Site Meter

Sunday, April 29, 2007

local/global lives

When I went to Nepal in 1997, my dad encouraged me to observe the ways of life of some of the people we saw because so many old ways were being lost. He also told me stories of the introduction of TV into island communities. An intact community with a variety of ways of interacting now spends much of its time watching TV, absorbing lives from far off places causing rapid change that leads to alcoholism and general community breakdown. That's the extreme end of things.

The internet, or perhaps Web 2.0, or whatever, is supposed to be different. Our spending time looking at a screen is supposed to connect real people together- create community rather than destroy. I find myself drawn into Facebook and Myspace (and this blog!) and indeed, it does feel like a new social forum. I saw a parody video on You-Tube related to these social networks which included the line "Go ahead, let Facebook intrude into and completely change your life!"

As usual, I feel like I'm a few years late getting into the debate. I guess I just want to try to clarify the ways in which these new forms of communication and community building change our lives. In what ways do our local lives fit into our distributed networked lives?

There's a voice in me that says I'm not supposed to ask these questions. It says that it is the job of the sociologists to ask these questions. The wisdom of this voice is that perhaps really all I should be doing is finding something that works for me. I don't need to answer these questions for others. But at the same time, without asking the general questions, the space in which I will actually find my own solutions isn't opened up.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

the mathematician's power play

Interesting post at the blog The Truth Makes Me Fret.

Here is an article by Max Tegmark about mathematical reality.
Tegmark wants to argue from the existence of an external reality to the existence of a mathematical external reality-- basically that math is all there is. I admit that this "math is all there is" idea is pretty appealing to me. I think that while possibly true in some sense, at the same time it is less powerful than it seems at first.

I go through this mental excercise sometimes: suppose I spend much of my time studying X. Now here is why X is the most important thing in the world. Now repeat this exercise for Y.

For example, economics: We can't survive without resources. Study of exchange and management of resources is thus absolutely crucial.
Now try psychology: obviously thinking is important. We spend much of our time thinking and much of our existence is manifest through our thoughts. Thus, the study of the structure of thinking and its resultant behavior is clearly of the utmost importance, dare I say, crucial?

Ponder Stibbons shows in her post that Tegmark gets his result by a confusing use of the word "baggage".
I suppose Tegmark might find a way around this critique by claiming he didn't quite mean this or that, and I want to read his article more carefully, but as a document, it strikes me as an attempt for mathematical physics to regain the throne (in case it ever lost it).

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

the wonder years

oh no, i hadn't seen this show in just such a long time.
i feel like i should be embarassed, but instead, for the moment it becomes my ideal of romance. am i really stuck back in junior high?

"when i hear great soft rock, it always takes me back to a relaxing place, like a beach, or a house on a lake," says the man trying to sell me the cd set of songs to bring back the memories of the 70's.

here's a memory: i took this spanish class through cabrillo college at santa cruz high. one of the class members was billy rainbow (arcoiris). whenever we sang a certain song, the teacher would stop and say in a dreamy voice "ah, las memorias." i'm not sure why, but ruthie always found that incredibly funny.

"whenever i hear these songs, always feel like i'm on vacation"
"you know angela, you're absolutely right!"
"but don't go looking for this classic collection of songs in stores, because its not available."
"if its not the best music you've ever heard, send it back, and keep, absolutely free, our cd of classics from 1977"

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

elegant art?

I've been struggling with a painting. I look at it and it looks very complicated. Its achieved a certain consistency. The level of detail is similar throughout. I see smoke and drama, squares, ugly chunky bits and underwater areas with wrongly colored Dr. Seuss-like swirls. I'd say its interesting to look at.

The problem is that I don't like to look at it. Its too much. Its not at a human scale. Or maybe its just that I'm tired and burnt out and don't feel like I have the perspective to see what might be elegant in it. My instinct is that its not particularly elegant.

So do I keep working on this painting? I've never bought that strongly into the express yourself school of art. More about having a dialogue with color and form. People praise art that expresses difficult emotions but manages to maintain a balance. To pull form out of chaos. Is this just our preference for the happy ending?

I guess I'm saying that this painting can be done without it having an elegant resolution. Sure, maybe I'll paint over it or throw it away some day. But for today, this painting can be done. Its an expression of where I am today. And maybe given that, I can start another that will find the elegance beyond this particular mess.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

more on Wendell Berry

I've been really appreciating this book of essays by Wendall Berry called "The Way of Ignorance". His basic examples come from agriculture and farming which he has experience with, but I can't help finding many parallels to physics.

