Saturday, May 19, 2007

Candidacy / Break from Blogging

Well, I did it. I became a Ph.D. candidate yesterday. For an explanation of what that means, see the post I wrote when Ken did it.

Mine didn't go quite as smoothly, but I don't think it would really be very professional of me to talk about it.

As a matter of fact, I'm having my doubts about this whole "blog" thing right now.

Now that I've done my candidacy, the requirement is that I stick around for at least three more academic quarters before I can be eligable to graduate. That would take me to spring break of next year. For various reasons, I don't want to stay around any longer than I have to. And now that I finally know that I'll at least be eligable a year from now, the chronic case of "senioritis" that I've had since, oh, my second year is going to become acute.

Meanwhile Ken's already been a candidate for almost a year, and his experiment looks to wrap up in the next few months...

So we're at some kind of turning point. Which might make very interesting blogging, except that you just can't talk about this stuff. When you haven't said anything to people at work about what you're planning, what you're thinking, how you're feeling, you can't say anything to the world.

So that leaves personal and professional topics out for blogging right now. But it's personal and professional topics that are obessing me. I'm finding it hard to write (or think) about anything else.

I think I'm going to give up the blog, at least for a while.

It's been fun.

Monday, April 30, 2007

"The Return of Patriarchy"

An article by that provocative title ran in Foreign Policy magazine. (That link goes to an incomplete version however -- to read the whole thing you'll need to read this post through Google groups.)

What the author seems to be saying is "The system where women and children are effectively the property of men really sucks for everyone, including men. But it is effective from the point of view of producing lots of children, and so, historically, this kind of society tends to win out over happier but less fertile societies, by sheer numbers." He says that religious people in the U.S. are outbreeding the secular, and that in the next few years most people will therefore be descended from religious families. And that religious, patriarchal cultures world-wide are outbreeding western cultures, so that in a few generations, the relative percentage of, e.g. Muslims is going to be much higher. (He summarizes the numbers in a shorter piece for USA Today)

Now some people in this discussion thread interpret this as just a sort of prejudiced fear-mongering. "Oh, no! The brown people are going to replace us! Quick, start having babies!" Others seem to think he is sounding an alarm about the dangers of falling populations overall, in global terms. "But the population can't rise forever," they point out. Isn't it better that total global population should level off through cultural changes than through disease, war, and famine due to over-population?

So some people will probably think that he sounds nationalist and anti-population-control, very right wing.

Others, however, will notice that he seems to think that the return of patriarchy is a bad thing, and that the major religions are all patriarchal. What's more, his argument is essentially an evolutionary one. He's predicting that society is going to get more religiously-conservative/patriarchal based on the fact that religious conservatives produce more children. If you assume that parents pass on their ideas as well as their chromosomes (their memes as well as their genes) to their children, this is straight-forward Darwinian logic. So -- an anti-religious "social Darwinist." Must be an evil left-winger.

Not to mention all of the feminists who are going to be pissed off because he's implying that patriarchy is a winning survival strategy.

I, on the other hand, loved it.

Basically, I'm thrilled to have a logical, compelling explanation as to why women have played the role that they have, in so many cultures, for so many years. Why have they stayed home while men discovered continents and then telescopes and planets? While men wrote epic poems and immortal plays? While men built ships and cities? If it was because men bullied them into staying at home, why did they let themselves be bullied? Women may be physically weaker than men, as individuals, but we are not a minority. We make up half of any given society, and if "society" works a certain way, then women are complicit in making it that way. But why? Didn't women want to participate in the world? Or are they, as Larry Summers would have us believe, just not genetically capable of contributing?

(And I know, there have always been women who did participate. Hypatia and Maria Mitchell and all that. But why so few?)

From the article:

Patriarchy does not simply mean that men rule. Indeed, it is a particular value system that not only requires men to marry but to marry a woman of proper station. It competes with many other male visions of the good life, and for that reason alone is prone to come in cycles. Yet before it degenerates, it is a cultural regime that serves to keep birthrates high among the affluent, while also maximizing parents' investments in their children. No advanced civilization has yet learned how to endure without it.
Patriarchal societies come in many varieties and evolve through different stages. What they have in common are customs and attitudes that collectively serve to maximize fertility and parental investment in the next generation. Of these, among the most important is the stigmatization of "illegitimate" children.
Under patriarchy, "bastards" and single mothers cannot be tolerated because they undermine male investment in the next generation. Illegitimate children do not take their fathers' name, and so their fathers, even if known, tend not to take any responsibility for them. By contrast, "legitimate" children become a source of either honor or shame to their fathers and the family line. The notion that legitimate children belong to their fathers' family, and not to their mothers', which has no basis in biology, gives many men powerful emotional reasons to want children, and to want their children to succeed in passing on their legacy. Patriarchy also leads men to keep having children until they produce at least one son.

Another key to patriarchy's evolutionary advantage is the way it penalizes women who do not marry and have children. Just decades ago in the English-speaking world, such women were referred to, even by their own mothers, as spinsters or old maids, to be pitied for their barrenness or condemned for their selfishness. Patriarchy made the incentive of taking a husband and becoming a full-time mother very high because it offered women few desirable alternatives.
Under patriarchy, maternal investment in children also increases. As feminist economist Nancy Folbre has observed, "Patriarchal control over women tends to increase their specialization in reproductive labor, with important consequences for both the quantity and the quality of their investments in the next generation." Those consequences arguably include: more children receiving more attention from their mothers, who, having few other ways of finding meaning in their lives, become more skilled at keeping their children safe and healthy. Without implying any endorsement for the strategy, one must observe that a society that presents women with essentially three options -- be a nun, be a prostitute, or marry a man and bear children -- has stumbled upon a highly effective way to reduce the risk of demographic decline.

One more advantage, which he doesn't mention but which has occured to me before, is that keeping women at home keeps them safe from physical threats. Lets say you have a war and half your men die. At least in principle, this does not necessarily make the next generation any smaller. If the remaining half are willing to be less than monogamous then the next generation can be the same size as the previous. But if half your women died, the next generation is going to be half the size of the last. Women are the bottleneck in the system. So obviously, keeping women out of harm's way has advantages.

