Friday, December 28, 2007

Brought to you by Goldman Sachs

  • I really can't see wondering into a bookstore, and just buying a book because it looks good. I'd want to see what others have to say about it first or maybe even google some reviews or something. I wonder if any brick & mortar stores are including terminals with which to check reviews. It's not just the money but my time I don't want to waste on a stinker.
  • Anyone know of a good shopping list generator? Not something tied to recipes, but just one that let's you select the stuff you usually buy from some comprehensive list. Then, before each time you go to the store, you can look at what you often buy and pick what you actually need or want? So that, for example, if you try some new dish one week, it doesn't evaporate into memory..instead its ingredients can be put on the comprehensive list so you might actually remember to say, "Hey, I liked such-and-such, I'll buy the ingredients again."
  • Why can't the Registrar post the finals schedule at the beginning of the semester? There must be some motivation for waiting till just a few weeks before the end of the term?
  • The NYT a few days ago covered the status of particle accelerators in use for treating cancer. An interesting article which I think, despite the costs, points to the future of modern medicine. For any physics students so inclined, it's probably a good idea to head in this direction.
  • Via the Freakonomics Blog, here's a cool article concerning

    You don't see with the eyes. You see with the brain.

    As a half-hearted solipsist, I've always been fascinated by the senses.

Friday, December 21, 2007


Sean correctly closes the comments in a car-wreck of a physics discussion...a horrible mess which is nevertheless difficult not to look at:

Okay, children. Essentially everyone in this comment thread has managed to be some combination of whiny, obnoxious, incorrect, disingenuous, unhelpful, and plain old embarrassing.

Trying to crystallize my own feelings on it, I happened, funnily enough, to catch this quote from Professor Frink on The Simpsons this morning

It should be obvious to even the most dimwitted individual who holds an advanced degree in hyperbolic topology that Homer Simpson has stumbled into the third dimension.

To find the precise wording, I found this article which, to introduce the above quote, states

The Simpsons writers often play on mathematical cultural stereotypes, extracting humor by exaggerating both the mathematical illiteracy of the U.S. public and the nerdiness and self-aggrandizement of the mathematically gifted.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


I wanted to be the first (of what I'm sure will be many) blogger to link to this article at the NYT about Walter Lewin's popularity in his online lecture videos. You've probably seen this MIT physicist on many NOVA shows such as "The Elegant Universe."

Speaking of vids, I just finished watching "No End In Sight." I watch it and just cannot fathom how otherwise respectable people still support this administration. If nothing else, it is at least somewhat heartening to think that the legacy of these people (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and probably to a lesser extent, Rice) will in fact suffer quite a bit...though I suppose we'll have to see who writes the textbooks under possible legacy administrations by Jeb and Jenna.

This viewing follows a recent viewing of "Sicko" which interestingly points out an apparently key decision by the Nixon administration leading to a for-profit health care system in this country. Both of these really go a long way toward showing sane people how important government and competence is (as I expect will my planned viewing of "When the Levees Break" about Katrina). Of course on the other hand, I suppose insane people take such documentaries as signs of a liberal or terrorist conspiracy (if they see a distinction between the two).

Sunday, December 16, 2007


ROTD: Your reading for today consists of a couple bio's of some scientists. The Washington Post does a nice job w/ Neil deGrasse Tyson who probably needs no introduction. There's a bit about the movie Titanic at the end if you need a hook to keep you reading.

The other is a story of an up-and-coming biologist which I spotted via the Freakonomics blog, but then subsequently saw Lubos talking about it and his previous interview with her. Reader beware ;), a number of properties of the subject are mentioned in the article such as her weight, hipness, and previous training as an 18-wheeler driver.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

An Interview with a Relativist

Kip Thorne, in an interview published by Discover magazine gives a couple interesting quotes

  • Regarding rumors that he's working with Steven Spielberg:

    I’m working on a science fiction film with Steven that’s based on a treatment I coauthored with the producer Lynda Obst. I will be an executive producer on the film, basically focused on bringing good science into it. I expect that nothing in the film will violate fundamental physical law, and all the wild speculations in the film will spring from science. The working title is Interstellar, but it’s unlikely that will be the final title. It is a story in which the warped side of the universe plays a major role.

  • Regarding the merits of string theory:

    It shows many signs of being on the right track toward a correct quantum theory of gravity. It has given rise to a number of very important ideas that have a good shot at being correct, such as higher dimensions, such as the possibility of forming mini-black holes at the LHC [Large Hadron Collider, a new particle accelerator that may be up and running next year], and thereby probing higher dimensions. String theory is now beginning to make concrete, observational predictions which will be tested. Claims that it is just theorists playing mental masturbation are, I think, nonsense.

    Interestingly, the article provides a link with the words "mental masturbation" to an article about Peter Woit's book, though it's not perfectly clear (to me at least) that Kip is refering to "Not Even Wrong." Not to mention the fact that both Woit's and Smolin's criticisms don't really reduce to that particular alliterative phrase. Have either of these two, or anyone else for that matter, used such a criticism?

(via It's Equal, but It's Different)

Monday, December 03, 2007

The State of Physics in 100 Years

First, I wanted to point out a good read on math/science achievement differences between the sexes which I found via the Freakonomics blog.

I took a poll in my class the other day asking the students to rate their "belief" in certain aspects of modern physics. To get them started and to normalize the 0..10 scale, I basically asked them the probability they felt described the chance that a given theory/idea would still be around in 100 years. I put up the following (roughly in order of how I would rank them):

  • Special Relativity (SR)
  • Quantum Mechanics (QM)
  • General Relativity (GR)
  • The Big Bang (BB)
  • Inflation

SR finds itself at the top because it's hard to see how any new theory wouldn't conform to it. Likewise w/ QM, but to perhaps a somewhat lesser extent with hidden variables, non-locality, and interpretations. GR, despite its success, will surely come up for some modification, if only to fit into quantum gravity. But of course, there could be higher order curvature terms, other couplings, etc. Even more far out, maybe gravity is emergent. As for BB, depending on how one limits the theory, will surely be around, but to what extent? How changed will it be? And then there's inflation, and to this, one could add the anthropic principle. I'm not sure how much I want to say here, but I suspect we're getting pretty controversial. Of course, I wisely left off any theories-which-must-not-be-named, I think I'd rather go off and name a Teddy bear "Mohamed," than open that can of worms.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


I come up with plenty of gems filled with the wisdom I've collected in my physics career, but I just have the problem of getting to a computer in time to type them up for this blog. One of these gems concerns the tone one often encounters in physics.

It's a hard thing to discuss, in part, because it's hard to pin down and describe. At its essence is contempt. If one were trying to "cook" up the sauce corresponding to this conversational tone, contempt would be the chicken broth base. There's subtle spice added so that the contempt may not be directed at the audience, but instead to others who don't understand.

