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Saturday, December 31, 2005


the record industry claiming that p2p downloading of their songs hurts them is like pinching someone with a numb arm and them saying that if they did have feeling then it would hurt- so stop it!
ok, not really.

the internet

the internet has gotten a bad reputation for me recently.
"i'm on it too much" i tell myself.
but it means such a variety of things: i read physics papers. i find out who the people are at places that i may get a post-doc. i read the thoughts of friends and strangers. i read the news. i read people's digestions of the news. i turn on instant messenger and see who might be on. i search for my name on google and see whether i'm becoming famous or not, see what kind of reputation i'm acquiring. (none) i try to find something humourous. i find a map to the place i'm about to go to. i check and see what has been said about a book i'm reading. this blog. email. email. email. more.

even though many of these things are uniquely internet related, they also overlap with other social and work aspects of my life. i find something vaguely sinister in the idea that part of my life is going online: that i am extending my self, that my personality is reaching out into this world. i'm not comfortable with this yet. i seem to be drawn to movies like the matrix and the lain series which explore the blurrings of identity between physical life and a computer based life. i'm feeling like i need a framework for how to think about this. i feel like i am drowning in the possibilities. that there is no structure to this world i am entering; like a creature trying to develop and learn in an environment with no rules. if there are no rules then one can not learn. maximum order and disorder both have zero information. i find it frightening.

maybe i just started with it slightly too late. like trying to learn a new language later in life, one may never be entirely fluent. i have this core resistance that won't give. well. maybe i am misdiagnosing the problem.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Long Island

Supposing I do get some kind of offer, the real question is whether or not I want to have names like "Ronkonkoma",
"Patchogue" and "Hauppauge" added to my vocabulary. (Too late I guess...)
I knew I was getting some real local flavour when I heard a bluegrass band play the song "My neighbor from East Patchogue".

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

thinking physically

What does it mean to "think physically?". When in the midst of a physics discussion, you may well be urged to think physically about the equations in front of you. This will usually mean that you are to form pictures in your mind in which the symbols have properties they may have in some physical situation. For example you may think of E, energy, as a bubbling effervescent mass, or think of it as a ball rolling down a hill trying to reach a minimum, or as a fluid which can flow to different parts of a container but who's volume must stay fixed.

I was reminded of this question which I have pondered occasionally when I read the following post by Jaques Distler. I know very little about the subject which is highly mathematical. After a list of three math heavy constructions, he says:

You might be forgiven if, at first, you don’t see the pattern in this list. But, if you think physically, the answer becomes clear. These topologically-twisted theories...

My point is not that this has nothing to do with the real world. It might. But it might not. So what does it mean to physically interpret some equations that might not have anything to do with the real world? It is to pretend that it does. I think that this activates some clever thinking skills in us. This is how I do math and I remember something Richard Feynman said about how he proved or disproved theorems... each time a new postulate was added he simply added that on to the picture of the object in his head until he could see that this object did or did not have such and such a property. He was "thinking physically" about the theorem.

So people say that string theory has been highly succesful as stimulating new mathematical discoveries. Is it the gut feeling that one's objects of discussion may be "real" in some deep sense that encourages coherent mental pictures to be formed stimulating solid intuition about promising directions? Can one use this lesson to trick oneself into becoming a better mathematician?

Friday, December 02, 2005

any tips...

on how to get a song out of your head?

"Mix and mingle to the jingle bell..."
"that's the jingle bell..."
"that's the jingle bell, rock!!!"
"It's a swell time, to.. rock... the... night... away..."
"its a swell, time, jingle bell time, to go dancing in a one horse sleigh!"

This is really not a helpful song for me at this moment in my life.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

good + good not necessarilly = better

Combining two good things doesn't always produce something better.
apricots (good)
heffewiezen beer (good)
apricot heffeweizen (not so good)

Monday, November 28, 2005

A gift from the car thieves

The first look into my car at the towing yard gave me a mixed response.
My first thought was: "wow, they cleaned the car for me!" Then I saw the empty box of cigarettes and the food stains and sand on the passenger seat. Cleaner due to the lack of my junk, but not particularly clean.
Otherwise, besides the missing stereo and almost completely empty gas tank, they had tried to do the right thing:
opening up the glove compartment revealed an unopened bottle of beer.

Monday, November 21, 2005

making an academic career

A friend sent me a link to this essay on how to do professional networking, particularly in academics. I haven't read the whole thing, but it seems interesting so far. One point I appreciated was about how you need to make your own network rather than just joining another.
Actually the essay covers more than this. It covers some of the nuts and bolts of academic exchange.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

paradise now

This movie about suicide bombers actually has some things structurally in common with the play Marius mentioned in my last post. Love and friendship and life on the one hand, dying for a larger cause on the other (no matter how misguided it might be). It was somewhat of a painful movie to watch, but the friendship and general politics and philosophy were rich enough that the hair raising action plot wasn't too upsetting. It felt like a balanced movie to me, giving me a feel for some of the complexities in the Israeli Palestinean struggle which I hear a lot about and feel like I know little about.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Incompetent Design Song

Seed Magazine interviews one of the proponents of a bold new theory: incompetent design! Here is their theme song.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

public science

There have been some interesting discussions going on about public presentation of science at Cosmic Variance. See here and here for two related threads. When I say "public", I'd like to avoid the implication of a highly educated small special group versus a less educated large group of outsiders. I mean it more in the general sense of individual versus group communications. Using this meaning of public, I notice that some physicists show lesser and greater degrees of maturity in these debates. By maturity, I mean awareness with respect to one's role in the public debate. I think that some physicists have the attitude that everyone is as argumentative as they are and has equally strong opinions. But when you study a certain thing a lot, you are bound to have opinions about it that someone else can't really have, and this gives you both an authority and a responsibility to be careful with what you say. I think that some physicists want the former but don't know how to deal with the latter. Its a lot of work to try to understand one's audience so that one can understand the influence one has over that audience.

