Labyrinth is, of course, the 1986 fantasy film with David Bowie:
However, labyrinth also refers to the balance organ of the inner ear. The structure contains three orthogonal fluid-filled canals (hence "labyrinth") that sense rotations, along with additional organs that sense linear accelerations. This combines with visual inputs to give us our sense of balance.
So while the word labyrinthitis could refer to an uncontrollable nostalgia-driven desire to revisit the aforementioned David Bowie flick, it is actually the name for a viral infection of the balance organ. The symptoms of this infection bring to mind another movie entirely:
The experience of labyrinthitis can be easily simulated by a healthy individual. First, get your alcoholic drink of choice. Then, consume it until it feels like the room is spinning. Now imagine that this sensation persists continuously for a week. I've been describing it as "like being drunk without the fun part." Naturally it's tempting to grab some booze and add the fun back in, but I suspect that this approach is contraindicated.
At one point this week I thought the vertigo had become so severe that it felt like I was in an earthquake. Then I realized it was an actual earthquake. The various natural disasters striking the East Coast this week are not helping my condition any, but maybe if Hurricane Irene is spinning in the same direction as my head I won't even notice it.
Years ago, in an eerie bit of foreshadowing, I contemplated in dinosaur comic form the possibility of being stuck with a constant spinning sensation. At the time I thought it merely a theological hypothesis, but now I know that labyrinthitis truly is... rotating hell.
Today I decided to test the notion that you never forget how to ride a bicycle. In my case it had been about 20 years since I last rode a bike, so it seemed plausible that I might actually have forgotten. It turned out that while I was pretty inept when I got on the bike today, I was almost certainly better than I would have been had I never learned in the first place. It took intense concentration, but I managed to avoid falling over, colliding with anything, or ending up in the Hudson River (it turns out the trail has no guardrail between about 100th and 125th streets).
Some thoughts about the re-learning process:
My patio this morning:
Didn't see days like this in California...
The most entertaining Valentine's Day themed item I read yesterday came from Foreign Policy, in the form of a Stephen Walt blog post applying international relations theory to romance:
To begin with, any romantic partnership is essentially an alliance, and alliances are a core concept on international relations. Alliances bring many benefits to the members (or else why would we form them?) but as we also know, they sometimes reflect irrational passions and inevitably limit each member's autonomy. Many IR theorists believe that institutionalizing an alliance makes it more effective and enduring, but that's also why making a relationship more formal is a significant step that needs to be carefully considered.
Of course, IR theorists have also warned that allies face the twin dangers of abandonment and entrapment: the more we fear that our partners might leave us in the lurch (abandonment), the more likely we are to let them drag us into obligations that we didn't originally foresee (entrapment). When you find yourself gamely attending your partner's high school reunion or traveling to your in-laws for Thanksgiving dinner every single year, you'll know what I mean.
In this interdisciplinary spirit, I wondered if finance has any similar lessons to teach, but I didn't think of much. Relationships aren't assets to be traded, after all, and you can't short sell by breaking up with someone whom you weren't actually dating. However, it does seem that online dating is countercyclical which at least suggests that one's chances might improve during a recession.
It's Christmas Eve, which means that once again I've been out shopping, and once again I've sworn not to do this next year. There are probably more crowded shopping days—the weekend after Thanksgiving and the weekend before Christmas come to mind—but it's crowded enough, and that's compounded with the stress of having to make decisions at the last minute.
Why do I do this every year? It's not just that I'm an inveterate procrastinator: I was actually motivated this year to make several earlier shopping trips, and returned empty-handed from each of them. The problem is that I'm especially bad at shopping for gifts. After some contemplation (while sitting in mall traffic) I've come to the conclusion that there are a couple reasons for this.
One of them is that I'm just bad at shopping, period. Even when shopping for myself I tend to be very indecisive. Suppose I'm looking at a rack of shirts, and I don't have strong preferences among the colors and styles available. Then, rationally, I should just be able to pick any one of them and it won't matter much, right? But instead I feel compelled to try to divine some weak preferences I have that might decide the issue, and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out which one I like best.
It seems a little crazy that I wouldn't know my own preferences, even if they're weak ones. But it's worse than that. I don't even know my own strong preferences, and thus I'm plagued with buyer's remorse. I will frequently buy something (usually clothes) and shortly thereafter realize that I don't like it at all. Why did I buy it then? Why, especially, did I buy it after such long consideration? Apparently I'm just Bad At Consumerism.
But there's another aspect to gift-buying beyond just shopping. Giving a gift is a social interaction, and there are interpersonal skills that come into play even in gift selection. After all, in selecting a gift one is trying to guess at the preferences of someone else, and those who are good at doing this are people who are good at relating to and connecting to others. And on the other end of the spectrum, someone with my abysmal social skills is going to have a lot of trouble figuring out what someone else would like to have.
In some cultures it's appropriate just to give cash, and this has a certain appeal. But despite the fact that I'm rarely successful at it, there is something nice about giving a well-selected gift. Not just something that is intrinsically valuable and that the recipient would like to have, but something that they wouldn't have thought to buy themselves, something that is an expression of my relationship to them over and above "I hope you like this".
If only I could get better at it. Anyone have any good heuristics for gift-shopping (or shopping in general)?
On Saturday the New York Times published an article entitled "Finding Your First Apartment in New York City", about two weeks too late for me to actually make use of it. However, the advice in the article can mostly be found easily online, so I didn't feel like I missed out. They emphasize not going into the search with unrealistic expectations—I actually had the opposite experience, where after years of hearing horror stories about Manhattan housing, I didn't expect to be able to rent anything larger than a closet and was pleasantly surprised at what was actually available in my price range.
Anyway, the Manhattan rental market is quite different from most in a few ways. Obviously a lot of it's driven by the fact that a Manhattan address is highly sought-after, leading to a very low vacancy rate (sometimes quoted as 0.5%, although I think it's higher at the moment) and vastly higher rents than in other U.S. cities. I'd heard from several sources that competition for any given apartment can be fierce, and it's best to apply for a unit on the spot if it looks good, since it may not be available later. However, right now (maybe due to the recession) this didn't seem to be the case. There were a surprising number of vacancies, a number of landlords were offering "specials" with a discount of several hundred dollars per month, and I felt comfortable taking a couple days to consider my options without the units I liked being snapped up.
Another unusual feature of the New York market is that many apartments are only available through a broker. The typical New York apartment search involves hiring a broker to spend a day or two showing available units; when the lease is signed the broker collects a substantial fee from the renter, typically 15% of the annual rent.
The broker is definitely the easiest way to go if you're on a tight schedule, but my take is that if you've got time to do the research, there's no need to go through a broker: there are a number of landlords who will rent apartments directly. The trick is finding them, but luckily we have the internet. Craigslist has a separate listing for no-fee apartments, and one can find recommendations of no-fee management companies around the web (here for example). There's also a book that I found extremely useful called The Nouveau Native's No Fee New York: it has not only general advice for apartment hunting in New York, but also a very comprehensive list of landlords offering no-fee rentals. Many of these landlords list availabilities on their websites, which made it very easy to put together a shortlist before I even got to New York.
