Thursday, December 13, 2007


There's a certain type of balance I'd like to achieve.
Its sort of a balance between always acting from a center and giving up that center in order to go into details. Sort of a balance between unity and multiplicity. At the moment, it plays itself out in terms of work vs. social life, but within work itself it there is a similar struggle.

Ahh, so I was reading Kafka's story about being a dog. He really does a lot of stuff with animals. That would be interesting to learn more about.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

hello darkness my old friend

winter brings back memories. darkness. being alone.
i have a cold and this forces me away from physics back into my own obscure landscape.
time stretches out. i cannot imagine something different.
perhaps the one thing to take from this is that i am being too careful. imagining a snake around every corner is not helpful.

my computer life has blended the boundary between real and virtual. i ask whether i care about what my table is made of, or why it matters that my drawers are open and contain the least useful of my clothes. but i imagine that this is not something new to this time in history. there have always been people with a shadowy grasp on reality. perhaps it is the dream world or the spirit world that is blamed for this dissolution.

i wonder what would be a literature of winter. a type of writing that traces out such underground spaces. is it black and white, or is this just my relative inexperience with winter?
colors could be added. a dark purple, a crisp blue, perhaps even a pale yellow in a corner.

Monday, December 03, 2007

science vs. engineering

Ok, I will weigh in on this old topic.
Consider a matrix, an array of numbers. These can represent a wide variety of different things.
So, let's say a scientist and an engineer both think of their system as a matrix.

The engineer has control theory at hand. One thinks of a system in terms of input and output and asks about controllability and observability. How can I get this thing to do what I want? And... if I prick and sting this thing in all possible ways, will I have understood its internal state?

These are the questions the engineer asks. The system is to be made useful and its internal state is to be categorized in terms of well defined criterion. The questions are pretty set ahead of time.

The scientist doesn't seek total understanding in the same way. The scientist looks for funny properties. If I add up the eigenvalues of this matrix will I get a positive number? There is more of a creative element. A narrative element?

Monday, November 19, 2007

client/server vs. p2p

I realized that in some ways, what I'm been struggling with lately is a matter of architecture.
In a client/server approach, the resources are collected together in centralized places and server programs are your interface to those resources. In a peer to peer approach, there are many sources of information. In fact each node is on the same level. I feel like in each of the projects I was working on, I was being pushed to either be a client or a server, and I didn't particularly want to be either.

I know that hierarchy has its place, but on the whole, I'm much more comfortable with a p2p approach to many aspects of work and life.

Monday, November 12, 2007

back to physics

Ok, I need to do some integrals. I'm trying to find the number of electrons scattering per unit time into a given longitudinal velocity.
I need to do the integral:

where is typically a Gaussian.
I can do the integral first which seems like the right thing to do. But then to check it, I can integrate over from the momentum acceptance to infinity and get the Touschek lifetime. But I can't see how it gives the right answer. Anyway, its fun to get back to this stuff.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


I've been trying to understand a certain piece of technical history that is important for accelerator physics. It involves people at each stage and their own skill sets. I'll leave it somewhat vague for now, because I don't understand it well enough. On one end we have various math ideas which from a certain perspective join numerical and analytical approaches, but from another, its just some math. These go under the names differential algebra, non-standard analysis and truncated power series algebra. At the other end of the bridge we have collaborative work on designing a particle accelerator.

The thing is that in some ways this is really just a personal bridge. I am comfortable reading math. And I am comfortable working in a team with an open environment. But in between has been a huge mess.

I was just trying to find references to Foucault's The Order of Things. I found this essay.
What the author says is that Foucault's grand schemes aren't particularly new, and his referencing is pretty poor, but when discussing particulars, he adds new depth.

Continuing my free association: I was just listening to this radio show starring Richard Stallman!

Monday, October 29, 2007

i am a computer

I used to be really worried about reductionism. You know, the whole pyramid of science thing, with atoms (or quarks and stuff) at the bottom. I didn't like being just a big pile of dumb old molecules bumping into each other.

At the time, I tried to analyze what was bothersome about this. I think the answer I came up with was that it was the dumbness of the molecules. Ok, they're pretty cool, but just not cool enough to equal me. So one way out of the resulting depression is to try to convince oneself that atoms really are that cool.

In the end, I think this line of thinking has at its heart: "I am a machine. Oh no!!"

Lately I've been thinking: "I am a computer. Oh no!!"

It gets especially dangerous when I drive around with GPS, and spend lots of time interacting with screens like the one in front of me now.

It then hit me that being a machine didn't bother me as much any more.
But, so why should being a computer bother me? I guess its because its the dominant language, and suggests certain limitations.

I'm tempted to say that this is about the mind body problem, or subjective versus objective, but I think its more about making things in our own image and then forgetting that we were their source and sort of becoming their slaves. Weird cycle.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

extra something

So there are all these pieces, and on there own they rattle together.
Again, I have the image of having climbed out of a ravine.
In the middle of it all, one thinks that out of templates, convergent/divergent integrals, context free grammar, parameter 1 through n, file formats with and without futures and even secret and not so secret motivations, one can build something. Yes, but as long as one remembers that those are just raw materials.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

putting it together?

*)"Practical C++ programming"
*)"Mastering Matlab 7"
*)"The Fokker Planck Equation"
*)article by Bruck on Touschek lifetime
*)an undocumented C++ library for particle tracking and global parameter extraction
*)a partially designed synchrotron light source
*)a bunch of smart people who don't work together particularly well

Thursday, September 27, 2007


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A nice movie.
My simulation codes start to take hours, then days. I write scripts. These little creatures doing our work. My work.
The acorns have been falling onto my roof.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Ah, the joys of math. So now I can ramble away with equations! (Thanks to)
So, we can represent the symplectic part of the dynamics of an accelerator by a one turn map:

where is the operator saying to take the Poisson bracket with its argument. is the effective Hamiltonian and is a function of and . In the linear case, is just a matrix and if the Hamiltonian is with , then


is the symplectic inner product matrix and its multidimensional
extensions. Actually its kind of ugly. Ah well, I may or may not write more equations.

Speaking of Faith

Krista Tippett, pp. 3-4:
Of this I'm certain: the religious energy of our world now is not in essence a rejection of all disciplines by which we've ordered our common life for many decades-- law, politics, economics, science. It is, rather, a realization that these disciplines have a limited scope. They can't ask ultimate questions of morality and meaning. Our most heated debates--on marriage, or stem-cell research, or abortion--defy the boundaries of legal rulings and political rights into which we've attempted to fit them. They drive back to the mysteries of human life and human sexuality. They are prisms for deep questions about identity, relationship, and love in our time. The also arouse fierce human impulses both to question difference and to defend it. We can construct factual accounts and systems from DNA, gross national product, legal code-- but they don't begin to tell us how to order our astonishments, what matters in a life, what matters in a death, how to love, how we can be of service to one another. These are the kinds of questions religion arose to address, and religious traditions are keepers of conversation across generations about them. I've seen a tapestry unfurled, both ancient and in progress like the whole of creation, a bearer of truths that arguments cannot contain. I must tell of these things, and how they meet my own deepest longings for truth, beauty, and hope.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

settling in

My laptop is a "PC". You know, with Microsoft Windows. I have been so reluctant to install anything permanent because I don't trust it. Now I install Eclipse, consider becoming a Java developer, locate tools to untar, real basics. Figure out how to access lab unix servers. Slowly things become unbroken. And the metaphorical connection to Long Island, this desolate place, that perhaps after enough years starts to come to life.

Friday, August 24, 2007

fade in/out

Who would have thought that feeling lousy could be such a luxury?

Back to the theme again: life and physics fight it out. There's only so much room.

Here's what I do: I read through the Handbook of Accelerator Physics and Engineering. Again and again. I'm looking for something. I'm trying to make the world be different than it is. I want to find unity. But instead of unity, I find the only togetherness there ever was, the togetherness of being familiar with something. No, you say: there's Maxwell's equations. And there's SU(3)xSU(2)xU(1). Ok, I admit it. I've tried to read Foucault's The Order of Things. Not healthy, but I like to think he was a good guy anyway. And I've come back to Zarathustra, and can still find a small amount of my own voice afterwards.

