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Sunday, December 24, 2006

dirac on poetry

Paul Dirac's comment on the difference between science and poetry is

In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite.

With a slightly different emphasis this doesn't need to be seen as such an insult to poetry. Maybe poetry shows something known in a new light, or perhaps connects the known to the unknown, mysterious.
From the small amount I know about Dirac, I would think he might admit to the value of this sense of poetry in physics, the connecting of something small, well-delineated and clear, to a larger, richer, more amorphous body of material. He's been refered to as a magician, and perhaps this is a key to that magic.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


Via Metafilter, a neat essay by Bruno Latour on the current state of criticism.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

adiabatic invariants

Research, research, research. Trying to find the right definition of action.

So, what's an adiabatic invariant?
Its something that stays constant as the environment changes.
For my undergrad thesis, I tried to figure out what happens to simple systems as they are transported from here to there. So this research provided an answer to the question: which part of Boaz is unchanged by his weekly transitions from A to B, from mom to dad. Adiabatic invariants. Just find them and I will know what to count on.

Ok, still working on these metaphors. Does it say something about isolation and self-containment that I focus on the single particle case? Does it take away the fun to give away the punchline... that I'm trying to find my own adiabatic invariants? When does one transcend the personal and create something of interest to others? Perhaps this dynamic is healthy? Continually reinterpretting in terms of trenchant metaphors?

Let me give a concrete example of an adiabatic invariant: the classic example is a pendulum which has a string the length of which is slowly shortening. As the environment changes so does the motion. The frequency of the pendulum increases as the length decreases (f~sqrt(g/l)). But the energy of the pendulum divided by the frequency stays constant. This is an adiabatic invariant.

Are there fluid dynamicists out there that think of themselves as scale models of the world and wonder what their true Reynolds number is? Are there quantum field theorists who renormalize away their existential concerns, find that the infinite difference between self and God can be swept under the rug if one cares only about practical solutions? What about economists who see all interactions as a game and try to make the market of human kindness as free as possible?

But I will be an adiabatic invariant. I will search for that which remains the same in me and allows for equilibrium. I can only be so many things at the same time. A 2n dimensional integrable Hamiltonian system has only n adiabatic invariants.
Right. right.

Friday, December 15, 2006

death of my computer

My poor Powerbook. Its hard drive is making terrible noises. I think its just about dead. So I've been using my work PC laptop. Microsoft!!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Since I've been throwing out pebbles related to the pieces of my life I've been working on/thinking about, (although maybe in an overly academic way) I might as well say something about divorce...
I have this picture of life like jumping around on rocks in a creek. When parents can't live together, they leave the kid with two big rocks that are uncomfortably far apart. The kid can either choose one of them to use as a base and build from that, or not choose. In that case, you are stuck with a large world with no center. I didn't choose, and so I've been trying to become a broad enough person that stability extends from one rock to the other. And when I fall I just have to trust that there will be a rock somewhere to land on. Its not that finding a path from one parent to the other, or one part of myself to the other is really so hard. The thing is that because the parents decide that they can't live together, this sets up a model that certain things are incompatible. Even with a marriage where the two people are very different, the kids see an example of those differences coexisting.
I'm not into judging and saying that I (and other such non-choosing kids of divorce) have it so hard. Its more just that I have it different in particular sometimes hard to articulate ways. I say this because I've found it hard to talk about this with my parents without them feeling attacked. Its really like saying that there is a part of my experience that has not been understood. I find this experience interesting. But one needs to be able to take the good with the bad in order to see the whole. And its probably a hard thing as a parent to take things in such an objective way.

Friday, December 08, 2006

comparing tragedies

I'm watching the movie version of the play "Rent".

I've also been trying to get back to reading Balakian's
The Burning Tigris
about the Armenian Genocide. As I watch these people cry and sing about their friends dying from AIDS, a voice rises up in me saying that at least they aren't victims of genocide. Disrespecting their tears, this voice says "you're lucky".
I know that this voice is the voice of my step-mother who's parents lost most of their family to the Turks. But the voice has been internalized; I find it in me hidden under many guises. At this point, all I can do is pose it as a problem.

I think the problem is the unknown enormous scope of something like a genocide. And this problem is seriously compounded by the Turkish attempt to deny its significance and face up to its magnitude. As a result, you can never put it in front of you and say "there it is"; "there is the tragedy of the genocide". There is always the worry that lurking in the unknown elements are tragedies much worse than what one is currently encountering and so how can one take the present seriously? Is this the purpose of art? To tell a story that doesn't at the same time take meaning away from life?
I'm having trouble finding this art in Balakian's book, though I don't doubt its waiting to be found. It just takes work on my part. I can only read a little bit at a time. I can read a line like (p. 195) "In the end between a half and two-thirds of the more than two million Armenians living on their historic homeland in Ottoman Empire were annihilated." but still imagine that there is some even larger tragedy looming than the sheer number of deaths. One can learn about Armenian culture and track its destruction, or look at specific cases and try to fathom the extremes of individual suffering. And until this has been done, one imagines that there is still something so much worse, so completely awful, that no current tragedies are worthy.
The fear of the unknown. It is paralyzing.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

new age

I'm finally reaching the end of "Heaven on Earth". Speaking of the writing of Ananda leader J. Donald Walters in the concluding chapter of the book, D'Antonio writes

This way of thinking does not point to the creation of a "new" age. Rather, it implies a return to an idealized version of an old New England village, a community of believers striving to live in relative simplicity, with God not far from their minds. Ananda suggests self-sufficiency, modesty, plainness, and rectitude--the bedrock Protestant values of early America. It may be difficult for those who regard the New Age as flaky, avant garde, or irresponsible to consider, but after my experience at Ananda, I became intrigued by the notion that the New Age is as much a revival of old American values as it is an embrace of the counterculture. Indeed, the villagers seem to reflect perfectly the Protestant ethic described by the great historian and sociologist Max Weber. They were industrious, Godly, communal, and ascetic--all qualities Weber identified in his analysis of the utilitarian successes of Protestant societies. Ananda has survived, and thrived, because of its old-fashioned work ethic, and a piety that discourages materialism, competitiveness, and jealousies.

I see a similar element in TM. My step-dad reads Emerson and has said that Maharishi admires the American founders. He and my mom read a lot of biographies of early American presidents. Anyway, there is at least an attempt to connect to what tradition we do have in this country, which perhaps is in some sense necessary for a transplant to thrive.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

too far into the academic middle?

Thanks to this amazing internet, I found a book based on a (U of Copenhagan) Ph.D thesis that couldn't be more perfect for what I've been trying to understand about TM:
"Belief Transformations:
Some Aspects of the Relation between Science and Religion in
Transcendental Meditation (TM) and
the International Society for Krishna Consciousness"
by Mikael Rothstein, 1996.

For some reason, the proverb about being careful of what you wish for because you just might get it has been coming to mind.

Now I can think about TM's view of science in terms of an extended view of Eliade's concept of "hierophany", that is, a concrete occurence of the sacred in the world.

What will be the effect of this whole slew of new connections, of history, this treasure trove of scholarship, on me, on my relationship with my mom, my view of science, religion, etc.? We shall see. I think it will be very good, but right now I just feel very tired.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

middle ground?

Quote from Heaven on Earth by Michael D'Antonio p. 286 (note that MIU is Maharishi International University, the previous name of MUM):

But the deception I uncovered at MIU was more disturbing, on a personal level, because the people I met there
were somewhat like me. They were educated, seemingly open-minded, and idealistic adults. They were well aware of the challenges that science and reason posed for religion, but they still ached for spiritual comfort. So they had sought a middle ground, a spiritual practice supported by empirical fact. Such a middle ground would appeal to me. I, too, have been disillusioned by the conflict of reason and religion, and I also feel the hunger for spiritual comfort and community. I would have welcomed the discovery of a middle way, a path to spirituality that was consistent with reason.

But TM, as it is practiced at MIU, isn't a middle ground. It is like the worst of religion: unreasonable, repressive, authoritarian. And knowing this, I had to acknowledge that these people, my peers, were vulnerable and fragile human beings. They were as vulnerable as any of the born-again Christians who were duped by TV evangelists in the 1980s. They were just as fragile as the frightened, impoverished believers who sent millions of dollars to the Depression-era radio priest Father Coughlin, who preyed on the fear and disillusionment of his time.
... Whatever the reason, like the others, Orsatti has followed his leader into a retreat from reality. With the Maharishi, they have turned Transcendental Meditation, the tap root of the New Age, into a grandiose, narcissistic dream, a form of intellectual bondage, which they call enlightenment.

This is so far some of the most neutral writing I've found on TM. I guess there was a book about the sociology of new religious movements, that I unfortunately lost.
My hope for TM is that it will become less isolated. To do this, it would have to be less guru-centric, because one person is just not enough. I wonder what will happen after the Maharishi is gone? Will he become like Joseph Smith for the Mormons? I imagine that he can't maintain his hold on the day to day life any more, but it will be interesting to watch.

