Sunday, August 29, 2004

Friday, August 27, 2004

"Piled Higher and Deeper"

I've linked to one of these cartoons before. Half the grad student in the building seem to have "Ph.D." strips on their doors, so it's not exactly a brilliant find on my part. But there are a couple I particularly like...

-Not as personally poignant as the others for me, but stunnigly accurate: graphs of grad student motivation and work output as functions of time.

-An all-too relevant one, given that my last-chance qualifying exams are on Sept. 15th.

-I would like to say that this disclaimer goes for me too...

-And finally, one that makes me wonder, "Does this guy know me?"

Monday, August 23, 2004

I Like Yeats

It has been a month since the last poem. I think it's time for another.

"To my Heart, bidding it have no Fear"
by William Butler Yeats

Be you still, be you still, trembling heart;
Remember the wisdom out of the old days:
Him who trembles before the flame and the flood,
And the winds that blow through the starry ways,
Let the starry winds and the flame and the flood
Cover over and hide, for he has no part
With the proud, majestical multitude.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Alice and Bob

One of these days, I want to do a long post about quantum cryptography. Actually, I want to do it now, but I don't understand it well enough.

But anyway I can do a short post, to give me an excuse to link to this discussion of practical risks by Michael Nielsen.

As a baby experimentalist, I find the prospective practical problems pretty interesting. Right now making these things work at all is a slow, fickle process that involves ritual sacrifices to the vacuum gods (at least, it is in our lab.) It's all jury rigged and improvised. How could our ad hoc solutions be exploited? Are the lasers beams that we use to push the atoms around carrying an information about the system afterwards, for instance? (Probably this is a dumb question, but it's one I've never thought about before.)

Actually what we're working on is not quite quantum cryptography, but it's related. Michael Nielsen says, "The basic problem is for Alice and Bob to share a secret key which only they know." And although that is not really our problem, our two vacuum chambers are indeed named Alice and Bob. This is because all of the papers ever written on this subject call the communicating parties Alice and Bob. If you were to write one now referring to Andrew and Betsy, your audience would be hopelessly confused.

The principle behind all of this stuff is just that in quantum mechanics you get to know statstical stuff about particles without actually looking at them or measuring anything -- and that once you do measure something, you don't have the same statistical spread anymore in later measurements. So Alice can send Bob a bunch of particles, and then they can check, either by revealing some bits or by comparing the kinds of measurements that they made, that all of the statistical distributions are what they should be. If they're not, they've got an eveasdropper doing extra measurements. If all is well, then they've sent information that they can be sure only the two of them share. They can then use this, for example, as a code key. (It's also possible for Alice to send Bob information that even Alice doesn't know -- this is what's going on in what we somewhat misleadingly call "teleportation.")

But what I want to know is, when these systems are standardized and made available to the military, is the person who ends up sending this secret data going to object being called "Alice" by the engineers?

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Fire at Fullerton

I had another post planned for today, a sciency one. But that one will have to wait. Last night was just too interesting not to record. What I was trying to do was meet Andy (I hope you doesn't mind being mentioned, Andy) downtown for the outdoor movie in Grant Park. It was "Roman Holiday." Here is what happened on the way.

I'm waiting to cross the street by my El stop, and someone says to me, "They were on their way to deliver the bridge, but they ran out of gas."

I say, "They what what?"

He points. "The truck ran into the bridge there. So I said, you know, they tried to deliver the bridge..." Sure enough, a semi is wedged under not-quite-elevated-enough El tracks. The cab went under, but the top of the trailer is crumpled backwards, and a cop has closed down the lane. I laugh even though I know I shouldn't, and go up. Just in time to miss my train, but never mind, there'll be another in a minute.

I discover an insect in my shirt. We'll elide that bit.

I make conversation with a couple of women, who did not see me trying to get the bug out of my blouse. (The one who did went to the other end of the platform.) They're trying to figure out whether they need to change trains later. The answer is "yes."

We get on the train. It passes over the stuck truck. A few stops later, they change trains -- I stay put. Except neither train goes anywhere. For a long time. We get a couple of apologetic announcements from the conductor. And then: "This train is gonna be out of service." We all transfer to the other line. I say hi to the women from the platform, and borrow a phone from one of them, make a call about the change of plans, receive a call (she was surprised!) and then the plans change again. This train will be turning back half way, the PA system says unintelligibly. There will be a shuttle bus. The passengers are all talking to one another now, trying to figure out what he said, what they'll have to do. I wonder if that train I missed made it through.