Somewhat paradoxically, you need to speak as if only the very intelligent can understand while at the same time making the subject appear child's play. In such a way, it is very perilous to ask a question because that may indicate how little is understood. And if your audience asks a deep question or one to which you don't know the answer, by all means, hide this fact. Act as if it's a stupid question, but you need to do so in a viable way so that on the off chance your audience actually does understand things better than you, they don't see through your bluff.

If you've never encountered such a tone (meaning you've had very limited exposure to physicists), this description may not do you much good. An example is in order, and thus we get to the cause which engendered this post (three and four syllable words are like a touch of cinnamon when adopting this superior tone).

Now before I provide a link, let me say that I don't relish harping on fellow bloggers from behind the safety of my anonymity. I've got three reasons for doing so. The first is that this blogger, in the words our president might use, "brought in on" himself. Another is that I'm not really harping on him, personally. Jacques' been trained just as so many others have. And the third is to defend Jacques after appearing to be such a jerk. He's been trained that way. Arguably, one must act like this in his field to maintain the respect of his peers. In person, he seems a pretty reasonable guy.

So, if you've not read it, you might take a look at Jacques Distler's adventure into all that is E8/Lisi:

  • If you look at all the italics he uses in the first sentence, you clearly see that this is all beneath him. He doesn't see any benefit, but just had to speak up. Why so?
  • In the next paragraph he slams the Physics blogosphere (of which he is a member) and Sean in particular. Sean publishes a reasonable discussion of why he chose not to read the paper, a process of thought executed tens, if not hundreds of times by every active physicist every week or month. He further hammers home his point in the update by declaring "the Physics blogosphere as an intellectual wasteland." Umm, sure there's some garbage out there, but when Steinn/Sean/Chad/Doug/etc explains some recent paper, how can that not be considered intelligent? Just as garbage shows up on the Arxiv, some shows up on the blogosphere.
  • He finally gets to some physics where his "tone" becomes a bit more apparent (in contrast to just being a jerk). He mentions something that "Garret[t] never deigns to tell us" as if Garrett is somehow the one adopting a superior tone. What's funny is that Jacques gets corrected on this point later.
  • He then expresses vaguely directed contempt by explaining "for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has taken more than a passing glance at Garrett's paper." Right, "anyone" should understand this point...meaning you are a big idiot if you glanced at the paper and still don't know the reasons. This really serves no other purpose than conveying his contempt or bolstering his own ego.
  • In the comments, he really tries hard to provide good examples. He sighs at one point in explaining some horribly simple thing.
  • In responding to Garrett (yes, he actually tries to help Jacques, and one should really contrast their two ways of "talking"), Jacques asks Garrett to "enlighten" him...he couldn't use the word "explain" because that would imply Jacques didn't know something, and one can't do that (easily) in his field of competence. One must always maintain the attitude that you are the teacher and thereby any question is just an opportunity for the pupil to gain praise.
  • Jacques later advises Garrett that "it would be best to pick one story and stick to it." That just plain isn't nice.
  • Later, he brings out more italics saying he "really didn't want to post." But then why did he? And why must he protest so much (besides the logically inconsistency of not wanting to post yet doing it). Surely he knew he couldn't tamp down the media hype. Because other bloggers weren't being sufficiently critical? I've read quite a bit of criticism and skepticism in the wasteland. I wonder if it was because the skepticism was actually polite and reasoned (I didn't read Motl, though).
  • He follows this up with "I'm annoyed enough at the apparent intellectual standards of the physics blogosphere."

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


  • I've only done Sudoko once. I don't really see the point. My lazy students say they do it. And someone on the plane recently was doing it. But she must have spent two hours on a single one. And I didn't see her write anything other than the numbers in the box. No notes at all about the possible solutions. Maybe that explains why she was so slow. Is that how most people do it?
  • Why do hotels buy fancy, flat panel (LCD or plasma) TVs and then feed them with either a standard definition signal or an awful, noisy high-def one?
  • Does Sean get any money for all the quotes that APS News uses from him?
  • More and more, I'm being upgraded from economy to an SUV rental vehicle. Who buys a Jeep Liberty anyway? I suppose lots of people given my difficulty picking out my car in parking lots. The steering is so loose, that you need to use two hands just to keep the thing going straight on the highway. I suppose this impresses those who test drive it in a parking lot and you can steer with one finger?
  • Does reading a paper on the computer result in a net benefit to the environment? I had always gone on that assumption, but I've since gained an appreciation for power sucked down by computers. I suppose it depends on how often one refers to the paper, and whether the computer would be running anyway.
  • I know that Blackberries and the like, have really come down in price, but am I right in assuming that everyone walking around with such a device is paying something like, at the minimum, $30/month for voice and another $30/month for data?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Insulting Job Offers of less than $5 Million

This whole Joe Torre stuff reminds me of a job offer I got once. I had interviewed, and things had gone well. I really liked the department, and thought there would be a good fit. After waiting a few weeks, hoping to strike a balance between being an over eager pest and showing a lack of interest, I contacted the chair. He was being a bit coy saying I'd hear from the Dean quite soon. That wasn't encouraging. A week later and still no word, I called the Chair and he said I should have received a letter. That was strange because if they were rejecting me, why couldn't he just tell me at that point. And if they weren't rejecting me, then we needed start negotiating salary, teaching load, etc. Well, sure enough the next day an offer letter arrives. I don't recall if there was any startup, but I sure remember the salary, about 2/3 my then current salary...even though they had no idea what my salary was because we hadn't gotten to the point of discussing it. I found that whole episode very strange. Nothing I had read prepared me for it. Ultimately, I decided that the department wanted me, but the dean didn't. So he gives me an obviously low salary in a manner, if not outright insulting, then at the least quite out of the ordinary. Luckily, I was in a tenure-track job already and had the luxury of turning it down. I was tempted to stir things up a bit, complain to someone hire than the dean, or tell some of the less meek members of the department what the dean was doing, but I didn't. I suppose I should count myself lucky I avoided such a political place.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Screaming, Laughing, Crying

