Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Quotes of the Day: Wolfgang Pauli Edition

Here are some stories about and quotes from Wolfgang Pauli. There's quite a bit of funny material there, though Pauli seems like quite an asshole.

(Tip of the cap to Predrag Cvitanovic.)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

What happens in Venice stays in Venice

Tomorrow morning I hop on the bus (in my best Paul Simon impersonation, though I am guessing most of you won't get this allusion) to head to Gatwick airport for a flight to Venice. This will be my second trip to Italy---I went to Rome last July---and my first trip to Venice. I am going to attend NetSci 2009, a physics-oriented network science conference. I will attempt to get a picture with Lazlo Barabasi and Gene Stanley of me wearing my new power-law t-shirt ("I went to a physics conferences and all I got was a lousy power law."), and I also expect good pasta and gelato to ensue.

My new digital camera hasn't arrived yet, so I would lose the last approximately 15 exposures in my last roll of film of the analog camera that I bought during my first year of grad school (so about 10 years ago). One of my friends very kindly offered to loan me her digital camera, but I would feel very guilty if something happened to it, so I declined the offer. (I did waffle a bit, and it's only because this is a very close friend that I even considered accepting the offer.) A few weeks ago, when I mentioned to Somerville's domestic bursar in a conversation that I was going to a conference in Venice, she mentioned that I should find a girl while I'm there. Most likely, this isn't going to happen, but I have an incredible urge to take a picture of jailbait to bring back to the domestic bursar. (Hell, I probably would have borrowed my friend's digital camera if I felt that I were actually going to go through with taking such a picture. Given that I have 2 year's worth of film to get around to developing at some point, things just won't have the same effect if I take the picture with my present camera.) My new camera should arrive right after I return to Oxford, so maybe I'll do this in Sevilla (where I'll be going on July 13th).

Anyway, stay tuned...

Tie Me Wallaby Down?

According to this BBC article, stoned wallabies might be making crop circles.

(Tip of the cap to Steve Ginzburg.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Internet Traffic and Michael Jackson

When I wrote my blog entry yesterday, I found myself unable to access Michael Jackson's wikipedia entry. Here is an interesting CNN.com article on internet traffic that resulted from first rumors and then reports of Jackson's death. Part of me is still weirded out by the whole thing---it's hard to think of him as gone---though the more analytical part of me is seeing yesterday and today as something that reflects the modern era more than most days.

As interesting as the article is, it's also somewhat self-serving with respect to what it says about modern versus traditional news sources: "The need of the professional media to be first with the news -- many did for a short time report the Goldblum rumor as fact -- adds further veracity. And, of course, the whole process is speeded up by the Web." Yeah, and all bloggers live with their mothers and write their material from their room in the basement.

Update: Mariano Beguerisse Díaz sent me the following article about google searches related to Jackson's death. As he reminds me, from a technical standpoint, such dynamics result from what is known as an "exogenous shock" (as opposed to endogenous dynamics that would refer, e.g., to normal search traffic patterns).

Thursday, June 25, 2009

RIP Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

Pop icon Michael Jackson has died after suffering cardiac arrest. Among other things, he was an instrumental part of 80s music.

Earlier in the day, Farrah Fawcett died. (She was one of the original 'angels' in Charlie's Angels.)

(Tip of the cap to multiple Facebook users. More and more, I find out certain things for the first time via such posts, which seems to be an increasing trend more generally---going along with tweets, of course.)

Update: I have heard several others (from my generation and also from people about 10-15 years older) say that this feels like a piece of their childhood is gone. I don't feel that way, but this one definitely feels much weirder than most even though Jackson for a long time has seemed like he was on a trajectory to die young.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tales from the arXiv: Super Mario and the Zeno Effect

arXiv:0906.3958 (*cross-listing*)
Date: Mon, 22 Jun 2009 08:59:18 GMT (221kb)