We all get off a few stops later. It is now pouring, so I have my doubts about the movie. But I wait for the bus with everyone else, under the shelter of the tracks. I'm kind of enjoying myself, actually. This train load of people is really starting to bond, now. Everyone's speculating. An old black lady is furious.
Most people seem to think someone has fallen or thrown themselves on the tracks again. They have no patience for anyone whose suicide interrupts their commute. Someone says, "Fire on the Brown Line." The bus comes, destination unmarked, the driver as clueless as we are.

It's the most crowded bus I've ever been on. I get a seat, but most people have to stand in the aisle. The old black lady tells off a young man. He triest to defend himself, but she won't let him get a word in. He stands. She sits. Still scolding.

Off we go. Three high school girls in halter tops are getting a lecture from a dorky white man abot the importance of going to college. They are laughing at him. I'm on his side. I make the cover of my Electromagnetics book more visible. I think they've just finished some kind of summer program, and he must have been one of the instructors. Later he gets off and I think they're trying to read the street name, out the window next to me, so I tell them. But no, they're trying to see a purse in a shop window. Now I feel dorky. I hide the E&M book a little.

There's a leak in the roof above me. As the rain starts coming down for real, the older man (Korean?) next to me and the younger guy sitting behind me both try to block it somehow, but it's futile. All I can do is laugh helplessly. I think I'm going to get a lot wetter tonight. The older man asks me where I'm getting off, tells me he doesn't know how this works and will take his cue from me. That's even funnier.

We don't have much choice in the end. Everyone gets off at the same place, and gets on the Red Line. We're dispersed, though. On this train, I see a familiar face -- I think. I smile. I went on a date with him in October. But he looks blank. Maybe it's not him?

A few minutes later he says my name (slight mispronunciation, which I don't correct.) I answer to it. He apologizes for not getting back to me. I really don't mind. More interestingly, he saw the fire on the brown line. It was at Fullerton, he says. The flames were "pretty high."

He thinks I should walk instead of trying to get the train back to my stop. Since the train back to my stop never comes, I end up taking his advice. It is not raining anymore, but I have to wade some puddles in my sandals.

I can't find Andy at the stop we agreed to, but then I can't get up onto the platform without paying again either. There's some looking for pay phones and begging for mercy from the CTA person so that I can check the platform, but I can't find him. I hadn't had great hopes anyway. He'd been planning to come in on the Brown Line.

It is 9:00 when I get to the park -- an hour an forty-six minutes later than originally planned. The movie was scheduled to start at 8:20, but there seems to have been a rain delay. Audry Hepburn is still asleep in Gregory Peck's bed. I borrow a cell phone from a nice guy at the chair rental place and this time Andy answers. He's in cab, on his way home. But after all that, no way I'm not going watch rest of the movie. I sit on a plastic bag and pull out a piece of graph paper, and while I watch I write down most of the details I've described above. Afterward the people who run the projector are talking about how small the audience was. They assume it was because of the rain, but I tell them about the fire at Fullerton. They ask me what I was writing, and I tell them that too, including the URL for "this little website I've got."

I try to catch a bus home, and the driver tells me to take the El. "Yeah, that line's running. I just took it, didn't I?" He's right.

I can't see any fire damage at Fullerton, although I do see workmen standing around on the tracks. The truck is gone at my stop, too. The ride home is uninteresting, except for a girl sitting next to me, sketching the people on the train.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Happy Birthdays Rebeccas!

My sister Rebecca's birthday was yesterday. My mother Rebecca's birthday is tomorrow. This is the first time I'm not there to celebrate with them, but I used a whole phone card talking to the younger Becca yesterday. She just got back from a trip to Wisconsin, of which the highlight was the Spam Museum. "Put on hard hats and frocks, everything you'll need to participate in the simulated SPAM production line. While you're at it, catch a glimpse of the SPAM Ballet. Don't miss this once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity." No, that is not a joke. Yes, they have a display which just loops the Monty Python sketch.

Also, briefly noted:

-Today is Greg Maddux Day in the state of Illinois. "'His 300th win is a testament to his talent, determination and dedication to his team and to the sport,' the governor said. 'The State of Illinois is proud of his accomplishment and the legacy he's building.'" There will be ceremonies before today's game -- which Mark Prior is pitching. It will really suck if they lose on Greg Maddux day, so I hope Prior's got his control back. We only have a one-game lead in the wild card race. Go Cubs!

