bram: (galafractaxyl)
Happy birthday, Sir Isaac Newton!!! You were a devious jealous joyless little prick but you gave us the tools to understand and create the modern world!

Some parts will be review, some will swoosh over heads:

The first of, I hope, several entries on spin networks before classes resume. )
bram: (Default)
So in physics class I'm covering basic kinematics. You know, constant acceleration:

x=x0+v0t + 1/2 a t2

This is the equation my old high school teacher, Ed Bostonian, used to call "The Monster." I've introduced it as that to my students, and it's caught on. They call it The Monster too!

Poor Mr. Bostonian!!!

About a decade before I took his class, he apparently had a moustache and dressed in checkered suits. As a result, he got the nickname "Gomez" from the students, after Gomez Addams from the Addams Family.

By the time I had physics from Mr. Bostonian, he'd shaved the moustache and ditched the suit, but he was still Gomez to the students. In the middle of class, you'd hear finger-snapping to the Addams Family theme... The yearbook was traditionally filled with "Gomez is Gay" senior quotes, but after astute yearbook editors started censoring that, the new quote was "YaG Si Zemog!" Poor guy! Stinkbombs were set off in his class. And he did that tacky comb-over thing with his bald spot.

He really liked physics, and he seemed by nature kind, which probably signalled to the students that he could be taken advantage of.

I did well in his class, though I was the only sophomore taking it. He sent one of those mid-term progress slips, one of the rare "positive" ones, and my Mom, being the proud Mom she is, used to keep it in her purse; it was something like: "Never before in these hallowed halls of Glen Rock have I encountered a student of such mathematical great-goodyness, such born-knowitallness in physics, etc. etc."

Most of the students were going through teen rebellion. I got along with a couple of other students who actually liked physics--Rich, who now teaches college economics, and Natalie, Russian, who I had a minor crush on.

I think Gomez's daughter came to visit class once, and everyone was on their best behavior--she was actually kind of pretty.

The biggest laugh was the day an equation worked out just perfectly and Mr. Bostonian turned to the class and said:

The Monster is Our Friend!

I think the whole class just lost it then! Everyone was like, "Whoah, Gomez has flipped! He's saying The Monster is Our Friend!"

Poor Mr. Bostonian. I think I last saw him early in my college career and the students had given him a few more nervous tics.

But in some way I'm sure he must be happy now that a generation of top-notch college students are friends with The Monster!
bram: (smile obie)
This will be a long entry--my memories of the Boulder co-op house I lived in back in 1994-1995. Here as far as I can tell is the sole record on the internet of the existence of this community.


The idea behind the co-op was that a bunch of people--largely but not exclusively college students--would live together in a house, in a spirit of co-operation and environmental awareness. I was first introduced to the co-op after it had been running for about 6 months by my friend BP from college. He was a smart, sensitive guy although I witnessed from up-close his drawn-out and difficult breakup with another friend from college, EF. Overall, BP had helped me out and I considered him a friend. I vaguely remember that I was told I could move in at that point, but that the offer turned out to be a mistake--someone else was on the waiting list first. But 6 months later, they told me I could move in, and I did. BP moved out before I moved in.

I was shown how to do the chores: recycling, compost heap (we composted our organic garbage), cooking, etc. The food was all vegetarian, and everyone was expected to sign up to help. We ate meals together when we could. We had meetings every week to share what was on our minds and to make house policy. Decisions were made on consensus, that is, everyone had to agree. I think there were 14 of us in the house at that point.

The people were nice. My best friends at first were Lucy, who was on leave from Brown University and worked baking bread and bagels, and JG, a guy who studied engineering at the University. There were a bunch of early-20somethings mostly: a guy who worked at a Mexican restaurant and a woman who played bass and worked at a video store. (I was 26-27 when I was in the co-op, a grad student.)

Intimations of Strangeness (but not in such a bad way yet)

One guy was rather odd, although not in comparison with the people who came later. SC had epilepsy, he told us, the result of a car accident. I think he'd said that his corpus callosum had been severed--the nerve cells linking the two hemispheres of the brain. And in fact he was very adept at writing backwards or with both hands. He could also contort himself to fit his entire body into a small suitcase. He had epileptic fits several times a week, and for some reason, at those times he needed glucose. So I found myself from time to time sprinting out to find apple juice for him (apparently the best source of sugars for him during a fit) or holding his head so he didn't hurt it while thrashing about. SC didn't have a job at the time, and was rapidly falling behind in paying rent.

Later, the story had it that SC was fibbing, although the degree was in dispute. Generally, we tended to believe that he was epileptic (though perhaps some of the fits were faked), but that he'd gotten hooked on sympathy and that his family hadn't actually perished (actually they contacted us at one point), and he didn't have, as he claimed, only a year or two left to live. Jenn adds: [SC] claimed that his parents and brother died one by one, as rent came up... also you don't explicitly mention that he only wrote backwards the whole time he lived with us and claimed that he couldn't write forwards.

Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll

That got your attention, huh? Bet you all want to know what went on in our wild hippie commune behind closed doors, huh?

Well mostly it was friendship, chores, and (later) political bickering. But I do remember one night I came home from deconvolving high signal-to-noise ratio spectra of the Wolf-Rayet star HD 50896 and found everyone partying naked and swimming (internally) in tequila. It might have been fun at first, but by the time I arrived people had started puking. Then of course SC had a fit and I had to hold his head.