These voices who ask me to help them build the pyramids... What does one say to them, except, "I'm sorry, but I only have one lifetime"? I wrote to my brother and told him I am an indentured servant. I don't even know what the word indentured means, except that it brings back the song that some music teacher sang with us in 6th grade:
16 tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt

Saturday, August 18, 2007

huge systems

For the book group I'm a part of, this month we're reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. The part I'm reading now is describing the modern industrial food system based around corn. He tries to get the big picture, to see how our eating habits tie in with industrial and economic logic of production. Corn production is based on petroleum use (petrochemicals, oil based transportations systems etc.), and feed lot cows in turn eat a corn based diet. On page 83, he says
I don't have a sufficiently vivid imagination to look at my steer and see a barrel of oil, but petroleum is one of the most important ingredients in the production of modern meat, and the Persian Gulf is surely a link in the food chain that passes through this (or any) feedlot.
The part that interests me in this is the "sufficiently vivid imagination". Certainly Pollan has a vivid imagination as we see from all the creative, clarifying metaphors he uses. But the point is that the system is just too big.

I mention this because I feel the same way about my own work in particle accelerators. I jump in at different levels and understand different things, and find people and ideas and work flows and processes at each level. But it just seems too big. In order for it to work, the amount of expertise is literally incomprehensible. But on the other hand, any one person has only a piece of the picture. How this all worked was really a big question I've had for a long time. If no one person understands it all, then how does it actually work? Pollan uses evolutionary metaphors frequently, and I think that this gets at a good piece of the answer to this question. Both the people involved, and the system itself coevolve to form a relatively coherent whole. Corn evolves to use oil and maximize growth, and people adapt to eating processed food.

These big systems have a big effect on us. They shape our lives, and because they contain so many parts, the basic underlying logic escapes us which means we lose control of our life. I find Pollan's book very inspiring in that he is taking something so big that it is almost invisible, and laying it out in front of us in a clear, enjoyable way.

Friday, August 10, 2007

just give me

just give me one good reason
and I promise I won't ask you any more
just give me one extra season
so I can figure out the other four

Blue Umbrella, by John Prine.

Friday, July 27, 2007


I typed in "Six Feet Under" to youtube and watched the season five promotional video. The characters were driving. They reach intersections in barren landscapes where they have to make choices.

I think of my own cross roads and wonder if I've actually made any choices. Somehow everything feels close, just a few steps away. I think that I've always tried to get places while at the same time leaving open the option to get back to where I was.

And then I think of the concept of a metric space. The internet can invert close and far. It all just seems too abstract. Well, that's enough random thoughts for a Friday night. Dangerous business...

Sunday, July 22, 2007

keeping in touch

sometimes its hard to keep in touch with everyone. Why do we call certain friends and not others? Why does it take so long to write back to someone and say: "doing fine, thanks for asking." or "life's a bit rough, how are you?"

I guess people bring out different things in us. I imagine calling one person and know that I would end up talking about how depressed I am and how I want more friends, etc. If I call someone else, I'd end up talking about all the interesting work I'm doing. Some people would give me the impression that I'm leading a lonely difficult life, while others leave me with the impression that I'm doing exciting interesting things, meeting interesting people, and really doing exactly what I should be doing at this stage in my life.

Maybe it just means that its a complicated time. Its not one thing or the other, but a big mix of many things. I also think I'm one of these people who's a bit vague, not so well defined at the center of things, at least in the short term. I know everyone has this aspect to them, but its a matter of what's central. For people like me, who change easily, we have to be a bit careful of who we talk to. People can have a big effect on us. Sometimes its only in withdrawal, that I find my own direction again. But withdrawal can become a direction on its own, rather than a tool, if you're not careful. Not that its actually that bad of a direction, if you can take it. There's a whole realm of life surrounding being a solitary person, seeking yourself, or something beyond you inside you.

Friday, July 20, 2007


I just saw this film from the Stony Brook Film Festival called Who Loves the Sun.
One funny aspect was that I knew one of the main characters (went to high school with him). I've seen him act in a few other things, and I was realizing that its not so different from seeing any other actor multiple times. You start to feel like you know them- they become a part of your life.

The film was spotty, as most independent films are. Some parts really didn't work- with forced dialogue and pauses that made one feel that the actors didn't know what the scene was about.
The music sometimes had an experimental feel to it. But that's part of what can be so great- the lack of control can open up such interesting, unexpected pieces.

The story mainly surrounded Will, Maggie and Daniel. Will and Maggie were married, but after Maggie had sex with Daniel, Will leaves for five years. They are all stuck together at a beautiful lake house, and they fumble around trying to resolve old issues. Some of the shots were really nice, such as a long slow panning from the sky to the ground through trees and leaves.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

learning something new

I'm trying to learn about collective effects in high energy electron beams. This involves the interaction of the beam with itself, mediated by its surroundings. One decomposes the distribution into modes, and tries to find the growth rates of these modes- positive growth implies an instability.

I've studied the Fokker-Planck equation and various physical origins for damping and diffusion, but this has a different flavor from the collective effects involving wake-fields and impedances.

So I have all these papers and a somewhat specified goal that I don't know enough to understand. I skim the papers and other books and try to get a feel for the language and direction. Then I feel useless for awhile- like I haven't learned anything, and like I don't know any physics, and like there are all these very tall walls to scale that I never will. And meanwhile, all the other things that I'm supposed to be doing fade out and also seem impossible.
It just colors everything. Its like how the book I'm reading can set the flavour for the rest of my life.

Next day: hmm, not so bad, I guess this stuff seems a little bit easier than I thought. But jeez... what a messy process.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


There must be a better way to defrost my freezer than to wait for huge chunks of ice to come crashing down...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


I met people from Germany, England, New Mexico, etc. People are looking for the next big thing. Some complain about lack of inspiration, others complain about lack of rigour.
I guess for the first time I felt the pull of something like a center of gravity for this community.
I was reminded of the scene from the Star Wars film where they visit Jar Jar's people, and suddenly it opens up in front of them, this huge, hidden, underwater world.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

too much

Problems with my hotel room: no phone, bad lighting, water pouring into bathroom in mornings when people above me take a shower, iffy door that left me locked in for 15 or so minutes til I could finally open it. I changed rooms. My would be travelling companions all backed out, so I drove to Santa Fe, Los Alamos and down through the Jemez mountains by myself. Then I got a speeding ticket at the end.
In hindsight will this conference be one of those wonderful times in my life?
Yes, there are good things, but they've faded out, lost focus. (I guess its called a bad mood..)
I was thinking today that I would want to talk to everyone I know about all the experiences I've had with them: "so what was going on with you then?"
Or maybe I just wish people would ask me that question.

Monday, June 18, 2007

new painting technique

just keep painting over it all with white. then, instead of deep, dark separations that need to be bridged, need to be harmonized, just gauzy swirls. but there are dark irreconcilable differences in the world!! yes, but that doesn't mean that I have to keep creating them!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

dangerous fruit

My ten minute walk around the block is starting to get more interesting.
The mulberry trees have black berries growing directly from their branches.
Watching the ground, I find sour cherries that have fallen from way above.
I try to get my new neighbor to eat one of the mulberries. But he tells me the story of a Croatian herbalist who was jailed for causing lead poisoning in his client. All right, gas doesn't have much lead in it anymore, but along with the oil and exhaust, this fruit can't be too good for me.
Ok. Add "lead poisoning" to Lymes disease and Giardia amongst the list of things that may shorten my life by my careless habits. I guess we all get to pick our poisons.

