Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's resolution (as determined by iTunes): Take 3

Just like last year and the year before that.

As usual, here is the key for how to read this resolution/fortune. Now let's see what the iTunes Oracle has to say for 2008:

1. The Covering: Wolfsheim, Blind (radio edit)
2. The Crossing: Billy Joel, Keeping the Faith
3. The Crown: EMF, Lies
4. The Root: Level 42, Forever Now
5. The Past: Squeeze, Loving You Tonight
6. The Future: R.E.M., Daysleeper
7. The Questioner: Tom Lehrer, Silent E
8. The House: George Carlin, Incomplete List of Impolite Words
9. The Inside: Celine Dion, (If There Was) Any Other Way
10. The Outcome: Novuelle Vague, Waves (cover of Blancmange)

Bonus song: Alison Moyet, Love Resurrection

Now let's try to figure what all this actually means. The Covering refers to some important stuff surrounding the situation, like the fact that I am often blind to social cues. The Crossing refers to current obstacles, perhaps a need to not give up on certain things. The Crown refers to the best that can be achieved with the current situation --- in this case, lies, which isn't exactly a very positive outcome. (To this song's credit, however, this is EMF's other, much-better big hit, because they are actually not the one-hit-wonder that most people believe them to be.) I don't understand The Root at all. Any ideas? The Past is also confusing --- what the fuck is it with these love songs? They're always so damned hard to interpret! The Future, however, clearly refers to the increasingly nocturnal lifestyle that I am about to possess. The Questioner quite clearly refers to American versus British spelling, which is starting to play quite a substantial role in my grant proposals. This is pretty eerie, isn't it? I'm somewhat disturbed that The House is represented by a George Carlin rant. I guess that means that other people view this whole spelling conundrum as a bunch of crap? On The Inside, however, I am apparently evoking Celine Dion. (In fact, this is one of her really good songs, as opposed to her slower-paced lousy ones.) Somehow, I want some other way to go about doing things other than whatever is I have planned. The Outcome of 'Waves' simply means that I'm going to say 'fuck it' and just continue doing research on nonlinear waves. What else could it possibly mean? Also, the bonus song refers to zombies (or perhaps more generally to my future as a necromancer) because I apparently love resurrection. All the alternate interpretations of the bonus song are even more disturbing, so let's just stick with the current one.

(Incidentally, both artists in my upcoming concert series are present: I'll be seeing Alison Moyet on February 10th and Nouvelle Vague on February 23rd.)

OK, that's about it for this installment of the New Year's iTunes Oracle. I'm going to continue revising a research paper now---it concerns nonlinear wave propagation.

Hip Nintendo clothing

In Electronic Gaming Monthly, I read about a website that offers Nintendo-themed shirts and jackets with some street cred. Some of the stuff is cool, but the clothing is a bit pricey. Instead, I bought three Mario-esque mushroom lamps for myself from a different website that EGM also mentioned. I need to continue personalizing my apartment a bit more, and I think this will be a great way to do it. Maybe their default location should be next to my stuffed Chinese dragon?

Sunday, December 30, 2007

2007: The Year in Movies

Now it's time to discuss the movies of 2007. My move to England confused matters a bit because of the different release dates. Among other things, some of the movies that came out this year in the States will be coming out next year in the UK. I'll discuss those as part of my 2008 discussion.

Before I get into this year's films, here is what I wrote in 2006.

Let's look at the movies from best to worst:

Fantastic: Stardust, Juno, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, The Namesake

Extremely good but not quite awesome: 300, Ratatoullie (just a notch below fantastic, though I considered putting it there), Transformers (though I almost put it at fantastic because of all the nostalgia bonuses it got), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Darjeeling Limited

Very good: TMNT, The Simpsons Movie, King of California, Knocked Up (bordering on great), The Golden Compass, Control

Good: Grindhouse, Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End, Rush Hour 3

Pretty good: Ghost Rider, Shrek the Third, Ocean's 13, You Kill Me, Balls of Fury (though I should really put it in a separate "fun" category)

Fair: Wild Hogs (a generous fair), Blades of Glory, Superbad (a generous fair), Death at a Funeral (I was hoping for so much more from this one)

Bad: Well, I am not listing any of the new films that I saw this year as truly bad, a couple of the fair ones could easily be listed here.

Overall, I think the film selection from 2007 wasn't quite as good as in 2006, though there were definitely a number of standouts. (I don't remember how I listed films last year, but my mind is definitely telling me that 2006 was a bit weaker overall than 2007, so I'm going to go with that.)

Now let's give some awards for this year's films:

Best film: The King of Kong

Best film that was not a documentary: Stardust

Biggest dick portrayed on film: Billy Mitchell, who played himself in The King of Kong

Wittiest dialogue: Juno

Most appropriate song lyrics from soundtrack: Juno

Best animated film: Ratatouille

Biggest disappointment: Death at a Funeral

Most nostalgic moment: Listening to Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime in The Tranformers (which wins for most nostalgic film)

Best movie moment: When I first hear Optimus Prime narrating the story at the beginning of The Transformers (I hadn't realized he'd be doing Optimus's voice in the film)

Most familiar quote: "You failed me yet again, Starscream!" (from The Transformers)

Best quote: "I detest American television!" (from The Namesake)

Best cameo: Bill Murray, in The Darjeeling Limited

Film whose name I can't remember: The one I saw with Lemming that had the 'chubby chaser' but in it. What was this called? Anyway, I rate this film somewhere between pretty good and fair.

I'm not sure if I have any other awards to hand out for this year's films. There were several (like Beowulf) that I wanted to see but didn't get around to seeing.

A special nod in this blog entry goes to Buffy and Angel. I have watched the first 5 seasons of the former (and hope to watch some of season 6 before I head back to England), and I am three episodes into season 3 of the latter. Those are the only two tv shows I've been watching this year (aside from baseball games, Baseball Tonight, and podcasts of Bill Maher's tv program), and I didn't want to do a separate year-in-review post for them. Let me end, however, by saying that the hand that is typing this message is evil. It can't help itself---it's evil.

P.S. Go see Juno!!!!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Not just a city in Alaska anymore

It's a good thing I haven't yet written up my summary of the movies I've seen this year, because tonight I saw Juno, which is (a) fantastic and (b) definitely one of the best movies of the year. I especially recommend this film to Lemming, who was formerly my usual "date" (well, only because neither of us could do better) for such indie fare. We've both moved on since then. :)

This film is a so-called "coming of age story" involving awkward teenagers, and like Rushmore and Thumbsucker (and unlike Napoleon Dynamite, which was ok but extremely overrated), this one is spot on. In fact, I definitely like this movie better than Thumbsucker overall and I might even like it as much as Rushmore (we'll see what I think after more time passes), which is very high praise indeed. The dialogue and acting are both fantastic, and the music complements the film extremely well (and has some very amusing lyrics --- including the songs that play during the credits, so I suggest you stay to listen to them).

The main player in the film ("Juno") previously starred as Kitty Pryde in the X-Men films, and the some of the other people are also very familiar: Jason Bateman from Arrested Development (and, back in the day, Silver Spoons), one of the kids from Arrested Development (and Superbad), and the guy who starred as Julian Jamieson in the Spiderman films (he played the father). There were a huge number of priceless lines in this film, which resonates with me a great deal. (I have a very soft spot for witticisms and snarkiness.) It certainly helps that the main character is someone who is going through something very serious but nevertheless maintains a sense of humor and is always making lots of snarky, tactless comments. I approve!

Here is one of my favorite lines:

Vanessa Loring: Your parents are probably wondering where you are.

Juno MacGuff: Nah... I mean, I'm already pregnant, so what other kind of shenanigans could I get into?

Here's another one:

Juno MacGuff: You should've gone to China, you know, 'cause I hear they give away babies like free iPods. You know, they pretty much just put them in those t-shirt guns and shoot them out at sporting events.