From that point it was just like searching for an apartment anywhere else, only with much, much higher rents. Landlords in New York tend to require a lot of documentation to prove that you'll be able to pay: at least a letter of employment and usually also bank statements and pay stubs, and sometimes tax returns and W-2s. If you're coming from out of town, it's a good idea to take this stuff with you so you can apply on the spot.
I ended up renting from a management company called Archstone, and it was such a good experience that I want to mention them here. I was able to walk into two of their buildings without an appointment and get full tours from very helpful leasing agents; on top of that the website has a lot of information, and even lets you apply online. They have properties all over the country so it's worth checking out if you're in the market somewhere other than Manhattan.
Anyway, the housing search turned out to be surprisingly easy given all the tales of woe I'd heard about the Manhattan rental market. Now I'm working on the next challenge: getting all my stuff across the country and into the new apartment.
I haven't been blogging much lately, due to a combination of travel, job interviews, visitors, generally being away from the internet, and the release of Super Smash Bros. Brawl. However, now that my job search has reached a conclusion, I felt an announcement was in order. I've just accepted an offer from Morgan Stanley, where I'll be working in the Process Driven Trading group as a Quantitative Research Associate.
This is obviously a major career change for me. Those who have followed my posts related to career issues and academia know that I have been dissatisfied with the usual academic physicist career track for a while now, but I only started to seriously consider finance as an alternative about a year ago. There's a commonly-held belief in the physics community that finance is where you end up if you don't make the cut in physics, and that the work in that field, while lucrative, is just not very interesting; this led me to rule out the option for a long time without really looking into it. However, in talking to people who work in finance I came to realize that there are intellectual rewards to be found there, and that it was a worthwhile option to investigate. And finance contains the type of problems I enjoy working on in experimental physics—mainly related to working with data and optimizing experimental parameters—without involving hardware-related issues that I won't miss (such as soldering and handling cryogens), and bringing in some (mainly game-theoretic) topics I've long been interested in but haven't had a chance to pursue seriously.
Over the course of my job search I did find many positions that were ultimately unappealing, either because of the role or the personalities of the people I met. PDT on the other hand combined an intellectually interesting position with an attractive work environment and a group of people I will enjoy working with. Throughout my job search I have considered those factors to be more important than which field I end up in, and it's the main reason I ended up accepting their offer. An additional advantage is the location; while I'll very much miss California, I'm excited to have the opportunity to live in New York City. (The photo at the top of this post is misleading, as I'll be working at Morgan Stanley's headquarters in Times Square rather than downtown—Wall Street in the metonymic sense, not the literal one.)
One thing I will miss in leaving physics is the sense of working on something fundamental, of learning something profound about how the universe works. This does have real value, and while markets are interesting systems, studying them won't be quite the same from that perspective. On the other hand, they say that to find your ideal job, you should look at what you like to do in your spare time. And as many of you know, what I do outside the lab is play games, on the tabletop or the TV screen. I love planning strategies and the distinct pleasures of a successful play. The finance industry is the biggest game in the world, and I'm excited to be joining in.
Ezra Klein has a post on how people undervalue a short commute when deciding where to live. According to an article he links to,
A commuter who travels one hour, one way, would have to make 40% more than his current salary to be as fully satisfied with his life as a noncommuter, say economists Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer of the University of Zurich's Institute for Empirical Research in Economics.
This will of course be an extremely relevant issue for me soon, once it's time to relocate. Depending on where I end up working, it could be in competition with some of my other criteria, such as living in a walkable neighborhood. If I take a job in, say, Manhattan, short commute and neighborhood walkability pretty much coincide, but if it's in an exurban office park somewhere I have to trade off one for the other. This in turn feeds back somewhat into my job decisions. In some ways I have it easy, though: being single, I only have one commute to worry about. The minimization problem for two-income households is certainly more complicated...
Valentine's Day is about as personally relevant to me as is Passover or Guy Fawkes Day, and since I'm likely to move to a distant, undetermined location in the next month or two, dating is a very low priority for me. However, that will not stop this blog from making gratuitous holiday tie-in posts. Today we have (via Fark) a Pew Research finding that most American singles aren't looking for a partner. Specifically:
Among all singles, just 16% say they are currently looking for a romantic partner. That amounts to 7% of the adult population. Some 55% of singles report no active interest in seeking a romantic partner. This is especially true for women, for those who have been widowed or divorced, and for older singles. Yet even among the youngest adults, the zest for romance is somewhat muted: 38% of singles ages 18-29 say they are not currently looking for a romantic partner, compared to 22% in that age cohort who are looking for partners. The rest say they are in committed relationships.
Since I'm living a very unscheduled life these days, it's an ideal time for me to experiment with my sleeping habits. I haven't yet found a sleeping schedule that's a stable equilibirium: either I build up a sleep debt until it becomes unsustainable, or I get enough sleep that I'm too energetic in the evenings to fall asleep again at a regular hour. In the latter case, I'll either not get enough sleep the next night, or I'll sleep even later the next morning, and my schedule starts to creep forward by 30–60 minutes each day. (In my current situation this makes the 28-hour day schedule, explained in this xkcd strip, somewhat appealing. The downside is that I like to be up during the day, as sunlight tends to improve my mood, and if I sleep through the day and then am awake through the night I generally feel a little depressed.)
Lifehacker occasionally posts links to sleeping tips, and the latest, from the Four Hour Work Week blog, contains several I've never seen before and might try. One that was familiar was the point about 90-minute ultradian cycles; this is something I've paid some attention to for the past few months, trying to allocate my sleeping time in multiples of 90 minutes, plus an hour for sleep latency. However, my sleep latency is actually highly variable, and this plus the accumulated phase error (since the cycles aren't exactly 90 minutes) leads me to be awakened at any point in the cycle anyway. I think the key here is that if I set my alarm for 8 am, but then happen to wake up naturally at (say) 7:15, I should just get up even if I'm still sleepy. But this has proved difficult.
A cold environment is definitely important for me to fall asleep, and when I do get insomnia it comes with a sense of being too hot (it's not obvious if one causes the other). The ice baths mentioned in the linked post, however, sound both painful and a lot of work. Since it's winter, and my heating system is on a timer for energy conservation purposes, I can experiment with the room temperature instead: allowing the bedroom to cool before I go to bed, and warm up in the morning to help wake me up.
That post also recommends reading fiction (and avoiding non-fiction) before bed. I frequently do this, but it can have the opposite effect: if I get to within about 150 pages of the end, and it's a halfway decent book, I'll frequently be compelled to read on through, thereby massively overshooting my target bedtime. And then I'll lay awake thinking about how it ended, especially if there was a big reveal or twist.
Post your favorite sleep hacks in the comments...
I filed my dissertation this morning; I am now Dr. Arcane Gazebo. (Well, technically the degree isn't conferred until Thursday when the semester ends, but whatever.)