  • This story of Rush Limbaugh bragging about intimidating a journalist sheds some light on why I prefer to remain outside any limelight. More germane to a blog such as this, one has to be careful which fights one chooses in the academic world. Rob is still struggling even after having left it. Me? I nearly erupted on the phone with an administrator today. I put in the paperwork a month ago to buy some equipment, and was told two weeks ago that the purchase order would be sent out in a day or two. Yesterday, when the vendor told me no PO had shown up, my phone call got passed up to an "assistant director." I still had a folksy, friendly tone when I was asking what was holding things up, and she had the nerve to reply "Ahh, if we could be on top of things 24 hours a day..." as if giving them weeks was the same as asking for a 24-hour turnaround! The nerve! The higher one goes up the administrative ladder, the closer one gets to reptilian.
  • If you like these types of right/left brain things, you might check out this animated gif of a dancer. Some people see her going clockwise, some counter-clockwise, and a surprising number see her going different directions each time they look. Me? I can't see her going any other way than clockwise. You might look at her first before reading what is very likely a silly interpretation of any result.
  • Keeping with the fun theme, you might check out this site which generates cool ASCII pictures from regular ones. They've got some samples there.
  • Breaking with the fun theme, have you heard about this Carnegie Mellon CS prof who's dying? A really bitter-sweet story from the always lovable folks at the Wall Street Journal, believe it or not.
  • Sticking to no theme at all, I've got a Windows notebook here which keeps losing its network connection because there's another machine on the same subnet with the same IP. I've tried using DHCP as well as a registered IP address I have. Clearly, IT can't configure a DHCP server correctly, but I've notified IT a couple times, so my strategy is to leave it on 24 hours a day in the hopes that whoever else has the same IP will complain enough to get the problem fixed. Am I jerk? Or am I learning?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Childrens Do Learn

  • Does anyone know an easy way to display the most recent diff of a file in CVS? Right now, I'll go to work on some text file in a CVS distribution on which many people are working. Very often, the first thing I want is to view what they've done recently. What I end up doing is:

    cvs update -Rd

    cvs log text.txt | more

    cvs diff -r 1.33 -r 1.32 text.txt | more

    where the most recent version of text.txt is 1.33. But it seems there must be an easier way than having to determine what the most recent version is. Any help?
  • I know mushrooms are fungi (``A mushroom walks into a bar...''), and not plants. But does that necessarily mean they are not vegetables?
  • Have you seen the latest spy shots of the new Toyota Prius? What's don't trust those darn batteries, then how 'bout the new Honda Fit?
  • Where do you go for all your missile defense news? If any of you have any remaining faith that such a system will protect, you might want to head over to Wired and on to the referenced Rolling Stone article.
  • Why is it that the longer I go without posting, it seems the harder it is to actually post? Do I have a subconscious desire to make the period in between my posts scale as a power law? Or am I into "long tails"?
  • Yesterday I ran into a big problem. Something wasn't going right in that the same thing, done twice, got me two different results. It put me in a bad mood. So today the problem is still there, so why do I feel better? Why am I about to go see what I've got on Tivo? Because I've "bracketed" the problem. The non-repeatability is repeatable and hence, with enough work, I'll figure out what's going wrong. I'm not sure the most efficient way, so I'll let things stew a bit while watching Mythbusters and it should come to me.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Wake up those sleeping dogs!

Have you read the most recent post on Cosmic Variance about the issue of varying aspect ratios in various video sources? John pulls a sample frame from some CNN video with a picture of a woman and a child. He's amazed that people claim not see a distortion when the original aspect ratio is changed. All very good...of course the high def people I know get very defensive if you bring up that this issue exists.

Anyway, in his text, he casually makes mention of
And if you don’t prefer the one where the nice-looking mom’s face is not grossly distorted, then I am even more baffled! this not similar in intent (if not to the same degree) as Tommaso's crush on Lisa Randall? Sure this woman is not a physicist, but does that matter? The comment appears on a physics blog and isn't that the important part? And the comment is similarly "irrelevant" to the context.

Don't get me wrong...I don't fault John in the least. I'm just not clear I really get the reasoning behind thinking there's much harm to these types of comments.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Craig! Craig!

  • I've been forgetting to mention this news...You know that corrupt politician? No, not that one. No, not that one either. No, not either of the two arrested in the bathroom. Ah, right him! Well, turns out that Senator Stevens of Alaska has somehow brought the NSF into the fold.
  • Someone's post recently had the melodious word in the title "tarball." I like that word for some reason. Which reminds me of something I very often do that makes me suspect a mild form of dyslexia. I type fast. Probably, faster than most anyone you know. And I often switch around letters (I even do this on a chalkboard). What's strange is that I somehow know I've made a typing mistake (but not necessarily that I switched letters, just that there was some failure). This happens a lot with options to commands in which the order doesn't matter. So my standard is to type "tar xzvf junk.tgz junk". No real point here, but I thought it was interesting.
  • I'm a bit reluctant to comment on the quickly polarizing arguments traversing the physogosphere. I think I'm pretty much in the middle, thinking I can see both sides...a surefire way to be criticized by all, I'm sure. I'll use bullets to gain an air of authority and objectivity:

    • Some actions by males can really contribute to an unhealthy environment for women. Grabbing some women's backside, for example, would certainly be way over the line. That these comments occur in the context of a public forum on physics (despite his claim to being his private thoughts) puts them certainly on the same spectrum whether or not they are over the line.
    • With that said, it's not clear to me at all that the comments are over the line as so many seem to believe. Do they make women
      uncomfortable being in the realm of physics (at least moreso, than some initial, knee-jerk, PC reaction)? It's hard for me to see that they do.
    • In either of these cases, I'm confident that he meant no harm, and if indeed, he crossed some line, he did so barely. In the limit that women are no less comfortable being physicists than men (maybe we'll reach that point in the next couple of centures), I think any harm from these comments approach their vacuum value, so-to-speak.

  • The IP reads 100% of the things I write. Now, that's the kind of devotion I expect...neh, require! Seriously though, I have also noticed that there seems to be an ideal SNR for a blog. Some folks post lots and gets lots of readers, but presumably don't get read as closely. As the saying goes, "You say nucular and I say nuclear."
  • The NYT just reported the death of P.B. MacCready. I only know he is because I just finished watching a Scientific American Frontiers all about him and his flying machines this morning. What a coincidence. It's a bit dated, but I still liked it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Alberto! Alberto!

Another resignation, another post...

  • I've seen a couple ads for a new show with the apropos title "The Big Bang Theory"...apparently it's a sitcom believe it or not.
  • Gizmodo roundup:

    • Yet another supercomputer pix
    • A new and more robust Roomba is out. We really liked ours, but we haven't enjoyed the significant effort of cleaning it. And a couple of the parts have "somewhat" broken. So a more robust one is welcome though I'll wait till cheaper ones can be had.
    • For some reason, I really enjoyed this picture of a yacht falling vertically into the ocean. It's somehow surreal, yet Gizmodo assures the picture is in fact just real.