As I mentioned above, this is clearly one of the best films this year. Go see it!

"Quantization of a free particle interacting linearly with a harmonic oscillator"

As just promised, the full-length article that I wrote with my former SURF student Tom Mainiero just came out. The proofing stage took a little longer than usual; in fact, the journal was apparently waiting on our final approval after several proof iterations (with a couple of mess-ups on our part and a rather large number of mess-ups on their part --- including forgetting to capitalize the title of the article, changing our grammatically-correct corrections to grammatically incorrect statements [which I found irksome], and a comedy of errors in the display style for one of the equations) in order to finish posting the final articles in their December 2007 issue. I definitely managed to annoy the publishers a bit for this particular article (they gave this away with a couple of statements in the notes they conveyed to us along with the second set of page proofs), but if they're not going to implement one of my corrections (or if they adjust how they do so), I expect an explanation of why or else I'm just going to ask them to correct it again when I get the subsequent round of page proofs. As anybody who knows me should know, I am extremely anal about things like this; just look at how I mark up the pages of any paper drafts that my students have submitted to me! Of course, the publishers and typesetters were very much attempting to get things right -- they were just a little sloppier than I would have liked on this particular occasion.

The article is titled, "Quantization of a free particle interacting linearly with a harmonic oscillator."

The abstract reads as follows:

We investigate the quantization of a free particle coupled linearly to a harmonic oscillator. This system, whose classical counterpart has clearly separated regular and chaotic regions, provides an ideal framework for studying the quantization of mixed systems. We identify key signatures of the classically chaotic and regular portions in the quantum system by constructing Husimi distributions and investigating avoided level crossings of eigenvalues as functions of the strength and range of the interaction between the system’s two components. We show, in particular, that the Husimi structure becomes mixed and delocalized as the classical dynamics becomes more chaotic.

I think the best thing to add to convey which this is interesting, let me also reproduce the bold introductory paragraph from the article:

Typical classical Hamiltonians systems are neither fully integrable nor fully chaotic, but instead possess mixed dynamics, with islands of stability situated in a chaotic sea. In this paper, we investigate the quantization of a recently-studied system with mixed dynamics [1]. This example consists of a free particle that moves around a ring that is divided into two regions. At the boundaries between these regions, the particle is kicked impulsively by a harmonic oscillator (in a manner that conserves the system’s total energy), but the particle and oscillator otherwise evolve freely. Although the system is not generic, its separation into regular and chaotic components also allows more precise investigations (both classically and quantum-mechanically) than is typically possible, making this an ideal example to achieve a better understanding of the quantization of mixed systems. By examining avoided level crossings and Husimi distributions in the quantum system, we investigate the quantum signatures of mixed dynamics, demonstrating that the Husimi structures of nearby states become mixed and delocalized as chaos becomes a more prominent feature in the classical phase space.

Horoscope of the Day

I found the following horoscope in the December 2007 issue of Electronics Gaming Monthly (which I just finished reading... my magazines got sent to Lemming's place, so I've been catching up on them a bit during my visit):

"Cancer (June 21-July 22): Though you long for love, your princess will forever be in another castle. So you might as well hump the hell out of the next toadstool you find."

I am very amused!

"Avoided Level Crossings in the Quantization of a Mixed Regular-Chaotic System"

In March 2007, my student Tom Mainiero and I submitted a "videos/mainieroporter_0011.wmv">video entry for the Nonlinear Science Gallery on display at the APS March Meeting. (Don't forget to crank up the volume to full blast before you click on the link to the video.)

Today, the one-page article based on this video was posted by Chaos. (The research article based on the same project will be appearing in Chaos in the very near future --- possibly within a few days.)

The one-page article basically functions as an extended abstract, so I won't comment on the project itself here. I'll discuss it a bit more when I post a blog entry about the research article.

More press coverage for Caltech pranks

Here is a recent article from the Pasadena Star-News about pranking at Caltech in general and the Rose Bowl pranks in particular. My Legends coauthor (Autumn Looijen '99) and I were interviewed for this article. (Whenever somebody contacts Caltech's PR department about things related to pranks, they are basically passed along to us at this point.) I love my comment in the article's ending, as well as how the article's author stated how I "declined to state" the identity of an upcoming movie that has a 'DEI' in it. :)

In looking up this article (which I had neglected to do because of how busy I was), I also noticed that Elise Kleeman '03 is apparently a staff writer for the Pasadena Star-News. I guess she's been very successful getting into journalism.

Also, for people reading this who know of events in my personal life, remember that my blog policy (just like my general perspective) is that the show must go on and the tone of my blog entries is not necessarily going to be affected by that. Aside from the present ambiguous comment, I'm just making an active decision to leave that stuff off of this venue. (Also, that should not be interpreted as callousness. Blogging is a form of escapism, and sometimes I need escapism more than at other times.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

2007: The Year in Literature (and other reading)

We're almost at the end of the year, so it's time to start writing up my end-of-year summaries.

I'll start with literature and other readings. Here is what I wrote in 2006.

Just like last year, I am defining "literature" rather broadly, as I really just mean whatever I read this year.

The book I am currently reading is the final book in the Taladas Trilogy, which is the first set of Dragonlance novels covering events on Krynn's other continent (that is, on Taladas rather than on Ansalon). The first book in the series was ho-hum, but I liked the second one a lot, so I immediately moved on to the third one.

In the Forgotten Realms world, I have read the first book in a new series that follows Halistra Melarn from a recent 6-book story on "The War of the Spider Queen." I also read the first book in a series that follows an alu-fiend from that same series. These were two of the interesting surviving characters from those books, so I am pleased to read about more of their adventures. I also read the second book in the Dragonlance "Lost Chronicles" series, which allowed me to read about old friends again. The two main foci this time were Kitiara and Laurana.

I think I also read another book or two from my old queue of D & D novels (and perhaps one or two that spent a much shorter period of time on my shelf), but they aren't coming to mind at the moment.

I also finally read Flatland and Neuromancer, which I intended to read years ago. I read Oath of Fealty as well because part of it was inspired by life at Tech. I read some more short stories by Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison. In fact, I finally finished my Ellison collection, so I ought to buy a new one at some point.

I think I read other literary things, but they're not coming to mind at the moment. I'll add them to this entry later if I can think of them.

I read my usual websites: friends' blogs,'s baseball page,, pages from various academic societies, and so on. I also made it a point to read The California Tech online after I moved to Oxford.

I also read my usual magazines: Electronic Gaming Monthly, various Caltech publications, and so on.

And of course I read lots of technical scientific material --- I always do.

Once I am done with the third book in the Taladas trilogy, I'll move on either to the new Drizzt book or to Amber and Blood, if the latter is out by the time I am ready for it. (Amber & Blood got delayed from last summer until February, and I've been anticipating that one for a while because it is the conclusion to the current trilogy containing the main Dragonlance storyline.)

I think that's about it. I'll post some other year-end reviews later.

Conference registration imitates Spaceballs

Today, I've spent a bit of time catching up on some administrative stuff from both work and life (dealing with some Somerville stuff, changing my home address for my banks, etc.) in addition to goofing off and helping (Mike)^2 clean up a bit so that he, Lanth, Zifnab, and I can have a holiday dinner at his place. (For the last couple of days, I haven't done much serious work.) Among the things I am doing is registering for a conference. Part of the registration instructions read as follows:

"6. When the "submit" button is hit, one is prompted to upload a
file containing the abstract. Please limit individual talk abstracts to
100 words of plain text.

8. The deadline is *** January 18 ***.

Any problems, please do email me directly.
Kind regards
Eddie Wilson"

Naturally, I sent Eddie an e-mail which only contained the text, "Whatever happened to 7?"

