Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Good MOT, Good MOT!

Okay, so remember the other day when I said we had the brightest trap ever, but couldn't get it to work when we changed the set-up? And how if we didn't change the set-up, we couldn't do the experiment? So we really needed to get it working with the new set-up? Well, we did!

I promised pictures of the super-bright trap, and I took them, just didn't get around to uploading them. But now you can see the super-bright trap, and the new-set-up trap.

But first, for reference, is a picture of what the trap used to always look like (on a good day)

Second is a picture I took of the same monitor, with the same camera (though the camera had been moved slightly, but not significantly closer) on the day after we saw the trap with the naked eye. Believe it or not, the trap was actually even bigger than this at one point, though not much bigger.

The final picture is the trap we got today. It was also slightly bigger than this at one point, but this was a better photo. As you can see, even the weaker new trap is brighter than the kind of trap we used to get.

It always feels like a lot of lot of work to get back to the same place, when we're trying to get the trap going again. This time it took weeks. But the truth is, this represents a major step forward. Because we changed the configuration of the laser beams, and this trap, unlike the old one, can be launched upwards.

The theory behind a trap requires six laser beams: one pointing up, one pointing down, one pointing left, one pointing right, one pointing forward, and one pointing backward. (Actually, our trap is rotated a little so that some beams are diagonal, but lets just ignore that and talk about up and down, forward and back, and left and right.) Up until now, the left pushing beam was simply a reflection of the right pushing beam, and the doward pushing beam was a reflection of the upward pushing beam, and so on. But if you can change the frequencies a little, so that the upward pushing beam is a little higher in frequency than the doward pushing beam, you can arrange for the upward beam to push a little harder than the downward beam... And the atoms are launched upward. It's called an "atomic fountain." This is a necessary part of Ken's experiment. But you can't do it if the downward beam is simply a reflection of the upward beam -- then they're automatically the same frequency.

However, the downward beam is a reflection no more, but a completely independent beam whose frequency can be independently changed. Another hurdle cleared. The impossible experiment is still on.

And we can go on Christmas break without this frustration hanging over our heads.

It feels good.

December Poem

A Child's Christmas in Wales

(It's more a short story than a poem, and I can't possibly quote all of it. I'll link to this copy instead.

I'm just going to quote the end, but please believe me that knowing how it ends does not spoil this particular story.

... And then, at tea the recovered Uncles would be jolly; and the ice cake loomed in the center of the table like a marble grave. Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year.

Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs and the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn't the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house.
   "What shall we give them? Hark the Herald?"
   "No," Jack said, "Good King Wencelas. I'll count three." One, two three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by nobody we knew. We stood close together, near the dark door. Good King Wencelas looked out On the Feast of Stephen ... And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our house; the front room was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping gas; everything was good again and shone over the town.
   "Perhaps it was a ghost," Jim said.
   "Perhaps it was trolls," Dan said, who was always reading.
   "Let's go in and see if there's any jelly left," Jack said. And we did that.

Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang "Cherry Ripe," and another uncle sang "Drake's Drum." It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird's Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Good News and Bad News

The good news is, yesterday we got the biggest, brightest trap we've ever seen. It took up half the camera's view. Its brightness saturated both cameras and drowned out all other light in the chamber in the pictures. It looked like the sun. It looked like it was going to eat the lab. Our advisor asked us why it was so much bigger, and Ken said "Because we rock?"

Here's the thing -- it was so bright, you could even see it with your naked eye. The reason that is surprising is because it glows in infrared.

"Wait, how can you see infrared with the naked eye?" you ask. Well, the eye's response doesn't cut off sharply at a certain wavelength. It just gets less and less sensitive as you go to longer and longer wavelength. Our light is far enough past the peak sensetivity of the red-receptors in your eye to qualify for the term "infrared," but the eye still has some sensetivity to it. In other words, if it's really bright, you can still see it.

The trap was that bright.

Somehow seeing something like that with your naked eye is much more impressive than merely seeing it on a screen or through a viewer. You know it's not a special effect. It's like -- wow, there's a ghostly glowing red dot just hovering in the center of our vacuum chamber. Okay, I believe in quantum mechanics now.

Nothing else could possibly explain that.

The bad news is, we got this incredible trap by going back to the old set up. See, the way we usually get a trap involves having laser beams that go through the trap (it's partly transparent), hit a mirror, and then go through it again from the other direction. What we need to do now, for reasons I won't get into, is have one beam going through it from one direction, and a separate (but identical) beam going through it from the other direction.

When we reflect one beam back on itself, the trap works, and works spectacularly. When we take off the reflectors and send a supposedly identical beam in from that direction, it doesn't work at all. How can that be?

So that's where we are now, the frustrating mystery we are still trying to solve. But seeing the largest trap ever, and seeing it with our naked eye, makes up for the frustration a little.

For reference this post has a picture of what the trap normally looks like on our TV screen. Yesterday, it took up, literally, about a third of that screen. So, huge. I'll bring a camera in today... And here is a picture of what a trap looks like when you look at it with your naked eye. The difference is, theirs is a sodium trap, and sodium glows with visible yellow light, which makes it much easier to see than our infrared glow. But other than appearing redder and dimmer, that's just what ours looked like.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Things that are Nerdy

Okay, I know the "breaking news: water on Mars" thing was kinda ridiculous. I mean, since it really was news, you probably saw something about from real journalists, and didn't need my link. What can I say? I was excited. In my opinion, nothing could possibly affect the course of history as much as life on other planets, whether human (someday) or alien -- even bacteria. And Stephen Hawking agrees with me. So there.

Meanwhile, Nasa's putting out press releases about plans for a moonbase.

There's a lot of "why" in the discussion that links to, that I really don't comprehend. Why go to the moon? Why hold the Superbowl? Why fight wars? Why try to build quantum computers? Why make Bond movies? When you think of all of the ridiculous things the human race spends billions of dollars on, doesn't a moonbase sound supremely rational in comparison? I know, people say we could better spend NASA's budget on things like aid for African countries dealing with famine and disease. But number one, we wouldn't spend the money on aid for Africa; we'd more likely spend it on weapons research. Or should we give it back to the taxpayers so they can spend it on tooth whitening systems and Christmas presents for their pets? You know it's going to get spent on something ridiculous regardless, right? And number two, even if it were going to go toward aid for Africa, it could only help a small part of single generation... Which is certainly worth doing, but isn't it also worth doing something that could potentially change the destiny of all of the human generations to come?

Um, just in case I offended anyone there: I've bought tooth whitening systems and presents for my pets too. I'm not saying there's anything horrible about that. Just the national teeth-whitening project we're all engaged in is perhaps slightly more ridiculous than a national space exploration project.

That's all the space news I've got, but there are a couple of more links I've been saving up, so I'll sqeeze them into this post as a part of an overall "nerdiness" theme.

Scientists trying to predict the future

Comic books: Joss Whedon is writing one apparently to be titled "Buffy: Season Eight".

For those who watched the Sci-Fi channel's reality show "Who Wants to be a Superhero?" the comic book based on the winner's character has been delayed again.

I'm planning to read both of those comic books, but right now the only one I read is The Walking Dead. That link goes to a review of the first issue that I agree with, so I don't have to write my own review. Except he says he doesn't like zombie movies, and, ever since I started hanging out with Ken, I do.

I do read lots of comic strips. And since I am a protophysicist, I'm gonna link to Zippy the Pinhead talking about string theory every now, and then.

I also think the Brewster Rockit Space Guy story line beginning here is funny, but the website is annoying. Just lie when they ask you for personal information.

Man, I am such a nerd.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Canals on Mars?

A riverbed on Mars where there was none before.

It might mean life, or it might just make life a lot easier for future Mars colonists...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A New Project

So, you all know by now that research is frustrating, right? The project that was supposed to be my thesis... Well, I was spinning my wheels on that for a long time. Couldn't get any traction. When we finally, finally understood the theoretical description of our problem, we discovered that 1: the experimental device we were trying to build wasn't going to work (although not for the reasons I had thought it wouldn't) and 2: the theory behind wasn't new. Other people had already done these calculations.