-The Chicagoist tells me that I am missing a lot of fun this weekend:
A folk music garage sale, the Illinois State Fair including the butter cow, which is mentioned in that one episode of the West Wing, The Wizard World Comic Fest including appearances by Joss Whedon, and -- this is the one I'm really going to get in trouble for -- a radio station "block party" featuring Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie. And I'm passing? What's wrong with me? (But I did go bowling on Friday, and I'm going to a bar for the folk music night, and I'm actually getting some stuff done.)

-Finally, I was listening to NPR this morning, and was seriously creeped out by these song lyrics. Okay, I'm not going to take up gardening after all. Ever. And I am going to start eating a lot more spicy food. And I will continue to avoid both aspirin and sunscreen. And also, gonna flirt more. So I am not like the person in this song at all? Okay? At all?

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Lake Michigan

Every day at dusk I run a few miles along the lake. Now that I've been here almost a year, I've seen four seasons' worth of sunsets. And it's true: each one is different. You'd think by now I would have internalized that cliché, but no. The changes keep taking me by surprise. Some part of me still thinks that after a couple hundred evenings on this same stretch of beach, I ought to know it. I haven't grown used to seeing things I've never seen before.

I never bring a camera, but every single day I have reason to wish I had. Fleeting effects of light, tableaus of beach goers. Before I come back, they'll be gone. But because I'm running, I move past before the scene changes, and so I perceive a series of snapshots, or possibly paintings.

First -- the residential street where I live, brick and trees and decorative windows. I can tell when I'm getting near the lake because the houses grow more expensive. Usually around eight there's a cop standing at this end of the street. I don't know what he's doing there, but sometimes I wave.

Then I can see the water, across a little stretch of public park. If I have started my run early, and it has been a particularly fair day, the lake will be two completely saturated hues of irridescent blue-green. I like to think the word "ultramarine" was invented to describe the deeper shade, which belongs to the deeper water, out toward the horizon. The nearer distance has a little more gold in it, because the sand shows through. Both colors are flecked with reflections, sunlight scintillating off the surface. But if it is cloudy, the water will only be a metallic green and gold. Or if it is twilight, then it will be any of a thousand shades of pale purple. All of this is the more remarkable since it is so startlingly transparent, clearer than my windows, when examined close up.

The sky is always tastefully color-coordinated, of course. You can see a lot of sky when there is nothing but water between you and the edge of the world. In the evenings the sun picks out the tops of the clouds in white, and the backdrop glows translucently, greenish gray or lavender. Then the clouds burn down to embers, and the light is orange.

After the sun goes down, the sky is still orange. Or really, sodium yellow, 584 and 589 nanometers. That's the color of Chicago's streetlights, which prevent night from ever quite falling. There's always a blush behind the skyline of the city.

I know it washes out stars, but it's such a perfect velvety setting for the buildings themselves, which seem to be made out of light, crystalline, otherworldly, when all you can see are their shining windows... Or the brightly lit spires (radio antennae) rising from the top, in the case of the Hancock building and the Sears tower. They are meant to be beacons, after all.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let us say it is still daylight, as I get to the end of my street and catch my first glimpse of the water and the sky and the city. The views I am describing come later, further along. At first I just satisfy the suspense -- what color is the water? -- and then turn my back on it, and keep running. Through a series of small parks bordered on one side by sandy beach. Usually there are children here. Sometimes family reunions, grilling out. Occasionally a wedding party, posing on the rocks. Or a less formal couple, leaning against one another and looking at the view. Kids and parents playing catch or flying a kite. I love how trite these scenes are, sort of multi-cultural Norman Rockwells. It's good for a person to see a little innocent pleasure every day, helps ward off cynicism.

There are always other runners. I run a little faster if a fellow jogger is nearby. There will be volleyball players on the beach, probably, and bicyclists, and inline skaters. And some people who have come to just sit outside and read, especially around the fountains.

I leave the park, pass the sailing club's boathouse. At this time of day, the boats will be heading in. All white sails, dyed by the setting sun to match the clouds.

Now I cross a little bridge onto a (man made) grassy penninsula. In the little sandy cliff across from the bridge, some species of bird has made a honeycomb of bird-house sized holes. They don't seem to be living there any more, but in the spring, you could watch them bustling in and out.

We also have ducks, and gulls of course, which remind me of the sailboats, when they're in flight. Sometimes they just bob on the lake in flocks. Once they settled on the soccer field, and I was unable to resist running through them, scattering them in three dimensions. They settled again on the field behind me.