I've been waiting so long to use that line in real life in a manner that isn't contrived! Dude!

Quote of the Day (education edition)

Here's a vignette that I recently read in an issue of ESPN: The Magazine:

D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Burton Rocks are penning a kids book about a young D'Brick's learning math using football stats. Why the co-writer? "I'm more of a calculator guy," the Jets LT says.

Wow. (In the meantime, maybe I should co-write a book on how I learned how to make Aspirin in my garage because the fact that I have occasionally taken Aspirin as medication makes me qualified to do this?)

"Community structure in Congressional cosponsorship networks"

Another of my papers on communities in Congressional networks just came out in Physica A. This one arose out of a SURF project I sponsored in 2006, and the student in question (Yan Zhang) is the first author of the paper. The next two authors, A. J. Friend and Mandi Traud, are also undergrads. Then we have all the non-students: Me, political scientist James Fowler (best known for a recent well-publicized paper on the spread of obesity through a social network), and applied mathematician Peter Mucha.

The abstract for the paper reads as follows:

We study the United States Congress by constructing networks between Members of Congress based on the legislation that
they cosponsor. Using the concept of modularity, we identify the community structure of Congressmen, who are connected via
sponsorship/cosponsorship of the same legislation. This analysis yields an explicit and conceptually clear measure of political
polarization, demonstrating a sharp increase in partisan polarization which preceded and then culminated in the 104th Congress
(1995–1996), when Republicans took control of both chambers of Congress. Although polarization has since waned in the U.S.
Senate, it remains at historically high levels in the House of Representatives.

Ye Pei's SURF project from 2007 followed up on this work and looked at political realignments using voting networks. Essentially, we have found that a particular graph-theoretic concept called "modularity" (which looks at the connections inside a group of nodes in a subset of a graph versus connections between nodes in different subsets) can be used to give a nice measure of political partisanship. Realignments occur when the best splitting gives a much higher modularity than the splits one obtains by dividing the graph purely by party identification. We are going to start writing up a research paper on this stuff pretty soon, but in the meantime, you can take a look at Ye's SURF report.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Festivus!

Yesterday was Festivus (a holiday for the rest of us). I forgot to blog about it on the correct day, and I vaguely remember being late about wishing people a 'Happy Festivus' last. Well, it turns out that I was completely delinquent last year and a few days late in 2005. To my credit, however, I wasn't as late this year, although that really just says that I found something sooner that reminded me of it. I had dinner with my family last night, but it wasn't technically to celebrate Festivus. Moreover, there were no Feats of Strength and few Airings of Grievances at dinner, so we certainly didn't celebrate it in any proper manner.

Unlike the old entry to which I linked, I don't plan on ranting here.

I'll post a few more entries in the next few days (such as some end-of-year media reviews), so stay tuned.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Joint Math Meetings wiki

The conference I am attending in a couple of weeks (the Joint Math Meetings) has an official wiki this year. I think this is an absolutely awesome idea. I approve!

There is a grad student who is going to be posting blogs from the conference at that wiki, though I hereby guarantee that my blog entries about the conference will be much snarkier than hers. You can count on it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Curt Schilling on Clemens and Canseco

Rob Neyer's blog today had an interesting entry with some excerpts and discussion of a blog entry by baseball player Curt Schilling (among the more thoughtful players in the Major Leagues).

His dog ate his World Series ball

Apparently, Jon Papelbon's dog has eaten part of the ball that he used to record the final out in the 2007 World Series. First they eat homework assignments and now this...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Back to the Old Grind

As people reading my blog know, I've been hanging out with my old friends in Pasadena since Monday night. It's very easy to slip into one's previous life, especially when one was living centrally in it only 2.5 months ago. I basically haven't been gone long enough to no longer be used to the day-to-day things. (Well, they would retain familiarity no matter how long I've been gone, but since I've barely been gone, it is especially familiar.) I only told a few of my friends that I'm around, and I need to bug some others to see if they're in the area at all for the next couple of weeks.

Having dinner with friends I haven't seen for a couple of months is obviously awesome, and I also appreciate going out to lunch and dinner at some of the restaurants I've missed --- particularly when it comes to types of food that aren't readily available (at least, for which high-quality versions aren't readily available) at Oxford. One example of this is chicken and waffles. Hmmm... it occurs to me that taking Oxford students and faculty dressed in sub-fusc to Roscoe's would be extremely amusing. It would be kind of like senior-frosh breakfast, except with better food. We're going to have to adapt this tradition and make it one of Somerville's own. I'll just have to think of an appropriate place in Oxford to use for this purpose.

A pleasant, unexpected surprise is that Cat is also in town for a few days, which means that the old lunch gang is basically here. Our conversations even picked up right where they last left off! I approve!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Spock: The Website

Through the SOCNET mailing list, I found out about an article in Wired about a new people-search website called Spock, which debuted last week. I find this sight to be potentially worrisome, though we'll see how things go. By the way, check out the name of the CEO in the article! It should be familiar to some of you. I'm guessing it's the same person we know from Tech, and that makes me really want to hear the unrated version of the comments he gave to Wired...

"Word" of the day

Today's word is "formulism," which appears to be a combination of "formulas" and "formalism" that appears inadvertently on page 1 of this paper. Although the authors wrote this accidently, I actually quite like this combination -- though not as much as I like "Eurocracy."

Congratulations to Dr. Travis Hime!

Mr. Travis Hime has officially become Dr. Travis Hime, as one can see by these signatures.

In fact, Lemming and I had very fortuitous timing in calling to congratulate him this morning. We reached him while he was in an office waiting for an official piece of paper signifying the end of his life as a graduate student. (Hence, the transition from Mr. to Dr., which appears to have been continuous, occurred during our congratulatory phone call.)

So, what are you going to do now? (Have you decided which company you're working for?)

Also, I recently asked Travis about a paper on rf-SQUIDs that looks at phenomena of interesting to me, and it indeed does look like I will be attempting to build on that paper (one of my main collaborators is also really interested in building on that paper, so we are now discussing possible projects). So I'm not going to allow Travis to forget too much about SQUIDs, as I'll certainly be needing to ask him for insights.

Anyway, congrats!

How important is somebody?

Here is an interesting-looking article that was just posted on the arxiv. I don't plan on reading it in detail immediately, but its abstract is certainly intriguing. Here's the abstract:

Co-occurrence Network of Reuters News

Arzucan Ozgur, Burak Cetin, Haluk Bingol

Networks describe various complex natural systems including social systems. We investigate the social network of co-occurrence in Reuters-21578 corpus, which consists of news articles that appeared in the Reuters newswire in 1987. People are represented as vertices and two persons are connected if they co-occur in the same article. The network has small-world features with power-law degree distribution. The network is disconnected and the component size distribution has power law characteristics. Community detection on a degree-reduced network provides meaningful communities. An edge-reduced network, which contains only the strong ties has a star topology.
"Importance" of persons are investigated. The network is the situation in 1987. After 20 years, a better judgment on the importance of the people can be done. A number of ranking algorithms, including Citation count, PageRank, are used to assign ranks to vertices. The ranks given by the algorithms are compared against how well a person is represented in Wikipedia. We find up to medium level Spearman's rank correlations. A noteworthy finding is that PageRank consistently performed worse than the other algorithms. We analyze this further and find reasons.

The life expectancy of singers

I saw this one in an e-mail newsletter from the Annals of Improbable Research, and I suspect there may be a future Ig Nobel for this one...

"Androgens Shorten the Longevity of Women: Sopranos Last Longer,"
E. Nieschlag, U. Kramer, S. Nieschlag, Experimental and Clinical
Endocrinology and Diabetes, vol. 111, no. 4, August 2003, pp.