Of course, there's nothing so physically dangerous about learning to read, or studying the stars (although medical and chemical research are dangerous -- consider what happened to Marie Curie.) So this wasn't a complete explanation, to me, as to why women should have done so little. But in combination with the other advantages the article mentions? I think it's sufficient.

It's not that women are incapable of making discoveries, nor that men have evilly oppressed them to decrease the amount of competition. It's just the societies in which women are socially expected to be "reproductive specialists" are those which produce the most kids. So most of us happen to be descended from those societies.

But nowhere does he say that people are happiest in these societies. It's obvious why many women might not be. But the article also points out that men don't necessarily want to have to support a large family. In a society where women don't work and each marriage produces many children, and men are expected to marry... Well, that's a heavy burden. Is that really the ideal life for the majority of men? A marriage of equals, with equal responsibility, is less confining, with much less pressure.

So, it seems that even if patriarchal societies do tend to produce more children, those children tend to set up more equal societies among themselves, if they can.

As the industrial revolution continues to spread (it hasn't reached some parts of the world yet) I think more and more of these societies will be able to afford to change, to become more equal. Lower infant mortality and better prospects for old age mean that you don't need so many children. So even if the author is right that patriarchy is going to expand again in the short term, I think the long term prospects for equality are good. I think we have already taken some steps that will not be reversed.

So all in all, I like the article.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Blog Meme

For when you're too lazy and uncreative to think of anything to blog about...

Last Alcoholic Drink:

Hofbrau Maibock, last night. That's a beer, and a good one. I'm into fancy beers these days. Although my palette's not as refined as Ken's.

Last Car Ride:

My five minute commute home from work. But before that, it was the much longer ride back from the DMV, where I finally, after four years got a driver's licence in the state I live in. I had to take the written test. Stress-ful.

Last Kiss:

On the elevator this morning.

Last Good Cry:

*Good* cry? None. Ask me about embarrassing, painful, frustrated cries... Actually, don't.

Last Library Book:

"The Hidden Family," by Charles Stross. I lost it, and haven't paid the replacement fee yet, which is why it was my last library book...

Last book bought:

"Old Man's War," by John Scalzi. But before that it was "Wild Swans" by Jung Chang, which was absolutely amazing. I bought it because I liked the way it was written, from browsing a few pages in the bookstore. But the actual story blew me away. I have to admit I had no idea what China has been through in the past century. The author's grandmother was one of the last generation of Chinese women to have bound feet, and was in her youth the concubine of a warlord. Their child (the author's mother) was a a spy at the age of 17, caught up in the invasion by the Japanese and then the civil war which led to communist rule. Both the author's parents were idealistic party members, who were disillusioned by the famines, purges, and political persecution that came later. They eventually became victims of the Cultural Revolution, tortured and exiled. And the author herself, a teenager at the time, was a Red Guard, a participant in that same Cultural Revolution, but less and less a willing one. I can't imagine anything more exciting, or heart breaking. And, as I noticed in the bookstore, the writing is excellent, honest and unpretentious.

Last Book Read:

"Old Man's War." Very quick read, and pretty entertaining.

Last Movie Seen in Theatres:

"300." 'Cause you gotta see that one in theaters, otherwise, what's the point?

Last Movie Rented:

X-Men 3. Huge disappointment.

Last Cuss Word Uttered:

Probably "Damn it."

Last Beverage Drank:

Diet Coke. Because I am an addict.

Last Food Consumed:

Yoplait light yogurt. Because I am an addict.

Last Crush:

Not counting my husband? I did just watch X-Men (all three of them, in fact), so I'm gonna go with Hugh Jackman.

Last Phone Call:

My mother in law.

Last TV Show Watched:

Gilmore Girls. Which no one is allowed to make fun of. I've been watching since the first episode.

Last Time Showered:

Last night. I shower in the evenings, after I run.

Last Shoes Worn:

Dankso walking boots. They have these hard soles, like wearing wooden clogs. But they're supposed to make sure your gait is ergonomically correct. My mom bought them for me. I'm sure I couldn't afford them.

Last CD Played:

K.T. Tunstall, "Eye to the Telescope."

Last Item Bought:

Flosser sticks. I've got a dentist's appointment coming up.

Last Download:

Maybe "Advanced Batch Converter."

Last Annoyance:

Not hearing back from (or being able to find) a member of my thesis committee. I've got to set a proposal date.

Last Disappointment:

The Cubs, this season.

I could give a more serious answer, but I think I'd depress myself. Who needs that?

Last Soda Drank:

Diet Coke. Because I'm an addict.

Last Thing Written:

Not counting e-mails and blog posts, part of a story I'm working on for my Monday night writer's group. It involves a worker's rebellion on Mars.

Last Key Used:

Huh? "." I guess.

Last Words Spoken:

"Yeah, I'm almost done."

Last Sleep:

Last night.

Last Ice Cream Eaten:

I'm gonna count the chocolate dipped frozen banana I had last week, 'cause otherwise I can't remember. I bought a whole box of them, actually.

(Hey, I remember now. The last actual icecream was from an ice cream truck that drove by us... Probably last September or so.)

Last Chair Sat In:

The one I'm in. A wooden one with a vinyl cushion.

Last Webpage Visited:

Saturday, April 14, 2007


Okay, I am not your average video game reviewer. Mostly because I suck at video games. It's my total lack of hand-eye coordination and my low frustration-threshold that does it. So what I am, is a video game spectator.

But there's only one game that I've ever asked someone to play just so I can watch. It's called "Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion." And I want people who don't play video games to know what game designers are capable of, these days.

It was this game that actually made us buy an Xbox. My husband had played "Elder Scrolls III" and described it to me as amazing. In particular, he was impressed with the amount of freedom you had. You could walk anywhere you wanted, talk to anyone you wanted, do whatever you wanted, accept a quest, or not, betray your allies, or not. He spent uncountable hours on it, and was willing to lay out $400 for a new video game system in part to be able play the new game, which is even better than the last.

But how can a video game be so entertaining -- so entrancing -- even for a spectator?

It can tell a thousand different stories, each with unique characters and moral dilemmas and particular settings, within its world. It can be visually breathtaking, down to the smallest architectural and botanical details (in this game, you can pick the flowers, or even the weeds.) It can be broad in scope and yet subtle -- six or seven different races sharing dozens of very different cities and villages, all threatened by one supernatural danger, but all facing more immediate problems.

