Thursday, February 28, 2008

Three years

I just realized that as of the 23rd of this month, I had been blogging for 3 years. Three, coincidentally, is also the number of people who read this blog. Counting me.

Something cool: a movie of an electron riding a light wave.

A short blurb that (barely) explains what you see in the movie is here.

Something that I find really interesting is that the durations of light pulses used to make this are shorter than the time it would take an electron to (classically) circle the nucleus in a hydrogen atom. Attoseconds are 10-18seconds. I haven't checked the math, but I think that I read that an attosecond is to a second as a second is to the age of the universe. It makes 3 years of blogging seem kind of inconsequential, really.

Wild-eyed Southern Boys

Living up here in the Great White North, I get a little ribbing about being from Kentucky, like I grew up without shoes, minding a 'shine still, shooting possums and kissing my cousins. I take it with a smile, mostly, because I frankly know that my tormentors are full of shit. There are things that get under my skin a bit, though.

1. References to the movie 'Deliverance'. First of all, Goddammit, that was in Georgia. Not that Kentucky doesn't have plenty of rednecks, but I once say a traffic dustup in Macon, Georgia, boil down to a guy with a machete vs a guy with a gun. Over who got to the light first. You would never see that kind of nonsense where I come from. In Kentucky, no one would have wasted any time with a machete.

I'm not all that offended by the implication that the south is full of violent, inbred, familial idiots. I was menaced by one with a logging chain who lived down the street from me when I was 6 years old. (Archie. Damn.)

No, what pisses me off is that the 'heroes' in Deliverance escaped. It just isn't realistic.

See, I grew up in a home where my father was a lifelong Democrat, and who was pro gun control. And we had a 20 gauge, a .22 and a .38 in the house. I had a BB gun or two by my 10th birthday, and was deadeye before I ever fired a real weapon. I am cross-eyed, near-sighted in one eye and far-sighted in the other, and have to shoot left-handed because my right eye sucks. And I can still hit a bullseye at 500 meters. To say that guns are part of Kentucky culture is to say the sky is blue.

Most of my buds growing up could drop a buck at 400 yds while finishing a six-pack. No dipshit with a crossbow and a canoe would make it out alive, 'kay?

2. People talk about moonshine like it's bad. While there is such thing as bad moonshine, bootlegging was a typical Scotch-Irish response to poverty. Make money, fuck the law, and invent NASCAR in the bargain. These people had been maltreated at the hands of government for hundreds of years before ever coming to the New World, so fine points like legality barely registered. They figured no man had any right to get in between two others who were peacefully going about their own business. Now, most people I know who were involved with moonshining had no respect for assholes who made popskull. But the driving of this business underground made the profit high enough that standards slipped.

Rumor has it that someone very close to me was raised by a woman married to a moonshiner. I won't name names, but she knows who she is. (Hi, Mom!)

3. Shoes. I always had shoes. There is a big difference further South, where it might be practical to not wear shoes most of the year. And I went barefoot a lot in the summer, but not because I didn't have shoes. Kentucky is not Tennessee.

4. Stupidity. Listen, I know that there are lots of ignorant people in Kentucky. Some damned proud of it. But some of these same people are resourceful and crafty and shrewd, and like nothing better than to shuck some arrogant Yankee out of his money. Kentuckians are contrary, fierce, loyal, profane, tough, and clever. I am proud of who I am, and of the people I belong to. I sure as hell won't disown my great heritage just because now I'm all 'educated', and If I had any cousins worth kissing, I might. What's it to you, anyway?

So, yuck it up, Yankees. Just be careful when you go out in the woods, even with your crossbow.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I hate politics

"Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed."

"You have to stay at the seat at the table of democracy with a man like Barack Obama not just on Tuesday but in a year from now, in four years from now, in eights years from now, you will have to be engaged."

These two statements by Michelle Obama at a rally at UCLA recently stopped me in my tracks.

I am pretty libertarian in my outlook. Small "l", but a big believer in leaving people to find their own bliss, and to not presume that individuals or groups, including governments or corporations or churches know better. They can help, but should not prescribe, often even for the "greater good", since this is a road too often paved with good intentions that leads to...ah, screw it. I'm not going to bother justifying being libertarian. I just don't trust the government or the corporations to act on my behalf. Sorry.