Friday, November 24, 2006

digging a tunnel to Wonderland

Thanksgiving at the Maharishi University of Management.
I spend mornings at the 2nd Street Coffee House. I talk with this guy who's wife is taking one of the courses here. Meditation many hours a day. He is not so into it, but they are thinking of moving here. He says that its cheap enough here that he could retire. He thinks of it like a 3rd world country. He voices his complaints with "the movement".
"If you're not a part of it, there's really not much to do here," he says.
"So, if you move here, you'd be comfortable with that?" I ask him.
"Its no problem," he assures me. "I'm fine just spending the days watching football."
"We'll take several months a year and drive down to Mexico."

I give him my email and he emails me the next day saying he has more questions about TM. I call him and meet him at the coffee shop again and we continue discussing.

I ask my mom later if she knows any couples where one is into TM and the other isn't. "No, but I'm sure there must be," she says.

Trying to find opposing points of view on TM, one comes across sites such as this site which describes TM as falling down a rabbit hole, a metaphor they encourage. How does one find common ground with Wonderland? It requires double vision and patience. I'm interested in physics, as are they. But that is a dead end. They site the Vedas as the source of their knowledge. If I tunnel in from literary criticism and philosophy of religion, can I end up anywhere near them? Its certainly not designed to be easy. Maharishi (Mahesh Varma) closes off all easy exits. His goal is that all attempts to leave end either by returning, or ending up in a swamp of difficult scholarship.

I talk to a son of a friend of my mom's who is a "Parusha", basically a TM monk. He is articulate and tries to tell me what's so great about TM. I finally feel like I've gotten somewhere. I know the tricks. There are certain words that one cannot be seduced by. "Subtle" and "enliven" are two such words. When one hears these words, one knows that the person talking is not thinking, and by asking them to use a more neutral language, they are required to find their own approach. Its a fun conversation. He ends by telling me of his own doubts about the "scientific" end of the enterprise. I tell him I respect the lifestyle and even partially respect the attempt to use scientific language to describe one's subjective experience.

But today I'm feeling beaten again. Its too big. There is no common ground.
It would be intersting to read up on the freedom of religion legal and moral arguments.
"I wish I could believe it," I tell my mom. "It just doesn't work for me."
"Its a free country," she says.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

great expectations (new version)

watching this movie. wow is it absurd. but enjoying it anyway.

when i was in high school i was pip in an equally absurd 3 minute video.
i frothed at the mouth with toothpaste. "orlock!!!"

watching a movie like this makes me feel like I don't understand anything.

Friday, November 17, 2006

if gravity took a break

I would slowly rise off of my couch and drift into my loft.
Then, if the substance of glass took a break, I would rise through the sky-lights and slowly
make my way to the trees. Yes, slowly. There is no hurry.
If I had some pruners in my back pocket, I would then cut off a small piece of a branch and bring it back as a souvenir.

Friday, November 10, 2006

confusing the model with the whole

I seem to keep having to fight a similar demon. Becoming too theoretical. Thinking that some piece of the world, some pciture of the world encompasses everything. I felt this way about images when I was writing image compression software. Somehow having a mathematical model of something makes me devalue that thing. Every possible visual experience I could have became a set of bits in a digital image. Somehow Susan Sontag's "On Photography" helped me out of that one.

Lately its been information and the internet. The fact that all information can be transmitted through the internet makes me devalue reality in a new way.

But doesn't physics in general do this? Provide a model for reality that all existence, experience is supposed to fit into?

I wrote something about this before in the context of virtual reality.

Could this be a psychological problem hiding out as a philosophical problem?
Let me try to address it anyway. Start with the image and the visual world. What is the model of the image? It is a set of pixels. What is depressing about this? First there is finiteness. There are only a finite number of images that one can distinguish from another. But it is a very large number. There that wasn't so hard.
Now... the internet can transmit information. Does this devalue the real world? A similar finiteness issue seems to arise. But the number of possible information streams is very large. There, that wasn't so hard! Now I can sleep much easier!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

social construction/conciliation/clarification

On an impulse purchase at Border's this weekend, I bought Ian Hacking's "The Social Construction of What?" and spent much of the weekend reading this book. The last thing I'd read by Hacking was an article about how certain types of illness such as multiple personality disorder have been socially constructed in the sense that the existense of a new "disease" where no such diagnosis existed before has a real affect on those who now suffer from this disease. He is pointing out how even though something real about the disease predated the new diagnosis, the diganosis itself in certain ways serves to create the disease.

In this book, Hacking seeks clarity on the entire subject of social construction. I was particularly interested in the physics chapters, though I am looking forward to reading the chapters on mental illness as well. A book that brings mental illness and physics together into the same investigation!

The following passage was particularly interesting to me:

...Thus my strategy here is the exact opposite of Sergio Sismondo. He is a peace-maker. One "reason for the lack of realist/constructivist debate lies in the fact that each side usually views the other position as obviously untenable" (Sismondo 1996, 10). By lopping off extremism on the edges of both doctrines, he hopes to find common ground. In constrast, my sticking points emphasize philosophical barriers, real issues on which clear and honorable thinkers may eternally disagree. (p 68)

I have often thought of myself as a peace-maker, but find this role exhausting in the face of so many extreme differences out there. Here, Hacking offers me a new suggestion for an approach to strong diasagreement. In a way, one can be more modest in one's goals. Instead of seeking reconciliation and hoping that eventually everyone will come to a common understanding, one can at least seek a mutual respect for each other's opinions relating them to age old controversies.

My first impulse on hearing this is a gut sadness that people with opposing views will forever remain embattled. But then I remember that there is more to a person than their views on a few philosophical positions. This perspective allows people to more clearly say "fine, we disagree on x, y, and z" and once that is articulated, maybe the areas of agreement and mutual humanity can be more clearly articulated and appreciated as well.

Monday, October 30, 2006

video game life

i am a member of the first generation of video game players.
for the most part, i see this as a very good piece of me- the use of metaphors derived from video games.
there are some times in life when one must do repetitive things for a long time in order to earn enough money to buy the armour to get the next magical item. and the very idea of levels, that things get harder as one goes along, but one is also more skilled. the early video game makers were true masters. true myth makers, depositing age old wisdom in the computer code with low-res graphics and repetitive musical scores.

what were some of the early ones? there was some labarynth game where you found different colored crossbows and climbed up to higher levels. i don't remember the name of this game or the system it was played on, but thinking of it brings over me a nostalgia and sense of mystery that maybe other people from previous generations would have for playing a game in the closet, or exploring a market. then there was Yar's Revenge. a yar is a kind of fly. you shot away at the blocks surrounding a rapidly moving bright object and tried to shoot it when it turned into a sun and flew across the screen towards you. the music from the game comes back to me sometimes and brings on something akin to synaesthesia, where a texture in the back of my head takes on a substance richer and scarier than seems contained in the word or experience of "texture".

there was boulder dash that I played at my friend ryan's house. i've played later incarnations of the game, but the game play and the excitement and mystery of surrounding a growing blob with boulders until it turned into diamonds was never quite recaptured. i also played dungeons and dragons a few times in the attic at that house.

the first game i played was called sneakers and it was on an Apple IIE computer in elementary school. I played it after school, and imagined that i would win great wealth if I could ever get to the next level. i'll leave it there for now, but somehow, thinking of video games, for me, opens up a rich path back to earlier versions of me with the hint that i might take off in new and more promising directions starting from those early couches and soundtracks and pushing of buttons as fast as I could,

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

talking about things you know very little about

In the online wars over how people should view string theory, one of the issues that often comes up is whether someone has a right to express an opinion or form a judgement on something they know very little about. Someone will say something like: "I don't know much about string theory, but it seems like those people are just blowing hot air!" It could also be something more technical, like that a certain perturbation expansion doesn't converge, or whatever, but a typical response is to say: "if, by your own admission, you don't know anything about string theory, then can you just keep your opinions to your self??"

Normally I'd agree that people shouldn't talk too much about things they don't understand. But what if you encounter a certain subject frequently, but it is so full of details that you aren't likely to be able to understand it, even with a fair amount of effort? Another example would be a religion based on text in a foreign language. Suppose, for example, that someone keeps telling you that you will be reincarnated, but when you inquire further, you find that the evidence is supposed to be in some obscure Sanskrit text. What do you do? If you start to argue with the person (who supposedly knows at least some Sanskrit), they can just tell you that until you learn Sanskrit, you can't really form a complete opinion on the subject. You could read a translation, but they could always argue that the translation is imperfect when you start trying to poke holes in their arguments.

In the case of string theory, you have take each claim on its own terms. For example: "The world is made of 10 dimensions, 6 of which are tightly wrapped up so that they are hard to see."

"Fascinating," you may respond. "So, can I travel into these extra dimensions? Can I disappear here and appear over there? Can I gain great power by becoming master of more than the normal 4 dimensions?"

"Oh, no, not really." Will probably the response. The honest response, anyway. A somewhat dishonest response would be "maybe".

In the mind of the person who made the original claim is a bunch of math about surfaces and fields wrapped around strange abstract spaces. But when they make a claim to you about the world you live in, unless they can put it in terms of words you understand and have experience with, then they haven't communicated anything to you. You may hear these words that you don't understand and because of your opinion of how smart they are, take those words in a non-literal sense, and let them be a "mystery". Words in this symbolic part of your thinking can then take on all sorts of colorful meanings. They can take on a sort of religious meaning. You may hope that the powerful God of 10 dimensions will hear your prayers. Or picture your soul as made out of vibrating strings that are connected to all other people's souls. Or something along those lines.