Friday, June 15, 2007

long island

Last Sunday I took one of my wandering drives. My original motive of buying a guitar capo was soon forgotten when I decided to search for one of the nearby beaches I'd heard of. This plan was again forgotten when I saw a sign for the "Emma S. Clark Memorial Library". I parked, ready to explore this library when a path in the woods beckoned. Following this path, I passed by private tennis courts, and was soon looking across at a river with a series of stone bridges. I took a loop, using two of these bridges, passing by a proud father and his unruly kids, a group of serious teenaged girls who apologized for their barking dogs. I stared out at the water, a fragrant smell making me think of a California summer, and wondered how this whole scene could have been hidden amongst the strip malls, rude aggressive drivers, and dead-ends in warehouse/empty lot mazes. My whole sense of structure and hiearchy seemed turned around, inside out, like the spheres of Banach-Tarski, or perhaps a Mobius strip.

That night I had a dream that the water of the oceans spilled over and covered me up. Under water, were slowly moving clown-like people carrying out their secret business. I guess at some point in one's life, we become submerged. And we just hope that we have the tools to survive, to not drown, or become irrevocably lost.

Monday, May 28, 2007


I'm reading Douglas Hofstadter's "I am a Strange Loop". He talks about how big of a soul a given creature has and mentions a measurement system proposed by James Huneker with which to quantify this idea (p. 22). He suggests that our level of reluctance to kill a given creature is roughly an accurate measure of the amount of souledness, or the number of Hunekers contained:

In short, I would here argue, echoing and generalizing the provocative statement by James Huneker, that "souledness" is by no means an off-on, black-and-white, discrete variable having just two possible states like a bit, a pixel, or a light bulb, but rather is a shaded, blurry numerical variable that ranges continuously across different species and varieties of object... I would also argue that most people's largely unconscious prejudices about whether to eat or not to eat this or that food, whether to buy or not to buy this or that article of clothing, whether to swat or not to swat this or that insect ... reflect precisely this kind of numerical continuum in their minds, whether they admit it or not.
Its one thing to claim that people have some kind of internal model like the above in mind -- this seems quite reasonable. Its another to claim that this internal model coresponds to something fundamental in the world -- remains to be shown.

Of course, I have to counter this with a quote from Elizabeth Costello (p. 67):

.. And the fact that animals, lacking reason, cannot understand the universe but have simply to follow its rules blindly, proves that, unlike man, they are part of it but not part of its being: that man is godlike, animals thinglike.

Even Immanuel Kant, of whom I would have expected better, has a failure of nerve at this point. Even Kant does not pursue, with regard to animals, the implications of his inuition that reason may be not the being of the universe but on the contrary merely the being of the human brain.

And that, you see, is my dilemma this afternoon. Both reason and seven decades of life experience tell me that reason is neither the being of the universe nor the being of God. On the contrary, reason looks to me suspiciously like the being of human thought; worse than that, like the being of one tendency in human thought. Reason is the being of a certain spectrum of human thinking. ...

I haven't yet fully gotten what Hoffstadter's concept of a strange loop is, but I wonder about this human-centrism. Haven't we learned again and again, how unspecial we are? Are we to find in the realm of consciousness we truly are the center of the universe? This process of taking our intuitions and assuming that there is something fundamental to them can be a bit dangerous.
Anyway, as usual, I'm impatient, and have to write something before I understand it... but isn't that the time its the most interesting? Before its all settled down and solidified?

Monday, May 21, 2007

tick season

As usual, I escape from my office by walking in a nearby pine forest.
I follow a certain path that leads nearby to an abandoned skeet shooting range, making a loop ending up back on a main road for a 5 minute walk back to my office. In the winter, my snow footsteps were the only ones in this particular path.

Today, I followed the path, enjoying the sun and watching the streaky clouds. A few hours later, I was talking to someone about magnets when they noticed a tick crawling on my pant-leg. Now, home, and ready to take a shower, I find another one feasting on my inside leg just above my knee. I guess its the season for responding to each small itch with a frantic search. Is it worth giving up the walks for? Until I learn the hard way, the answer will be no.

Monday, May 07, 2007

postdoctoral success/failure

I'm rereading Sharon Traweek's ethnography (1988) of high energy physicists, Beamtimes and Lifetimes. Here's a great paragraph about how someone sees their postdoc experience in retrospect (p. 90):

Another postdoc knows that he has not "made it," and he is angry. Reexamining his postdoctorate, he believes that he now understands why he failed. In the first year, he thinks, the senior experimentalists are scanning the postdocs to see who is "charismatic". They watch how the postdocs handle conversations; the preferred style is confident, aggressive, and even abrasive if one suspects that another's ideas are wrong; he feels he could have adopted this style if he had understood its importance. The next step would have been to seek out "an action sector"-- and exciting volatile, and fashionable area. At that point in his career, "charm" became fashionable. He feels he ought to have taught himself and taught others about "charm". He should have anticipated where the problems lay and cultivated connections accordingly. The next step would have been to gain responsibility for some large, important project-- so important that others would have sought him out to talk. Ideally, he should have proposed an experiment of his own. Instead, out of loyalty and commitment, he stuck with his assigned task. Now he feels this cost him his career in high energy physics. He believes that he would have had difficulty being granted these responsibilities, however; he sees himself as being outside the "old boys' club," because in the labs where he did graduate work his undergraduate school was not considered to be "on the map." This postdoc has come to these conclusions retroactively; he is comparing his career over the past several years with those who have made it. He has since left high energy physics.

I like how "charm" could be read in the non-technical sense and it still almost works in the paragraph!

This whole chapter, "Male tales told during a life in physics" is pretty good. I suppose one does need to remember the warning that anthropologists often talk to those at the margins of a society/culture, so while those people can often have the clearest perspective and speak the most freely, they also may have a certain bitterness and interest in painting the community in a bad light.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

local/global lives

When I went to Nepal in 1997, my dad encouraged me to observe the ways of life of some of the people we saw because so many old ways were being lost. He also told me stories of the introduction of TV into island communities. An intact community with a variety of ways of interacting now spends much of its time watching TV, absorbing lives from far off places causing rapid change that leads to alcoholism and general community breakdown. That's the extreme end of things.

The internet, or perhaps Web 2.0, or whatever, is supposed to be different. Our spending time looking at a screen is supposed to connect real people together- create community rather than destroy. I find myself drawn into Facebook and Myspace (and this blog!) and indeed, it does feel like a new social forum. I saw a parody video on You-Tube related to these social networks which included the line "Go ahead, let Facebook intrude into and completely change your life!"

As usual, I feel like I'm a few years late getting into the debate. I guess I just want to try to clarify the ways in which these new forms of communication and community building change our lives. In what ways do our local lives fit into our distributed networked lives?

There's a voice in me that says I'm not supposed to ask these questions. It says that it is the job of the sociologists to ask these questions. The wisdom of this voice is that perhaps really all I should be doing is finding something that works for me. I don't need to answer these questions for others. But at the same time, without asking the general questions, the space in which I will actually find my own solutions isn't opened up.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

the mathematician's power play

Interesting post at the blog The Truth Makes Me Fret.

Here is an article by Max Tegmark about mathematical reality.
Tegmark wants to argue from the existence of an external reality to the existence of a mathematical external reality-- basically that math is all there is. I admit that this "math is all there is" idea is pretty appealing to me. I think that while possibly true in some sense, at the same time it is less powerful than it seems at first.

I go through this mental excercise sometimes: suppose I spend much of my time studying X. Now here is why X is the most important thing in the world. Now repeat this exercise for Y.

For example, economics: We can't survive without resources. Study of exchange and management of resources is thus absolutely crucial.
Now try psychology: obviously thinking is important. We spend much of our time thinking and much of our existence is manifest through our thoughts. Thus, the study of the structure of thinking and its resultant behavior is clearly of the utmost importance, dare I say, crucial?

Ponder Stibbons shows in her post that Tegmark gets his result by a confusing use of the word "baggage".
I suppose Tegmark might find a way around this critique by claiming he didn't quite mean this or that, and I want to read his article more carefully, but as a document, it strikes me as an attempt for mathematical physics to regain the throne (in case it ever lost it).

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

the wonder years

oh no, i hadn't seen this show in just such a long time.
i feel like i should be embarassed, but instead, for the moment it becomes my ideal of romance. am i really stuck back in junior high?