Ugh, that's very vague. I never know how much I can say about my actual research. I mean, in science, you're supposed to publish in peer reviewed journals, not blogs. But I think it's okay to tell you that I was working on a new kind of optical gyroscope.

Ordinary optical gyroscopes, usually called ring laser gyroscopes, are pretty simple, in principle. Basically, when you rotate a certain type of laser, the frequency of the light coming out of it changes. If you want to know how fast you're rotating, measure the frequency of your laser. This is useful for navigation. Keep track of how fast you're turning and for how long, and you always know what direction you're facing. You can know really accurately, enough to navigate by dead reckoning alone. So all of these airplanes and ships and satellites carry little lasers on board now; optical gyroscopes are pretty standard, apparently.

Anyway, we were supposed to be building a more sensitive optical gyroscope, capable of detecting even very tiny rotations. But it turns out that the effect we thought would simply enhance the sensitivity has a lot of other consequences as well -- like making the frequency measurement much harder to do accurately. And the conditions under which this effect happens turn out to be narrow and hard to realize in practice, and realizing them handicaps the sensitivity in other ways. Which explains why we never managed to demonstrate the increased sensitivity experimentally.

So. End of story, right? So much for my thesis. I've been at loose ends now for a couple of months, wondering if I was ever going to graduate, if I had to start all over, worn out and kind of burned out by the whole saga of the gyroscope. (And meanwhile working on the trap, which is a two person job, with Ken. The trap is always, always frustrating. About two hundred pieces of equipment have to be working all at once in order to trap atoms at all, and optimizing them all takes half a day for two people, even when things are working well, which is not very often. And then when you change anything, it can take days or weeks or months to get the trap back, as you try to track down the problem among all those parts... We've recently changed some things. Ken found a better way of doing what he's trying to do with the trap, in some papers. But it's So. Much. Work.)

To sum up: Arghh! Damnit! Arrrrghh!

But the effect that was supposed to make the gyroscope more sensitive, the effect that other people have already discovered and written about? In trying to understand it, a question occured to us (well, to my advisor) to which we can't seem to find any answer in the literature. Nor is the answer obvious from theory. At first this seemed like bad news -- we still don't totally understand! But now my advisor has given me the assignment of attempting to answer the question experimentally. The fact that no one else seems to know the answer means that the result of such an experiment would potentially be publishable... And more importantly, could go into a thesis.

And that means that all my work so far isn't wasted. The stuff that I learned about this effect, even the stuff I learned about gyroscopes (because depending on the answer to our question, maybe some of those problems I mentioned can be gotten around someday), can still go into my thesis. These things are supposed to be about 200 pages long, but most of that is usually background material. I was worried that all the background I'd been learning was going to turn out to be totally irrelevant, that'd I'd have to start from scratch. So I am incredibly relieved to be given a new problem that is actually related to the work I've already done.

Now actually doing the experiment is going to be hard, don't get me wrong. I don't know where I'm going to find the time, considering that the trap is going to continue to be a two person job, and there are only three of us in the lab. And I've still got classes to take... And I'm already forseeing a million problems with trying to set this new experiment up, and the problems that you forsee aren't ever the bad ones, either.

But those frustrations are for later. Right now, I'm just relieved to have a new project that won't require me to start from scratch.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Sad Stories

Sometimes I keep links to stories that move me, but find it hard to work them into posts. Too serious to throw in with a bunch of links to space pictures or television trivia.

But this one really got to me, and I want other people to read it: "Laos had only two million people then. And we were later told that the U.S. and its allies dropped three million tons of bombs on us.."

"Eventually, nobody could survive here, anymore. Our houses were destroyed and our fields were full of unexploded substances. People were dying and so were the animals. We had to leave and so we decided to go to Vietnam, to search for refuge. But the journey was tremendously arduous. We were moving at night, carrying few possessions. During the day we were hiding from the enemy planes."
In this biggest covert operation in U.S. history, the main goal was to "prevent" pro-Vietnamese forces from gaining control over the area. But the entire operation seemed more like a game, overgrown boys allowed to play, unopposed, their war games, bombing an entire nation into the stone age for more than a decade. The result of that "game" was one of the most brutal genocides in the history of the 20th century.

Some of the most brutal bombing raids were done out of spite, with no planning. When U.S. bombers couldn't find their targets in Vietnam due to bad weather, they just dumped their load on the Laos countryside, as the airplanes couldn't land with the bombs on board.

More warcrimes: missing CIA prisoners.

From the Tribune -- `I have to make this right' "In 1997, June Siler named Robert Wilson as the man who attacked her. Today, she's convinced he's not and blames police for the mix-up."

You know what? That's enough sadness. The other stories I've got can wait for another time.


A happy ending: Victim recants; convict to go free: "A Chicago man who had been serving a 30-year prison sentence for a 1997 attempted murder will go free today, a month after the victim in the case told the Tribune that she no longer believed that Robert Wilson was the person who attacked her."

But it's still a sad story, even with the happy ending. 1997 to 2006 is a long time.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving Poem

The Fire of Drift-wood
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


We sat within the farm-house old,
Whose windows, looking o'er the bay,
Gave to the sea-breeze damp and cold,
An easy entrance, night and day.

Not far away we saw the port,
The strange, old-fashioned, silent town,
The lighthouse, the dismantled fort,
The wooden houses, quaint and brown.

We sat and talked until the night,
Descending, filled the little room;
Our faces faded from the sight,
Our voices only broke the gloom.

We spake of many a vanished scene,
Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
And who was changed, and who was dead;

And all that fills the hearts of friends,
When first they feel, with secret pain,
Their lives thenceforth have separate ends,
And never can be one again;

The first slight swerving of the heart,
That words are powerless to express,
And leave it still unsaid in part,
Or say it in too great excess.

The very tones in which we spake
Had something strange, I could but mark;
The leaves of memory seemed to make
A mournful rustling in the dark.

Oft died the words upon our lips,
As suddenly, from out the fire
Built of the wreck of stranded ships,
The flames would leap and then expire.

And, as their splendor flashed and failed,
We thought of wrecks upon the main,
Of ships dismasted, that were hailed
And sent no answer back again.

The windows, rattling in their frames,
The ocean, roaring up the beach,
The gusty blast, the bickering flames,
All mingled vaguely in our speech;

Until they made themselves a part
Of fancies floating through the brain,
The long-lost ventures of the heart,
That send no answers back again.

O flames that glowed! O hearts that yearned!
They were indeed too much akin,
The drift-wood fire without that burned,
The thoughts that burned and glowed within.

Or if your mood in the mood for something less reflective and more ridiculous, take a look at these turkeys drawn by psych students. Their TA added an extra page to the exam when making copies -- it said "draw a turkey." via MeFi.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Human Infrastructure

One of the last things I can see myself doing with my life, below "astronaut" on the list of unlikely careers, is managing a software company. Yet for some reason I've been reading the archive of Joel on Software recently. I find myself nodding in agreement with his descriptions of managment techniques that don't work, including musings from his days in the Israeli army about military-style management and why it's necessary and why it doesn't work if your people can quit. (What does he say works? Trusting the people who take pride in what they do.) Mostly the guy is just a good writer, funny and insightful, one good point per entertaining essay.

Anyway, one essay in particular got me thinking. It's called The Development Abstraction Layer.

He starts off with the story of a talented programmer who saves up enough money to live for a year and then quits his job to write a piece of software better than anything else on the market: "Flawless, artistic, elegant, bug free." Then he sets up to take orders from customers.

Of course, no orders come. Why?

"He's pretty sure he knows. 'Marketing,' he says. Like many young technicians, he is apt to say things like, "Microsoft has worse products but better marketing."

When uttered by a software developer, the term "marketing" simply stands in for all that business stuff: everything they don't actually understand about creating software and selling it.

This, actually, is not really what "marketing" means. Actually Microsoft has pretty terrible marketing. Can you imagine those dinosaur ads actually making someone want to buy Microsoft Office?

The real reason, he says, is the lack of infrastructure to support the product. Not just marketing to make people want it, but sales, to make sure they can get it, and customer service, to make sure they can use it, and billing, to make sure they pay for it, "and public relations, and an office, and a network, and infrastructure, and air conditioning in the office," and "accounting, and a bunch of other support tasks."