Title: Super Mario's escape trip -- a proposal of
object-intelligent-feedback-based classical Zeno and anti-Zeno effects
Authors: Shi-Jian Gu
Categories: physics.data-an physics.class-ph quant-ph
Comments: 4 pages, 4 figures
Super Mario is imprisoned by a demon in a finite potential well. She can
escape from the well with the help of a flight of floating stairs. However, the
hateful demon may occasionally check her status. At that time, she has to make
a judgement of either jumping to the inside ground immediately in order to
avoid the discovery of her escape, or speeding up her escape process.
Therefore, if the demon checks her too frequently such that there is no
probability for her to reach the top of the barrier, she will be always inside
the well, then a classical Zeno effect occurs. On the other hand, if the time
interval between two subsequent checks is large enough such that she has a
higher probability of being beyond the demon's controllable range already, then
the demon's check actually speeds up her escape and a classical anti-Zeno
effect takes place.
\\ ( http://arxiv.org/abs/0906.3958 , 221kb)

Comment: Mario is not female. If the author wanted to be sexually ambiguous about a Mario character, then he/she should have used Toad instead. I will admit, though, that the paper's title and abstract compelled me to look at a paper I would have otherwise ignored. Also, figure 1 and reference 5 amuse me. :)

Update (6/29/09): A revised version of this paper has now appeared on the arXiv. I didn't look at the new paper, but the one correction I noticed in the abstract was the use of "he" to describe Super Mario. :)

The Sounds of Silence

Wow, it's been 5 days since I posted anything. That's an eternity of silence for me.

I don't have much to say at the moment, and the entries I plan to write are rather long ones (and I am way too tired to do that right now), so here's a summary of what I've done since I wrote the last entry on Friday night. I have been sleeping rather poorly for the last couple of weeks, so I've definitely been quite tired lately. The one nice thing about insomnia, however, is that I've put a lot of time in revising several papers. I have also spent some time reading a novel and have finally ordered a digital camera, though it looks like that won't arrive until after I return from Venice on the 4th of July. Anyway, here is what I have been doing:

Friday night: I saw Transformers 2.

Saturday: I finished small revisions on a just-accepted paper (my survey/review article on community detection). These were practically all adjustments that I decided for myself that I wanted to make, as the journal accepted the article 'as is' aside from minor changes in format to be consistent with the journal's requirements. I then worked on revising a draft of a different paper and then went to a friend's house for dinner. (I was my usual stubborn self about eating what she cooked, but the company was excellent. I knew all of the guests, which helps my social comfort level.) I read a bit as well, of course.

Sunday: I finished my pass through that paper and then did some other work and novel reading.

Monday: I worked a bit on my scholarpedia article on solitons, which ought to have been finished a while back. I also read a little of the dissertation I was supposed to read (and the novel, of course) and then started revising a draft of another paper that landed on my desk during the evening. I finally also started Okami---I had previously only gone through the introductory sequence.

Tuesday: I finished going through the previous paper and I made some revisions to yet another paper (though I didn't make a full pass through it but rather just attacked specific parts). I then played some Munchkin Quest and had a bit of trouble with an ancient, lightning-fast potted plant. I was at level 10 when the game ended, but I didn't quite win.

Today: Part 1 of Examiner MEGA-meeting. When we were not making decisions about the final grades of some of Oxford's finest students, we also went to lunch and dinner.

Tomorrow: Part 2 of Examiner MEGA-meeting. Then maybe I'll get back to working on another of the papers that I hope to submit imminently (if one is on my desk) or I'll get farther into the dissertation, which is on conformal field theory. At night is the SCR leavers party for some of my colleagues who are retiring or otherwise moving on. Last year's was quite fun---the speeches reminded me a bit of the ones at Lloyd House's beach trip.

Friday: Lots of meetings with students, which I backloaded onto Friday because I couldn't make the normal times today and tomorrow due to the MEGA-meeting. Then the plan is to have late lunch/early dinner with a friend on Friday and then perhaps to read, play Okami, or crash.

Saturday: I will need to get some stuff ready for Sunday's trip to Venice. I might also take a look at the slides for my talk and work on a paper. I'm guessing some Okami and reading will also be on the docket. Maybe I'll also go see Fermat's Room? Sleep would also be nice...