So this kind of talk can start myths. Not that myths are bad. They can be comforting and beautiful. But they can also be misused by those whose talk started them in the first place. They can say: "meditation connects you to these strings, and so you'd better pay me some money to show you how to meditate the right way." So how do you fight against this kind of power someone can have over you? You have to have a conversation about something you don't know very much about. And you have to be very clear about what you know and what you don't know. And you have to make a sacrafice. You have to say: even though the idea of 10 dimensions and a unified field of consciousness is beautiful, because its not expressed clearly enough in language that I understand, I will not accept it.

This is why its natural to tell scientists to shut up. Not because the practical effects of the stuff they do, used by those who "do" understand it is necessarilly bad, but because the mythic element of the language takes your power away from you. To be clear, in most cases I think that the mythic component to scientific claims is not understood by those making them. They don't necesarilly realize that the whole world of metaphors that their words will give birth to in the uninformed listener, has little to do with the more precise understanding of the concepts in their own mind.

Friday, October 20, 2006


I found this tunnel made out of corragated aluminum a few minute walk away from my office. I went walking there a few minutes ago and stood in the tunnel to stay out of the rain. The tunnel amplifies sounds so that you when you walk, the sound of your scuffling feet is sharp and crisp. In one direction, you can see a large warehouse type building that looks somewhat deserted, and in the other, you look off into the distance of the rest of the lab, with the view somewhat obscured by trees.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

rain rain rain

too much computer, movies, email, books, sore throat, thinking about religion, trying to understand non-linear dynamics, symbols, J_x,y in involution, independent, isolation, all these theorists, some respected and political, some isolated yet tolerated for their achievements. too much. stomach tight. a new form of tension. cut on finger, in the shape of an arrowhead, slowly healing. but somehow still at the bottom of things. a new place of stability? or a lack of ghosts? a lack of undoable work? will it make life lose meaning? meeting other people who talk about their difficult first winters on long island. three people now, have told me of how unhappy they were. one raised a red flag. two remember the cold. both ended up in relationships afterwards. but leaves changing are beautiful right? split as always. but learning to color in the edges/cracks, deemphasize isolation. as always. most optimistic face. i learned to be flexible. flexible.

aw. this sweet movie. they finally end up together. but lightning strikes. chinese superstition, sometimes ridiculed, sometimes honored.
the parallel postulate, renormaliztion, a barren field? picking up the pieces for other people?
probably not. its always more complicated than that.
phew. she's not dead. the turtle returns. and its raining in the movie too.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Friday, October 13, 2006

kitsch a folding screen set up to curtain off death.
-kundera, "unbearable lightness of being"

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

physics of religion (religion of physics)

Here's two examples:

Physics of Immortality by Frank Tipler of Tulane University.


Restructuring Physics from its Foundation in Light of Maharishi's Vedic Science by John Hagelin who used to teach at Maharishi University of Management.

I might also add Fritjof Capra's "Tao of Physics" to this genre. The thing to understand about these writings is that they work on a metaphorical level. They basically relieve, at a surface level, some of the cognitive dissonance for people for whom both science and religion has a hold. Its a set of word games so that when, on a breezy afternoon (or late at night?), one's mind roams freely around its different regions, there are word bridges connecting one to the other. The problem is that the bridges don't actually go where they claim to go.

I won't go into the reasons why these bridges don't go where they claim to go. Maybe I'll think about it in more detail some other time.
The game is just to build something that has an anchor in each world and then to call it a bridge. For Tipler, these structures are "God" and "resurrection". He has taken these religious concepts and defined them in physics language. "God" is what happens to life and complexity when (and if) the universe collapses on itself, and "resurrection" is the possibility that at that highly technologically advanced time, the same set of atoms that compose you could be brought into the same configuration again.

For Hagelin, he identifies the "unified field" of hypothetical physics models with subjective consciousness in a sort of Hindu (Maharishi-ized) perspective which identifies consciousness with God.

I don't object to this type of intellectual pursuit. What I object to is the lack of honesty. I think that in both these cases, the audience is mainly someone who doesn't understand much of the physics and can't really check the arguments. The role of the technical appendix in each case is just to ward off technical questions from someone who almost knows enough to counter the arguments. "Its all in the appendix" would be the response. But how the appendix relates to the text is where the dishonesty occurs. Really, a neutral language that is broad enough to include both physics and religion is needed. Or lacking that, a statement limiting the scope of the investigation to a metaphorical level is required. Some of their power derives from the over-hyped claims from physicists themselves. To explain why Hagelin is wrong, to sort of get to the other side of his thinking, as it were, one has to be able to concieve of physics as metaphor. We're used to thinking of religion as metaphor, but not science. At its most speculative level, physics requires metaphors to fill in the many technical unknowns and to ground mathematical concepts. By overselling superstring theory as more solid than it really is, people are more likely to find its connections to other areas as causal, rather than metaphorical. Perhaps Hagelin himself is confused on this issue and this is what allows him to continue selling "The Maharishi Effect" to the public. But my feeling is that its more out of intellectual exaustion and a sort of revenge on those who fed him the over-hyped string theory claims to begin with.

One interesting thing I found in reading Peter Woit's "Not Even Wrong" was that Maharishi's posters connecting the unified field theory to consciousness were popular among physicists at one point (I don't know whether seriously, or as a joke).

Saturday, October 07, 2006

east/west coasters

so i had this sort of story about how west coasters are friendly on the surface but below that kind of hard whereas east coasters had a rougher surface but kindness and loyalty beneath. tonight i met this danish guy who has the opposite perspective. someone please tell me what to think! i don't know what stereotypes to operate under anymore. arghhhh!

Friday, October 06, 2006

a few comments

I left a few comments on The Reference Frame under the pseudonym "Phil". The interaction always leaves me feeling a bit dirty. Why do I do it? I tried it once before in response to his linking to Fox News regarding a certain issue of sexual harassment. A boy was accused of sexual harassment, and Lubos argued that it was impossible because sexuality starts at a later age. I raised the possiblity that Fox News didn't necessarily have all the facts. I can't even remember all the names I was called, "liberal nutcase" would be a pleasant version of it.
Anyway, here I am spreading the disease of giving attention to Lubos. But there's a sort of sick pleasure in it... Also, I've been reading the two books he hates so much- the dreaded blue and black...
I should add, however, that I wrote my comments in good faith. Not necessarilly to get a rise out of him, and I was actually 70% interested in what he might say in response. Its just very difficult not to degenerate into name calling. And he has so much more of a stomach for it, that I'd never survive even if I were so inclined.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

learning and interacting

There's a weird non-intuitive thing I notice about the process of learning something new. I find that when I'm in the thick of absorbing new stuff that I don't understand very well, I feel arrogant and in a way, better than everyone else, or at least different from everyone else. Its as if I'm the only one who could possibly understand this really hard thing. The strange thing is that the feeling fades away after I actually understand the stuff I'm trying to learn.

I guess this is just another way of saying that arrogance is usally a sign of insecurity. Its a defense mechanism when your grasp of the facts is tenuous. To avoid slipping into arrogance, one can just describe oneself as out of commision in certain ways during those times. In academic or other environments where grasp of information is key, arrogance is always a job hazzard- both for yourself and for the other people you have to work with.

I have to remind myself of this process sometimes. I'm pretty good at math, but each time I learn something new, I have this feeling that if I learn this new thing, I'll have so much knowledge that I'll never be able to relate to normal people again. But as I mentioned, this feeling fades away after I actually learn the thing, and in fact, once its internalized, the math feels very human and I can even explain it relatively easy. I suppose there's a danger of trying to learn things that I'll never understand and getting stuck in a purgatory as a result. Anyway, all jobs have their hazards as well as their rewards.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


I started watching this film awhile ago and was annoyed, but somehow I ended up trying it again.
This time it worked for me. A minor complaint was that they didn't need to be so afraid of showing math. It had the feel of some editor coming in and saying, "the audience doesn't know math- tone that stuff down, it will scare them." There was also a little bit of self-conscousness surrounding the issue of women in math, a sort of tentative try to make a few comments, but not exactly sure what it was saying. But emotionally the film was pretty interesting. A nuanced look at how to determine whether or not someone's crazy and the subjectiveness about the conclusion. In this respect, the film was refreshing in its sparse treatment of math itself. Movies like "Pi" and "A Beautiful Mind" tied craziness with math ability more explicitly. Here the issues are separate.

Hmm, directed by John Madden... I'd love to hear the commentary with the play by play!

Saturday, September 30, 2006

the price of intelligence

Some highly productive individuals seem to also produce a sea of garbage. In dealing with the writings of Harvard string theorist Lubos Motl, for example, one encounters a very defensive individual who characterizes people who don't see things as he does as unintelligent and protects his view of science by throwing the word "crackpot" around every chance he can get. Yet he has enormous stamina and writes prolifically on all sorts of subjects on his blog.