"when i hear great soft rock, it always takes me back to a relaxing place, like a beach, or a house on a lake," says the man trying to sell me the cd set of songs to bring back the memories of the 70's.

here's a memory: i took this spanish class through cabrillo college at santa cruz high. one of the class members was billy rainbow (arcoiris). whenever we sang a certain song, the teacher would stop and say in a dreamy voice "ah, las memorias." i'm not sure why, but ruthie always found that incredibly funny.

"whenever i hear these songs, always feel like i'm on vacation"
"you know angela, you're absolutely right!"
"but don't go looking for this classic collection of songs in stores, because its not available."
"if its not the best music you've ever heard, send it back, and keep, absolutely free, our cd of classics from 1977"

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

elegant art?

I've been struggling with a painting. I look at it and it looks very complicated. Its achieved a certain consistency. The level of detail is similar throughout. I see smoke and drama, squares, ugly chunky bits and underwater areas with wrongly colored Dr. Seuss-like swirls. I'd say its interesting to look at.

The problem is that I don't like to look at it. Its too much. Its not at a human scale. Or maybe its just that I'm tired and burnt out and don't feel like I have the perspective to see what might be elegant in it. My instinct is that its not particularly elegant.

So do I keep working on this painting? I've never bought that strongly into the express yourself school of art. More about having a dialogue with color and form. People praise art that expresses difficult emotions but manages to maintain a balance. To pull form out of chaos. Is this just our preference for the happy ending?

I guess I'm saying that this painting can be done without it having an elegant resolution. Sure, maybe I'll paint over it or throw it away some day. But for today, this painting can be done. Its an expression of where I am today. And maybe given that, I can start another that will find the elegance beyond this particular mess.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

more on Wendell Berry

I've been really appreciating this book of essays by Wendall Berry called "The Way of Ignorance". His basic examples come from agriculture and farming which he has experience with, but I can't help finding many parallels to physics.

His essay "Local Knowledge in the Age of Information" really solidified for me a good part of the reason (in a roundabout way) why I am in a national lab instead of trying to go directly to a university. He describes the need for conversation between the center and the periphery. He says that the periphery needs the center as much as the center needs the periphery. At the center, inormation is collected and efficient ways of representing and presenting that information is found. Life occurs on the periphery. Contact with the center can give one access to a wealth of experience from other places. But without conversation, the center loses its understanding that it owes its existence to the periphery, and the periphery loses its ability to ask for help and to gain useful information that will work within an appropriately local context.

Here's a (perhaps obscure) example given by a certain physicist that I work with. I think it provides a physics example Of Berry's point about the need for conversation and an illustration of what local knowledge looks like. Consider non-linear single particle dynamics in accelerators. The needs of this discipline involve predicting whether a particle in a certain non-linear system will stay within a certain region for very long or not (the dynamic aperture). Non-linear dynamical systems have been studied in other contexts as well. The gravitational n-body problem is an example from astrophysics. In that context, one wants to know, for example, whether our solar system will be stable over long time periods. The knowledge from this and other fields requiring the understanding of long term dynamics of non-linear systems has made it to the universities. Dynamical systems research collects together such knowledge. Now, certain theorems exist, such as the KAM theorem in which long-term stability criterion have been found. The problem is that the perturbations are just too big in an accelerator or a solar system for the theorems to apply. So, it may be that people in the universities think that in some sense the problem has been solved, wheras in "the field", the solutions are useless, and the very sense of arrogance implied in the attitude that the problem is essentially solved may at times do more harm than good.

Yes, this idea of conversation between the center and the periphery is very interesting to me, even if my example and explanation is rather murky at the moment.

Monday, April 16, 2007

murky again

building toys- trying to define an interface, make something that works. infrastructure, always working below the surface.
lately the dominant image has been climbing around on bars- a gigantic metal cage.
i'm watching the x-files movie. adds a dose of mystery.
no clear path.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

particular/general language

Wendell Berry, in his essay "Imagination in Place", writes
All this [pressures of farming] calls for an exactly particularizing language. This is the right kind of language for a writer, a language developing, so to speak, from the ground up. It is the right kind of language for anybody, but a lot of our public language now seems to develop downwards from a purpose. Usually the purpose is to mislead, the particulars being selected or invented to suit the purpose; or the pariculars dangle loosely and unregarded from the dislocated intellectuality of the universities. This is contrary to honesty and also to practicality.
This reminds me of questions about the role of theory in physics. It is generally concieved to be the theorists who design the language and the experimentalists who work within that framework, occasionally finding that the framework is inadequate, thereby requiring a reworking.

If top-down language is dishonest and impractical, then what is its appropriate role? Could the tension here be between passing of knowledge through experience and through writing or language? A person that is able to do something can then teach someone else to do it. Songs can be passed down orally from generation to generation.

But Wendell Berry is also an author and thus captures something in his writing. Perhaps the point is that it is always through example that he teaches. There's something appealing to me about this picture of knowledge embodied in experienced people rather than in books, because I am so heavily biased in the other direction. But whenever one encounters what one lacks, it needs to be taken slowly so that what one has isn't destroyed in the process.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


no time to shop.
so dinner is oatmeal and peanut butter and jelly, chips and salsa.
lunch was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
now i have forty five minutes to rewrite greenlseeves from e minor to a minor before my guitar lesson.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

zen planning

It seems so clear that the present is when experience happens and so being in the now is obviously important. But at the same time, we are constantly making plans. We concieve of the moment as part of a broader gesture and this gives it meaning and improves the present.
This kind of micro thinking however is a bit like analyzing a novel letter by letter. I guess I'm wondering what Buddhism has to say about how the present relates to longer amounts of time. We have to make plans. We have to work. We have to do all sorts of long term things. Are we sacrificing the present for the future, or building meaning?
Anyway, this conflict between existing in the present but planning for the future is one that I seem to keep coming back to over the years.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


to clean is to decide what is dirty- to follow through on a system.
if the system is awful, the result can be awful as in ethnic cleansing.

but today, if i organize my clothes, and put my books on my bookshelf, and throw out most of my junk mail, i don't think i'll hurt anyone too badly.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

eating turkey,

drinking beer in bed and listening to the rain- this is the life!

Monday, March 26, 2007


when i moved across the country, i got rid of lots of books.
but still, i have too many books on my bookshelf that i haven't read.
each one of these books is a project, an unfulfilled piece of my identity.

one book is a soldier of the great war by mark halprin. my dad gave me this book, saying he really loved it.

another one is raintree country by ross lockridge jr. my step-father gave this to me when he was getting rid of books, telling me it was the great american novel.

so these books become place holders for plans to get to know my father and step-father better sometime in the future.

i have a freud reader on my bookshelf. i bought this book for a humanities class in college and read almost none of it. but it stands for my plan to stop bsing about psychology and to learn a little bit more.

too many placeholders and i start to feel empty. the person i think i ought to be is so much bigger than who i am. so reading a book isn't a big deal, because there are too many left to read.
what i always forget about getting rid of things is that it doesn't mean that i won't want that thing again in the future. just because i get rid of my step dad's favorite book doesn't mean we can't discuss it sometime in the future.

its a fear that if potentialities aren't displayed, then they are gone. a child's worry that the ball hidden behind his mother's back has disappeared from the world?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

when we look back

how will we describe this time, someday?

i get angry at imperminence and lectures tell me to treat it as if i were falling from an airplane. to find a home in uncertainty. we always forget the difficulty. the edges get softened, a few of the many coexistent realities are retained. is memory the inspiration for the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics?

will i remember that the choices expanded far beyond the ability to live those choices?

a useful tool i have found is to ask: "and what is so different about now?" "ok, but hasn't that been true for the past five years?" but this can also be a way to smooth and ignore.

(reading /the book of laughter and forgetting/)

Friday, March 23, 2007

dharma talks

Thanks to Hana for pointing me to some online talks from the Berkeley based East Bay Dharma Center. I listened to the last two by James Baraz about mindfulness.
I also listened to the one by Patricia Ellsberg, Daniel Ellsberg's wife. She describes copying the pentagon papers and talks about what its like to be with someone so attracted to darkness when she is so attracted to light and expansiveness. I was also interested to hear she learned TM many years ago, and now practices her own form of meditation which involves lying for an hour with one hand on her heart and one on her belly.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

physics is conflict?