  • The new Science Times is out, but you might take a look at lask week's article on "Sleights of Mind" features Teller of Penn & Teller and makes for a good read.
  • There's been a big scare with children's toys painted with lead paint, and so I was interested to read a couple articles about why lead is used at all:
    NYT and Slate.
  • Not sure what to make of this new site tried it?
  • The IP has a new series on faculty job searches, the second of which can be found here. I began this blog in part to comment on some of my job searches...they cause so much stress, frustration, and exhaustion. They also seem to bring out the worst in people. I suppose if I had to boil things down to their fundamentals, that one vital homeopathic essence, it is to kiss up. No matter how bad you are at it, no matter how obvious you might think you're being, do it. Get good at it. Be able to do it without showering right afterword. Once, I only realized in hindsight that one person with whom I interviewed was looking to get back into a field and needed someone to work with. Once, I didn't ooh and awe enough. Once, the decision was literally being made by one guy who as much as admitted that the chosen one showed initiative by sucking up. The bottom line is, in all seriousness, that you need a few people who will not only vote for you in committee, but will actively fight for you.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Karl! Karl!

  • Slate has a somewhat interesting take on the mathematics of counting sexual partners.
  • The NYT has a short article on some solipsistic ideas. (More commentary on this week's Science Times)
  • Also in the NYT, a nice fluff piece on the Veyron (if you wonder what it is, you're probably not interested). I actually debated mentioning it here but the kicker was the line ``like an antiproton in a particle collider.''
  • From Gizmodo:

  • The FSP is upset about a crude and offensive conversation she overhead between two male ministers. I certainly don't defend what was said, but I would hate to be judged by various conversations I've had! I think I can objectively say I'm fairly progressive, but in the confines of good friends, it can be a bit exhilarating to say verboten stuff. Of course, you could argue then I must be a cretin even to be able to say them in private (even though I don't really think them). Perhaps, but I can sense my primitive, ``animal'' roots within...sort of like one might say "he/she is in touch with his/her female/male side."
  • Julianne at Cosmic Variance has some weird eating habits that she suspects typifies science geeks (Sean is not going to be happy about such generalizations of science-types). I find this a bit strange. I don't do such things, but food for me is fairly sacred. Nor do I do crossword puzzles (we just saw the reasonably captivating documentary Wordplay). In fact, I've never been any sort of puzzle person. I'd read all the popular physics stuff I could find. And I'd take apart anything I could...that I couldn't get it back together again was always a nuisance. Oh, one other geek thing I did was to construct an elaborate string-crane system by which, without leaving my bed, I could maneuver a paper clip anywhere in the room and retrieve things (well lightweight things).
  • I've been trying to understand why Bush supporters piss me off so much. Intuitively I've known, but it's hard to put into words. It's not that they disagree with me or my positions...such diversity is good. No, instead it's a bit reminiscent of the classroom environment of Bart Simpson...sort of like Martin Prince piping up asking for the assignment to require more pages and that it be typed. Or imagine aliens come invade and enslave the Earth, only to find some resident of say Albania helping the aliens. You could accept them working to further Albania's interests, but not the aliens'. In the current environment, support for Bush is essentially unforgivable. Sort of like those people who make it profitable for spammers and like people who support inane and inflammatory talk radio/tv (speaking of, it sounds like Imus is coming back).

Sunday, August 05, 2007

More of the same

  • Cool crystals and scary skateboarding fall.
  • From Slashdot, the physics of beer bubbles.
  • From Gizmodo, a big truck to assemble telescopes.
  • Sean's three-part series on what it takes to get a theory paper out got me thinking that there can be much more stress to it. It's not always (often?) that one simply chats with colleagues or has epiphanies in upscale bars (my epiphanies usually come in the shower). What's missing from his discussion is the stress, the drive, the stubborn refusal to let some issue stand in the way. I'm working on a problem right now that is ostensibly easy. But as I got close it became clear that I needed to change how I was computing something. Fine, I knew how to do that. But the method didn't quite work as expected. A certain instability was preventing getting a result. A few hours later, I remembered another trick that should overcome that problem. I still have to implement and then I should be on track least until something else creeps up and tries to block me. That's the thing with research. You have to have an attitude that you'll get to the end, otherwise you'll just move on to something easier (and presumably less significant). You can't just go home 5pm, show up at the office at 9am and say to yourself, "Ok, let's see what we can do about that problem today." It's mostly self-driven and most people outside of research don't have much of a clue. But more importantly this type of stress can make personal relationships tough. I don't have any hard numbers, but it seems academic physics research has more than its share of divorces.

Monday, July 30, 2007


  • Fans of baseball might be interested in the following little news blurb about a study of the efficiency of competitions, especially considering their already diminished threshold of what provokes interest.
  • Some interesting stuff at Gizmodo recently:

  • Reading a fairly generic international thriller in which the central protagonist describes an ordinary meeting with some new character as a defining moment, separating two distinct periods in his life. A meeting after which he could never return to his earlier state even though at the time of the meeting none of this significance was apparent. Reminded me of one's path across a black hole's event horizon.
  • Saw "The Simpson's Movie" today. Didn't expect too much despite being a huge fan and admirer of the show. Had heard good reviews. The movie was certainly okay, but ultimately it just felt like an animated movie. It lacked the wit and penetration of the best of the TV shows. It also barely involved my favorite characters (e.g. Mr. Burns and Barney). Lisa is arguably my favorite character and she's involved, but not in a very satisfying way. Again, not bad. I suppose when an episode let's you down a bit it's no big deal. But after paying your $7 and making a special trip to a once in two decades movie experience, there's not the luxury of just saying it's not the best.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Three Things You Can't Be

  • You can't be selfless. No matter what, it's always because you want to.
  • You can't behave unnaturally. You are part of nature.
  • You can't be busy. Ok, this is a bit more debatable than the others, but I basically always have stuff to do. If I take a break, I'm busy relaxing.


  • Funny quote from Scott Aaronson:

    I'm telling you, if a giant asteroid were going to hit the earth in a week, the first question academics would ask would be how to beat out competing proposals for the "$50-million Deflection of Space-Based Objects" initiative at NSF.

  • You know you travel too much when you forget which light switches match with which lights in your own home.
  • Saw this in the NYTimes feed by George Johnson on Meta Physicists (I mention it only because I didn't see any of the usual 6' 5" suspects mention it).

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Pol Potpourri

  • Cluster computing during an Earthquake? That's what Sun was testing with an interesting video about the results (notice that the test results are shown on Windows platforms, not a Sun operating system).
  • Nice to hear some sane thoughts on a difference between Macs and Windows boxes...even if it concerns the rather mundane details of each of them deals with rendering fonts.
  • There's been lots of talk lately about people pissing off judges. Not just the sheriff defying the judge in Paris Hilton's case, but also in the Scooter Libby case. I think this footnote he stuck in is brilliant, and, unless you've been reading Talking Points Memo as I've recommended, you've probably heard nothing of it.
  • FSP gets asked "Didn't the senior co-authors read this thing?" concerning one of her submissions. I've asked the same question a number of times, but not about simple editing. No, I've challenged a couple of the ostensible leaders of a small field concerning overly general applications of simple theorems. I'm still left wondering if they're really as stupid as both their original manuscript and their responses indicate. I suppose they're just used to bullying referees or something. I'm comforted by two facts: (i) their papers didn't get accepted and (ii) they don't know who I am, but I know who they are.
  • The Cavs are so outclassed. As the strange dude on ESPN says (paraphrasing) "The Cavs are a good team in the JV league that is the Eastern Conference." I like LeBron, but he needs help on defense and offense. It may be sacrilege to some, but MJ needed help as well.
  • Federer lost and I'm happy. I don't really have anything against him, but I figure his rivalry with Nadal is best preserved if Nadal maintains his reign at the French Open. And oh yeah, though I hate to root against records being broken, I love Sampras so if Federer never wins it, it'll be tougher to say Federer is better than Sampras. And if anyone dares mention Agassi in the comments...