One's character's daughter has been kidnapped by cultists. Another's pets have been killed by an angry neighbor. One character, adopted, wants to know who his real father is. Another is the son of an important official, and wants nothing more than to escape her well-meant protection. One man is going to lose his farm. A woman can't pay off her dead husband's debts. Members of a guild find themselves out of work, and are stirring up trouble. Another group is running a protection racket. There are corrupt imperial guards to catch, and sticky-fingered servants.

There are hundreds if not thousands of stories like this, people who will tell you their problems. You can help all of these people, or not. You can play through the game as a thief, an assassin, a wizard-scholar, or a fighter-for-hire, or none of the above, or more than one. You may end up a vampire, if you fail to take the proper precautions, but being addicted to blood doesn't automatically make you evil -- one of your main allies turns out to be a vampire. This game is rich in shades of gray.

It was last summer that I watched Ken play through most of this, but I still remember characters' names, and stories. Once you've helped them, they don't go away. You will still see them, especially if they live in the town where you end up buying a house. Helping them makes them like you better, and they may give you better deals, if they're merchants or skilled laborers. They'll remember, and thank you. But if you let them down, you feel so bad... To have to tell someone his sons are both dead? It won't interfere with your ability to "beat the game," but you have to reload, and try harder, just to avoid the guilt. Even so, you can't save everyone. The game won't let you.

The main quest has religious themes. It's a made-up religion, to be sure, but the only man who can save the world (it's not you) from the supernatural threat is a priest. He is fallible, full of self-doubt, a little cynical, a little afraid -- one of the best of the many well-drawn characters. And you, helping him, are made to feel the same doubts. The "evil" characters ask you provocative questions. Are you sure you know what "evil" is? Are you sure you're any better than them? Are you sure there's any point in all of this? They reveal information about the world of the game and the gods of its religion that makes you wonder. But you fight on anyway.

After about 130 hours of play over a few months (the game tracks this, along with the number of murders, of items and horses stolen, of days and nights passed within the game world, of hours slept and hours waited) my husband finally finished the main quest, and put the game aside.

But recently they released an addendum, supposedly 30% as big as the original game, with all new characters (each with their own problems) and a new main quest.

It begins with a strange door, which you are asked to investigate. It leads to another dimension, and everyone who comes out of it is insane.

This new place looks very different than anywhere in the original game. That landscape had mountains, plains, and costal cities (each with their own types of architecture) connifer forests and cramped stone streets, but this new landscape looks like Louisiana or eastern Texas. Mossy trees dangling vines, marshy ground, lots of mushrooms. The sunsets are more colorful, and the weather rainier. (Yes, this game has sunsets, and weather.)

This is the kingdom of madness, the "Shivering Isles" and if the main game was full of hard moral questions, the dilemmas in this new game are impossible. You cannot get through it without doing things that shake your self-image as video-game "hero."

And this is something only a video game can do. A book, a movie, a play, can make you identify with people who may be making mistakes, who may be doing the wrong thing, but they can't set up these difficult situations and then force you to make the decisions, and then to live with yourself.

I want to give examples from the game so far, but they're spoilers, so I'll put them in white text -- highlight the text below only if you don't plan on playing "Shivering Isles."

The people here here will ask you to hurt others. The very first thing you have to do is kill a monster using its "mother's" tears, in order to enter. You will then meet characters who say things like "My neighbor is annoying. Will you kill him for me?" And once you begin the main quest, your first task is to re-open a sort of prison facility, where uninvited explorers in this realm are either driven mad by torture or killed outright. The decision is unexpectedly put in our hands. And these prisoners are real characters. You eavesdrop on their conversations. They are not "bad guys" who deserve to die. Their only crime is entering the door uninvited -- the same crime you committed. But you can't get out of this one with your hands clean. You're locked in, and can't leave until they're dead or mad. At the end, you're rewarded with a very powerful sword.

Next, the "Madgod" who created this place (he tells you that you are helping him save it from another kind of supernatural threat -- an invasion by the god of order) sends you to his Duchess, who is paranoid, and believes that there is a conspiracy to kill her. You are supposed to torture her subjects, apparently at random, until one of them confesses to being involved. After seeing a few characters fall to their knees and beg you to stop, insisting that they know nothing, the experience becomes disturbing enough that you may want to cheat (as we did), looking up the answer on the internet. Otherwise you will become paranoid yourself. Some of these characters are lying -- you just don't know who.

Next, you are sent to help a Duke, who wants you to enter a certain cave full of monsters and retrieve an item for him. But to get through the enchanted door, you must take a drug... And the drug is addictive. Your character will initially become stronger, but as the effects wear off, you become weaker, less able to defend yourself from the monsters, and eventually, start losing health points as withdrawal pain kicks in. Wait long enough and it's game over, so you have to spend a lot of your time in the cave frantically searching for more of the drug. Eventually, you don't care about anything else, the prizes you'd normally collect, the mission, the monsters. You have to find more of the drug, or none of the rest will matter.

According to Ken, it felt like a real need. And that's something that no book or movie or play could have done. They can't make you frantic, can't make you search, can't make you hurry. They are passive forms of story telling. Video games can take you further outside of your comfort zone, potentially, force you to make decisions. Force you to do things you don't want to. Make you empathize with people who are in similar positions.

That is what video game designers can do these days. They can create works of art both massive and intricate, visually beautiful and emotionally moving and full of surprises, which unfold over hundreds of hours and involve the audience in an unpredented, deeply personal way. "Oblivion" is a masterpiece.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

April Poem

After the Winter

Claude McKay

Some day, when trees have shed their leaves
And against the morning's white
The shivering birds beneath the eaves
Have sheltered for the night,
We'll turn our faces southward, love,
Toward the summer isle
Where bamboos spire to shafted grove
And wide-mouthed orchids smile.

And we will seek the quiet hill
Where towers the cotton tree,
And leaps the laughing crystal rill,
And works the droning bee.
And we will build a cottage there
Beside an open glade,
With black-ribbed blue-bells blowing near,
And ferns that never fade.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

More 3-D Geekery

Stereo pair images of Chicago, taken from the Sears tower.