Nancy Cartwright joins the discussion of pro/con string theory as only game in town. Lee Smolin defends his book which argues that there are valley crossers and hill climbers and we need to encourage more valley crossers applied to other approaches to quantum gravity besides string theory. Michael Duff argues that its just sour grapes and that string theory is young and vigorous with some great achievements so far. Cartwright argues that "physics is conflict". She compares physics to John Locke's discussion of justice (which I'm not familiar with) in which no criterion exists to choose a theory of justice. The role of theory then is to manage conflict- to decide when choices should be made and otherwise, how to help competing camps coexist.
(from here)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

more tm stuff

Continuing on this transcendental mediation thread, I just noticed a post about TM at Cosmic Variance.
Also, I recently bought Paul Mason's biography of the Maharishi, and have continued following the blog TM-Free. Oh, also, I watched a video by Steve Hassan (from TM-Free) about his approach to getting people out of cults. I'm still uncomfortable with this issue of new religion vs. cult. I apreciate the approach Hassan describes. He says often that he doesn't try to take anything away from people, only give them options. But at the same time he sees the situation as a war. Why am I so reluctant to be a warrior? Sometimes I feel like its weakness, sometimes strength. Maybe for me the reason is that most of the wars (be they family/work/politics etc.) that I feel pulled into choosing sides over just aren't important enough to me. Fighting in that war would screw up a bunch of other stuff that I find equally important.

Considering this question of being a warrior reminds me that the Maharishi focuses TMers on the first 6 books of the Baghavad Gita, with his own interpretation that the text refers to consciousness. The beginning involves Krishna urging Arjuna to fight against his family. I suppose this encourages TMers to see the struggle to enlighten the world through TM as an epic battle where individuals consciousnesses (even within a family) are fighting it out.

One way I think about TM is as a little like a micro-version of America. The people are mainly well-meaning and really believe they are doing good for the world. But the perspective is so narrow and solutions so simplistic that they often do more harm than good, while a few people actually get rich from the whole thing. So, basically, if it weren't for the arrogant megalomania that accompanies the whole thing, I'd be happy to call them spiritual/cultural/life style pioneers, trying to find meaning out of the complex world that doesn't usually fit very well into simple boxes.


a) Climbing about on the scaffolding. Something big being constructed, but I'm the only one working on it.

b) The field trip stops at an amusement park on the side of the New Jersey turnpike.
I run ahead to ride the roller coaster. But when the train stops everyone I came with has already left. Not clear how to get home from here!

I must be working too hard. Not very subtle... But thank you, dreams. You are always a steady friend!

Monday, March 12, 2007

bread crumbs

Trying to make progress in my job is like wandering in a forest.
I need landmarks that I know how to get back to.
What makes a landmark? Its familiar. And it takes time to become familiar with something.
But I'm moving too fast. I don't pause long enough to make comfortable resting places. Or I don't know how to make a comfortable resting place? No. I think I do. I'm just slow.
I know some things. I know where the river is. I recognise the clearings.
But then, sometimes its just really not a good time to stop and rest. Last week, I had the distinct feeling of having climbed up out of a gulley that I'd been wandering in for awhile. I had grabbed a hold of a tree branch and pulled myself up and could finally look back and see the creek bed, the rocks, the patches of trees, all the different microclimates.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

synchrotron light sources

I suppose there's a time when you should do something with what you've learned. You can't be a student your whole life! (Well, of course you can, and I fully plan to, but I should also do something useful.)

So. What am I doing? Well, I'm part of a group designing a third generation synchrotron light source: the NSLS-II.

Ok, so what is a synchrotron light source?

Check out this photo of a machine called the NSLS VUV ring:
See the brownish tube in the center going all the way around? (Just above the dark blue things, and with some yellow, orange and light blue things here and there.) Its a copper pipe, called the beam pipe and for this machine its 51 meters around. Electrons travel down that tube at close to the speed of light.

All right. Nice. Three questions:
1) How'd the electrons get there in the first place?
2) Why do they stay in the pipe and not slam into the walls?
3) Why on earth would we want to do this?

Question 1 is why this is really a branch of the field of accelerator physics. We need a particle accelerator to get the electrons going fast enough. The electrons in this machine have an energy of 800 thousand electron volts. That's the energy one electron would have after going through 800 thousand 1 volt batteries.

By the way, in case you forgot what an electron was... we're mainly made of them. They are negatively charged particles that orbit the nucleus in atoms.

The answer to question 2 involves the yellow, orange, and light blue things surrounding the beam pipe. They are magnets. The light blue one is a dipole magnet, meaning it has two poles, north and south. The magnetic field bends the charged electrons. So that's how we can get the bunch of electrons going in a circular shape. The problem is that with just the bending, the beam would be unstable- if it was just a bit off the "perfect" trajectory, it would very quickly die a copper death. So the yellow magnets are there. They are called quadrupole magnets, four poles. They are like lenses for the particles. The orange magnets are sextupole magnets, six poles. They're also necessary, but its a bit technical as to why.

Ok. So, on to question 3. Why?

Well, for those of you who have taken an electricity and magnetism class, you might remember that charged particles create electric and magnetic fields. And remember that light is just an oscillating electric and magnetic field? Look around you. Yep. That's what's hitting your eyes: electric and magnetic fields. Basically, whenever a charged particle changes state, it gives off light. So, the electrons running around the ring here are having their path bent by the dipole magnets and thus giving off light. Because these machines are also called "synchrotrons", the light is called synchrotron radiation.

So that's it. Get some electrons stored in a big circle and whenever they bend, they give off light. That ought to be good for something.

Actually, these machines, synchrotrons, were originally designed to smash particles together. The higher the energy the particle, the more interesting things that might pop out from the collisions. Unfortunately, the higher the energy, the more of this synchrotron radiation gets produced which saps energy from the system. So, originally synchrotron radiation was seen as a big nuisance! Until some biophysicist (and probably some others) came along and said: hey, we'll take the light! So they started running the particle smashing synchrotrons parasitically, using the synchrotron light for whatever they needed it for. It turned out that this source of light was so useful that it was worth building these machines solely to get the light out! Second generation light sources were redesigned so that the electron beam was more suited for radiation purposes rather than particle smashing purposes. Then, third generation light sources were designed where the beam was really allowed to bend. In fact these devices were put in that caused the beam to wiggle back and forth. They were called wigglers. They are also sometimes called undulators. Here's a picture of one of these beasts:

So that's what I've been up to. The work I do, mainly relates to Question 2 above.
In particular, now that we add these crazy undulators and wigglers to the ring, we have to really be sure that the beam will be stable. So we need to write some computer code that tracks the electrons around to see what happens. To do this, we need to understand Hamiltonian dynamics, a formulation of classical mechanics. In my own skewed world, this is the reason I got into this field, and I still actually find this aspect quite interesting! Remember the craze surrounding chaos theory? One of these days, I need to try to really understand the KAM theorem. Well, this one of the fields where some of the math was developed, or at least was a major recipient. There are still plenty of open problems here! As for whether quantum mechanics is relevant for these beams of electrons in these machines, the answer is that it is and it isn't (and it might be). But that's a story for another day.


I saw Almodovar's recent film Volver last night.

There was something interesting about the way death was dealt with. Death is a central element, but the people, the emotions, the story, somehow don't allow it to dominate in the way it easily could have. Also, beauty itself has the same paradoxical role. A large budget film these days can have teams of artistic designers who sculpt each shot into a piece of art on its own. One can get lost in the beauty of the way the colors are balanced and one imagines that someone is quite (justifiably) proud of the aesthetic achievement of a single frame. However, overall, the film itself often suffers as a result of individual artistic talents not working together to support the central goals of the film. It can have a piecemeal feel to it.
I guess Almodovar's films are just so consistently gorgeous that you forgive the extravagence. Or maybe its the fact that humanity never leaves the screen, or is never more than a few seconds away. The beauty isn't triumphalist- it isn't a stick to beat you over the head with, but instead a flavorful sauce that brings out a subtle taste, or the melodic structure that pulls you in to a sad song.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


fruit: fresh- apples and kumquats.
dried- cherries.
bars: Odwalla, Tiger's Milk
microwavable lunch items: Peanut Satay noodles and sauce
Mushroom soup
Teriyaki noodle bowl (x2)

Ok, Boaz, now get to work!

