it's the right size to "fit" in the barrel. (For a simpler example of what I mean here, try drawing a box on your computer's paint program, and then drawing a wave with equally spaced crests inside it, that has a crest at both edges. You'll find that you have to get the spacing of the crests just right.)

It's waves that "fit" -- which look a little like blips and a little like wave-trains, which persist only if they have a certain shape and size -- which we actually see in real life. They're the ones that last long enough for us to see. The shape of these waves determines their energies, and only certain shapes, certain energies, are allowed.

When we try to measure the energies of electrons in real life situations, we don't get any old number. Over and over again, we find only the same discrete values -- the ones corresponding to those states that "fit" in our boundaries for the experiment. I'm talking experiment now, not theory. The same values over and over again. The theory is just our best guess as to why that would be. It all has to do with the fact that whether a wave-shape sticks around depends on its wavelength as well as where it start spreading out from.

All of this is ordinary quantum mechanics. It describes my electron (or whatever) as a probability wave, and tells me that I'm only going to get certain values for the energy.

What quantum field theory does, then, is try to explain why I should only get certain values for the number of electrons. In other words, if these thigns move like waves, why should my detector go click click click? Why do I never see half an electron? Why do I never see anything with half the electron's charge?

What if, says QFT, the wavefunction didn't describe that probability on a scale from zero to 100%. What if it described the strength of some field at that point in space and time. What if (for a specific wavelength) the bigger the field, the more particles I am likely to find at that point in space. In that case, for small energies, it still tells me the chaces of finding a particle here, but for large energies it tells me I might find more than one.

In other words, whether I detect a particle at some location does depends on the strength and shape of the field, but the field is more than just a probability function. For low energies, it doesn't matter; the effect is the same. But for high energies, I would seem to get particles popping out of nowhere. The idea here is that what actually exists is the field, not the particle. The particle is nothing but a click on my detector, the likelyhood of which depends on the field that exists.

But why should I get clicks at all? Wasn't that the question? If it's fields that are real, why do my instruments seem to see particles? Okay, and here's where it gets weird...

What if that field didn't have a specific value, the way a single blip on the water has a single location, or have a regular rate of change, the way a train of waves headed towards the beach has a specific wavelength... What if the charge, or whatever it is that my detector detects, depends on both so that only certain values "fit"? The way only certain shapes fit into my barrel. Those shapes didn't have a specific location or specific wavelength. They were spread out over a whole range of locations, with different wavelengths. In quantum field theory, my field doesn't have a specific value or rate of change, but a whole range of them.

So what I end up with, in effect, is like a probability function for a probability function. I look at one point in space and time, and I make a graph of how likely it is to have a field of a certain size, and that graph, of probability as a function of field strength, looks like some kind of wave. Only certain wave-shapes fit the boundaries that I draw, and those wave shapes correspond to the incidents where I detect a single particle at that location, or two particles, or three, or... Well, you get the idea.

It's a pretty big idea. When I discover an electron, the field doesn't have a single value but a range of possible values, a special wave-shaped range. If you like, you can picture a wave with a blurry edge, like the one below. That's what I'm picturing.

These are the things that are real, supposedly. At least, a theory describing these things predicts exactly what really happens, stuff that moves like waves but registers in our detectors like particles, predicts the results of experiments to an accuracy that is, as my professor likes to say, the same as giving the distance between New York and LA to within the width of a single human hair. (I didn't give him enough credit in my previous posts. He's a good professor, and he was trying. He just doesn't think about things in the same way as I like to.)

So that it...

Oh, but wait. You wanted to know about that "time is a direction" stuff. Well, actually that's not so much quantum field theory as relativity. But, as I mentioned at the beginning, quantum field theory (unlike old fashioned quantum theory) is consistent with relativity. Mainly in that it treats mass as a kind of energy (and even shows that mass can be "created" from energy, if you want to think about the probability of measuring more particles when the energy is bigger in that way) and treats time as a direction. So basically instead of having six directions to go (up down, forward backward, and left right) these waves actually have eight. When they scatter, there's a chance they will scatter "backwards in time." Now this sounds strange and spooky, but 1) mathematically it is mundane. A function of time is no different from a function of x or y or z, and I can graph them in just the same way and 2) the only implication it has for the real world of experiments, is that it means we should sometimes see particles which look just like our normal electrons and so on, but with the opposite charge, and a couple of other reversed properties. All we see in the lab is an "anti-particle" going forwards in time -- the two are equivalent. The only reason you might want to use this backwards-in-time description at all, is in describing what happens when a particle and an antiparticle occupy the same place at the same time. They "annhilate." At later points in time, neither one of them exists. They don't scatter off into any of our detectors. This spooky experimental fact actually seems less spooky of you think instead of a guy in a movie, getting into a time machine and going back. He vanishes, but at an earlier point in time there are two of him... Similarly you might think of someone from the future coming back to our time, which happens to be just before his own birth... In the future, there are two of him... (this is equivalent to the kind of particle creation I described earlier.) And if all of this seems far fetched, please remember that anti-particles are routinely observed in the lab (having been predicted by an early form of QFT) and that they experimentally can be created and annhilated. It's the universe that's far-fetched, and the theory faithfully describes it. If thinking about time travel gives you a headache, join the club. But take comfort in the fact that this mathematical description still says causes have to precede effects, and no paradoxes are possible (this is guarenteed by the fact that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, but don't ask me how, exactly.)

You don't have to believe it. We'll probably come up with something that works even better, eventually. But considering the paradoxical experimental results that it had to explain, this one works amazingly well. Anyway, that's my understanding of quantum field theory, after a one quarter course on the subject. Considering how badly I did on the homework, you should take this with heaping spoonfuls of salt. Not only might the theory be wrong, but I might very easily be misunderstanding huge parts of the theory. But if you promise not to consider me an expert, I do like sharing my interpretations.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Fun With Marketing

Got something to sell? Want to advertise to your neighbors? Or just judge them by their purchases? Find out what kind of stuff they like to buy:

Demographics by zipcode

Isn't it handy that people can be so neatly divided into categories? Check out the full list, and find the stereotype that fits you best:


(both links via Making Light, a long time ago.)

But perhaps you're too busy to mess with door-to-door, or direct mail. Perhaps you'd prefer the convenience of bulk e-mail. In that case, you're going to need some names to put in the "from" lines:

Random Name Generator

(via Electron Blue, where there's an interesting article about it.)

Or perhaps you'll call people up during the dinner hour? Whether you do that or take the spam route, you'll want to give people a way to call you back to place their orders:

What does your phone number spell?

(via Ken, who is already brilliantly marketed. [the Harley Davidson guy at the bottom of the page is the best likeness.])

On the other hand, maybe you'd better go with something a little more cutting edge. Like viral marketing -- the flu's a big fad this season. Everyone's getting it, and it comes in a fetching green. (via someone on AFP.)

Friday, November 26, 2004


I'm thankful for:

The beer our landlord left for us as a reward for keeping the house nice.

The great dinner we had at Ken's dad's house last night, especially the delicious cherries and chocolate dessert his step-mom made. And for the opportunity to play with his little sisters. I miss babysitting.

The snow. And the forest preserve by Ken's apartment, which glittered yesterday.

The fact that Jewel Osco is right across the street, and offers thirty minute photo developing.

The Afghan restaurant on Devon, that left a menu on my doorstep this morning, and provides free delivery.

The cell phone my dad still pays for, which allowed me to talk to him, and my mom, and my brother, and my sister, and my grandpa, and my aunt-Mary, and my cousin (in a complicated way) Lynette, before they sat down for Thanksgiving dinner.

The fact that the circus is coming to town! We're going to try to go this weekend.

The blankets my mom bought me when she visited. My room is freezing.

The four day weekend, and the end of the academic quarter.

The public library, high speed internet, the Chicago Tribune, and CLTV.

Christmas lights.