The main result of the entire thesis comes down to a single plot, shown below. This isn't the "explain my thesis" post so I'll just say that the plot shows our ability to control the coupling energy between two qubits by applying a bias current to our readout device, hence the thesis title Solid-State Qubits with Current-Controlled Coupling. The solid curves are calculations based on device parameters and the dashed curves are one-parameter fits.
Now these points of data make a beautiful line...
If anyone needs me this evening, I'll be at Triple Rock.
Webcomics continue to be too accurate with the latest sequence at PhD Comics. Of course, Jorge Cham's humor has always ranged from "funny because close to home" to "not funny because too close to home". This year the strips in the latter category have been especially well-timed: the series linked above, for example, comes not just when I'm in the same situation, but the week of Cal's major Career Fair. (Identifying other examples is left as an exercise for the reader.)
Anyway, the career fair starts tomorrow; the fraction of recruiters looking for physics PhDs is indeed pretty low (as would be expected for a general campus career fair) but nonzero. (There's an event specifically targeted at masters and PhDs next month.) I'll be attending with copies of my resume in hand, hoping to get someone's attention or, failing that, pick up some good swag. Any advice for this sort of thing?
Here's a site (via Lifehacker) that calculates a walkability score for a given address. I grew up in the suburbs and didn't appreciate the convenience of being able to walk everywhere until I moved into my current apartment (which scores 82 out of 100). I've come to like it so much that, when I next move, I will try to look exclusively at walkable neighborhoods.
One sees walkability being increasingly advocated as a goal in urban planning policy, often for the environmental benefits. Indeed, it's almost certainly true that I have a much lower carbon footprint than I used to—on a typical week I only make one or two trips by car, and most of the time I don't need mass transit either. To me personally (rather than on a policy level), however, this is a secondary benefit. (Although the gasoline savings are nice.) The reasons I prefer walkability are more tangible:
I calculated the Walk Score of some of my past addresses to get a sense of how the scale works; here they are by city (but calculated for the specific address I lived at):
Calculate your own score, and let me know if you're in a particularly walkable neighborhood—I may want to move there.
If this post has gone up as scheduled, I am currently en route to Kansas City for a wedding. (UPDATE: The scheduled post didn't go up for some reason, and I'm back now.) It turns out that Saturday is quite a popular day for weddings due to the numerological alignment of 7/7/07. I'm just disappointed that I missed the chance to get married on 6/6/06. Maybe next century.
At first I wondered why a couple might pick that day, knowing that it's a popular day for weddings. After all, this means that some number of people will be unable to attend due to a conflict with some other wedding. Even I got invited to two different weddings on Saturday, and I'm not exactly a social butterfly. But then I realized that this might be a feature rather than a bug. For one thing, the people who decline the invitations to go to another wedding are likely to be not as close to the couple than those who attend, so that the people actually in attendance are going to be a closer group of friends and relatives. This also allows the guest list to be larger than it would be on another day without increasing the expense of the wedding.
But, there's a counter-counter-argument: the people most likely to have conflicts are the ones who know people likely to get married. I may not be a social butterfly, but I am at an age when a lot of people get married, so it's not so surprising that a lot of my friends are getting married lately. What this means for young couples is that their friends on the guest list are going to be the ones with conflicts, whereas the old geezers you've never met that the future in-laws insisted on inviting are certainly going to be there. Luckily this effect should occur in parallel with the one above, so that the attendees will quickly separate into a group of close friends and a group of random people who will be hanging out with your parents.
Anyway, I'm fairly pleased to be taking this trip; from my perspective, it's a big party where I hang out with some friends I haven't seen for a while. (I do occasionally show an extroverted side, even if it's stymied by shyness.) This, in fact, is the brilliant concept underlying weddings: you get your friends to come from all over the country and spend an evening drinking and dancing. What's not to like? Well, you might have to spend some time in church first, and I hear the whole experience of getting married is mind-altering enough to make the party afterwards into a blur. Lame! If only you could have the party without all the marriage stuff to get in the way! If only there were some other life-changing event that would make a good excuse for a wedding-scale party!
Like, for example, getting a PhD. Somehow I doubt my more distantly-located friends will attend my undoubtedly massive and glorious graduation party, but they should. Because they'll have to wait 99 more years to attend my wedding: I'm waiting for 6/6/06 to come around again.
The intuition is that consumers can take advantage of price variability, in this case "time price" variability, and come out ahead. Admittedly the notion of "going to the store more often when your innate line-choosing algorithm turns out to be good" requires a mental stretch.
People also might like knowing that the end to waiting is in sight. On the phone they put you on hold and tell you the expected wait time, or they should. At least five times in my life I've bolted a supermarket and abandoned the groceries, simply because the lines appeared too long. It is harder to estimate how long a single line will take, and it is harder to compare single lines across supermarkets.
Actually, egregious lines are fairly common at that particular store during the evening rush, but luckily it's across the street from me so I can easily bail when it's too crowded and come back later. This strategy only works if I don't procrastinate my grocery shopping until it's urgent, but luckily the more upscale Andronico's is only one block further away and never has significant lines at the checkout, so I have a fallback. I hate waiting in line enough that I'll walk down to the next store to avoid it even if I don't save any time that way—at least by walking I get a little exercise and fresh air.
It might be better if I had a good innate line-choosing algorithm, but somehow mine is terrible—I suspect it's worse than chance, and that I would do better by throwing out my initial guess and choosing randomly from the remaining lines. But surely the readers here can help me improve it. How can I identify the fastest lines at the grocery store?
As I start to see the light at the end of the grad school tunnel, I've been contemplating more and more my various options after I finish. The most obvious one is to go on to an academic postdoc, with the aim of eventually getting a tenure-track professorship somewhere. (Other alternatives are various industries or finance.) At the moment I'm leaning strongly against an academic career, which has lately seemed unappealing for a variety of reasons.
A major such reason is the fact that there are many more applicants for tenure-track positions than there are positions available, so that after slaving away for several years as a postdoc (generally considered to be an awful job) I'd be lucky to be offered a position anywhere. It's a job market that's extremely unfavorable to applicants, and having seen the stress and unhappiness it produces in the postdocs I've met, I am thinking I should look at other options.
One corollary to the scarcity of academic jobs is that I would have to take whatever I can get, meaning that I will have basically no choice over where I live—the institution that offers me a job could be anywhere in the country, urban or rural, coast or inland. And I've realized that where I live really is important to me. I like living near enough to a major city that I can take advantage of the cultural and economic diversity. Furthermore, I want to live in a walkable neighborhood where essential goods and services are close by—not just for conservation reasons, although this is certainly part of it, but because I've found firsthand that it brings a definite improvement in quality of life. (This, of course, is also only possible in or near a major city, and only in certain cities that are planned this way.)
And on an emotional level, I've found that I don't want to leave the Bay Area. This surprised me, because (possibly due to my migratory upbringing), I generally feel like I need to move on every few years and explore a new place. I've tried to ascertain why I might have a special attachment to my current location: certainly I don't want to leave my friends, and I like my current neighborhood, but I feel like there's something more than that. There's a sense I have of being settled here, that where I'm living now is woven into the fabric of my life. I haven't felt that way about anywhere else, but I've lived in Berkeley longer than I have any other single place (for a continuous span).