Back in June, I was attacked on three separate occasions by birds I couldn't even see. They came at me from above and pecked at my head, and were gone before I figured out what was in my hair. I hope they were protecting a nest, rather than trying to build one. Then yesterday I noticed some other species -- starlings? -- swarming the way gnats swarm, above the trees. (Oh yes, we have gnats too. So many that sometimes they end up in my eyes and my mouth. You can't see them from a distance, but you can see other joggers react. Suddenly their faces contort and their arms wave for what appears to be no reason at all, as though they were having spasms. I was puzzled and amused the first time, until I ran into the same swarm... Then I was not puzzled, and found it a little less amusing...)

I'm becoming more familiar with lots of local wildlife, in fact. We also have fish, of course, big ones visible just under the surface, which people catch from the very tip of the penninsula. They stand on the haphazardly arranged concrete blocks which border the whole thing. These are graffiti'd with declarations of undying devotion, bad poetry, names and nicknames and dates, so you have something to read while waiting for a bite.

And among these artificial boulders a little further up lives a family of raccoons. I've seen them so many times now that I can tell the little ones have grown. They're just coming out for the night when I get there. Rabbits like the dusk too, of course. That's when they feed, I remember from Watership Down, "silflay." There are almost as many of them as squirrels.

When Andrew was here we saw, a little further from the lake, a baby possum. At first I wasn't sure it was really so young. I've never really seen on that close up before. Not ten feet away, watching us, from a tree. But later we saw a full-sized one, and then a whole family of them, so I know that one was really a possum pup, and not just unusually adorable. Huge eyes. I'm not usually out late enough for possums. (We also saw a pure black squirrel, which impressed Andrew enormously.)

He came with me on a run and naturally it poured. I run in the rain, if at all possible. Sometimes the puddles cover the tops of my shoes and my socks get wet. Everything sticks to me. I'm careful not to wear white. Any men foolhardy enough to be out in weathter like that will simply take off their shirts. I'm sure one of them, once, was running more slowly than he had to so as not to leave me too far behind... When I caught him, I said, "Nice weather, huh?" He laughed, sort of self-mocking, and I ran past.

Of course, stormy days involve the risk of lightning, but the reward is worth it: when the sun falls beneath the cloud layer you're almost guarenteed a rainbow. My understanding of the physics is that you're most likely to see rainbows when the sun in on the horizon anyway, which may account for the inordinate number that I've seen this year. The sun sets in the west, so the rainbow appears to the east, over the lake, one end passing behind the Chicago skyline.

All of this is so valuable to me that I keep running well into autumn. Forty degrees, I'm fine. It's only when my hands begin to chap and my nose turns numb and I can't see because of the hair blowing in my face and the paths ice over that I finally admit defeat for the winter and switch to reading books on the stairclimber.

I was more grateful for spring, this past year, than I can ever recall having felt before. I planned myself a longer route, all the way to the end of the path by the lake.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Flannery O'Connor, Richard Feynman, and Jon Stewart

Here's my problem: I've got contradictory heroes.

Today Santi links to a Flannery O'Connor blog. Regularly updated quotes. Now I have to admit I haven't read any Flannery O'Connor, although I've been meaning to ever since Carol said I should. But anyone Santi calls a saint and Carol recommends, I know is probably going to go onto my heroes list. As I read the quotes, I'm mentally putting her right next to Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Graham Greene in the "Religion and Reason" subheading. (Dava Sobel, Jill Paton Walsh, Rene Descartes, and T.S. Eliot and Thomas Aquinas are cross-listed in this section as well.)

But Andrew links to a commencement speech given by Alan Alda, on the subject of Richard Feynman. Now Richard Feynman is also a hero of mine, in the "Science and Creativity" category. See also Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, Freeman Dyson, Robert Wilson, Johannes Kepler, Enrico Fermi, Erwin Schroedinger, Thomas Edison, Paul Erdos, G.H. Hardy, Kurt Goedel, Galileo, etc. Cross listings include Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, Isaac Asimov, and Ben Franklin.