Sunday, June 03, 2007


  • You know those alumni magazines? I really don't understand the custom of including a spouse's alma mater. The chances that any readers went to that school are nearly nil, so presumably it's just some sort of pedigree sort of like saying "Joe Schmoe married Susan Aragon of the Cheshire Aragons." It bugs me. I wonder if I could sneak this by the editors:

    John Smith '84 is happy to announce his engagement to Susie Doe (York Middle School '06). The wedding is scheduled for Susie's 17 birthday in Kentucky.

  • I'm looking to buy one of those universal power adapters for the airplane and am looking at iGo's Juice70. I'm no electrical engineer, but my notebook's power adapter is a 90 watt unit. In addition to the power adapter, I'm thinking I'd invest in a little plug adapter so that I can just bring this setup overseas without bringing the US power supply that came with the notebook. Is the 70 watt adapter going to be sufficient? For those non-physicists, you might be surprised at the general ignorance of any practical electrical knowledge among career physicists (not all, but some). For those engineers out there, the surprise is probably instead that I would even realize the adapters differ in different countries!
  • Slashdot refers us to an interview with Guth and Turok about the Big Bang (Censor's note: "Big Bang Theory").
  • I still haven't commented much on Rob's tenure woes. Once again, I don't have anything too deep to say, but I did want to comment on one issue that Rob raises. That is, the job market is very much non-liquid. That is, once you get a tenure-track job, it's not that you've broken through and can move around to a school which provides a good fit. This may seem obvious, but this makes for a fair amount of frustration. Of course, for those in their fifth postdoc not able to get a tenure-track position, there's probably not much sympathy.
  • FSP talks about what it takes to succeed as a science professor:

    So, even if you're not brilliant: if you are smart, can get things done, and can think of new things to do, you've got most of what it takes to be a science professor.

    My experience suggests most (if not all) prospective physicists think themselves brilliant for some amount of time. That perception suffers increasing attacks as you progress out of high school. But I pretty much agree with takes all kinds in physics, somewhat like a basketball team. It always helps to have a superstar but you also need the workhorses and the role players. Not necessarily brilliant physicists, but people who can get a job done.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Automotive Motif

  • Lots of physics bloggers talking about Toyota's Prius lately...I just wanted to point out that the Prius is also notable for having lots of safety features: VSC (optional), tire pressure monitoring, etc. The latter I consider a safety feature not just because it might help avoid a dangerous blowout. But also if it helps you avoid being stuck on the road somewhere changing a tire, that helps with safety. I tried to convince my sister that getting her child a big SUV isn't necessarily the best path to safety for a variety of reasons, but reliability being one (to no avail of course..she bought a Volvo and was rewarded with the breaks going out a year later!).
  • Speaking of cars, it seems that very often I find late-model cars with one brake light out in the rear. And it's always a domestic or European car. I'm sure there's some amount of my bias there, but it's hard to imagine that accounts for it all.
  • If this works out as a way of producing hydrogen fuel it sure would be good news...the sad thing is that when I saw that it was from Purdue, I became dubious.
  • A cute pic of a geeky car

Bonus: Slashdot is hosting a question about which careers math & science majors should pursue.

Monday, May 14, 2007


  • NSF requires us to book our international flights on American carriers which often means a code-shared flight. So I do so, spending more taxpayer-funded grant money than I should, and what does it get me? Well, I can't book the seats until I show up at the airport. So I'm spending 50% more than I should to get service worse than if I booked directly. Let's us all pray that I get a good seat...if she's not too busy choosing sides in sporting events.
  • I never liked Mathematica. I "grew-up" with Maple and just figured my DNA didn't go that way. Sure, Mathematica is just about the most unforgiving (and arguably least natural) syntax out there, I'm sure to folks in Illinois it makes some sense. But then there's their (site) licensing. Every year, Wolfram makes sure to remind you that productivity doesn't matter one lick when you need a quick answer and it won't run because the password is expired. Sure, we have paid for the license, but they make us enter these silly passwords. And no, no warnings that we might want to make sure to get our passwords soon or else we'll encounter this situation. It's so avoidable, but hey, their new and improved version has the periodic table included...oh boy!
  • The topic de jour is tenure and the attainment thereof. I figure I'll post some thoughts eventually once they crystallize, but in the mean time, it gets me thinking about school administrators. Afterall, tenure decisions usually get input from one's dean and is ultimately made by some cabal of Vice President and Board. Anyway, I was going to say that they are one's enemy, not just in getting tenure but in your very survival. But really, as scientists, I suppose that's too lofty a role because ignorance is the enemy of research and teaching. No, administration (with all due respect to Dean Dad) is some lower evil force through which you must battle. The incessant sand whipping around you as you battle in the desert; the yucky mud as you travel through a swamp. You can't battle the administration, you slog through it. If you're good, really good, you use its energy against itself ala Tai Chi. But it takes time for such mastery.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

New Dark Matter Discovery?

Seems strange that Nasa would announce a press conference five days early but this might be interesting. Dark matter in a ring...not condensed into a sphere? Is it really the dark matter or is it just a small contribution (such a bunch of MACHO brown dwarfs which don't add up to the expected twenty something percent of the universe's dark matter?

Friday, May 04, 2007

How do you spell Olajuwon?

I know everyone loves to read about politics on a physics blog. Well, either that or good travel stories. I have at the moment, what Colbert calls upon to begin his show, a big dose of "rage" (or ``rage" for all you LaTeX fans) at the moment.

If you don't read Talking Points Memo every once in a while, you're really missing out. Sure there's Daily Kos, Atrios, etc, but those are more like coaches constantly yelling and screaming on the sidelines. Josh ( I really need to add his middle name?) Marshall provides more a nuanced motivation. Kind of like the opening scenes of the generic revenge, action thriller in which the bad person/company kills the close relative of the protagonist. For Josh, it's less about liberals versus conservatives, and more about the everyman (everyperson) versus the hypocritical powers that be. The latest entries concern Bush's corruption of the DOJ details of which I have a hard time finding in newspapers.