Sunday: I fly to Venice for the NetSci 09 conference. Sadly, my digital camera isn't slated to arrive until after my return.

Friday, June 19, 2009


This might be one of the best xkcd comic strips ever. Wow!

I approve!

(Tip of the cap to Justin Howell.)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Take that, Open Access Journal!

Sometimes one just has to prove a point, as a Cornell graduate student has recently done with one particular open-access journal by submitting a hoax paper that was written algorithmically. For some of you, this incident should ring familiar, as physicist Alan Sokal submitted a hoax article in 1996 to attempt to prove his opinion that a certain field of study was crap.

One thing that really interests me is that I found out about this via Cornell University's official Facebook posting. I think it's awesome to prove the point because sometimes that's just what needs to be done, but I'm a bit surprised that the University would be willing to publicly endorse the action. This incident might have some interesting fallout... (Hopefully, it won't include the grad student's career, because I suspect it's easier for a well-known person like Sokal to continue professional scientific endeavors after such a stunt than it might be for somebody who is trying to establish him/herself.

Ivan Rodriguez becomes all-time leader in games caught

The title of this entry basically says it all: Last night, Ivan Rodriguez became the all-time Major League leader in games caught.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Quest for the Woolly Owl: 2009 Edition

On the fine day of 16 June 2009, a team of intrepid young swordsmen swordspeople mathematicians stepped on a bus at the ungodly hour of 8am (having previously woken up at even less godly hours such as 6:45) to proceed to Cambridge, which one of the signs along the way identified ominously as "NORTH". In fact, there were quite a few ominous signs on the way---most of which involved warnings of danger of some form. (Perhaps some giant elastic BLOB might appear there?)

What was the point of this quest? Well, besides avoiding tutorials (at least for one day), these fine young mathematicians and their faculty slaves mascots colleagues were on an epic quest for a mythical object known as Ock The Woolly Owl. Rumor has it that it looks kind of like this. Occasionally, it might even look like this. But I digress.

Our intrepid adventurers set foot on Cambridge soil at the slightly more godly hour of 10:15ish. Naturally, the first thing they did was mark their territory accidently block the exit to prevent some of the faculty from getting off the bus. (Truth be told, I think I contributed to the blocking.) They then received treasure in the form of slips for free coffee. And just to make sure were were aware that the coffee machines were in order, the two machines had displays that showed the words "working" while the caffeinated bliss mediocre coffee was being poured.

As I mentioned above, yesterday's battle was an epic one. It wasn't exactly on the scale of Pirates versus Ninjas or even Mario versus Donkey Kong, but it was still pretty damned epic.

The first presentation was given by Ed Brambley, who spoke about "Introduction and Timekeeping". That woke everybody up and was given a neutral score so as not to advantage the Cambridge side. That was when the fluid mechanics talks started flowing. And for most of the day, they pretty much didn't stop. Before the day started, I had heard rumors that certain Oxford faculty asked tough questions during Cambridge talks and certain Cambridge people asked tough questions during Oxford talks. This didn't really happen this year, though a few of us had our moments. (I was wearing my power law t-shirt, so I was not about to let fly a power law to which I had objections.) Some of the tough questions came from Oxford mathematical biologist Thomas Woolley (no relation to the owl), which didn't surprise me at all given I was on the receiving end of those during my perturbation methods lectures last school year.

During one of the breaks, it was uniformly decided (at least by the Oxford crowd) that the Oxford talks had sexier titles. Perhaps this will lead to a victory in a future competition on grant proposal writing? (And with EPSRC running the show, that method will probably lead to about as much success as writing a good proposal. But I digress.) During the talks, the Cambridge students kept bringing up the famous Cambridge mathematicians who had previously studied the problems they were working on. (This probably explains why they hadn't been solved yet.) The Oxford mathematicians kept bringing up Cambridge mathematicians in their talks. They also kept bringing up Ock. We can only speculate how such slides will be filled in the future when he retires.

