bram: (Default)
2017-01-11 01:18 am

Public Dreamwidth Post

So... I had a LiveJournal now for about 1/3 of my life. That's a long time to have had continuously a journal of any kind. And in this new online shared space, in the time these new media have been developing. I don't think about it so much now. But it's neat to have this record.

And I'm thinking now of migrating my LiveJournal to DreamWidth. Many people have already done this. Here is a discussion that motivated this for me:

Since landed a tenure-track job (which became tenured) I've been more circumspect in what I post in public on my LiveJournal. However, that paradoxically made me much more personal in what I posted to "friends-only" entries. (At the same time, Facebook's growth gave me another more public face to my real-life friends.) DreamWidth seems to do away with LJ's terminology of "friends" in favor of an "access list". I won't dwell that much on the semantics there. There was a period, when I moved about every year to a new temporary job, when my LiveJournal friends had become an important part of my life, as I kept getting uprooted from physical communities and friends.

While I'll keep up with the "friends-only" entries here, because I've found it useful to vent aside from the more positive spin I tend to put on things on Facebook, I thought I'd also remark on the past 16 years and how odd it is to age, and how odd it is to have a record of all that time in the form of an online journal.

When I started my LiveJournal in May of the year 2000, I was 32 years old and working at NASA. My first entry had a record of what my working day was like. Recently I ended my 48th year, and it feels very strange in that by some measures these 16 years, 1/3 of my life, passed with what seems like little change. I have a few gray hairs in my beard. But those research topics I was working on in May of 2000 are not so different from what I work on now.

Especially if you put it in context. I've had only THREE 16-year periods in my life. In my first, I went from a baby to a 16-year old getting ready to apply to colleges, getting ready to write a math paper to enter into the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. At age 16, I already had a beard. I'd already learned calculus. I'd already learned some physics. I programmed computers. I played the piano. I already had my first intense romantic interest and intense disappointment. I was pretty much who I am now by the end of the first 1/3 of my life so far, and what's happened since then is basically that I've gone in deeper.
bram: (galafractaxyl)
2016-01-31 03:37 pm

politics, etc.

I hardly ever write public entries on LiveJournal now. When I first got on tenure track, I played it careful. Also, Facebook has taken over a lot of my online socializing. Sometimes I vent in a friends-only entry. Let's see if I have much to say in public now.

Sometimes I think over things I've written and how they might appear to different people. Sometimes I think about the last entry I posted here. The political lens through which I expect my words to be read has been changing over the period I've had this blog, which I started back in 2000. In my last entry I bemoaned that even though the U.S. has so much going for it, there's always this insistence that we are an extraverted, busy people, always active and aimed at external achievement. Usually in the 16 years I've had this journal I've imagined someone scanning it over from a view to my political right, but times are a-changing as they used to say. The left has been gaining strength. So I imagine a reader thinking: "That's really the only bad thing you can say about this nation, that the cultural temperament doesn't always match yours? A nation that encoded slavery in its founding documents, that nearly wiped out the indigenous population in its borders?"

Well, having been so angry during the Bush years (starting with the way his "election" was handled and through the travesty of the Iraq War), and now happy to see the candidate I supported in the primaries (Obama) ensconced as President, I've been content to dole out more praise than scathing criticism of the way things are. When the Seth Rogan movie about North Korea, "The Interview", was threatened, I could download the movie to watch, and say: yeah, America should be free!

Of course I'm familiar with Chomsky, Zinn, et al., and almost entirely agree with their critiques. Paradoxically the potential and actual good in our systems have sat so close to the evil, often within single individuals like Thomas Jefferson. I'll skip over my theories for why that is, for now.

I guess I could say that the unbalanced temperament I find in the U.S., the emphasis on motion and extraverted energy, is probably linked in some way to its persistent deficiencies, the racist police violence, the predatory capitalism, etc.

The emergence of Trump as the Republican front-runner is maybe something I can address here. The way he denigrates his rivals as "low energy". He seems to appeal in similar ways as George W. Bush, who I detested, even though Trump called out the pious elision that allowed some to say of Bush, "he kept us safe," as if 9/11 came from an outer space time machine and not from the real world when Bush had more power than anyone else on the globe.

The similarity to me comes into play with Bush's joy over calling himself "the ex-ec-u-tive," and "the decider", drawing out all the syllables, strutting over the fact that he's The Boss, scoffing, "I don't do nuance"--the crisp, clean, executive who's worthy by the very act of making decisions. Trump too is known for being a reality TV show boss, taking joy in his power to make his words reality, no matter how they are tested (as his multiple bankruptcies show, he doesn't always pass the test!)--"You're fired!"

There was something also about the run-up to the Iraq War that deeply offended my temperament. We now know that some of the TV networks required at least 2 war advocates speak on air for every war opponent. There was a fearful group-think in the media. Maybe because the media is so often accused of being liberal they shilled for the war to prove their bona fides. That also offends me about Hillary Clinton, if I may continue to fit how current presidential contenders mesh with my world-view...

Before I get to her though--hearing Trump and the other Republicans talk about ISIS as if we could fix up the Middle East if only we were more ready to use violence... That offends me too! I think there are few things more tempting to humans than the prospect of doling out aggression to those who truly deserve it. We have to keep ourselves in check all the time, but if someone out there is a "bad guy" then finally we don't have to! And that biases some terribly... For some it's always the eve of WW II and every enemy of the U.S. is Hitler, every peaceful resolution is "appeasement"... (There was even one young TV talking head war advocate who kept insisting Obama's policy was "appeasement" who, when pressed, could not even describe what the historical policy of appeasement was!) And so there's very little I loathe more than when people fall into this trap.

I've become much more anti-war than I was when I started this journal. I viewed myself as liberal because I loved science, which is funded mostly through the government and not private industry. And so contrary to economic libertarians, I see a role for government, and it also made sense for the government to help those in need. I love science, and artistic expression, because they flow from our common humanity and imagination, and whether or not someone's good at making a buck, they share that common humanity and imagination and we should promote them and their lives as well.

But now I find there was something in the psychology of those who anticipated the Iraq War with joy that I despise. Also I've come to despise a certain kind of Conventional Wisdom that holds that certain things are politically inevitable, that must unfold in a certain way, and yet the ideas have been inherited from different eras. They no longer really apply but are being carried out blindly by political machinery--the way that guy accuses diplomacy of being "appeasement" because he knows it sounds bad even if he doesn't know what it means.

So that's part of what irks me about Hillary Clinton. The run-up to the Iraq War was a case of The Emperor's New Clothes. And there were several types of politician: those who hallucinated that the emperor did have new clothes, the type who could see the Emperor was naked but by political expediency assented to the consensus--or even worse, those who punched down, condemning those who spoke up and said, "he's naked!" Only a few would actually say "he's naked!" which is what helped Obama get the job in 2008 once we all saw the disaster Iraq was. Hillary Clinton strikes me as one who will always for expediency go with the conventional, even if it harms the activists who are getting it right from below.

Of course she did nothing wrong in Benghazi, but as Sec. of State she was far too aggressive in regime change in Libya. It was the old "get the bad guy" syndrome that led us to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

On the Democratic side though the election isn't turning on foreign policy so much, as that isn't Bernie Sanders's main interest. Were Biden to enter the race I'd give him a close look, because I know he's truly anti-war. The generals in Afghanistan called him "Vice President Bite-Me" because of his insistence that the war not be continued merely out of inertia and habit.

But when it comes to economics too, there's a lot of Conventional Wisdom that is making the present a prisoner to attitudes from the past. Both Obama and Hillary represented a post-Reagan synthesis, they were both middle-of-the-road politicians who were prepared to make compromises--only they would compromise in different ways. Obama has straddled the gap between neo-liberalism and leftism, and over the course of his presidency I have made the move from liberal to leftist. The next President probably won't be able to straddle those ideologies, but will have to choose. The neo-liberal advocates lower taxes, lower trade barriers, charter schools, thinks "our schools are failing" and teacher unions have too much power, thinks unions are archaic institutions that reek of the past and hold back the energetic dynamism of new transformative technology. Mostly the neo-liberal has incorporated the mind-set of the upper strata, and thinks, "If only the masses could have the discipline and energy of the elite! We must provide nudges for them, we must devise clever remedies for whatever infirmity led them not to be rich! But they always must be a win-win kind of deal; anything that would take away from the rich is anti-business, would hurt our competitiveness, would be class warfare, could not become political reality..."

Well, it's not 1980 any more... Not only are minority populations greater, but the Millennial generation has been completely screwed. Conventional politicians still think most Americans are middle-class. When I was in school I was taught we had a "barrel-like" wealth distribution in this country, mostly a middle class with smaller poor and wealthy classes. So many Americans now live paycheck to paycheck, so many have hardly any life savings to speak of. The Middle Class, a family that owns a house in a suburb and a couple of cars, is no longer normal, and the values of the class are not normal either. The reality is student debt... When liberal politicians like John Edwards invoked "two Americas", they were appealing to the compassion of liberals, but now so many Americans have fallen behind that such talk appeals to self-interest. Also on the theme of people living with a conventional wisdom of the past--the term "socialist" does not carry the baggage it once did! How many voter now never knew the Cold War?

I value nuance greatly of course, and believe that evolution is stronger and more stable than revolution. I believe that the incremental changes of the Obama era will really matter. We avoided the toxic "austerity" of Europe. But I also see that there has not been enough push-back to changes taking place largely out of their own momentum, changes pushed by advocates from another era--and the system is out of whack.

Anyway, maybe I'll end this here, and get on with my day...!
bram: (galafractaxyl)
2013-07-07 11:18 pm

(no subject)

A rare public entry. At least my mysterious reader Monika in Poland might be pleased! But not really much to say about astronomy here. More contemplating life as it is passing.

A good couple of days. Life sets limits on us though and it's a tough burden to say these mere moments justify that weight.

Last night I went dancing at my old club. As usual I was extremely energetic. I love the exercise, and it keeps me young, but I am alert to detecting the slight slowdowns of aging--and also to those moments when I feel I break free of them. I started this journal at age 32 and am now 45. Sometimes I take aging as a challenge, as that worthy adversary that can truly motivate me.