I know it's not very nice to post things like this, because I know more people who can't do "Magic Eye" than who can. It's like posting music that only people who can wiggle their ears can actually enjoy. But if you are good at diverging or crossing your eyes to see 3D, these are a lot of fun. Personally, I have to save them and then resize them in order to do it... And I'm better at the cross-eyed ones. But I love it.

I really want to try this myself, so you might see some clumsy attempts one of these days...

In the meantime, it's inspired me to look up some more links. So here're some beautiful portraits (cross-eyed variety).

And, because we're planning a vacation in the area, canyons in Arizona and Utah (you choose your viewing format with a widget below the image.)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

What's a "Spirit"?

There's been a kind of kerfluffle over at Science Blogs about some posts on a blog I'm going to start reading. Rob Knop, an astronomer, has posted long explanations of what he means when he says he is a Christian, and how it is compatible with his scientific understanding of the history and nature of the universe. (Part 1 Part 2 Part 3) He's managed to get both religious people and scientists angry at him, by describing himself as believing only the parts of each that are compatible with each other.

So half a dozen other Science Bloggers have responded with their own opinions on whether science and spirituality conflict and if so, whether that conflict can be resolved. Can one be a scientist and truly religious at the same time? (One thing's for sure, if you were, there'd be people saying you weren't religious enough on one side, and others saying you couldn't possibly be a good scientist.)

Mark Chu-Carroll of "Good Math, Bad Math," who also describes himself as religious, chimed in with his own definition of spirituality which is very close to the kind of thing I was trying to describe in this post. I said that a mosaic was more than just a collection of stones, and he says that a photograph is more than just paper and colorful chemicals. For him, his spirituality is his awareness of that level beyond the literal, his ability to see the picture, the pattern, and not just the medium in which it is formed.

Another Science Blogger, Mike Dunford, defines "spirtuality" to mean roughly, "sense of wonder."

It's that feeling that you might get watching a new living thing - human or cat, fish or fowl - emerge into the world for the first time. It's the sense that might come when you first pick up a fossil, and realize just how much time - what an unimaginable depth of years - separates you from the living thing that lived and died, and left behind only the fragile traces that you are holding. It's the wonder that might come when you see your first ruined castle, and look at the land that it commanded, and wonder about the people who lived inside. It's the emotion that you might feel when you first see a famous work of art outside of a book. And, yes, it's a feeling that you might have when you walk into the nave of a cathedral. The sensation I'm trying to describe might come the first time you look at the insides of a cell, or watch it divide, or the first time that you look through a telescope large enough to let you see Jupiter as a real planet, and not just a light in the sky.

(I'm going to start reading his blog, too.)

I'm not a Science Blogger (I don't think I could be -- that would require updating a lot more frequently and actually proofreading before posting) but I want to get in on the act anyway.

I think the most useful definition of "spirit" is "that part of the human mind that seeks a purpose."

No one ever asks any of us if we want to be born, or gives us an instruction manual once we get here. We're just thrown into the world, to sink or swim.

If I can carry that metaphor a little further -- others, who've been here longer, can give us tips on how to stay afloat. We learn the skills necessary to survive from parents and teachers and friends and authors and TV actors... They can teach us to swim, but they don't agree on which direction we should be swimming.

You wake up every morning and you have to decide what to do with yourself. What end do you want to work towards? Okay, you have to put a certain amount of your day into doing the things that keep you alive: eating, sleeping, making money. But you still have choices -- at least, if you're lucky enough to live in a first world country, you do. You could make money working on an assembly line, or as a nurse or as a real estate agent, or for a charity, or running one of Donald Trump's casinos. You could try to maximize the amount of money you make, or maximize the amount of leisure time you have. You can choose to spend some of that money and leisure time raising a family, or devote as much as possible to parties, ski trips, cruises, romantic flings, or to creating a work of art, or volunteering.

In order to decide what to do with their days, people have to decide what they want out of life. That's a "spiritual" decision, in my book. A "spiritual" question is one that boils down to "What's really important?" A "spiritual" experience is one which provides some kind of answer to that question.

The reason these topics will always be controversial is that there is no real consensus on the answer, and nobody likes being told that what they've chosen to do with their life is meaningless, unimportant. So the stakes are high when two people who disagree begin to discuss the subject.

The different religions are different answers to this question. The supernatural comes into it because people feel that whatever they do is meaningless if it's all going to be wiped out by their death anyway. Life is so short. What's the point in doing anything at all, if it's just going to be erased immediately? Either some form of eternal life or some omniscient being with an eternal memory, is necessary if their actions are going to be of any real significance. A being with not only a memory but a plan, a greater end for us to serve, which unambigiously defines "right" and "wrong" (and won't ever be achieved within our lifetimes, so that we will never be left directionless) would be even better. It would be nice to think that our suffering isn't pointless even when it clearly serves no human purpose, that it serves something higher.

Any of these scenarios requires something, someone, to exist who is not bound by the laws of the natural world, in which everything that lives, dies, and entropy always increases. But the idea that something could be unbound by the laws of the natural world has a lot of implications. Miracles are possible. It makes sense that such a being should actually be able to control the natural world. And if so, could indeed have created it. After all, it is nonsense to say that the laws of nature require the laws of nature to exist. So what does require it; why do they exist?

This is the sense in which science still leaves room for a creator god, and probably always will, as that which created natural laws. Since they can't explain their own existence, the fact that the universe exists at all has to be seen as a miracle, of sorts.

Of course, there are other alternatives. The existence of the laws of nature might be a consequence of the laws of logic. As Einstein suggested, God may not have had any choice in the creation of the universe. It might be that logic itself (together with some set of axioms that everyone agrees to be obviously true, if we can find any axioms like that) requires the universe to be exactly as it is. But if so, we can't yet prove that -- though many have tried.

And invoking God to explain why the laws the nature should exist doesn't explain why God should exist. It may be the the laws of logic require it... But if so, we can't yet prove it.

And me? I have this tendency to make these posts about science and religion without really taking a position one way or another. I don't want to offend anyone. But I don't want to cop out either. I want to be intellectually honest.

What sense of purpose motivates my decisions, day to day? What keeps me from despairing?