I'm not sure how clear that is, and if you read some of the discussion on the links I gave, I'm not sure how obviously relevant what I said is. I guess I'm trying to point out that physicists are not so good at this kind of debate. These issues underlie discussions, but many are not personally comfortable enough with them to deal with it in a responsible way. I hope that more public discussions like these will continue to take place and some physicists will gain maturity and humility in the process. I think that in this particular case, its really important that there is someone like Clifford Johnson who is well respected in his field, but also has good people skills and a sense of fairness and kindness, that balances the discussion and keeps it civil and productive. Some might argue that his bringing Lawrence Krauss to task in so public a way is mean and uncalled for, but because he backs up his criticisms with arguments and stands by them, putting energy and time into the ensuing debate, I think it was a bold and valuable thing to do.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

finding the center

I find myself wondering whether grey exists on its own terms, or whether there are only mixtures of black and white.

Is there a place to live between yes and no? between left eye open and right eye open? between mom and dad?

Its common to point out that much of news coverage has degenerated now to "he said, she said", that "balance" means superposition of polarity. But this rhetorical move from my situation to the general culture is too easy and too self-indulgent. I take my title from a book on pottery I remember seeing at my friend Peter's mom's house. The initial stage of throwing involves centering. If you blur your eyes, a spinning piece of clay will look centered, but your hands know its not, and when it stops spinning, it must choose an orientation unless it is truly centered.

Enough metaphor. (Mixing my metaphors?) Enough hiding in generalities. Time to take this to heart. Time to choose. But to create at the same time: to find reality in my own grey perspective.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

green gulch

This morning I managed to drag myself out of an unpleasant physics dream and drove across the bridge to Green Gulch Zen center. This was the first time I'd gone. The Dharma Talk for today was by Meiya Wender. She spoke of many interesting things in a way that was both personal and intellectual; a combination, together with clarity, I really respect.

The talk centered around a piece of caligraphy she recieved from a 105 year old man that said something like, "the flower falls and is swept away by the stream." She spoke about duty: duty to communtiy, or even civic duty. She said that American culture lacks humility, lacks the ability to ask for help, lacks a sense of home. The flower is at home as it is swept away by the stream.

She gave the example of the yoga guru Iyengar who recently spent a large amount of the money he made from his fame on improving the physical and educational infrastructure of the village he grew up in. She imagined that this flowed naturally from him: "the left hand bandages the right hand without asking whether or when it will be payed back". She also talked about her father whose mother died at a young age and was put in an orphanage by his father. He immigrated to the US and eventually became a successful business person. She said that he had the attitude that he had gotten to where he was mainly as a result of his own striving. If this is your atittude, then where is the community to give back to? Meiya Wender asked. I could relate to this question. Not because I haven't gotten lots of help, and lots of good fortune in my life, but because I do feel like I'm a pretty independent person trying to do as much by myself as possible. I asked her about this point later on in a discussion group. She acknowledged the question and the difficulty of doing this. How does one identify the community to be grateful to if it seems so dispersed? In addition to family and friends, I must be grateful to the rest of the world that to some (perhaps great) extent the possibilities in the US are responsible for. Can I feel this gratitude and find empathy when I hear about earthquakes and hurricanes? In my own situation, with a somewhat complicated family, I've always felt that bridging the gaps to identify such a "community" is a difficult, but somehow necessary task.

Anyway, it was a nice morning. At the end, they serve lunch- today was split pea soup, good bread and butter and a green salad with tasty cherry tomatoes and avocado. The meditation was hard, but seemed somewhat useful, and the talk and discussion felt surprisingly relevant. Asking for help, feeling part of community, giving back: things I struggle with.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

reductionism and monogamy

I can't stop thinking of this question of why elementary science is seen as more exciting than model building in less "elementary" science.

I think this attitude comes from our realist view of the objects of our theories. But it is a selective realist view, at least for the hard core ideologues. They take as real only those elements in our fundamental most reduced theories. This is the source of the often quoted statement that most of supposedly solid matter is "really" empty space. I would say that the fact that one can't move something else into a certain space makes a pretty good case for it not being empty. But if one takes the perspective of an electron, then yes, there is a possibility of moving into the space inside that chair over there. Or, more precisely, the way in which we describe the microscopic details of the atomic structure of the wood in the chair involves a somewhat thin probability wave of electrons moving throughout otherwise empty space. We forget that this itself is a model, that in fact one should use quantum field theory, although perhaps the same conclusion about the emptiness of space could follow with some kind of interpretation of how likely it is to find a chunk of field somewhere.