There were various other talks, though most of them were about fluid mechanics. (A few others---especially on the Oxford side---touched on other topics.) The BLOB did finally show up in the only mathematics seminar I have ever seen that mentioned Cthulhu. I just thought I'd get that in there. In total, there were 9 talks from each side, but alas our interpid adventures came up short, as the neutral unbiased dispassionate detacthed equitable nonpartisan judges (Amit Acharya and Graeme Wake) awarded Cambridge a narrow victory over Oxford. Of course, I am giving out the names of the judges to give them credit for their hard work, though I do worry that some bitter Oxford faculty students or postdocs might google their snail mail addresses in order to send them mail bombs (or at least unsolved fluid mechanics problems). This, of course, meant that the Woolly Owl will be remaining in Cambridge for the next two years. Until then, the pressure will be building on our side (aka, "Good") to reclaim this mystical trophy in 2011 when Cambridge (aka, "Evil") descends on us in 2011.

Once the Woolly Owl was awarded, many of us headed to the Castle Pub, which is one of only two Cambridge pubs I had previously entered (that was in 05, when I didn't know that I'd ever be living in this country) At 7pm, we boarded the bus back to Oxford. Ock told me that the route would be a different one from the morning for the express purpose of making life easier for those of us with motion sickness. (I didn't bother to verify if this was the actual reason, but I was apparently looking like what I like to call "my best" when I crashed Somerville's SCR after-dinner drinks upon my arrival.) Despite constant threats on his life (mostly by Ock), Grame Wake managed to survive the bus ride intact. And so our intrepid heroes came back on their shields, but they nevertheless alighted from the bus at about 9:15 or so with sincere promises of revenge on their lips and probably headed over to another pub.

And so I write this journal entry with extreme sleep deprivation (even with one day having passed) and provide a Call to Arms for the 2011 Quest to Reclaim the Woolly Owl. In the words of the immortal Duke Nukem: "Come get some!"

Monday, June 15, 2009

"Trivial" is the new "MacBeth"

There was an amusing incident in tutorials last week that I forgot to mention in this space. It occurred on Wednesday, which was mostly sunny except for a quick torrential downpour for about 15 minutes in the morning and then an even more torrential downpour for maybe 20-30 minutes during one of the afternoon tutorials. It had started to rain pretty hard, and while I was explaining a problem, I mentioned that a certain part was "trivial". With exquisite timing, we immediately witnessed our first thunderclap of the day as soon as the word got out of my mouth. It was loud enough that it startled me, which I suppose helped make the whole incident even more memorable.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Old-School Forward

This is the text of an old forwarded message that Ben Williamson sent to me on 10/30/98. I was thinking about it today for the first time in a while, so I decided to dig it out. Even after all these years, it still brings a smile to my face. Here goes:

A Man walks into a supermarket and buys:
1 bar of soap
1 toothbrush
1 tube toothpaste
1 loaf of bread
1 pint of milk
1 single serving cereal
1 single serving frozen dinner

The girl at the checkout looks at him and says "Single are you?"

The man replies very sarcastically "How did you guess?"

She replies "because you're fucking ugly"

They ran, they ran so far away

In one of last week's baseball games, the Cleveland Indians got a 4-3 walk-off win against the Kansas City Royals with the assistance of a flock of Seagulls. Thankfully, some of the articles include the obvious joke. Where is Dave Winfield when you need him? (Actually, I would love to have watched a Baseball Tonight episode discussing this incident when Dave Winfield is one of the hosts just to hear the inevitable snarky comments. If that doesn't ring a bell, take a look at item #6 on this list.)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Shiny New Principal!

Starting on September 1, 2010, Somerville will have a shiny new Principal. (Note that the current one is quite good, but she is set to retire at that time.) The Somerville Fellows elected her (and she accepted the position) a little while ago, but the official public announcement was today. Hence, I can finally write this blog entry. The election process is best described as "interesting".

(In the press release to which I linked above, a number of Somerville researchers were (correctly) described as "world class". Here's to hoping that I'll accomplish enough to be worth mentioning in that light the next time we elect a new Principal.)