I'm not convinced that this is a good reason to want to stay here—I know that living in different places is an enriching experience for me, and there's some attraction to going and exploring someplace new. But it will probably influence my thinking on career options.
Ok, so I took an unannounced blogging vacation. I'm now in Connecticut. A couple travel notes:
I shared an airport shuttle with a guy in an MIT baseball cap. He gave directions to the driver in the form "if the light is red, it's faster to go right; if it's green, it's faster to go left". The driver apparently didn't have gambits turned on, so this had to be abbreviated to "go right".
At a Starbucks in Ridgefield, CT I saw a disturbing piece of corporate art: a reproduction of Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks in which the diner had been turned into a Starbucks (and the patrons were noticeably less depressed). I wish I had taken a picture of this since I can't seem to find one with a Google search.
If you'd like some other indie-rockish lists of top songs of the year, there's Stylus's top 50 singles and Pitchfork's top 100 tracks. There's some overlap between their lists and mine; "Wolf Like Me" and "Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken" appear on all three. Also some respectable alternate choices from some of the same albums I drew from. However, both publications appear to have a case of the crazies: Stylus puts Justin Timberlake's "My Love" at #6, and Pitchfork names it the #1 song of the year. So approach these lists with some skepticism.
They also have top albums lists up; I'll do one myself closer to the new year.
I've returned from Thanksgiving in Dallas, where I did the typical turkey-and-family thing. It was not especially eventful, although I did learn a few things:
I was surprised to learn of this study that found that residents of suburbs are more social than urbanites:
A new study says that people who live in sprawling suburban areas have more friends, better community involvement and more frequent contact with their neighbours than urbanites who are wedged in side-by-side. The results challenge the accepted idea that suburban life is socially alienating a notion that's inspired everything from the Academy Award-winning American Beauty to Harvard professor Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone.
The study, released by the University of California at Irvine, found that for every 10 per cent decrease in population density, the chances of people talking to their neighbours weekly increases by 10 per cent, and the likelihood they belong to hobby-based clubs jumps by 15 per cent.
Recorded for posterity: my Halloween costume for this year, put together from clothes in my wardrobe. I considered the Zombie Johnny Cash version of the costume, but didn't have the time/energy to do the zombie makeup. I did learn chords for "Ring of Fire", "Folsom Prison Blues", and "I Walk The Line", and played them so poorly I might have summoned the real Zombie Johnny Cash.
I went to a small party mostly attended by physics students, where much fun was had and Corpse Bride was watched. From the comments I received, I conclude that I should dress like Johnny Cash every day.
Buffy: Great. I was gonna stay in and veg. The one night a year things are supposed to be quiet for me.
Xander: Halloween quiet? Oh, I figured it'd be a big old vamp scareapalooza.
Buffy: Not according to Giles. He swears that tomorrow night is, like, dead for the undead. They stay in.
Xander: Those wacky vampires! That's why I love 'em! They just keep you guessing!
Last year's Halloween thread was a success so here's another one. Anyone wearing a costume tonight (or right now)? What interesting costumes have you seen?
I've seen a few costumes on campus so far today, but have been without my camera. It seems a bit too cold today for that American Indian costume I saw. Meanwhile, motivated by laziness I have devised a costume for myself which merely requires dressing in black and carrying my guitar around.
This week's distractions (projected):
I'm intrigued by this idea (via Lifehacker) of taking a photo every day for a year to compile a year-long photographic record. I'm thinking of doing this (starting either on 22 November or 1 January); the challenges would be remembering to take a photo every day, and finding sufficiently interesting subjects for the photos. (Similar to the challenges of blogging regularly, which I don't quite achieve as often as daily.)
Naturally I would post the photos on my Flickr page; I could also post them here, but it might get annoying for those who come for the text (one photo post per day would become more than 50% of the content). So it might be better to put them on a separate page, and only post highlights here.
or, Sometimes I Actually Have A Life.
Here's how I'm spending my non-lab time this week:
Monday: Ladytron with CSS @ The Fillmore
Tuesday: The Hold Steady with Sean Na Na @ Great American Music Hall
Wednesday: Salsa dancing @ Shattuck Down Low
Thursday: Beat Valkyrie Profile 2
Friday: Drive to Los Angeles
Ok, maybe I can fit in some blogging time on Thursday... plus this should give me something to write about. Tomorrow I'll post an open thread with a review of the Ladytron show and their setlist.
Sean Carroll has an interesting take on this subject, which I more-or-less agree with.
Many of the science bloggers are competing over the question of who among them is the biggest nerd, apparently starting with this post. I'm going to stay out of this one, since I've been tapering down my nerdy activities somewhat over the last few years in a (possibly misguided) effort to pass for "normal". Besides, there's no way I could compete with entries like Rob Knop's.
On the other hand, being a nerd is more of an attitude than it is a particular subculture, and this is not so easily escaped by diversifying one's interests—I may listen to hipster music (by coincidence!) but my meticulously maintained iTunes library with detailed tagging and multilayered Smart Playlists gives away my nerdish tendencies.
I suspect, however, that my nerd level peaked that time I wore a Starfleet uniform to a Renaissance fair.
I'm totally working on my talk for this afternoon, and not even connected to the internet, but take note of this article from The Onion (via Cheryl): Caltech Physicists Successfully Split The Bill
PASADENA, CA—Sequestered in a private booth at a Pasadena-area Cheesecake Factory for nearly 25 minutes, a party of eight California Institute Of Technology physicists emerged exhausted but visibly excited Friday evening after successfully splitting the bill.
"This is an important day for us, not only because it marks Professor [Wayne] Newbury's birthday, but because we have accomplished a feat thought unimaginable ever since [late computational physicist Philip] Eisenreich found that it was impossible to calculate how a group of paired bodies, set in motion by the presence of a solid-state check, could come to rest at a non-variable, evenly distributed mathematical constant," said lead party organizer and theoretical physicist Dr. Cynthia Dreyfuss.
Before the arrival of the check, several early bill-splitting theories were proposed, including a simple process of dividing it into eight identical fragments, the Random Contribution Model, and a theory posited by Newbury himself—who insisted that he was bound to treat everyone—which was widely rejected on the basis that it would undermine the whole objective of the evening.
In reality, this problem is traditionally assigned to the youngest non-math-major.
Excuses for not blogging lately:
I posted a handful of photos over at Flickr from Saturday's festivities. The occasion was
Pi Approximation Day Jonathan and Frances getting married, so many of my friends from my Caltech days were in town, including some I hadn't seen in years. The wedding was held in Menlo Park, at the height of what passes for a heat wave in the Bay Area. (Attention Catholic Church: please use some of your enormous wealth to air-condition your buildings.) For some reason this blog was a frequent topic of conversation at the reception.
Following the reception a general consensus emerged that salsa dancing was called for. We initially looked for a suitable club in San Francisco, but having a party member under 21 limited our options. Luckily, it turns out that Lemming's parents (being dance instructors) have a dance floor at their house in a converted two-car garage. This was commandeered for our use as an exclusive, invite-only salsa club, and after a brief lesson for the uninitiated we proceeded to dance the night away.