Earlier I went to my gym here (I'm in Boston, on vacation from teaching near Atlanta, doing research on my own.) Not having a gym lock and living far from the gym, I ended up spending the day without my computer, a vacation from working on my projects.

I fall into a state of "kitch of languidness", a kind of stereotypical enjoyment of the possibility of relaxing, of putting aside struggle and attention. Spent some time in Davis Square just watching people go by and the play of light through the leaves of the trees. Extraverts seem to have no comprehension of how needed peace and quiet and uninvolvement are for introverts such as myself.

Also, 4th of July just passed, thinking about this country, both the unprecedented historical achievements and potentials, and also the disappointments, seeded in human nature, that not even such a well thought out system can avoid. Often during election years we hear about how Americans are always supposed to be Do-ers, the entrepreneur and risk-taking are celebrated, we are supposed to be a country that works hard and plays hard, not one that sits apart in contemplation--better to act even if it causes zillions of problems, than to stay still for a moment... I feel alienated when getting the message that this is the single temperament my country is supposed to value. And yet also there are the platitudes (one wonders how deep the committment) on how important teachers are (but not concerns bubbling up from below as much as the imposition of testing standards and overhyped techno-solutions), how important STEM (science technology, engineering, medicine) fields are (but mainly to have such a labor oversupply that costs are kept down...)

As I get the salting of white hairs in my beard I figure it's supposed to give me a sort of gravitas and dignity, but I haven't really figured out what one is supposed to do with gravitas and dignity. With youthful energy you go out and dance, you get upset at politics, you write music or poetry or a blog for your cat. Maybe you are just supposed to strike a pose, like, here I am a professor all dignified...? Maybe I'm supposed to have kids and be a role model or at some point buy a house with a lawn and get all cranky about the Kids On My Lawn.

Kurt Vonnegut in his novel Cat's Cradle wrote metaphorically about these "teams" that fate seems to put us in, working towards goals we only start to realize--he calls them granfaloons, karass, wampeter... I am not sure that I have completely found such a team. There are external challenges galore in this world, yet the thoughts churning inside me are still looking for a place to go. Teaching science is supposed to open up better lives for my students, but for myself I imagine a life like Grigory Perelman pushing away the world...

Though perhaps that's the kitch of languidness, and I do not always live up to that life... Had a brunch in a nice Brazilian restaurant today--not working over the summer, my finances deplete.

Reminded also of one of those amazing throwaway paragraphs in Olaf Stapledon's amazing science fiction novel of the 1930s, Star Maker... He imagines a planet with plant-men, creatures like trees that can vegetate when connected to their roots, but that can move about as animals and temporarily disconnect. Their society decides the roots are no longer needed, disconnects permanently, and proceed to live only as animals and not plants. They never recover from the damage that one-sidedness inflicts on them.
bram: (Default)
2010-07-16 02:48 am

(no subject)

I have many things I should be doing, and want to be doing--job applications, astrophysics research analyzing particular star systems, my own idiosyncratic discrete models of quantum mechanics, finding a good sushi place to take a date--but for a while I've been musing about certain topics in history and anthropology, and I feel inspired this evening to finally write a public LiveJournal entry. So this is an indulgence; once out of the way I'll put schnoz to the grindstone.

As I've been getting older, I've been thinking more about history. My thesis advisor, I remember, told me about how interested he was in history. I think as one ages one looks more for a larger perspective of where we humans came from... So there are a few strands of these speculations I'll cover in this entry.

One item in the news from a couple of months ago: the genome of several Neanderthals have been mostly decoded and compared with those of modern human populations. The main investigator was this Swedish guy working at the Max Planck Institute for Anthropology in Germany, Svente Paabo. The intriguing result is that non-African populations have 1-4% of their DNA from Neanderthals.

One can get a little queasy that investigations into human origins like this could be fuel for racists, and racism truly is rank bullshit. At least in this case the results kind of hack away at the received racist stereotypes; Neanderthals in popular culture are often depicted as subhuman, and white people have enslaved and oppressed Africans and white supremacists have often derided "mud peoples" as impure mixtures (when it turns out non-Africans are the mixtures). In the big picture it's so obvious that racism has been a driving force in human history and that the ways people measure "races" (African-Americans for example, can carry DNA anywhere from mostly African to mostly European) and measure differences are so biased as to be meaningless--even genes are expressed in different ways in different environments, the expression linked to fetal environment, diet, etc. etc.

But that aside, I think it's kind of neat to accept this new information into one's worldview. It brings the distant past in greater variety down into the present. There have also been recent discoveries of other closely related hominid fossils--one in Siberia, and the celebrated Homo Florensis that only disappeared 13,000 years ago, the island "hobbits". So our myths peopled by elves, trolls, giants, dwarfs--that could represent a kind of lonliness for our missing also-human cousins.

The Neanderthals one can now assume were in our own species--at least according to the definition that they produced fertile offspring with us--unless, as was pointed out in one blog I read, one decides to call all non-African people members of a non-species, sort of like freak fertile mules! But before one goes too far, from what I understand the Neanderthals still were pretty different from modern people. They were, I gather, about 5 times further away from us, genetically, as the most far-flung people nowadays are from each other. Their mitochondrial DNA line, passed from mother to offspring, no longer survives. Given that I myself am stocky, muscular, with a big nose, prominent eyebrows, and small jaw, one might speculate about where in that 1-4% range I'm in--but for perspective on how different they were, it's worth realizing that unlike modern humans, Neanderthals couldn't even throw a spear because their arms and joints just weren't built for it. They apparently were very muscular, and hunted by getting up close to Mammoths and spearing them (pretty badass!)--instead of throwing the spears or shooting arrows like modern folk.

By the way, it's amusing and sad how the internet kind of levels scholarly achievement... Any science crank with good web skills can make a case to the public in a way most people can't see through... For example this site on Neanderthals (which bizarrely claims the recent study supports it), which superimposes a Neanderthal skull inside a chimpanzee head without regard to orientation, 3D shape, or scale, in an attempt to mythologize Neanderthals, in a contrarian fashion to current research, as nonhuman.

In actuality, Neanderthal and human lines are supposed to have diverged 500,000 years ago. As the received timeline gives modern human emergence as occurring 100,000-200,000 years ago, my uneducated guess is that either some of what made both lines human happened in parallel or there was some intermixture still in that time period. DNA analysis has shown that Neanderthals had the modern human version of the FOXP2 gene, which in the popular press is called the "speech gene". One (British I think) family which, by inherited mutation in this gene, had developmental problems which included being unable to pronounce words such as "hippopotamus", led to the association of this gene with speech. (I think birds also have a different version of this gene from other animals, perhaps related to their singing syntax.) But the role of FOXP2 is actually very complicated. It turns on and off a whole bunch of other genes in the course of development and life:

This is a network of the interconnection between FOXP2 and other genes. This reminded me a little of computer hackery--that sometimes randomly messing around with computer software you find something interesting--I remember in high school we had these PET computers that had only characters and no graphics. They had a memory add-on called "toolkit" that let you do "advanced" stuff like "trace" the BASIC program as it ran. You started up the "toolkit" by typing, "SYS 45056". One day I tried instead "SYS 55056", and found that it would give interesting behavior, always different--once it affected the computer's display so that the characters shrank into dots which followed each other around in a rotating ellipse--it seemed like magic to the other kids. Anyway, the power of random tweaking at the hardware level where things are interconnected--that seems to be underlying evolution.

Also it's interesting to speculate about what the importation of Neanderthal genes did for people... Could it have been that it wasn't so much a matter of benefit to individuals but to the population, to have these genes? Humans tend to live in tribes, and as baseball players play infield or outfield, we specialize in different skills and work best when there is variety and balance. The first hybrids with Neanderthals must have knocked out some genes in which the non-Neanderthals (I'll call them Cro-Magnons) had evolved differences from chimpanzees, but Neanderthals had retained the ancestral version, and vice-versa. But for example, if gene 1 had evolved in Cro-Magnons and then gene 2 evolved thousands of years later, was the interaction with gene 1 necessary to the success of gene 2 or not? Probably this depended on the case. And vice-versa--the hybrids would have some new Neanderthal genes which had never been paired with the ancestral genes--and some hybrids must have had the novel genes from both ancestors.

Apparently the tools of the Neanderthals were a little more primitive than the tools of the Cro-Magnons, but not out of the range of what one might consider cultural variation. There's evidence that Neanderthals created musical instruments, like this 40,000 year old flute carved from a bone from a bear cub:

And a diagram reconstructing how the full instrument may have looked:

There was speculation that the holes could have been bite marks of a carnivore, but there were no marks on the other side (from the lower jaw). The spaces on the flute mark do, re, mi, fa notes!

We don't know why the Neanderthals died out. There's some evidence modern humans killed them off. Also, they were adapted for Ice Age conditions, and may not have competed well with modern humans who could hunt with bows and arrows from far off, and who needed fewer calories to fuel their less-muscular bodies.

* * *

In other news that has fueled my imagination and speculation, I've had snippets of my own DNA decoded, now that there are some affordable services that do this. I'll try not to blab too much about this, as it's pretty private information! Yet it's also very interesting, and it's motivated me to learn more about genetics and human populations and history, branching out from self-absorption to curiosity about the wider world.

There's been lots of speculation about where Jewish people come from, how closely related we are really to the ancient Hebrews of the Bible. Some of this speculation may have come from anti-Semites, religious nuts who admired the Hebrews who brought into the world the religion that would give Christianity as an offshoot--and yet thought that actual Jewish people were kind of schmucky, and couldn't have been related. There's also been legitimate speculation about a mysterious ancient Turkish group called the Kazars (the subject of a very interesting, playful, and experimental novel by the late Milorad Pavic) that may have converted to Judaism. And throughout the Jewish diaspora, there's been no way to know how much intermingling there's been with the European populations in whose midst the Ashkenazi or Sephardic populations lived.

Well, it turns out I'm pretty closely related to the populations that currently inhabit the Middle East, including Palestianians, the Druze, and Bedouins.