Consider also, Stephen Wolfram, the creator of Mathematica, who's recent book, A New Kind of Science contained vague claims, poor referencing and an attempt to claim all future concepts as derivative of his own.

I also consider Noam Chomsky to be a similar type of individual, though I tend to be more sympathetic to him because I mostly agree with his politics.

I see these people as having narrow world views and enormous intellectual energy. One can say to them: "come on: clearly [string theory, cellular automata, universal grammar] is not enough to understand everything", but to ask them to back off from using the tools of their trades in understanding the world is to ask them to not to have a complete picture.

In some sense, I view them as sick. Normally they would require the reaching out from family and friends to give them a more nuanced perspective, but because of their high profiles, a more public form of help is required. It seems unfair in a way, because there are so many people in need of help, why should the public put all this energy into helping these few. But somehow their very sickness is tied into the public private interaction and it is our duty to help them out. I really see Wolfram's book as a cry for help. He is shouting out his isolation and asking to be understood. Having given us Mathematica and a few theorems on cellular Automata, if there were such a public help mechanism available, I would say he should be a recipient.
I guess I'm saying that highly focused individuals can make great contributions to society. The price society should pay back, if it wants to make use of these contributions is to put up with the garbage of those people and find a way to fill them out as individuals. "Fame" has tried to fill this role but probably usually fails.

What do I mean by help here? I guess I mean putting out the energy to do the analysis that could help them. Not that they will read these analyses. Who of us has the benefit of hundreds of people writing psychological analyses of us? Of course there is much simple tit for tat angry responses to these people. I guess I'm hoping for peace. And that requires a public that has a large enough perspective that it can accept the gifts of its members while explaining to those individuals how those gifts fit into the larger whole.

Having said all this, however, I would say that I don't actually see these people as all that much more intelligent than average. I have in mind a sort of "conservation of intelligence" type concept where if you put all your intelligence in one direction, you lose it in another, along the lines of the line I quoted by Richard Feynman a few posts back.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


What if everything was already known by someone, but the answers were just too hard to understand, intrinsically...?
We spend time figuring things out because we figure that the answer isn't already there just waiting for us.
Does this make any sense? I'm not sure.
Why did I think that becoming a computer person was a good idea??

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


I seem to keep coming back to trying to understand what Nancy Cartwright is saying about science.
Here's a nice essay which gets at some of what I've been struggling with. On the one hand, Chakravartty points out the exaggeration of the claims of Cartwright's "headlines" (she also wrote a book called "How the Laws of Physics Lie"), but on the other says that she has a compelling analysis that should be taken seriously.

The particular point I'd really like to understand is what she says about quantum mechanics. I know some stuff about the formal structure of quantum mechanics, and it is sort of relevant to my research, but I'm interested in how it can be so useful at the same time as so poorly understood. How can it be simultaneously true that it solves many techical problems and that no satisfactory interpretation of it exists? She addresses this question here, but I'd like to understand more of the details. Specifically, how can we use quantum mechanics to build lasers and computer chips (and eventually quantum computers!!??) and not "understand" it?? This question gets into the specialization of science. One might think that all laser technicians are experts at quantum mechanics, or (as I mistakenly thought) all accelerator physicists know profound things about relativity. In a sense these are true, but at that technical of a level, the results are not easilly recognized and put into a form which would be awe-inspiring for a lecture in a "physics for poets" type class, or even a more technical first year introductory physics class. This is where I start to get excited about teaching...

Friday, September 08, 2006

Heaven on Earth

I've been reading an out of print book (published in 1992) called "Heaven on Earth: Dispatches from the Spiritual Frontier", by Michael D'Antonio. The author is a journalist who sets out to explore the new age movement in America. I wanted to read it because one of the chapters involves a visit to the Transcendental Meditation university Maharishi International University (Now Maharishi University of Management). Having struggled with the question of whether TM is a cult, and finally settling on the description of New Age Religion, I was eager to see it situated in the context of other New Age phenomena. Get past the deliberate lying about science, and maybe I can see it as a genuine attempt to create myths which are consistent with what is known about science.

Actually the author singled TM out as the one new age movement that seemed cult-like to him. He describes it as ultimately a repudiation of the values of the 60's, settling into a rigid authoritarian regime, where much of day to day life is controlled by the Maharishi. He gives Maharishi credit for in some sense starting the new age movement in America, even though where he ended up was so far from where he started. (Actually I'm a little skeptical of how magnanimous his early attempts were.) I've also read a chapter on the "vortices" in Sedona. I like the way in which the author is an integral character in the stories he tells even though he is interviewing people, giving background and other such research oriented activities.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


Interview with Richard Feynman- Pleasure of Finding Things Out..
Comment on why he's not particularly interested in the humanities:
"I have a limited intelligence, and I have used it in a particular direction."

Thursday, August 31, 2006

cult of microsoft

My question for the moment is: do I maintain this spreadsheet in Open Office or Microsoft Excel? My main computer runs Linux and the OO software works pretty well and interacts nicely with the Linux world. Excel is on my laptop which involves annoying transferring of files, plus the fact of a small screen that I don't really want to work on.
Annoying, very specific issue to my situation in some ways. What's not specific to my situation is the fact that OO spreadsheet can read Excel documents, but Excel can't read OO documents. But most people I need to collaborate with use Excel.

I call it a cult because I think that lack of interoperability is one of the issues that could be used to distinguish cults from religions. A cult tries to pull you in and not let you interact with ideas that don't fit nicely within its small worldview. They can't attract and retain enough people just on the merits of their product, and so they cut off exits, or at least build high walls so that its extremely clear who is in and who is out.

Actually, thinking about it, OO isn't perfect. If they can read Excel documents, why can't they write them? This would remove the interoperability issue. Not that it should be all their job. I guess the corresponding point about cults would be that for someone flexible enough, they could move in and out of all but the most jealous cults.

(Oops, just realized that OO can write Excel documents... problem solved.)

Monday, August 28, 2006

detailed vs. context work

I think that there are two (at least) kinds of work. One kind involves operating within a fixed set of rules. You take a bunch of stuff as fixed and then try to solve problems. There's a certain kind of comfort associated with this work. You really make progress. You can clearly see that stuff gets done. Its also comforting because you don't have to constantly think about the big picture. Focus on the details. Or maybe you find it uncomfortable, because you like to question assumptions and don't like taking things for granted; matter of personal style I suppose.

The other type of work involves trying to find the best overall framework to use in going about solving problems. To do this work, you will probably do similar work as the detailed work I just described. The difference is that you constantly relate it to the big picture. You constantly ask how this problem would have been formulated differently had the overall framework been different. Its hard to know whether anything gets done in this type of work. Its always a moving target. A certain result may stay the same, but seen in a different context takes on a much greater or lesser importance. The difficulty of this kind of work is that its really hard to move forward. Any step involves a million questions about its relationship to the big picture.

I think I am good at the second kind of work and not so good at the first. I'm not very good at just sticking with a set of rules and working within that framework. It makes me slow. Instead of going ahead to the end of a project, I constantly question the framework under which the project was given. I'd like to be able to turn off this constant context checking sometimes. it'd be easier to get work done.
I suppose this perspective is similar to Kuhn's "normal" vs. "revolutionary" science, but applied to all sorts of things, not just science.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Living with Nietzsche

Boxing up my books, getting ready to move to a new apartment, I came across my four or five books by Nietzsche. I was in one of those dangerous reading moods where I'm attracted to difficult topics bound to cause me problems. Brushes with Nietzsche will often leave me feeling mentally beaten up, wondering how I was suckered into the fight. However, using my new tools on the internet, such as Wikipedia, I thought I'd give it another go. Perhaps if I learned a few things about his life, I'd have at least a small advantage over him, and after that advantage had been spent, I'd quit for the day and come back another time. I was hoping to put the books into the box, with him as an ally, or at least as a subdued enemy. Probably overly ambitious, almost an obsessive-compulsive need to understand everything... Usually a sign that I should find some friends to hang out with, or get some exercise, or something like that.

Later on, I went to Borders and came across "Living with Nietzsche", by Robert Solomon. This seemed to be just the book I was looking for.
I read a bit of it. Maybe I'll read more later. It seems like a kind of aikido approach to Nietzsche. Use his own momentum to your advantage, without hurting either of you. It takes some of the concepts he ridicules most, such as pity, and gives them a more sympathetic understanding, showing that we can still use Nietzsche's insights on these topics without taking the poison along with it. Not that the knowledge won't still change you in important ways, but that knowledge will be yours, not associated with N as the "guru". Indeed, N seems to want this, but the circumstances under which he wrote maybe prevented him from taking such a tact.

Thinking of the title later on, it reminds me of such topics as "living with alcoholism", or "living with depression". In the end, one hopes that one can learn something from these illnesses. That since one is stuck with them, and they are quite powerful, perhaps one can channel their power in a positive direction? However, if this were the underlying meaning of the title, then is the advice responsible? Would you really wish alcoholism on someone in order that they extract meaning from this destructive force?