Only a small number of pictures from Saturday were any good; here's one from the salsa after-party.
Discussion topic for the comments: suggest an appropriately nightclubish name for our private dance hall. Also, here's Lemming's take on the day's events.
Longtime readers may have wondered what happened to Omen, the stray cat who would periodically vist my patio and appear on this blog on Fridays. I wondered this too, since he just stopped showing up sometime last year. It turns out he's alive and well, and came by this evening looking for cat treats. I had to explain how I don't keep them on hand if he doesn't visit for an entire year.
Readers may also recall that I used to be Omen's favorite platform game. It's possible his real purpose in dropping by was to clear that level he never managed before. This time when he pounced I had learned my lesson—if I try to dodge he just deploys the claws. He landed gracefully on my left shoulder, and then decided to walk around to the right shoulder. Does he think he's a parrot? Is there really a 1-up on my head? This would be kind of endearing if I weren't actually allergic to Omen.
I didn't get a picture since he was so jumpy, but maybe he'll be back. His return does feel like, well, an omen...
(For new readers, the best Omen post ever was this one.)
Lifehacker has yet another post with an elaborate way to get out of bed in the morning. When I moved in to my current apartment, this was a problem for me: my previous location got a lot of sunlight in the morning, but now I live in something more like a hobbit-hole. Waking up warm, comfortable, and in near-total darkness made it very tempting to just go back to sleep.
However, I have since discovered a reliable way to wake up naturally at about 7:30 every morning. The secret is to have an upstairs neighbor who owns a treadmill, and adheres to a strict workout regimen. The noise isn't loud enough to wake me from deep sleep, but when I reach the end of my sleep cycle I reliably regain consciousness. Unfortunately, I rarely have any intention of waking up that early, which is why I keep earplugs by my bed.
It has occurred to me that instead of just going back to sleep, perhaps I should take this as a cue to go running myself. In the summer I prefer to go running in the evenings, but maybe after daylight savings time I'll synchronize my workout schedule with my conscientious neighbor. (The real question is, how does he(?) get himself out of bed every morning? Especially to run on a treadmill, which is one of the most boring workouts in existence.)
My intention for the short capsule book reviews in the open threads is simply to say whether or not I liked the book in question. For Cory Doctorow's novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, I wanted to comment further on some of the themes present there, so I've put this commentary in a separate post (i.e. this one). Specifically, many of the characters in the novel have supernatural origins and are trying to fit into mundane human society; however, their inherent weirdness tends to leave them feeling like outsiders. One of the things that makes this novel appealing is that the approaches the various characters take to their outsider status are familiar to those of us who are weird in ordinary, non-supernatural ways: indeed, the characters nearly provide an exhaustive list of the ways weird people deal with mainstream society. I'm a total amateur when it comes to literary criticism, but this was a particularly interesting topic to me as someone who has taken several of these approaches over the years.
Some spoilers below the fold.Continue reading "Weirdness and the outsider in Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town"
I had been debating whether to fly out to Connecticut this summer to visit friends, and if I do so, whether to take some extra time to tour New York City. Fortunately the internet came to the rescue with a trio of relevant posts:
I was already kicking myself for missing Built To Spill's three San Francisco shows last weekend, only remembering to check for tickets once they had all sold out. Then Saturday night I stopped by the lab to change some batteries, and I heard the sounds of a concert at UC Berkeley's Greek Theater. I didn't know there was a show tonight, I wonder who's playing?. By the time I got to Birge Hall I was close enough to hear the music, and when the singer came on I thought he sounded familiar...
...a half second later I recognized the voice as Thom Yorke.
I managed to miss not only Built To Spill, but also Radiohead playing at my place of employment last weekend. I really need to watch the concert listings more closely...
I have returned from Mexico, where I was so lazy as to not even open my computer the entire time, hence the lack of blogging. I went from a hot, clear day in Cabo San Lucas to a fogged-in and chilly Berkeley; often what happens is that I'll return to much better weather than I had on vacation, but not this time.
I tried to post from the Phoenix airport (which had free wi-fi) but was prevented from doing so by a problem with the network switch in my office in Berkeley. Fortunately I did get the chance to delete the 45 spam comments that had accumulated just before the site went down.
I like to take Murakami with me when I travel internationally; for Japan it was Sputnik Sweetheart and for Italy it was Kafka on the Shore. This time it was Norwegian Wood, which I finished this morning. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle remains my favorite of his novels, but Norwegian Wood is the one that most resonated with me; I saw a lot of myself in the main character and parts of me in many of the other characters, too. Anyway, I always thought people who initiate conversations with strangers on the BART are weird, but today I joined their ranks. A woman sat down next to me and opened a book. I glanced over from my own book (I had moved on to Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow), read one line of dialogue, and recognized it as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. So I had to take off my earbuds and tell her that it was one of my Favorite Books Ever. (Her favorite Murakami novel, as it turns out, is Norwegian Wood.) Maybe some of that extraversion from the paternal side of my family rubbed off on me this week.
So, since I've been completely out of touch for five days: what did I miss?
As it did last year, my summer travel begins with a drive to L.A. I remember selecting CDs for the drive last year and kicking off the trip with the Bright Eyes album I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. The thing about Bright Eyes is, one has to be in an appropriate mood to enjoy it, otherwise he just sounds whiny and self-absorbed. And indeed, my mood underwent a major shift during my travels last year, and my traveling music correspondingly shifted to Mercury Rev's The Secret Migration, especially the revelatory "Secret for a Song".
For this year's travels I've again turned to Mercury Rev. They are at their best when singing about travel and movement, and their 1998 album Deserter's Songs is full of these themes. The best track on the album is "Goddess on a Hiway", and it is terrific driving music—the first time I heard it I was driving over the Bay Bridge watching the setting sun light up the East Bay, and it was perfect. The lyrics are a bit opaque, but I suspect they are about peak oil.
Instead of a Friday random ten, here are ten CDs I am bringing with me for the drive:
Having just finished reading Spin (which I reviewed below) I found myself thinking about timescales. The novel did a good job of bringing long timescales into perspective, but what about short ones? In the book, the ratio between Earth time and solar time was about 108, one hundred million years outside the earth to each year in the Spin, or 3.17 years every second. This was an enormous ratio, with any timescale relevant to human civilization passing by in less than a day. It was mind-boggling to read about in the book. But I realized that I was sitting in the lab doing a diagnostic measurement in which I watched the response of a SQUID to an applied microwave field, and my software was acquiring about one point every second, at nanosecond resolution. That's a ratio of 109, ten times greater than the ratio in Spin. I usually don't think much about how long a nanosecond is, but it's really astonishingly short—as far removed from normal human timescales as stellar lifetimes.
It's not just in my lab—with gigahertz processors in wide usage, much of modern technology runs on nanosecond timescales. (And Windows still manages to be frustratingly slow at times, with billions of clock ticks in a second to work with.) Faster timescales are a bit harder to get to, at least in semiconductor electronics. The pulse generator I use in qubit experiments has a time resolution of 5 picoseconds, which always impresses me until I remember that the accuracy is only 250 ps. There's some research into a faster electronics technology using superconducting circuits and flux quantization, called Rapid Single Flux Quantum (RSFQ), which I believe gets to picosecond timescales. Berkeley professor emeritus Ted Van Duzer has been involved in this.