(Thanks to Ig Nobel Prize winner Richard Wassersug for bringing
this to our attention.) The authors, who are at Institute of
Reproductive Medicine of the Westphalian Wilhelms-University,
Munster, Germany, report that:

"Earlier we found that longevity of castrati was identical to
that of intact singers.... We have now continued our research
into the life expectancy of singers... resulting in the finding
that sopranos, being more oestrogenised, live significantly
longer than altos who are more androgenised, while basses, more
androgenised, show a tendency towards a longer life than tenors,
who are less androgenised."

Right. (Let's see what my opera singer friend has to say about this one.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Gatwick Airport

I am writing this post from Lemming's house back in good old Pasadena.

First, I need to say that I am "awesome". Some of you have seen me accidently wear shirts backwards before. This was especially memorable with my xml shirt. In that case, one way to tell the shirt was on backwards was to see the incorrect syntax. Today, however, I soared to new heights. I happen to be wearing a Somerville shirt that clearly identifies me as being affiliated with both Somerville and Oxford. Of course, I didn't put it on backwards; instead, I accidently put it on inside-out! I didn't realize it until I was in line to check in my luggage. (The check-in at that stage was craptacular. The line wasn't that long, but that didn't stop things from being ridiculously slow. I was at London Gatwick airport 2.5 hours before my flight, and it turns out that I needed the entire time. One advantage of the slow line, however, was that I had plenty of time to ponder things -- like the fact that I had been wearing my shirt incorrectly for the past several hours.) I don't remember ever having done that before, and I'm a bit surprised that it took me so long to notice. When I finally reached the security person before checking in my luggage, she altered the normal line of questioning and started out with, "Are you tired?" (I'm guessing she asked because of the shirt, although my eyes and body language probably also gave it away.)

It turns out that in the UK, only one carry-on is allowed. This was somewhat annoying, as I had prepared to be able to bring the two small items I had always been allowed to carry on everywhere. Apparently, for about a year, it's been this way when going outbound in the UK. It hadn't been that way the last time I flew out of the UK, so I didn't realize this had changed. I obviously would have prepared differently, but as a short-term solution, I basically stuffed necessary things like my iPod, DS, and wallet into my computer bag (which has taken a lot of abuse during it's 9+ years in my possession). The security person even asked me how long I've owned each of my bags. Why does that matter? (I'm surprised they still have the whole bit about 'Did anyone else give you anything to put on?' here. Maybe terrorists are supremely honest folks? Or perhaps they always pack their bombs and knives on their own?)

One couple in the check-in line had to open and "disarm" all of their Christmas crackers, which are a traditional part of Christmas in the UK. They were going to bring them to other people after their flight, and they were unsurprisingly displeased about this.

Once I had checked in my luggage, the rest of security was thankfully trivial. I guess each airport has a different rate-limiting step? I'm used to the check-in being faster (and typically much faster) for lines of comparable size and the x-ray part of things being slower.

By the way, this was my first experience with London Gatwick airport. Among the UK airports, I had only sampled London Heathrow in the past.

On the flight from Dallas to Burbank, one passenger almost managed to get herself thrown off. She settled for delaying the flight by 10 minutes with her shenanigans. Otherwise, the trip was basically uneventful, which is good. (At the Dallas airport, I did walk past the area where we camped out many moons ago.)

What happens in Pasadena stays in Pasadena

In ten minutes, I'll be hauling myself over to Gloucester Green to catch a coach to Gatwick to fly to LA. My layover is at Dallas, and some of you know what happened the last time I had a layover there. Hopefully, there will be no need for any liveblogging from the Dallas Airport. From there, I fly to Burbank airport to be picked up by Lemming (and company?) and to have a late dinner.

My work will be a mix of work and pleasure. Besides hanging out with friends (and watching Buffy, Angel), I am visiting a collaborator at Caltech and (early in the new year) going to a mathematics conference in San Diego. I have two papers with that collaborator that I hope to be able to submit while I'm in town and a third one that shouldn't be too far away.

California here I come...

Steroid network in baseball

Here is a link to a New York Times article which shows a graphical depiction of the steroid network in baseball. When I was reading the list of names in the Mitchell Report and the brief description of each one (and who introduced whom to the dealers), I was already thinking in this direction.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

Two weeks ago, I saw The Darjeeling Limited, which I recommend highly. The main stars were excellent (particular Jason Schwartzman, who also helped write the script) and the cameos by Bill Murray and Anjelica Huston were absolutely fantastic. One thing to notice with this film is that several of Wes Anderson's favorite actors were in it, though of course he is far from the only person who does that.

I'm not sure of a good way to describe the film concisely (and I don't want to write a long entry about this, because I want to go play Zelda: Twilight Princess --- I'll write a blog entry in the near future that provides an update on my progress in that game), so let me end by urging you to go and see the film if you haven't already.

The Golden Compass

I saw The Golden Compass today and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It's not as good as Stardust (of course, most movies aren't) but it's really good and I'm very much looking forward to the sequel. It is based on a book by Philip Pullman, a graduate of Oxford (he was in Exeter College). One of my colleagues recommended to me a couple of week's ago that I read Pullman's stuff. I had not realized (a) that The Golden Compass (called by a different name in the UK) was his, although I remember seeing the trailer and being extremely interested in seeing the film, and (b) that he was an Oxonian.

As discussed on the wikipedia page, there are some familiar locales in the film (Radcliffe Hall, and The Queen's College/Queen's Lane) --- though I actually thought the college in the film was one I had walked through when I visited Cambridge. Oops. I'm waiting for Somerville to appear on film, and maybe that will happen when we see biopics on Margaret Thatcher or Indira Ghandi.

Anyway, I highly recommend this film. Go see it! (Before the film, I saw a trailer for Be Kind Rewind, a new film by Gondry that I really want to see. It doesn't excite me as much as the trailer for The Science of Sleep did, but it still looks really awesome (and how can I not be partial to a trailer that includes Ray Parker, Jr.'s Ghostbusters Theme?).

Update: I completely forgot to mention that this movie contains an evil blonde woman named Mrs. Coulter.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Plays, Musicals, and Concerts for the new year

I found various early 2008 schedules for plays, musicals, and concerts in Oxford. Here is my slate of events thus far:

1/26/08: The Rivals

2/2/08: Alice - Through the Looking Glass

2/9/08: A Trip to Scarborough (by Sheridan, just like The Rivals --- this is apparently a modernized version that has iPods in it)

2/10/08: Alison Moyet

2/22/08: Nouvelle Vague

5/3/08: Fiddler on the Roof

5/24/08: The Pirates of Penzance

5/31/08: Hello, Dolly!

I'm hoping to see Van Morrison in March, but I haven't bought tickets yet because I want to keep that open in case I am coming back to the US at that time for Jing's wedding. (Once I find out when her wedding will be, I'll be able to figure out if I can make the Van Morrison concert.)

There weren't that many musicals, plays, or concerts I wanted to see this fall (and the only one I was actually able to make was Carmen), but thankfully there is a lot more stuff that I want to see in the spring. Time to immerse myself in culture! Additionally, the only one with a walk of more than 10 minutes from my home is the Nouvelle Vague concert! Having all this stuff so close to me is incredibly awesome!


Do you know what I find really shocking? In fact, I'm completely outraged!

It's this recent firestorm that has hit baseball with the unsettling, horrifying, completely shocking news that Josias Manzanillo used steroids!

(People who follow baseball will certainly get the sarcasm above, and I imagine that the rest of you will get it from the context of the rest of the comment. For those in the Old World, I purposely mentioned a no-name player in the comment above. Obviously, none of this should be surprising at all at this point---especially when it comes to people like Roger Clemens and Eric Gagne whose names had surfaced repeatedly in rumors.)


Finding local bathrooms using network theory

You don't believe me?

Take a look here.