One interesting side-note is that my "paternal haplotype" (Y chromosome passed from fathers) as far as I can tell may be more common among coastal populations in the Levant than inland populations. One subset of Jews (not me), often with last name "Cohen", are reputed to have descended from the temple priests, and ultimately to be descend from Moses' brother Aaron. Actually there is no archeological evidence for Moses, or the Patriarchs of the Bible! Perhaps some day such will be forthcoming. There was a kingdom of David centered on Jerusalem, but it's a matter of some dispute how extensive this kingdom really was, and Jerusalem existed as a city before the Jewish people got there.

In any case, I might speculate that this Middle-Eastern coastal population I partly descend from may be a remnant of the ancient Pheonecians, seafaring people, centered mostly on Lebanon and northern Israel, who have mostly disappeared from history in spite of introducing the first real alphabet.

From the Bible as a text one imagines the Israelites influenced by ancient Sumeria: the epic of Gilgamesh also carries the story of a flood, and Hammurabi like Moses had a code. Though there's no evidence outside of the Bible for the Israelites being slaves in Egypt, there was an Egyptian pharoah, Akhenaten, who briefly introduced monotheism to Egypt.

But it is interesting also to look at history from the vantage not just of the inland peoples, but those on the Mediteranean coast. The Odyssey for example gives a picture of what life might have felt like at the time. And it's also interesting to think of forerunners of the Israelite population. We often think that we can trace origins back through history, that my ancestors were Jewish, full stop. We retell the stories of those who were coerced into renouncing the defining monotheism of our heritage, we recount all the times we had our asses handed to us, by Babylon, by Rome, and yet persisted... And yet somewhere in that ancestry, there were probably Canaanites, Phoenicians, whoever--who were coerced into this newfangled Jewish religion that sprung up perhaps from some Bedouin goatherders inspired by rumors from Egypt, while other Bedouin goatherders still in the 21st century toil on in that ancient goatherding life as if all of this history passed them by!

So it's a change of perspective to look at the map of Europe and see instead of the land-masses and river-beds that gave rise to the inland nations, the "cradle of civilization" also centered on the Mediteranian Sea, birthing the Greeks, Carthage, the Phoenecians with their fancy triple-decked rowing ships trading prized purple dyes... I imagine it in some ways idyllic, the sun and sea, trading olives and wine and spreading an early version of a cosmopolitan life...
bram: (Default)
2010-06-22 07:02 pm

(no subject)

The work day is all candy and ice cream when I'm working on my own research projects! Just have to find a new grant or teaching position.

The Sco X-1 tomography is going very well. Even though there are hundreds of absorption lines eating up the spectrum, I can reconstruct what's going on with some confidence, although I want to make some more tests.

This is a double star system in which one star is a neutron star. The brightest X-ray source in the sky. But unlike many neutron stars, this one isn't a pulsar. A pulsar would help us figure out its orbit with great accuracy, by timing the pulses. Also there are no eclipses. Eclipses would help us figure out what's going on too: we'd see each little piece of the star system (gas funneling onto the neutron star, etc.) gradually eclipsed and could figure out what the light from each piece alone looks like. But we don't have that. So some aspects of this star system are not so well known.

That it's not a pulsar my follow from the neutron star having a low magnetic field.

Anyway, here's the Doppler tomogram without taking into account my model for all the absorption lines:

And here is the version with my correction for interstellar absorption lines:

Here are several Doppler tomograms of different emission lines from optical light from 2002 by Steeghs and his colleague, published in The Astrophysical Journal:

So my corrected tomogram looks a lot like the tomogram of He II (ionized Helium) seen in optical light--which is not surprising as the quintuply ionized Oxygen I'm looking at in far ultraviolet is similar to ionized Helium.

Anyway, the signature of an accretion disk in a Doppler tomogram is a ring centered on the lower plus sign (which is where the neutron star would be), and the teardrop shape shows the expected location of the normal star (distorted from spherical shape by rotation and gravity of the neutron star).

So there's evidence for BOTH an accretion disk and for the normal star being lit up by X-rays causing emission from ionized gas.

I'm gonna use this to learn about the accretion disk. Also, I can use the model of the emission to refine my model for the absorption, but I'm going to have to test against other emission lines too--one has to be careful using models to correct the data! However, one fact limits the models of the absorption so that I won't get too carried away and over-fit the data: the absorption has to be constant in time, constant throughout the 15 different times we observed the star system. That's because the star system is orbiting once every 0.8 days or so, and its light is changing, but the gas between us and the star is mostly constant.
bram: (Default)
2010-06-07 03:51 am

(no subject)

So my nth postdoc is over--I'm rewriting my statement of teaching philosophy and sending out CVs. Meanwhile, I'm excited to get some time to work on my own research. (While still tinkering with the postdoc project as well.) I've been feeling pretty good this weekend. I have both some more speculative physics ideas to work on, and also the X-ray binary research I've worked on most of my career, which is more familiar to me and easier to direct myself on than the galaxy research I've started.

I'm making some Doppler tomograms for a colleague, and this motivated me to go back to data I still haven't published on the Scorpius X-1 star system. Sco X-1 was the first X-ray binary discovered--it's the brightest persistent X-ray star in the sky. If we had X-ray vision, we'd see this as the brightest in the night sky (except perhaps for some variable stars). It's both close by and intrinsically bright--about 1038 ergs/s is the energy rate of the X-rays, whereas the Sun gives off in visible light several 1033 erg/s, so it's on the order of 100,000 times brighter in X-rays than the Sun in visible light. It's a mysterious "Z source", a neutron star system from which we've never seen the regular pulsations that mark the rotation of the neutron star.

Anyway, the problem with this data was that it was the first observation of this star system in the far ultraviolet, and it turns out that interstellar gas absorbs the spectrum that far in the UV at multiple narrow lines, corresponding to all sorts of different atoms in different stages of ionization, and also molecules in different energies of rotation and vibration.

But when you're working on your own you can afford to be a hero. So I'm trying to go through and identify all of the lines in the spectrum that were eating up the spectrum. It was quite severe: there are two bright lines from the star system itself, emission lines, that I wanted to see in this observation. However, the absorption was so severe that only one of them could be seen! And one of my scientific goals was determining the ratio between the two lines!

But I'm impressed by how much I can reconstruct of what's going on by meticulous attention to the interstellar absorption. I can probably do better, but this is a major start.

Below I'm showing only a small portion of the spectrum--it goes from 912 Angstroms (the lyman limit: this wavelength corresponds to the energy needed to take the lowest energy level of an electron in hydrogen and break it free of the atom--below this wavelength, you don't see much through normal amounts of interstellar gas until you get to wavelengths smaller than a hydrogen atom. It goes from 912 Angstroms out to 1180 Angstroms or so, where the Hubble Space Telescope picks up. I helped a couple of my ex-supervisors with Hubble observations of Sco X-1 that looked at the spectrum from 1200 to 1700 Angstroms or so.

One thing that was neat was that I was able to take the model for the continuum from the proposal I had written to get the FUSE observations of Sco X-1, based on our model of the Hubble observations--and what I wrote in the proposal matched almost perfectly with the actual data! The lines didn't match nearly as well, but the continuum did--although I am wondering whether I just got lucky. There's uncertainty in how much the interstellar gas reddened the spectrum, and I may be able to get a better handle on that.

What's going on here? The spectrum shows brightness (flux) on the y axis and the wavelength on the x axis. The jagged black curve is the actual data, averaged over 15 sub-observations. The red curve is my model--based on (1) the model for the continuum from the proposal, (2) a model for the emission lines (quintuply ionized Oxygen) as a Voigt profile (convolution of gaussian and lorenztian shapes--look up the defs in Wikipedia), with the ratio between the two lines as a free parameter, (3) absorption lines at known wavelengths from Silicon, Carbon, and Oxygen, and very deep absorption from Hydrogen ("lyman beta")--also absorption from H2, molecular hydrogen. The absorption lines are marked on the top of the graph with a little line and the name of the absorption--if it's from molecular Hydrogen I also mark the rotational level (j=0 to j=5). The smooth black curve shows my model (just continuum and Oxygen emission lines) without any of the absorption in the way.

You can see I was able to reconstruct the ratio between the two Oxygen lines!

Also, I mentioned that this is actually the sum of 15 sub-observations. I was able to measure the Doppler shift of the emission lines in each sub-observation. This tells us the velocity towards or away from us of the gas that gives off the emission lines. The observations were planned to cover the entire orbit of the star system, which lasts I think about 0.7 days. In the plot below I show my measurements with * and with a sine curve and a line I show what other researchers independently think are the expected motion of the neutron star and the velocity of the star system as a whole (it's "systemic velocity").

I think most of the observations previously had only identified emission lines from the normal star--these would be, based on the velocity, from the accretion disk surrounding the neutron star. Optical helium lines seem to move similar to these Oxygen lines, but with a phase shift.

Note that the alignment isn't perfect--it could be that I need to calibrate the zero velocity better. I will have to do that based on some of the interstellar lines. Right now I've only grouped the data to be accurate to about 15 km/s. It's also possible that the accretion disk isn't perfectly symmetric and may emit more from one side or the other. It's possible there is some emission from the normal star along with the accretion disk. Perhaps my empirical model of Voigt profile is not so good--I could make a double-peaked accretion disk model, broadened by turbulence instead.

So this might help constrain the mass of the neutron star better. Also, I want to make Doppler tomograms to see if we could map out structure in the disk. It will depend on my accurately finding the zero velocity. But also being able to correct for this multitude of interstellar lines is important.

Anyway, it's time to go to bed. I'm also excited to be reading a paper by Ted Jacobson on the Feynman checkerboard (old paper from 1984). It's much more sophisticated in regards to the physics than the other papers I've been working from. It's distinguished in several ways from what I'm doing; one is that he's not using a lattice--he's allowing one special dimension to be the spin axis/particle travel dimension, and then assumes the particle scatters randomly in the next step, defining the next special direction.
bram: (Default)
2010-04-28 11:49 pm

(no subject)

Comet reporter (head of the Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams) Brian Marsden, science celebrity Michio Kaku, and me (squinting in the Sun). Kaku had just autographed my copy of his Quantum Field Theory book.
bram: (Default)
2008-04-21 01:22 pm

Artificial Intelligence Philosophy

I used to be much more of a booster of Artificial Intelligence than I am now. Growing up, I was into Godel, Escher, Bach, Hofstadter's and Dennett's "The Mind's I", and other similar books. In grad school, I used to get into debates online with Mikhail Zeleny, this Russian grad student, kind of a crank, who believed that AI was impossible. He was prone to obscure and kind of bizarre claims (computers would never achieve "noumenal perception of the infinite"), but in some ways was intelligent and erudite. He used to get into arguments with McCarthy, the guy who created the AI programming language LISP, and would cite obscure errors from McCarthy's papers, if I recall correctly.