Now, if we take only the elements of our fundamental theory to be real and think of those of less elementary theories as composite, then its clear that the excitement for those adventurous types is in finding new elementary entities. It is sort of like the difference between the excitement of dating many people or building a relationship with one person. The "mistake" of the one who never builds relationships is in thinking that once the basic elements of something are identified, nothing particularly interesting can come of those elements. This person is always on the search for new basic elements, not realizing that there is an equally rich gain as one ascends the hierarchy. I'm tempted to point out that this is the percieved "male" reproductive strategy and to wonder whether this is one of the points that has been raised by feminists and cultural critics who have claimed that much of science is dominantly male in essence. But I'm venturing off into fields unknown and hence risking the ever worrisome label of "crackpot".

Thursday, October 13, 2005

model building in physics

I've been doing some reading for a history of science class.
There was an interesting article by Steven Weinberg on his views of Kuhn's "Structure.."
There was also in interesting article by Philip Anderson on emergent properties. He says that the reductionist assumption doesn't imply the "constructionist" assumption. As far as construction, he focusses on the issue of symmetry breaking and notes how complexity can approximately break a symmetry or introduce a new one.
I already knew this, but it emphasized two aspects to physics research. One is finding an appropriate model for a situation. The other is grounding that model in lower level laws. The lower level laws may or may not be the original inspiration for the model.

I went to an ice cream party at slac yesterday celebrating the achievement of 10^34 1/cm/s luminosity in PEP-II. I was talking to some particle physicists and one of them made the usual comment that accelerator physics "is just applied electromagnetism". I agree with this statement except for the implications of the word "just". As one moves up the reduction/construction ladder, one adds new elements, boundary conditions is perhaps a technical way of saying it that are really just approximate in the underlying theory. But why am I doing degenerate perturbation theory on symplectic matrices and working with stochastic differential equations? Am I really "just" applying Maxwell's equations?

I like this topic and I'd like to discuss it in a way that goes beyond sour grapes at not getting my fair share of respect. The article by Anderson closes by saying something like that perhaps we've gone beyond the arrogance of particle physicists thinking that all science is applied quantum field theory. But that we have a long way to go to get beyond the biologists thinking that all psychology and genetics is "just" applied biology. He suggests that there are probably many more hierarchicaly significant levels between human behavior and biology than between say chemistry and quantum field theory.
Why is it that supposedly "smart" people (like myself) need to constantly be reminded of such obvious things. I think it has to do with what I wrote awhile ago about the problems of focussing too much on one particular area and the (necessary?) lack of perspective that can result.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


I'm sure someone's sitting around ready to read submissions at 3 AM Sunday morning.
Now, I hope to hear something by tomorrow afternoon...
The next challenge is to wake up at 8 and pack.

Friday, September 30, 2005


abbas kiarostami.
I saw "The Taste of Cherry", when, six months ago? Did I get it at the library? I suppose.
Here are two films. "Ten" is filmed in a car. In Tehran? I guess.
Mother and son. The mother has divorced her husband, telling a court that he was a drug adict. She tries to convice her son (I can't remember, 8 years old?) that she is right and to talk to him about her life. He is not interested. He doesn't understand her problems and understands this and that what she is telling him is inappropriate. They are both miserable in their own ways. I started with my sympathies with the boy. He seems to be less manipulative than the mother, trying to have direct conversations but to not be quite developed enough to take on this role. The mother didn't make much effort to speak in a way that took him into account, to change her way of speaking to respect his age and understanding of the world. This caused the boy visible discomfort and he was always ready to leave the car and was frequently covering his ears.

Then the boy is gone and we watch the mother drive around the city. She picks people up and gives them rides. An old woman going to pray at a temple. She seems more humble and grounded with these other people than with her son. They challenge her and she listens. She picks up a prostitute who is angry at first because she thought she was getting into a man's car. She lectures the prostitute on morality, but is asked to defend her own position in her marriage which she lies about, saying she is married. As the film progresses she sees her son a few more times, and we see a softening of their relationship, even though he still doesn't trust her and is ready to leave the car frequently. She decides to allow him to stay with his father. He looks happy. He tells his mother why the new woman his father is seeing is better than her. She seems amused by this. "She cooks more than one thing," he says. "Isn't it relieving that in the end, it all comes down to food?" she responds, and he is uncertain, seeming to gain a new respect for his mother.

The other film is the director driving around the roads where "Taste of Cherry" was filmed. He discusses "Ten". He talks about how one critic saw it as "violence against cinema". The fact that he uses so few camera angles and uses real people instead of actors disturbed this critic. He mentioned a certain quote by Nietzche twice: "That which is truly deep requires a mask."

He ended with a discussion of American cinema. He said his hunch was that it was more destructive than American military. He says that he is self-taught and therefore his teachings are not necesarilly connected to popular ideas or standard techniques. His friend once chastized him for "growing vegetables in a flower pot" instead of cultivating land. So he recommends that film students study American movies and understand why the formula works. He quoted someone as saying that all people have a Native American heart and in cinema one should use all the tricks at one's disposal to influence this heart. This is the secret to success of American movies. This last part seemed kind of sad. The practical words of someone who feels like what they really want to say (what he said in earlier parts of the film, perhaps) will be too dangerous because it will not be understood, and so it is better to give practical falsehoods that lead in a safer direction.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

virtual reality

I tried out this online game called "Second Life". I can't say I played it long enough to get a feel for it, and it was really slow on my computer. I was dragged into it after seeing todays installment of Rocket Boom in which a woman talks about how she has made a business designing and selling clothes in the virtual world, but can cash the money out and live on it in real life.