Jenn Arrives

The house didn't have a name when I arrived. We eventually called it Random House, although privately we sometimes called it "The G Spot."

When we expanded to a second house, the Brick House, all hell broke loose. But we had such fun in Random House.

About a month after I moved in, Jenn arrived. She was Lucy's roommate from Brown. Our friendship had an inauspicious start, though. The co-op had instituted a new "quiet hours" rule, and she and a guy JY were, during those hours, playing guitar music loudly while I was trying to watch a movie on TV. Perhaps I was obnoxious about asking them to pipe down, but they were obnoxious in turn--I ended up dumping the contents of a huge ashtray on JY and carrying Jenn and her guitar to the curb of the road and dumping them there. I'm normally a mild-mannered kind of guy; I guess JY was obnoxious in a provocative way.

The Funnest Times

But later Jenn became one of my very best friends at the co-op, and she was even at my 30th birthday party, along with David H, who I met at the Brick House later.

We had great, wild parties. We had a "Guess Why I need a Lobotomy" party, in which everyone had a preassigned wild character to play. I organized a Mad Tea Party on Mad Hatter's Day, 10/6. We had a Halloween party (I was Alferd Packer, infamous Colorado cannibal, the subject of the musical Cannibal by Trey Parker and Matt Stone--I walked around with a knife and fork and steak sauce, I had long hair and goatee like Packer), and a Christmas party. We had an Enchanted Forrest party, where people dressed up as Hobbits and elves--one young woman dressed up as the Scallion Sprite, and covered herself in green scallions, but SC and I pretended to be Scallion-Eating Trolls and mischievously ate up her costume. At the low point of the co-op, when we were consumed with the issue of sexual harassment, I wondered whether we'd been too aggressive in our playing then...

Jenn adds: weren't there actually a few naked-ish parties, including one on "christmas," which was either on your birthday or beethoven's, i forget, and in which we had a really nice gift exchange where people weren't allowed to buy anything, but only give presents they already had.

We jammed: Lucy and I played her keyboards, the bass player her bass, SC on drums, Jenn on guitar--all together we kind of sucked but it was fun.

We also had a literary club and a writer's group; these were among the highlights of the co-op for me. Jenn often led the way in these. I remember many interesting experiments--listening to two different translations of Dostoevsky read at the same time and noticing when one translator used a euphemism... I read my grandmother's diaries out loud and read some Italo Calvino, some Paul Auster, and some Stanislaw Lem, but I got the best response from Gimpel the Fool by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

The bathrooms always had notebooks that people could write in, and lots of amusing stuff got written.

All Downhill: The Brick House

Now and then there were some changes in our membership; we added a smooth-talking guy, a woman from a college back East, a woman going to a Buddhist college, and JG's brother. (In the mean-time JG had come out as gay.) JG himself, our unacknowledged leader, was away for January, and his brother more or less filled the power vacuum, taking the initiative in expanding our co-op to include a second house.

The second house, eventually called The Brick House after that '80s song that goes "", was an ex-frat house (I believe it's a frat house again today), and was much larger. It could house as many as 28 people! It had a huge basement we imagined could be used for all sorts of parties. We went for it.

However, there were some things we hadn't thought out. We needed to fill the house, fast, so didn't screen the new members very closely. Although there had been a week of intense negotiations in which we worked out our official rules and by-laws (thinking those meetings boring, I mostly skipped them), we never thought carefully about how 2 houses would work together. We planned joint meals once a week, but the issue of new membership wasn't addressed. If someone wanted to move into the Brick House, did they need to get approval from Random House? In evolving practice, no--but that was a cause of trouble.

Another cause of trouble was the male/female disparity between the two houses. I joined the colonists going from Random House to Brick House, but perhaps because of the ex-frat house location, Brick House attracted something like 18 men and 4 women while Random House had something like 11 women and 1 man (JG). One of the stronger forces binding the two houses together was the developing relationship between JG and JB, who'd moved into the Brick House.

Sh'tara, Sequoia, Kurt: the Turbine hits the Septic Tank

The pioneers in the Brick House were an interesting and diverse bunch, although they never melded into a community. They included a 56-year old grandmother, a bunch of kids with great musical talent (I remember Blake, Mingus, and Adam had a band called Sleight of Hand), an 18-year old woman with strawberry-blond hair who had the figure of Jessica Rabbit without the hairy ears (I'll call her JR--at first she was a little flirtatious toward me, but not only was she inappropriately young but she believed in astrology which sorry if I offend you but to me is like putting a "Warning: mashed potatoes inside" sticker on your skull), David H (graduate of Colby, left-wing journalist who'd travelled to Guatemala), JB, and various colonists from Random House (me, Lucy, smooth-talking guy, East Coast college woman, JG's brother, a guy Johnny, SC, though he soon moved out.) I jumped houses for a couple of reasons--I wanted access to Lucy's high tech keyboard so I could write some music for my father's birthday, and someone with a dog was moving into Random House, and I'm afraid of dogs.

The male/female disparity caused the house cultures to diverge. I remember visiting the Random House for a literary club and finding the atmosphere too "precious" and domestically insular. One woman asked us all to "write about the rain", something that seemed designed to provoke pretentious cliches--so I wrote something crudely funny:

"Fuck," said Dr. Seuss, looking out the window at the angry mob calling for his death. Long ago Dr. Seuss, Theodore Geisl, had written a story about green slime falling from the sky in place of rain. "Ubleech" he called the slime, but it was only fiction, at the time. Now that it had happened in reality, there was nobody to blame but God... and Dr. Seuss....