(Approximate) Quote of the Day: Overheard in the Clarendon Building

This afternoon, I was in the reception hall for the big lecture theatre in the Clarendon Building just before Michael Berry's talk. One physics professor asked another if he was done with grading exams, and here was his approximate response: "I finished a few days ago. Since then, I've been working on bloody papers and acting smug."

Comment: Here, here!

Making Friends in Oxford

I've been going through another one of my thoughtful phases recently, and I've been pondering the fact that the places in which I have been able to most easily make close friends are first Caltech and now Oxford. I have made a few pretty good friends here, and there is one local with whom I'm especially close who I would put up there with just about anybody I've ever met and as far as I'm concerned is a friend for life. It's also particularly nice for my mental state when I am slaving at work and I get an unexpected knock on my door. The gentle nudging to try to convince me to eat and sleep a little more properly are also much appreciated, and I occasionally even follow that advice. (Our first interaction was kind of interesting, so I certainly wouldn't have predicted this at the time we first met in fall 07. In retrospect, I probably should have, but it's easy to say that.) I know I've been here for about a year and a half now, but Caltech is the only other place where I've met such people on this kind of time scale. (And it's not like I haven't made close friends in other places---my best friend is someone with whom I've been friends for 29 years, and I obviously met him in a different place.)

So then part of the question becomes 'why' have these two places been so good to me in this respect. Obviously, friendships are constrained by opportunity, and I think that's the main key. It probably is true that Caltech and Oxford have more (as a ratio of total people) of the types I like, but it's not like those people don't exist at other places (and I have clearly met several of them in the past). Most of my close friends from Caltech were in Lloyd House and similarly most of my better friends from Oxford are people I know via Somerville. I don't know anybody in the Mathematical Institute that well (it's more of a colleague thing there, though I certainly like my colleagues very much), and I only know one person from the complex systems group at any reasonable level.

The number of good friends I've made here is admittedly smaller than after the same amount of time at Caltech, but I believe that the difference is that back then we were basically all thrown into close living quarters and that is different from my living arrangements here. But here I have excellent opportunities to meet wonderful, interesting people with whom I enjoy spending time. At Cornell and Georgia Tech, I really struggled to do that, and I would literally sometimes go multiple months between going out with other people. (At Berkeley, I just hung out with people I knew from before.) Here I am hanging out with my friends all the time (though, of course, Upper and Lower Crotch haven't been duplicated), so life is good.

I still get moody and even depressed at times, but that's who I am. But a couple of the locals are really looking out for me, so this entry is for you.

(Well, I'm not sure if I phrased my feelings eloquently, but I hope I got the point across.)

Congratulations to Caltech's Class of 2009

Today is Caltech's 115th commencement ceremony, which is honoring the class of 2009. Several of my former research students are among those who are graduating, and Nobel Laureate Stephen Chu is the speaker (that's a pretty good choice, actually). Congratulations!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Unified Quantum Theory of the Sexual Interaction

Justin e-mailed me a recent blog post (on a blog called "In the Dark") that posits A Unified Quantum Theory of the Sexual Interaction.

Reaction: Um, shouldn't my article on Quantum Cuteness have been cited? :) I posted that on my website over 5 years ago. Granted, my work was purely theoretical.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dodgers earn 10000th franchise victory

Last night, the Dodgers won the 10000th game in franchise history. Nice!

(Tip of the cap to Rob Neyer.)

Tales from the arXiv: Sexed Coagulation edition

I'll just post the title and abstract. I don't think any additional comments are necessary.

Date: Tue, 9 Jun 2009 16:18:58 GMT (28kb)