My mom and dad, my sister and brother, all my aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, and the new family I'm going to be getting, and the man I'm going to marry.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

November Poem

Has it been a week? But I've got three or four posts I'd like to put up, only I have the links bookmarked on a different computer for one of them, and I don't want to write the QFT one until the quarter's over, and I don't quite know what to say in the last, which was going to be about how it feels to be running out of classes to take. (It's a funny feeling.)

So for now I'll just do the easy thing and choose a poem for November. I find I'm in the mood for Browning, and for something sort of sad...

Youth and Art
by Robert Browning

It once might have been, once only:
We lodged in a street together,
You, a sparrow on the housetop lonely,
I, a lone she-bird of his feather.

Your trade was with sticks and clay,
You thumbed, thrust, patted and polished,
Then laughed "They will see some day
Smith made, and Gibson demolished."

My business was song, song, song;
I chirped, cheeped, trilled and twittered,
"Kate Brown's on the boards ere long,
And Grisi's existence embittered!"

I earned no more by a warble
Than you by a sketch in plaster;
You wanted a piece of marble,
I needed a music-master.

We studied hard in our styles,
Chipped each at a crust like Hindoos,
For air looked out on the tiles,
For fun watched each other's windows.

You lounged, like a boy of the South,
Cap and blouse--nay, a bit of beard too;
Or you got it, rubbing your mouth
With fingers the clay adhered to.

And I--soon managed to find
Weak points in the flower-fence facing,
Was forced to put up a blind
And be safe in my corset-lacing.

No harm! It was not my fault
If you never turned your eye's tail up
As I shook upon E in alt,
Or ran the chromatic scale up:

For spring bade the sparrows pair,
And the boys and girls gave guesses,
And stalls in our street looked rare
With bulrush and watercresses.

Why did not you pinch a flower
In a pellet of clay and fling it?
Why did not I put a power
Of thanks in a look, or sing it?

I did look, sharp as a lynx,
(And yet the memory rankles,)
When models arrived, some minx
Tripped up-stairs, she and her ankles.

But I think I gave you as good!
"That foreign fellow,--who can know
How she pays, in a playful mood,
For his tuning her that piano?"

Could you say so, and never say
"Suppose we join hands and fortunes,
And I fetch her from over the way,
Her, piano, and long tunes and short tunes?"

No, no: you would not be rash,
Nor I rasher and something over:
You've to settle yet Gibson's hash,
And Grisi yet lives in clover.

But you meet the Prince at the Board,
I'm queen myself at bals-paré,
I've married a rich old lord,
And you're dubbed knight and an R.A.

Each life unfulfilled, you see;
It hangs still, patchy and scrappy:
We have not sighed deep, laughed free,
Starved, feasted, despaired,--been happy.

And nobody calls you a dunce,
And people suppose me clever:
This could but have happened once,
And we missed it, lost it for ever.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Wish List

What do I want for Christmas? An end to hunger and injustice and indignity, and while you're out, peace on earth and good will toward all.

Thanks to the Hunger Site, it's occured to me that you can buy me some of that and some nifty playthings at the same time. The Hunger Site works by donating food (a little more than a cup of rice or wheat) to charity, for every day you look at their ads. They've been my homepage for a long time now, so I've seen a lot of their ads, and I want some of this stuff. For each of these items that you buy, you donate another fifty cups or so of food, and help keep the Hunger Site in business as well.

So you get that good feeling, along with the neat stuff, like recycled silk scarves, gloves, shoulder bags, and throw rugs. Or wooden Jacaranda hand-turned bowls, salad sets, and birch bark boxs (I like the oval one).

Those links just go to pictures. I can't figure out how to link directly to the catalog descriptions, so you'll just have to go to the store and search, I guess.

I'd rather have practical stuff than decorative stuff (I'm looking forward to a tiny but empty apartment in not so many months...) The Hunger Site is, unfortunately, a little short of that. As are Oxfam and Ten Thousand Villages even though I like their stuff as well, and they too offer the "good deed with every purchase" deal. (They also don't seem to have online catalogs, so you have to find a physical store.) But I figure someone must be selling dishes and blankets, so I searched a little and found that the Fair Trade Federation has a whole list of fair trade importers with online catalogs. (The one that I linked from the word "dishes" up there, "A Greater Gift," has a particularly large selection.)

This way you can get people unique, handmade, practical gifts, and also help people in third world countries support themselves. This is a longer term solution than mere donations. These countries need something they can sell to the west for a fair price, and handicrafts -- time and labor intesive -- could become a major export. Because if there's anything third world countries have, it's a labor force with time on its hands.

Buy this stuff, make a market for it. Most of these people would like nothing better than to earn their own living by working hard, taking pride in their craftsmanship. Start your Christmas shopping now, and make the world a better place.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Quantum Field Theory

Have I mentioned that Quantum Field Theory is kicking my butt? And the more I don't understand what he's talking about in class, the more discouraged and depressed I become about the whole thing, the less motivated I am to do the work I really need to do to keep up.

I have two main problems here. The first is the math. I'm completely lost by his notation, at this point. P's and P-slashes and a gagillion different gammas. I haven't got a clue what any of these symbols mean any more. Some of them are tensors (and incidentally, nobody has every formally taught me anything about tensors, beyond the ordinary matrix kind) and some of them are functions and some of them are operators, which might mean matrices or differentials or... Who knows. Sound hard? That's cause it is. But it really doesn't need to be. You can't convince me that there aren't clearer, unambiguous ways to write this stuff. You could start by actually writing all of it down, for instance, and not just assuming that there are greek indices "implied" or that we all know the expression you just wrote is supposed to be divided by 2m. You could write the steps that get you from one line to the next, instead of saying "I hope you're all filling these missing steps in." You could refrain from throwing terms out that we've never heard, in the service of some hideously complicated by irrelevant criticism you have of the someone else's work on the theory... (Although it is reassuring, somehow, that our professor knows the people who developed the theories we're learning now. We're starting to catch up. At least it's 1960s physics that's kicking my butt now, and not 1760s...)

And you could interpret things. That's my biggest wish. Just tell me what this is a model of. Tell me what these waves are supposed to represent. Tell me what the numbers I put in here measure. This is supposed to be our best description of the physical world, and we've lost contact with the physical world altogether.

I'm starting to develop my own interpretations, which I might post here, with lots of disclaimers, if I can word them a little better. I believe that anything which can't be put into layman's terms isn't real science. It has to answer questions that are independent of its formalism -- laymen's questions. So I want to make an effort, but I'm warning you now, I don't know what I'm talking about...

Quantum Field Theory is kicking my butt. Now I have to go to class.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

October Poem

I seem to have missed my monthly poem in October.

Normally I try to choose a poem that reflects my mood. This one doesn't. (I'm not that upset about the election results.) But I like it very much, and am going to post it anyway.

The World's End

Those who have visited the North Pole
Or other pubs beyond a two-mile limit
WIll know, at least by hearsay, this one, too.
Here is no glory of the Star and Garter,
Nor the obscure theology of the Goat and Compasses,
But a somewhat plain home truth,
That the world lives by labour and barter,
And all things, in the long run, end up shabby.

Here is the ash of history. But we recall
When fire came down from heaven and the house rocked
(A sensation mildly exhilerating to those in love with life)
And we remember tracer-bullets and the white flares,
And a general atmosphere of form and colour,
With possible extinction giving flavour to the stewed pears.

Well, here is the World's End, or so it seems,
But Oh, my love, tenacity is all:
'Her years of pain and glory' are not ended.
Silent, invisible, the bombs explode,
The dead and wounded walk the cancelled streets,
Colour and form run through the brittle pages,
And Time can crubmle all, but cannot touch
The book the burns, faster than we can read.

By Michael Roberts.

(I suspect it is about the London Blitz.)


These are sort of obligatory:

The New Star Wars Teaser Trailer

The Further Adventures of Alice and Bob -- Chad Orzel finds a paper which takes Eve the Eavesdropper's side.

Neil Gaiman is coming to town.