But this isn't limited to software development:

The level a programmer works at (say, Emacs) is too abstract to support a business. Developers working at the developer abstraction layer need an implementation layer -- an organization that takes their code and turns it into products. Dolly Parton, working at the "singing a nice song" layer, needs a huge implementation layer too, to make the records and book the concert halls and take the tickets and set up the audio gear and promote the records and collect the royalties.

While I was thinking about that, I read Teresa Nielsen Hayden's latest post on book publishing. Teresa works for Tor, putting out mainly science fiction novels. She sometimes uses her blog to explain how book publishing works, and why nobody ever reads books that have been "self-published" by their authors. Why, in fact, self-publishing is a scam, even if the people who print your book offer to help you "market" it.

Huh, I thought, a publishing company is like a software company without any programmers! The whole company is "infrastructure." The product comes from somewhere else. And no matter how great that product is, "self publishing" almost never works.

Then I thought about reality shows like "American Idol" and "American Inventor." The prize on those shows is, basically, an infrastructure.

Even the military works this way. Joel Spolsky says "It is not a coincidence that the Roman army had a ratio of four servants for every soldier. This was not decadence. Modern armies probably run 7:1"

All of this has opened my eyes a little. First of all, I am not going to think of "efficiency" in the same way anymore. When I hear that big charities spend 80% of their donation income on administration, I am not going to be appalled. Every effective organization spends 80% of its income on administration, according to Joel. An efficient organization is one in which the infrastructure works invisibly.

Secondly, I am going to try to be more respectful of the people who actually do all of this infrastructure work. I'm guilty of complaining bitterly about "bureaucracy." Of losing my cool with customer service people. Of noticing only when the secretaries and payroll people at my university do things wrong, and not all of the times they do things right. Of not appreciating that their job is both hard and vital. The lesson here is that the infrastructure is in some ways more important than the product. A bad product with a good infrastructure may succeed, but a good product with a bad infrastructure will not.

I know I have a tendency to forget this. Which is one of several reasons why, though I notice bad managment all the time, I wouldn't make a good manager either.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Small Blue Marble

Human civilization is a very new and very small and very fleeting thing in the universe. To help keep things in perspective:

Pictures of a near neighbor which is only 764 times larger than Earth (in volume.)

Two men who have gone farther from Earth than any others in human history, except a few of their friends who took the same trip. How far? About 1.2 "light seconds". (A light second is the distance light travels in one second.) Doesn't sound so far when you remember that the sun is eight light-minutes away, and the nearest of the stars, four light-years.

The Chicago Tribune has a little more with these two.

A bunch of people who are trying to do other things unique in human history... (involving pizza, and tea parties, and rattlesnakes, and Michael Jackson.)

There's a movie doing the festival circuit called Ever Since the World Ended.

After civilization ends, how will you be able to navigate?

A new group is taking votes on The Seven Wonders of the Modern World All man made, as were the originals. Six of the original seven are gone. The Great Pyramids remain, and I voted for them, along with the Great Wall of China, the Easter Island Heads, Petra, Stonehenge, the Colosseum in Rome, and the Acropolis.

Physics for Future Presidents tells world leaders what they need to know about "nukes" and radioactivity and the technologies that come from quantum mechanics...

Nasa shows us a movie of the Earth shrinking in the rear view mirror as one of their probes leaves for another planet.

Pictures of the shuttle lifting off from a unique point of view although probably not the ISS according to the MeFi thread that followed...

And finally, to provide a little perspective for US readers: how the rest of the world reacted to our recent elections.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Why I'm not Voting Straight-Ticket Democrat

Some of my favorite bloggers (Jim McDonald at Making Light and John Scalzi and Chad Orzel, who links to the other two) are urging people to vote straight ticket democratic, in an attempt to cause a shake-up in the Republican party, which is desperately in need of new leadership.

I share their aims but I'm not going along with their program. Because as one commenter at Making Light said, they don't live in Chicago.

Chicago shows what happens when the Democrats start taking your vote for granted. Specifically, in this race, we've got an incumbent governor who is under federal investigation for giving state business to certain companies in return for millions of dollars in kickbacks, and hiring unqualified people for state jobs either in return for campaign contributions or simply to build a network of cronies. Not to mention the fact that his policy decisions on things like toll roads and pensions have been plain stupid. And we've got a candidate for county board president who is the son of the man who won the Democratic primary. Two weeks before John Stroger won, he suffered a stroke. His family covered up the seriousness of the stroke until after the election, allowing voters to think he would recover enough to take office. They revealed his true condition at the last possible minute for changing names on the November ballot, and then arranged to get Todd Stroger's name put on instead. They have the clout to put names on the Democratic ticket at will because John Stroger has for so long been a very important cog in the Democratic machine in Cook county. I have no doubt that the kickbacks and hiring scandals and cronyism are even worse at the county level than at the state level, and that the Stroger family is a part of them.

So I'm not voting for either of them. But not only am I not voting for them, I am voting for their Republican opponents, both of whom are running on platforms of reform.

See, I have this theory about how the two party system works. It's based on the idea that the most important function of democracy is to allow the people to throw out a bad government without a revolution. To me this seems very difficult to do in a multi-party system. Either you've got three or more parties in a winner take all election, which means that a minority is enough to elect a generally unpopular person (ie, Ralph Nader helps get Bush elected) or you've got a proportional representation system, where, even if the bad government leaders lose their majority, they can keep part of their power by joining a "coalition."

By contrast, in a two party system it is possible to vote against someone, not merely for someone. And that's what I'm going to do. I'm a big fan of checks and balances, and two equally powerful parties act as checks on each other, ideally. I want to keep them roughly equally powerful. And they're not, around here -- I think that's the root of the problem.

Which is not to say that there are only two points of view on every issue. Just that, in the US, I think the multiple perspectives should be hashed out within the parties. The long list of candidates with the spectrum of ideas should appear on the primary ballot. And the elections which actually choose someone for office should be (and are) run-offs between the winners from the two long lists.

That's my philosophy. I like the two party system because I believe of all systems it makes it easiest to "throw the bastards out." So I'm voting to restore the balance of power in Illinois, and throw some bastards out.

But at the national level -- straight Democrat.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Scary Ideas

Happy Halloween! I've still got the costume I bought and never wore last year -- Natasha, as in "Boris and Natasha," as in "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show." It has a rubber wig and a tube dress, and really long fake eyelashes, and purple eye shadow, and bright red lipstick. It's scary, all right. If only I had somewhere to wear it...

Girl Hacker has posted a programming schedule for her personal television channel, and it seems like a good meme to steal for a post of my own. Rocky and Bullwinkle will be on it, of course. But mine's got to be much longer, because I really like television, and have watched a lot of it.

7:00a - Breakfast Time
(Wikipedia describes it as "an off-the-cuff morning show with lifestyle segments and 'roving reporters' who visited unique sites across the country each day. This was the network's flagship show and utilized every room of the [New York City] apartment [that fX used to broadcast from]. Hosted by Tom Bergeron, Laurie Hibberd and Bob the Puppet.")

9:00a - Game Shows
(Wheel of Fortune, Family Feud, Love Connection... Whatever. Game shows are good in the morning, a cheerful way to start the day. I'm scheduling three hours of them. Also: Blind Date and Fear Factor count as game shows.)

12:00p - Sports on weekends, or TechTV on Weekdays (These days its "G4TV". But back in the day it was Kate and Leo all day long from a single studio set, making it up as they went along. Obviously I'm not usually home at this time, but if I am, this is just the kind of friendly company and infotainment I'd like to have. Apparentely other people miss it, too. Better than court shows, anyway.)

3:00p - Kids' Shows
(Rocky and Bullwinkle, as promised, and also the Muppets, and You Can't Do that on Television, and Out of Control, and Clarissa Explains it All, and the Tomorrow People, and Spellbinder, and Liberty's Kids, and Danger Mouse and Count Duckula. Two shows a day.)

4:00p - British Comedy
(Monty Python, Red Dwarf, Blackadder, the original Whose Line is it Anyway, Have I Got News For You, etc. I think these are all half hour shows...)