I remember going on a walk through Forest Park in Portland once with two friends and thinking about virtual reality. I wondered if some day I would live in a virtual world, and I found this pretty scary. How can one tell if one is in a real world or a virtual world? Well, in a virtual world, the rules are set by code. So even if all sorts of things dramatically improve, the world only contains the rules of the code that creates it. So, by doing science experiments, one can determine if one is in a real or virtual world. Anyway, that's a pretty academic concern and maybe not even all that well posed.

But what this clumsy, somewhat annoying half hour experience trying out Second Life reminded me of was how we make compromises and trade in things for rather sad replicas of them perhaps eventually forgetting what the original inspiration was. This is the negative aspect of technological evolution, huge expanses of uncontrolled wilderness get traded for city parks, the massively complicated social ecological structures of natural life get traded for zoos and botanical gardens. What these new acquisitions/creations have that their predecessors lack is controllability. We can predict, control and mold them to our desires/needs.

Now here's the stretch that I don't know if I can make clear. I'm reminded of a picture of physical laws described by Nancy Cartwright. Instead of laws, she thinks that there are things called "nomological machines". They are sort of set-ups which produce repeatable results. Good experiments. The point is that as we supposedly understand more about the natural world, we are also creating conditions such that it is understandable. And though this doesn't mean that we aren't gaining true knowledge of how the world works, we are making a value judgement to prefer the predictable to the unpredicable. But what may be lost in the process are those things that are not currently within our understanding. Thus it becomes crucial to learn all we can about whatever it is that is important to us. Because whatever cannot be put into the new language, whatever it may be, perhaps economics, or perhaps c++, will likely get destroyed. We may have loved the earth and the great mysteries and interacted with them and even based our lives around them, but only as such a high value is placed on controllability is there the new need to "understand" them, by mathematically modelling them.

Thus with virtual reality. We sacrafice reality for controllability. No, those trees don't really look like trees, but hey, we can move them wherever the hell we want, and change their color and all sorts of aspects of them. We've lost the wonderful complicated extremely unique, endlessly interesting trees and gained a pale replica which can be controlled. Perhaps with enough effort, someone can make something as interesting as a tree, but most won't. The ability to control the rule book which is so thrilling and fun for those who are masters at it, results in a net loss for others- a loss of those things that those specific rules are not so good for.

Anyway, we can all coexist I suppose. All these different worlds. One should just be careful to be aware of what is being lost at each step even though new things are being gained.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Looking for the incorruptible

I wrote the conclusion to my paper today, and this was a painful process to try to put ends on things, caps on ideas. Summarize a jungle by dividing it into regions and pointing out where the poisonous fruit is, where the paths lead, how to avoid quicksand and how to speak the language of the natives.

The shortening days and cooling weather brings back memories. Smells of Christmas and memories of long awkward silences and snow and dripping rain. Cold and dark. So I went to get more of that. I went to lie under some fir trees and walk around some paths and stare at the silouette of branches against the sky and see orange light and cool bright light through Maple trees. I needed to go because I knew that I wasn't ready for the memories that were trying to surface, and I needed some help. I needed to have the forest on my side, not sneaking up behind me reminding me of old visions of warmth and fragmented family. Because it was on my side before it was against me, and all I have to do is put in the time to regain my ally.

I saw bats flying and I lay down in this large circular indentation in the ground and tried to calm my mind and ground the dark feelings. I wondered why beauty and strength seemed so fragile usually and that to the extent I used them to regain my footing, they suffered. The branches against the sky seemed untouched by this problem, but it occurred to me that maybe its just like how we pull the earth towards us but nobody notices.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Stress and Decisions

It is so hard to think clearly about things when you are under pressure. I can do detail oriented work, but the higher level stuff just doesn't work.
Feeling emotionally out of whack. I was thinking I need a vacation, but couldn't think of anything/place I wanted to do/go. Always a bad sign.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Overcoat

I went to this ACT production of The Overcoat this afternoon.
Its like a ballet with desks, tables and beds. There are usually many of these objects on stage at a given time with anonymous movers spinning and mixing about the stage. There are also several levels of the action. Behind screens, elevated above the stage occur meetings, dancing, pining away, often not clearly related to the main action, but always related to the music. All the action is in sync with the music, and even the shuffling about often sounds like tap dancing adding punctuations.

I just read Gogol's short story here. Besides plot differences, there are also differences in tone and meaning. I had heard from somewhere that it was a story about a magic overcoat. This was somewhat true of the play, but not particularly true of the short story.
In the short story, overcoats are more personal, more about protection from the cold, showing the vulnerability against the harsh Russian elements. In the play, they had people moving in clumps holding onto a stick above them, emphasizing their interchangablility. Overcoats were metaphors for nameless workers in a bureaucracy.

Another interesting element to the play was how these movers of furniture always followed the main character around. It was as if they were his many selves. And they were unnoticed by other people who interacted with the main character.