Anyway, in case you didn't believe that network navigation is an important scientific problem, I hope you do now. (Though, I must say that this web site is pretty craptacular even if you don't consider the intended application.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Plasma Pong

Here's my second equation of the day: Pong + plasma physics = Plasma Pong! That's just bloody awesome!

Oxford admissions = House roompicks (on crack) + Rotation + high stakes

Well, I think the equation in the title says it all.

Technically, there is stuff I can say, but that's going to have to be restricted to private conversations. The title is just to convey some idea of things in terms of Caltech lingo. The amount of PS12ing I've seen in the last several days definitely puts roompicks to shame (by several orders of magnitude).

Now that we're done, I can finally come up for air --- which, among other things, means looking at some postdoc applications and having some necessary meetings before I leave town and (shortly) finishing up a paper my collaborators and I meant to submit several months ago. (It is, in fact, pretty likely that I'll be submitting two papers while I am visiting Caltech.)

I played my role in bringing novel jargon to Oxford admission discussions; this includes such self-explanatory terms as "epic failure" and "upper blah". On occasion, I also found myself yearning to apply a "champ stamp". I timed my interviews using an iPod, which I am told has been traditionally employed for such purposes in Oxford interviews since at least 1512.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Debate over inclusion into baseball writers' association

There's quite a spat going on about the inclusion of internet journalists in the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA).

Before I make comments, here is one article that discusses stuff and names names. Here is an associated blog in which some of the issues are being discussed and the so-called "credentials" of many members of the BBWAA are being tabulated.

Recently, the BBWAA finally decided to allow membership (which eventually results in things like the ability to vote for membership in the Hall of Fame) to internet writers (in addition to newspaper writers). This should have happened years ago, but at least this oversight has finally been corrected --- well, sort of. Two notable nominees (Rob Neyer and Keith Law) of were the only two nominees rejected, despite their enormously high credentials and certain "luminaries" managed to get in without a problem. The "official" reason was that they don't attend enough games, despited the fact that they have written about baseball daily for something like 10 years. A fundamental problem with this so-called "criterion", however, is that most of the people who are actually in the BBWAA are not being held to anything remotely like this standard. The blog to which I linked is dissecting the list of BBWAA members ad nauseum. And guess what? Some of them write about baseball on the order of once a year or less. Basically, Neyer and Law were excluded because they're actually willing to criticize others in print. This whole thing is utter tripe. If you want an official standard, apply the fucking thing to everybody --- not just to exclude the people you don't want!

Ideally, the BBWAA will be faced with the choice of fixing this problem or becoming irrelevant. In any event, the story has really mushroomed over the past several days.

Dodgers offer the moon for Johan Santana

I saw this on Rob Neyer's blog.

According to The Onion, the Dodgers have quite literally offered the moon to the Twins in exchange for Johan Santana.

I approve!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Cambridge's applied math group: Gilbert & Sullivan style

I really ought to be looking over materials for interviewing students tomorrow (or, at the very least, doing something that is somehow more productive than following potentially-interesting links on the internet), but I found another thing I want to mention here because I think my OCIAM colleagues will find it amusing. Namely, it is about Cambridge, which I am trying to learn to pronounce with the dismissive tone that I believe is expected of me.

Anyway, the object of interest can be found on a recent blog entry at Asymptotia, which is maintained by a theoretical particle physicist at USC (he used to write for Cosmic Variance).

It was penned by Oliver Rosten and appeared here.

So, without further ado, here is Cambridge's Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan:


(To be sung to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan's `I am a Very Model of a Modern Major General'.)

When naming a department,
The shorthand's not academical,
Particularly when the work
Is mostly theoretical;
Noble and Perspicuous,
Yet positively memorable,
And at the very least,
It should be certainly pronounceable.

When said out-loud,
It should inspire feelings operatical,
Befitting of a subject
Both applied and mathematical;
Noble and Perspicuous,
Yet positively memorable,
And at the very least,
It should be certainly pronounceable.

To start it's clear that we should state
The matters operational,
Achieved in such a way that all
Agree is democratical.
The Department of Applied Mathematics,
That is surely optimal,
But looming right in front of us
Is something reprehensible!

For now we find we can't proceed
In manner purely logical,
For if we do then what we have
Is not remotely lyrical;
Above all else we must avoid:
An acronym tongue-twistable,
The only way to end is therefore,
Physics, Theoretical.

So, does anybody out there want to write an OCIAM song? Maybe to the tune of The Spam Song?

Cyber Times

Here is a website called Cyber Times that takes various snippets of pop culture and updates them (in terms of old nomenclature versus current nomenclature, which can either be real or imagined) for modern times or states their (real or imagined) modern equivalent. It is maintained by Barry Wellman of social networks fame.


"Collage" -> "Mash-Up"

"Courier" -> "Times New Roman" (I think this one is accurate; take a look at some old newspapers.)''

"Heard around the water cooler" -> "Read on a blog"

"Junk Mail" -> "Spam"

"OED" -> ""

"Pravda" -> "Fox News" (my personal favorite so far)

This website is really long and I only glanced at it for a few minutes, but if there are more Pravda/Fox News gems, then I'm going to have to take a longer look at some point. (Many of the items are dumb, but some of them are highly amusing.)

Friday, December 07, 2007

Where in Oxford is Carmen?

Hint: It's not in San Diego.

Rather, I saw Carmen at the New Theatre in Oxford. (I'll be seeing Alison Moyet in concert there on my birthday, and I also plan to catch next spring's performances of Pirates of Penzance and Fiddler on the Roof. If I can find a chance next week, I'll also see Starlight Express. I'm also still hoping the March performance of Van Morrison will be doable.)

Anyway, I assume most of you reading this have heard of Carmen. I had heard of it before, knew a couple of songs, and recognized some others (without knowing they were from this opera... this would be far from the first time that some of the familiar songs in a performance were not ones I had known were there). I wanted to see Carmen because I knew it had songs I liked. Ordinarily, I like musicals much better than operas, but I really enjoyed the performance tonight (basically because I like the music... I'm sure that's such a shock). The most notable song that I knew but didn't know was from Carmen is one I ordinarily see in baseball blooper reels. (This is the song that gets played when the people are at the stadium to see the bullfighters and the various players are essentially parading in front of the crowd. Hmmm... I really want to mention Tom Lehrer's comment about the sight of "one man facing single-handedly half a ton of angry pot roast.")

Of course, the song that runs through the entire performance (which I knew would be there, and which is now unsurprisingly stuck in my head) is The Toreador Song. I really like that song, but the version in tonight's performance unfortunately didn't include some of the alternate lyrics of my childhood:

Don't piss on the floor-a.
Use the whatchamacallit.
What do you think it's for-a?"

(Sometimes, "toilet" was used instead of "whatchamacallit", but then one needs to extend the 'Use' so it sounds like multiple syllables.)

With that lovely piece of imagery, I finish this entry.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Dodgers sign Andruw Jones to 2-year contract

In a stupid move, the Dodgers have signed free agent Andruw Jones to a 2-year contract. We have young outfielders who will now get less playing time (or get traded) who I think will do better than Jones next year. What the Hell are we doing making moves like this? It's not as bad as signing Juan Pierre, but this doesn't improve our team. At least the contract is only for two years...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Low shot of the day

This one is courtesy of ShysterBall. (I found the link on Rob Neyer's blog at

They write:

'According to the Denver Post, the Rockies have deals in place for the "key cogs" of their playoff run.

Question: do they have to sign the lightning and the bottle separately, or are they a package deal?'

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Other Side of Thesis Exams ("Vivas")

And by the "Other Side," I really mean "The Dark Side."

Anyway, today I was an Internal Examiner in a defense of a doctoral thesis. This was my first time on this side of the table, and I have apparently perfected my scowl so that the student doesn't know what I am thinking about his answer (or thinks that I am thinking the worst). Though I wasn't doing that on purpose --- it's just the way I look when I'm really concentrating on something.