Multilingual Jabberwocky.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

I Voted

And I would like to thank The Chicagoist, the Chicago Tribune, and the Daily Northwestern for doing the research for me, along with the Cook County Clerk's office for letting candidates put up statements. This is how I make my choices for offices like Recorder of Deeds and Water Reclamation District Comissioner. I really like being able to vote corrupt people out of "minor" offices, and incompetent judges off the bench. It's exciting, knowing that a vote for Republican Richard Cox (I'm always glad when I can vote for a Republican or two, just because I don't want anyone to take my vote for granted) is a vote to dismantle the Recorder of Deeds office altogether, eliminating some conspicuous abuses of public funds, not to mention one six figure salary -- Cox has promised to take only a dollar.

It occured to me, as listened to my students talk yesterday about how futile it was to vote in Illinois because it wasn't a "swing state," and how the electoral college sucked... that the "swing state" thing really has very little to do with the electoral college. If we got rid of it and used the popular vote alone, then there would be no uncertainty in any state, in most elections, and everyone would feel like their vote was futile. Turnout would drop even lower than it already is. The real problem is all the advance polling, which is the only reason people feel like Illinois' results are a forgone conclusion.

I also wanted to remind the students that there are other elections, besides the presidential and senatorial ones. I wasn't a part of their conversation and anyway I'm the TA, so I kept my mouth shut. But I think they need to feel a little more local responsibility. I think they have a duty to vote out the current Cook County Recorder of Deeds.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Baseball, Lunar Eclipses, Homecoming, Fireworks, Bicycles, Pumpkin Patches, Oktoberfest, and Halloween

Back when I used to be less busy, I would write up experiences I partiularly wanted to remember. I'd write them in a diary or I'd write them for a website, or I'd write them up for a class or even a contest or school literary magazine, once upon a time. I haven't been doing that so much lately. And I think I'm missing things. it's too easy to forget all of the great moments and remember only the stress, which is not momentary.

Maybe I can still sketch some of the things that happened a while ago, as well as the more recent ones:

Ken and I went with his roommate Brian, and Brian's little boy Isaac, and Brian's Mom and brother, to a pumpkin "patch" which was really more like a pumkin theme park, with camel rides and ponies and a petting zoo and haunted houses and a really lame hay wagon and every kind of gourd you can imagine. It was a perfect bright fall day and I got free kettle corn because I complained that the bags were too big. Isaac went on the camel and the ponies and cried for his grandma, and Ken and I stuck our faces into the holes in a big wooden copy of American Gothic, and got our pictures taken. Brian bought $60 worth of pumkpins, and let me carve one of them with a Picasso punk, a cubist profile with a mohawk and both eyes on the same side of his head.

We put candles in them for the Oktoberfest party, an annual celebration in which Brian invites everyone he knows to drink lots of German beer. Beer of other nationalities is allowed if and only if it is a special Oktoberfest recipe. He's serious about this. I saw him send back a four pack of Guiness. He's saving the bottle caps to embed in the bar-top he's going to build. He also made T-shirts, and hung a couple of thousand streamers from the ceiling like a sort of shag carpetting, all red, black, and orange. Ken sat in a chair and as people arrived they dragged up chairs, forming a circle of followers. Everybody wants to be Ken's friend. All the guys who knew him in high school like to tell stories about him, legends, really. It was like watching a king with his courtiers.

He told them that he had just learned to ride a bike, and they all gave him a hard time. But he's impossible to tease. He just grins. He told them all it was great, it was fun, he was only a little sore... And it has been fun. We started off in a parking lot on campus, moved to an alley, and lately have been practicing in the forest preserve by his apartment. I go for my daily run, and he bikes along in front of me. There's deer, and migrating geese, and a pond with a weeping willow. Earlier there were amazing colors too, the trees all red and gold against a blue sky, but now they're bare. I took a jump rope out last time, and he watched me do the kind of jumps where you cross your arms. We skipped stones, and he practiced shifting gears on the way back.

That was just the other day, Halloween. We used the hour we gained from daylight savings time to do the bike ride, and then went back to his apartment to watch zombie movies for a while. I've finally seen "Dawn of the Dead" and "Dead Alive." Neither of them was even a little scary. We had apple cider and beer and worked on quantum field theory while we watched. Quantum field theory is kicking my butt.

We end up combining a lot of our fun with work. QFT during the Halloween movies, and little breaks from grading at 11PM on a Friday to go outside and watch the homecoming parade -- three bands, of which the high school band seemed the best drilled, and two Ghostbusters floats, of which the second was far superior, and Rocky Horror float with men in drag -- or fireworks, on one wonderful occasion a few weeks ago, a full fourth-of-July style show from the north campus beach, just for us. We assume they were just for us. There weren't that many other people around, after all, and we never heard of any other reason. They waited for us to come outside.

I don't think we were grading the day of the lunar eclipse, which was also the day the Red Sox won the World Series. (It had an all-around apocalyptic feeling.) We went to the Society of Physics students “bonfire” out by the lake. I had s’mores and he had coffee, and we watched the Earth’s shadow eat the moon. And Dr. Schmidt borrowed a guitar and played ‘60s folk songs, and I tried to sing along. We talked to some of our students. And then we went and watched and inning or two of the game in the student union. We ran into Carol and Paul who were doing the same, and they were good company. Paul is from Boston, and was holding his breath for the Red Sox. They went out to look at the eclipse between innings. We stayed until the top of the eighth and then went to the observatory, to see if we could watch the moon reappear through the telescope. The telescope is about a hundred and fifty years old, one of the biggest you can make that uses lenses instead of mirrors, and the observatory itself is wooden and red-lit and atmospheric, with a big rotating dome. Observatories are romantic places.

I’ve got pictures of most of this, but I don’t think I’ll try to post all of them. Maybe one or two. The moon pictures should be back soon.

Friday, October 29, 2004

The Big News

Ken and I want to get married.

Oh, not right now. We agree it's still too soon. But it's not too soon to start talking about it, planning for it. It takes a long time to plan a wedding, to say nothing of a marriage.

Next August makes sense. That's when my lease is up on the room where I'm living. It'll be our first anniversary as a couple (and two years since we met -- certainly that year of suffering silent crushes on one another in Quantum Mechanics counts for something.) It'll be between terms, so that we won't be dealing with classes or teaching. He'll be 27 and I'll be turning 25 at the end of that month, so we're old enough. And we don't want to wait too much longer, because we're in love.

We've been wanting to go to Europe together -- he's never been. I plan to show off the UK and France and Germany with proprietary pride, as if I'd invented them. And we're going to try for Switzerland and maybe even Northern Italy as well, if we can find the time, which we will discover together. We are going to conquer Europe.

If we get married in August we can go as newlyweds, make this our honeymoon. And that suggests another idea -- to get married while we're there, instead of before. This is appealing for lots of reasons, some of them very selfish.

We were stressed out, talking about the idea, by the problems of where to have it, whom to invite, what kind of ceremony, how to pay. Ken's best friends and part of his family live here in Chicago. My family is in Colorado, Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. My friends are scattered to the four winds, up and down the west coast, the midwest, the UK. There are people who can't be invited if other people are. And we're both of us a little anti-social, intimidated by the prospect of playing host to so many people, with some powerful personalities. Even the idea is exhausting. There are religious issues, since I grew up Catholic but he did not, and the Catholic Church would require sacred oaths that neither of us is completely comfortable swearing, because we might, in different ways, feel like hypocrites at our own wedding. We can't risk saying anything we don't mean, making any promises we can't keep, on that day of all days.

But I'm not comfortable with the idea of a justice of the peace, either, in a drab room with strangers. I wouldn't feel really married. I don't view this as a contract. I hate the thought of marriage as a mere legal arrangement, with certain tax benefits and etc, to be dissolved when it is no longer advantageous to both parties. (Part of the reason I like the idea of marriage is that it will soothe my fear of losing him. A merely legal wedding admits the possibility of divorce.) This has nothing to do with the law, in my mind. The law can't require you to share each other's sufferings, forgive each other's flaws, keep each other company as you grow old. It doesn't require you to raise children together, to join one another's families, to collaborate in each other's work, and to be there for the other even if something horrible and permanent afflicts on of you, or your children... This is bigger than the law. This is the foundation of civilization, the root of every culture, one of the meanings of life.