Title: A model for sexed coagulation
Authors: Raoul Normand
Categories: math-ph math.MP math.PR
Comments: 33 pages
MSC-class: 34A34; 60K35
We consider in this work a model for aggregation, where the coalescing
particles initially have a certain number of potential links (called arms)
which are used to perform coagulations. This model is sexed, is the sense that
there are male and female arms: two particles may coagulate only if one has an
available male arm, and the other has an available female arm. After a
coagulation, the used arms are no longer available. We are interested in the
concentrations of the different types of particles, which are governed by a
modification of Smoluchowski's coagulation equation -- that is, an infinite
system of nonlinear differential equations. Using generating functions and
solving a nonlinear PDE, we show that, up to some critical time, there is a
unique solution to this equation. The Lagrange Inversion Formula allows in some
cases to obtain explicit solutions, and to relate our model to two recent
models for limited aggregation. We also show that, whenever the critical time
is infinite, the concentrations converge to a state where all arms have
disappeared, and the distribution of the masses is related to the law of the
size of some two-type Galton-Watson tree. Finally, we consider a microscopic
model for coagulation: we construct a sequence of Marcus-Luschnikov processes,
and show that it converges, before the critical time, to the solution of our
modified Smoluchowski's equation.
\\ ( http://arxiv.org/abs/0906.1773 , 28kb)

Monday, June 08, 2009

Best. Scouting Report. Ever.

Here is an accurate scouting report of Mariner shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt that only uses sentences from dictionary.com. I approve!

(Tip of the cap to Rob Neyer.)

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Quote of the Day: Ponti's Dinner Edition

Tonight we had our Ponti's dinner in Somerville, which this year is doubling up as part of our campaign (launched this weekend) to get lots of money from our alums and other sponsors.

The pre-dinner speech was given by Chris Patten (Baron Patten of Barnes). He announced in this speech that he was going to "do the West Coast" of the United States. Clearly, he has no clue whatsoever about how that would be interpreted back home---in particular when "do" is applied to the West Coast . (Let's just say that he is evidently going to have a very exhaustive trip---especially if he plans to visit Hollywood.) Wow.

In another bit of "awesomemess" (and in this case I definitely mean this term in a derogatory fashion), one of the fans at Dodger Stadium today (I turned on the game when I got back to my apartment) was wearing a t-shirt that had the terms "the man" and below that "the legend". Above "the man" was an arrow pointing up. Below "the legend" was an arrow pointing down. I think the word of the day for this one is probably "overcompensation". Or perhaps just "awesome".

Comic Strip of the Day

This recent xkcd comic strip holds way too much meaning for me.

(Tip of the cap to Ravi Montenegro.)

Happy 25th Birthday, Tetris!

Today is the 25th anniversary of the invention of Tetris, and Google is celebrating it in a simply awesome fashion! I love that game.

Friday, June 05, 2009

I think the number they really mean is 5000

The FAIL blog has a great picture of an epic fire alarm failure.

(Tip of the hat to Mariano Beguerisse-Diaz.)

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Tales from the arXiv: Prepare to Fight!

Here is a new abstract that I just saw on the arXiv:

Date: Tue, 2 Jun 2009 20:54:33 GMT (8kb)

Title: The Ultimate Solution to the Quantum Battle of the Sexes game
Authors: Piotr Fr\c{a}ckiewicz
Categories: quant-ph
Comments: 8 pages
We present the unique solution to the Quantum Battle of the Sexes game. We
show the best result which can be reached when the game is played according to
Marinatto and Weber's scheme. The result which we put forward does not
surrender the criticism of previous works on the same topic.
\\ ( http://arxiv.org/abs/0906.0599 , 8kb)

I'm not sure if this one requires any commentary.

Steve Strogatz on Networks and the Phillips Machine

I had never heard of the Phillips Machine, but there is a refurbished one at Cambridge that "works". As Steve Strogatz explains in his latest guest column in the New York Times, it's basically a miniature hydraulic caricature of the economy. The article then relates this briefly to some modern work in networks and complex systems, more generally bringing up the point that one of the really exciting and challenging things of these subjects is the attempt to move beyond reductionism.

From the archives (or, how I once almost made it into Time Magazine)

When I was in grad school, I saw an article in Time Magazine about mathematics and mathematicians suddenly becoming sexy, so I decided to send a letter to the editor. My letter almost got printed.

It's worth noting that I wrote this letter before I started studying granular chains, for which one of the most important elements is the stiffness of one's balls. (Acoustic waves travel faster in stiffer materials.) Also, Techers will recognize a bit of this from back in the day...