As for the NBA playoffs, I was finally able to sit down and watch the last half hour of game six of the Rockets-Jazz series. was like a time-warp back to the Stockton/Malone versus Clyde/Olajuwon, except both teams suck in comparison to the rest of the West (which says a lot about the East). Lots of flopping and picks by Utah, and a complete inability to close out the other team on the part of the Rockets.

One last thing regarding Imus. I had said that it was his job. Well, Don must be reading this blog because, sure enough, it looks like he's going to sue CBS for breach of contract. It turns out his contract had a clause for just this eventuality:

Company (CBS Radio) acknowledges that Artist's (Imus') services to be rendered hereunder are of a unique, extraordinary, irreverent, intellectual, topical, controversial and personal character and that programs of the same general type and nature containing these components are desired by Company and are consistent with Company rules and policies.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


  • People keep asking me what I think of the whole Imus "incident." Well, I took no offense when he said what he said...I doubt that many of those actually listening at the time would be offended. Sure, they're horribly offensive words. But that's his job! I don't so much blame him...I wouldn't make my living that way...but people listen. It's the public airwaves he's using, but the FCC didn't fire him. When will Rush be fired? And what about Ann Coulter? And there probably are some liberals out there who say some horrible stuff as well though I can't seem to think of any. In short, big deal...well, perhaps the big deal is just that so many people want to listen to such garbage.
  • If you can't describe what you do for a living in one sentence, I probably can't stand your job. If that one sentence reduces to something like "a {vice-president-type} of {buzzword} for {big company}," that's even worse.
  • It's great that A-Rod is kicking butt just before (hopefully) going to another team. The Yankees suck...if they win, well they should with that payroll, and if they lose, then they really suck. Plus, what kind of people with no connection to NYC cheer for them?
  • And the Heat are out of the playoffs to the lowly Bulls. I like Wade, but he's got lots of chances left in him. The classless hulk with whom he plays should retire. And why does CNN's Sports default web page show a box with today's regular season baseball schedule so that you have to click to find out what playooff basketball games are tonight?
  • "Hilary or Obama?" is an oft heard question. I don't really care, but I'm sick of hearing that Obama is too young and inexperienced. Sure, the media mentions this all the time, but people actually believe it? Being cloistered in the Senate for a couple decades with lots of experience getting elected is going to make one a better President? Hardly. Having read some history books, valuing integrity, and knowing which advisors to trust and when makes a good President.
  • Blogger has recently become a real pain...with any browser other than IE it doesn't let me login.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


  • Why do hotels provide bags for the ice bucket which never actually fit? Remember when we braved the bucket with no bag?
  • Not bad for one year of work:

    James Simons, a 69-year-old publicity shy former math professor, uses complex computer-driven mathematical models to make bets on stocks, bonds and commodities, among other things.

    His earnings last year were $1.7 billion.

  • Watch out for very large foreign transaction fees on your credit card when going overseas.
  • I'm still utterly amazed at the corruption of this Administration. Whom to blame? The individuals who act without integrity in their position? Or the people who continue to support them? I always wonder at a system where a misanthrope like myself is at the mercy of a general populace. I don't feel a strong need to convince people of my way of thinking, but it's just hard to believe how anyone could tolerate this level of pervasive corruption.
  • No physics yet, so let me just comment that there's at least one string theorist not helping the cause. I've seen this person give better talks, but the latest was way too technical and uninteresting. I was ready to hear about the landscape as per the abstract, but that was only discussed in the last few minutes.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Certain Principle: String Theory == Bush lover?

Awhile back Chad pissed off all those enamored folks of string theory (well at least some vocal ones). It was a silly joke, but he's really tossing some chum in the waters with this latest posting. Mind you, I'm not offended, I think it's hilarious and look forward to the comments. I especially liked this tweaking:

the entire history of human culture has been nothing more than a steady progression ... to the twin pinnacles of George Bush and string theory.

After all, all the Bush lovers I run into really can't get enough string theory. All the letters to the editor I see decrying how one in three aborted fetuses would have eventually cured some dreadful disease include a postscript describing their favor Calabi-Yao manifold!

What he leaves me wondering is, to which politician do experimentalists bow down? Al Sharpton, a true man of the people? No fence sitting folks!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Geek Gifts

Let A be the set of people who read this blog and B be the set of people who read Gizmodo, assuming that I am the only member of the intersection of these sets, let me refer the remainder to this relativity watch mentioned there. Act now, and you too can own an Einstein action figure.


There's a blog I read authored by a prof at MIT if I recall correctly. Somewhat eclectic, I got turned on to it by the guy's photography reviews. Well, he's got a very opinionated review of his new Infiniti, but what I particularly liked was his Bose bashing (my bolding):

Lexus went to Mark Levinson, makers of $100,000 home stereos that sound fantastic, for their premium sound system. Infiniti went to Bose, makers of a $300 table radio with a one-note bass. How does the fancy Bose stereo sound? Not too bad, but it still has that one-note bass. Instead of a big expensive subwoofer, the Bose system in the Infiniti M has a cheap mid-bass bump. Almost any kind of bass content will excite this mid-bass resonance. The theory behind this design, which has worked great for selling table radios, is that people who don't know anything about sound will be fooled into thinking that they are hearing deep bass.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Sneaky students

I had a student sneak out during an in-class, group exercise to which she attached her name. I'm sure she thinks she's so smart that I didn't notice. The truth, however, is that I don't enjoy her presence in class and was happy to see her go. As to her grade, what do I care? Good riddance.

That's not to say I'll let any cheating pass without action. If the cheating hurts someone else's grade or hurts the morale of the class, I step in. If it's discrete and serves only to cheat the culprit (a bit cliche, but nevertheless true), I remain lazy.

Is that bad? I don't see how, but I still find myself wondering each time. I suppose if a student who would otherwise fail ends up passing because of cheating, that wouldn't be good. But that's never been the case in my experience. My experience is that people cheat to avoid work, not to boost their grade (perhaps at higher-stress schools, things are quite different?). I gave a take home physics test once, and many people clearly cheated off each other. I say "clearly" because a large group would have the same very wrong answer. If they cared much about their grade, they would have cheated using someone who actually knew the answer. No, they didn't search out such a person, but instead took the lazy path of copying from a classmate.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Do you know what a preposition is?

If so, then you might wonder what would happen if you tried to publish a paper with a glaring grammatical mistake in its title! Sure, we all make mistakes, but what are the chances a title would make it past all the authors, any referees, and, of course, the editors!

Just to be clear, "off" is a preposition as in "off a brane." It takes an object. The word "of" is also a preposition. The combination "off of a tense brane" is....not English? abomination?