All that said, I was beginning to be a bit beguiled by the 'Audacity of Hope." I think Obama is one of the most interesting (and hypnotic) political figures I ever remember seeing.

But, as God (whether S/He exists or not) as my witness, neither Obama nor Hillary nor St. Ronald Reagan will ever take my cynicism from me. I will stand in outright rebellion against any foe, foreign or domestic, that tries to make me give a damn, or to work for, anyone else's idea of political rectitude. No way.

All kidding aside, this kind of talk bugs me. I don't like spiritual spirituality, let alone equating politics with some sort of moral imperative. No. No. NO. I will not engage unless I want to. I will not work for Obama or any other human being unless I find common cause with them. I will not bow to my government. No.

Maybe this was just high-minded political fluff talk. I don't disagree with a direction of being hopeful and working together. I think we should. But when maybe 1st lady starts telling me what I am going to have to do, I may have to resist.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Workers of the World, Untie!

(Yes, the misspelling is deliberate. Sheesh.)

I was thinking about a something someone recently opined about the theory of relativity, and I began to wonder- when will there be 'proletarian' discoveries in pure physics again, if ever?

Think about radio, TV, internet, power generation- all these things that are at the center of our culture. The bulk of enabling technology flows from Maxwell's equations. Beautiful and deep, they are simultaneously immanently practical, and have made a huge impact in the lives of most people on earth.

Chemistry is proletarian to the point of being ignored- it is so useful and productive that it falls into the background. I'm never at a loss to explain to someone who is skeptical of science all the good modern chemistry can do for them. The guy/gal on the street hates chemicals, but they love new fragrances, paints, dyes, drugs, fuels, fabrics, etc.

As much as it pains me to admit it, biology is clearly on the earliest edge of a exponential explosion of relevance to the welfare of humankind. Chemistry will be focal to this, no doubt. Some biophysics might be central, but I am pretty ignorant of where this is relevant to the current biotechnological program.

Solid state physics certainly changed the world, but that has been handed off to engineers and materials chemists for a long time. High Tc superconductors? Hmm.

What has fundamental physics done for me lately? MRI, maybe? Maxwell and Schrodinger plus engineering. I'm not saying that physics cannot, or will not, be the cornucopia of future technological blessings for us all. I'm just wondering whether anything at the forefront of physics is likely to do much anytime soon. I'd be happy for someone to rebuke me and point out all that is just around the corner, but I'm not seeing it. I ask as an unrepentant physicsphile. I don't really believe in nanotechnology yet, and most of what I see will be chemistry. I wonder...


I have two boys, separated by 10 years. My older boy is a joy, well-behaved and smart as a whip. My two-year-old is a barrel of fun, too.

The best things I have experienced as a dad have revolved around seeing my children figure something out. When Sam, my elder son, figured out geometric congruence on his own recently, I was quite proud. When he was dissed on an online combat game by a bunch of kids in their late teens, he set booby traps for them and sniped some of the others. They have taken to asking him his opinion on how to do things.

The emergence of language with Sam was great fun. Charlie is just at the beginning of this right now. We have been teaching him animal sounds. He is quick to make the sound of any animal he sees, and will name an animal if he hears the sound. The acquisition of this has been very recent, and was pretty abrupt. Surely, he must have been piecing thing together, but its emergence as behavior has just in the past week or so, and it is very consistent.

We were playing, and he knocked over an end table that I have that has a built-in lamp. He thought this was great fun, and climbed on it. I wanted to right it, so I said, in a somewhat stern voice, "Move. Move!". To which he grinned widely and responded with "Cow!"

Reasoning comes more slowly, but I always push it, asking questions that I know that they cannot answer, mainly to get them in the habit of asking question, and to let them realize that answers exist. Years ago, I was playing with Sam with a helium balloon. I asked him what he thought made it 'fly'. He said, "I dunno, Daddy. What?" I expected the conversation to go back and forth. He was far too young to understand buoyancy, but I still think talking back and forth is great exercise for a child's mind. Even as an adult, I often hear explanations that I don't understand, but that I still keep deep in my head, and when I figure out enough, suddenly it makes sense.