Some AI critics have influenced my thinking even if I think that their criticisms are highly suspect. I think that Searle and Penrose have made me appreciate more that a human is a physical system, and that "intelligence", "thought", "cognition", etc. are abstractions we make based on that physical system. What seemed "natural" to someone growing up with programming was that the Mind was to the Brain as Software is to Hardware. That "we" as thinking beings could be equivalent to intelligent computer programs, but we were "running" on the "hardware" of a brain instead of a computer.

There's something a little arbitrary though about abstracting from a real physical system to leave only "thoughts"--though one has to admit that while arbitrary it's also not entirely artificial. Many cultures have imagined a separate spirit and body. I think what makes AI seem so transparently plausible is that computers are designed in such a way that the hardware is separated so clearly from the software. We know what Microsoft Word is (unfortunately!) independently from Mac or PC (or even PowerPC Mac).

Many supporters of AI think that "intelligence" is a perfectly coherent abstraction from a physical system, but "consciousness" is not--that it's vague, or meaningless, an "epiphenomenon" arising from short-term memory or the "Cartesian theater" of different computational "modules" within the brain interacting. I guess the reason why this is, is that intelligence is in some ways measurable, but not consciousness. Although what we measure is some statistical abstraction from tests, this "g" or "general intelligence" factor, is not necessarily what we mean by intelligence, and was only found (and considered to be similar to "intelligence") because of confidence that this concept we normally spoke about had some correlate in reality. It's hard to imagine developments that could convince us that intelligence (or its lack) is not a useful concept to apply. (Particularly after exposure to the works of George W. Bush.)

One easy way to make the brain-computer analogy work is to understand neurons as performing a parallel computation. But although Penrose and Hammeroff's speculations appear mostly bunk, they did convince me that there's a lot of really interesting stuff going on below the level of the neuron. The cytoskeleton of neurons (or all animal cells) is fascinating with these microtubles... And the way that messenger RNA sends signals around the cell, both through the bases of the RNA and through its shape--that's fascinating, and I'd like to learn more about it.

My guess is something like IBM's Blue Brain Project, that tries to simulate an entire mammalian brain, neuron by neuron, would not really reproduce the process by which neurons grow new outgrowths (or even new neurons are born and become interconnected)--that perhaps the short-term behavior of brains will be easier to simulate than longer-term changes, in which what goes on within the cell to change its growth might matter more.

When you look at, say, soap and water mixing, it's hard not to anthropomorphize and think the liquids have repulsion as humans do--and to think that some of how we "feel" is inseparable from actual chemical reactions, as opposed to patterns in which the underlying substrate doesn't matter. This is, of course, not a scientific argument.

What I'm getting at is that AI boosters and critics may be subdividing the world differently, and may frame the "ultimate" question differently. The boosters may be asking: "Can a computer do what a human does?" (Abstracting certain things that merely "make up" a person but don't count as to what a person "does".) Whereas the critics would say, "But it's not a human, so what?"
bram: (Default)
2007-09-02 08:18 pm

political rant

I continue to be surprised when it's expressed, as in this recent book by Matt Bai--that liberals and the left in the U.S. are out of ideas, or do not have the intellectual power or subtlety of conservatives.

First off, this seems just about 180 degrees from the picture I have.

And that's mainly because I think the liberal netroots blogosphere is responding to what we see on the right. Often we express rage in our blogs (and becoming angry over politics while blogging is a bipartisan phenomenon--must be something about the medium) because the right has said or done something outrageous.

For the Clinton decade (or so) we had to put up with right wing blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and during the Bush years we've had Karl Rove who ran the government along partisan lines and tried to push the image of anyone intelligent from the Northeast as effete and anyone opposed to conservative politics as nearly a traitor. And now with Fox News there's a major news outlet which I understand is transparently partisan in outlook.

And some of it may be that Bush's policies have not just been conservative but radical--he's wanted to roll back not just the Great Society but also the New Deal. There is the point that the economy has been changing: becoming globalized, with a growing "information sector"--but it's not clear either how much of this is inevitable nor that Republicans, who isolate the U.S. and who deny evolution and global warming and who are too squeamish for embryonic stell cell research are in the best position to promote future science and technology.

Now, some of my innate feeling that the left is the party of intelligence and ideas may be because we are "resting on our laurels"--in that almost anyone in a liberal arts college environment is liberal. I consider myself intelligent from the years growing up when I kept acing the standardized tests they gave me and kept skipping grades in math. But I am not a social scientist and have never studied economics seriously.

I think the crux of the issue must come to play in the evaluation of political ideas. Conservatives have had heavily-funded Think Tanks where they have honed their ideas and have their own newspapers like the Washington Times where they trumpeted their world-view.

The question is: was all that an echo-chamber? What's come to me through conservative blogs or e-mail list conversations hasn't seemed to me to be particularly insightful or subtle.

The NY Times book review of Bai's book calls the founder of Daily Kos an "intellectual lightweight" for not having read a founding book on Libertarianism--now to me that sounds pretty obscure (not like not reading J.S. Mill's "On Liberty" for example!), but perhaps conservatives, while pounding their "Willie Hortons" and "smoking guns as mushroom clouds" and all sorts of other rubbish to the public "debate" have had worthy ideas that they just haven't publicized that much? I've read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, clearly trash, which many libertarians endorse, but ok, maybe there's room for me to learn stuff.

I think the fact is that liberals and conservatives find different kinds of argument convincing--it's not merely a matter of who is making more rhetorical points or employing more fallacies. And these arguments appeal in the end to different visions of what's valuable.

As it is, I'm pretty baffled by this claim of intellectual vacuity from the left. We're the ones who've been damaged by the "egghead" label since Adlai Stevenson...

* * *

What gets me about the Iraq war, which isn't hammered home enough, has been the outrageous cost. "Well maybe we can still win this, don't you care about winning?" No, I don't care about "winning". "Winning" is for sports teams. It didn't matter whether the U.S. "won" or "lost" in Vietnam. Arguably, it didn't matter which side won World War I. Arguably, it's a very rare war which really makes a difference--history's made by evolution more than revolution, which is frequently unstable.

What I care about is that every week the U.S. is throwing away $3 billion, or the equivalent of the cost of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Hubble Space Telescope:

  • Gave the first accurate measurement of the Hubble constant (expansion rate of the Universe)
  • Helped settle the ages of the oldest stars in the Universe
  • By detecting far away supernovas helped measure and confirm the acceleration of the Universe
  • Has contributed to education in the U.S.
  • Has through Deep Field images given estimates of the number of galaxies in the Universe and has told us of the very earliest galaxies
  • Studied transits of extrasolar planets
  • Provided inspiring images and data available to anyone in the world to download
  • Studied the first modern nearby supernova (SN 1987a)

all those beautiful nebulas and galaxies and gravitational lenses etc. etc.

The Iraq war has:

  • Isolated the U.S.
  • Killed 4000 of our citizens (more than died on 9/11)
  • Wounded many more--who will require support all their lives
  • Exhausted the U.S. armed forces
  • Taken attention away from Afghanistan and the search for individual terrorists
  • Made millions of Iraqis into refugees

There may have been some silver lining to this fog of war, but it's hard to see one amid millions of refugees!

Money's limited and I'd rather have it spent by the government on projects that could uplift humanity and make life worth living.

I think what's most important here is not intellectual power (which perhaps conservatives have behind the scene but mostly one sees Limbaugh and his ilk) but one's vision of what society should be like. The conservative ideal is Sparta--like that move that was popular a year ago--it's life as war. Literal war, or unforgiving free market economics.
bram: (Default)
2007-03-03 05:19 pm

(no subject)

I seem to be thinking a lot about politics these days--I'm not certain why.

With the Republicans scrambling to find a Conservative True Believer to succeed Bush, I've been thinking more about Reagan and his relation to George W. Bush. It's almost as if W. were Reagan returned both as tragedy and farce. He's certainly made Reagan, in retrospect, look better (as he's made his father look quite fantastic by comparison). Overall, I would say W.'s attempt to enact Reagan's legacy was like someone with no sense of rhythm banging really really hard on a drum to hide his deficiencies.

On Reagan, in spite of my great antipathy for him while I was in high school, the following could be said honestly and positively:

  1. His presidency was a time of general economic prosperity and peace--except for what appear to have been mostly minor skirmishes
  2. The Cold War ended without major bloodshed

On the other hand, the failures of the era were mostly behind the stage:

  1. Economic inequality rose
  2. The deficit grew vast, and was only closed up by George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton
  3. Some of the "America is so strong now" posturing hid dishonest maneuvering (for example, Carter was so widely assailed for the hostage crisis while Reagan actually negotiated for hostages)
  4. Objectionable judicial nominees (Bork), an attourney general who was a pig (Meese), labor losing power, etc.

Although George H.W. Bush is largely thought to have been limited to 1 term by his breaking his "no new taxes" pledge, I think that's revisionist.

I think in reality, it was Pat Buchanan's speech at the Republican convention in 1992, calling for a "culture war", that alienated Republican moderates, the kind who just wanted peace and prosperity and were a little more sober-headed and less wild than Democrats seemed to be.

I remember working for Clinton that election and seeing the campaign office filled with ex-Republicans turned off by Buchanan's right-wing rhetoric.

* * *

Lots of Republican voters value morality, and unfortunately that's in their minds kind of coded up with lots of aspects that are really extraneous to true morality. It often seems limited to shielding their children from adult content, or castigating those who don't live in traditional monogamous heterosexual relationships, and not about truth and honesty and trying to understand and respect others. It often seemed curled up with warm feelings about living up to one's own religion.