Anyway, I'm not sure I have much more insight into fast timescales than slow ones, but at least they're more accessible.
We interrupt the infinite series of religion posts to bring you a ballroom dance update. Salsa dancing has won me over; in addition to being fun, this is by far the sexiest dance I've attempted. (However, I haven't tried tango yet.) The 90-minute class seemed much too short, and that was immediately following a 90-minute class on cha-cha. I may have to check out the weekly salsa classes at Shattuck Down Low at some point. (Unfortunately, they conflict with UCBD's Wednesday social classes.)
I was walking down 4th Ave in San Francisco today, just south of Golden Gate Park, when I saw these ads:
(Low quality because taken with my phone camera.) I should eat there sometime. Hey, does anyone know if those Chinese characters say "gazebo" or some approximation thereof?
Tell them we have their weather, and they should come pick it up.
Rainy-day records were also broken in Oakland with 22 days of rain, San Rafael with 24 days and Santa Rosa with 25 days. Oakland International Airport had 7.22 inches of rain during the month, breaking the previous mark of 5.69 inches set in 1958.
Classical theory: I tend to occupy either my office on the first floor or the lab in the second basement. Obviously the office has the higher potential energy. By the work-energy theorem, I can be promoted to the higher-energy state by performing work on the system. Once I am up in the office, I write up the results of the experiment and the energy exits the system in the form of a publication, so I find myself back in the lab.
Quantum theory: My state oscillates between the lab and office levels. Timescales for transitions are on the order of several weeks. Spontaneous absorption of data will cause a transition to the office state; the office state will randomly decay into the lab state with emission of one quantum of data (a PRL submission). My state is entangled with the state of the dilution refrigerator: if I am observed in lab there is a very high probability that the fridge is running.
A thermodynamic digression: When I am away from my office for several weeks, the number of objects on my desk increases with time. When I am away from the lab for several weeks, the number of items in the lab decreases with time (roughly in proportion to their utility to other members of the group). Conclusion: the chemical potential in the lab is positive, while the chemical potential on my desk is negative.
On Friday there was a Lifehacker post recommending Brian Eno's Music for Airports album as background music for doing work, the idea being that ambient music allows one to concentrate in a pleasant atmosphere. Indeed, I've found that downtempo electronica is good for this: I've used Air and Zero 7 to good effect. Shoegazer rock can also do the job, since it's richly textured and can fade into the background—this accounts for some of My Bloody Valentine's meteoric rise up my Last.fm charts.
If a deadline's not looming this sort of music can be a little too calming and actually make me less productive, so if I really need motivation I will sometimes turn to power pop: The New Pornographers, and lately, Weezer. (Thanks to Lemming for recommending the Blue Album—it's become one of my favorite '90s CDs.) Less easily classified, The Go! Team also serve this purpose.
Right now I'm listening to a playlist of my 5-star-rated songs by Belle & Sebastian and The New Pornographers, since I'm seeing them both live tonight.
Any other recommendations for music to listen to while working?
Sort of like Overheard In New York, but with more sun and audience participation.
Scene: Saturday afternoon. I am walking on campus, on the path that runs along the south side of Strawberry Creek, near Haas Pavilion. I am accosted by a guy walking the other direction, who is not obviously a hobo.
Guy: Hey, do you know where I can find [unintelligible]?
AG: I'm sorry?
Guy: A gas station.
AG: There's one on Oxford, by—
Guy: Which way?
AG: [gesturing] Over there, down the—
Guy: [indicating my shirt, which is partly obscured by my jacket] Does that say "Mardi Gras"?
AG: No, it—
Guy: Oh, "marathon".
Guy: Wanna go smoke a bowl?
Guy: Oh, you don't smoke weed?
Guy: Can I borrow a couple of dollars?
AG: Sorry. The gas station's that way.
Weird encounters are pretty common in this city, but this one was notable for combining nearly every weird aspect of Berkeley into a single (one-sided) conversation. I don't know which of the proposed chemicals he had consumed already, but something was clearly affecting his attention span.
I feel like blogging my dreams is sort of frivolous, but it's also an interesting exercise in a kind of writing I don't usually do. So: I had two interesting dreams last night. I remember waking up from the first one thinking it was interesting and significant, but I went back to sleep and forgot the actual dream.
The second dream began with a friend showing me a hidden entrance to a nondescript Berkeley building. I went inside and found that the interior of the building was a setting for an elaborate puzzle game. Each room of the building contained a puzzle based around some eclectic collection of objects; there were 20 such rooms/puzzles and I was given a limited time to complete them all. There was a sheet of paper on which I kept track of which ones I'd completed. (Maybe including the answers to the puzzles, which would solve some overall puzzle when the whole thing was done? My memory of what was on the paper in the dream is hazy.)
Anyway, I'm pretty sure I dreamed multiple rooms of this, and fast-forwarded through most of them, but at some point I arrived at room #17 (having finished the first sixteen) with some extra time on the clock. Room 17 contained a stereo cassette player and a stack of 20 cassette tape cases, none of which contained cassettes. The covers were all for classical music; I specifically remember Beethoven and Schubert among the composers, and no composer appeared twice.
The actual cassettes were in a box nearby, but the labels had been removed and replaced with small handwritten numbers from 1 to 20. The puzzle, obviously, was to match the tapes to their proper case by listening to them. So I started going through them one by one, trying to identify composer or at least time period by the musical style, and looking for pieces that I recognized.
This was a slow process, and I became aware that time was slipping away. I was debating whether to skip ahead to Room 18, in the hopes of finishing the later puzzles and coming back for this one, when I woke up.
So it was sort of anti-climactic, but I thought it was interesting that my dream came up with at least one realistic and difficult but possibly doable puzzle. And I was quickly able to think of a very specific interpretation for this dream, but there is probably some bias on my part towards reading things this way. So other interpretations are welcome.
While the East Coast is buried in snow and Southern California struggles under a scorching heat wave, it's been 65 and sunny all week here in Berkeley. And we'll get the same weather in July. With this kind of climate, one might expect that the heating and air conditioning needs of a campus building like Birge Hall would be pretty minimal. And indeed, through efficient design the building is maintained at a pleasant environment with hardly any energy.
Ha! I'm joking, of course. What they actually do here is run the heating and the air conditioning at the same time so that they cancel out. I only discovered this fact this week, when the heat pump broke—leaving the air conditioning running unchecked. Naturally there's no way to adjust it, and so I end up carrying a sweater to lab with me, so that after walking through perfect weather to get there I can bundle up when I enter the building and avoid freezing to death.
Somehow, you'd think a physics building would have a more efficient solution to the problem of temperature control, but maybe it's a corollary to the fact that the architecture building is always the ugliest building on campus. It brings to mind a common method of temperature control in condensed matter physics: cool the sample down to 4.2K with liquid helium, and then use an electric heating element to warm it back up to the desired temperature. But I'm not sure it scales up as well as the designers of Birge Hall's HVAC system seem to believe.