I like to think of the universe as a sort of "being" (whose existence I can't explain, anymore than most religious people can explain God's existence.) This being is not conscious except to the extent that we, humans, are a part of the universe, and we are conscious. When intelligent life came along (a short time ago in the history of the universe, if you count only humans as intelligent life), the universe in some sense "woke up." Individually we are short lived, but as a species we learn, and remember things. I'll be dead someday, but the species will live on.

This, together with my somewhat scientific understanding of time as a "direction," such that the past in some sense exists -- over there somewhere [points in the negative t direction] -- is enough to make me believe that death does not render life meaningless.

And what is our purpose here? Well, if you believe in God, what would you say God's is?

Maybe, to give the universe a purpose?

Without us to care, the universe is nothing but a lot of empty accidents. But if humans care and remember, marvel at the shape of galaxies and the variety of butterflies, then those things do mean something.

So how does this influence my actions? Well, for one thing, it makes me want to be a writer, still, even though I'm all grown up now and I know how impractical a writing career is. Stories are the way we give events meaning and context, and even fictional stories work, because of their usefulness as metphors. I think it was science fiction author Nancy Kress who described art as a way of "turning pain into beauty." That's partly how I deal with pain, by making it into a story in my head. (I also try to take the long view -- how much will this matter in five hundred or ten thousand years? It'll still be there, the way the early chapters of a novel are still there even when you get to the last page, but as a small part of a big story.)

For another thing, it makes me feel connected to the rest of humanity, 'cause I see the whole human race as one thing, in a way, as the brain of the universe. That also means hurting each other, or letting each other suffer when it can be prevented, is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Since we're a part of the same thing. My interest in future generations makes me want to read science fiction, and influences my political opinions for sure: I find it hard to take national borders very seriously, but I do take global warming seriously, along with other long term threats to the species as a whole. It also probably contributes to my deciding that I do want to have kids, to be a link in the chain of generations. And that right there is going to end up determining how I spend a lot of days, over the course of my life.

Finally, this kind of philosophy probably has something to do with why I went into physics, which has determined how I've spent a lot of my days, already. I said that we humans as a species we could learn, and remember things. Well, the knowledge that lasts is knowledge about the things that last -- the laws of nature, the structure of the universe. I wanted to contribute to that, somehow. These days I know better than to think I'm going to discover something like quantum mechanics or relativity, but even if I'm just a memory cell for the species, keeping what we've learned already in mind even as the people who discovered it die, that's a fairly worthwhile thing. Teaching it, or applying it to technologies that make life better for future generations (and make no mistake, the difference between the choices we have in the first world and the lack of choices in the third world is technology, humble things like automatic sewing machines and hygenic food storage) is also worthwhile.

Obviously I don't want to be told I'm wrong about any of this stuff any more than anyone else does. But I admit that I'm guessing. I don't think that the idea of God is ridiculous, as I hope I made clear above. In principle it makes as much sense as anything else, if you start from the premise that the laws of nature could not create themselves. And I'd like it to be true.

I'd hope that even if it were, though, God would have room in heaven for people like me, who are fumbling around looking for their own answers. I don't find anything attractive or believable about the idea of a vengeful, judgemental God. I think the God of C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and G.K Chesterton (my favorite religious writers) would mostly be okay with how I'm living my life, even if I'm wrong about everything.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Quickie Links Post

Busy, lately, and tired, so I'm just now doing last weekend's post. And I've only got a few minutes. Still, I have been saving up links:

A store in Chicago that absolutely does not sell cool spy gear.

How camera lenses are made

Some funny cartoons

Some more funny (and geeky) cartoons.

Interview with Barbara Feldon, AKA Ninety-nine, from "Get Smart." She's hilarious.

Jim Carrey and Conan O'Brien talking about quantum physics.

Okay, that's all I got, for now.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Holographic Dreams

I had a strange dream last night.

Ken and I flew to Venezuela -- which was, in my dream, a sort of large tropical flea market. I found a display of holograms, and bought one that depicted a shoe. But when you turned the hologram to look at the shoe from different angles, it actually changed subtly, a very old work boot morphing into something modern as you rotated it. I decided, in my dream, that I was going to start collecting holograms. Then the dream got weirder, something about our bedroom being full of flies, but I woke up thinking about holograms.

Back in the early nineties you used to see decorative holograms for sale more often. I had one of a peace symbol that I wore as a necklace, and another one of space-walking astronauts, mounted on a little plastic stand, that sat on my dresser. These days it seems the novelty has kind of worn off, and you only see them on credit cards or as stickers on expensive products, verifying their authenticity.

Remembering my peace symbol and my astronauts, I thought maybe I really would start collecting holograms. I'm sure you can still order them off the internet, at least... Although that does take a bit of the fun out of collecting.

When I was in high school, some people I knew made their own holograms as an independent research project (they got a science credit for it.) I remember being impressed by little glass plates with 3-D coins on them, and by the laser they had set up in sandbox, on a concrete block that, according to the teacher, had its own foundation independent from the rest of the school, to minimize vibrations. These days I work in a laser lab, on, actually, the third floor of our building. The optical tables we use are supposed to be low vibration, if you use the built in hydraulic support system for the legs, but our tables are decades old and the hydraulics don't work anymore. I think my high school had a nicer set-up.

Our advisor has another lab, mostly separate from the one Ken and I work in, which is actually called the "holography" lab. But the holograms they make aren't like the ones I used to buy. They have more in common with DVDs, using a laser to store information and then retrieve it later. But they probably could make a picture of a coin, and I started thinking... Maybe I should ask them to show me how. I mean, will I get a chance again?

So that got me searching for "make your own hologram" kits. Turns out there are a few around these days. I don't have to bug the guys in the holography lab after all.

The only problem is, I think their holograms, like the ones you can make from these kits, would be viewable only in laser light of the same color as the laser used to create them. The kind of holograms I dreamed about collecting are embossed "rainbow transmission" holograms, apparently. All I really know about them is what I just read here. But they are certainly harder to produce, which is why they make good security stickers.

Also unfortunately, as far as I know you couldn't really make a hologram like the one I dreamed about, which morphs as you rotate it. Holograms are generally produced by shining a laser beam on a small object that is physically present. In the case of my astronaut hologram, it was almost certainly some plastic models of astronauts -- that's what they looked like. You can't combine images of different objects onto one hologram -- although you can record multiple holograms on the same piece of film, to be viewed with different colors of light.