I said, "Well, there is something inside the balloon that makes it go up into the air. What do you think is inside?" Sam thought for maybe two seconds, and said "Birds."

Friday, February 15, 2008


I love xtcd.

I spend a lot of time thinking about chemistry and physics. I have had lots and lots of school and lab time, and I'm lucky to do science for a living.

But there are lots of things that I still find mysterious and weird. Magnets and gyroscope do things that seem completely magical to me. Yes, I've done the math. I barely apprehend the fact that conservation of angular momentum stems from the rotational symmetry of space, and I have worked through the basic relativity to see that magnetism is sort of a consequence of this. I know lanthanides are contracted due to relativistic effects.


Somehow, a magnet rotating downtown makes my lights shine and my computer run. Yes, yes, magnetic induction, Maxwell's equations. Very nice. So why? Why do the electrons in my lamp give a shit what the big magnet downtown is doing? Knowing the math is not the same as knowing the reason. It's deep, and mysterious, and yet so ubiquitous that it is easy to ignore. My lamp ignores the movements of paired electrons. But not those that are unpaired and aligned. I am happy to use electricity, and I feel especially fortunate to have been schooled in physics as an undergraduate. But I am still not satisfied. I don't care if the universe has 3 dimensions or 21. I want to really, really know why my gyroscope doesn't fall over, and why magnets stick to my refrigerator. So I keep poking at physics and mathematics long after my mental prime, hoping I'll get it someday.

Lately I've been playing around with symmetry and Lie (pronounced 'Lee') groups. Symmetry has deep connections with physics, as I alluded to above. Chemists get just a little taste of symmetry and group theory, when they learn how to use point groups to predict the bonding and spectral characteristics of molecules, usually in an inorganic chemistry course. The presentation is usually abysmal, with no foundational theory, and very little motivation. You learn to 'do' group theory without really understanding it. In fairness, it is usually shoehorned into an already filled-to-the-brim survey of all the chemistry not covered in organic, which is, by virtue of the peculiar properties of carbon, pretty unique. If you know only organic chemistry, you still know a lot of what is done in the chemical world.

What I am fiddling with now has little direct connection to chemistry, or at least not that I am able to see. I am looking at it as more of a means of retaining and rebuilding my abstract mathematical skills (since I have forgotten a lot of the analysis and topology I once knew.) What I am interested in doing is tying together a functioning understanding some of the more modern methods of mechanics and field theories (which tend to center a lot on differential geometry). At some level, deep topological symmetry and fields reconnect with statistical mechanics and hence condensed matter physics and chemistry, but I am not sure I'll ever get good enough to see this clearly. I'll be happy to know some of the basic ideas. Every time I've put in serious effort to understand stuff over my head, I get at least something that helps me understand more prosaic stuff, like chemistry...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives...

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
-Carl Sagan

As Voyager looked back toward Earth, as it left the solar system, glare in the optics enveloped the 'pale blue dot' of our planet in what appeared to be a sort of spotlight. But really, there is no spotlight. Just a tiny planet, revolving around an average star, in a typical galaxy. Home, for now, to us.

We may be overheating the planet, and our world may be headed for an ice age. The two aren't mutually exclusive. The plain fact is that we are a recently emergent species, and there is no guarantee how long we'll last. There are misanthropes who chuckle at the thought of humankind's demise, so the dolphins or snaildarters or Ewoks can rule the planet in peace and harmony. But not me. I suspect humans will outlive me by thousands, perhaps 10s of thousands of years. But probably not millions, and that's very likely the kind of time the Earth has in some form that will sustain life.

No one will be here to gloat nor mourn when the last of the pyramids is ground to dust, or when the last vestige of art or architecture crumbles. The death-cult of some treehuggers has them naively imagine themselves there to tell us all "I told you so" as civilization disappears. When the last ocean boils, or freezes solid, or is enveloped in the death-throes of our sun, the passage of this beautiful place will go unrecorded.

So live now. Dance on the pale blue dot while there is time. And fuck anybody who won't.


This can't be good. Jesus is fixing to open a can on Brazil, I'm betting. And we're going to be next.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Hackity Hack

All three of you who read this may have noticed that I am fond of Java for doing the sort of science-y programming tasks I find necessary to do. I like it because the same code works on both my Mac and my PCs, and because it is reasonably easy to do things using it.