On the software I use to run our qubit experiments, there is a checkbox labeled "Inverted Pulses". Two or possibly three years ago I added this feature to the software, so that the option is available to operate our readout scheme under the opposite electrical polarity. Normally our readout pulses go to positive voltage, but occasionally it is interesting to see what happens with negative voltage pulses. Ideally the behavior should be completely symmetric, but in practice there are asymmetries that should generate different results.
But when I say "occasionally" I mean very occasionally; to the best of my recollection I used this feature for a couple of days after I installed it, and then never checked the box again. In the meantime I have added many other features to the increasingly bloated software, without caring very much whether they were compatible with the rarely-used inverted pulses. Of course, this has all come back to haunt me now that I again want to reverse the polarity on the readout pulses, and am faced with the question: Does the "Inverted Pulses" box still work?
After some testing it's clear that the answer is "no", and furthermore it's not obvious why it ever worked. (The crucial command to the instrument contained a syntax error!) Or maybe it didn't ever work and I had forgotten this, or it was one of those pieces of software I wrote anticipating a potential experiment and then never actually used. I seem to have fixed the bugs, but there are still some quirks in the startup sequence that should probably be ironed out...
(Since my former CS 1 TA reads this, I will remark that these problems could be avoided with properly documented and tested code. Ha! Unfortunately, the culture of experimental physics does not value properly documented and tested code. The culture of experimental physics values code which can be produced five minutes after a postdoc says, "Wouldn't it be interesting to try [a complicated new pulse sequence while sweeping over three separate parameters]?" And so three years later I'm looking at my own software wondering what the hell that switch does.)
Yesterday Chad Orzel speculated about the relative absence of experimental physicists in the blogging community. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to comment until now, because I was busy working in the lab. (Actually we were gearing up for, and then undergoing, a major safety inspection. The inspectors, who were reminiscent of the consultants from Office Space, stood around trying to invent scenarios under which a graduate student could suffer oxygen deprivation folowing sudden helium vaporization in our dilution fridge.)
Anyway, Chad's hypothesis was that theorists spend more time in front of computers on a daily basis, and thus blogging is just more convenient. This seems right to me: I'm one of the few condensed matter experimentalists who maintains a blog (and it probably helps that I'm a grad student rather than a postdoc or on the tenure track), and whether or not I have time to post mostly depends on how much time I'm spending on the computer, versus in front of an oscilloscope or soldering iron (or bolting power strips to desks two feet above the floor to satisfy safety inspectors).
For a period of about 10 months last year, we did not have an experiment running as we were fabricating a new sample. And due to the division of labor among the grad students on this project, I was not closely involved with the fabrication process, and instead spent my time reading papers, writing papers and reports to funding agencies, writing software, designing circuits, and doing simulations. These were all computer-intensive activities, and I was able to get a fair amount of blogging done. For the last two months, however, we've been doing measurements on the chip we made last year, and I've spent a lot of time taking data, looking at scope traces, and reconfiguring wiring. Hence, I think up a bunch of posts over the week and write them up on Saturday night, which is a bit lame.
Fortunately, I do frequently have the ability to post even under these conditions, due to the phenomenon of Joule heating: if a current I is applied to an electrical resistance at a voltage V heat will be dissipated at a rate equal to the product IV. Every time we make a measurement, we apply a current pulse to our device, which produces a voltage and a corresponding amount of heat. If this heat is allowed to accumulate on the chip, it will wipe out the quantum effects we're trying to study, so between each measurement we have to wait long enough for the chip to cool off. In practice, this means instead of taking a million measurements in a second we are reduced to about 2,000. Furthermore, to get good statistics and sweep over an interesting range of parameters we have to take a large number of measurements, so it turns out that to get interesting results we need to measure continuously for at least 12 hours. I've written an overly baroque computer program to automate all this, so once I know what I want to measure, I can push a button to start the experiment, do something else for a while (usually analyzing data from the previous run), and then collect all the data hours later (or the next day). (This is only when everything is working properly; otherwise it's back to the oscilloscope and wiring diagrams.) And in the gaps I can do a little blogging.
These days, the trend in the superconducting qubit community is towards nondissipative readout—i.e., measurements which leave the device in the superconducting state and thus produce no heat. This might threaten to take away my blogging windows, except that it would also enable measurements that require even better statistics and broader sweeps, and so there will still be reasons to do 12- and 24-hour runs. (Actually, our record is about 48 hours, but we don't currently have the battery life to repeat that.)
You may treat this as a beer thread in which to make your own recommendations. (Although this isn't much of a beer-drinking crowd.) I assume people also know about Pyramid, whose Hefeweizen was the first beer I actually enjoyed drinking, and has a brewpub here in Berkeley. What are the good east coast microbrews? I might end up back there at some point.
The semester started this week at Cal, which means very little to me except that I am back to the social ballroom dance classes. Tonight's class was East Coast Swing. Now, I have made several prior attempts to learn swing dancing, and in the process it's possible that I made negative remarks about dancing in general, swing in particular, and my estimated abilities to do either. I hereby retract all such remarks I may or may not have made. Swing is awesome.
Apparently this is not a cold but some extremely unpleasant fever. So I may not be traveling this weekend after all.
What happens in Vegas is supposed to stay there, but I should say a few words about what I did instead of blogging the last few days:
Cirque du Soleil: I saw "O", which is their water-oriented show done at a special theater (in the Bellagio) with a pool taking up most of the stage. Mostly the show consists of fantastically beautiful acrobatics into, out of, and above the water. They use fire nicely too. I wasn't really into the clown acts, but those at least provided a recovery period before something interesting happens again.
Blue Man Group: Another awesome show. I'm not sure how to describe it—comic performance art? You've probably seen them in Intel commercials and stuff but the real thing is about a million times better.
Food: Good. But expensive.
Gaming: I did best at video poker but felt classiest playing blackjack. I find slots pretty boring, where the only variety is found by pulling the lever instead of pushing the button. I prefer to have something to strategize on (even if the perfect strategy for the game is known, as in both of the aforementioned games).
Carpets of Death: The carpet at the Venetian could have powered the slot machines from the electrons it was stripping off my feet. I found myself bracing for the shock every time I touched a machine, which provided a deterrent from spending much money there (although that's where I happened to win the most). The carpets at the Bellagio did a bit of this but much less than at the Venetian.
Overall, a good use of my Thanksgiving break.
This morning's Stinson Beach Trail Run would have been more aptly named the Mt. Tamalpais Trail Climb (Which Happens To Start At Stinson Beach). This was a course so steep that at one point it was necessary to climb a ladder to continue. The t-shirt depicts runners going up a gentle incline; this would be accurate if I wore it while lying on my side. It was a nice place to run, as it's basically the same forest as Muir Woods. But next time I'm bringing a sherpa.