So my dream can't exactly come true, even with a home hologram kit, or a whole holography lab.

There are other things holograms can't do. You can't make "true color" holograms that look like photographs except in 3-D, at least not in normal light. You may have seen something like this on a movie poster, but it's not a hologram. It's a "lenticular" poster. This is a completely different process that just makes different parts of a normal image visible from different angles. In general, the secret to making things look 3-D is to make each of your eyes see a slightly different image. But lenticular posters can hold a dozen different images, each visible from a different angle, so that not only can they look 3-D from different positions, they can even move or morph as you walk by. Any image you can print on paper can be used for this technique, physical models not required. So it's actually a more impressive and somewhat more useful technique than real holograms. But not as futuristic. Real holograms look three dimensional because they reproduce the light reflected off of actual three dimensional objects. Whereas lenticular images can show you only a dozen different angles on a scene, a hologram, like a real object, produces an infinite range of views.

What about holograms projected into empty space, like Princess Leia in Star Wars? Also not possible, unfortunately.

About the closest you can come is this arcade game, also from the early nineties. I played it. You really could reach in and put your hand "through" the characters.

But, as that Wikipedia link says, it was only an optical illusion, done with mirrors. Like the "mirage bowl", I guess. (My brother had one of those). The video game's images appeared only inside a sort of box, and couldn't be projected out into the room, the way R2-D2 projects Princess Leia.

More Star Wars-ish technology might be on the horizon, though. A Japanese company has a device that makes air glow in 3-D patterns. Again, not a hologram, but possibly much cooler. It seems to be sort of similar to the kind of "laser etching" used to create 3-D images in these crystals, only using the air itself as a medium. But the air will only keep glowing as long as they lasers are on, and apparently makes quite a lot of noise as it "explodes" from the heat, whereas once you burn a hole in the crystal, the hole stays.

I love this stuff. I can totally see myself accumulating a huge collection of cheesy 3-D toys and jewelry and posters. I'd also want to collect "Magic Eye" stereograms, including animated ones like the ones I linked to a while ago, and 3-D comics that you view with glasses, and probably Viewmaster slides -- I had one of those when I was a kid too.

Monday, February 19, 2007

February Poem

Street Cries

When dawn's first cymbals beat upon the sky,
Rousing the world to labour's various cry,
To tend the flock, to bind the mellowing grain,
From ardent toil to forge a little gain,
And fasting men go forth on hurrying feet,
BUY BREAD, BUY BREAD, rings down the eager street.

When the earth falters and the waters swoon
With the implacable radiance of noon,
And in dim shelters koils hush their notes,
And the faint, thirsting blood in languid throats
Craves liquid succour from the cruel heat,
BUY FRUIT, BUY FRUIT, steals down the panting street.

When twilight twinkling o'er the gay bazaars,
Unfurls a sudden canopy of stars,
When lutes are strung and fragrant torches lit
On white roof-terraces where lovers sit
Drinking together of life's poignant sweet,
BUY FLOWERS, BUY FLOWERS, floats down the singing street.

- Sarojini Naidu

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

We Have Liftoff

Click on the picture. Watch the animation. Then come back.

It's so hard to explain what this little animation means. Just know that it took years of blood sweat and tears to achieve it, mostly Ken's, but mine too, this last year or so. A lot of the saga I described here.

This is our magneto-optical trap. Being launched upward. The things on the sides are the magnetic coils that help hold it up. They are six centimeters in diameter, which should give you a sense of scale. We just need to be able to launch atoms a little bit higher than the top of the coils, because we can put our cavity right above them. This is the whole reason we designed these smaller coils, so that we wouldn't need to launch so high.

The atom cloud actually expands as it rises, out of the cooling beams. The beam we use to light it up so that we can see it is narrow, so you all you see is a narrow, pencil shaped slice out of the cloud as it expands, like the core of an apple. That's why it looks long and narrow toward the top.

These results don't mean we're done. First of all, we might want to cool the atoms a little more, so that they don't expand so much, so fast (although there is plenty of density up there, even as it is.) We are actually doing a slower launch, so that they slow to a halt just at the top of the coils and then fall back down. The slower launch takes longer, so the atom cloud has expanded more when it gets up there, which is why we might want the additional cooling. Also, we need a way to hold the atoms there, once we get them there. We already know how we're supposed to do that. It's called a "FORT" or "Far Off-Resonance Trap." It's easy in theory -- just shine a really strong, really tightly focused laser beam on the atoms, and that should hold them in place for the few milliseconds we need. Unfortunately we haven't made it work in practice yet, at least, not that we could detect. Finally, we need to actually build the cavity and put it in there. We've already built a couple of cavities for this thing, but for various reasons none of them is suitable for what we're trying to do now.

But still, that little blob in that animation looks a little bit like a light at the end of the tunnel.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Links, Life

Yeah, I missed a week. Here's the thing, I'm really, really busy right now. This post is gonna be half links and half life update, cause those are the laziest kinds of posts (except for Bears-related photos that I upload without further comment, which is the laziest kind of all.)

Life update first: my two classes are kinda kicking my butt. It's been a year or so since I've taken a class, and the last one was taught by my advisor, who thought time in the lab was more important than getting the homework done anyway. It's been four years since I've taken one like my GR class, with twenty students, and homework problems from the end of the chapters due weekly, and midterms and finals and real grades. Just going squeezing the classes into my work days is hard. We're actually making a little progress with the MOT (I said I'd put up pictures of the launching we've done here, and I will, whenever we get the data off of the non-internetted computer it's stored on) but sometimes I'm not there when I'm needed. And when I am, days full of MOT work and school work are very full indeed, long and exhausting. Meanwhile the gyroscope project is sort of in suspended animation as we try to figure out what exactly needs to be done next. With no deadline attached to it, it has slipped to the bottom of my priority list. I am, however, writing a summary of our group's work on this stuff so far, which will probably become my thesis proposal, but which does have a deadline because it's supposed to be published as the text to accompany a talk my advisor gave.

Just writing about all that makes me feel as if I should be doing something more productive than blogging.

But I'm getting an intimidating backlog of links to post and comment on, so let me at least put a few of them up.