Overall, I enjoyed it. It seemed like a very difficult piece to perform and it was amazing the amount of work that must have gone into it. If done badly, the whole thing would fall apart. I could imagine it as something that looks like a disaster until the final moment when all the finishing touches pull it together into a coherent sharp whole.

Friday, September 16, 2005


I still have to write the conclusion for this paper (along with other things) by tomorrow afternoon.
I added the section in the LaTex document. A big blank conclusion section.
I type in the words
"Its been a long hard road."
I delete them and head off to bed.

Monday, September 12, 2005

the case of the disappearing car

Who steals a car in Menlo Park? Especially an old Toyota Camry with a cracked windshield?

I had a hamburger and beer at the Dutch Goose before going to work this afternoon. I parked right behind the restaurant, next to a large brown SUV. The hamburger was good, jack cheese, avocado, lettuce, tomato. I gave the employee a small tip and he was very friendy, offering me extra napkins and warm hopes of a satisfying meal.

I walked out back and seeing no light blue Toyota Camry in the four spots, I wondered whether the beer or the physics was responsible for me forgetting where I had parked. Eventually I convinced myself that the car was gone. My key would not operate any of the vehicles in the neighborhood, and none of the cars had my backpack with my laptop with all the work I'd been doing recently, or my new CD player with the mp3 CD I'd made of recently acquired quite enjoyable music along with other treasured CDs. I wondered if I was supposed to be angry or sad and how I would feel when the beer and physics wore off. I wondered how much a taxi to San Francisco would cost and whether my bank account could absorb the various losses.

I asked some workers across the street if they'd seen the theft. They said they hadn't.
I wandered around front and looked up the phone number for the Menlo Park police. I'd recently been asked by a neighbor to call the San Francisco police about some mysterious items that had appeared in front of our house. And along with reading a blog with favorable reports of the demeanor of some of the New Orleans police, I was starting to think that perhaps police are good for more than intimidating people into living submissive lives without questioning inefficient and inhuman bureaucracies.

I got the number and was typing it into my cell phone when I went back to the scene of the crime so I could give a more accurate report. Something was differnt this time, though. There was a light blue Toyota Camry parked in the last parking spot. A teenager was eyeing me suspiciously as he sauntered off with his bike. And a Mexican employee of the Dutch Goose seemed trapped between interacting with the teenager and walking back up the stairs into the restaurant.

So here is the punch-line. The employee was borrowing the busboy's car to go pick up his daughter. But he took the wrong car! It seems that his key worked fine on my car which he demostrated to me by opening my locked door. He was quite apologetic and offered to buy me a beer the next time I was there. I happily retired the thoughts of doom and got ready to get some work done.

That's the story. The teen-ager and the workers across the street had no role except to see me, a tall skinny guy look confused but probably not make much of an effect on them. I also think of the teenage girl with the shaved head I saw climbing a tree next to the Java Beach cafe yesterday. She fell and hurt her leg and asked someone from the cafe to bandage her up. Probably didn't see me. I just seem to be more aware of all the people out there living their independent lives- lately I've been intereacting with them in such peripheral ways.

but will it sink?

the very frustrating thing about my life and the way I do research is the discrepancy between how hard I think of myself as working and how hard I really am. Even after all this time, in the midst of the most intense period of work, I am constantly feeling lazy, useless, and overly privileged. I know that I must be working hard because I wake up at 6 AM, pretty much frozen with thioughts about this paper. I get out of bed, go into the other room, and basically stare at the wall for half an hour before the freeze thaws and something resembling perspective starts to obtain once more. And out of the calm comes new space to think about this paper again. So I have plugged a hole. I worked yesterday and found the explicit forms for these coupling terms for the damping coefficients. I had sort of worked them out before, but now I added all the terms. Also I looked at the phases of the eigenvectors and chose them so that they reduce to simple expressions when the coupling is turned off. These were necessary, low level things to do. This is not the painting or varnishing of the boat. This is the putting of structural planks into place, ones which if they happened not to fit would render the whole thing quite shaky.
So, fine, this is my working style. Even at this late in the game, there are still major structural pieces to work on. I just wish that my internal rewards system and feelings of pride and self worth would be upadated corresponding to my real working style. Why should I feel so bad after finishing a good piece of work? Is this somehow emotionally necessary in order to get the work done? Or is it just a remnant of a view of work in which if you don't break a sweat or have something concrete to show for your efforts then it wasn't real work?
The result of this conflicting view is that there are also the opposite moments... moments when wonderful results seem to materialze out of thin air, when from a dirty pile of boards, a fleet of ships forms at the simple waving of a hand. But the good feelings from that don't last long for they are then followed by guilt... if its all so easy for me, then why haven't I done more, more, more, more.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

mt. sutro

slowly, slowly, finding the places that could make San Francisco feel like home to me. Many more of these cats roamed the paths.

into thin air

I just watched this movie about climbing Mt. Everest. 5 people die. A lot of wandering around in the snow, not being able to think very clearly.
Sometimes my research feels like this. Probably it means I should take a break. But sometimes doing the simplest things are so much effort. Getting the signs right in these perturbed eigenvectors and eigenvalues. Its a somewhat hard calculation. But I keep making mistakes. I fix them in some parts of the paper and not in others. Then I make new mistakes.
Yes, sometimes trying to make progress is like making a run for the peak... if you use too much energy on the way up, coming down can really fuck you up.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

relationships and taking on other people's personalities

What is the nature of empathy? How do we relate to other people?
In listening to these tapes (maybe I will tell the story of these tapes some time) I think about relationships. One of the dichotomies set up is between brief connections between people and longer relationships that grow and build. One woman in the group gave the figure of 6 years. This is how long she says it takes her to really feel like she knows where someone is coming from. This elicited anger from a man in the group- he had recently met some woman and had been really enjoying spending time with her. "Our relationship is meaningful NOW", he insisted. So maybe there is some difference between these two people, different styles, and they are also looking for different things. Different kind of meaning?