Lately, I have picked up 2 more programming languages, as well as a scripting language. Many popular languages in the programming world are heavily influenced by the C programming language, a system developed by Bell Labs a long time ago. So to some extent, it is just a matter of learning certain dialects and customs peculiar to a given language to be able to use it.

Microsoft has made some of its programming tools available free for downloading. The versions that are free are restricted in certain ways, but are still very powerful. I am not aware of exactly what the restrictions are, but for the kind of noodling I am likely to do, the restrictions might as well not exist. These ‘Express’ editions are available for Visual Basic, Visual C++, and Visual C# (the latter two are, not surprisingly, also variants of C).

Better yet, Microsoft has a handful of bloggers who use these editions to do neat stuff, like control disco dance floors and make cool web sites. They bill this as “Coding4Fun” and aim to involve more experimenter types with programming. Even a rank amateur can find tutorials to get started. I hope lots of people decide to learn to program, if only a little. It makes everything look different, when you can understand a little of the software behind the modern world.

I chose to look at C# (pronounced “See sharp”) for a couple of reasons. First, I am already comfortable with C. Also, C# has been touted as being a lot like Java. I remember from my daze (er, days…) as a physics undergraduate that there was no better way to expose how poorly I understood a problem than to try and work it more than one way. So I hope to solidify my understanding of Java and object-oriented programming with this exercise.

Also, one of my heroes, Johnny Chung Lee, has done some downright incredible things with C#. So I figured it might be fun to follow his lead a bit.

In my next entry, I’ll regale you with the story of how interesting this has been, and how easy it was to do a few things in C# that are, frankly, a major pain in the ass with Java. But for now, let me just say that I am pleased at how well the system works, and the learning curve has been reasonably gentle, largely because Microsoft has support the creation of lots of interesting examples. Microsoft takes some knocks, but this is a good thing that they do, whatever their motives might be.

The other language I am fiddling with is Objective-C. It, too, is ‘object oriented’. However, unlike the other languages I am using, it departs from the more-or-less standard syntax used for passing messages to objects. To make what this means a bit clearer, suppose I have a clock object, and I want to set it with the current time. In Java, or C#, this would look something like this:

Clock myClock=new Clock();

First, I declare a variable myClock to be a Clock object, and by using the ‘new’ keywork and the ‘constructor’ Clock(), I tell the computer to do whatever it needs to in order to get myClock set up to run. By using the ‘dot’ format for message passing, in the next line I tell the clock object named myClock that I want to set the time by having it invoke the setTime( ) function, with the parameter ‘now’. I’m obviously glossing over a lot that some of you don’t know. The details don’t matter- the differences will be clear.

In Objective-C, the same task would look like this:

Clock *myClock=[Clock alloc];
[myClock init];
[myClock setTime: now];

There is a little more tinsel on this one, and I have made it slightly more verbose than necessary, since the first and second lines could be put together, and Objective-C actually has a ‘new’ message that can be used in this context. The asterisk is more interesting, though. In C, this is a way that a variable will be used not for a piece of data, exactly, but rather, to hold the address of a piece of data. The first line says “please allocate a piece of memory big enough for a Clock object (details of which would be specified elsewhere in the program), and return to me the address of this block of memory”. The next line says “using the object ‘pointed to’ by the address in myClock, please do a clock initialization, whatever that is”.

I am not merely being flip when I say, “whatever that is”. A point of using object-oriented programming is to be able to use other bits of software that you might not have developed by knowing only what kind of messages it understands. The details can be ignored, forgotten, or set aside for the moment. All the programmer needs to know is what the object wants in the way of messages, and what it will return in data, or other messages.

Now, this same philosophy is at work in Java and C#. My reason for fooling with Objective-C is that the Mac’s operating system is programmed in Objective-C, and it is the foundation of most of the programming resources available on the Mac.

There are details that I find weird in every language, weird things that are hard in one language and easy in another. Moreover, there are features far deeper than what I have alluded to here that make each particularly strong in certain contexts.

I have left most things unsaid. But I hope, by showing little glimpses of code and descriptions of what is going on, I can give an appreciation of some of the inner workings of computer programs. I will follow up with little examples over the next few posts to make this less abstract.