Monday, March 05, 2007

spectacle of religion


Chapter 14 of "the sociology of religious movements" by
William Sims Bainbridge discusses Star Wars. The Jedi knights tap into The Force which is both powerful to the faithful and often seemingly laughable to the unfaithful. (Not coincidentally, the book also includes a discussion of TM)

The movie "What the Bleep". It says that by tapping into the quantum, we can control our destinies... do anything.

The movie "Pi". A certain number exists that underlies both the numerology of the Hebrew old testament and the stock markets.

Three modern day myths. Seductive conclusions.

Although the "miracles" done in Star Wars are somewhat subtle (Luke's perfectly timed shot on the Death Star), the movie does seem to strongly give the impression that these supernatural things do happen. The same is true of Pi. A lot of people tell me how much they like it. I would have liked it if it weren't for the fact that it assumed that such a number actually exists. I couldn't make it all the way through What the Bleep, so I can't really tell you what the overall picture is. But my impression is that there's a story there with miracles occuring along the way.
Oh, I just realized that we can add the Matrix to this list.

Am I just being dense and overly literal to fault these films for basing their premise on something that's not strictly true?

I want to focus on more interesting things. Smaller things, less showy things. But maybe I need to deal with this big religious imagery producing popular culture machine first? (I should probably actually read what Bainbridge has to say. I'm just too impatient here. And biting off more than I can chew, ignoring my conclusions from the previous post.)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

working with other people

Ideas on how to work productively with others?
One aspect is to give people finished pieces that aren't too big. Then they can use those pieces with their own work.
The tricky thing is when you want to build something big, but a lot of the work still remains to be done. If not careful, this can turn into a nasty dictatorship situation.
Lots of work needs to be done but the final result isn't up for debate, so people don't control the meaning of their own work. It can also be a half-baked idea.
Its the same reason why people with emotional "baggage" are dangerous. They may have a big picture of what your relationship with them should look like, but they don't actually know how to implement that relationship. They project an image of a completed relationship that doesn't actually hang together. And when you try to start working on the details to patch things up, you find yourself constructing most of it yourself: the cloth is full of major holes. If there's not that much there, stop hanging on to the same big picture!

Oh, and can Eric Raymond teach something on this topic? This section seems relevant. "Can't code from the ground up in bazaar style."
Only if you want to get to a specific place!

Monday, February 26, 2007

foxes and hedgehogs

Inspired by a conversation with my cousin this weekend, instead of asking whether God is French or English, we might instead ask whether God is a hedgehog or a fox (or Tolstoy, a fox that thinks it ought to be a hedgehog).

What we were actually discussing was the danger of being a hedgehog ("The fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog only one, one good one"). I'm also reminded of this post.
The problem with being single minded is that we are not computers. We ask questions beyond the one thing we are focused on, and if we don't have very many tools/metaphors at hand, we may well make some pretty bad assumptions about other topics. Ok, I can't help adding the adage "If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." This same fact seems to pop up in multiple ways... must be something we are trying pretty hard to remind ourselves of.

I know, too much self-linking. I don't want to turn into this guy (he does have some cool stuff, but the self-linking is way out of control... try clicking on a few links.)

Thursday, February 22, 2007


Hmm. I recently discovered the blog tm-free. I'd known about some of these people previously in my web searches for alternative information on TM. Anyways, I posted a few comments, and they put one on the front page, which is pretty cool, except that its a bit confusing out of context from the original comment. (They added a bit more context now, so its ok. But all the original comments were lost when they recently updated their comment system..)

I'm still coming to terms with my opinion of TM. I really appreciate the work these people do, but because they are basically a force to counter-balance all the false TM propaganda, reading that material makes it pretty difficult to not have a really negative view of TM and makes it quite tempting to just cut connections to things like meditation, religion, etc. which I think would be a loss.
Anyway, I'd like to be on the side of peace. I'd like to encourage finding common ground, a middle way to things. I don't want to be drawn into a war.
But for the most part, I think that blog is a really good thing. A number of different voices with differing opinions. A broader perspective than was available from the individual web-sites such as Trance-net and other anti-cult sites.
Wow. This is a pretty charged area. I thought that hanging out on the pro/con string theory sites was rough!

Monday, February 19, 2007

physics of shooting deer

What do you do when your small farm is being over-run by too many deer?
Well, if you happen to also have in interest in balistics science and biomedical engineering, then you write a paper on testing hand gun bullets in live deer.
I do eat meat, and I suppose this obliges me to come to terms with the question of killing animals. But I still get the feeling that some moral line is being crossed here that I'm not at all comfortable with. Reading through the physics paper, its remarkably easy to imagine replacing deer with person. I am then reminded of the discussion from Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello comparing our treatment of animals with the Nazi's treatment of Jews. But nobody wanted those people, and valuable science came out of it, right?

At the same time, Coetzee's book raises the question of what to do with such difficult metaphors and how to view those who hold them rigidly. I guess I'm saying that I'm reluctant to impose such a sweeping denunciation on this research without looking further into it, but my first impulse is definitely revulsion.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Gender-neutral pronouns? Spivak pronouns. Instead of him/her, we have em. Instead if he/she, we have ey (or alternatively, e). Apparently they're mainly used in online games such as MUD's.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


0 1 0

0 0 1

1 0 0

hmm... trying to figure out if I can put equations into a post using mathml by just throwing the markup stuff in there. No success so far... (Its sort of a matrix anyway)

A little more reading later makes me think you can't do this. (Apparently you have to change the mime type to xml or something like that and you can't do that w/ blogger.) Oh well. I'll leave it in anyway for fun.

How about this?
∫ d μ = ℵ
Almost as fun.

Monday, February 12, 2007


I have to give a short talk tommorow, and I've been so wrapped up in details, its hard to draw back and think about the big picture.
Previously I've been far into equations and then my talks are just one equation after another. If the equations are abstract enough, then the person who listens thinks, "Ahh, yes, its very simple at the heart of it all, its just about linear algebra, invariant subspaces, etc. I don't have a great grasp of those concepts, and I don't know exactly how they relate to the problem at hand, but math is pretty solid stuff."
Now I've been doing computational work for awhile and my tendency is to give plot after plot without clearly defining things. "Trust me," these plots say. "This code works and is smart."

In both these cases, the audience doesn't learn very much. At the moment, I'm considering showing one equation, and that seems like a dramatic gesture.

I used to wonder how people could be bad teachers but still know things. If they can't explain it to me, why should I think they understand it? Now I realize that you can learn things in either a narrow way or a broad way. In a narrow way, each thing you learn is connected to one solid thing. You follow a thread. In the end, you may have gone quite far and found something quite interesting, but all you can do is tell other people how to follow the same thread you did. If there are independent ways of checking that something is right... the pie is delicious, or parachute does indeed open, then that may be good enough. To learn something in a broad way is to carve out a path to the result in which each step along the way is connected to something else. This means that you can enter the process at any point and feel relatively comfortable. This is what you need to do in order to teach something. Then, if the person you are teaching has different knowledge, assumptions, understanding than you, then they can still find a way to the answer that is compatible with what they know.

I suppose the same goes for personal communications, which is in some ways about teaching people about yourself. I always feel uncomfortable arriving anywhere in the narrow sense I just described. I then feel isolated and that no one can help me from there since it was by means of such a narrow path that I got there. If there are enough rewards, people push themselves through narrow situations to get to the big prize at the end. But if the journey was so narrow that it becomes untellable, then a big piece of personal history may be lost, which may or may not be compensated by the prize.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

once upon a time...

I had a sense of humour.
Oh where did you go, my fine feathered friend?

"I think it was the
that got 'em."