And yes, I know the wedding is not the marriage. You could do all of that without any ceremony at all. But it's a symbol, and symbols are important to me. Symbols allow you to take a million separate experiences which are diffused in your daily existence and call them all by one name, represent them with one experience. You have to do that, collect them all together so that the common theme can emerge, the pattern, the abstraction, the meaning. Life has meaning, but it is diluted in the mudane. Symbols concentrate it, so that you can taste it... I want a better symbol than a civil servant in an government office, a better image to associate with my marriage.

So we're getting married in Europe. Just a small ceremony, but in a beautiful place. And far removed from our everyday lives, so that this experience will stick out in our memories.

A few witnesses, but no reception. We'll keep it small enough that we can all get a table at a bar afterward, if we like. And after that we'll have no duty to anyone but ourselves, with a continent at our feet. We won't have to borrow money or accept too much generosity (although we wouldn't mind a little...) or spend months fulfilling social obligations to hundreds of people.

When we had made up our minds to marry in Europe, I decided to try to arrange for a wedding in England, because I've lived in England and I speak English, and I know people there who might serve as witnesses. (Though I haven't asked anyone yet, and am a little worried about hurting people's feelings. I can't ask more than two or three. It wouldn't be fair to Ken, and our whole plan would be spoiled.) But we came up against a problem faced by people in innumerable British historical novels -- it makes me happy, in a funny way, to find myself in such a novelistic predicament. You have to reside there seven days, then post notice fifteen days in advance. But we don't want to spend three weeks in Europe before getting married. In British historical novels, people solve this problem by running away to Scotland, and I think that's what we're doing too. We've found a place, beautiful but not too expensive, not too grand for a small ceremony, just over the border on the Tweed. We're trying to book it now.

And that's my big news.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Conservatives for Kerry

I'm sure the rest of the world has already spotted this trend, but I'm amazed at how many endorsements of Kerry I'm reading by small-government conservatives.

In the Chicago Tribune,

in college papers,

and from Doonesbury, a whole bunch of them.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

From the Tribune, Again

I'd figure out a way to link around the resistration page so that you could read all of these Tribune articles I cite without having to give them any information, except that I cite so many of them that if you're going to follow any of these links, you might as well make up a name and address to tell them anyway... I know it's lazy blogging, but then, originally blogs weren't supposed to do anything but call attention to interesting links.

Today's is actually from Sunday's Chicago Tribune. It is a profile of a person I find fascinating: peace activist Kathy Kelly. Do I admire this woman? With all my heart. Do I want to live her life? No. Am I sure she is right? I am not sure. But I am convinced that this is what saints are like.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Problems with Time and Space

I've been so busy lately. See, I'm a teaching assistant, and I'm taking quantum field theory, and I'm working in the lab. And then, yeah, there's Ken.

Lab work takes away from my quantum field theory time. To really understand what I'm learning in QFT, I'd need to teach myself complex analysis (I never took it) and relativity and review a number of other subjects that I have been taught, but never properly learned.

The professor started by talking about physical descriptions of rubber bands (a continuous medium in which for instance, waves can move... You can describe it mathematically with a "field") and then suddenly was talking about particles that go back in time. The idea of quantum field theory is, in a sense, that it makes no real sense to describe a single particle. You have to describe the whole system. All your particles, and the empty space between them, because the energy is constantly being exchanged. Oh, when I say "space" -- time is a dimension, almost but not quite like the others... If that sounds confusing, well, it is.

One class seems like more work than the seven I took in high school. But I don't have the time I need to spend. And it's worse because I really do want to understand this stuff. I'm wondering how the other half dozen in the class are doing, and convinced, of course, that they're all finding it easy. At least one of them is taking two other classes as well as being a TA and research assistant. But I'm used to feeling dumb.

Being a TA takes away from the time I spend in the lab. I'm just starting to understand what's going on there, to understand the point of the things I'm being asked to do. (It turns out that the project I was working on up until now may not really happen, but the new one is more interesting, and I don't really mind.) Right now, I'm working on building a control system for a laser. Now I've never studied control engineering, never heard of an "error signal before," have only a hazy idea of how feedback works. My entire knowledge of electronics comes from ten lectures and a half dozen labs I had in Durham, and here I am building adder and subtractor and integrator circuits with op amps... I can't even remember what an op amp does. I'd really like to understand how the thing I'm building works, but I'd need to relearn my electronics, and teach myself control systems out of a book, or something. I can't seem to keep hold of the various explanations I've been given... I do know that the purpose of it is to stabilize the laser, so that the frequency doesn't change when the temperature goes up or down, or when the pressure changes in the room, or whatever. I also know that if they really needed this right now, Pati and Venketesh and George and Joe could design a circuit in a few minutes. But they want me to learn.

This is the first step in the process of building a slow-light system in a vapor cell, which is the first step toward building a new kind of optical gyroscope. (I've been trying to study optical gyroscopes. It requires a little general relativity, and a lot of interferometry that I've never had. Also, I really struggle the problem of how pulses travel in cavities.) To make slow light you need a stable laser. I am also trying to understand slow light. In our experiment, it will be a side effect of something called "electromagnetically induced transparency." I am trying to understand electromagnetically induced transparency. What I understand so far is that if you use one laser to put all of the atoms in your sample into a superposition state such that the other laser tries to distort them in two directions at once, the atoms won't be distorted by the other laser, and so won't absorb its energy. That specific frequency will be able to pass through the material unabsorbed -- the material will be transparent to that color. But apparently if I send in a pulse made of that color and a lot of nearby colors, the pulse will be transmitted only very slowly. I am not sure why this is so. I do not really understand the way that the index of refraction -- the speed of light in a medium -- depends on the states of the atoms.

Ken has been helping me with this, and with QFT. He's in the same position as I am -- teaching, taking QFT, and working in a lab -- except his teaching assignment is twice as many hours, and he has a two hour a day commute. He's not taking QFT for credit, but he's doing the homework anyway, mostly so he can help me. He wants to learn this stuff too, but if not for me he would probably be trying to do it at a more convenient time.

I don't really feel like either of us is shortchanging the students, since mostly what I do is grade and supervise, and since I've seen Ken in office hours, patiently working through problems and giving advice... His students have a great TA. But we are both resenting the students, for the time they take, and I don't like that either. I don't want to resent my students. I usually like teaching. I usually get more out of it than this.

Meanwhile I haven't been posting to AFP, or to this blog (yes, that's my excuse), nor have I been watching TV (new fall season?) nor even reading much (though Ken and I are going through Catch 22 together...) We've missed concerts and movies we've wanted to see, haven't been down to Chicago since summer. And I haven't been phoning my family lately, although they're used to that...

I kind of thought that after my qualifiers, it would be easier than this. But I guess I didn't choose an easy life.

I chose a rewarding life. I chose teaching, and learning, and building things. I choose to try to balance all of that with meaningful relationships, a personal life, my family, friends, cultural stuff. I guess I shouldn't complain. I've got all of that. I've got an embarrassment of riches. Only I don't have time to enjoy them all...

Friday, October 15, 2004

Final Debate

I feel like I should say something, for the sake of completeness, but I half-dozed through it. Anyway it felt like a lot of it was the same, even in the same words, as the first two. And it was less funny because they were getting better at it. Bush was starting to get a method down (ignore the question! Talk about education!) and you could tell he was better prepared, more in control. The only really noteworthy moment was when he denied saying he wasn't too worried about Osama Bin Laden -- c'mon, what's the point? Even if he doesn't remember this stuff, the smart thing is to assume that Kerry's staff has got documentary evidence for direct quotes and explicit figures. Unless Bush does remember saying it, and is hoping that a lot of the people who watch the debates will miss the "actually, Kerry was right" commentary in the media the next day. But it's more probable that people who missed the debates will see the commentary.