4:30p - The Simpsons

5:00p - Sitcoms
(Roseanne, Dharma and Greg, The King of Queens, Malcolm in the Middle, The Dick Van Dyke Show, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Scrubs, and Get Smart. Because those are my favorites, not because they have anything at all in common.)

6:00p - Action Adventure
(The Incredible Hulk, MacGuyver, Dr. Who, The Bionic Woman, Star Trek The Original Series, Mission: Impossible, and Alias. Which seems to fit better with these older, more light hearted shows than with the "serious" later shows... I'll schedule some Due South in this slot too.)

7:00p - The Aaron Sorkin / Amy Sherman-Palladino hour
(The West Wing, Sports Night, Studio 60, Gilmore Girls)

8:00p - "Serious" New Shows
(24, Heroes, House, and Jericho, but Jericho'd better get better quick or I'm cancelling it. Maybe fill in with some CSI.)

9:00p - Buffy and Veronica etc.
(Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel (yeah, why not?), Firefly, and Veronica Mars. And shortlived Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls. And possibly Joan of Arcadia. I liked the little bit I saw.)

10:00p - The Daily Show

10:30p - M*A*S*H (or maybe sometimes "Moonlighting." I haven't actually seen that at all, but Ken tells me I'd like it.)

11:00p - Svengoolie and Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Overnight - More Sitcoms. Doesn't really matter which ones, but I'd include I Dream of Jeanie, Bewitched, and Mork and Mindy, for starters. And The Wonder Years, even though that's not exactly a sitcom.

Luckily, I'm married to the one person in the world who would actually want to watch this with me.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Things That Look Cool

* Close Up Pictures of Snow Crystals via Girl Hacker

* A photographer who made his famous subjects pose in midair via MetaFilter

* This is what the end of the world looks like Links to missile test pictures at MetaFilter

* Manhole covers of Japan via Making Light

* The Biomedical Image Awards We know lots of people in biomedical imaging these days... Also via Making Light.

* Photos of Mars they need your help cataloguing all the craters. Computers aren't good at it. Via User Friendly I think.

* The Sidewalk Art of Julian Beever via Making Light and User Friendly.

* Mars in 3-D I'm sorry, I forget the source.

* The Nieman Marcus Catalog featuring a cruise in a space ship.

* Light and line Great shots by Chicago Tribune photographers. Registration probably required.

* Our pumpkin. Ken suggested I try to carve this Bears logo, and it turned out great.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Bears Win

Did you see that Bears game last night? The Chicago Tribune called it a Monday Night Miracle. On national television, the Bears came back from the 20 point deficit they were looking at in the third quarter. The offense looked like amateurs and never managed more than three points in the whole game, while turning over the ball six times. But the defense and special teams proved they could win the game all by themselves. By one point. That one point lead wouldn't have been enough, of course, if the Arizona kicker hadn't missed his easy shot in the last minute of the game. Man, two and a half hours of painful, boring futility, followed by half an our of shouting ourselves hoarse, and a final minute of jumping and dancing and arm pumping. I guess American football can be as exciting as Ken says it is... And the Bears are still unbeaten.

But how does their defense do it? The Onion reveals their secret.

Monday, October 09, 2006

October Poem


By T.A. Daly

Come, forsake your city streets!
Come to God’s own fields and meet
Not the lean, unkempt and brown
Counterfeit that haunts the town,
Pointing like a thing of gloom,
At dead summer in her tomb;
Reading in each fallen leaf
Nothing but regret and grief.
Come out, where, beneath the blue,
You may frolic with the true

Call his name and mark the sound,
Opulent and full and round:
Come, and gather from his hand
Lavish largess of the land;
Read in his prophetic eyes
Clear as skies of paradise,
Not of summer days that died,
But of summer fructified!
Here, O soul, his message sweet.
Come to God’s own fields and meet

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

News of the New

Apparently a couple of Americans have won the Nobel Prize in physics. They worked on the COBE satellite, measuring the cosmic microwave background. Microwaves are, of course, just a kind of radio waves. The microwave background is nothing but static, noise. The point is that it doesn't have a source. It seems to come from all directions at once, from all over the sky. It was first discovered by accident by scientists at Bell Labs trying to build a radio reciever, who weren't happy that no matter where they pointed the thing, they couldn't get rid of the noise... But it's not quite the same in every direction, and that's what the COBE satellite measures. The little tiny differences. Since the only possible source for radio waves that come from everywhere is thought to be the Big Bang, studying it can tell us something about the beginning of the universe.

But the Nobel Prize people do more than just give out awards. They also create cheesy flash animation games. Certain members of our lab who shall remain unnamed have no problem playing this at work, since after all, it's educational! It's on the Nobel Prize website, and it's about lasers. We're supposed to be learning about lasers, right? Thanks to Chad Orzel for the link.

In other space news, did you see that Neil Armstrong got his line right after all? The story says

Some historians and critics have dogged Armstrong for not saying the more dramatic and grammatically correct, "One small step for a man ..." in the version he transmitted to NASA's Mission Control. Without the missing "a," Armstrong essentially said, "One small step for mankind, one giant leap for mankind."

The famous astronaut has maintained he intended to say it properly and believes he did. Thanks to some high-tech sound-editing software, computer programmer Peter Shann Ford might have proved Armstrong right.
In a graphical representation of the famous phrase, Ford said he found evidence that the missing "a" was spoken and transmitted to NASA.

"I have reviewed the data and Peter Ford's analysis of it, and I find the technology interesting and useful," Armstrong said in a statement. "I also find his conclusion persuasive. Persuasive is the appropriate word."

I, personally, am very glad to hear this. I know some people who would say that there is something to be learned from the original story about an embarrassing human error at the moment of a great human achievement, that it's the difference between real life and myth, and it's important to remember... I say we need mythic achievements these days more than we need reminders of human fallibility. I hope that history books from now on record the line as it was meant to be.

Not all of us get to walk on the moon, of course. But a few teachers got to experience weightlessness recently, in a special airplane like the one astronauts use for training. Sometimes called "the vomit comet," I believe... The idea was to get the teachers excited about science, so they could go back and get their students excited (and incidentally get some publicity for Northrup Gruman, who sponsored it.) But supposedly half of all people get space-sick their first time in zero g. And you only get thirty seconds or so of weightlessness at a time, not enough to acclimate. So you gotta think about half those teachers weren't all that enthusiastic about the experience... But hey, I'd risk it.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Some Links, Some Thoughts

On science related topics:

Peter Woit writes about "open access" journals.. You probably know that scientific theories and experimental results are supposed to be published in "peer reviewed" journals. You may not know that the only subscribers to the physical copies of these journals are university libraries. That's because those subscriptions are expensive. Or that no one these days ever really looks at the physical copies. The university library usually has a subscription to the electronic edition too, you see, much easier to access. (But also expensive.)

Also these days many papers are available on the so-called "arXiv". (The X is a greek Chi. Get it?) Papers on the arXiv have not been peer reviewed yet, may not ever actually be published. But since results appear there months earlier than in the journals, and since papers which will end up in all different journals are available there in a single place, it's very popular.

So to me, the question is, does it make sense to write papers to fit the limitations of print? The shortage of space in print journals means that there is usually no room for a whole derivation, so equations are presented without justification. Results taken from huge data sets are summarized in single graphs. Basically, everything has to be compressed until it's so cryptic that even "peer" reviewers (who are not always specialists in the precise sub-fields of the papers they're sent) have little chance of working out whether the equations make sense or whether the results are reasonable.

And, of course, lots of papers are rejected by the more prestigious journals, not because they're wrong, but because you can only fit so much in an issue. This makes the ego-driven, status-seeking aspects of "publication" even worse.

But the "Open Access" movement apparently doesn't want to move to electronic journals, but to pay-to-publish print journals!

Speaking of the ego-driven, status seeking aspects of publishing: Piled Higher and Deeper has a simple diagram of how it works.

