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Monday, March 26, 2007


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 25, 2007

when we look back

how will we describe this time, someday?

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

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

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

(reading /the book of laughter and forgetting/)

Friday, March 23, 2007

dharma talks

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

Sunday, March 18, 2007

physics is conflict?

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

Thursday, March 15, 2007

more tm stuff

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

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

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


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

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

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

Monday, March 12, 2007

bread crumbs

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

Saturday, March 10, 2007

synchrotron light sources

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

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

Ok, so what is a synchrotron light source?

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

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

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

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

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

Ok. So, on to question 3. Why?

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

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

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

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


I saw Almodovar's recent film Volver last night.

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

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


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

Ok, Boaz, now get to work!

Monday, March 05, 2007

spectacle of religion


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

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

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

Three modern day myths. Seductive conclusions.

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

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

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

Thursday, March 01, 2007

working with other people

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

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