Sunday, February 04, 2007

dream catcher

Another movie. These kids wandering, working things out.
Anger running deep. Rules to live by? Edge of society.

Friday, February 02, 2007

house of sand

Tonight I watched House of Sand, a 2005 film from Brazil. I was reminded of the Japanese film Woman in the Dunes. Both films involve being forced to live in an inhospitable environment involving sand dunes. Both have erotic elements. But you don't get as wrapped up in the desolation in House of Sand. Some aspects seem unpolished. The transitions occur silently, and I wanted to put a sound effect in there, a giant "chunk, chunk, chunk" to represent the passage of time. But in the end, the result is a different emphasis than you expect. There is little room for nostalgia and not a lot of dwelling on psychological character development. This was a relief in a way, because the actors and writer does a lot of the work here. You are not asked to follow every twist and turn, to remember each line in the way that some films set up a sort of reward system where your diligence is paid off by returning to each such set-up at a later time. Characters do return and themes develop, but in an understated way, as if life is allowed to be so much bigger than the little glimpse you are given.

Physics and life merge together in an interesting way in this film. The date is early 1900's and the main character has an interaction with the team of scientists observing the solar eclipse which was supposed to test Einstein's general relativity. But this story reveals itself in the background. We don't hear from the scientists themselves, but from the man who is acting as their guide. Relativity is seen as a glittering representative from the outside world almost on par with music.


Light snow again today.

I've consolidated much of my internet reading using Google Reader.
Now my homepage contains a list of new news, new posts, new YouTube most popular videos. The wildness of running around from site to site seems less.

I feel frozen today. I've been working on this code that simulates a storage ring (maybe I'll start writing a bit about what I've actually been working on, instead of my distractions?)

The worrisome thing is that I feel less bad than usual, or rather, that the edge isn't there. Instead its just a numbness from the overstimulation. Usually there's a feeling underneath that something is wrong, that I'm not settled, that I need to keep pushing another mile, to the summit; ford one more river, turn over one more stone. But that feeling is gone and yet the numbness remains.

In a dream last night the base I was working from had two rooms. Like Ruth in SFU learns in "The Plan", perhaps I have finally drawn up new blueprints?
But if I sit still will I freeze to death?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


In high school, I took guitar lessons for a few years. After school, I would walk behind the tennis courts, up a hidden path, emerge on a larger street and walk a few more blocks to my teacher's house. His house had a small loquat tree in front and was musty and dark inside. He only wore purple jump suits, and had almost nothing in his refrigerator. He would play the guitar with a pencil in his hand, writing out the tablature for me after finding the right note. He would only eat food that didn't involve killing anything, including plants. He was working on a science fiction novel, of which he already written over 1000 pages. The story involved the last guitar player in the world (he assured me the character was not based on himself).

Telling him that I liked math,I found out that he was a victim of the phenomenon of "new math". This was the brilliant concept inspired by Sputnik in which students would learn set theory before addition. I suppose the idea was to teach math in a "logical" way in which concepts precede application. Unfortunately, my guitar teacher got stuck on the distributive law (a*(b+c)=a*b+a*c) and so never learned much else, being put into the stupid track for not being able to master this concept. I showed him how it worked and gave him a few examples, and he seemed supremely grateful to realize it wasn't as hard as it had seemed at the time.

At my dad's house, I had a nylon string Gibson guitar that probably sounded wonderful when my dad had first bought it (advised by my uncle), but it had a crack in the main board and certain tones caused odd vibrations or didn't project much at all. But I spent hours and hours playing around with simple picking patterns. I'd play a lot of minor chords and play the same things over and over. I also painted a lot at that time in my room, in a somewhat similar vein, taking simple acrylics and painting abstraction after abstraction. The guitar was quiet and the paint didn't smell or make too much of a mess. It was pretty great how much I could do in the small space without making much of an impact.

I started lessons again recently and my new guitar teacher gave me a DVD of Elizabeth Cotten to watch, and I was amazed to find out how much of what my earlier guitar teacher had taught me had come from her. Of course there was Freight Train, but even the picking patterns for Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan songs all had a similarity to Cotten's (she did influence those musicians). Cotten was pretty amazing.
She would sneak into her brother's room and play his guitar, first learning with it flat on her lap. She was left-handed, so when she did turn the guitar on its side, she played upside down. She invented her own tunings and overall her own style.
In the interviews, I saw a similarity to myself. Not that my finger picking blues is anywhere near hers, or have invented any new forms of music, but the slow plugging away, the insistence on doing things in her own way without making a show of it, I could relate to.

I can't quite say that I'm "on fire" with my guitar playing and enthusiasm, but I'm getting some of the basics of music reading I never got the first time around. At the moment I'm working on a piece written for the fiddle called "After the Battle of Aughrim"

Friday, January 26, 2007

more science/religion debate

Here's an interesting debate (from Metafilter) between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan.

I was enjoying it until they got into the issue of whether there is truth beyond science or not. I often feel that the word "science" is taken too seriously in these kinds of discussions. Its as if the only way I can really think to continue such a debate in a productive way is to ask again and again: "and what do you mean by science?" Actually the same goes for the word "religion". I supose that one value of such a debate is to raise these questions. But if they never actually get raised, then it doesn't seem so interesting. Its just the battling out of two old powers. Reminds me of the finale of The Big Country in which the battle of the Terrills and the Hannasseys is seen to be a lot more about selfish stubborness than about any kind of real irreconcilable differences.

Monday, January 22, 2007

large fish swimming below in murky waters

Well, I got overwhelmed and had to cut out one of my projects. I used to think that the people aspect of accomplishing something should be easy. That it shouldn't take too much effort, and that if it was taking too much effort, then something is wrong. I guess this comes from a distaste for bureaucracy.

One of Balakian's insights into the Armenian genocide is that it was the bureaucracy that gave the Young Turks power to do what they did. Kafka writes about being out of the know in a bureaucracy. Conspiracy theorists imagine enormous power for those who manipulate bureaucracies. But I always thought that in the end, no one wins in a bureaucracy, that no one's interests are served, that it is basically a big gunky mess that slows things down.

The American genius in science was supposedely in the ability to manage large projects.

Out of these incoherent pieces, I'll just say that I feel more like a Kafka character than anything else.

Friday, January 19, 2007


32 degrees F, light snow on the tree branch that diagonally divides my window.
Now I just need to get out of bed.
Mom will call at 11.
Have a beer later?
Continue to fight the good fight?
If there were an ends of the earth, this place would be as good as any. A place to steal fire from the gods?
I'm learning to read music on guitar. Learning to use a beam dynamics computer code library. Learning to manipulate Lie Algebraic expressions to compute useful quantities for accelerators. Learning, learning, learning. All uphill, never down.
Someone told me that I'm like a big bag of presents, collecting gifts as I go along. At first I was angry at this characterisation, then thought there might be a lesson there. My heater kicks in reminding me of passing time. Off i go.

Monday, January 15, 2007

back to physics

Sometimes I fel like I forget how to do physics. There are actually lots of different activities that fall under the description. One break-down of physics is in terms of computational/theoretical/experimental. Lately I've been focussing on the computational and theoretical, which basically means computer programming and math. If you do this too much, you can forget that you are supposed to be talking about the real world.

So, I was given a calculation to do: some gold ions fly along at relativistic speeds through a cold (4.5 K) metal pipe. There's a very high vacuum inside the pipe, but there's still some air floating around. If the gold ion traverses 3 KM of this pipe, then about how much energy will it lose?

This is a side project, so I haven't been able to put too much time into it, but I've been slowly panicking. I forgot how to do physics! But (again slowly) I read a few things and start to find that there aren't that many formulas out there, and I maybe figured out how to do it.

One challenge is to be a practicing physicist and to continue reading Nancy Cartwright. Its funny that this should be the case, but its like you need a certain amount of propaganda to keep going. Cartwright doubts the completeness of physics. She says that it covers much less than we think it should.