A different woman relates a story of how she is friends with a guy who is studying biochemistry and he is extremely excited about it. She doesn't understand biochemistry and he knows she doesn't, but he still loves talking to her about it because she can feel his excitement. Here is empathy to some extent. The two of them take on similar feelings. Someone else in the group responds by saying that if she understood biochemistry, it would be a deeper level of communication, a deeper connection. Not everyone is so sure of this, or thinks its particularly important.

I was going to say that this got me thinking about the question of how we can take on qualities of other people. But I'm no longer sure of the connection between these two lines of thought. I guess I see empathy and mutual understanding as the healthy good aspect to relationships, whereas the taking of someone else's personality without giving of your own is unhealthy, bad. But maybe this is just how we learn. This is how we grow up. We have weaknesses, and fill them up with other people's approaches. We can see it in a positive way. I'm reminded of the videogame Megaman. You run around destroying the different enemies and after killing them, you get their power- maybe you can now lift and hurl boulders, or throw lightning bolts or cast fireballs. In the real world, we don't need to destroy someone to use their abilities. But until we work that ability into our self, there is something questionable about it. I guess its the detachability. If our personality contains detachable elements then how can someone trust us? How can you build something if the ground is always shifting out from under you?

So, yes, there are worries. But I like having Megaman's abilities. How else am I going to defeat Dr. Wily?

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

quality of arrogance

Here's a line from some tapes I've been listening to that are recordings of a "personal encounter group" from 1961:

"The one positive thing about you is how concerned you are with the quality of arrogance you have towards people."

In context, its not quite as harsh as this.

Monday, August 29, 2005


I went up to the Legion of Honor Sunday to finally see what this museum had to offer.
Unfortunately it was closed. So instead, I listened to some guitar music which was entertaining the guests for a Jewish wedding taking place in front of the museum. I looked briefly at the holocaust memorial and then headed off to the golf course and onto the paths through the Juniper trees that led to the trails on the cliffs.
I'm always annoyed by "trail closed" signs. I don't like the idea that one can open and close a trail like one can a convenience store or museum. The one I saw was particularly intriguing: "Trail closed- Warning, People have fallen to their death". So of course I had to go check it out. There were plenty of footprints, so clearly I wasn't the only one who didn't think much of disobeying these signs. I climbed up a small trail on a hill and saw the Golden Gate Bridge, and there was another sign at the cliff edge naming the area Dead Man's Cliff or something like that, again warning that people had fallen to their death.
All in all, its satisfying to find myself amongst these signs. Not that I actually come that close to the edge of the cliffs, but its like finding a mystery. I saw a crumpled bicycle several hundred feet down probably that someone had pushed over the edge.

Why do I wander? (And I do it a lot.) While driving down 280 today, I was looking longingly into the distant hills. What do I think I'll find there? I pictured myself more concretely walking or sitting in the dirt amongst the bushes and realized that the mystery probably wouldn't be there. Like the pot of gold at the base of the rainbow.
My dad once said about me that I like being lost. Its true, but mainly just means dissatisfaction- in getting lost is the possibility of finding something better.

Driving home after my somewhat satisfying wanderings, I stopped by a European grocery store and bought some candies and bread. I accidentally left the bread behind and was almost going to drive home without it, feeling tired and ready to stop walking and driving. Then I thought of the cashier (maybe the owner, was she German, Russian- I can't remember) and how hot and fresh the bread was and that they probably take pride in their bread. I didn't want to be a wasteful American, so I went back. And I was right- I was thanked very warmly for coming back for the bread.

So I was happy about some of the things I'd found. Part of the wandering lifestyle means being in the desert at times, being stuck in far off places, being uncomfortable, being lonely.
I'd like to say that its all worth it, but I think its better not to glamorize one's defects. You use them and live with them and make the most of them and maybe they can offer something to someone else, but one shouldn't forget how personal and specific to you they are.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

opening night

Line from "Opening Night" by Cassavettes:

If I had known what a boring man you were when I married you, I wouldn't have gone through all those emotional crises.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

taking advantage of Sheehan?

Along the lines I was talking about in my last post, I came across
article, which has the quote
She [Sheehan] has made it OK to have these conversations, as they're now about her," Tuman said. "She's given people a way to talk about the war again."