Monday, August 21, 2006


I'm learning this big messy code for accelerator modeling.
The input is a file that describes the magnets, and the code tracks particles through the accelerator and computes resulting useful stuff about the orbits and global quantities.
To access the individual magnets when writing programs, one refers first to the "family number" of the magnet, and then to the "kid number" to specify the specific magnet in the ring.
I'm always worried about what the metaphors I take in do to me. Did the person who decided on this metaphor do it out of joking? or longing? Did he really think of the storage ring he was designing as a surrogate family?
What am I getting myself into here?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

theorist as politician and his/her

two ideas and a question:

1) There are two (at least) parts to being a theorist. The first is to solve useful problems. The second is to represent a group of people for whom this theory is relevant; to arbitrate on rules relating to usage. The problem here is that the theorist hasn't been elected, and so those he/she represents may not be interested in having their disputes arbitrated. I think this second role gets slipped in on top of the first... "wow, that's really an interesting, useful idea!" says person x. "Well, if you want to use that idea, then I suggest you folks straighten out your thinking on A,B, C." says theorist y.

2) The discrepancy between theory and practice isn't that theory isn't followed in practice. A good theory should apply in reality otherwise its not a good theory. But theories only cover a small part of reality. They always come with suppose that "x,y, and z" which probably aren't exactly true in practice. When developing a theory, it may be easier to temporarilly forget the simplifying assumptions. How else could you get anything done. But you should periodically remind yourself that they exist.

3) Shouldn't we straighten out this "his/her" business? The / is really not a solution, its an indication that a problem exists. How about "hser", or "hir"? Any other solutions out there? You could say this is just the PC police.. but shouldn't there be at least an option for a gender neutral pronoun? I find myself conflicted about which stage of a story to use the pronoun, after which the gender of the person in question is clear which may be irrelevant at that point, or not wanted to be emphasized. A language should give move options.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Here's a painting I've been working on.

This weekend I visited the Pollock-Krasner house, the house where Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner lived and painted. They have an audio tour where you listen to an MP3 player that guides you around and tells you stuff about their lives and the site. It produces a weird effect where you see all these people standing by themselves staring off at the trees or river or sky, just listening. Instead of thinking of the lost conversations and lost independent thought, I went with it, and it seemed a somewhat effective way to see a place. The conversations can come afterwards. I enjoyed it, but somehow didn't feel anything new about art on an emotional level. That's ok. Like falling in love, right? Its supposed to happen later?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

humility again..

so I was asked to be specific...
but of course, i will continue to be (somewhat) metaphorical. spin, spin, spin, like all the hero politicians of our times.

one piece of the puzzle is the fact that I can explain to just about anyone what my research is about. the caveat to that statement would be the word "interested". If someone is interested, I can find a way to explain that wiggling electrons give off x-rays and one needs to know whether those electrons are stable like the moon's orbit, or unstable like comets getting thrust beyond the solar system. what i'm trying to say is that no matter how technical one gets in trying to understand something, one can always stand back and give a more accessible description of it. a bridge can be built, though it takes some good faith effort from both ends.

loneliness. there are many paths that lead to this well known territory.

i'm not sure how to make the point, but there's a sense in which the more elitest one gets, the more down to earth one gets. getting away from the popular gets you in touch with what is common internally amongst people, not that which is imposed from without. fierce independence can be related to by anyone. I'm reminded of a line by dostoyevsky about how there are no structures so sacred, no crystalline castles so pristine that they cannot be laughed at. something like that.

here's a story: when i was in kathmandu for a summer, i rented an apartment a little ways away from the center of town. across the street from me was a pharmacy. being not overly careful with cleaning of mangoes and such, I came down with a stomach sickness and walked across the street to consult the pharmacy. i was told that being american i probably knew better than them what to do about my sickness. indeed, i did have some cipro which i took and perhaps helped me out over the next few days. but i made some friends at the pharmacy. this one guy (i'm trying to remember his name) came with me over to my apartment and somehow i ended up reading my journal to him. i was sad about not being able to connect with a certain person and wrote about her quite a bit. this guy listened carefully and gave me his understanding. it was amazing to have this almost immediate connection with someone who grew up on the other side of the world in a pretty different environment from me. on the other hand, my dad also came with me during part of this trip. we were in different worlds. he was looking for external evidence of my humanity. when i taught someone a few chords on a guitar, he used this as a logical argument to convince himself that i could relate to people. it was sad. we had very little connection.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


Its easy to think that the way you ended up somewhere is the only way.
If you hold on to that too tightly then its pretty weird to find someone at the
same place, but with a totally different background and maybe seeming to not understand the
Being process oriented is important, but sometimes its also important to be results oriented I suppose.
Examples you say? Nah, not today.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


A mess can be either a lack of choice of an organizing system, or a lack of energy to put things into the chosen system. My messes are a combination of these. Why should my ski pants be on the floor next to my bed? Don't winter clothes go in a bag in the closet? Or does putting them in the closet imply an acceptance of owning ski pants? I haven't used these ski pants in over 5 years. So the building of an order that includes these red pants will imply a taking into myself of something I don't use.
etc. etc. "e" "t" "c"
thoughts for the evening.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

minor disappointment

One of the things about accelerator physics modeling that I'd found out recently was that the mathematical maps that track particles around the accelerator use a technology related to so-called "differential algebras". In particular, the claim was that there was a relationship to a subject known as "non-standard analysis". Its a pretty cool topic. The idea is to extend the real numbers to include "infinitesimals" dx, such that dx < y for all real values y. Kind of like extending real numbers to the complex plane. Anyway, the result is that one can find derivatives and integrals using algebraic methods, rather than needing to define limits and do these annoying "delta-epsilon" proofs.

So, its still true that non-standard analysis is cool. And I'm happy to have learned a bit more about it. But the guy I'm working for has the viewpoint that pushing this perspective of "Differential Algebra" methods in accelerator physics has been a bit of a fraud. His point is that when you go ahead and implement the algorithms in the computer code- you don't actually use such structures. This would be a bit disappointing because it removes some of the sex appeal of the subject... On the other hand, I'm starting to get more used to the idea of building up nice things from elementary, not so exciting pieces. (Growing up beyond exoticism, if you will.)
I haven't yet gone through the code myself to understand the extent of the claim. My suspicion is that the truth may lie somewhere in between, with "DA methods" inspiring algorithms without being used explicitly.
Anyway, I'm sure everyone will be waiting with baited breath for an update on this topic...

Monday, July 31, 2006

night of fire

Saturday night.

It started on the Brooklyn bridge, with a tug-o-war to decide whether to go to Brooklyn or Manhattan. By the time we got there, people were streaming towards Brooklyn. I had a really bad sun-burn and was with people I didn't know that well, but felt comfortable with. We were a group of about 8 but we managed to keep track of each other through the whole night. I fought off nausea as my skin started dealing with the sun I'd given it at the beach earlier. My first impressions were skepticism about the trendiness of the crowd along with the undeniable aliveness of everyone. As we watched the crowd pass us by, waiting for a friend to join us, many people would look me in the eye- really taking me in. It put my skepticism in check. I am as much a part of the scene as they are. The unequal role of observer is untenable.

Some moments:

girl on stilts in the subway ride to Coney Island. Communication reduced to group chanting: "DUCT TAPE OVER HERE. DUCT TAPE OVER HERE". We encountered the stilts girl several times later that evening.

Another subway moment: A girl shows me her Mamiya camera which she bought for $200 off ebay. She tells me that being in the dark room is therapeutic for her. The negatives on these cameras hold more information than a 35 mm. They are 2 1/2 X 2 1/2 inch squares. She says that you can see the individual pores in people's faces.
During our conversation a fight breaks out between a black fellow in a black robe and cloth hat and black woman with her daughter. He had told her to be quiet and she was having none of that. The police ended up escorting the guy out of the subway car and the lady loudly proclaimed victory- that justice had been done. Didn't seem so clear to me. Seemed like both were to blame.

Later on, we walk the streets of Brooklyn with a guy named Lenny and two people Gretchen and Sushil (something like that) who had met that night. Gretchen had been painting hundreds of people's faces, Lenny's among them. He is excited to run into her again. Lenny is a Coney Island native- seems to be a heavy drinker- works in sales for Newman's Own. When we finally part ways, leaving a party, Lenny is unwakably passed out in a chair. He was wearing angel wings and a devil's tail which someone had given to him. He had a tattoo on his upper right arm that he had drawn himself of heaven and hell, and he felt like it was destiny to be given the angel and devil garb. He planned to go swimming in Coney Island the next morning right after the water was cleaned. Probably didn't make it there til later though.

Sunday, July 30, 2006


I've been going back to old paintings to work on. The results are murky, unclear, messy. When an overall structure emerges I try to make changes to undermine it. But a certain foggy atmosphere together with a somewhat sharp structure at a smaller level of detail remains. Like I don't trust myself to make the large choices. How long can one go without making big choices? Or, is it ok to just accept that one doesn't make big choices oneself, but makes medium size choices and lives with the large scale ramifications? If I keep painting trees, then all I can create are trees. But if I paint decay or rebirth or insipid vines in a pot of gold and glimmering snow? I guess its not so different from a specialization of labor where one just does one's job and leaves the political/overall vision choices to others. But here I leave it to... my unconscious? Random chance?
Yes. Murky.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

gurus and miracles

Main questions I'm trying to answer in reading "Autobiography of a Yogi" (AY):
1) Did Maharishi get his ideas about selling TM through misrepresentation of science by reading AY and its description of kriya yoga? There seem to be many parallels.