How do I think about the problem I just mentioned? Think of the gold ion flying along. Use the ideal gas law to figure out the density of air... let's say its hydrogen molecules- H_2. Now figure out an estimate of the cross section for ionization for H_2. I look it up in the Handbook of Accelerator physics and Engineering and find that it is around 2E-23 m^-2. The cross section is basically how big of a target the process under consideration presents. In this case- for the Gold ion to kick off an electron from the Hydrogen. So now, given the density (2E13 molecules/m^3), you can figure out how many interactions the ion is likely to have in the 3KM. It turns out to be about 5E-5. In other words, in 10^5 times through this pipe (around the accelerator) you'll get about 5 ionizations. Multiply by the average energy loss per ionization (~20 ev?) and you get the energy loss.

Anyway, this is basic physics. I make a variety of assumptions here. Someone else might make slightly different assumptions. Experience gives faith that all these ways will give similar results which are approximately accurate to what happens in the real world. It is this experience, this craft of doing physics that rebels against the picture Nancy Cartwright paints of physics.

But I don't want to say that this implies that Nancy Cartwright is wrong. When you learn a craft, you learn all sorts of things without realizing it. For example, I happen to know that people do calculations like these all the time and they generally give pretty reasonable results. This is one such hidden assumption. Analyze this calculation enough and you can probably make it fit with Cartwright's approach.

But like I said, its hard to practice physics at the same time as holding Cartwright's philosophy. It encourages the kind of doubt that slows you down. I suppose in the same way that it would be hard to be a CEO and hold a Marxist philosophy. You might think: good, reform from inside the system! But in practice, its pretty difficult.

The general question here is to do a philosophical analysis of back of the envelope physics. Such back of the envelope calculations are supposed to be the true test of a good physicist. You should be able to estimate anything within an order of magnitude within a few minutes. That this is possible is the faith of the physicist. If true, even in some approximate sense, it says something interesting about the world. I take it that Cartwright says it is not true. Its only appears true because the questions are rigged ahead of time.

Saturday, January 13, 2007


to my writing friends: an
essay by Zadie Smith which seems quite good to me.

Friday, January 12, 2007

mirror of technology

Let's see. So there was Frankenstein. He had a big bolt coming out of his neck, and hurt people through his clumsiness. Then there's the robot, a silicon Frankenstein. As computer technology developed, we got cyborgs.

These give us the scary side of the people/technology relationship. We are afraid because we are more than these things. Most (or what I've seen, anyway) literary representations emphasize the dystopic aspect. But under the radar, incrementally, we are changed. We talk of memory loss, information processing, local defeaters of the second law of thermodynamics.

The inspiration for this post is the word cybernetics. It has been a dirty word that I've been afraid of. It has represented for me an expansion of our world into the digital that seems so inferior to the world it partially displaces. But that is hysteria speaking. Norbert Wiener conceived the term to be a combination of control theory with communcations.

Control theory. Another term that hammers against my sensibilities. Images of 1984 rise up, questions of disparities in relationships present themselves. If I read a textbook on control theory, will I forever give up the possibility of having equal relationships? Am I a doctor Frankenstein or Faust? Obviously an area of sensitivity... But when I start to read, I see that it is absurd to not have the concept of control system. My heater is a control system. Our bodies have all sorts of control systems (homeostasis).

I guess I'm trying to get beyond distopias. I am a part (or becoming a part) of the giant technology developing machine. If we understand the relationship we have to technological change can it be less disfunctional?

Check out this post on the way in which blogging can change you. I'd like to say that we need to claim an identity so that we have more say in where technology is taking us. But maybe that just happens naturally in the process of deciding that a relationship is important.

Regarding this last link, I'd say that I certainly haven't had the same experience in my small effort at blogging as Bowers of myDD. He says that his internal dialogues have quieted down as a result and he feels to be less of an individual, more a part of a collective. For me, its more just like having a productive outlet for ideas. I think that without the internal processes of sitting on something for at least a little while, you don't add very much to a discussion. All you do is react with preconcieved ideas, which is good for a time, but in the end turns you into a sort of cisco router... Maybe the router is the new Frankenstein/robot/cyborg??

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Why do we repeat patterns? Certain kinds of relationships, certain lifestyle patterns we just keep up ending up in. In therapy we learn to recognise patterns and to see where they come from. This can put a negative light on the issue. It can be framed in terms of, such and such a bad thing happened and I continue to repeat that situation. But really its just a kind of learning. We do something because its important to us, because we find meaning there. Maybe we are attracted to certain people or situations because we are working out some issue from our family history. But we might also see it in the positive light that there is meaning and love and warmth (or at least the desire and potential in ourselves for) in that family dynamic and we are looking for such qualities in other people in order to continue the striving.

I guess the point of looking at these patterns is to identify the unwinnable ones. The ones where whatever it is we are trying to achieve can never be achieved. Then all we have left is the sadness inherent in impossible things. Most pattern following is less clear though. Its not obvious whether we can win or not.

When you are a kid the world can be overwhelming. If we try to learn something too advanced too early on, then we will hurt ourselves. But over a lifetime, we can take a gentler route to the goals.

I guess I'm venturing into self-help territory here, but why not?
I just rewatched the episode of Six Feet Under in which Ruth goes to the "Plan" in which she learns to "rebuild the foundations of her life." This house metaphor is taken pretty seriously, and they are told asked to consider the ways in which they don't live in their own house. The Indian woman who's father lit her on fire when he didn't approve of her boyfriend is told that he is the one living in her house and she should invite him over to her house... etc.
When I first saw this, I was in my anti-cult mode and given the course of events determined that Ruth got out only too soon. But watching the episode again and having seen some of what happens later, it does seem like that experience causes a change for the better. (I do give the writers a fair amount of credit for allowing the characters to evolve in realistic ways.)
Anyway, my point is that this self-help approach to self-understanding and development does have its place, though it shouldn't be taken overly seriously.
This guy I met in a coffee shop once told me that his complaint about most religions is that they don't encourage graduation. I like that as a perspective on what constitutes a cult and what doesn't. A cult is like an over-protective clingy parent that won't let you go develop in your own way beyond the bounds of what they have to teach you and nurture you with.

Wait, so I went from pattern following to cults... I guess I was trying to say that self-help like thinking doesn't have to be cultish, but it can if you're not careful to move on at some point.

Is God French or English?

Nancy Cartwright in "How the Laws of Physics Lie" (p. 19):

Pierre Duhem distinguished two kinds of thinkers: the deep but narrow minds of the French, and the broad but shallow minds of the English. The French mind sees things in an elegant, unified way. It takes Newton's three laws of motion and turns them into the beautiful, abstract mathematics of Lagrangian mechanics. The English mind, says Duhem, is an exact contrast. It engineers bits of gears, and pulleys, and keeps the strings from tangling up. It holds a thousand different details all at once, without imposing much abstract order or organization. The difference between the realist and me is almost theological. The realist thinks that the creator of the universe worked like a French mathematician. But I think that God has the untidy mind of the English.

Myself, I suppose I started out with a somewhat "French" approach and am slowly integrating a more "English" perspective.

Sunday, January 07, 2007


Sometimes its like one of those video games where everything turns into a ghost and you can't touch it. You can walk through walls, shout at the passersby, no gold to be found. And then it fades back in and though I can interact again, the objects are random, their purpose unclear. Is it a relief? All I can say is that it signifies change.
All right, I'll add a concrete fact to this abstract exercise:
Today I met one of the creators of ghoul a go-go: A public access tv show that combines a horror movie aesthetic with American bandstand. Or perhaps: "The World's Only Monster Musical Kiddie Show"
Fade out, I say. Fade out.

Friday, January 05, 2007


Well, its been an interesting visit to the West Coast. One of my favorite parts of flying is seeing the land from above: the salt marshes by the Dumbarton bridge, maroons and browns, or the multi-textured light greens fields of the central valley. This is another inspiration for paintings and provides an image for the patchwork life I live. On this trip the values were kept balanced. The colors didnt clash too badly.
My radio alarm goes off to the words: "like leprosy, theres something for everyone."
Time to go. With sadness, and the usual fear of the unknown mixed with excitement that such transitions involve: Happy new year. See you on the other side.