Thinking of commencement addresses, and of links I'd been meaning to include here at some point, made me think of Jon Stewart's speech at his alma mater, William and Mary. (Incidentally I've applied to William and Mary twice. I feel a funny kind of loyalty for it. The first time I couldn't afford to go though it was my first choice by far, and for grad school... It was a very close thing, but in the end I think Chicago won me.) Some time ago someone (now I can't remember who) also provided me with a link to this fantastic interview he did on Larry King Live. Now Jon Stewart is also one of my heroes, in the "Humor and Truth" category. Terry Pratchett, Gary Trudeau, Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, James Morrow, Connie Willis, Tom Stoppard, the Coen Brothers, even Kevin Smith.

Now here's the thing: Flannery O'Connor would hate Kevin Smith. Don't you think? I mean, he made the movie "Dogma" so pretty much everyone in the first category is going to hate him. (And okay, it's not my favorite movie either. But even in that movie I love his stupid characters. That's what the Coen Brothers do too. They make me laugh at, and love, the most flawed people. Okay, that's what everyone in this category does, with maybe the exception of Swift, who is crankier.)

And don't you think that Richard Feynman, who was a fairly militant atheist, would dislike Flannery O'Connor?

And really, just picture Jon Stewart interviewing James Clerk Maxwell. I didn't know Maxwell, but he was a Cambridge "mathmo" right? On the Daily Show, I'm betting he'd come off like the biggest nerd in the entire universe.

Sometimes I feel like all of these people, and all of the people from the other subheadings -- it's a long list -- are just having shouting matches in my head all of the time, and when I open my mouth, there's no telling which voices will come out... (And hardly any of them are female!)

I don't feel like I've reconciled these different approaches to life at all, really. I wonder if I ever will? But I would rather live with the conflict, I think, than have any of them fall silent.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Congratulations, Greg.

Greg Maddux won his 300th game today.

In the interviews I'm hearing now, he sounds more like Eeyore than ever. Paraphrased: "Why did you leave after five innings?" "I wasn't pitching very good." "When did you start thinking about three hundred wins?" "When I got to two-ninety-nine. I didn't want to get ahead of myself." "You didn't do any curtain calls?" "Well, it was their park. It didn't seem right."

We love you Greg. Thanks for coming back to the Cubs, so Chicago can share this with you.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Bush's Blog

It all started with this article in the Onion. "CIA Asks Bush to Discontinue Blog"

They mention a URL in the story -- So my friend Andy went to see what was there. As you do. Turned out it was an unclaimed address. So Andy claimed it.

Or as the blogger for the Guardian put it:"What makes it even funnier is that the Onion guys weren't sharp enough to set up George W's pretend blog at Typepad, so Andy did it for them." (You know you're internationally famous when foreign newspapers refer to you by first name only.)

Bush's campaign also has a real blog, which is almost as funny. It claims that Republican party throws better parties. Now this seems counter-intuitive, but it's exactly what Bush's background qualifies him for.

(Andy also notes that his hypothetical Cubs hard hats were available even before Wrigley Field started falling down, at "". Where else? Incidentally, Mayor Daley thinks the Tribune, which owns the Cubs, should have more editorials about this, so today they gave him one. Remember - Daley is a Sox fan.)

Tuesday, August 03, 2004


This blog is already too Chicago-centric. I'm really going to resist the temptation.

Instead I'll dig something whimsical and scientific out of my bookmark archive: traffic waves.

"Why had I never noticed all the 'traffic fluid dynamics' out there? Once my brain became sensitized to it, I started seeing quite a variety of interesting things occurring. Eventually I started using my car to poke at the flowing traffic. Observation eventually leads to experimentation, no? There are amazing things you can do as an 'amateur traffic dynamicist.' You can drive like an 'anti-rubbernecker' and erase slowdowns created by other drivers."

I don't really drive, but I find this fascinating, and for a couple of years now I've found myself thinking about it every time I'm stuck on a slow-moving street.

This is a part of Bill Beaty's extensive and endlessly diverting Science Hobbyist site. The "anti-skepticism" articles make it a little harder to take him seriously, and the corresponding links to "paranormal phenomena" put me all out of patience, but his other essays and experiments are delightfully enthusiastic, imaginative, and appealing.


Okay, just a little more politics and baseball. Did you know that apparently Cubs fan John Cusak is dating potential first daughter Alexandra Kerry?

I'm no good at resisting temptation.

UPDATE: I can resist this even less: Alan Keyes vs. Barack Obama? What an interesting race that will be. My mom, long-time Keyes fan, may yet disinherit me...

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Supporting Evidence

Anyone reading through an aggregator will notice, but for those who aren't -- I added some quotes re-wrote some stuff in this post about Obama. If you're interested in the subject, it's a better essay now.