It's troubling to see a book like that by Dinesh D'Souza, who used to get his culture war on fighting against multiculturalism in academia (which did have a faddish aspect in the mid '80s.) Now he seems to be arguing that the Islamic radicals who attacked the U.S. on 9/11/2001 were fighting against our permissive cultural values (not foreign policy such as troops in Saudi Arabia, Palestinian problems, etc.) and that conservatives should join this fight (sort of to appease the terrorists, I gather.)

For one, of course, permissiveness is relative--in the 1950s Elvis shaking his booty on TV was quite shocking. Internally, if one has a problem with the culture, one shouldn't work to appease murderers from outside the society. (Yeah, I might have a problem with the culture too, but not as a matter for legislation so much as (1) increasing education, and (2) increasing employment opportunities might increase quality of stuff--I'm not offended by "vulgarity" and those who are can always look away...)

I tend to be a relativist who on the contrary feels that relativism is morality, morality is fundamentally not imposing one's will on others. Perhaps the few conservatives left who really do have some intellectual cred--and who do not just like to paint pictures of strawman opponents as sloganeers--view themselves more as the successors of the Enlightenment, and view that time as having a stricter heierarchy of values... On the contrary, I'm influenced by developments such as non-Euclidian geometry--ideas from the last few centuries that have opened minds to how much our traditional culture closed off.
bram: (galafractaxyl)
2006-12-20 12:52 pm

Carl Sagan, in memoriam

Today is the 10th anniversary of the death of Carl Sagan, the great science popularizer. Bloggers around the world are posting entries in honor of Sagan today. Nick Sagan, son of Carl Sagan, makes an announcement in his blog. Official organizer Joel Schlosberg announces day of blog posts.

Above, Carl Sagan on the set of Cosmos.

As an astronomer (at times) of a certain age, you could guess that I was influenced by Carl Sagan, and you'd be right.

At ages 7-9 or so, I was into science fiction, but mostly the kind of science fiction that gave a "sense of wonder" that was also common in Sagan's books and in his TV series Cosmos. I was into 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters. I was also interested in extremes, the way little kids are: I read closely the Guinness Book of World Records, I was fascinated by the tallest buildings (thinking for a while to grow up to be an architect) or the fastest cars, or, when I found rockets went faster than cars, I was interested in rockets. Then I kept becoming intrigued that the encyclopedia entries on rockets linked to "astronomy", whatever that was. I finally looked up "astronomy", and found an inspiring image of the Ring Nebula (M 57) after a trip to the Hayden Planetarium with my parents.

I think my parents first pointed me toward Carl Sagan books when I was 9 or 10: I must have read The Cosmic Connection, and then at 10 or 11, Dragons of Eden (a fascinating but very speculative take on human evolution). Sagan was already (1976 or so) something of a science celebrity for his books and for his leadership of NASA press conferences and (I think) talk show appearances (he famously went on Johnny Carson a lot).

Me in 6th grade:

So by 6th grade, Carl Sagan had become a hero of mine, along with Thomas Henry Huxley and Isaac Asimov. I remember reading his long, dense book, in collaboration with I.S. Schlovskii, Intelligent Life in the Universe in the 6th grade, and feeling very smart and distinguished for reading such a book.

I must have read Broca's Brain in college, and then A Candle in the Dark as a postdoc. The latter I greatly enjoyed, and with a different kind of vision after starting an actual career as a scientist. I think I eventually donated my copy to a prison book project, thinking that in prison libraries there might be a lot of pseudoscience and that the book could be what its title claims it to be: a road to clear thinking for someone in trouble.

I also read a biography of Sagan a few years ago. I also read Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors after reading the biography: Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan, who he wrote the book with, thought it was a good one.

So while I enjoyed Cosmos when it appeared, I think it was Sagan's books that had influenced me more. By the time of Cosmos I was already heading to the science track.

A couple of years ago I taught astronomy at Bowling Green in Ohio and they had all the episodes of Cosmos on videotape, and the equipment to project onto the planetarium dome! I probably showed about 4 or 5 episodes to my class.

It was great! I think Sagan became the students' second favorite scientific personality after Tycho Brahe. And even there, that reminds me of the great dramatization of Brahe and Kepler in Cosmos. Cosmos really hooks you emotionally and visually. It tells its stories dramatically, it's culturally relevant and artistically done, it's frequently amusing, goofy and wry at the same time. I remember him writing out all the digits of a google or illustrating Velokovsky's nutty idea of Venus popping out of Jupiter...

All told I think Sagan's biggest achievement in science popularization was to impart that sense of wonder through science fact.

The Cosmic Calendar, the speculations on the vastness of the Universe, about extraterrestrial intelligence, all that made one feel that science was opening one's eyes to a wider world than you'd have without it.

Addendum: Yesterday was J's birthday. An old pseudogirlfriend of mine. Once, years ago, when I was in grad school, I sent her a "singing telegram" for her birthday. I requested that the messenger dress in a turtleneck shirt (Sagan's style) and give a message about "billions and billions" of birthday wishes from me... I'm not sure if the agency was that familiar with Sagan or whether they faithfully mimicked him...
bram: (Default)
2005-07-21 10:03 pm

abortion, rudolph, roberts

Returned the Yiddish book to the library and skimmed a book about the Eric Rudolph case. Not only has Eric Rudolph recently been sentenced to life, but the case is also timely because another man with two first names, John Roberts, may actually turn out to reverse Roe vs. Wade, although this time through means other than pure evil.

I read in the NYT that a doctor at a clinic bombed by Rudolph confronted him at the trial. She tried to dress him down. Whenever I see pictures of him, he seems insufferably smug, as if he is absolutely sure of the rightness of his cause and furthermore, convinced that his opponents are foolish and stupid.

It was much the same with the Unabomber, who taunted the FBI and his victims (like Gelertner). Before the Unabomber was caught, a lot of people thought he was cool because of that police sketch of him in shades and that hood. He railed against science and technology, and technophobes and luddites cheered him on. Then when he was revealed to be a scragly slob, and, moreover, an old school geek who wrote incomprehensible math papers, the same people dropped him like a ton of feathers or a ton of bricks, it doesn't matter which because they both weigh a ton. I thought that was ironic. These trendoids cared more about his hygeine than the fact that he killed people.

(Actually, as revealed in The Atlantic, the Unabomber--as I will call him because I can't spell Kacynski or whatever--signed up for a psychological experiment at Harvard, in which after befriending him, a trained lawyer betrayed him, caricatured and demolished his worldview. All while his vital signs were impersonally recorded for further study.)

Anyway, this doctor told Rudolph that he hadn't been so clever: his schemes had been foiled and the clinic's work went on as before. Perhaps not for very long, now that John Roberts seems headed toward confirmation.

* * *

Entering college, I believed in the Democratic platform, but there were two issues I had reservations about, affirmative action and abortion. My position then can be thought of as a universalist approach, that clearly fairness meant treating everyone equal, and that the rightness or wrongness of abortion didn't have to do with what the individual woman carrying the fetus thought. It was probably not coincidence that, as a white male, I thought conditions most favorable, or least harmful, to my group followed from universal principles. Later I learned that crucially important nuances applied to these situations, and finally, they became not nuances, but new principles. I debated Judith Thompson's transfused violinist and Dennet's conditions of personhood and Peter Singer's version of utilitarianism, followed Dershowitz's metaphor of floors and ceilings.

I think that at age 17 I briefly flirted with these ideas means that now, when I see them, I feel I see through their appeal. Pro-lifers stomp their feet and say, "But it's not ok to choose to kill someone! Slaveowners couldn't choose the death of their slaves! A fetus is human!" And I think, "That is the argument of a 17 year old. Can't you suggest something more sophisticated?" Whenever anyone suggests something is obvious, I conclude it is wrong.

* * *

The Rudolph book is not very well written. The sentence structure doesn't vary much. There are too many points of view, and the attempt to get inside the heads of the major players is frustrating. But you can't go wrong with that story, really.

Richard Jewell, for example, got tangled in. His is an elemental story of someone falsely accused, like Kafka's Joseph K. Even Bill Clinton, trying to ooze out of the Monica predicament, compared himself to Richard Jewell, which, of course, he wasn't like.

I was disappointed to think that the doctor's upbraiding of Rudolph, suggesting that abortions would go on in spite of terrorism, appears not to be a winning hand. I imagined myself there trying to lecture the guy, instead attacking his belief system--perhaps like the lawyer who tore about the Unabomber in that Harvard experiment detailed by The Atlantic. I thought the beliefs driving his antiabortion terrorism might have been similar to what I thought at 17, and that I could wipe his smugness away by showing how simplistic his core beliefs were.

So I raced ahead to find out: what did this guy actually believe? And I was disappointed at the stupidity of it. I did not think it was possible to be that stupid and yet to be that smug about it. I mean, he's not only dumber than dirt, he's dumber than the dirt that perished because it was not fit to survive in competition with the regular normal dirt that's under our feet. There you have it: Eric Rudolph looks up to dino-dirt.

Apparently (I only skimmed) he was a subscriber to the "Christian Identity" movement, which holds that yeah, the Bible's all literally true, but those evil Jews put themselves in it--and Jesus was really not Jewish at all. I mean: with all those miracles and Son of God stuff and partings of seas and Sun stopping in the sky, and we all come from Adam and Eve--all that, and the only thing you can question and doubt and suspect is different from the way it's written down is the race of some characters? Not to mention that there is documentation outside the Bible (Josephus) on Jesus.

[Yeah, and maybe the Buddha was a Native American, Mohammad was Inuit, and Martin Luther was an Aboriginee...]

* * *

The day, my day, was a bust.

Last night's dancing was fun. There was a guest DJ, but I showed up halfway through his set. Someone asked me how I liked it and I confessed I didn't know that much about the music at goth night, as opposed to '80s night. My body likes what it likes.

There were times when I thought I had some good moves going. A woman talked to me at the bar and--playing against type, I shook her hand and asked her name (she came in with a guy though).

I wasn't the only one to use the "Ohio monsoon" phrase. Leaving the club at 2:15 am we found ourselves deluged, and hid out under the ledge for a while.

Today I think my body successfully resisted my obligation to do anything useful. Many of the useful things on my list are "you have to do this to fit in with society and the world" kind of things. My body rebels, I get horny, I stare off into space, I surf the web.