Two preemptive arguments. (1) Yes, I make grammatical mistakes. I would guess that I have made none in any of my published titles (and probably all my unpublished ones as well). (2) There will be those who say "Oh, it's common usage just like 'for free' is technically wrong but is now accepted." To this I say that 'for free' is, at the least, a single instance of a mistake. To accept double prepositions as a rule, however, is a different matter entirely. Are we going to accept things like "I got on in the bus"?

And to be clear, I'm not just faulting the authors here. But, do you notice that one of the authors is from Oxford!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Good Reading

  • Via Slashdot, an article on Google's involvement with huge data sets from the academic world (e.g. Hubble data).

  • Clifford links to a very interesting read about a maladjusted physics ex-grad student who got mixed up with vandalizing one night and is suffering. I can see the justice system messing up cases such as these, but I would have hoped such would be corrected quickly.

  • Speaking of the justice system, I'm still in a good mood from the Libby verdict and was happy to have a good read from one of the jury members at The Huffington Post...probably not a must read for most out there, but certainly one filled with some interesting tidbits both about the case and the behind scenes of an important trial.

Physics in Slashdot

  • Where do high energy gamma rays crashing into the Earth come from? These guys say they come from the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.

  • A somewhat silly article about how Hollywood handles the laws of physics.

  • What to do about a shortage of science and math teachers? The answer to all problems apparently is money. Speaking of which, there are places in this country where I would make more as a high school science teacher than I do now (well, base salary that is).

    On a completely unrelated note, I'm in a good mood because of the Libby verdict yesterday. Nice to see the system work occasionally. I really hope history gets it right and that this period is rightly remembered as pure adulteration of what our country stands for.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

To Tenure or Not, that is the question

One of the authors of "Freakonomics" suggests getting rid of tenure, at least for economics profs. These discussions pop up every so often, but I don't recall some of the more interesting points mentioned here. Basically, that schools could rid themselves of tenure, increase faculty salaries, and thereby kill two birds with one stone by attracting the best and dispensing with the worst.

I've seen some of the worst abusers of tenure, but I also see that it actually protects some appropriately. Part of the problem is that Universities are somewhat dysfunctional with power spread in a strange way among the faculty, administrators, the boards, and perhaps the state legislature, if public. The spread doesn't serve to check any one faction, but instead to politicize the whole process. [Insert Uncle Al's damnation of the whole higher ed system here]

And as to the issue of tenure in grades K-12, I really have no clue why it's there or how it got there. Boggles the mind, it does.

Anyway, I've worked hard for my tenure and I don't think I'll be given the option anytime soon of either keeping my tenure or getting more money per year. But as Dr. Seuss asks at the end of "What would you do?"

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Spouting Off

  • These discussions on the blogosphere of inherent ability versus work ethic (oh, to have both!) such as at nanoscale views and CV, bring to mind my advice for college choice. As an undergraduate, there's not going to be lots of differences among good schools, state flagships included (Berkeley, UMich, UTexas, UVA, UNC, etc). *However*, that is to say there won't be much difference in terms of the quality of instruction, equipment, etc. The biggest difference will be among your fellow students. That's one reason many of these schools have honors programs. The better your peers, the more the instructor can expect of you, and that's important. Not only that, the environment you immerse yourselves is largely made up of your peers. I interview for my alma mater and they want to know whether the applicant would contribute to that environment. And one shouldn't just concern yourself with quality. If you're lucky enough to have the choice between Stanford and Harvard, there's no concern for which has better students. The issue then is the *type* of student the school attracts. I'm not that fond of those who go to Stanford. Yes it's a horrible generalization, but I've found people that go to Stanford are competitive, driven, and true believers in metrics (test scores, etc). Those that go to Harvard are more of a mix, usually a bit strange, not well rounded, but of course extremely talented in some way. So come all 'ye Googlers looking for school advice!

  • I'm starting to have some faith that this "voting site" for will be worth something.

  • Chad made me chuckle today with this quote about baseball (a sport which ranks with golf for watching, but which is otherwise fun to play):

    Back in the day, stat-wanking was mostly confined to baseball, which is so ridiculously boring that calculus seems like a fun way to spice things up.

  • Oceanographers have it easy. They always get to put cool pictures of them in exotic locales into their talks. But I had never heard of this ship that literally flips itself vertical in the middle of the ocean. Gizmodo has a nice YouTube video for you.

  • I just got a hold of the movie "Shut Up & Sing" about how those Dixie Chicks were so vulgar as to criticize our prez during a time of war. I really look forward to watching it.

  • The problem with digital cameras is the same as a fundamental problem in quantum mechanics. Don't believe me? Try and take a spontaneous picture of a young kid these days. Once they see the camera, they rush over *behind* camera to see the LCD viewfinder! You're lucky to get one picture.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Good post

I saw this posting over at CV soon after it got posted and went back to read more of the comments. A very worthwhile read. To be sure, I wasn't sure how common such thoughts are. So many of us growup being the smartest kid around...that is until college. How we face up to being just one of many smart kids makes for interesting discussion.

It was so long ago, yet I think I'm still dealing with it now (I know, I know, it sounds pathetic). Just the other day I posted how I can get in a bad mood reading good work from "competitors." Am I among the top in my field? Or not? Should I content myself to be just one of many physicists contributing just a small piece to this global endeavor, try to make some ground-breaking discoverer at the risk of coming up empty-handed, or perhaps leave the field?

I am insecure about these things, going so far as to make somewhat ridiculous rationalization such as "Oh, that person is a postdoc so the pressure is on and s/he doesn't have to teach or attend faculty meetings." But, at least I'm not one of those jerks who tries to out talk others as if they know it all. I've been lucky to have good examples in grad school of famous & high powered theory people who, nevertheless, were down to Earth and could admit when they weren't getting something.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Late bloomers

I'm not sure how much this Wired article on the disparity between young genius and late bloomers applies to the world of physics. I might know better if I could slog my way through the whole article. But I will take this opportunity to mention that I get in awful moods sometimes when I see a good paper out by a "competitor." I sometimes do feel like an "also ran"...I wonder what movie actors feel like. You make a movie, and then you wait to get another offer or script (unless you're real hot). Do you immediately have doubts? I used to get in a great mood when I started writing up a paper, only to feel bad once it was accepted (well a couple days later). And I'm not a real competitive person. I wonder if I could fully accept my rung on the totem, whether that would mean I'd get really this competitive streak necessary to the self-discipline needed in academic research? Is there anything similar in industrial/commercial physics, or is it just "my salary is bigger than yours?" kind of rivalry?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Lost and Heroes TV Shows

I stumbled upon this site recently (don't ask): which gives a veritable catalog of "alternative" theories on the web (I love using that word "veritable"...connection to Harvard's motto be darned).