(Ok, maybe it wasn't that funny!)

Meanwhile in the testosterone-infused Brick House, our only "artwork" was the pile of discarded beer cans that was being arranged in our kitchen.

One day a couple of figures with shaved heads joined us at a meeting. They said they were friends of JG, that they wanted to park their trailer outside Brick House for a couple of weeks and would like to use the house to shower, and that they had seven puppies they would like to keep in the basement. They'd contribute to the co-op life and cook meals. At first I wasn't sure if they were male or female, but found out they were female. The thin one was Sh'Tara and the tall one was Sequoia. By consensus, we agreed to the arrangement.

The smooth-talking guy was our house accountant, and took on much of the work of the house. (It seemed to be a recurring pattern that one person would do most of the house's work, and would get hooked on that role, using it for moral authority, while others slacked off.) He also had sympathy for hard-luck cases (I think he was very interested in religion, although appalled by some traditional approaches), and asked a guy he met at the outdoor mall to stay at the Brick House for a few days, and if he liked it, to try to move in. This guy was Kurt.

Kurt was tall, gaunt, awkward, and could be considered creepy. He was interested, if I remember correctly, in camping, in Pink Floyd, and in horror comic books. He had a way of naively asking potentially offensive questions. For example, he once said to me, "When you smile, lines appear in your cheeks by your eyes--is that because you're Jewish?" I wasn't offended, though I thought it was odd.

So we had a house meeting in which we considered Kurt's membership. JR couldn't make the meeting; she was joining Sh'tara and Sequoia for a Women's Week meeting. I don't remember if at that point she had said something to me about her aversion for Kurt. At the meeting we mostly focussed on whether he'd be a responsible member of the household, and whether he'd be able to afford rent. When SC left the house he was $800 in debt, although our accountant I think paid for much of that out of pocket. Also, a woman in the other house broke up with her boyfriend, but the boyfriend for some reason had ended up squatting at our house, living there for free. JB in particular grilled Kurt closely on his ability to stay employed. At one point I said, "Well, we don't have everyone here at this meeting, can we go ahead and let him in now anyway?" And the general feeling was yes. Although most of the opposition to Kurt later came from women, I'm pretty sure that the grandmother was at the meeting, as well as the East Coast College woman, and possibly Lucy (who spent a lot of time cooking bagels.) The women at the meeting seemed to have no problem with Kurt joining the co-op, and neither did the men.

While I'd assumed that after that meeting that Kurt was an official regular member of the co-op, that it was a done deal, to the women in the other house, he wasn't a real member. "When is Kurt going to stop hanging around the co-op?" I was asked. Meanwhile, Sh'tara and Sequoia were thought of as de facto co-op members by Random House; the fact that they were never approved as members and didn't pay rent were thought of as technicalities.

On the one hand, I was upset that the other house didn't seem to respect our house and its decisions, and on the other hand, I was listening to those who had problems with Kurt. I tried my hardest to be fair to all. When they left the co-op, I parted company with both Kurt, and with Sh'Tara and Sequoia, as friends--but not without interim conflict.

Sh'tara (she was older than Sequoia, and more of a thinker) told me that some women felt uncomfortable in Kurt's presence, though they might not come out and say it directly. He'd made passes at some in a strange sort of way--one woman later told me he'd asked her if he could give her a piggyback ride (perhaps wanting to put his height to good use?) and seemed oddly disappointed when she turned him down.

I told Sh'tara that it would be troubling to invalidate someone's membership in the co-op without being able to point to the line they'd crossed. Were any passes forbidden, or how many, or worded in what way, or were they just forbidden for this guy because he seemed creepy? I thought in a way he was being discriminated against for a vague creepiness--someone could be turned down for membership in the co-op on the basis of a vibe, but could we kick someone out on that basis? Some of the complaints I'd heard were along the lines of: "He's just there" or "He's always there" which seemed to just object to his presence. If they'd said, "I think he's following me," that would have been another story.

Sh'tara said to me, "I think I understand where you're coming from. You have this ideal of Justice. The woman with the blindfold holding the scales. But that has to be balanced against safety. Do you want to wait until there is an incident?"

In my Justice-based thinking that was a little like saying "round up the kids wearing black, they could blow up the school"--we don't treat people based on what we think their psychological potential is, we treat them based on what they do.

"How do you know there would be an incident?" I asked.

"I just know," she said, "I bet you that I could press the right buttons to show you what Kurt is really like."

JG told me that Sh'tara had asked Kurt, "What do you think of gays and lesbians?" And Kurt had said, "I have no problem with them, as long as they don't try to convert me." "Convert you? Who's talking about anyone trying to convert you? Why do you bring that up?" Sh'tara said--JG said that Kurt gave a helpless look in face of those PC accusations that were beyond his sophistication.

I thought the most serious accusations could be pretty serious--mainly that he'd said to one woman, "I see you have holes in your jeans [there was apparently one near the crotch], I like that, I like that a lot, heheh." Kurt vociferously denied that wording, and in fact it was that vociferousness that eventually got him kicked out of the place.

JR, the Jessica Rabbit lookalike, also had major reservations, although she was too shy to come forward and detail them.