I woke up again a little at the end, when they were asked what they'd learned from the "strong women" in their lives. Housemate Nick felt this was a fluff question, a give away, a chance for the candidates to make themselves look warm and likable. Maybe, but that's not what they did. They were patronizing and condescending toward their own wives and daughters. Bush more than Kerry, of course, -- Kerry made an awkward joke about Tereasa's money and then told his "my mother told me the most important thing is integrity" story, and these fell a little flat, but didn't make me feel as though I were being patted on the head. But both of them also talked about how their wives "didn't let them get away with anything" and made them mind their manners. Well, thank goodness they don't have any policy ideas in those pretty little heads! (Unlike Hillary.) What I'd've liked to have heard about their wives: "She's someone I can discuss things with, when I need to understand something. She helps me clarify my own ideas and consider new perspectives. She can hold up the other side of an argument, when I need to see how my logic stands up. We've always been able to bounce ideas off one another, and I need that now more than ever." And their daughters... probably provide what any child provides, an incentive to think about the future, to see the world from a fresh point of view.

Anyway, Tribune columnist Mary Schmich seems to have felt the same way. I'm glad she agrees with me. I wouldn't like to think I was just being touchy. But I don't think it was just me that had a bad taste in my mouth after those "sweet" answers. They really were a little over-ripe.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Second Debate

Let me just transcribe my notes. You can draw your own conclusions. "B" is "Bush" "K" is Kerry and "G" is Gibson. These are not verbatim, because I can't write fast enough.

Basically, I thought these questions were incredibly hard, and the answers incredibly revealing, and the gaffes incredibly hilarious.

B: "You gotta be consistent when you're the president -- there's a lot of pressures!"
"I wasn't happy when we found out there wadn't weapons." He organized an intelligence review to find out why.

G: (to Bush) "Well, I was going to let you do a rebuttal, but you go ahead."

K: "The goal of the sanctions was not to remove Saddam Hussein. It was to remove the weapons. They worked."

B: "I know how these people think! I work with them every day." IE I'm a world leader! Really! "They won't follow someone who says wrong war wrong place wrong time." IE if you made a mistake, the least you can do is stand by it! "It's working." Um.

But he insisted on the connection between Iraq and the war on terror more this time -- that Saddam could have given away his weapons... So if there were no weapons, doesn't that make it the wrong war?

He said some stuff I think he believes about unpopular decisions. See the comments to my last debate post...

He looked incredibly uncomfortable when Kerry was talking.

He asked the generals, "Do you have what you need for the war?" You shouldn't patronize generals.

K: "Didn't close the borders, didn't guard the ammunition dumps." And I love that he's campaigning on cutting our nuclear weapons.

B: "We're doing what Senator Kerry suggested we should do." (Kerry's a smart guy, huh?) We're getting the "Brits" and the Germans involved. But apparently that doesn't work in Iraq?

"I hear there's rumours on the internets, that we're going to have to another draft." The all volunteer army works, "especially when we pay them well and provide housing." Too bad he's cut those things.

And he is scaling back troops, in North Korea... Which a minute ago was a huge threat.

"We need to be more facile"?

K: (looks interested when Bush is talking. No Gore head-shakes.)

Has a long list of generals for Kerry.

B: talking over the moderator! "Tell Tony Blair we don't have a coalition!"

K: Missouri would be the third largest country...

K: "Out into the homelands"?

B: "The best way to defend America is to stay on the offence." He believes that.

B: "If Iraq were to fail, it would be a haven for terrorists." That's what his critics say.

"This war is a long, long war..." Ditto.

B: Why block drug importation. "I haven't yet." Yet? "It might be from a third world."

K: Four years ago Bush was in favor of importation. Made it illegal for Medicare to bulk buy, like the VA does.

B: "He has been in the U-nit-ed States senate 20 years."

K: "OGBYN's and brain surgeons." (pointing to head.)

B: "...named Senator Kennedy (sic) the most liberal senator..." "That's what Liberals do! They create government health care." Oh, that's what liberals do.

Why don't you have a better fiscal record? "We have a deficit!"

(On cutting taxes.) "It increases demand, or investment." Or something?

K: The first time we've had a tax cut when we're at awar.

Question: "How will you improve the economy?"

B: "It was going down before I got into office."

K: "I'm pledging I will not raise taxes. I will cut taxes on families earning less that two hundred thousand dollars."

B: "We got battling green eyeshades." (This confused my friends.)

"He looked at me like my time was up." Um?

"I got a plan to increase the wetlands by three million." This reminds me of a boot-up error I got once. "Windows needs 7". Next time someone leaves units off on a lab report, I'm writing "Two point five what? Two point five wetlands?"

K: "I was broke[,] with my party."

"I'm gonna be a president who believes in science.

Question: "How can the U.S. be competitive given the wage gap?"

K: Make American companies hire Amerians.

B: "I want to incent" companies to keep jobs here.

My absolute favorite--

B: "I own a timber company?(??) Nobody told me. Anybody need some wood?"

(boggle) Why would you deny that? Did he seriously think Kerry might have made up such a specific factoid? And such a checkable one? Who would make up a thing like that?

K: "The Wall Street Journal says my tax plan doesn't affect 96% of small businesses."

B: "It just does!"

B: (on the Patriot Act) "I really don't think your rights are being watered down. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't support it if I did." He says that like, "it might surprise you to know..."

B: Stem cell research is wrong, and I'm the first president ever to fund it.

Question: "Who would you nominate the the Supreme Court?"

B: "I'm not tellin'."

"Strict constructionist." No Dred Scott cases -- but strictly, the Constitution allowed slaves to be treated as property.

Wouldn't it be great if there were really a litmus test (like a strip on the tongue) and you only got the job if it wasn't acidic?

K: Dodged gay marriage, on the Supreme Court question.

Catholic, but for funding abortion.

B: Reasonable ways to decrease abortion. (I agree.)

K: Not so simple. (I agree.)

B: "Yuu can run, but you can't hide. Reality." --- What?

B: (on mistakes he's made -- great question! But he was coached.) "Appointments to a board you've never heard of..." "I don't want to hurt anyone's feeling on national TV."

B: "Saddam would still be in power, and the world would be much better off."

Closing statements --

G: "Kerry will go first as agreed."

B: "Well actually."

K: "You wanna go first."

B: "Either way."

K: "We won't cede authority to any nation, any country, any institution..." Are there any countries that aren't nations? Maybe Wales? We won't cede authority to Wales?

B: (listing his achievements?) "We've been through a lot together recession, corporate scandals, war..."

And finally, was it just my TV, or did Bush's hair look green? And what's with the moderator's teleprompter showing up at the end?

Monday, October 04, 2004

Next Year

Well, the season's over, but the Cubs had a winning record and were in playoff contention right up to the final weekend. And I've had a great time watching. Thanks, Dusty and everybody, for a fun summer.

The Reds game I saw on Wednesday was really our last hope. And we blew it -- but just barely. In the ninth inning we were up by two points, and the Reds already had two outs and two strikes on their batter. All LaTroy Hawkins had to do was throw it past him one more time... But instead he threw it over the plate and watched it sail back over his head, out of the park, for a two-run homerun. We stayed alive into a twelfth inning, but another two-run homer ended the game, and effectively, the Cubs' season.

And yet, it was still a great day to be at the ball park. The excitement was palpable. The weather was gorgeous. Wrigley Field is a stunning setting. The game was full of thrills, and of sentiment. The stands were full of the smell of beer and hot dogs, and of cotton candy and peanut shells and joy, at least the beginning. And we've got such a talented core team, and such a brilliant manager in Dusty Baker, that you just know next year we're going all the way.

That's right, I'm an archetypical Cubs fan now. We'll be buying some tickets in April, the season of hope.

These are pictures-of-pictures, and I apologize for the quality, but hopefully they give some sense of the excitement.