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Old friends

Went to Santa Cruz to John's party tonight. I went with two other friends and I didn't know if they'd have a good time.
Ping pong and karaoke. They did have a somewhat good time I think. It was a little weird, mixing these different groups together. But actually over time it becomes less weird. One makes new friends and eventually you have the history of old friends. But still, finding out what everyone's up to- James, always with a crude joke, showed his 3-D ultrasound of his future baby proclaiming "there it is" when its penis was in sight, hearing that Natalie is giving dog massages in Montana, Ruthie back in town, Peter in Thailand, his mom Eloise leaving the country for the second time ever, nervously, being escorted by Linnaea. John heading off to Las Vegas to pharmacy school, Zach starting school in Irvine- I missed playing ping pong with him. Linnaea's description of Joe's new girlfriend. Taj is reportedly smitten with his new baby.
Playing ping pong, listening to 80's music. (I sang "Guantanamera" to karaoke) It feels so good to be recognized and to have history with people. I feel invincible and wonder where that ease is in the rest of my life. Why all this separation and compartmentalization? This is always the feeling I have when I visit Santa Cruz friends. Here is a place where I feel fully present, my social brain is fully turned on. Its always therapeutic. The afterglow lasts a few days- a template for wholeness. But it goes away as I slip back into research mode and accept the smaller, more carefully measured, crafted life that accompanies work.
Linnaea introduced me to her friend as a "One man think tank". It was flattering, but its a difficult self image to live with.
Too bad Peter wasn't around, I guess he'll be back in a few months. And the other John wasn't there. I'll have to visit him soon and go out on the reservoir. Wonder how Josh is doing in Davis. I should visit Joe when I go to Chicago.

Yes, all these people. Each one makes me feel alive. The mutual excitement of watching others go through their lives and just feel so good to know each other.

Friday, August 05, 2005


This was a worthy succesor to Bergman's original "Scenes from a Marriage". It is intense and slow at the same time.
I could identify with Marriane's position. She inserts herself into this complex situation through her relationship with Johan. She listens to everyone, absorbing their concerns and sometimes their hatred. This role of the listener seems neutral, but it is also ambiguous because one then has a lot of information which can put one in a powerful position.

I watched the movie in a theater with three other people- a mother and daughter and a guy about my age with long blondish brown hair who left and came back to his seat about 4 times before the movie started. He sat about 8 rows in front of the mother and daughter and apologised in case he was blocking their view- "You're tall, but not that tall," the mother said and they all laughed. They were talking to each other, but then were self conscious and promised that they wouldn't be so loud during the movie. I said not to worry about it. None of us did say anything during the movie- except the daughter let out a gasp of "ooh, gross!" at the scene where the father and daughter give each other a brief tongue kiss.

I ate a hot dog and watermelon sour patch kids before the movie, since I hadn't had dinner that night.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


I just watched the movie Ararat.
Its a series of stories of people with the history of the Armenian genocide at the center. The movie is about the creation of a film about the genocide. This has certainly been done before- a film about a film. But it does seem appropriate in this case, because the issue of how to deal with the history is central. And one of the ways to deal with history is through art. So film and painting are both central to the film.

I wasn't sure what to make of the character of Rafi's step-sister. I think that the role she played was part of one of the themes of questioning what someone's death means to you. And when we try to come to grips with such a large number of deaths, we also need to address this question.

The film is complex and seems to work at a number of levels. When I see a complex movie, or read a complex story, I try to figure out if the complexity is useful and required. Some issues just can't be gotten at without the weaving together of many pieces- a sort of pointing in the direction of a truth, or image. But complexity seems to be praised for its own sake- a work without complexity can be deemed unimportant. So we have to watch out for complexity for its own sake. For the most part, it seemed to me that the complexity of Ararat was warranted. But I also admit that maybe its not as complex as I think. I tend to have trouble absorbing lots of different pieces, and so I view something as complex that others may find more simple. This reminds me of my insisting on the complexity of my own family situation, where others wondered what the big deal was. (Sorry, this is getting more personal now, but if I'm going to talk about my response to the film- how else to do it?)
And of course (to those who know me) there is another personal element in this response- my step-mother is Armenian- her parents were survivors of the genocide.

The film within the film focuses on the character of the painter Arshile Gorky. I don't know much about him. Maybe I'll learn more. In the film he is placed in the city of Van, where the Armenians mounted one of the few defenses against the Turks.

I'll leave it there for now... a few skeletal comments. Its not my job to write a book on this, but I was happy to have this story out there. Images from movies can stick with you. Especially when accompanied by emotional music. How does that process work? Something to think about. The filming of conversation is also interesting. The framing and timing give an interpretation what each expression means. I know there is still ambiguity, but there is also often implied meaning. Sometimes it is surprising to see ones intuitive understanding of what a facial expression means, given an explict framing that implies a more direct and articulated understanding by someone else.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

accelerator physics blog

I started reading a few "physics blogs" recently. The problem is that the entertaining ones that also include discussions of culture and philosophy of physics that I've found seem to be oriented around (pro or con) string theory. For example, see here , and here (and references therein...) I guess there are some other particle and accelerator physics blogs, such as those at quantum diaries . But I haven't found many of these that really discuss the state of the field in the same way that the first two I linked to do. The idea of the quantum diaries blogs seems to be to convince people that physicists are a varied and interesting group of people with lives outside their work.
Here's another newly started group blog with string and particle physicists that looks like it could be promising.