The Trial of Kurt

So we arranged a big meeting of both houses, facilitated jointly by Sh'tara and myself. Sh'tara had an unusual method of facilitating meetings, designed to share power in a more equitable way, and designed not to intimidate women. She also left in frustration midway through the meeting, although that was also construed (in light of some of her later history in the co-op) as being manipulative. Halfway through the meeting, the accountant returned from vacation--he was the one who brought Kurt to the house in the first place, and he was presumably shocked to see what had resulted from that in the intervening week!

In the end, Kurt was pressed and he got angry. "I did NOT say that!" he said, and his anger lost him the sympathy of the co-op. He stormed off, and we didn't have to take a formal vote. We all knew Kurt was leaving.

I helped him move out. His window was open, and I was shivering. "Are you afraid of me too?" he asked. I told him I was cold, and he closed the window. He gave me a fractal t-shirt, which I think he said had sentimental meaning for him--given to him by an ex-girlfriend?--I don't remember exactly why.

During this time Jenn was a great influence on me. She really cared about the people and the co-op.

Aftermath: Sh'tara and Sequoia

I've mostly glossed over some of Sh'Tara and Sequoia's more extreme aspects because I thought their point was legitimate and they represented others as well. But they caused trouble for the co-op too, and eventually they, as well as Kurt, were personae non grata.

To start with, there were their seven puppies, who were not house-trained. The basement was filled with dog-poop, and instead of staying 2 weeks, S and S stayed 2 months. A prospective co-oper, an African-American single mom and artist, stepped into the basement and had to brush the glop off her shoes.

Sh'tara's involvement in house politics continued to be divisive. JY, who was so obnoxious I dumped an ashtray on him, wanted to move back. Sh'Tara considered him abusive, and was dead set against him moving in. Remember, she was not herself an official member of the household. Although JY was an asshole, he was a charming one (think Buck Mulligan in Ulysses, although JY rejected the comparison), more self-aware than Kurt, he was a founding member of the co-op, and a good friend of JG. I think Jenn had an infatuation for him. I went away on vacation, but left instructions that I would probably vote against JY, but that I was wary of the growing influence of S and S in these matters.

Jenn adds: lucy also voted down [JY]; it wasn't just a feminist conspiracy. he was pretty
darned abusive, in retrospect. though you're right, i was definitely infatuated!

(Me: I also recall that Lucy cast the decisive vote, but I think she did it partly because she was just wanted the bickering to be over).

That struck a chord with the co-op members at the meeting, who also pointed out that S and S had converted an unoccupied room into a "Women's Room" complete with a Shrine to the Earth Goddess--all without paying rent.

That's around the time Laima moved in, and Laima said she thought at that meeting that Sh'tara was being theatrical and manipulative.

Last Gasp at Fun

Laima had gone to Cornell and was smart and talented--she played the violin. We had one last great party, one with an Eastern European/Russian theme. I am of Latvian Jewish ancestry, the Scallion Sprite was also of Latvian ancestry, and Laima was of Lithuanian ancestry. We drank lots of vodka and danced polkas while Laima improvised on violin and Blake played along on guitar. I think it was Jenn who made some horrendous "polka dots"--little molds made of jello and vodka, colored with food coloring. Everyone hated them so I ate them all. I danced wildly, rolling on the ground until I knocked over a lamp...

It was perhaps ironic that Sh'tara's strongest opposition was from JB; it was a gay against lesbian war. Perhaps the fault line was hyper-masculine versus hyper-feminine? One contributing cause to the hostility was that JY was to be JB's roommate and share some of his rent; Sh'Tara's opposition doomed that plan. By this time JB had become the house authority--he filled the "alpha male" vacuum of a co-op run by consensus. And Sh'tara was his enemy.

Deadlines passed but they stayed at the house. After threatening to let her dogs out and maybe call the cops, JB finally got S and S to leave. JR went with them; though she was heterosexual she admired Sh'tara's worldview, and went with them to a women's collective in the midwest.

New Feeble Beginning

That whole mess was out of the way. The Brick House was becoming more gender-balanced. The African American single mom (who was also quite a political activist) and her 7-year old kid moved in, some hippie kids moved in, a partly deaf film student moved in, a guy who collected guns, a woman from Normal, Illinois, a guy with bipolar mood disorder, a guy with a mild developmental disability, a philosophy major, and a college student/gym instructor moved in (that student is now, as far as I know, the sole member of our group to be involved in Boulder's present co-op system.)

We continued recycling and composting, buying our food in bulk, and cooking vegetarian meals (until the oven broke!)

We tried to get serious about things, about properly screening people who wanted to move in. But bizarre disasters kept happening.

One day the grandmother claimed she'd been assaulted in the park, and now had amnesia... As with SC, we now suspect there was a grain of truth to this but that she was a fibber. Unfortunately, she was also our liason with the landlord, and with amnesia/"amnesia", she couldn't negotiate with him to get our oven fixed, and our communal meals stopped for about a month.

The 7 year old kid was hard to handle--I used to take him to play Mortal Kombat III, he used to make me run around pulling him on his skateboard (lots of exercise!)

The next big house conflict involved me and JG's brother--but it's time for me to go to dinner (I got the last of the hyssop at the store and I'm making hummus!) I'm leaving so much out! I will come back and write more.

Cats and Dogs

The conflict with JG's brother was mainly about JG's brother's friend who wanted to move in with his dog. As I wrote before, I'm afraid of dogs, partly because I used to go door to door for an environmental group (one of the PIRGs) and got bit and chased by dogs. In this conflict, I think both sides again had cases to make, visions of how the collective life should be.