2) How does one read a book full of descriptions of "miracles"? Assuming one doesn't believe them, what do you do with the words of someone you believe to be lying? I understand that its probably some complex mix of self-deception and telling of "sweet truths"- embellished stories to make them easier to consume for the beginner before the more complete story is in place. But some other parts of the writing may ring true. Can I trust it? I guess you just have to take everything to be on a metaphorical level. And he admits that he wasn't such a good student. So just assume that details may be wrong. Something like that.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

back to philosophy

woah... a brief mention of Adorno in a Salon article led me to a flurry of wikipedia philosophy education.
interesting to try to compare theory and practice in social sciences/ philosophy/ critical theory arena to that of physics. or maybe it just makes what i do seem more fun.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

walk away

"The fundamental story of the contemporary man
is to walk away and someday understand."
-John Prine

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


My job basically has three components- analytical, computational, and experimental. The hope is that all of these aspects will mesh together nicely to give me lots of interesting tools to do stuff and ways to think about things. For now however, it means there is a whole mess of stuff to get into place before I can do anything usefull.
*)analytical: install LaTeX, Mathematica, learn about how to write technical notes
*)computational: figure out computer infrastructure, learn C++, autoconf, make, all that junk, get passwords, interface Linux and Windows worlds
*)experimental: take tons of web courses on safety... radiation, electrical, emergency, lockout/tagout, etc...

And this is just to get things started... hopefully the fun sets in at some point. Nah, its not so bad, just a bit too many details which I do in a haphazard way.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


I was told by the guy I'm working for to add some more context to the 3 page note I'd written.
"People around here are thinking 'Sands', but you're really starting from 'Chao'". Ok.

Do I have a problem with context? Am I unconsciously unclear, or deliberately ambiguous? Maybe I use context in my own way, happy to give the wrong impression to most?
I'm reminded of the word with respect to my step mother. The word has had a talismanic feeling to me:
"If only she would understand the meaning of the word 'context'...", I told myself countless times growing up, as if it were some sort of summary of who she was and what our relationship was and how I could find a positive way out all at the same time. But the meaning of this line- both with regard to what it originally meant, and what it was encouraging me to do have remained elusive.

Monday, July 10, 2006

new things

fireflies, pond path... new editorial approaches. new people. faces? forms of humanity. abstraction. hiding.

the road cuts the stony brook campus in four pieces. the town nearby seems to have no center. the centers are small, private, wealthy. the highways cut the island up. the strip malls have no character. worse than interstate strip malls. bagel shops, 7-11's, nail parlors. haven't solved the movie problem yet. cable tv gives options, but i'd found a nice equilibrium of driving to rent, watching intensely... the cable takes the intensity out of it- something gained, something lost. must find new things of intensity. nowhere to put that energy... these neighborhoods don't feel like they will reward the wandering. everything is tamer, more controlled- yet I know there's also something wild, out of control- I just don't like it. it doesn't fit with me. i have to grow into it- growth or change?

Monday, July 03, 2006

respect vs. enabling

Let's say we have some kind of disparity between two people- one is far better with money, or housekeeping, or mathematics. And let's say they are in a situation where these skills are important. If these two people are friends, then the more advanced one will have to decide whether to help out the less advanced one. He may also have trouble respecting the other because of this disparity. Further, by helping with this skill, he may help the other to survive, but not necessarilly be able to teach him to improve dramatically, in which case he may be considered to be enabling the other.
Anyway, I notice this dynamic in my own relationships and its a tricky one to navigate- taking on the role of teacher, but wanting to hide it in order to maintain a feeling of equality. Teachers themselves must find a way to maintain respect for the student without letting their own position make them feel superior to the student.

The first line of "Autobiography of a guru" by Yogananda (which I've been reading for a variety of reasons) is

The characteristic features of Indian culture have long been a search for ultimate verities and the concomitant disciple-guru relationship.

I've never been comfortable with this concept of a guru. I've always felt that the amount of excess knowledge anyone has is small compared to the amount in common and that any two people should each have something to teach each other. This is an area where I think there is a sort of "right-wing" "left-wing" divide, and there may be something slightly undeveloped in my "left-wing" view. But I'd like to articulate my view better, so that the intuition and values can be defended.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

danger of discourse

In order to communicate, some rules must be agreed to. If one person is trying to hide some rigid structure in rhetoric, that rhetoric may be dismantled using the rules of communication agreed to. So, the more one is trying to hide in any area, the less open communcation is possible with them, because they know at an intuitive level that communication on one topic leads to application of those same rules on other topics.

Friday, June 30, 2006


The word "algorithm" has been floating around my head more and more lately. I was driving around, exploring and thought that my exploration approach is a certain algorithm that I probably use in a number of different situations. Then I started to think that I was just a bunch of algorithms. And if two people want to get together you need to know how compatible their algorithms are.

Maybe its just my way of slowly getting ready for this new job. Not sure it bodes well for the full immersion though...

Thursday, June 29, 2006

slow email

Just because the delivery mechanism of sending an email is fast doesn't mean that people's processes of writing and responding have sped up. I suppose it depends on the situation, but for many, the speed of delivery of letters was about right for periodic updates. Obvious point, but I need to remind myself of it sometimes.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Long Island (for real)

3500 miles and lots of conversation with my dad later...
Here I am.
A full fledged member of a cable tv watching household. Two physics graduate students (male), one undergrad double bass player (female), one biology grad student from France (female).
I bought some beer and pulled out my laptop along with the others to start the bonding experience.
My fancy new car still makes me a little uncomfortable.
All the planning of the trip made me feel competent-- the newly expanded set of possibilities brings me back to a foggier reality.
I succeeded in following my roommate's direction to the Mexican restaurant. It seemed like a big accomplishment. I am living in someone else's room, in another state, with just a vague sense of exhaustion and groundlessness.
As I drove, I explained to my dad all the things that had been tied up before I left. Now that sense of a neat bundle has turned into a fog. I don't think its a waste of time. Too early to tell though.

Friday, June 16, 2006


"Do you have your water and overnight bag?" I was walking down a dark street when confronted with this question from a lady walking rapidly towards me clutching a bundle of items.

"There was a small earthquake and I think there's going to be a big one."

"The sparrow and the hummingbird and the falcon told me so."

"Think good thoughts and maybe it won't happen.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

a lot to do

What does it mean to have a lot to do?
To be busy, to have lots of plans, to answer any new requests negatively...
But its not so objective. Its a tool- to say one is busy. Or rather, we define the number of new things we want to take on. Sometimes one says that just breathing is all they are doing during a certain amount of time. "I will be meditating/resting/relaxing/taking it easy tomorrow afternoon." But maybe what this really means is that they are processing something, thinking about something, feeling something. So does this person have a lot to do? Or are they considered lazy?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

three items

trying to throw junk in my office away.
lots of pieces of paper. one of them had a list of items to accomplish:
read comics (check)
waste time (check)
stare at wall (check)

Friday, May 19, 2006


I was rereading "The Drama of the Gifted Child", a sort of psychological analysis of smart kids with parents that don't have it all together, or are inadequate in some way or another. This sets up a certain dynamic where the kid can tend to put more effort into the needs of others than him/herself. So, yes, this is a specific, "malady", if you like. Why does such a person need therapy? How is it different from a dedicated friend who has been around similar people, or maybe has had similar experience? Is it just the one-sidedness of the therapist-client relationship that's special, or is there more? Is it just the continued emphasis on self-exploration- if you tend to do that with your friends anyway- be a self analytical type person, then what more does therapy offer? I guess that its the specificity of the role that the therapist is supposed to play. They listen, form a big picture, and try to find the origins of certain behavior- emphasising it again and again until the client does the same thing himself. Something like that.
Also, can I come up with a better adjective than "smart" or "gifted". What about "sensitive"? Is there a specific character trait associated with having an adaptable personality that makes one susceptible to non-normal "self" or "personailty" formation?
I know I could probably read more, and don't need to reinvent the wheel here...

failed cult members

I was recently reading about Scientology, and came across some interviews of ex-members. Most of them talk about the nasty aspects of scientology and warn people against it. For some reason, the comments of this person stuck with me. Calling the whole religious/cult phenomenon "trivial" is a pretty narrow view though.

Friday, May 12, 2006


This about covers it.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


There was a scavenger hunt type game in which we all received a clue.
We searched the lockers, but the mixture of individual agency, collective goals, selfishness and ineptness turned the game into the usual non-sensical adventure.

I was wrestling the same person, winning again and again. It was too easy.

Not sure how to interpret this one. Life hasn't been exactly easy lately.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


getting a little tired of writing about movie after movie.
though i did just see a good one ("The Passenger")
my next job is figured out, which is nice. just got back from a great backpacking trip.
i'm still happy with the title of this blog. although now that i'm basically done with grad school, i need to reinterpret the subtitle.
yes, direction. fog has no orientation. i'm almost done with "Elizabeth Costello", maybe i'll say a few words when i am.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

In The Realms Of The Unreal

I bought some dvds. This was one of them.