In particular, I've come across lot of related stuff about the suburbs, politics, and religion lately.

Slacktivist says the reason we're at war in Iraq is that our urban schools suck. Actually, he just says it's why we're not able to cut down our gasoline use. But we're at war in Iraq at least partly because we're so dependent on foreign oil, that's what makes the region so strategially important. We're dependent on foreign oil because everybody drives rather than taking mass transportation. But many people can't take mass transportation because they live in the suburbs. Why? Because that's where the good schools are.

He also has a powerful argument that the war in Iraq can't be "won" because it was not in our interest to begin with. If we were to invade Canada, what would it mean to "win"? Assuming we succeeded in taking down their government, what would we do then? Occupy Canada? Why would we want to do that? And for how long? Because there would be no reason to invade Canada in the first place, victory is undefinable. Same in Iraq. If there had been WMD to capture, we could've declared victory when we captured them, but since there were not, and since Saddam's government was not uniquely bad -- we have no reason to expect the next one to be better, if we pull out -- how do we know when we've "won"? (And if the real goal was to destabilize the middle east lest it unite against us? Then the war can never be won until we turn the middle east into Canada. So long as they have a significantly different culture and different values than us, some of our leaders will see their unity and prosperity as a threat.)

Meanwhile, back in the suburbs, Chris Hedges says that the reason the country is so polarized by religion is "suburban despair." He says "A terrible distortion and deformation of American society, where tens of millions of people in this country feel completely disenfranchised, where their physical communities have been obliterated, whether that's in the Rust Belt in Ohio or these monstrous exurbs like Orange County, where there is no community. There are no community rituals, no community centers, often there are no sidewalks. People live in empty soulless houses and drive big empty cars on freeways to Los Angeles and sit in vast offices and then come home again."

I think my "radically" Christian, suburban mother (who reads this blog, by the way-- hi, Mom) might actually agree with his argument, if not the conclusions he draws from it. She grew up not in the suburbs but in a small country town, and laments the loss of "community" every day. She does not find the daily grind of work, commute, TV, commute, work fulfilling either. When people begin to feel their lives are meaningless, religion gives them meaning. I think that is probably the definition of religion.

But I want to own my own home and have a couple of kids and make enough money to buy fancy digital toys and take vacations, too. Almost everybody wants that stuff, especially the people who actually live the furthest from the suburbs, in decaying inner cities and half abandonded rural towns. I think the problem is, what happens when you actually get all that? When you have nothing left to strive for, really? When you've achieved all your ambitions, what gets you out of bed in the morning then? That's the problem people "trapped" in the surburbs have. And that's why many of them turn to religious activism, to give them a purpose, a cause, a mission.

Of course, they also have the leisure and resources to pursue such a mission, which someone less successful, just struggling to make a living, doesn't have. That may be the other reason a lot of this comes out of the suburbs.

I think Hedges (who wrote War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, a book that I found incredibly moving, and who is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School) is more on the money than Tom Frank (who wrote What's the Matter With Kansas). But in another article of his I think he makes the same mistake that Frank did, not taking the convictions of the people he's writing about seriously enough. I mean, I think that a lot of environmental activists are motivated by basically the same thing. They need a mission, and saving the world is a compelling one. But that doesn't mean the earth doesn't actually need saving. It does. And likewise, just because anti-abortion crusaders are motivated part by their need for a mission, doesn't mean they don't have a point. We're a hyprocritical society, aware that nothing magical happens at the moment of birth to turn worthless "tissue" into a priceless "child," and yet refusing to admit it, refusing to deal with the ambiguities or the moral queasiness they bring with them.

So long as we keep in mind that understanding people's motivations doesn't excuse us from taking their messages seriously, I think that kind of understanding is really valuable, and I still really respect Chris Hedges. I also think he's right that the divisions on some of these passionate issues could ultimately tear our society apart, and that some of the less rational religious types, like those obsessed with the "end times", seem to want it that way. And that does scare me some.

But my final link is proof that some people are anti-abortion and pro-environment, believe it or not. Crunchy Conservatives buy organic food and homeschool their kids, wear Birkenstocks and go to Bible study groups. The New York Times says it's "a kind of across-the-board rejection of modernity [...] Crunchy cons disapprove of abortion rights, same-sex marriage, illegal immigrants, public schools, secular liberals and mothers who work outside the home. But they don't like Wal-Mart, McMansions, suburbs, pollution, agribusiness or processed foods, either." I think I could like and even admire people like this, hard working and sincere in living their convictions, but not agree with them. I'm not on board with the rejection of modernity part. I like pop culture and I like technology and I like the idea of women working outside the home. And I like cheap food, and I like government social services, because self-reliance would only work if the world were fair. I'd much rather live in the modern world than fifty years ago or a hundred years ago or more, and I'll resist anyone who tries to turn back the clock.

But still, I respect these "Crunchy Cons," who manage to be both left wing and right wing nuts at the same time, more than people who are merely one or the other.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Bear Down!

Wow, my heart is still pounding. The Bears must have caused at least a couple of coronaries today.

Okay, I know the rest of the country is rooting for New Orleans right now. But I live in Chicago. And the point of sports is to bond with the people in your own community. The Bears unite us. I hear strangers on the El asking each other, "You think they got a chance?" Today a group of people in Bears gear getting off the our train (probably coming back from the game) called out to Ken and me: "Go Bears!" We pumped our fists in the air and echoed it.

I can't betray my fellow Chicagoans. Just as New Orleans loves its team, Chicago loves the Bears. It is right and proper that Chicagoans should root for the home team.

So I hope New Orleans wins the Superbowl -- some other year.

To show my support for the Bears, I spent part of the day on a little art project.

It's one of the those Magic Eye images. So I apologize to those who can't see Magic Eye images. But we were shopping in a book store yesterday, and stopped to look at a couple of books of them, which inspired me to download a program for creating my own
(StereoCreator. Scroll down at that link) And then last night, Ken had a dream that we created a stereogram in which the 3D image moved. I'm sure it's been done before, but I haven't seen it, so I had to attempt it. For that I needed an animated .gif creator, so I downloaded unFREEZ.