Nevertheless, I won, mainly by going back to our bylaws and other defining documents. People had started assuming dogs were allowed because exceptions had been made in the past (such as the puppies in the basement for supposedly 2 weeks), and the end result was that nobody paid attention to the rules.

Head Honchoness

My victory in preventing JG's brother's friend from moving in with his dog propelled me closer to the "alpha male" position that always seemed to develop in spite of our goal of equality. JB had run his course; he'd picked power-fights with a couple of hippie kids he accused of stealing from him, and otherwise made his influence felt. But he'd had enough.

Jenn adds: also, wasn't there some incident where some punk kid who had just moved out threw a brick through the window, keyed [JB]'s bike, and stole a bunch of musical instruments? at which point [JB] sprayed the fire extinguisher all over his former room to make sure he wouldn't come back? or something like that...

At this point, I was the most senior co-op member in the Brick House--I tried to keep traditions going and tried to keep the house functioning, without being a taskmaster.

We foolishly gave up the lease on Random House, so that Brick House was the only co-op. A few of the Random House residents moved over to Brick House, including Jenn.

To the end it was chaotic. To the end, it was still fun at times.

Wild Guys

A few guys passed through the co-op who were quite out there. One, who I will call BN, had been a founding member of the co-op, but had apparently taken too much speed. One typical day he walked into the co-op and announced he was becoming a doctor. "That's right," he said, performing pantomime surgery, "I wanna just go in there, and take out that gall bladder! Yessiree, just take out that puppy! That gall bladder!" He went on to rephrase that concept ad nauseum. JR was grossed out, and Sh'tara and Sequoia wanted him blocked from entering the house. (Jenn says BN tried living in a box in the basement, claiming he was not in the house, but in a box.)

BN spent some time homeless. I remember I saw him in a crowd up on The Hill near campus, and he accused me: "I was in the co-op long before you. I was one of the founders. But you guys kicked me out in the cold. It's my co-op!"

"You were in the co-op, but you left before I even got there," I said, "And JR is in the co-op now, and she has problems with you. I have to protect the people who are there now."

"But I'm out here on the street, and it's because of you guys!" he said, and I thought he was getting some of the crowd's sympathy. Then some guy came up and asked for a nickel for the bus. BN shouted at him something like: "No way are we going to give you a nickel 'cause you're just going to die anyway and life is horrible and what did you ever do for us anyway?" The crowd seemed to reevaluate BN.

I thought I should do something though, and got a big printout from the USENET (this was in early 1995) listing all sorts of social services available to the homeless. I gave it to BN, but I think he just tossed the pages to the wind.

In another irony, once Sh'tara and Sequoia had left, a protege of theirs MS, a woman who'd been influenced by their philosophy, ended up going out with BN. BN was now at least tolerated in the house. He was unremittingly weird, but also a very talented flute player. (Once he wandered into the music school, trying to get an audition to play the Snoopy theme on flute.) I remember BN and Laima performing a haunting improvisation on flute and violin, and Blake used to sneak BN into his room for some music too.

But BN and MS were both trouble: they behaved inappropriately, left piles of dirty dishes, and MS had inherited one of Sh'tara and Sequoia's pooping puppies. They got on the bad side of JB, and we kicked them both out of the house. MS soon became pregnant, but had a miscarrage. I saw her and BN soon after in a coffeehouse, and approached them. I think MS expected me to rebuke them for being irresponsible, but I said, "I was very sad to hear about what happened. I'm sorry for ever kicking you out of the house," and she looked at me very gratefully.


The partly deaf film student organized a coffeehouse in the basement to raise money for the house. (We'd planned a great big party, Brickstock, but the police didn't like our sign.) We had another lesbian member who was very much into the literary club and coffeehouses--one poem in particular I remember made light of the serious Earth Goddess kind of imagery Sh'tara went in for. My brother moved in as my roommate for a while; he got the consensus of the co-op and moved in as a member. One woman, an epileptic stripper, was so dedicated to moving in that she gave up her dog. She revelled in the power of consensus decision-making when she got to personally announce to a creepy guy that he was denied membership.

I left the co-op, finally, a couple of weeks before I defended my thesis. I was just too upset that random people would appear in the kitchen unaccompanied at 3am--after the Kurt disaster we needed to screen the people who stayed with us to protect people's sensitivities. But as alpha male enforcer, I would have to be the one to set everything straight myself--and I didn't want that. I moved to the Youth Hostel and finished and defended "The Accretion Flows in the X-ray Binary Pulsars Vela X-1 and Hercules X-1 Inferred from Time-Resolved Ultraviolet Spectroscopy". It could have been better, but I plead chaotic home environment.

My brother knows how the rest goes. More chaos, more disasters, and we eventually lost the Brick House. Limpopo House formed on the other edge of town, with the student/gym trainer who is still in the Boulder co-op system...

Here is a picture of some folks from the Brick House:

I think they took this pic when I was away, so they could sneak in my nemesis the dog. Notable in this photo is Eleonora (black hair in the middle of the photo, Jenn is just above her to the left.) Eleonora was an exchange student from Italy, and was going out with JG's brother's friend, who owned the dog. Still, she didn't involve herself in house politics, and was friendly with me. She's actually the last co-op member I've seen (other than my brother)--we got together when I went to a scientific conference in Rome about a year ago. The student/gym trainer who still lives in a Boulder co-op is the guy with blondish hair to the top right.
bram: (crosseyed)
I thought I'd go off on a ramble on the topic of "cosmic coincidences." In the data I just got, there is strong evidence for something called Bowen fluorescence. When I finally get the albatross paper and the 90% done paper out of the way, I'll spend some time figuring out what I can learn from this effect. But first I'll muse on the meaning of it all--kind of rare that I can do some musing on my work.