I guess I should keep looking. But I'd like to find condensed matter theorists who are using quantum field theory, atomic physicists testing the limits of our understandings of quantum mechanics interpretations, and (!) accelerator physicists discussing the process of model building and what (if anything) fundamental is the distinction between physics and engineering. I suppose this latter blogger could be me.
What attracts me to the field is that it seems to be a fresh place where one can be a mathematical physicist. We had a recent reorganization at SLAC and one of the group leaders described his work as involving exploring new regimes and sometimes finding new physics there. This was met by the comment, "Now by new physics, you don't mean things like supersymmetry- we're still talking Maxwell's equations, right?" and this was responded to by another group leader saying, "No, its new physics in the sense that plasma physics is physics." So it seems that one has to fight for the right to call what one does physics. But I do find that the tool chest one uses is common across many different fields of physics, and maybe this gives a clue to what we mean by physics.

I'll admit that part of this is frustration at not being in the "in-crowd". Not being a part of the next cool thing is hard partly just case there aren't many people doing it and so there's less excitement in the air. Well, hopefully I can make it in this field and be in a position to talk to others who have ideas about this field. I have wanted to be a mathematical physicist for a long time and I still basically feel like this is a good field to do it in. But there does seem to be less room and respect for this role given in this field than in other areas of physics. Maybe accelerator/beam physicists themselves have this ambiguity themselves about the role they are playing. The tension is this: from an outside perspective, the purpose of "accelerator physics" is to build accelerators. These accelerators are useful for smashing together particles at high energies and so testing this realm of the universe, where it is thought that the real interesting stuff is happening. But it turns out that to even get these particles in orbits such that one can do these experiments, one has to do a fair amount of math and have detailed understanding of dynamics and be a good model builder so that the important effects are focused on and the not so important ones don't confuse the situation. This situation gives rise to interesting mathematical questions that use the same tools as arise in other areas of physics. This aspect is required but not really appreciated.

Hmm. Now I'm losing my train of thought and getting depressed about this. I'll have to give this another shot another time.

I guess I'm interested in how physics connects to other subjects. But it is hard to be seriously interested in this and not be suspected of being a second rate physicist (by myself as well). (although perhaps I am! - or maybe just a lazy one...) I've recently been reading "How the Laws of Physics Lie" by Nancy Cartwright. This book feels like its a step in the right direction. I guess what I like is that there is real physics in the book. It gets at some of the most cherished beliefs of real physicists. It doesn't just say: "physicists are arrogant bastards for thinking that nothing else besides physics is interesting- look *this* is interesting, and hey, **this** is also really interesting. What it does is says: "this is what physicists believe, and hey, its interesting, and it has a lot going for it, but hey, it might actually be wrong, here, here, and here." Cartwright's writing injects some healthy doubt into the field, so that in the end, one may feel that the original ideas were still right, but they are less sure they can defend them. And this is probably the more common sense that other disciplines find themselves in.
More on her arguments another time...

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Ordinary People

I've been reading "Take It Personally" by Anita Roddick, which my friend N loaned to me. Its a book about being an activist and countering various modern global economic trends. On page 13, she writes
If civilization is going to survive, business and policy-makers must move on, to find within themselves more developed emotions than fear or greed. I believe we can only do that by letting ordinary people take more responsibility for running the world, and that means opening up these powerful and unbending institutuions to a whiff of democracy.
This phrase "ordinary people" caught my attention because I had read it somewhere else recently and had been thinking about it. There's something I don't like about the phrase. Partly I think its not precise enough, and partly I think it buys into the value system that one is supposedly criticising. Who might such "ordinary people" be? I don't think that she would want to imply that the world should be led by people who are either uninterested in politics or unskilled in communicating with others and creating consensus and other such important leadership skills. To say that more "ordinary people" should be in charge is to suggest that those who already are in charge are extraordinary. People with a lot of money and/or political power are extraordinary, but often mainly by virtue of that power, and ordinary in many other ways.
The first page of the book says that
Proceeds from this book are going towards supporting visionaries, grassroots groups, and non-governmental organizations who are debunking the myths created by the World Trade Organization.
I would say that these people and groups are not "ordinary", but as she suggests, should be supported and celebrated.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Storage devices

Moving. What can I say?
Lots of junk. Realizing that keeping too many things is the same as having an unfinished research project. These things are part of building a life, and sometimes you just don't have the time to go through them and decide where they should fit. So you don't want to throw them away. They are raw material. Once you have a vision, you can use that vision to apply criteria for what to keep and what not to.
What about hard drives? With technology I tend to go back and forth between wanting power and customizability and wanting ease of use. The goal is to combine these, but some oscillation is usually required before settling down. I think I start this oscillation process off in too many areas without finishing them. Maybe its been a smart long term approach, but it sure has sucked as a short term approach. Anyway, I moved from Linux to Mac and now that I'm moving I have to decide what to do with my other (Linux) computer. Well, I managed to find the stuff on it that I want to keep and thanks to a piece of paper I didn't throw away, was even able to burn some cd's with that data on it. So I transfered that over to my mac and now I think I can start to figure out how to sell, give, throw away the other computer.
One nice piece to the puzzle was finding a place called "green citizen" near Fry's which will take monitors and tv's and other stuff for a small price, but does the right thing with them, recycling metals and working with manufacturerers. So I'm happy to know they exist. One small piece of learning how to be a constructive part of a sustainable lifestyle.
As for the rest of the moving process? I continue to treat it like my research project... one foot in front of the other.