His essay "Local Knowledge in the Age of Information" really solidified for me a good part of the reason (in a roundabout way) why I am in a national lab instead of trying to go directly to a university. He describes the need for conversation between the center and the periphery. He says that the periphery needs the center as much as the center needs the periphery. At the center, inormation is collected and efficient ways of representing and presenting that information is found. Life occurs on the periphery. Contact with the center can give one access to a wealth of experience from other places. But without conversation, the center loses its understanding that it owes its existence to the periphery, and the periphery loses its ability to ask for help and to gain useful information that will work within an appropriately local context.

Here's a (perhaps obscure) example given by a certain physicist that I work with. I think it provides a physics example Of Berry's point about the need for conversation and an illustration of what local knowledge looks like. Consider non-linear single particle dynamics in accelerators. The needs of this discipline involve predicting whether a particle in a certain non-linear system will stay within a certain region for very long or not (the dynamic aperture). Non-linear dynamical systems have been studied in other contexts as well. The gravitational n-body problem is an example from astrophysics. In that context, one wants to know, for example, whether our solar system will be stable over long time periods. The knowledge from this and other fields requiring the understanding of long term dynamics of non-linear systems has made it to the universities. Dynamical systems research collects together such knowledge. Now, certain theorems exist, such as the KAM theorem in which long-term stability criterion have been found. The problem is that the perturbations are just too big in an accelerator or a solar system for the theorems to apply. So, it may be that people in the universities think that in some sense the problem has been solved, wheras in "the field", the solutions are useless, and the very sense of arrogance implied in the attitude that the problem is essentially solved may at times do more harm than good.

Yes, this idea of conversation between the center and the periphery is very interesting to me, even if my example and explanation is rather murky at the moment.

Monday, April 16, 2007

murky again

building toys- trying to define an interface, make something that works. infrastructure, always working below the surface.
lately the dominant image has been climbing around on bars- a gigantic metal cage.
i'm watching the x-files movie. adds a dose of mystery.
no clear path.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

particular/general language

Wendell Berry, in his essay "Imagination in Place", writes
All this [pressures of farming] calls for an exactly particularizing language. This is the right kind of language for a writer, a language developing, so to speak, from the ground up. It is the right kind of language for anybody, but a lot of our public language now seems to develop downwards from a purpose. Usually the purpose is to mislead, the particulars being selected or invented to suit the purpose; or the pariculars dangle loosely and unregarded from the dislocated intellectuality of the universities. This is contrary to honesty and also to practicality.
This reminds me of questions about the role of theory in physics. It is generally concieved to be the theorists who design the language and the experimentalists who work within that framework, occasionally finding that the framework is inadequate, thereby requiring a reworking.

If top-down language is dishonest and impractical, then what is its appropriate role? Could the tension here be between passing of knowledge through experience and through writing or language? A person that is able to do something can then teach someone else to do it. Songs can be passed down orally from generation to generation.

But Wendell Berry is also an author and thus captures something in his writing. Perhaps the point is that it is always through example that he teaches. There's something appealing to me about this picture of knowledge embodied in experienced people rather than in books, because I am so heavily biased in the other direction. But whenever one encounters what one lacks, it needs to be taken slowly so that what one has isn't destroyed in the process.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


no time to shop.
so dinner is oatmeal and peanut butter and jelly, chips and salsa.
lunch was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
now i have forty five minutes to rewrite greenlseeves from e minor to a minor before my guitar lesson.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

zen planning

It seems so clear that the present is when experience happens and so being in the now is obviously important. But at the same time, we are constantly making plans. We concieve of the moment as part of a broader gesture and this gives it meaning and improves the present.
This kind of micro thinking however is a bit like analyzing a novel letter by letter. I guess I'm wondering what Buddhism has to say about how the present relates to longer amounts of time. We have to make plans. We have to work. We have to do all sorts of long term things. Are we sacrificing the present for the future, or building meaning?
Anyway, this conflict between existing in the present but planning for the future is one that I seem to keep coming back to over the years.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


to clean is to decide what is dirty- to follow through on a system.
if the system is awful, the result can be awful as in ethnic cleansing.

but today, if i organize my clothes, and put my books on my bookshelf, and throw out most of my junk mail, i don't think i'll hurt anyone too badly.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

eating turkey,

drinking beer in bed and listening to the rain- this is the life!