I needed to dress up in full academic regalia (white tie, gown, weird scarf thingy whose name I can't remember, and hat), though thankfully I didn't need to keep my hat on during the exam. Because of my hair's current length, it wouldn't stay on anyway and somehow the one that was "fitted" for me is too large for my head (though given more time in Oxford I fully expect the size of my head to expand accordingly).

The topic of the dissertation concerned complex networks and the relevant subtopics allowed me to bring up a lot of the usual suspects -- including generating functions (my fondness for which dates all the way back to my junior year... just ask the people who took my probability course what they think about generating functions!), modularity, a dig on a certain professor in the networks business who is a bit of an easy target, and so on. (It was also relevant to bring up interesting things like contact matrices.)

The Exam took 3 hours. The student passed and now just needs to correct some stuff on his thesis and he'll be done with this business. I didn't try to make things painful, but then when the student came back in, the External Examiner and I were apparently less clear than I thought about explaining that we only wanted "Minor Corrections" so the student was apparently worried for about 10 minutes that he'd have to defend again. (Oops! Sorry about that!)

Blockbuster trade

There has been a lot more trading activity in the current baseball offseason than has been typical for several years, and a veritable blockbuster was just announced: the Marlins have apparently traded both Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to the Marlins.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Visit from Danny

My friend Danny Schwarzblatt, who I have known since I was 4 years old, visited me for a few days last week.

We spent Saturday and Sunday in London. Here are some pictures from those two days. Notice that the Caltech emblem on my jacket is glowing in every shot, almost like some heavenly light is emanating from me. (This jacket has a long history of doing this. It's simply divine.)

By the way, my favorite picture by far from this online album is this one, in which I strike a victorious pose. The shot isn't centered, but when it comes to style points it wins handily.

The visit was quite fun, although my work sadly continued to pile up while I was gone and I am still trying to catch up so I can do more research. (Of course, my plans for my first scientific book are crystalizing and I might already get a deal to do it from Princeton University Press when I go to the Joint Mathematics Meetings in January.) We saw a lot of really neat architecture in London (well, duh) and we ate some really good toads-in-the-hole (sausages and mashed potatoes in Yorkshire pudding) at a local pub that Charlie Chaplin apparently used to frequent. On the way back from London on the second day (we took the train from Oxford on both days), we met a crazy 16-year old named Lucy who is waaaaaaay too immature to be traveling on her own to London. (In some ways, it was good that she has ADD because otherwise I would have been stuck spending more than just a few minutes helping her on her math homework... long story.) Back in Oxford, we walked around to a bunch of places -- including stuff I hadn't had the time to explore before. We went to the top of the St. Mary church tower (whatever the building is exactly called) and the view was spectacular! (In fact, many of the locales in both Oxford and London are really spectacular to look at. It's really one of the great perks of being here --- just walking around and soaking up the history while trying to bring my newfangled style to the place.) Now I just need to find someone with the proper key so that I can see the view from the top of Magdalen College... I also made it a point to have Danny as a guest at High Table so he could see what that is like and to have a dinner with the Monday young'uns crowd in Somerville.

I still need to blog on my first trip to London a few weeks ago (and give a review of The Darjeeling Limited, which I highly recommend), but I'll do that later. I also still need to finish writing an exam, be an Examiner, interview students, and play Zelda:Twilight Princess (not to mention work on Legends IV...).

If you want more details about shenanigans during Danny's visit, let me know.

2008 Sigma Xi Young Investigator Award

Please excuse the narcissism, but this deserves a blog entry.

I got an e-mail today informing me that I won this award, which is for people within 10 years of their highest degree. In even years, all members of Sigma Xi (an engineering honor society) in the areas of engineering and physical sciences (including mathematics) were eligible. I'll be giving a lecture at their annual conference in Washington DC in November 2008, so mark your calendars. (Yes, my talk will likely include both random walker rankings and Congressional communities.) Press releases are forthcoming...

Update: Here is a link to the news item from Oxford's Mathematical Institute.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

First Oxford games night

This evening, I had my first games night at Oxford. It took forever and a day to get my stuff and it also took additional time to unpack stuff, so it took me a while to have my first games night at Oxford. The turn-out included only a few people, which isn't that surprising considering it's the first day after the end of the term and I think some people wanted to just chill out at home quietly (and others may have already had plans, because I only gave a few days warning without checking availability and it is Saturday night). But we had fun --- we played Wii Sports (mostly tennis), the British Isles version of Apples to Apples, and Trivial Pursuit (where I finally sealed my team's victory with an answer of Three Mo' Tenors). Oh, and yes, my Wii is set up. Then I'll get my two new controllers when I'm home. (They've supposedly arrived at Lemming's place now, though he hadn't seen them, so I may have to go bust some Amazon kneecaps to see what's up.) And maybe I'll even have Super Smash Bros to play with the various people who have expressed a desire to come here and play. Mah Jongg games are also in the works, and I haven't had a chance to play that since I was at Cornell.

Friday, November 30, 2007

10th Anniversary of Cornell's Famous Pumpkin Prank

I wrote a blog entry about pranks recently and I neglected to mention that October 2007 marked the 10th anniversary of the great pumpkin prank at Cornell (my grad school alma mater).

Somehow, a group of students got a HUGE pumpkin on the top of Cornell's McGraw Tower spire (where the chimes get played), which is an extremely tall building. The thing probably wouldn't have stayed up very long, but the weather got really cold, which caused the pumpkin to freeze and stay on the tower. The pumpkin then stayed on top of the tower until the weather warmed up in the spring. It fell down one or two days before my visit as a prospective graduate student (evidently in a blooper during an attempt to take it down). Sigh... I just missed seeing that wonderful sight in person.

The pumpkin continued to decay over the years and "The last extant piece of the gourd sat beside a brain display in the Department of Psychology." (That sentence just amuses the Hell out of me.)

Anyway, given my association with Caltech pranks, I feel remiss in not having previously told this story on my blog and only my recent Cornell alumni newsletter reminded me of this awesome prank. It's still not known who the perpetrators were and I believe that how they did it might not be known either. (There was an article in The Cornell Daily Sun late in my graduate-school career that -- without identifying the perps -- claimed to state how the pumpkin was hoisted atop the tower, but my understanding is that a nontrivial number of people were disputing the purported methodology.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Unintentionally awesome

In fact, it's not just unintentionally awesome but also uninentionally "awesome."

Today, I decided to wear a Manhunt II t-shirt that I got as one of my free chotchkes at PAX in August. The part that I love so much is that one of my students pointed out that this game is banned in the UK.

I'm such a maverick. :)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Encouragement for Oxford pranksters

My friend Danny (who I've known since I was 4) was visiting me from Friday until this morning, so between hanging out (in both London and Oxford) and trying desperately to get some work done, I haven't had a chance to do as much blogging during the past week. (I'll eventually be posting pictures from the past week, including one of me in my new role as Achilles.)

So, in order to cover the gap (so to speak), I am going to dig into the archives and tell the Oxford folks a bit about my sordid past. In the process, I hope to encourage some local shenanigans. (I apologize in advance to the others in my audience who have heard all this before.)

Let me start with something that will be new for everybody -- namely, what made me think of this? Well, I heard about a local drunken prank that I think is hilarious but for which the students seem to be have a fine heading in their direction. Namely, a rosemary bush was "borrowed" from a local restaurant (which I won't name) and, after much deliberation, planted in a toilet in a women's restroom so that it could grow big and strong. That's funny enough, but apparently our CCTV cameras (the ones that seem to be used predominantly for spying on students... actually, I ought to blog about that at some point; I'm finding a couple of things to be a bit Big Brotherish for my tastes, but I'll save that one for later) caught most of this on tape, so one can apparently see a fairly long discussion with deliberations. My reservations about the methodology of obtaining the videos aside, I hereby request that the Somerville porters post that video on YouTube or -- at the very least -- give me a chance to see it because I really want to take a look at it!