Fans enjoy their Ron Santo autographed baseball, one of five hundred given away randomly. Santo, the former Cub third baseman who now calls games with Pat Hughs for WGN radio, has become even more of a local hero since a movie was made about him (directed by his son) and his struggles with diabetes, which cost him both legs. He sang "take me out to the ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch, waving to the crowd from the broadcast booth.

Moises Alou's distinctive knock-knee'd batting stance.

Sammy Sosa's almost-grand-slam -- three runners go, the pitcher watches it sail, Sammy hops, and fists pump. But it was foul by a foot.

Southpaw Glendon Rusch (the figure walking away at left) with the bases loaded against him, after pitching a top quality game, and a top quality season as the Cubs sixth starter... And getting this game's only Cub home run.

View from the stands,with the lake at one edge, and the apartment buildings across the street topped with roof-top bleachers.

Harry Caray, the former voice of the Cubs, looms over the crowd at the corner of Addison and Sheffield. Wrigleyville on gameday, after a loss: forty thousand disappointed people.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Presidential Debates

The transcript is already up.

First, I was surprised by the amount of real substance. The questions (all on the subject of foreign policy and the military) were hard, and the answers actually addressed them. Second, I was surprised to see Bush losing his cool. He nearly interrupted a couple of times, and frequently demanded the opportunity to reply, and once said "Let me finish" even though his time wasn't up yet. Third, I was surprised to find myself genuinely impressed by Kerry. He mentioned Vietnam only once or twice, and it made sense in context when he did. He had at his fingertips the hard facts that the blog-world loves, on Bush administration failures. His self-control was better than Bush's, and he seemed neither stiff nor aristocratic. He said about four times as much as Bush did, in the same amount of time, because Bush hesitated and hemmed and hawed and repeated himself. Before the debates, the rumor had been that the Kerry team wanted the air conditioning down low so that no one would see their candidate sweat, but it was Bush who looked like his collar might be getting damp. Incidentally, Bush's blue suit and blue tie looked less assertive, in my opinion, than Kerry's black-with-red.

Afterward I talked to my dad, who is my prototypical Bush voter. He agreed that Kerry had "won" the debate, in the sense of being better prepared, and making more unrebutted points. But he thought Bush's hesitations played well to some extent, as though he were "speaking from the heart" instead of reciting memorized lines. We agreed that it was unfair that only Bush could get away with this. He also thought Kerry hurt himself with undecided voters by talking so much about the U.N. In particular, when answering a question about whether he believed in the validity of "pre-emptive" wars, he said "No president, though all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America. But if and when you do it, Jim, you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons." The words "global test" and "prove to the world" made my dad's eyes roll. He doesn't believe the US should be answerable to anyone else. I do, but I can see his argument, and I think Kerry did step into a trap there. The other thing he didn't like was "If the president had shown the patience to go through another round of resolution, to sit down with those leaders, say, 'What do you need, what do you need now, how much more will it take to get you to join us?' we'd be in a stronger place today." That really was a trap, because Bush had just said "And if he had been in power, in other words, if we would have said, 'Let the inspectors work, or let's, you know, hope to talk him out. Maybe an 18th resolution would work.'" He walked right into that set-up.

My dad also thinks that Bush's "on message" strategy is almost foolproof, and that as long as Bush keeps repeating "flip-flop," it doesn't really matter what Kerry says. Unless, of course, he gets a simple message or two of his own. My dad thinks that the Clinton staffers he's taken on are telling him that message should be "The Iraq war was bungled," with a side of "This president has cost us jobs" in the domestic policy debate. Those are pretty good messages, even if they're still a little too nuanced, in comparison with Bush's. At least Kerry's message is no longer simply, "I served in Vietnam."

I think he did a pretty good job summing up his position on Iraq in one of the thirty-second extentions, and it does seem consistent with all of the other things he's said: "I know exactly what we need to do in Iraq, and my position has been consistent: Saddam Hussein is a threat. He needed to be disarmed. We needed to go to the U.N. The president needed the authority to use force in order to be able to get him to do something, because he never did it without the threat of force. But we didn't need to rush to war without a plan to win the peace."

(I'm not sure he really needed to be disarmed, since he didn't have any weapons of mass destruction after all, but at the time, of course, Kerry didn't know that.)

The most right-on moment for me was near the end. The question was, "What is the greatest threat to national security." Kerry's answer was, "Nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation. ... You talk about mixed messages. We're telling other people, 'You can't have nuclear weapons,' but we're pursuing a new nuclear weapon that we might even contemplate using. Not this president. I'm going to shut that program down, and we're going to make it clear to the world we're serious about containing nuclear proliferation." (But I'm sure my dad didn't like that.) I was impressed that he said he would send troops to the Sudan, if it were necesary and possible, with our already overtaxed military. I was also relieved to hear Bush say, "The military will be an all-volunteer army," out loud and in public.

Kerry's best jabs were better than Bush's, I think. He got Bush good on the subject of nuclear weapons in places other than Iraq, in particular North Korea. (Again, Bush's "too manly to lose face by holding bilateral talks, because that would be "giving in," probably played well with my dad. Better they should have nuclear weapons than we should compromise.) Bush protested that this was his priority too, but Kerry pointed out that Bush has already had four years to do something about the problem, and has accomplished almost nothing. Kerry -- and Jim Lehrer -- made Bush's friendship with President Putin look pretty bad too. "Mr. Putin now conrols all of the television stations. His political opponents are being put in jail." And, of course, he's consolidating power anti-democratically. Bush all but called him "Vlad." And Kerry's description of the sucky situation in Afghanistan, and the half-hearted effort to find bin Laden, really ought to cost Bush a dozen percentage points, if there were any justice in democracy.

Bush's very worst moments were in the mode of "protesting too much." Paraphrased from my own notes: "Allawi is not a puppet!" And after he answered the question, would he ever lead us into another pre-emptive war, with "I would hope I never have to..." and then "The enemy attacked us." Kerry: "Saddam Hussein didn't attack us." Bush said: "Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that." And Bush's protests rang a little hollow, because earlier he had pulled a Rumsfeld: "Of course we're after Saddam Hussein... I mean bin Laden." He also managed to repeate the phrase "hard work" in every other sentence, and said of Iraq, "I see on the TV screens how hard it is."

One moment which should be counted as an embarrassment for Bush was his answer the the question "Would a Kerry win increase the risk of a terrorist attack in the US?" The right answer to that was, "Of course not. And even if it did, would you really want to let possibility of a terrorist attack influence your vote? You want the terrorists to decide our election?" But that's not what Bush said. He said: "No, I don't believe it's going to happen... I believe I'm going to win, because the American people know I know how to lead. I've shown the American people I know how to lead." That is shameful.

Bush's message was that the US won't let our allies influence our policy. By contrast the terrorists, as he likes to emphasize, have already influenced almost everything in our political life -- have "changed everything" and left no room for "pre-September tenth (sic) thinking". Unfortunately the average undecided voter may actually see a greater loss of honor in domination by our allies than intimidation by our enemies. Those Kerry gaffes that appalled my dad may have repelled more undecided voters than Bush's over-protesting. So while in the end I was pleasantly surprised by the format, the content, and Kerry's performance and would have to declare him the winner... Bush may have won the sympathy of more undecided voters.

My mom has decided she's not voting for either.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Potential Posts

I really haven't meant to leave six days between postings, and the last one only a poem (which involves very little effort on my part) and before that just news about myself, and before that a hiatus...

I was going to post something today, but there aren't enough hours.

So here, just so you don't think I've abandoned you entirely, are the next few posts I have planned:

Cubs game: Ken and I finally went today, but I want to post pictures, and I forgot the bring the digital camera, and anyway we lost. So now I'll wait until I get my film developed, then scan a couple in. It's worth writing about anyway. There were some great moments. Part-time pitcher Glendon Rusch's home run; Sammy Sosa's grand-slam-that-wasn't; and being one pitch away from the win in the ninth, before LaTroy let us down... (Now we're half a game behind Houston in the Wild Card race.) And also the train, the fans, the evil security guy, Wrigleyville, the old lady in the baseball-dress, Ron Santo, and dinner afterward, with a side trip to the Music Box.

