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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...