(Oh the other thing I found out is that I already have a rep among the Somerville students for dressing very differently from the others on High Table. Of course, only a small subset of them know that I have a charming personality as well.) But anyway, everybody seems to already know who I am even though I've only been here 7 weeks and change. I'm already making my mark! (Perhaps Oxford has met its match? As one of my friends said, it has been around 800 years but it hasn't got a chance to survive me.)

OK, so back to the archives...

Most of my Oxford peeps may not know this, but I coauthored a book about Caltech pranks and other shenanigans. For several months after its May 2007 debut, it was the number 1 selling item in Caltech's bookstore. It currently appears to be #3 among books.

I have been involved in a few pranks of my own. For example, I was the author and architect of this fake Caltech press release (it can be really useful to know people in your university's PR department!). I have a copy of the book with me if anybody is interested in seeing it, though as some might say, "Buy my book!" :)

So, I hope that you Oxford folks reading this blog entry will take this as a challenge and find something creative to do.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Irony of Netwiki

Along with one of my collaborators (Peter Mucha of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), I help run netwiki, a site dedicated to social networks. The site has both private and public sections. The private section contains group data and discussions and has worked beautifully. The public section, on the other hand, has struggled to get some sort of critical mass to become a useful place for the networks community. Even with the presence of blockers, the spam problem has become increasingly huge and it finally got to the point where server space at UNC was becoming an issue and we had to disable the ability for the public to make changes on the site. This has been temporarily disabled for a couple of days until we incorporate one of those tools where a human has to type in some word to distinguish it from spam.

OK, so we just changed things so the public can't make changes on our networks wiki. The story doesn't end there, as I got the following e-mail from Peter earlier today:

After nearly 18 months in relative obscurity, NetWiki made the INSNA mailing this morning... There have been over 600 page views since this email went out, and of course no public editing capability! (INSNA is the International Network for Social Network Analysis.)

The relevant portion of the e-mail that was sent out to their mailing list (which goes to a rather large number of people and which I am going to join, now that I think about it) reads as follows:

Found a new network analysis site today, courtesty of Wikipedia's "Social Network" article:

Netwiki, run out of Chapel Hill, by what appear to be mathematicians:

I'm the one who added the link to our page on the wikipedia entry for exactly this purpose. It took a while, but I'm glad we're finally getting an influx of people via that mechanism.

And, yes, we are indeed mathematicians. (I simply love the phrasing, "by what appear to be mathematicians.")

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Modern toiletry

Courtesy The California Tech, here are some pictures of some very stylistic toilets.

Note: The pun in this entry's title is intentional.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Another limerick competition from Annals of Improbable Research

For the second month in a row, the Annals of Improbable Research limerick contest pertains to a paper within one of my fields. Last time, it was dynamical systems and this time it's applied dynamical systems (and, in particular, granular media). Moreover, I even know one of the paper's authors. (Last time, I had once met the person who was mentioned in the title of the article but didn't know if the author of the article per se.)

Anyway, here is the article being used for this month's contest:

"Maximum Angle of Stability of a Wet Granular Pile," Sarah Nowak,
Azadeh Samadani, and Arshad Kudrolli, Nature Physics, vol. 1,
August 15, 2005, pp. 50-2.

(Thanks to Charles Oppenheim for bringing this to our attention.)
The authors explain:

"Anyone who has built a sandcastle recognizes that the addition
of liquid to granular materials increases their stability.
However, measurements of this increased stability often conflict
with theory and with each other.... Using the frictionless model
and performing stability analysis within the pile, we reproduce
the dependence of the stability angle on system size, particle
size, and surface tension observed in our experiments."

RULES: Please make sure your rhymes actually do, and that your
poem is in classic, trips-off-the-tongue limerick form.

PRIZE: The winning poet will receive a (if we manage to send it
to the correct address) a free, possibly sandy issue of the
Annals of Improbable Research. Send entries (one entry per
entrant) to:

c/o [marca AT]

For the second month in a row, I hope I have time to sit down and compose a limerick. Last time, I unsurprisingly didn't end up having time and I suspect the same will be true this month. I'm especially eager to submit a limerick this month because it will give me a chance to make fun of self-organized criticality (which is an easy target), or as Predrag Cvitanovic calls it, "self-organized triviality."

But just in case I don't have time to write a limerick, here are some physics haikus that I wrote a few years ago for an APS contest. One of my haikus was deemed a winner -- ironically, it was the only one of the haikus that was serious rather than snarky! -- and it earned me a free physics t-shirt.

One of my haikus was, in fact, devoted to self-organized criticality:

The world's a sandpile.
Self-organized, trivial...
But it gives tenure.

As I have been known to say to any statistical physicist who will listen, "The world is not a sandpile." (Granted, I do some statistical physics research too, but there are times when I very much agree with Steve Strogatz's comment during an invited talk in which he compared them to piranhas.)

And the good news about doing this blog entry is that it turns out all my links to my creative writing on the Oxford server were dead because I had forgotten to copy the files over when I set up the web page. Thankfully, that problem is now fixed.

Former member of Queen earns doctoral degree in astrophysics

I just found out about the following via the Annals of Improbable Research newsletter.

Brian May, the lead guitarist of the band Queen, apparently really is the champion. As you can read here, he just earned a doctorate in astrophysics last month. Awesome!

One of his publications is "An Investigation of the Motion of Zodiacal Dust Particles (Part I)" from 1973. Clearly, this was the primary inspiration for the song "Another One Bites the Dust."

Wikipedia versus Conservapedia

Lemming just pointed me to the following boingboing article comparing a recent compilation of the top 10 most viewed pages in Wikipedia and Conservapedia.

I guess Mark Foley is recruiting again.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

RIP Gene Golub (1932-2007)

Gene Golub, a pioneer in numerical analysis, died on Friday, November 16th. When I took matrix computations (which I highly recommend students to take), I used the book he wrote with Charlie Van Loan. Some people have set up a memorial page here.

Alternative theory of climate change

Here's another one courtesy of The California Tech.

Have you seen this? It's reminiscent of what physicist Alan Sokal did 11 years ago, but this one is even more awesome because it made the people denying the earth's environmental problems look even more stupid than they usually do. (And if you take a look at the fake equations in the paper, you can see how just laughable their claims of having to do "digging" to unearth the hoax are.

The title of the fake article is "Carbon dioxide production by benthic bacteria: the death of manmade global warming theory?" You can find its text here, though apparently the nice sawtooth graphics from the "article" aren't going to be easy to find at this point. I love the "equations" they use in the article!

Anyway, I approve!

It's much better than pretending to be a barrel!

Courtesy The California Tech, people in Japan are apparently trying to hide from prospective attackers by pretending to be vending machines. (The second link includes a picture.) You can find a video of this urban camouflage in action here.

Wow. I never thought the world would have sunk to such depths.

Word summary

You won't find any compound adjectives in this place, but you will find various posts about flaneur:

Word announcement

My contribution




Are there any posts I missed among the other flaneurs? (Oh yeah, and somebody else needs to come up with this week's word!)

Monday, November 19, 2007


Today we "desummoned" some students (i.e., we were going to interview them and now we're not) who didn't do well on the Oxford mathematics entrance exam and weren't compelling enough to still bring in for their interview. Unsurprising, some of the conversations today reminded me a bit of the Rotation meetings at Caltech (though without any "Champ stamps"). Also, I feel a bit bad at needing to make a decision that somebody just isn't cut out for Oxford, although it is part of my job to make that decision. When we have interviews and need to make additional judgements then, I suspect it will feel even more like Rotation.