Okay, but before I get too cynical, I'll go on to "Cocktail Party Physics," a non-academic, un-mathematical blog by science writer and Buffy fan Jennifer Ouellette. Her enthusiasm for the subject usually restores my own a little, (so does Pyracantha's.) Inspired by the internet holiday called "Talk Like a Pirate Day," she proposes Talk like physicist day. I think we should combine them. Argh, matey, that plank is a simple harmonic oscillator and you're about to find out its natural frequency!

And Chad Orzel, a working researcher in (more or less) my own field, reminds me that as frustrating as the impossible experiments we try to do on our cold atoms may be, the basic idea of laser cooling is still pretty awesome. He describes the first time he heard of it, as an undergraduate "Right about there, I was hooked, just because it's such a wonderfully counter-intuitive idea. When you think about hitting something with a laser, you don't imagine that it'll get cold.". He then describes the basic concepts involved, continued in the following post. This is the theory behind a lot of the stuff our lab does, if you're at all curious. Ken is the university's laser cooling and trapping expert, these days, as the operator of the only working atom trap. Even when the research is stalled, that's still a pretty cool position to hold.

Finally, Mark Chu-Carroll has a post about working in a academia versus working in industry from the point of view of someone who works in industry. Of course, his field is computer science, but a lot of what he says seems to be true in general. He says, "When I started working on my PhD, I had no intention of going to work at an industry research lab. I went to get my PhD specifically because I wanted to teach." The story of how he wound up where he is, especially the parts about not having as many publications as he'd've liked, and research politics, and the constraints of being married to someone with her own career, and the fun he had working at his current lab as an intern compared with the pressure to get grants and get papers published in academia, are all really interesting to me. And the fact that he's so happy with how it worked out is very encouraging.

It's also really encouraging that some post-doc friends of mine recently got permanent jobs of their own, outside the academic track (and in very diverse places.) We'll probably see one of them, at least, at a conference we're attending next month (my first one! I'm nervous about it.)

In the end, the best advice is probably Timothy Burke's. Accept that your first job out of college or grad school is not going to be great. Accept that you're going to be paying some dues. Just because you don't get the cool job right away, doesn't mean you never will... So I should relax.

I'll try.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

September Poem

Dunno what this one means, but it suits my mood.

W.H. Auden

For what as easy
For what thought small,
For what is well
Because between,
To you simply
From me I mean.

Who goes with who
The bedclothes say,
As I and you
Go kissed away,
The data given,
The senses even.

Fate is not late,
Nor the speech rewritten,
Nor one word forgotten,
Said at the start
About heart,
By heart, for heart.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Final Frontier

I'm a fan of the space program. Not a hardcore fan, maybe, not a self-made expert like some I've known. But, y'know, I watched Apollo 13 four or five times in theaters and the HBO series "From the Earth to the Moon" and "The Right Stuff" and then I read some of the books that those are based on. And yesterday I picked up We Seven, purporting to be an account of the "most magnificent adventure of modern times, told by the heroes who achieved it" -- the Mercury astronauts.

And then there's all the science fiction dating back to the early days of the space program that I still love. When I bought the Mercury book, I also picked up Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham. "An international prize of over a million dollars was being offered to the first man to complete an interplanetary journey. Target -- Mars. [...] Dale Curtance of England didn't need the fortune. He was a millionaire. He was an eccentric. But most of all he was an adventurer and he was determined to win. [...] There were going to be many surprises. And they all began with the stowaway aboard Curtance's ship. A stowaway to Mars. A woman."

Who could resist that?

The great part about space travel is that it blurs the line between science fiction and reality. For instance, there is the X Prize Cup, which has already awarded a ten million dollar prize to a spacecraft developed by a billionaire. Now they plan to offer more prizes. And a British billionaire has joined forces with the American one to try to put the prize-winning craft to use.

And NASA really is planning to go to Mars, and back to the moon. The Constellation program borrows ideas from Apollo (and so resembles the science fiction of that era too) for the design of a vehicle versatile enough to handle both, supposedly, and dock with a space station too. Lockheed Martin got the contract. They're hiring in Colorado. My mom sent me an e-mail alert. But I don't really want to build it, so much as fly in it... Maybe I'll stow away.

Realistically, private space tourism is probably is the only way I'm ever going to get any kind of taste of space. Right now it's a little out of my price range, around $20 million to go up aboard a Russian Soyuz and an extra $15 million if you actually want to do a spacewalk. I'm saving up.

There is one other option. You can move to a small country and talk them into buying fighter planes from Russia, and hope the Russians throw a trip in to "sweeten the deal". That's how Malaysia's getting its first astronaut to space. Whoever it is will attempt to make Teh Tarik (pulled tea) in space. This will be a challenge because, normally, it involves pouring "boiling-hot milky tea swiftly and repeatedly from one vessel held high in one hand into another held low, producing a distinctive layer of froth."

If I ever go into space, I'm going to drink my national beverage: Diet Coke. I can think of all kinds of experiments to do with that. Shaking the can, ditching the can altogether, maybe even bringing along some Mentos.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Happy Birthday to Me

Actually I did have a happy birthday yesterday. I love that my birthday falls 1) on or near a three day weekend, every year 2) at the beginning of my favorite season. And now that it's not "back to school time" for me anymore (I never left), my only worry is allergies. What the heck is it that blooms in September and makes my nose go nuts?

But the season is worth the sneezing. In Chicagoland, fall is by far the nicest time of year. Seventy degree days with golden sunshine and cool lake breezes. And yesterday was the most beautiful day in the history of the Earth. I went for a long run, interrupted in the middle by a little while laying on a bench and watching the sailboats pass in front of the skyline and letting myself be hypnotized by the sunlight flashing on the water.

I got a bracelet, money, flowers and (yet to come) running shoes from my parents. I asked for the running shoes. From my husband, I got, not the new watch I had asked for, but my beloved old one, repaired. He snuck out and got this done while I was making copies the other day, never even knew he'd left. I also got a new wallet (the one I had was in shreds, but I hadn't been able to find one like it) and and candy and glow in the dark solar system and Star Wars stickers. I will be taking general relativity soon, after all. A girl's got to decorate her binder.

He also took me out to dinner -- capellini pomodoro, red wine, and chocolate cheese cake, with a candle. Mmmm.

Then we went for a walk, back out in that beautiful sunshine. And I got phone calls from family, and fell asleep watching the Saturday night B-movie on Svengoolie. I tell ya -- this is the life.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Real and Imaginary

I've got a few blog entries marked "keep new" in my Bloglines feed, because I keep meaning to get around to writing about them. The problem is that they're on intimidating subjects, which deserve long, thoughtful posts, and it's hard to muster that much mental energy. But they nag at me, and so perhaps I'll just try to say something about them, and link to them, and get it over with.

One is a sort of rambling post by Lance Mannion called The Purpose of Religion.

In it, he says

Faith, that is the belief in things unseen, is willful stupidity. Faith is believing that what your eyes and ears tell you is secondary to what your imagination allows you to wish were true instead. Faith is a belief in nonsense. To have even a little faith is to believe in nonsense and to open your mind up to all kinds of other nonsense.

That sounds harsh, and later he backs off it a little -- he seems to be trying to say that he can see the appeal, unlike some atheists. But seeing the appeal is not the same as approving.

By contrast, Pyracantha posted a nice series of short essays beginning with Science Religion Imagination Realities, part I (and continuing with part II, III, IV, and V) wherein she summarizes the conflict between those who believe in the supernatural and those who do not, and places herself somewhere outside of that, as someone who believes that the supernatural exists in our minds, and that this kind of existence, while unphysical, is still real.

She thinks that scientists will scorn this unempirical, irrational view of the world. But I think that if they do, they're hypocrites. The thing is, scientists believe in math. Math is unphysical. And yet you'll have a hard time finding a scientist who doesn't believe the person who discovered the value of pi (or rather, the means to calculate it to as many digits as you please) didn't discover something real about the universe.

I had this argument with a philosophy professor in college. I said, "Pi doesn't exist." He said, "Yes, of course it does." I said, "Show me where." He said, "It's implicit in every circle." I said, "Show me a perfect circle."

I don't remember how he answered that. It seems to me unanswerable. There are no perfect circles. Pi is an idealization, and abstraction, an idea.