Now perhaps I've recovered from dancing enough to be lucid enough to do something.

I also have some entertainment: I've rented a Penn and Teller show about Bullshit on DVD, and also Constantine with Keanu Reeves. I wanted to see Hotel Rwanda, but it was out (I considered buying it though.) At first the subject seemed daunting, depressing, and an uncomfortable duty for me to learn about--although it is something I can no longer affect (Darfur is another matter--although it's hard to affect anything, given the US does not have a popular vote.) Reading about Rwanda in Salon, however, provided the key word by which it has entered my consciousness: it is incomprehensible. The Yiddish book, just returned, had also made me think about the Nazi genocide of Jews.
bram: (Default)
2005-07-19 02:38 am

Dancing report

The hardest song in the world to dance to, in a lyrically appropriate way, is "Stand" by R.E.M.

I tried my best, I really did, and I ended up looking a total nincomboob. Standing. Pulling the legs apart while standing. Standing in different directions. Look at me, I'm a standing fucktard. I did not look real charismatic dancing to that song.

Granted, it was part of a larger strategy. Everyone, because they had [Dr. Evil voice] "brains" [\Dr. Evil voice] in their heads, left the dance floor when that song started. I, of course, pursue open space on a dance floor relentlessly. I wanted to be in a good position for the following songs. Thus I grabbed the best spot and [Dr. Evil voice] "danced" [/Dr. Evil voice], in a stationary sort of way. Of course, being in the prime spot earned me a larger audience for my fucktardery.

But as you know, my prime directive when I dance is not to impress people, although that's nice. It's to be completely free.

There's only one thing that scares me when I step onto a dance floor these days. And that's the possibility that benzoyl peroxide fluoresces when illuminated by ultraviolet radiation.

The crowd was interesting. It was a relief after Friday's fiasco at Sky Bar. Perhaps I was paranoid, but I thought a lot of people had heard something about me, that there's this professor who goes out there sometimes and dances like a continuously electrocuted tasmanian devil trained as a dervish. Actually, I'm an ex-professor.

There was a large group there from the cafe. That means I may see them again because I go to the cafe frequently. Of course I'm incompetent at pickups, and come on, I must smell like ass with all that dried sweat on me. But I talked briefly with a very attractive shortish woman who I'd seen earlier that day in the cafe. She said it was her first time at the dance club. She was of intriguingly unclear ethnicity, like some kind of Armenian/Hispanic combination. There was also a taller woman, also a brunette, who had charismatic eyes. We'd talked when I exited the cafe earlier. As I mentioned, we had one of those Ohio monsoons as I walked to the cafe, and when I left, the remnant of a rainbow was still visible.

Of course I'm leaving town soon. But if a real connection with someone does happen, of course I would stay in touch, because that is rare.

I danced ok. I was a little out of shape, and I knew it going in. I didn't wear my tightest shirt in case my Like Handles (not quite Love Handles) poked out. The culprit of course is that I feel obliged to drink wine while watching "Sideways", which I've rented on DVD. I'm in my best shape when I abstain from alcohol entirely--although actually the main reason I even drink red wine at all is that it contains a powerful antioxidant called resveratrol.

Although I still dream of finding a theory of everything, or quantum theory of gravity, or an outline of a discrete model of quantum mechanics, I've got my head a little out of the clouds and focussed on something specific--not as meaningful to me, but more like a crossword puzzle. Continued fractions seem very interesting, and reading MathWorld entries I'm learning a lot about generalized hypergeometric functions, and how they relate to a whole world of math.
bram: (crosseyed)
2004-01-23 05:39 am

I try vainly to amuse you before I fall asleep

Help me, I'm addicted to this damn internet web thing! A crumb of work to do that involves anything that's hard, and I'm Doctor Surffingers. To paraphrase King Henry II's inadvertent death sentence upon Thomas Becket: Will no-one rid me of this troublesome DSL connection?

At least I'm helping a colleague on a proposal to use the doomed, Doomed, DOOMED Hubble Space Telescope to investigate the brightest of a class of X-ray binaries called the "Z-sources", so called because they trace out a "Z" shape, for only theorized reasons, in a "color-color diagram" that's sort of like a Hertzprung-Russell diagram, but in X-rays. And they have mysterious unstable oscillations up to 1,000 times a second.

So these are some spoils of my daily joy ride down the information superhighway:

It appears as if Kerry and Edwards are coming out, in favor of civil unions. Future (running) mates?

Michael Kinsley in that virtual rag, Slate:

When the government is running a deficit of half a trillion dollars a year, a tax cut isn't giving folks their own money back. It is borrowing money to pass out, until it has to be paid back.

This Salon review of a book about Gnosticism annoyed me. The topic seemed interesting, and I'd like to learn more about the Gnostics. They seem to have believed that the God of our world is evil, responsible for what's wrong with the world, but that hidden away at a higher level was the real God. William Blake seems to have had a similar theology. What annoyed me about the review--although I am unfamiliar with the subject and haven't seen the book reviewed--was that it seemed very centered on our own time, and on the beliefs of our day. It was fixated on the book getting to the sexy parts. You know, one of those reviewers who wears her pubes on her sleeve (see for example the "elbow sex" scenes in The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Annoyed by the academic writing, with footnotes, the reviewer seemed to require that the book be a carnival ride. However, very few people can be relentlessly hip about academic subjects; David Foster Wallace is one of the few people who carries it off in his own mind. In particular, questions like "were the Gnostics feminist?" annoyed me, because they didn't try to get a feeling for the times Gnostic ideology flourished. It seems to me that what we think of as feminism is a reaction to specific roles and ideologies that came before. Was Athens democratic? Yes, for citizens. Of course an ancient theology is going to seem paradoxical like that. "Gnostic" is a label that is attached to 15 centuries of thought, so inconsistencies will be huge.

I've also been thinking about why I lost a recent LJ friend (of course free disassociation should be allowed without an inherent fuss.) I'm not sure why this happened, but I do have a tendency for satire and irony, and I often don't spell out when I'm not being serious, or what my purpose is in not saying what I literally believe. I suppose some of you like me more for this playful but ambiguous habit. I shouldn't be all peer pressured and aim to please anyone though, friends who stay or those who don't. I should be open to self-examination and re-thinking.

On the good side of satire is someone like Swift writing A Modest Proposal. It should be pretty transparent that Jonathan Swift didn't think poverty would be best solved by munching on babies. I don't follow rap music so closely, but perhaps there is a place to look for people who get in trouble with words--I imagine some starting out ironic, exaggerating, and finding that the only protest they are making is a token side-swipe of irony.

Writing is so many things. I suppose in the end I don't think it relates to morality. It's mysterious though, what it reveals and doesn't--does the writer know best the meaning of the words, or is the writer blinded by lack of distance? How important is it to clear away words that could hurt--if "misinterpreted"--and how important is catharsis, jokingly thrashing out words (which they say can never hurt, although sticks and stones break bones) to release them, conjure them up and laugh at just how stupid evil is? Does anyone think I want to be Rasputin and shtup Heather Graham (who I have never even had a dinner date with), and that I scorn right handed women as female dogs and prostitutes? You might as well think my revenge against Osama bin Laden would be a mere kick to the tuchus and denial of my home-cooked spanakopita. Perhaps the humor is in the unexpectedness, and you have to know what I really do consider an appropriate reaction.

So anyway, yesterday I went to a poetry slam. My housemate was MC. I know you only read this to read about my dancing escapades. After the poetry reading I went dancing--not my usual night, but I've decided I need exercise two nights a week (though dancing late sets off my sleep cycle! catch-22 yet again!) This was goth night, or "Crypt". I think these black clad weirdos are better dancers than the multiclad weirdos of Saturday Night ('80s music), when I usually dance. And there were many songs I felt kind of lost dancing to; looking to people around me only confused me. Some songs were from a genre I think of as Konstipaschorn, a kind of industrial slow beat with some strangled Germanic vocals over it--I feel so bad for these vocalists and just want to give them some X-Lax! Actually, this may be the genre that [ profile] techstep plays over the radio. But I did eventually hit my stride, formal shoes notwithstanding. Started out goofy, but settled down a bit. Best part of the evening: the DJ played "I'm a Vampire" by Future Bible Heroes. The DJ is in fact the keyboardist for this band. Not many people were on the dance floor, so I danced right beneath the DJ's booth, making a kind of tribute to him. (I suspect I annoy him, when he can see me, by a lack of strict beat--he's a musical pro after all.) But I danced energetically and entertainingly ("I can turn into a bat"--and I did the hand-shadow for a flying eagle; when the song emphasized keyboards, I pretended to play), subtly bowing to the DJ booth as the song reached its conclusion.
bram: (Default)
2004-01-11 08:28 pm
Entry tags:

Dance of the Seven Coats

Jan. 11, 2004 | BOSTON (AP) -- Temperatures dropped well below zero Saturday across the Northeast, making it the coldest day in a decade for some cities and keeping all but the hardiest people indoors.

I was one of the hardiest people last night. I went out to a sculpture exhibit at Man Ray and then danced like a fast-forwarded dervish.

I went bundled in layers: my thin black dancing T-shirt under a red V-neck long sleeve shirt under a purple sweatshirt under a black sweatshirt under a winter coat under another winter coat. With gloves, 2 layers of socks, and a scarf.

The sculpture exhibit was interesting.

The theme was that in olden days, sculpture had to be attached to the ground to stay up. Here everything was fixed to the wall or hanging from the ceiling. For example, there was a sculpture of a woman, cross-sectioned, almost swimming through the air above us. The write-up described her as swimming in a very liberated way, but the whole idea of "cross-sections" was a little reductive and if someone were strictly PC they might think of it as demeaning. It reminded me of the old Snickers commercials, "No matter how you slice it, it always comes up peanuts." Also, a centipede. There was "Veins I, II, and III"--sort of a joke. Veins I and II were very similar, these map-like pantings with country-like structures at different intensities of tan, with squiggly lines ("veins") in white, also at two intensities. But the third panel was completely different! It was this sculpture with squiggly lines ("veins") coming out. There was also a sculpture of a "cello" with "ribs" that the notes said was inspired by Picasso's cubist cellos.