Here's a picture from that link (to the Lawrence Livermore National Labs):

The idea is that as a result of two amazing coincidences, we see emission from Nitrogen at a wavelength of 989 Angstroms in the star I'm looking at.

First coincidence: well, the Universe is made mostly of hydrogen and helium, right? There's a lot of that stuff around, very little (proportionately) of anything else (I'm talking only so-called baryonic matter here, nothing fancy, no dark matter, don't get all smartypants on me bub!) Ok, so the light emitted from Helium, provided that the electrons don't have to behave in any specially kinky way, has got to be really bright. There is a really bright emission line from singly ionized Helium at 303.78 Angstroms. Now that's what they call extreme ultraviolet, and that kind of light not only doesn't make it down the atmosphere, but rarely makes it across interstellar space. So the first amazing coincidence is that 303.78 Angstrom Helium light just so happens to be very close in wavelength to 303.80 Angstrom levels of doubly-ionized Oxygen.

What does this mean? As a result of this cosmic coincidence, the light from Helium can "pump" Oxygen to put out more light. The light at 303.78 Angstroms, if given off by atoms with a moderate amount of motion, can be absorbed by Oxygen atoms, bringing an Oxygen electron up to a higher level.

Once that electron goes to a higher level, it can go back down to the ground level in steps, emitting along the way light with a wavelength of 374.436 Angstroms.

Time for coincidence number 2: the difference in energy levels in doubly ionized Nitrogen is 374.441 Angstroms. Now the Oxygen light "pumps" Nitrogen to give out light that it wouldn't normally give out. It raises an electron in Nitrogen up to a higher level, and as that electron cascades down, it gives off optical light (at something like 4660 Angstroms) and near UV light (3200 A or so I think) and finally what I just saw, far UV light (989 A).

Now it's possible I'm just seeing regular Nitrogen emission not resulting from this complicated booby-trap. But that's science for you: I can add up the numbers and look at the data and test which idea is right!

Ok, I promised musings, not a lecture on freakin' atomic spectroscopy.

I bring this up partly because it makes me think about the anthropic principle, which is a philosophical outlook (or various philosophical outlooks) which says that basically, the reason the world is as it appears to be is that if it were different just a little bit, we wouldn't be here to inquire why it's here in the first place.

This line of thought gained prominence when Sir Fred Hoyle figured out that fusion processes leading to the basic element of life, Carbon, required nuclear reaction rates that were "finely tuned." This page talks about cosmic coincidences in general, and this page talks about Hoyle's work in particular. What Hoyle did was especially impressive because he predicted that Carbon's nucleus had to behave in a special way, based on the fact that we, as carbon-based lifeforms, exist.

Now, some people have taken this idea and run with it. Others have taken this idea and run off a cliff with it. I speak here of Frank Tipler, who has proposed what he calls the Final Anthropic Principle, which says that once evolved, intelligence in our Universe can never die out, for it must, by logical necessity, approach an Omega Point, a hyper-intelligent computer that will become like God, resurrecting all intelligence that existed previously and providing for its eternal happiness. Martin Gardner has dubbed this the Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle. In case "completely ridiculous" leaves any doubts as to Martin Gardner's opinion, I suggest you pronounce the acronym out loud.

I once got in a discussion with Alan Guth, promulgator of the inflationary theory of the Big Bang, on the topic of the anthropic principle. Of all big-shot scientists, Guth is the most approachable. He told me that he thought the anthropic principle, in any of its variants, was complete crap!

Now that I am investigating a cosmic coincidence on my own, I'm trying to see what lessons or parallels I can draw:

1. Coincidences happen

Unlike the production of carbon in the centers of stars, Bowen fluorescence does not appear essential for our existence at all.

One could argue that there's a bit of a difference though in that Hoyle predicted that resonance of Carbon, which was unsuspected, whereas Bowen (I know nothing about the person Bowen at all) as far as I know, just looked up tables of atoms to find known wavelengths. Of course the existence of the process in either case is only something inferred from observation: in one case, we observe that we exist, and infer that there must be a way stars can make our carbon. In the other case, I have just seen a strong emission line at 989 Angstroms and infer there must be some way to make its light, even if it's a complicated booby trap. I might be able to go on to infer all sorts of surprising things about what's going on in the star system, all based on the fact that whatever happens, it must cause a strong emission at 989 Angstroms. Which brings me to

2. Our existence is just another observation we make

One thing I think rubs people the wrong way about anthropic arguments is their anti-Copernican flavor. What if I said:

The universe must be the way it is, in order for me to have seen an emission line at 989 Angstroms?

Well, Bowen fluorescence depends on those two extraordinary coincidences, and I suppose those coincidences are linked to the details of atomic structure, which depend on the fine structure constant alpha and the mass of an electron. So if those fundamental numbers that make up the universe were changed just a little bit then Bowen fluorescence wouldn't occur.