The same goes for every theorem ever "discovered" by mathematicians. They are really invented. They rest explicitly on unprovable assumptions. Some of those assumptions are even acknowledged to be inconsistent with what we see about the universe around is, and yet scientists believe theorems about hypothetical spaces where triangles have more than 180 degrees to be, nevertheless, "discovered," to be in some sense, facts.

But it doesn't stop at math. If pressed, most scientists will admit that they believe in such abstractions as justice, friendship, and personal identity. All the fictions that human beings live by. You can't kick justice, you can't measure friendship, and no one is really the same person from moment to moment; nobody is consistent or predictable enough in their behavior to qualify as a real scientific phenomenon.

The metaphor that I like, I got from Buckminster Fuller. It's something like this: these abstract things are like knots tied in a rope. You can't have the knot without the rope, of course. The knot, by itself, isn't a physical thing. It's just a pattern. The physical thing is the rope. But the knot is really there, nevertheless. Another metaphor for the same thing: a mosaic. Let's say a mosaic depicting an elephant. The stones are physically there. The elephant is not, has no existence beyond the stones. It's true, there is no elephant. And yet everyone who sees it knows exactly what it is.

Buckminster Fuller said that energy was the rope, and even matter was just a knot in it. Because matter is created and destroyed (in nuclear reactions, usually) but energy, on average, is not.

You can extend these metaphors. What if I make a pattern out of knots, two and then one, two and then one? Is the pattern really there? But it only exists in the knots, which only exist in the rope. You could even imagine using the knots to make morse code, or the mosaic tiles to make letters, and spelling out the word "apple." In what sense is the apple "really there"? (It must be a little bit really there, because if I show it to people and tell them to go fetch one, they'll consistently -- repeatably! -- come back with real, physical apples.)

So that's my take. The difference between a real person and a fictional character is a level of abstraction, the difference between a knot and a pattern made out of knots.

Now believing that a God exists at some level of abstraction is not likely to satisfy a genuinely religious person, since Sherlock Holmes also exists, at some level of abstraction. The question is, is God a pattern in the universe, or a pattern in our minds? What level of abstraction? This ambiguity is sort of like a Rorschach test or an optical illusion -- is the image on the page or in your head? But maybe either way, it hardly matters. The mind is so many levels of abstraction away from matter and energy anyway, what's one more, give or take? If it exists in the mind, it's only a little further from the physical than we ourselves are. And it can still have consequences in the world, can still make people fetch apples. Of course, the only difference between a right theory and a wrong theory in science is also the level of abstraction (wrong theories exist only in your head), but if God is not a scientific theory, is more like a work of art? Does it really matter if a this still life was painted from a model or simply created in the artists' imagination? Does it matter if he got the details "wrong"?

Statements like Lance Mannion's seem to me like someone looking at a mosaic and insisting that there is no elephant, only a bunch of stones.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

You Say You Want a Revolution

Maybe the odds are a bit better for Big New Physics being developed in my lifetime than I thought.

It appears "dark matter" is no longer just speculation. Here's some observational evidence that there is something out there that we can't see.

Short explanation for those who've never heard of dark matter before: for a long while, it's appeared that the galaxies and other astronomical objects we can see don't move the way we'd expect them to for the mass they appear to have, if they were just acting under the influence of gravity. So physicists speculated that either they were more massive than they look (by a lot!) or our understanding of gravity was wrong.

But there are apparently reasons to believe that if they are more massive than they look, that mass doesn't come in the form of stuff made of neutrons and protons and electrons. It seems it has to come from something that doesn't interact with normal matter by almost any means except through gravity, otherwise we'd be able to detect it. So ghostly "dark matter" was invoked. Such convenient substances have been hypothesized before, though, and eventually disproved, as in the case of luminiferous aether

Only all of the sudden it's no longer so mysterious, so speculative. It seems that some astronomers have found a couple of galactic clusters which collided, and the collision knocked the matter in them away from the gravitational center of mass. Now normally the center of mass is, you know surrounded by mass. That is to say, surrounded by matter. But here all the matter's been pushed away, and the gravity is still pulling things toward where it used it be. It's as if the Sun got knocked out of the solar system but the earth kept orbiting the point where it once was. You'd have to assume there was something else there, right?

The revolution will come when and if we ever figure out what dark matter actually is, besides all around us.

(Actually dark matter still isn't enough to completely explain the dynamics of the stars. Something else, called "dark energy" or sometimes "the cosmological constant," is invoked to explain some aspects. But that remains in the realm of speculation and controversy for now. Anyway, I'm looking forward to finally taking that general relativity class this winter, and I'm sort of glad I'll be taking it after this dark matter discovery.)

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Low Sodium Soup

This is an advertisement. Why? Because I want this product to do well so that there is a market for similar products.

No salt added minestrone: low sodium soup from Health Valley.

Do you know how hard it is to find low sodium products?! Much harder than low fat or low calorie or even "low carb."

If anyone has tips or recommendations, leave a comment.

Friday, August 18, 2006

August Poem

I have been away, attending the funeral of my great aunt Mary, and then visiting my family for my mother's birthday and my sister's sixteenth birthday. It's been a strange trip, a funny mixture of sad and happy. My parents had to work during our visit, but my grandfather was there during the day. He was fun to hang out with, in spite of some medical problems of his own. My mom took us out to fancy dinners and then took me shopping on her birthday. Ken drove us, more than 2500 miles in all. That was stressful. And while we were there he drove my sister around to see some friends, get a haircut. He's a good brother-in-law. She passed her driving test yesterday and will soon be driving herself around.

I'm tired, after sixteen hours in the car yesterday, so it seems like a good opportunity to post the August poem:

On The Meaning Of Things
by Ana Castillo

(In memory of Dieter Herms)

He took me to my first opera.
I was 38 and he was dying.
He looked elegantly gaunt rather than infirmed
in an off-white double breasted jacket
suitable for summer.
It was 'Don Giovanni', in Italian with
German subtitles projected onto a screen.
"The plot is rather stupid," he said and already knew,
but enjoyed hearing Mozart again, the high point for him
being when he recognized an aria and could fit it
into the story.
He listened throughout near-faint
with the thinness of air, the crowded theatre,
and the constant drilling pain.
At intermission, he reserved a table
and we had champagne.
"This will be the last time we see each other,"
he said. "What is hardest for me to give up is memory."
I moved my seat closer to his, "Perhaps, memory too,
will be transformed," I said.
"Will I remember you?" he asked.
"In another way," I speculated,
as is all we can do
with the meaning of greetings and partings, and love
that resists death.

--Originally printed in Poesía, Ollantay Press, 1995

My aunt Mary never took me to see an opera, but she did own opera glasses, and used them for watching TV, or watching the pastor in church. She was going blind, her last years, and resented it, but the opera glasses helped. Aunt Mary worked as the admissions director for a fancy girls school in Dallas for 37 years (I went there for preschool and kindergarten) and moved in a set of rich and famous people who did go to operas. She did take me to breakfast and then to school, when I was about five years old, and we lived in Dallas. She did give me old books signed by famous authors she'd met, for my birthdays. It's funny how as soon as someone dies, they stop being old. They're every age at once. She's as much the person I remember from my childhood, now, as the person who was sick in the nursing home these last few years. She's the person I've heard stories about, who went to college and then began a career in Chicago before World War II, and then moved to Wichita to work for Boeing as a part of the war effort. The happier, younger Mary is as real now as the older, sadder one, who had already given up a lot of her memories... That's a comforting thought for me.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Mini Blog

I wrote a short story this weekend, so my writing muscles were too tired for blogging. Before I wanted to be a physics major, I wanted to be a science fiction writer. I figured a PhD was a good fallback... Turns out, it takes up a lot of your time. Who knew? But I recently joined a writer's group, as a way of having a social life, and it's motivated me a bit. People have weirder hobbies, right?

Only I still can't think of anything to blog about. So you get a little lazy blogging, which means, "repeating something I read in the Tribune." You heard it here second (or more likely, twenty-second. This must've gotten some publicity that I missed):

One Laptop Per Child.

That's the name of an organization that's developing cheap laptops for kids in developing countries. They give the village a wireless router and the kids computers, and presto, internet for everyone.