Time to revisit the ever-popular topic of introversion. There's this old Atlantic Monthly article on the subject that was discussed recently by Kevin Drum and Chad Orzel. In general I thought this article tended to overstate matters, and was overly harsh on extroverts (maybe this was intended for comic effect). For example, this paragraph:
Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood. They listen for a moment and then go back to barking and yipping.
How can I let the introvert in my life know that I support him and respect his choice? First, recognize that it's not a choice. It's not a lifestyle. It's an orientation.
Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don't say "What's the matter?" or "Are you all right?"
Third, don't say anything else, either.
In any case, one shouldn't assume that just because an introvert isn't talking, he doesn't want to be talked to. The author of the Atlantic Monthly article doesn't seem to like extroverts very much at all, but I'm the opposite: I often really enjoy conversations with talkative people, because a conversation where I'm supplying only 10% of the dialogue is a lot easier and more comfortable than one in which I need to supply 50%.
I suspect that if I weren't shy, I'd be a lot less introverted (although not quite extroverted).
Consider this a reader survey: what are you guys doing for Halloween? I am sufficiently tired from the weekend that I may not have much to contribute to the holiday; my one concession so far has been wearing my "Alas, poor Yorick" t-shirt which has a nice skull on it. I do have about half a pirate outfit from an unrelated party a week ago that I could recycle should I need a last-minute costume, but I will probably be too tired tonight to go to the Castro or anything like that.
Short version: For Halloween I am going as really lame.
Our window took a lot of stress while crossing the bridge. We were repairing breaches with more duct tape while the driver did his Scotty impression. Fortunately it's holding up. Meanwhile, my phone is putting weird timestamps on these posts so it looks like I'm posting into the future.
Arrived in Oakland this morning, after which I ate lunch, took a nap, and then went running. It turns out that running 14 miles, after spending a week (mostly) sitting in a car and eating fast food, is a difficult and painful experience. I did discover that Tilden Park actually has a lot of rabbits but they only come out around sunset. Unfortunately, that's also when swarms of gnats congest the airspace above the trail.
This week I'll attempt to resume regular blogging. I also have a ton of pictures, mostly taken from cliffs in Arizona, to sort through and post.
Since I'm in Dallas I'm going to do some petblogging even though it's not Friday.
This is Merlin, the family dog. He's a cranky old dog at 13 years who lays around the house all day and barks at you if he wants your attention. However, he did manage to summon enough energy to steal clothes out of my suitcase last night.
At tonight's ballroom dance class, the instructor at one point explained that it's important to finish a particular turn at the appropriate angle, so that when the motion is reversed one ends up at the original angle. Of course, my brain immediately translated this into the all-too-familiar concept of phase coherence and the difficulties of random phase noise. Unfortunately the foot-change doesn't act as a spin-echo pulse to correct the phase variation.
My personal dephasing rate appears to be very high. And let's not even talk about my foot parity non-conservation.
You may be wondering where I disappeared to, perhaps imagining that I was pursuing adventure and excitement during the long weekend. This was true during the first half, but Sunday afternoon I had to face the fact that I had been assigned the first group seminar of the semester. (In fact, I was due to give a talk towards the end of last semester, but managed to put it off for about five consecutive weeks until I was saved by the end of the term. Unfortunately I was still at the front of the queue when we started up again.)
For a topic I chose to review an 18-page theory paper: partly because I had no better ideas, partly because I wanted to do something relatively impressive, and partly out of sheer masochism. I would have expected such a task to consume my entire weekend rather than just half of it (and much of today), but fortunately the paper was not as daunting as it looked. This was for several reasons:
I've noticed lately that when I'm giving a talk or a speech I seem to go into a kind of trance where I construct and deliver sentences without thinking about them on a conscious level. (This is not normally the case unless I am sufficiently inebriated.) This is absolutely essential because I can shut down the conscious part of my mind and therefore not notice that lots of people are watching me. One might ask why I can't duplicate this in normal conversation, and the answer seems to be that I rely on the prompts from my prepared notes or slides or whatever, and in more free-form circumstances some more conscious thought is necessary. I used to have difficulties with freezing up during the question period following a talk and I think this is the reason. (I've since improved in this regard.)
Elementary school: This was my introduction to the Hobbesian state of nature. Sort of an immersion program in that regard. The younger and weaker kids, trapped on the bus with no refuge or higher authority to call on, were captive toys for the budding sadists to kick around. Fortunately, one eventually gets old enough to be passed over in favor of smaller targets. Ah, the innocence of youth.
Middle School: I found myself on a relatively far-flung but unpopulated route during this period, and it became dedicated reading time. I learned that the quality of the Dune series falls off extremely rapidly, and that one could spend quite a long time working through Anne McCaffrey's countless thousands of Pern novels. The bits of either series that I have retained in memory seem mostly to be sex scenes.
High School: One can bypass the intrigues of high school politics and annoy the shit out of people by reverting to a younger mindset and breaking into a rousing round of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" during long bus trips. The true joy, however, is seeing the horror of your audience when you reach the end of the song and promptly being counting up again from zero.
Finally, typical summer weather has arrived in Berkeley: 57°F and overcast. When I was in Italy I tried to explain this to the Europeans, and they didn't believe me—I did the conversion to Celsius in my head and they assured me I must have made a mistake.
I attempted to bolster my claim by bringing out the famous Mark Twain quote, "The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco." Later I found out that there's no source for this quote; he did write something along these lines, but about Paris:
...anywhere is better than Paris. Paris the cold, Paris the drizzly, Paris the rainy, Paris the damnable. More than a hundred years ago somebody asked Quin, "Did you ever see such a winter in all your life before?" "Yes," said he, "Last summer." I judge he spent his summer in Paris. Let us change the proverb; Let us say all bad Americans go to Paris when they die. No, let us not say it for this adds a new horror to Immortality.
I don't normally read Slate's advice column, but the headline caught my attention this week. The first letter is 90% a defense of the author's aversion to children, and 10% about her actual problem, which is that she tells people not to bring their kids to her parties and they bring them anyway: For example, last time I had a BBQ at home, I said "no kids" on the invitation. But some people did bring their kids.
There's nothing wrong with defending your childfree lifestyle, but all that is unnecessary; there's absolutely no reason why she should have to justify not wanting kids at her parties. The simple fact is that the presence of children changes the atmosphere at a social gathering, and regardless of whether one likes kids as a general rule, when hosting a party one has a certain ambience in mind which might not allow for children to be running around underfoot. So there's no need for the writer of the letter to be so defensive about it.
Prudence's response is typically lame; if the parents ignored the instructions on the invitations they're probably also going to ignore what you tell them on the phone. What you really have to do is deter them from bringing kids. The easiest way is to make the party totally inappropriate for children. When the minivan pulls up to see that you are projecting hardcore pornography onto the screen you've set up in the backyard, you can bet they'll take the kids home. Instead of putting "no kids" on the invitation, note that "prizes will be awarded for the best telling of The Aristocrats". You get the idea. As a side effect your parties will become much more popular.
A disclaimer like "Due to state and federal regulations, no one under 21 will be admitted" may be effective, but your guests will then be expecting something special and you will have to be sure not to disappoint them.