Lonely people.

This man drew little girls with penises.

He detailed all the deaths of the warriors in his imaginary battles.

They thought he was reclusive and didn't relate to people. The colors are really beautiful. Bright yellows for the dresses. Pale green for the trees. Elegant lines. Cartoon battlegrounds. And what's the connection to Tom Waits?
"The bats are in the belfry. The dew is on the moon. Where are the arms that held me? And pledged her love before. And pledged her love before. Its such a sallow feeling. The hills are soft and green. Its memories that I'm stealing. but you're innocent when you dream, when you dream." Ok, so he was innocent.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

the great gap?

Trying to finish my thesis, I try to find the humanity in storage rings. Can I really pull it all together into a living breathing subject, or do I need to just hide out for a little longer and do this last bit of work?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

name that movie

Bob Dylan sings, "Most of the time..."
The rain pours down.
"I guess it made more sense to commit to nothing. Keep my options open. And that's suicide. By tiny tiny increments."

(I'm gonna have to get better at this... I think google solves this one too easilly. "Everything I ever learned about relationships, I learned from...")


The long awaited sbemail150

Sunday, April 02, 2006

grizzly man

the things we go through to find meaning.
this film was many things.
i guess i don't really have a summary statement. just a wave of nostalgia and a sense of loss and curiosity at the future.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

car physics

In thinking about this question of whether accelerator physics is really physics, I think about the question of whether the problems facing car designers is physics. When you drive your car really fast, you want it to be a smooth ride. Is the systematic understanding of bumpiness in rapidly moving cars physics? Is it science?

I guess I would have to say the answer is maybe. The question is whether systematic approaches can be developed or not. That seems to be what we mean by science. The statistical mechanics of bumps in the road and the understanding of shock absorbers is applied physics. If one simply models the car in a really complex way, writing an elaborate computer program that simulates the effects of bumps, I would be more reluctant to call that physics. Coming up with simple models, finding what elements are essential and understanding that simplified model: that is what I would call physics.

The old joke about the physicists who starts out a calculation: "suppose the horse is a sphere..." that does seem to capture what we mean by physics in a way. It may be bad physics if one wants to understand how fast the horse can run, or how its surface to volume ratio relates to heat production, but the modeling aspect is physics.

Maybe physics has come to mean two distinct things. There is basic physics which relates to understanding of things in the extreme. Extreme simplicity, size- large and small, speed, complexity, etc. Then there is the process by which a system is replaced by a simplified model which is then analyzed. This is the sense in which accelerator physics is physics. I replace the complex of magnetic fields by a symplectic matrix. Quantum mechanics is ignored. The thoughts in the people nearby are ignored. The rising and setting sun is probably ignored.

Coming back to the car then, if you can think of it as a damped driven harmonic oscillator, then you are indeed doing physics. So I don't know how much interesting stuff has come out of car physics. But it does seem clearly meaningful to talk about car physics, even if the purpose is to design a better car.

What comes out of this definition of physics, however, seems to be that physics is not fundamental. It is an element of how we understand our world, a specific mode. It is not particularly descriptive. Listing the objects in a room is not physics, but it is a part of understanding the room. To take this a little further, one might say that physics is a language in which the world can be described. It asks the user to be very sparse in the number of elements of that description. One can use harmonic oscillators. One can use Hamiltonians. One can use random variables. One can use heat transfer and rigid bodies. From this language one will find that some things are quite difficult to describe.

You might argue that one always uses physics. If I say that there is a beer bottle and an apple core on my futon, you could ask: what do you mean by beer bottle and apple core? Don't you mean brown glass with colored labels and a spongy object which is a collection of cells and sugar molecules? The point is that I might not have these "scientific" descriptions at hand, yet I can still make myself understood by using the words "beer bottle" and "apple core". And beer bottle and apple core are really not words in the physics language.

Am I getting closer to understanding? I know one can go around and around in circles with these questions. But I do feel like this leaves me slightly closer to where I wanted to go.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

science vs. technology

The topic of whether accelerator physics is really "physics" or even science is a sensitive one for me. Or at least an interesting one. Anyway, I found this discussion thread from a few months ago at Cosmic Variance, and decided to add a comment.

Sometimes it feels like an arranged marriage to me. I've decided on this field, and I'm trying my hardest to like it. To make it work. One solution is to work towards fitting it into the framework of physics that I know and love. This works for some of the work I do and a good amount of the interesting stuff in the field. But it also leaves out the more engineering aspects which I should probably understand. How do I deal with this? One way is to try to remove the stigma from the word "engineering". I read about the philosophy of engineering. I am happy to discover that engine and engneering have common origin, rather than one being derived from the other. Then there is the word technology. The phrase "evils of technology" flows more naturally off of one's tongue than does the "evils of science". Maybe the nuclear bomb and nanotechnology turning the world into a gray goo come under the latter, but the whole issue of quality of life in the modern world and our questionable attitude of finding high tech solutions to problems instead of looking at root causes seems to me more pervasive and has more resonance for me. So, I need to do some work in thinking about my attitude towards technology and engineering. The design of bridges or economies has never interested me that much. Why should I be involved in design of accelerators when I'm not interested in these other more prevalent things?

Yes. I'm ambiguous. Maybe its just exhaustion, but this does seem like a question I need to resolve at some point.

some photos

more interviews yesterday. Overall the talk went pretty well. I think I actually explained our approach to intrabeam scattering somewhat clearly.

The first of these photos is of the booster accelerator. I think that there's actually two rings in the same tunnel, the booster and the anti-proton accumlator which stores the anti-protons. Anyway, its an impressive operation getting all these protons and anti-protons up to close to 1TeV to collide in the Tevatron.

The second picture is Wilson hall. I think it was designed by Robert Wilson, the first director of Fermilab. From the top floor you can see all the different accelerators.

One of the interesting questions I was asked yesterday was whether I really care about things like the ILC (International Linear Collider) and the LHC (Large Hadron Collider). Its a question I've thought about. The short answer is that I want to care about them, but I'm not sure I do. Maybe I'll write more about it sometime.

Monday, March 27, 2006


My last interview today was in the 12th floor of Wilson hall. This was the first interview I've had that actually felt like an interview, where my thinking and abilities were being judged. This was the second Russian I spoke with. Lets call him Dr. S.
After I sat down, Dr. S reached into a back corner of his office on top of a filing cabinet and began to pull out a variety of objects one at a time. The first was a rock.

He placed it in my hands and asked me to tell him what it was. "Its a rock", I suggested. "Uh, it has some quartz in it?" I added, venturing into unknown teritory. "Yes," he responded noting the sparkles from the rock. He didn't leave me hanging for too long. "This was dug out of a mine over there," he said motioning out the window into the distance. "The ILC may be built on this. It looks ok, right? Pretty sturdy?"

The next item was a circular metallic ring. "What's this?" asked Dr. S. "Uh, a copper ring?" I replied. "Ok, but tell me about it. Why is it darker on the outside than on the inside?" "Oxydation?" It was an ok answer but showed I'd never seen such a thing. He explained that it was a connector between pieces of beam pipe. It had been heated to expell outside gas and the outside was in contact with the air and so turned black whereas the inside was in vacuum.

This carried on for about 10 items. I think I got one of them right. I tried to ask questions and at least show interest. He then asked me about the various research projects I'd done 6 years ago that I barely remembered the details of. I told him about the solenoid problem and then he asked me how fast the fringe fields fall off, which I couldn't answer.

I did get to explain a few things I understood and felt glad to be challenged and have my ignorance of the field out in the open. I know I wasn't as sharp as I can be, but hopefully I said at least a few useful things. Tomororrow I give my talk.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

global warming skepticism

At some point I plan to try to figure this stuff out.
This looks worthwhile.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


How many wars have been started because old friend the small frog disappeared, never to be seen again, without a word of explanation?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

another movie

cracker jack ring engraved. zebra rugs.
"you look tres distingue yourself!"
(the first of these should give it away)
Now I remember where this genre comes from... its the annoying ads you see before movies in some theatres.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

ontology is overrated

I enjoyed reading this essay (talk) by Clay Shirky.
The part on search seemed to capture a change I'm somewhat familiar with but still adapting to.
The part on tags made me want to play around with these things and learn more.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

snow in san francisco!

Just a little bit left along the side of the trail of Lake Merced.
It was a refreshing snack during my run that had turned into walk.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

relieving tension

Sometimes it seems that the world is made of screens and text.

I am trying to relax. I know that there are things that my mind needs to do, that it won't do until I remove all the stimuli.
But what do I do during these times? One can call it meditation. Maybe wrestling with demons?

I suppose it is a privilege to be able to return to the ground state; to be able to cross this peak made of old thoughts. This is where evil can come from. When one is not allowed the time to return to where one came from. To keep the tension high for so long that one forgets what its like to not have it.

No. I refuse to see it as a privilege. Instead I see the lack of returning as sickness. But what about those of us who are slow? I suppose most societies find ways to accomodate. I don't know that ours has done this very well.