Apparently, Microsoft has problems with this idea. From the Tribune story:

At long last, MIT-associated computer experts gave a demonstration of a seriously working model of the final machine to be distributed to worldwide poverty pockets, to the dismay of some industry stalwarts, notably the folks running Microsoft Corp.


Craig Mundie, top new technology planner at Microsoft, has been quoted saying that a better solution would be to build such a computer around a cell phone--preferably one running Windows Mobile PC.

By picking the open-source and free Linux instead of Microsoft's products, if successful, the project could affect Microsoft's overseas sales to one degree or another.

Additionally, by picking small-fry chip fabricators instead of Intel for the 500 megahertz central microprocessor, the project has shunned the American industrial establishment since it was introduced by Nicholas Negroponte at the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 28, 2005.

Annoying Microsoft isn't the actual point, of course. The point is raising a generation of literate kids with technological tools and expanded horizons.

There's a view of the prototype here.

There seem to be lots of practical features built in, like a low-power black and white mode, and a hand crank for temporarily recharging it. But I wonder...

Are parents going to really let their kids use these? I mean, it looks like something for kids, but you'd think it would be such a precious possession. And these will get broken. I can imagine hundreds and hundreds of ways for kids to break these things. Their parents will be so furious... If your computer were irreplacable, would you trust your kid with it?

Then again, will the parents be able to use them at all? Or does it take a kid to figure it out? Technology, like language, seems to be a skill learned best when learned young. That seems to be the idea behind the project. Maybe parents will let their kids play with them, because the parents won't actually understand their value.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Blue Man Group

A cheerful post to push the last one down the page a bit. Yesterday as an anniversary present, Ken took me to see the Blue Man Group.

I don't want to describe it in too much detail. Part of the fun was realizing how closely "confusion" and "delight" are related. Part of the fun is being constantly surprised.

But before I went I was really curious to know what I was going to see. They were expensive tickets. How could I be sure this was really up my alley?

So the whole time I was there I was trying to think of how to describe it, what I would tell people so that they would know what alley it was up.

When you first enter the lobby (of the Briar St. Theater in Chicago which has hosted the Blue Men every night of the week since 1997) the network of pipes and tubes above your head -- like the intestines of some plastic-and-metal animal -- and the weird lighting, and the wire sculptures, and the surrealist paintings made even more surreal by the insertion of blue men into them, give you the sense of being in line for a theme park ride. It reminded me a bit of the Heineken Experience in Amsterdam, not that I expect that will help anyone else. That was billed as "multimedia experience," which I suppose is what the Blue Man lobby also is. Look out for tubes that seem to be breathing. Or those labelled "chat tubes." Use the bathroom before taking your seat and enjoy the "Blue Man Lobby Bathroom" song. Damn catchy.

When the show started, it was hard to be sure whether it had started at all. I felt like a subject in a psychology experiment. Something about group dynamics and susceptibility to suggestion. The whole crowd was reacting... Started to feel like the call and response parts of church, or when the whole congregation welcomes new parishoners. And yet we were all still waiting for the lights to go down and the curtains to open, at that point.

But when it did really begin, it was with a bang. Literally. The Blue Men are all drummers. That is probably the simplest true description you could give. They don't talk except through the drums (although that doesn't mean there are no words in the show. Just that they don't say them) so they might be called the loudest mimes you've ever seen. But the percussion is not the only thing going on, although it is amazing, and they do have an album. The drumming parts of the performance are also a light show of sorts. The parts in between the drum performances are not without music -- there is another live, three piece band above the stage. They play while the Blue Men do prop comedy or magic or puppet theater or concept art or hilariously surreal improv with victims from the audience. The prop comedy is also surreal. You keep thinking, "where did that come from?" Like Wyle E. Coyote pulling signs from behind his back. Where did he get them?

They keep straight faces, always. Can't crack that blue paint. It makes them seem even more otherworldly. It's like being entertained by aliens -- aliens from the future.

When we first arrived, what I was expecting was something maybe a little like the luau show we went to in Hawaii, which did have lots of drums and dancing and light... And it was like that. If the luau were hosted by aliens. Ken said it reminded him a little of the people who filled the time at his high school variety show between acts, interacting with the audience. If those people were aliens.

When we were actually seated and confused about whether the show had begun or not and I asked him for the last time what to expect, he told me to expect "a party." And that was maybe the best description. Except it was a party without anyone standing apart and feeling awkward. At no time was the audience not involved. Everybody there was having a good time. This is an experience that I wouldn't hestitate to recommend to anyone, of any age, no matter what your tastes -- unless you're an alien from the future, this isn't like anything you've ever seen anyway.

So just to recap, here are the things the Blue Man Group is "just like":

A theme park ride
The Heineken Experience
A rock concert
A mime show
A magic show
A light show
A puppet show
Stand up comedy
Concept art
Wyle E. Coyote cartoons
Aliens from the future
A luau
A variety show continuity act
A party

If any of that sounds like something you would like, you should go see them.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Career Paths

I don't want to say anything here that I will regret. I don't want to stand up and declare "I am done with academia! No more!" and then be embarrassed by that someday, when I'm feeling less disillusioned and less scared, and am after all applying for professorial jobs. And, of course, I don't want any potential employer to find out I've written anything like that.

But I don't think professorial jobs are the ones I will be applying for when I finish grad school. I'll try to summarize the reasons why not. What's a blog for if not working through your angst? And maybe there are some insights to be had from my experience, who knows?

I didn't start my college career dreaming of being a professor. That was an ambition I picked up as an undergraduate, which is probably when most people who become professors decide that's what they want to be... As an undergrad, you're being exposed to all of these new ideas. It's a thrill. If you're lucky enough to go to a small teaching institution like I did (The University of Puget Sound), you're talking about all of these ideas with your professors. You want to keep talking about exciting, important ideas, to keep making discoveries, to contribute something to humanity. And the way to do that seems to be, become a professor. Because they're right there with you, having these conversations, only getting paid for it. Only it's even better for them, because they're experts, with the respect and attention of everyone else in the conversation...

And then, if you're lucky enough to go to a small teaching school, you sometimes get invited over to their houses (beautiful! Hardwood floors, views of the Sound and the mountains, basement workshops, cute families) and even out on their boat (thanks, Professor Thorndike!). And they travel. Take sabbaticals! Who wouldn't want that? It looks like a dream job. And to get it, you think, all you have to do is stay in school. Undergraduate you doesn't mind that idea at all. You're good at school. And it's a lot less scary than the idea of getting a "real job". You wouldn't even know where to begin to find one of those. And besides, you now realize college hasn't really trained you for a real job (unless you majored in business). Maybe you thought vaguely that you would be a "scholar" or a "philosopher" or a "scientist," but now it starts to sink in that all of those words are just synonyms for "professor." The idea of wasting all that education on an office job, coming home every night to your own empty apartment (assuming you're not married or engaged by the end of college) and no guarentee that there will ever be more... Well, it's depressing. And besides all of that, if you're a scientist, they offer to pay you to go to school! Not a lot by your parents' standards, but more money than you've ever made, more than you've had to live on for the last four years. So you start applying for grad school, and on all your grad school application essays, you say that you want to be a professor, and have a view of the mountains, and make important, meaningful discoveries and contribute to humanity. And you do want that.

So what could possibly have changed in three years that this no longer sounds like a dream come true?

Well, I guess it does still sound like a dream come true, in the same way that winning the lottery does. But I have come to realize that saying "I want to be a professor like the ones I had at Puget Sound" is only a little more realistic than saying "I want to win the lottery when I grow up." As an undergraduate at a place like that, you have a skewed sample set. Every person you meet who went to grad school, also has a faculty position. But as a graduate student, you meet all of the people who didn't get that golden ticket. You meet some people pushing forty who are still grad students (and some who have dropped out after spending ten years of their life in grad school, with nothing to show for it.) You meet post docs, who have earned their PhDs and make a little more money than you do, but who are basically still doing what grad students do: low status lab work, taking orders and sometimes abuse from their faculty advisors, often living in dorms. They are on temporary five or three or one year contracts. After that they are on their own again. You eventually find that you know some unemployed post docs. You meet "adjunct professors," "visiting professors," and "research faculty." These people are older than the post docs, in their forties and fifties and even sixties, but they too are on temporary contracts, which you think must make it hard to have kids or buy a house or even a car. How can they know what they'll be able to afford in five years, after their current employment has ended? You realize that many of them don't have those things, houses or cars or families. You meet tenure track professors who are then denied tenure, which is to say, fired, and the houses and cars and families in which they recklessly invested are now in jeopardy. You come to realize that even the professors who get tenure still have little real job security. Part of their salary comes from research grants which they are expected to get (mostly from the government.) These grants are highly competitive, and are awarded for one or three or five years...

