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Tuesday, January 30, 2007


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 26, 2007

more science/religion debate

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

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

Monday, January 22, 2007

large fish swimming below in murky waters

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 19, 2007


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

Monday, January 15, 2007

back to physics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 13, 2007


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

Friday, January 12, 2007

mirror of technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


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

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

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

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

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

Is God French or English?

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

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

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

Sunday, January 07, 2007


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

Friday, January 05, 2007


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