Unfortunately, animated gifs with 28 cells are 28 times as large as normal gifs. So I cut down the number of frames and the color density to fit within Blogger's 3MB limit, and now the depth doesn't look exactly right. But still, as a first attempt...

Click on the image to enlarge and animate.

Wondering what it's supposed to be?

Click here.

I might post a few more (non-animated) stereograms if I have more homework to procrastinate on later.


In the comments, Stereo DDD links to a couple of animated stereograms that outclass mine like Cary Grant outclasses Pauly Shore.

3-D staircase
3-D descent
3-D pink

The "descent" stereogram in particular is really a stunning work of art. Check out this guy's whole gallery.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Physics Classes

I'm finally taking my last two classes this quarter. After that, I will probably never take another, at least not for credit. I can barely imagine never having to do homework again; I've been a student for so long, my whole life. I observed a while ago that I didn't feel ready to be done, didn't feel like I knew as much as I expected to, with only two classes left. A certain older, wiser graduate student with the initial "K" reminded me that I was supposed to be learning something from the research, too.

Surprisingly enough, I seem to have become a little less cynical since I wrote that last post. Just because you can't learn everything in grad school doesn't mean you learn nothing. And I have gotten a lot from independent study and bull-sessions with my co-workers (especially the one I married. I think we figured out what it meant to quantize the electromagnetic field while driving across France on our honeymoon. This was not as quite romantic as it sounds -- we nearly always get frustrated with each other when we talk about physics. But then, we nearly always understand things better afterward.)

Anyway, my last two classes are relativity, which I have been waiting to take, and the second quarter of quantum field theory. I think people might be kind of interested in what classes like that are like. The topics sound so... Deep. Don't they? Is it a profound experience, learning this stuff? Am I gaining access to the secrets of the universe?

Well... No. Physics classes aren't really like that. I mean, take Newton's laws, right? Everyone learned at least a little about Newton's laws at some point, and learned about gravity. Now, if you take a step back, Newton's ideas really are profound. They're universal. With them we can comprehend the motion of the planets, or how far a flea can jump. The same pattern underlies both. They allow us to build devices so powerful they might as well be magic, and, in the limited sense, even to predict the future.

But when you were sitting in your high school physics class, did it feel like a mystical experience?

Everybody who finds out what I do for a living tells me they hated physics in high school, and guess what? So did I. There's so much notation to learn, so many simplistic and unlikely problems to solve. I felt as mindless as a programable calculator, memorizing equations and plugging in numbers and getting out other numbers. It was dry and difficult and mechanical. Worst of all, the more basic questions that I was actually interested in, such as "Why are these equations true? Where do they come from?" were actively discouraged. Newton didn't know why his equations were true. He was just guessing. He figured he saw a pattern underlying a lot of the dynamics of the natural world, and he tried to describe it. It turned out to be a good description. That is all.

Nowadays we have even more sophisticated descriptions, and we can show that if those equations are true, then Newton's follow. So in that sense, we can explain his equations. But then, we can't explain the newer ones. Why do things obey Schroedinger's equation? We don't know. It's just how they seem to behave. Don't ask. Shut up and calculate.

This pragmatic approach continues to the very highest levels of physics education. You can think about "why?" on your own time. In class, we will address questions we can actually answer. Such as "what is the probability that an electron on a collision course with another electron will fly off at a 45 degree angle?"

Just so you know, when you hear physicists pontificating about different interpretations, "many worlds" theories and so on, those are just their own opinions. You don't learn interpretations in class. They aren't speaking for scientists in general.

I'm guilty of it myself. When I write or talk about science, I try to make it sound more interesting by injecting my own private sense of wonder, my own interpretations and opinions. Like I did up there with Newton's laws. But the day-to-day practice and study of science, in the lab and in class, is much more boring.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Colorado Trip

I'm late posting because I've been in Colorado, visiting parents and siblings.

As you may have heard, they've had a little snow there, recently.

You can click on the picture for a bigger image. That's not my parents' car, just a random one parked in my old neighborhood, which we visited on a little nostalgia trip. Actually, both my parents have SUVs, of which I've been disapproving, but I have to say they came in handy this year. The city doesn't plow the residential streets (instead they rely on the 300+ days of sunshine Colorado gets to melt the snow for them within a few days.) So the four wheel drives are the only reason anyone was able to make it out of the cul-de-sac they live on for a little while. The neighbors all shared a couple of snowblowers to clear each other's driveways and get rid of the larger drifts, and then drove in each other's tracks to flatten down the snow on the street.

That's what it looked like by Saturday, which was almost a week after the big storm and the cleanup. Of course, during that week, another eight inches or so fell...

As the van picture indicates, our old neighborhood got a bit more, even. Here's the house we lived in during the eighties, from a couple of different angles.

Driving back there took us a little closer to the mountains, so my parents took me into the foothills a little ways for lunch at a restaurant that they remember from when we lived in that old house. And I can't resist including a few pictures of that, because they show the biggest icicles I've ever seen

To get a sense of scale, compare to the doorway.

As for gifts...

From my husband I got a really fancy portable DVD player and earphones (which I used on the plane and in the airport, both ways) and a shoulder massager, and a Bears T-shirt which I am currently wearing, and a movie, "The Ref," which was hilarious and has nothing to do with sports and was perfect to watch on Christmas Eve, and a video game, "Nancy Drew: Danger by Design." Because I said there should be more video games where you have to solve mysteries.

From my parents, Ken and I got an electric toothbrush (which I asked for, and love) and a down comforter, and I got a new winter coat (black with cool random metal bits, and very warm), a couple of pairs of jeans and tops during a mother daughter mall trip, and holes in my ears. Yes, my mom paid for me to get my ears pierced. I must be one of the only women in the world to pick out her first earrings to match her wedding ring. Also, they're paying for the plane ticket for the visit, which is a huge gift in itself.

From my brother, the Xbox 360 remote, because the Xbox 360 is now the source of all our entertainment. From my sister, a poster sized Lord of the Rings Calendar and a Harry Potter bookmark, because she knows I'm a sucker for LotR and Harry Potter. And from my Grandpa, as usual, a pad of one dollar bills. You tear them off one at a time and the look of consternation on the store clerks' faces is worth way more than a dollar.

All in all I made out like a bandit, and I hope you did too. Happy New Year.