Speaking of alternative, Lost this week featured a plotline ostensibly involving time travel. The reputed accidental time traveler visits his physicist friend asking if he's nuts or if it's possible. My hopes of anything interesting physics-wise vanished when the somewhat stodgy physicist tells him, in no uncertain terms, that time travel isn't possible. This just a week after the episode in which someone is seen reading A Brief History of Time. This is no endorsement of the show though...the writers have long abandoned any reasonable adherence to even the smallest modicum of self-consistency.

The show Heroes, by contrast, presents an interesting story which seems to keep fairly strictly within its own bounds. Mind you, these bounds are fairly wide, including a character who can warp space and time (if only they would say in the show that such a separation is meaningless and instead use "spacetime"!). But the plotlines are so tightly woven together one truly (veritably, even) feels like the writers are unfolding an integral story, not simply rolling out episode after episode with new tricks.

And what's the deal with choosing males of Indian descent (i.e. South Asian) as scholarly professor types? Heroes has a father/son team of professors of some sort of genetics from India and this physics professor in Lost appears to be South Asian as well.

For those keeping track, the power words for this post:

  • veritable
  • ostensibly
  • modicum

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentines!

Who better to discuss love in the physics universe today than our community's own newly christened love couple?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


  • Anyone know of any good online/free tax info for a professor? I've gotten a 1099-Misc and I'm wondering what I can deduct. Not the usual "itemized deductions" (on schedule A) but instead it's Schedule C-EZ stuff. Anyone? I'm not looking to cheat, but I needs my broadband.
    Update: Nada. Bupkus. Great, well at least I've got a wonderfully unhelpful link to a Q&A at Kiplingers.

  • I've always been a bit uncomfortable with toll roads. Sure I love using them, but they seem so classist...the rich get to pay to use roads that poor folk cannot. Kind of like if we denied medical help unless you could pay for it...oh wait, never mind. Anyway, this article has a somewhat different perspective.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Pithy Quote

I'm not a big fan of blogging about blogging (though I'm interested what comes from Mark@CosmicVariance's recent post about the *uses* of faculty blogging). But, part of the reason I've blogged so little is that I'm losing focus of what the point is. Is there benefit to me or anyone else?

My two main motivations were to vent and to flesh out what it means to compete in the academic physics world. As to the first, the Incoherent Ponderer (sorry I'm too lazy for links, and I have yet to add him/her to the blogrool) is doing a much better job than I. I don't always agree with him but I find him pretty spot on when he/her (boy this non-gender specific stuff is a real pain and I'm not going to use "it") is railing against whatever.

As to the second, are we not a closed system? Are there really any newbies/undergrads out there reading this stuff so that they can enter grad school having read the right books, being able to pick a reasonable advisor (are there more than a couple out there?), and understanding what they may be in for?

For my own part I get some benefit from some of these blogs. Some physics I probably wouldn't see otherwise, some gossip, some complaints I share which are always nice to hear from others, some news (ala NSF budgets). But there's a lot of...what do they call it..."chaff" through which I must sort.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


  • Why do construction companies use a one dollar toilet flush handle made of plastic that will certainly break when another couple bucks gets you a metal one that will presumably last forever? I don't think the companies around here build enough so that the couple bucks per toilet saves them signficantly (especially in light of the frustration of its customers).

  • Why would visit statistics remain about the same when no posting has happened for weeks? That's surely not a good sign.

  • Why do these motifs come in cycles? A while back all the bloggers were talking about their travels, and now it's all about the great food they eat when interviewing.

  • Why do I keep accumulating more media to digest? I've got a stack of Scientific Americans, Physics Todays, and Seed magazines waiting to be read. I'm behind on lots of blog feeds. I'm so far behind on keeping up with the arXiv that I'm thinking I'll just ignore three months of papers and start fresh. I've got a paper to referee and another one just came back from the authors correcting things from the last round. Add to all this the fact that I've begun listening to various podcasts on my MP3 player at the gym.

  • Why is the NYT trying to make me feel bad for watching Lost tonight? I don't believe in the's just entertainment.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Continuing Resolution

Things are a bit crazy right now, but...

in case the bad news concerning this Nation's budget were not entirely clear, the NSF makes it pretty explicit with their latest announcement:

While we are acutely aware of the tight constraints on the available budgetary resources, NSF is continuing to issue program announcements and solicitations as previously planned.

It is likely, however, that NSF may be unable to fund a number of activities planned for this fiscal year.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


  • Look at this crankshaft from this engine for a tanker from Slashdot.

  • Need to train in a super deep pool (from Gizmodo

  • Checkout the big detector from Backreaction

  • Finally, deviating a bit from the theme, check out some of these fluid movies (via Slashdot)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Limitations of the Brain

It's often said that people are designed/evolved such that they recognize patterns easily even when they don't exist. Something about it helping us survive, but of course it causes problems when there aren't too many threats to our survival (prejudices and the like).

Anyway, this innate tendency towards pattern matching becomes quite apparent when going through my email. Scanning my email by subject and sender, I repeatedly classify each as "junk" but I find myself often pausing because I see email from a Suzie or some such and, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I find myself thinking ridiculous thoughts of "Oh, I knew a Suzie back in high school" even though some part of my brain is saying Suzie wouldn't be emailing and if she were, she wouldn't *also* put her name in the subject line!

So for just about every fourth email or so my brain can find some very remote connection I might have to a name or subject even though I know at the same time it's spam. What's strange is that, my other mail client does a better job of filtering the email, but has a few false positives. So I scan the junk folder periodically, and I find I'm remarkably good at spotting legitimate emails. Somehow my brain is better at avoiding the "false flags" of long lost friends' names in the way that that client presents them.

Speaking of limitations of one's brain, I recently had one of the new style Corvettes on my tail on a small, two lane road. At a certain point, the roadway opens up with two lanes in each direction so I pick one and hit the gas. I was hoping to be able to see if the 'Vette was the Z06 model or not. Thing is, I quickly realized it didn't matter what kind of 'Vette it was going to accelerate much faster than I could. Basically, it saturated the dynamic range of my ability to measure acceleration. Reminds me of high school when people thought I'd get into all the colleges to which I applied. Of course, getting into a college is, to a large extent, a crapshoot, but the point is that people who have problems with high school algebra don't the have the range to tell someone who is really good at math from someone who is really a genius at math.

Over the holidays, I imagine most people find themselves in some strange conversations. I had one in which we were talking sports and somehow got onto the issue of the construction of new stadiums (not stadia ala Eratosthenes, right?) with municipal funds. I mentioned my distaste, and my fellow conversationalist agreed with some simplistic statement about how that's just awful. And of course, I find myself saying that there must be benefit to the city in terms of increased revenue brought in by the franchise/stadium. Does this person really think that simplistically? It's similar over simplification of complicated issues that I find all over the conservative blogosphere. Are the writers purposefully trying to incite people or does it really reflect how they see things? Are there liberal bloggers doing the same (to which I'm presumably blind)?