As far as meeting people goes, I kind of struck out. I sat down and there was this couple near me. I mentioned that the music playing was Theloneous Monk, but they didn't have a clue about that. They had also never been to Man Ray before. The guy was slow to catch on that the cross sections added together to make a woman. I told them that later the gallery became a dance club--they waited, but left before the joint got hopping. And hopping it got! I was surprised in such scrotumtightening cold to see so many people!

I also talked with an older guy, he asked me whether I was an artist. I was careful 'cause Man Ray caters to many alternative lifestyles including gay, and I'm not. But we did have a reasonable conversation about kinetic sculpture, metal-working, cities to live in, and poor old Martin Harwit at the Air and Space Museum during the Enola Gay flap, and the justifiedness of Hiroshima and especially Nagasaki.

But later at the dance floor bar, I hovered apart, as cliques greeted old friends.


I had fun--and didn't have to pay because I'd gone to the exhibit first. However, that meant I had to stay for the entire night, and for the first time, I think, I got kind of worn out.

First, I was goofy. I've danced to '80s music so much that to stave off boredom, I like to do something different. I hop-scotched across the dance floor. I made hand-shadows of an eagle and a goose. I danced in an "en garde!" pose, then, Princess Bride style, switched my sword hand. To a song whose refrain is "New life... new life" I twirled my hands in a double helix (I usually try to pantomime insemination, but that's tricky). But at some point, I tired of such noodling, splitting angel hairs and dancing on the head of a penne.

So I got serious about dancing semi-charismatically. I usually dance center-stage, though that's mostly because I need a lot of space. And Cross-Dressing Black Guy seems to covet that space too. Again, some guy told me my dancing was awesome. There were a couple of guys who I thought were trying to mimic my moves, but they were awful. At first I worried that I looked like that (I tried to judge from my shadow, but I couldn't see it) and then realized my particular moves evolved from what feels natural to me, and evolved over a long time. As I left at the end of the evening, the bouncer gave me more time to re-layer myself than he gave others, and told me, "You dance very well."


Recovering. Feel a mixture of mysticism and physical relaxation. A little guilt that in the big picture I'm not working now--and went out for a delicious Indian buffet. This was a great new restaurant, and my god, a waitress there was incredibly hot. I tried not to stare at her. As I left, and she picked up my plate, we chatted. (Funny that chatting never happens for me at Man Ray, a place where being social is part of the purpose.) She asked where I was from ("New Jersey"--perhaps I should have said "Latvia", home of my ancestors--I must have looked exotic), and I asked where she was--from Nepal! At first I was clueless--uh, big mountains there? Himalyas? Then I finally figured something to say: "Weren't all the members of your royal family extinguished in a horrific murder-suicide a few years ago?" Heh. It's good to have a photographic memory and to read the lurid headlines! "Well, we have a new king now..." she said. "Good!"

Usually I imagine the local Indian restaurants are family businesses and that hottie women who work there are wives or daughters of guys who work there or who own the place. But she was pretty friendly. Perhaps I'll go back soon (not immediately). At the worst, I'll have a great meal and not feel like a freeloading glutton but like I'm trying to build a social life. Yeah, it's her job to be friendly, but she's got a certain amount of choice. And those Nepalese sure know how to be unfriendly when they want to be, if you can consider a regicidal bloodbath to be unfriendly, that is.

Touch and go on research, and on reading David Foster Wallace and Julian Barbour (there's a commonality--Time is related to Continuum, both Time and Infinity are concepts fraught since ancient times with paradoxes and confusing intuition.) I'll eat something tasty and healthy, play piano, and try to escape the dumdum coldrums.
bram: (galafractaxyl)
2003-10-17 02:21 am

Politics (no trivalent networks, no excrushes)

Up late. Went to an internet cafe/bookstore, a place I kind of like, but on the way back I felt sick. Luckily my office was just there--went to the bathroom, found myself sweaty. I think something's going around.

I'll spare you the trivalent network lecture. Of course I'm thinking of such topics. I'll remind you that more than trying to solve a problem, I'm trying to construct something new here. Maybe later or tomorrow I'll write something on this topic.

Interesting article by George Lakoff on the California election, "framing" of issues, and how Republicans appeal to "strict father" emotions in calling for blind discipline.

At this Internet cafe, I read some Zizek, who I'd read about in the New Yorker last month. Very interesting. He's Yugoslav, a Lacanian philosopher. In his book on 9/11 and other dates, titled "The Desert of the Real" (from "The Matrix"), he starts out with a story from the old East Germany (from memory):

A man's friend was moving to Siberia to look for work. "Listen," the friend said, "what I write may be censored. We better have a code. If I write in blue ink, it's true, but if it's in red ink, it had to get past the censors so it's false."

The friend moves to Siberia. After a while, a letter written in blue ink is received, "Everything is wonderful here. There are well-paying pleasant jobs available, the rooms are spacious and well-heated, the women are beautiful and friendly. The only think you can't get here is red ink."

I agree with Zizek that this is a wonderful little story and applies not only to communist dictatorships, but also to Western nations. Somehow direct dissent (red ink) is taken away from us, and what we must do is obliquely point out, encoded but in the open, that everything is a lie.

I'd like to read more by him.

Anyway, what do I mean specifically? For example, Salon's recent article on Stigliz's new book points out that there's a "Neanderthal" right-wing reflex against anyone who criticizes the underpinnings of pure unregulated capitalism, but no basic in-your-face leftie criticism--there's only nuance.

Journals like The Baffler or Baffler editor Thomas Frank's book "One Market Under God" often will tell a story through the eyes of a pure unregulated capitalist and show just how inconsistent such stories become in the end...

Well, I suppose it's past my bedtime. I'll try to dream of trivalent networks.
bram: (Default)
2003-08-11 01:14 am

Dodge and Burn, Giordano

A quickie political post, to be followed by a quickie science/philosophy post.

This topic brings me to that worst outcrop of herd life, the military system, which I abhor. That a man can take pleasure in marching in fours to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him. He has only been given his big brain by mistake; unprotected spinal marrow was all he needed. This plague-spot of civilization ought to be abolished with all possible speed. Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism--how passionately I hate them! How vile and despicable seems war to me! I would rather be hacked in pieces than take part in such an abominable business. My opinion of the human race is high enough that I believe this bogey would have disappeared long ago, had the sound sense of the peoples not been systematically corrupted by commercial and political interests acting through the schools and the Press.

There are several things I find remarkable in this passage. The author, Albert Einstein, is often considered the greatest human genius and held as an exemplar of intelligence and rationality. His language here is intemperate though--"I would rather be hacked in pieces"--and his perspective on pacifism is unheard of nowadays. Only once does Einstein even mention its violence as a reason to--of all the crazy radical ideas!--abolish the military! No, Einstein seems to want to do away with the military and all patriotism because they require unity and discipline!

Now, many things have changed since Einstein wrote this. He himself changed his opinions on war and pacifism in response to Nazi Germany, a threat that needed a military response. And the German military he was responding to was probably very different from the modern American military in culture.

And I'm certainly not saying I adopt what Einstein wrote at all. Oddly, but perhaps appropriately for these Orwellian times, I admire prominent people who have military experience: Colin Powell (the sane member of the Bush Administration), Kerry. It's the "Chickenhawks" who love the unity and discpline common to the stupid but who shirk duty when it's their turn--those are the ones who piss me off.

What I do respond to in the Einstein quote above is in realizing that nobody, certainly nobody like Einstein, would think of saying anything like it today. I don't think even Chomsky or Zinn would (correct me if you can find a quote.) I think it's more because debate has narrowed and the left has been marginalized than because the American military is different from the German military...

* * *

Bought an interesting book by Nancy Chang, "Silencing Political Dissent: How Post-September 11 Anti-Terrorism Measures Threaten Our Civil Liberties." Page after page is worth quoting. For example:

A recent news account confirms that since the USA PATRIOT Act was passed, law enforcement agencies have been making "unprecedented demands on the telecommunications industry to privide information on [their] subscribers." Albert Gidari, an attorney who represents Internet service providers and telephone companies, has offered that the number "of subpoenas that carriers receive today [for their customer records] is roughly doubling every month" to the point where "we're talking about hundreds of thousands of subpoenas for customer records--stuff that used to require a judge's approval." Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University, has warned that since September 11, law enforcement agencies are exerting pressure on telecommunications companies to turn over customer records voluntarily, in the absence of either a court order or a subpoena, "with the idea that it is unpatriotic if the companies insist too much on legal subpoenas first."


Under Section 216 of the ["PATRIOT"] act, courts are required to order the installation of a pen register and a trap-and-trace device to track both telephone and Internet "dialing, routing, addressing, and signalling information" anywhere within the United States when a government attorney has certified that the information to be obtained is "relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation." Section 216 does not authorize the tracking of the "contents of any wire or electronic communications." In the case of e-mail messages and Internet usage, however, the act does not address the complex question of where to draw the line between "dialing, routing, addressing and signaling information" and "content." Unlike telephone communications, in which the provision of dialing information is separate from, and does not run the risk of revealing content, e-mail message move together in packets that include both address and content information. Also, Section 216 does not resolve the question of whether a list of Web sites and Web pages that have been visited constitutes "dialing, routing, addressing and signaling information" and "content."

[Some stuff about "Carnivore" internet tracking...] Section 216 is not scheduled to expire.

Finally this great quote from Justice Robert Jackson:

Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. If there is any fixed star in our constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion...
bram: (varo)
2003-03-22 11:13 pm

Heroes of Creativity

I'm not sure why, but recently I decided to explore those I considered "heroes" in my life, although the word "heroes" seems maybe too monumental. And to see how I've changed in my life, and what lessons biographies of the famously accomplished might have for me.

I would have to say that for a long time, when I think of how to live a life of creative accomplishment, I think of Beethoven and Einstein. Dead white males, native German speakers. What's struck me recently about these two heroes of mine is (1) that they are BOTH popularly accorded top notch rank, AND ALSO by the cogniscenti. They are not obscure at all. Could I have said, "Well, Einstein is all well and good, but my personal hero is Paul Adrian Maurice Dirac--his work was of fundamental importance not only for quantum mechanics, but he also predicted antimatter, a new class of particles, which had not yet been observed." Perhaps something in the life of Dirac, or say Bohr, might appeal to some more who are familiar with the detailed accomplishments of these physicists. On the other hand, there's NO denying that the popular image of Einstein as the head of this pack is based in reality; only a crank will deny the central importance of what Einstein did.