But Bowen fluorescence had to have occurred (or at least something had to cause strong emission at 4661 Angstroms and 989 Angstroms)--if it hadn't, I wouldn't have met Jon Schachter, who wrote his thesis at Berkeley on Bowen fluorescence. I remember Schachter as this big Jewish guy with a bristly beard and bushy eyebrows--he used to joke that we must have come from the same Jewish tribe because we both have such eyebrows. Unfortunately, he's left science for computers, and now I have to figure out this Bowen stuff myself instead of just asking him what it all means (in terms of what's going on with the neutron star).

Anyway, what I'm saying is that if you change the Universe a little bit so those lines don't overlap just right, then not only doesn't this obscure astrophysical process occur, but people's lives would change: I presume Schachter wouldn't be Schachter and Bowen wouldn't be Bowen if the academic fields they had staked out as their own hadn't existed.

So this process might be in a sense as essential to their existence as Carbon is to all of us. Presumably it could be essential to my existence too--if for example, I publish an important paper on Bowen fluorescence, which gets me a job somewhere...

Ultimately, whatever way the Universe is must be consistent with everything we observe, whether that's our composition in terms of Carbon atoms, or the possibility of photosynthesis, or Bowen fluorescence, or an experiment in Fermilab. That's just "the scientific method."

I think some people get spooked by anthropic arguments because it seems that the existence of people shouldn't intrude on esoteric fundamental questions of nuclear structure.

In the end, will one theory wrap everything up, or will we have to defer to experiments and admit there is some fundamental arbitrariness in the Universe? I don't know. But I don't think it's so different to say, "it has to be consistent with our being here" and "it has to be consistent with the latest experiment at Fermilab." I think this should be obvious--I just haven't seen it stated.

This has been mostly a literary rambling--I promise (myself) that soon I'll write some philosophizing better grounded in and directed towards science (though not necessarily science as obscure as Bowen fluorescence!)

In less exalted news, the laundry machine in my apartment is down, so I went to the laundromat. For some reason, I never bother to check my pockets in front-loading machines, and always end up with a damn leaking pen coloring all my white clothes with random blue ink.

I also went to The Mustard Seed Market and got some yummy food, including sushi. There were a couple of guys giving free hummus samples, and they looked Arabic, perhaps Palestinian. I think they might have seen that I'm Jewish, and we all were kind of wary, but the hummus was 2 for $3 and had extra garlic and no preservatives so I bought some, striking a blow for Middle-East goodwill and coexistence along the way!
bram: (galafractaxyl)
Ok, second journal entry: now I start to set my journal-writing pattern!

The day itself was uneventful. My office-mate's Russian collaborator suggested I look at my data in a new way, and it may actually be showing something I hadn't expected. I'm revising a paper I submitted to the Astrophysical Journal. The "referee" (a scientific peer chosen by the journal to accept or reject my paper) had some minor comments; once I fix those I'll get the paper published.

But I don't want to talk only about my research at work; I deal with that at my office. I like to think about broader issues too. I had a lot of fun a few weeks ago, in fact, responding to scientific questions from the public through the "Ask a High Energy Astronomer" program available through NASA's
Imagine the Universe web site. That was great because I got to answer questions about relativity and cosmology. I'd eventually like to have about half of this journal be scientific musings along the line of those in John Baez's Finds in Mathematical Physics (yes, he is the cousin of Joan Baez)--although Baez is very good at what he does! There is a lot to be said for no-nonsense, stick-to-the-facts science (in fact that is most of science) but I can't help musing about philosophy and the foundations, too.

Today I also played my digital piano (Bach preludes in C, c, and f and fugues in c and f from the Well-Tempered Clavier)--that's a usual for me. And I went to my gym and lifted weights. I'm benching 70 pound dumbells in each hand, two sets of six reps. Not bad for a dabbler, though for a real weight-lifter it wouldn't be much.

Today I read a Camille Paglia column on salon that got me kind of steamed. She dismissed the million mom march mainly because it was made up of white women. Well, isn't that what she is? I don't know, it seemed to me she was discounting a major demographic portion of the nation (actually THE largest combination of gender and ethnicity)! And she didn't even show evidence that the march was disproportionately white, or that women in other ethnic groups have a different agenda on gun control (as opposed to simply being less able to get to the march). The essay just seemed agressively stupid. She thought it particularly embarassing that Rosie O'Donnel talked at the march. Well, doesn't the other side also have a Hollywood spokesperson (Charlton Heston)? I say, fight glitter with glitter!

After working out at the gym, I stopped by Kramerbooks--yes, that is the bookstore that was subpoenaed by Ken Starr to provide evidence that Monica bought Bill a book about phone sex! One book caught my eye; I forget the title, but it was one of those "this country is going to hell in a handbasket" books that is always fun to read. Side note: the author mentioned the novel "White Noise" by Don DeLeio (sp?) and called it a "masterpiece." I will try to get ahold of that now. Anyway, the book's thesis was that due to historical, structural forces, global capitalism is destroying culture. It's got a kind of vitality, but it's an emtpy vitality that stands for nothing other than the propagation of consumerism. Thesis: not new, not surprising. But the author's remedy seemed surprising; he called for a kind of "monasticism", not people really becoming monks, but that people adopt a critical view of the culture of perpetual getting and spending, of infotainment, and try to keep a love of the arts alive even if it is considered elitist. Of course I haven't read the whole book, I've just skimmed in the infamous bookstore. While I often feel as the author does, I wonder if it hasn't always been like this, maybe not in terms of the efficiency with which corporations can bring their "cultural" wares to the marketplace, but that what becomes popular in the short-term is often just what has been made, in a calculating way, with popularity in mind. Come to think of it, the author did compare the US now with the Roman Empire, and now that Gladiator is such a big hit, comparisons like that are sure to be pretty popular (today Maureen Dowd's NY Times column imagines Al Gore thinking of himself as a Gladiator.) So at least it is not a problem unique to us now.