Friday, February 24, 2006


People are funny contraptions.
They carry the influences from so many different sources.
I have tried to graft my mother's use of simple exclamatory statements onto a darker, more unwieldy branch. It works to some extent, serves its purpose and even contains some wisdom. But it leaves gaps behind.
Yes! I will see you soon! That sounds great!!
I haven't yet gone beyond the double exclamation point, which my mom has long left behind for the 5, 10, 20 exclamation points. Happy Birthday!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thank you for visiting!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
These lines skate across the surface of my life. I leave them as colorful decorations, stand-ins for something more. A more substantial relationship. They go to the heart of a simpler version of me. They are forgotten. Put in stacks to be understood at a later time. Always later. After I can remake myself in a different mold, these lines will speak directly to me.
From my dad I have story telling. But at a more immediate level, I have his voice, his intonation. Here there is a vein of interaction, a reaching out for the world. In me it is inconsistent, another graft. My readings of politics are abstract, impotent, voyeuristic. And defensive. A preparation for repeats of ideological battles of the past.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


need to the build bridges from lab to beam frame. just a lorentz transformation you say.
just maxwell's equations, you say. just quantum field theory, I respond.
use the symbols and they become stronger.
a new typeface is a new material. will \mathbb combined with \mathcal
stand up in an earthquake? under heavy traffic?
is such "poetry" absurd?
well, maybe bad, but not absurd. maybe has a rather small audience.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

sausage thesis

1) Get a bunch of results. Express in a variety of notations of varying degrees of clarity and redundancy.

2) Come back to these results several years later. Do not read all the details. They will overwhelm you.

3) Create many appendices. Put old material in appendix and cut and paste final results to text.

4) Create storyline in text, tying results together. Unify notation and migrate material from appendices back to main text.

5) Remove some of the appendices.

6) Create even more of a meta-story line. Call this the "introduction" and "conclusion".

*.5) (where * \in 0...6) despair of healthfulness of process to self and those unfortunate others who must consume.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

a building dream

We had to climb these thin buildings, climbing up thousands of feet into the air. We were given a contraption that would tell us two different stories, each emanating from a different part of the device. As long as you were very still you were ok, but I found myself wanting to stretch out, relax, and I knew that that would mean that I would fall. The end of the task finally arrived and we were given a choice, which I didn't clearly hear. To my great surprise everyone else, when hearing the choice jumped off their buildings to their death. I held onto mine and slid all the way down. Only one other person also made it down. I gave that person a high five and a hug and joined a few others who were waiting there, a bit curious about what had gone on up there.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

life within

When the life feels like its draining out, it can feel like by running a little faster it can be recovered. I think that I just need to clean up my apartment and I'll find it hiding underneath the papers in the corner. Or maybe its the mildew on the ceiling that's obscuring it. When I just sit on my bed and relax and find that slowly the blankness turns colorful and feelings well up from the void its always so funny that I was so convinced that I was waiting to be found in some dark corner. It was true in a certain sense... just not hiding underneath my various jackets and books strewn about.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

the procrastination sets in

There are just too many of these...


This whole process of trying to get job offers is strange.
One of the positions doesn't exist, but they are opening up a position for me. The problem is that in order to do that they need to think there is a reasonable chance that I'll actually take the job if they offer it to me. In this case there is a reasonable chance to take the job, but I'm wondering how effectively I'm communicating that. When I am overworked it seems that this ability to judge this type of thing is seriously impaired. I think that my natural tendency is to be the nice guy and make all sorts of promises that I can't keep. So I go in the other direction and keep things very formal and brief. I feel like I'm involved with this elaborate poker game of bluffs and counterbluffs, which I'd like to break out of and just tell the truth. The problem with some types of truth is that they are complicated and can be seriously misunderstood if not fully understood.

Anyway, my advisor suggesting to me that this is an exciting offer and I should be "enthusiastic" is one of the hardest aspects of this whole process so far. I'm not much of a bargainer.

I was thinking about what it would be like if the process of getting married were like this... if the goal was to get two or three offers and then take a few months to consider them, weigh the pros and cons and then make a decision. Maybe all the applications would be due around April sometime and the responses would filter in by May/June...

I was going to say that I must clearly be out in left field, but thinking about it I wonder if right field isn't the better analogy... maybe missed the game due to bad traffic? uh.. anyone?

Monday, February 06, 2006

sans soleil

enjoying this movie.
narrator says about the 60's in Tokyo: (approximately)
"I could not join with the Utopian idealists who wanted to combine those who revolt against poverty with those who revolt against wealth"

Is this an intelligent line? It sounds good at first. I'll have to think about it more.


When someone claims that a certain subject is "understood" or "well understood", one should be careful of reading too much into it. Interesting things happen at the interface between subjects. It may well be that person claiming something is understood is not actually the one that understands it. And the one who does understand the subject may not understand the other suject that the given author is writing about.

My feeling is that the subject of quantum mechanics is like this. Each aspect is understood, but not many people understand all the different aspects. When these different aspects are combined, surprising things may result that some people know but just don't realize are "surprising".

This is what the process of teaching is about- combining together the understandings of different people to combine a unified understanding. It is not always given a lot of respect because people within the system may not see a need for the global understanding. They know what they know and they know in a certain sense what other people know and the system fits together to run the accelerator or detector or even to compute the 3 loop diagrams or whatever. It is a network of knowledge and people have enough information about the interfaces that they can usefully contribute, but don't know many of the insights that the whole picture contains. The negative attitude towards teaching and integration of understanding can be partly self serving worry that they won't be as important once the whole thing is seen clearly and also a real concern that those that spend their time on integration may well not appreciate the depths of the subject and the strength of the network itself may in danger if too many people were to work on integration instead of detailed work within a defined area.

Saturday, February 04, 2006


Today I added pieces of yellow and small green lines. I forgot what a diverse activity painting can be!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

arrogance in science

My thesis distracting google search for today was "arrogance physics" which led me to this article from Physics Today entitled "Arrogance- a Dangerous Weapon of the Physics Trade". The author, J. Murray Gibson, argues that arrogance is a two-edged sword. A valuable tool in science that is then misused outside in the scientists dealings with people and other subjects.

There are two questions I have. The first is whether the desirable quality in research is really adequately described as arrogance. And if it is, might there not be another way to accomplish the same thing? He seems to be refering to unshakable confidence. Really, what one needs is the ability to follow through. You take some (possibly counter-intuitive and doubtful) hypothesis and take it extremely seriously. But one can be confident without being arrogant, I think. Suppose you tell someone something and they respond by furrowing their brow, looking at you quizically and responding with quiet confidence: "sorry, but you are wrong." I don't think that this is arrogance, and I think that it can be very effective at getting a point across. It gives the perspective that the other person has been understood. An arrogant attitude comes across when the other person is not carefully listened to. Just the surface of what they are saying is taken in, but the arrogant person is so confident that they could not have a relevant point, that they disregard the majority of what is being said.

I think that instead of arrogance being the desirable quality in itself, it is more a side effect of putting so much of one's self into a particular idea. If that idea turns out to be wrong, or not particularly usefull to most people, then when dealing with those people it is a sad fact that you don't share so much in common. It is the protection against falling into irrelivance that underlies arrogance. An honest discussion of exactly what you are working on with an earnest attempt to bridge the gap may well result in most people shrugging their shoulders and finding you rather odd for putting so much effort into that one thing.

I admit that it is sometimes easier to be arrogant. For example, after hearing a brief overview of what my research about, if someone were to tell me that they thought my research was wrong, I would be very tempted to completely disregard what they are saying. I don't expect someone to really get what I am doing based on a 30 second blurb and thus may assume that they don't have a relevant criticism. But patience is still a better approach in this situation, if you really want to communicate something to the other person.

When two people have some common understanding, then arrogance can play a useful role in a conversation. It is a sort of posturing. It is a short-hand way of telling the other person, that they have not been careful enough to understand what you are saying. My advisor and I trade this attitude back and forth sometimes, and I think he is an extremely non-arrogant guy otherwise. It is not so serious because it is understood that it doesn't represent a true lack of respect.

So there are these games that are played. Gibson makes a good point about this in the article. He says that he knows just how to shout at his advisor in order to get what he wants and not make him mad. But if a black person or a woman were to take a similar tone, it may not work. The games are played at an emotional level and not often articulated. It is in this realm where unrecognised sexism and racism can enter. One finds that people who are not in the dominant group are not as effective at the unarticulated interpersonal dynamics because of different emotional responses based on stereotypes/generalizations about a group.

Someone like Lubos Motl would argue that such interpersonal dynamics are not really so important, and when they are, the members of the underrepresented group find different or better ways of getting the same thing. For example, he argues that because male physicists find female physicists "beautiful", they are more likely to want to collaborate with them. (I'm trying to find the exact place he said that but can't seem to. See here for a recent discussion thread on this topic that he was involved in.) Arguments along these lines show a not very subtle understanding of inter-personal dynamics. He treats that subject as if it can be discussed without an evaluation of what terms mean and the process of dialogue where people come to an understanding. It is exacerbated by the discussion being in English and that not being his native language, but I don't think that that's the main issue. When someone like Clifford Johnson tries to engage him in a more subtle discussion of similar issues he either gets defensive or says that he can't understand the logic of the discussion.