You realize that in all this cut-throat competition for jobs and grants, the ones who succeed aren't necessarily the ones who deserve to succeed. The people who make the hiring decisions and give the grants aren't usually experts in the fields the research is in. So they have two things to rely on, when making these decisions: the applicants' own claims about themselves and their research, and the applicants' record of publications in various journals. So the people who are the most arrogant, the most self-promoting, the most prone to exaggeration and incomprehensible jargon... They win. Assuming they have also published a lot of papers, at least. Hence the phrase "publish or perish". So it's the stressed out, frantic, intensely career oriented, arrogant self-promoters who actually win. Do you really want to be like them?

Worse, you see the incentives to exaggerate the importance of one's research, to make bigger claims for its potential applications than it really warrents. To make it sound more impressive and more successful than it is. And you begin working on research of your own, which you realize cannot possibly live up to the claims made for it in the funding applications. If you are a scientist, you learn that science is hard. That most ambitious projects aren't going to succeed, at least in the short term, because that's what "hard" means. The better you understand your field, and other people's research in it, the more skeptical you get. You don't feel like you are contributing anything signficant to humanity after all. You feel like a fraud. And you suspect that some of the other people in your field, making even bigger claims, are frauds too.

The transition from coddled undergraduate at a teaching institution (a paying customer) to cheap labor at a research institution is a rude awakening generally, for ambitious and academically talented students. Your education is no longer about taking classes, certainly not after the first year. It is more like an apprenticeship. But there are few protections in place for you. If your advisor wants you to work nights and weekends, and you really think they might punish you for refusal in any of the hundreds of ways available to them -- assigning you to meaningless and tedious tasks, grading you harshly in their classes, declining to put your name on papers summarizing your groups' research, even failing you on your qualifying exams or thesis proposal (or simply failing to schedule them), or refusing to graduate you, or refusing to give references and recommendations if you do graduate -- then you'd better work nights and weekends. No overtime pay. (Not that my advisor has punished anyone in any of these ways. But the fact that the potential exists is oppressive enough to make it hard to object to anything he asks us to do.) In grad school, you are not made to feel special. You are not made to feel like a smart person with a lot of potential. You are now (especially when you first start your research) the stupidest person in the room, the lowest person on the totem poll. The things you are asked to do seem impossible. You get used to failure. The ambitions that motivated you as an undergraduate now seem unachievable.

Finally, if you have met someone, if you are no longer facing the prospect of a lonely studio apartment after graduation, you start to wonder how you're going to make it work. You are twenty-five or twenty-eight or thirty years old. Your parents had a kid or three by this age. If your significant other is also in academia (and if you met them in grad school, the odds are good that they are) then you faced the two body problem. Getting any kind of permanent position seems impossible, but getting two in the same state, much less the same city? If you take temporary positions, what are you going to do when one of them ends and the other does not? It seems you will have prioritize. How important is this academic career to you after all, after everything you've seen? Now that you've lost your illusions?

Paints a pretty depressing picture, doesn't it?

Well, that picture is an illusion too, to some extent. Things have been getting better, this past year or so. I am not so new, anymore, and I no longer feel like stupidest person in the room, for starters. I feel more confident about the work that I'm doing, confident of my own abilities. I have gotten over some of my disappointment with the gap between the claims people make and what research can actually achieve. Anyway, not everything fails. some useful stuff does come out of this kind of research. A lot of people do find ways to make families work. The job market is tough, but not necessarily any tougher than the one my mom faced with her law degree, for instance. Making two careers and a family work is difficult for anyone, in any job, and you do have to make sacrifices, but you don't have to sacrifice either one completely.

Finally, and this is an important one for me to remember, because I often lose sight of it in my worry about the future... My life right now does not suck. I have a great apartment near the lake in one of the best cities in the world. My job, while stressful and hard on the ego and low paying and distressingly temporary, is also mentally challenging, with flexible hours, and not what you would call a dead end. I expect to make quite a bit more, not too far in the future, regardless of whether I stay in academia or not. Even post docs make twice what we're paid now, and more than the national average wage. And, of course, I'm married to an amazing guy. I already have a family. Just because we'd like to make it bigger some day doesn't mean it's not happy now. And furthermore, I have wonderful parents and siblings. And great in-laws. And I've been to Hawaii and Europe in the past two years. So really, I need to quit whining and start enjoying it, right?

But taking all of that into account, trying to keep everything in perspective... I think I'd rather go into industry than academia after this. The prospects for job security are better. There is (I hope!) less direct competition with your colleagues, less "publish or perish" pressure, less risk of perishing, in general. And I have been humbled by this experience so that I no longer look at abstract "contributions to mankind" as the only worthwhile thing to do with one's life. I think I would now like to do something a little less grandiose and a little more useful. Like designing products that people actually want. If the justification for doing science is that its discoveries allows us to develop new technologies which then make people's lives better... Well, I wouldn't mind being involved in the developing new technologies part, instead of the discoveries part. There just aren't enough significant "discoveries" out there to really support all of the people who want to make them, anyway.

Of course, that's only part of the justification for doing science. The other part has to do with the value of understanding for its own sake. But I feel like, in a weird way, I now know enough about the universe. I know calculus and quantum mechanics and a bit of particle physics (quantum field theory) and once I've learned a bit more relativity (this winter, hopefully) I will have satisfied the curiosity that led me to major in physics in the first place. As much as I'm likely to really satisfy it, anyway. Unless significant new insights, on par with relativity or quantum mechanics, are found in my lifetime. Odds are they won't be. They're pretty rare, in human history. Odds are I wouldn't be the one of the find them, if they were found. And even if I were likely to find such insights, other people would be equally capable. Things like this are usually discovered independently a couple of times. I'll let them have the fun... Generous, of me, right? If such a revolution happens, there will be nothing to stop me from reading a few papers on it even if I'm not in academia at the time. And nothing to guarentee I'd understand them, even if I were.

And who knows, maybe one day when I'm sitting at the computer designing lenses or lasers or whatever, inspiration will strike. Einstein was a patent clerk, wasn't he?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Chicago: City of the Future

In "I, Robot" they had a great computer generated future skyline for Chicago, but this guy has them beat: his computer models show buildings which are actually under construction, or whose construction has been approved. Particularly stunning:

The skyline at sunset, from the lake

That central peak is the still hypothetical Fordham Spire, which appears in close up here.

Here's a daytime view of the skyline.

And another, with stronger shadows.

The view from an expensive condo building.

The view of an expensive condo building, specifically, Trump Tower, which is about eight floors high right now.

There's a lot of new construction going on in Chicago right now, much of it shown in those skylines, which I haven't identified. The city is in a sort of renassaince. Cranes everywhere. The Fordham Spire is certainly the most inspired, though. Check out these artists' impressions from the Sun Times. Breathtaking.

Close runner up is the much smaller Aqua. That's a brochure to day dream over...

Some of the new construction is sponsored by the city itself. For instance, the peerless Millennium Park. And Daley famously bulldozed an airport in the middle of the night to put another park in its place. He's been planting gardens on public land and encouraging green roofs.

And by the way, he wants to bring the Olympics to Chicago, building a temporary stadium and revitalizing the south lakefront in the process.

I believe Daley is the definition of "benevolent dictator." What can you do?

Chicago is my favorite big city, and I've been to quite a few. It's so much fun to see it grow, right before my eyes... And still retain its unique character, become even more itself. Daley is like a symbol of that. Chicagoans love him, because they love Chicago.