EIT: That stands for Electromagnetically Induced Transparency, and it has a lot to do with this project I'm starting work on, and related to Ken's (separate) project as well. Working with him, I'm finally starting to understand some stuff, but it will help me if I try to explain it in simple terms for other people. The project itself is an optical gyroscope, and interesting in its own right. The connection is that you can make the gyroscope hugely more sensetive by slowing the light in it down to a couple of meters per second using a side-effect of EIT. I'll probably need more than one post for this stuff, actually.

Presidential Debates: I'm sure everyone else in the blogosphere will be taking these apart in detail, but I don't think I'll be able to resist the temptation to add my two cents' worth.

So watch this space.

Friday, September 24, 2004

As Freedom is a Breakfastfood

It's poetry time again. I have no idea what this means, but it sounds cool. It looks cool. It tastes cools. It's e.e. cummings, which you can probably tell just by looking...

Although, now that I think about it, maybe it's something about how we play pretend, like kids who make believe they're soldiers. We pretend we're better and more important than we are, and that makes us better and more important than we are. Is there any difference between something we pretend is symbolic and something that really is symbolic?

Or maybe it just sounds cool. That's more important, I think.

as freedom is a breakfastfood
or truth can live with right and wrong
or molehills are from mountains made
--long enough and just so long
will being pay the rent of seem
and genius please the talentgang
and water most encourage flame

as hatracks into peachtrees grow
or hopes dance best on bald men's hair
and every finger is a toe
and any courage is a fear
--long enough and just so long
will the impure think all things pure
and hornets wail by children stung

or as the seeing are the blind
and robins never welcome spring
nor flatfolk prove their world is round
nor dingsters die at break of dong
and common's rare and millstones float
--long enough and just so long
tomorrow will not be too late

worms are the words but joy's the voice
down shall go which and up come who
breasts will be breasts thighs will be thighs
deeds cannot dream what dreams can do
--time is a tree (this life one leaf)
but love is the sky and i am for you
just so long and long enough

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Yes, Master

I promise I'll write another real post, which might possibly be of interest to people who aren't me, soon. But in the meantime, I've got more fun mail that I can't resist sharing:

"Just for your information.... For those of you who recently passed all of your qualifier exams, if you have also completed all of your core course requirements plus 2 electives you now qualify for your Master's Degree. If you are interested in obtaining it please stop by my office to fill out the necessary paperwork. If you enter into Master's Candidacy by Sept. 29th you will get your degree in December."

Might as well, right? Although I'm a little disappointed I don't get a Mistress Degree...

I will expect everyone to begin addressing me as "Master Mary."

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

You've Got Mail

Congratulations! On behalf of the Physics and Astronomy faculty, I am pleased to inform you that you have fully satisfied our department's preliminary qualification examination requirement. Best wishes for continued success in your research and studies.

Friday, September 17, 2004

I Am Blogging

I'm emerging from my exam-bunker, now, and have nothing better to do, so you are going to get all of the stuff I've thought about blogging in the past little while in one big lump. After this, I am planning to spend the next few days doing nothing but reading and watching back episodes of the Daily Show on my parents' DVR (for those that don't know, that stands for "not technically a Tivo.")

The first book on my list, which I finished this morning, was Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night. It's the story of an American who becomes a propagadist in Nazi Germany, sending coded messages for the allies through his anti-semetic radio broadcasts. But he does his cover job too well, inspiring rank-and-file National Socialists, propping up their rationalizations, earning a prestigious place for himself in that society... He absolves most of his Nazi friends of real guilt, saying that they forgot the difference between fantasy and reality, but finds himself guilty of crimes against himself, because he always knew when he was lying. And he has something to say about how societies come to celebrate death. In the book, Hitler sends him a note after reading his translation of the Gettysburg Address: "Some parts of this almost made me weep. All northern peoples are one in their deep feelings for soldiers. It is perhaps our greatest bond." And later, back in America, someone tells him the flags and the closed shops are for Veterans' Day. He says, "This used to be a day in honor of the dead of World War One, but the living couldn't keep their grubby hands off of it, wanted the glory of the dead for themselves. So typical, so typical. Any time anything of real dignity appears in this country, it's torn to shreds and thrown to the mob."

It was in that light that I watched this segment from the Daily Show. In case you don't have Media Player 9 ('cause the Daily Show is now an all-Microsoft shop) here's the beginning:

When Abraham Lincoln was shot, it took an entire century to come up with the Presidents' Day mattress sale. But these days we move a little quicker. So quickly we've already turned the tragedy of Sept. 11 into a holiday: Patriot Day. Hallmark has already gotten into the spirit, creating E-cards like this one. It's all part of America's stages of grief. Denial, anger, depression, acceptance, and finally exploitation."

Patriotic roses, "A tower to celebrate America" of brownies and cookies, discount cottage rentals for the Sept 11th weekend, National Collector's Mint coins plated with silver recovered from ground zero, and Valor the Eagle, whose tag says he was "born on September Eleventh."

Meanwhile (also via the Daily Show) Donald Rumsfeld has forgotten Osama Bin Laden's name. Here are some excerpts from the DoD's transcript of his remarks to the National Press Club: "The leader of the opposition Northern Alliance, Massoud, lay dead, his murder ordered by Saddam Hussein -- by Osama bin Laden, Taliban's co- conspirator." And then: "Saddam Hussein (sic), if he's alive, is spending a whale of a lot of time trying to not get caught. And we've not seen him on a video since 2001. Now he's got to be busy. Why is he busy? It's because of the pressure that's being put on him."

And things are even worse in Russia. In the aftermath of the "bloody outcome of the Beslan school siege," President Putin is asking for constitutional changes. "Curiously, however, the Russian leader's proposals focused largely on electoral changes. Putin said he would propose legislation abolishing the election of local governors by popular vote. Instead they would be nominated by the president and confirmed by local legislatures. He said the change was needed to streamline and strengthen the executive branch to better combat terror. Putin also asked for a revision of the method by which Russians elect their parliament. The entire 450 seats would be chosen from candidates on party lists." (from the CNN coverage)


But not all the news is bad news. Kansas City may be getting a new sports arena. Why do I care? Because Kansas City still feels like my home town, and I'm still angry about what's happened to it. White flight, an infinitely expanding suburban ring where the wealthy people go to be among their own kind, protected from mere mortals. And the city itself dies by degrees. Small businesses can't compete with the chain stores on the outskirts, and anybody who can't afford to live in the new McMansions has a hard time finding a job, and no chance at all if they can't commute out by car. What's left is a place with a hollow heart, all suburbs and no substance. There's no city left in Kansas City. So yay for downtown renewal! Even better, it turns out it's the home to lots of sports architecture firms, who want to collaborate, to make the building a kind of advertisement for the hometown industry. But they have competition, from a group that includes the infamous Frank Gehry, designer of the Experience Music Project and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, both of which I got to see during construction, and visit almost as soon as they opened. I basically hate the EMP and love the Pritzker Pavilion (because what works for a band shell does not work for a museum. And because the EMP is partially painted pink.) I'm interested to see what he would come up with for poor old KC.

And then there's this obituary which I somehow find more encouraging than depressing, and the stunts pulled by the Fathers-4-Justice, in particular the Batman who climbed Buckhingham Palace. The Tribune had a great photo of him leaning imperturbably on a ledge, meeting the eye of a security man with an expression that said, "So what? I'm Batman." Neither Thomasz nor I could find it online, unfortunately.

Oh -- and since I mentioned Vonnegut at the beginning? You know that "Sunscreen Speech" that he supposedly gave? It was really by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, of course, and in a column this week she answered the question, "What kind of sunscreen?" Apparently she recommends PreSun SPF 30.

The next books on my list are the complete works of Lemony Snicket. My sister wants me to read as many of the books as I can while I'm home. I think these will suit my current mood very well.