Well, that's a good enough journal entry for tonight. Maybe tommorow's entry will have some musings about scientific philosophy or maybe relationships and life in DC...

bram: (Default)
Here I am starting an on-line journal! I've decided not to do it anonymously too. So that will probably set some limitations on what I'll write here. They say that journal-writing is a great way to stay creative, that you can review and reflect on what you've done and ponder plans... I think most people writing journals do so with some unconscious idea that someone's going to read it some day. Putting it here in cyberspace, I *know* people can read it!

Ok, who am I? People reading this can start off with one of my home pages, either

I'm an astrophysicist working at NASA. I'm 32 years old, single Jewish (though not religious) male. Before I tell everyone how my day was, I thought I'd give a brief sample of what the work day of an astrophysicist at NASA is like. I imagine some people think it's a glamorous job (get to be creative, within constraints; get to make mind-boggling discoveries at the edge of our Universe) and other people think it's kind of a geek job (speak in jargon, work hard getting details right, only a few specialists in the world care about exactly what we do)... Probably most people have an opinion in between. Anyway, I keep a "journal" at work in a computer directory called to_do_list, and thought I'd share an example (within the ----- signs):
to do:

go to the talk today (it's jim chiang)

write section for lev
#2nd priority; though I'm starting to suspect these sources will be hard to observe!

run model for saku (read paper)
#1st priority

lmc x-4 fuse:
1) let program finish, record best-fit values, make plot

improve program: examine continuum background, make sure it's dividing by total # of degrees of freedom for chi2
#looks ok
important: see what happens when the effect of absorption of x-rays in the wind is taken into account
#now trying proper orbital phase (corrected for inclination)
#a slight improvement actually in chi2 (and it actually didn't
go through a rigorous minimization search): chi2=16.81 vs. 17.31 before... have a look at the plot

2) figure out why I can't get kurucz spectra from iue rdaf, get those spectra, prepare to model lmc x-4 continuum (ellipsoidal) variability
#do this next
#it's working! I just had to rename !iuer.database
#ok, spent some time realizing the old program needs the database to have decreasing temperature vs. index... fixed that
#ran continuum program w/out any adjustments, the flux is generally about 20% too high, but that's not so surprising
#e(b-v) could be uncertain, hey wait, for some reason it didn't include emission from the disk--go fix that, should add at least 8%, probably
more (contributes more in far uv than near uv)

3) work on text, put in stellar absorption line work--that's nice stuff, easy, discuss comparison w/ other stars

her x-1 wind:
do some simple estimates for line emission--exp(-upper level/k T)

Chandra proposal ideas (other than Her X-1):

3/20 and 3/21 list some ideas, but they're not great...
Ok, what did all this mean? Obviously there's lots of jargon! But you can also see how much collaboration scientists need nowadays. Lev is my office-mate. (He's a really colorful character. He's Russian. He's always teasing the Russian-- Georgian, actually--woman across the hall. He called her "Kuruchka", which means "chic". Today she got a copy of the book she's been putting together from papers given at a conference, and Lev put a post-it over her name so it said "Kuruchka"!) Saku is my old boss. She's at Harvard. I use "Kurucz models" which are models of what different stars look like figured out by this guy Kurucz at Harvard. I went to a talk given by Jim Chiang, who I had collaborated with a bit before...

Speaking of Kuruchkas, there are these goose families with goslings that waddle by our window every day. Kuruchka says she's not like them though because they're always pecking at the grass and she rarely eats...

Anyway, today my softball team played. It's a co-ed league, but they have rules to keep it competitive for women. Men have to bat left-handed if they're right-handed, and vice-versa. The batting order has to alterante men and women, and I think the field positions too. I think I pulled a muscle running to 1st base my 1st time up (I got called out but it was very close). My 2nd time up I hit a single with the bases loaded and helped spark a rally with 2 outs, but we ended up losing anyway. This woman S who planned to be on the team but hurt her leg wasn't there today (she was at our last 2 games.) I think she's pretty cute (she's also an astrophysicist at NASA) but she's a Muslim from Lebanon, which doesn't sound too promising (in terms of inevitable culture clashes, considering how our relatives in the Middle East are getting along.)

Believe it or not, most of the astrophysicists at lunch talk about stuff on TV: Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Seinfeld, Frasier... These people are of course really smart. And this is probably a way of making lunch more cordial and less competitive than if we talked science or showed off snobby smart-person interests. But I have this depressing sense that most of us in our off-time sit around zoned out in front of a TV or computer (in my case, I don't have a TV, but have started to consume junk-internet in mass quantities.) So part of my purpose in starting this journal is also to talk back to the net, to be a little less passive and zoned-out in my off-hours, to put my thoughts out there...

Anyway, I should get to sleep now! Good night!
bram: (Default)

Note added 8/31/2003: obviously the statement below in unitary that "1+1=1" should read "1+1=11"

bram: (smile b&w)
From Thom Whitmore's class in Glen Rock, NJ. I was actually required to keep journal, and funnily enough, it reads a lot like my adult journal.

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