And item (2) is that both are not only known persistently in the popular imagination (kindly German-accented old man with bushy gray hair and moustache; glowering deaf composer shaking his fist), but that a shorthand for their actual WORK is popular (in fields where very little is nowadays popular). In spite of classical music being dead to the average American, who doesn't recognize the first 4 notes of Beethoven's 5th symphony? (They even have cultural resonance beyond music: weren't they used in WW II as a morse-code symbol of victory?) Sometimes it's unfortunate that something's well known--Beethoven's Fur Elise is a nonentity among his compositions, but a pretty enough tune that it's got some popular recognition. For the 5th symphony however, the people have it right--that first movement is really remarkable, although it's sometimes hard for me to hear it as music and not the famous monument it's become. It's Beethoven at his best, crisply and clearly showing us exactly what he feels. For Einstein, of course, the popular shorthand of his work is "E=mc2". While that's not at the basis of his most revolutionary work (Genereal Relativity), but more like the endpoint of his youthful important work (Special Relativity), it was still important. The flavor of his work's sweeping importance is captured by the relation between energy and mass, and that it has something to do with the speed of light.

Neither Einstein nor Beethoven were people whose work was motivated directly by helping others in need. Some, such as [ profile] kytty, do hold to this as a prime motivator, some imagine always the bony hands of the needy. With Beethoven, first, one might retort that music was not a frilly luxury, but what kept him alive. He was the son of an abusive alcoholic, never married, and of course what could be worse than having the greatest musical imagination coupled with nearly total deafness! So he needed to write music, it took hold of him. Though I've said social justice wasn't the main motivation of the lives of either of these heroes, it DID play an important role. Beethoven's 3rd symphony, for example, was to celebrate Napoleon, when he was a hero of the French Revolution. When Beethoven heard that Napoleon had declared himself emperor, he tore up the dedication page of the symphony and said, "So, he's just like all the others--he'll declare himself tyrant and trample on the liberties of others!" Then there's the 9th symphony, with the Ode to Joy that goes, "alle Menschen werden Bruder", all men are brothers... Beethoven scorned the aristocratic system, admired democracy.

Einstein was a pacifist in WW I, getting in some trouble for his position. He invented a new refrigerator design after hearing about a family that had died when the cooling gas had escaped overnight.

Perhaps one thing these two heroes of mine have in common is that they are concerned with finding something very BASIC. This is probably oversimplifying a bit. The last movement of Mozart's Jupiter symphony puts together very complex combinations of 4 notes too, also aided by some counter-themes. But with Mozart or Bach, there's nothing like the 4 notes introducing the 5th symphony. Although Beethoven was not as skilled in counterpoint as either of those other giants, his music has an elemental quality, it's not afraid of simplicity (the 55-straight e-naturals of the opening movement of the 7th symphony, for example.)

Maybe I could have found other "heroes" who had this quality too--I'm thinking of Shakespeare, for example. Everyone knows Shakespeare, everyone knows "To be or not to be," but one couldn't say the popular imagination had seized on a mediocre playwrite and play--no, it's because Shakespeare, like Beethoven and Einstein, gets right to the point, that everyone (nearly everyone) recognizes his greatness.

Now, perhaps I could write a book like Godel, Escher, Bach, but Beethoven, Einstein, Shakespeare! Which brings me to a more youthful hero of mine, Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter and GEB were very big in CTY. I've been reading [ profile] entr00pi and [ profile] evan who are also Hofstadter fans. Well, somehow I lost interest in "popularizer heroes" in college. Carl Sagan and Douglas Hofstadter were not the ones praised to the sky by academia--no they were more kind of sneered at. The physics building had these big posters from the centennary of Einstein's birth in 1979, telling his story.

There was a phase in college when I read a lot of the essays of Bertrand Russell, as well as Einstein's. They're both definitely worth reading. I'm not sure why I don't idolize Russell these days. To write essays like Russell's or Einstein's, to be of such interest one could tell the world one's opinions in detail seemed like fun--of course now I have LiveJournal! Maybe it's that philosophical accomplishments seem more tenuous than physics accomplishments. Maybe the homophilic biographies by Ray Monk of Wittgenstein and Russell came down pretty hard on Russell. For whatever reason, I haven't read or re-read much by Russell lately.

Strangely, I never found Einstein's biography to be intimidating. I actually thought, "Hey, I could do that!" Of course, here I am, at 35 (when he'd finished his major accomplishments) and all I've produced are 15 or so inconclusive journal articles on obscure stars. I was always more intimidated by Feynman. He gave the impression of being into physics, REALLY into physics--although he had outside interests, they were mainly later in life. Einstein gives me the impression of a more general mind, and there are all the stories of him doing well in school only selectively, of his talents being hidden behind a mediocre job ("patent examiner, third class").

Why not Leonardo da Vinci? I don't know. I think I read something on him in 6th grade, though Thomas Henry Huxley was more my hero then. But sometimes I do wonder whether I should pattern myself more after a Renaiscance Man than someone with accomplishments in one field. Sometimes I feel pretty smug about myself, "Hey Bram, you're really creative in a lot of different fields! You can do astrophysics, math, philosophy, stand-up comedy, write music, you're pretty versatile at writing (not so good in the visual arts...)" I do feel I can write well and creatively--of course my chorus here on LiveJournal has selected itself on the basis of liking my writing. My parents are writers, and while it doesn't give me that feeling that I'm getting at something basic that led me into physics, I enjoy writing because when you write you can be creative with a minimum of raw materials.

For da Vinci though his separate interests came together to support his painting. Carving up cadavers helped him understand bones and muscle under the skin and thus become a better painter. He studied light, vision, he studied natural phenomena (fluids) in order to render them better.

Most accomplished creatives don't hoard their resources for one giant masterpiece but generally repeat dozens or hundreds of attempts in the same medium, learning and exploring as they go along. Beethoven had 135 musical publications, Mozart in a much more brief life had what, 551? Understanding how Beethoven wrote his 9th symphony may seem daunting; understanding how the mind that had already written the 5th symphony wrote the 9th symphony, less so.

As for me? Well, I could have gone much further in those 15 or so papers. Sometimes I think I hacked my way through the path of least resistance, or didn't learn about peripheral issues that could have been interesting. Nothing involved was of fundamental importance. But I think I've also learned as a teacher--I've learned the material better, been prodded by student questions, had to think on my feet a bit guiding students through labs. Probably I'm too close to the raw data, too close to computer programs instead of analytic understanding. Instead of trying to understand atomic spectroscopy better, I defer to my expert co-author, or kitchen-sink computer program.

Then there are the repeated livejournal entries on philosophical physics I've posted here. I'd like to think I'm getting better at it, or at least exploring it better in my own mind, by my own criteria. But my criterion is that I eventually say something sensible and falsifiable.

In the end I've got a bunch of creative talents, things that really puzzle me and interest me but relate to nothing that can be solved or demonstrated and day to day astrophysics that answers minor questions with tentative answers that only sometimes require creativity.

[6 comments lost]
bram: (Default)
2003-02-03 11:05 pm

Up War

Peter Gabriel

I'm reminded of one of my stranger housemates over the years--SC--who was a Peter Gabriel fanatic. Listened to LPs of the old Genesis albums over and over. Meanwhile, he would rock back and forth old this old dilapidated rocking chair (he'd really made it his--it carried around the identation of his body). Every once in a while, while rocking on that chair to Peter Gabriel--SC would flip the whole rocking chair upside down and I'd have to set it aright. The guy was a freak's freak. Having suffered a collotomy in a car crash (or so he told us), he was afflicted with epilepsy and had several fits a week. Also he could contort his body to fit in a very small suitcase.

Anyway, the album (Up) is very good. In Salon I read that one of the collaborators thought enough music had been recorded for 10 albums, but that Gabriel had pared it down!

My favorite track so far is 2. The songs are pretty long by pop standards, more than about 7 minutes, with lots going on, even some simple counterpoint. It's a little jarring to hear Gabriel's voice alone or over simple piano, because it's such a distinctive sound and to me it's a sound that says "Eighties!"


Americans care about people getting killed--American soldiers or Iraqi civilians--but it's clear to me any war with Iraq is about nothing but a bunch of weak leaders hung up on proving their strength. It's like Vietnam without the Domino Theory: useless little country becomes pivot for superpower's self-image, only this time there's nothing at stake, no Cold War.

Paradoxically, I think gaining access to more oil is against the US's best interest, as it would (1) increase pollution (and associated medical costs), (2) delay phasing out of the oil-car culture.

Weapons of Mass Destruction is a joke--the current stage of the inspection proccess seems to be par for the decades-course. I have no sympathy for Hussein, a murderous megalomaniac, but he doesn't seem to be trying to kill me, now.

Not that I heard the speech Bush gave when he substituted for the President's State of the Union, but it seems to me almost the opposite of a widely regarded speech Clinton had given earlier. Clinton had stressed, post 9/11, the "interdependence" of countries in the modern world. Bush in his speech emphasized that the rest of the world had no affect on the course of the US. I can picture him and his advisors hearing Clinton's speech and saying, "How about that fancy talk--interdependence? No way's the US have to do what the rest of the world says."

Can it be any more obvious that George W. Bush is out of touch?
bram: (varo)
2002-02-01 08:20 pm

The Ethics Entry

Did some Chandra work today--stuff needed for the paper to get done, but not to advance the scientific understanding. You know, "We used the Chandra X-ray telescope, which has these features and is described in this other paper... we detected 600,000 photons or so after rejecting the sucky ones..."

The weekend, I hope, will be spent rollerblading on the beach with LQ, Li, and Co. I was going to rent a car, but that fell through. Luckily we still have transportation to the beach, and I can take a bus to Pasadena.

I also have an idea for an entry on male body image (after having written about female body image), inspired by a recent entry of [ profile] fauxpas, which was just absolutely hilarious.

This is the long-promised (long-winded) ethics entry. )