Friday, September 10, 2004

I'm Not Blogging

No indeed, not blogging. Studying. Only the stuff that's been happening in the lab is too entertaining not to write up, while I remember it. Also, I have more pictures. I'll attach them to this post, after I'm done.

I think the first picture will have to be the bolt that I twisted in half today. See, last time I was putting vacuum stuff together, Ken was still able to tighten everything a lot after I was done. And when he tightens stuff, he looks like he's putting real effort into it. I figured that I couldn't really tighten too much (after all, we're trying to get a really good vacuum) and that even if I could, I probably couldn't, with my girly muscles. I hauled on the wrench with most of my weight and nearly fell over backward when it slipped at one point, but still, when I went back to the ones I'd already tightened, they'd be a little loose again. Because, you see, in tightening the others I'd squeezed the plates closer again. Anyway, I was just about done when suddenly one of them felt really loose.Stainless steel bolt. Six inch handle on the wrench. It's all about the lever arm.

This is not by any means the biggest crisis we've had in the lab, though. Two days ago, we managed to overload a circuit. Ken thought it was just the surge protector -- which really should have blown first -- and didn't realize that all of his pumps had shut off, not just the one gauge which he plugged in elsewhere. When he realized, forty minutes later, what had really happened, he came into the office where the group was meeting looking like he'd just seen someone die. The whole group started tracing wires around the room, looking for breaker numbers, so they could flip the switch back. It took overnight for the vacuum to go back down. Ken was in checking on it at one a.m. (The two post-docs who normally would have been responsible for this stuff were both out of town.) And then after he left, the circuit blew on the other vacuum. That one's still not down to where it was. They're baking it -- that's what the picture of the thing wrapped in tinfoil is.

As for me: I tried to make a mu-metal box to shield something one of the other post-docs is working on from stray magnetic fields. This involved tracing and cutting out patterns, weirdly similar to sewing. I have also spent a fair amount of time waiting for rubidium to boil. A watched rubidium oven never does. And today I was doing dishes. Or anyway, cleaning out the ultrasound machine. Lab techs and housewifes have more in common than I would've thought.

The other pictures are a couple I took with the infrared viewer up against the camera lens. You can't quite make out the fluorescense in the vapor cell unless you know what you're looking for (the IR viewer is hard to focus, when you're not looking through it) but you can clearly see the infrared laser light bouncing off mirrors in the other -- those bright spots are not there at all to the naked eye.

Grr. Take that, stupid bolt!

Baking. Like you'd bake a potato.

The thin line at the center is the fluorescense.

Nothing is glowing when you look without the viewer.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Official Hiatus

I've temporarily unsubscribed from my newsgroups, and I'm not showing up to the lab after tomorrow. I haven't watched the last two or three Cubs games, or the last week's worth of Daily Shows (which is all the TV there really is to watch, in the summer). Ken's making an effort not to invite me to do things with him (except study) because he knows I'll say yes. I've even been taking slightly shorter runs.

In spite of all of this I still seem to be incredibly unproductive. But I might as well try to marshal whatever resources my brain reserves for blogging as well. If I want to stay (and I do!) I've got to pass. If I want to pass, I've got to work. I expect I'll post again sometime in the week after the 16th, when I'll be visiting my parents. In the meantime, wish me luck. And if you see me, nag me.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Labor Day in the U.S.A.

The Chicago Tribune has a couple of interesting Labor Day pieces:

'American Dream' Goes Up in Coal Dust:

" CHRISTOPHER, Ill. -- Twenty-eight years breathing coal dust and diesel fumes wasn't enough to kill Gary Bartolotti. Neither was a falling 1,500-pound slab of shale that pinned him to the jagged floor of a mine shaft, shattered his right ankle and pelvis and ruptured his bladder. He never lost consciousness, never even went into shock. [...] The company that ran the mines he worked went bankrupt, and a federal judge recently granted Horizon Natural Resources' request to cancel the health-care benefits of active and retired employees. By early October, Bartolotti and at least 1,200 other retired southern Illinois miners and their dependents will lose the lifetime health-care coverage they'd been counting on."

Executive Privilege:

"The simple answer is that some CEOs lose their sense of reality and feel entitled to whatever they can get away with, psychiatrists and corporate governance experts say. Instead of thinking about what is fair or right, some chief executives look around to see what their peers at the top of the heap are getting in cash, stock options and perks, such as corporate jets and club dues. They want that--and more.
[...]Of course, no dysfunctional individual exists in a vacuum. In the corporate world, chiefs who are losing their bearings have boards of directors that are supposed to help them maintain perspective. But boards often are stacked with friends of the top guy, which makes it hard--indeed, almost impossible--for them to say no, said Nell Minow, a corporate governance specialist."

(Reading that story reminds me of reading history -- over centuries under the feudal system, monarchs grew more powerful and the aristocracy which was supposed to be a sort of check on that power grew weaker. Monarchs measured their rights by comparison with other monarchs. What we need is a sort of corporate Magna Carta, I think.)

NPR has a good Labor Day story as well, a piece on Studs Terkel, with some clips from his original interview tapes, for the book Working.

The book Ken gave me for my birthday (Chi Town by Norbert Blei) has a cool piece about Studs Terkel too. It's a collection of essays about Chicago, and Studs is so much a part of Chicago history and culture that a story on him is almost inevitable. Blei had the good fortune of sitting in on one of his interviews once -- with Dave Brubeck, another Chicago legend.

One of Blei's other heroes is a new discovery for me: Sydney J. Harris. After reading Blei's ode to him, I did some searching, and found treasures. I've only just started working my way through this remarkable collection, but already I'm coming to worship this guy too.

Here is a sample:

"The fact is that nothing is harder in life than knowing what should be done, for there are dozens of ways to do something wrong, and usually only one way to do it right.

"'It is easier to be critical than to be correct,' said Disraeli, in rebuking his parliamentary opponents - neglecting to add that this was as true for his own party.

"The process of learning consists in collecting 'non-answers' rather than in finding answers. We find out the things that don't work through trial and error, usually repeated many times in different ways, before we hit upon the answer, if we ever do."

And on that note -- I've really got to study some electromagnetism today.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Have a Good Time

What with the Republican convention (speaking of which, I've been meaning to link this article about the latest incarnation of loyalty oaths at Republican rallies) last night, and my little birthday party, and everything, this song has never seemed more relevant. Only my life's not really a mess. Not unless I fail the quals. But this voice in my head....

Yesterday it was my birthday
I hung one more year on the line
I should be depressed
My life's a mess
But I'm having a good time

Oo, I've been loving and loving and loving
I'm exhausted from loving so well
I should go to bed
But a voice in my head
Says "Ah, what the hell"

Have a good time
Have a good time
Have a good time
Have a good time

Paranoia strikes deep in the heartland
But I think it's all overdone
Exaggerating this and exaggerating that
They don't have no fun

I don't believe what I read in the papers
They're just out to capture my dime
I ain't worrying
And I ain't scurrying;
I'm having a good time

Have a good time
Have a good time
Have a good time
Have a good time

Maybe I'm laughing my way to disaster
Maybe my race has been run
Maybe I'm blind to the fate of mankind
But what can be done?
So God bless the goods we was given
And God bless the U. S. of A.
And God bless our standard of livin'
Let's keep it that way
And we'll all have a good time

Repeat and fade:
Have a good time
Have a good time
Have a good time
Have a good time

Words & music by Paul Simon

(And continuing the theme of birthdays and poetry, I also wanted to find a way to incorporate a link to Ted Kooser, the new Poet Laureate of the US. Apparently he's obscure and thus a controversial choice, and from Nebraska, which makes him a "poet of the plains." It turns out he has a relevant work. Not bad, I think. And I think I want to include this link someone posted to AFP. Twenty-four hour watches. These appeal to me a lot, especially the mechanical ones, and the one that shows where it's dark and where it's daylight across the world. Maybe for my birthday next year. Okay, so that's not really on the theme. But how else am I going to work it in?)