It also occurs to me that I wish I could desummon demons the way I can apparently desummon students.

In other news, I have almost completely opened my stuff meant for my flat but my unopened boxes intended for my office (though with some things, like my Go set, that I plan to move to my apartment also hiding in those containers) are still sitting in my apartment waiting to be opened. I am supposed to get help tomorrow moving them to my office and then I can start putting my books in their proper places on my shelves. Unsurprisingly, the only really light box that came from my office had Summer Fun Cthulhu in it. (I hunted that box down because I've decided that Cthulhu needs to live in my apartment with me from now on.)

I'm still not sure whether my blow-up doll of the Screamer should go at home or at the office. I'm thinking it will make a fine decoration for the OCIAM lounge. Let me know if you have any opinions.

I also figured out just what adaptors and voltage converters (and other miscellaneous equipment) I should need to be able to resume my attempt to conquer Zelda: Twilight Princess. In the long term, I want to get a new tv, but for now I am going for the kluged solution.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Name of the day

Baseball player Francisco Cordero's agent is named "Bean Stringfellow". That is simply awesome. I am guessing that "Bean" is a nickname, but I don't know. I'm certain thinking about vegetables as a result of this name (although I am not exactly about to go eat any).

Friday, November 16, 2007

An exceptionally silly theory of everything?

GFreak e-mailed me to alert me to this article offering a potential candidate for a theory of everything. I was expecting it to be an amusing piece of psychoceramics (i.e., crackpottery), but several experts seem to think that there is some interesting stuff there. Of course, that doesn't mean one will actually get a theory of everything out of it. However, this does appear to be a legitimate piece of scientific work. I know some of the math involved and could try to understand some of the paper if I tried to think about it (I'm exhausted at the moment and don't really want to bother right now), but basically contented myself to admiring the pretty pictures and extremely admirable command of latex. The citation list is a bit strange, with almost nothing coming from published sources. (Lots of arxiv papers were cited, and perhaps some of them have actually appeared in publications.)

Because the paper looked like legitimate science, I googled this guy and he is certainly receiving a lot of press about this. It will be extremely interesting to see how this plays out.

The guy who wrote this paper doesn't have a fixed affiliation (but has an excellent educational pedigree, so I imagine this is by choice), so I am naturally having images of Perlman (who was actually well-known, so there are some differences here).

Here is the website for the guy (Garrett Lisi) who wrote the paper. Here is an article from FOX News, although that organization is hardly reputable. Here is an article from The Telegraph.

Update: I actually meant to use the word "simple" in the title instead of "silly" but my word substitution amuses me, so I'm leaving the title as is.

I have stuff

I have stuff now. It's in my apartment, and it's very heavy. (Some of it will need to go to my office to take its proper place there.) Major props go out to several members of Oxford's complex systems group, who helped me move it up to my flat. Then we all went to a pub.

Now that my stuff is here, I can finally renew my efforts to pass the 5th dungeon in Zelda: Twilight Princess. (Yes, I actually made it as far as the 5th dungeon.) Of course, I'm going to check and make sure my stuff can handle appropriate voltages first and I don't particularly feel like unpacking things today. (I will probably unpack my desk chair just because it's much more comfortable than the best chair I have here.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Random walker rankings back in the news

The random walker U.S. college football rankings I helped develop are back in the news. (Actually, the author of the piece, Ivars Peterson, has written about our ranking system before, as you can see by scrolling down the page and looking at the references.)

This is actually nothing compared to past instances of media sluttage. The football ranking system alone has been picked up by such glorious venues like Nature Science Update, The Washington Post, CNN Headline News, and (most important) ESPN: The Magazine. You can find links to many of those articles using the link I provided.

In other media news, the AMS Mathematical Moment based on one of my expository articles has now been translated into Polish. It was already available in English, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Bonds indicted for perjury

Breaking news: Barry Bonds indicted for perjury and obstruction.

Cue the Dragnet theme...

An alternative take on a scene from Bull Durham

Since my visit to Durham, I've had lollygagging on my mind.

So this week's word of choice (taken from's 'word of the day' on the day that I checked was quite convenient.

Consider, for example, the slightly modified version of the following scene (well, a portion thereof) from Bull Durham:

The Durham Bulls sit and stand quietly.

You guys lollygag the ball around
the infield, ya lollygag you're-
way to first, ya lollygag in an'
outta the dugout. You know what
that makes ya

Well, it doesn't exactly have the same ring to it as "lollygaggers", but anyway this is my contribution for this week's word. Also, you need to insert one of the coaches quietly saying "Flaneurs" right before the skipper says it loudly.

By the way, here is the entire screenplay.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

This week's word

I almost forgot about this. I promised I'd pick a word for our little game this week. Following Zifnab's example, I looked up's word of the day because I didn't want to just arbitrarily pick one of my favorite words. In fact, today's (that is, Wednesday's) word of the day is fantastic, so let's use that one. The word is flaneur, and I actually already know what I want to blog about for that word. But I'm really tired, so I'm going to do it after I get some sleep!

'Ticket to Ride' LARP

As I've discussed on my blog before, LARPing is pretty big in the UK. Well, last night I had the chance to try out a really awesome new LARP on my way home from Durham. This particular LARP is based on the board game Ticket to Ride. In fact, I was having so much fun playing this LARP that I decided to stay up very late playing it! (Well, it was almost all night except for some serendipity.)

The opportunity to join this game came rather unexpectedly. The train that I needed to use to go one stop to Darlington was 21 minutes late, which caused me to miss my connection to King's Cross, and the next available train from Darlington to King's Cross would cause me to miss my train from Paddington to Oxford (note that I was going to need to take the Tube from King's Cross to Paddington). Yesterday, a guy at Oxford said I absolutely could not go on an earlier train even though I was at the station early enough to do it, so I didn't try doing that this time (even though I was rather early). Every single train up until mine was on time, but then I drew the card of epic fail and that was it.

I talked to various people at the station and the strategy I was given was to go from Darlington to the Birmingham New Street station and then take the Bornmouth train to Oxford. (This would then reverse my itinerary from yesterday except for the brief foray into Darlington, which much to my chagrin didn't seem to have "DEI" written anywhere.)

The train ride from Darlington to Birmingham was about 3.5 hours, and I somehow managed to accomplish the whole thing without a banjo on my knee.

I got some food while I was there (one place was still open) although there weren't any garbage cans in the public part of the station "for security reasons." (They also arbitrarily didn't allow people to use one of the seating areas, and don't allow people to use any of the power sockets in the station, though I snuck a bit of recharging and sitting in before I was told to leave that area.)

I figured I was going to have to wait for 6 hours for the first morning train to get my ass over to Oxford. Then I would have to go through my arduous Thursday (3 tutorial sessions, 1 lecture, an extra 20 minute meeting with a student scheduled for tomorrow, and 1 seminar, which I was likely going to end up skipping) without having had any sleep. Ouch! On the bright side, I was going to get some work done --- I had pretty much finished my letters of recommendation for a former SURF student while waiting at the Durham station, so I was going to finish those (but not upload them to appropriate web sites) and finishing refereeing a paper. I also have a book with me, so I was going to read a bunch of that as well.

However, the guy who kicked me out of the special area suggested I go to customer service in case they could do something. Getting kicked out ended up being a blessing in disguise, because apparently the company actually takes their responsibility to get me home quite seriously. (Imagine that! But of course this is rather different from my experiences in the US...) Basically, they hire cabbies to take people home in such occasions, so as I write this, I am in the customer service area waiting for their hired can to take me home to Oxford. While missing the connection (and the associated connection missings based on which trains were subsequently available) was annoying, I'm very pleased with their method of addressing the situation. And it wasn't like I had to convince anybody to do this. (OK, technically I'm still waiting, but it seems like this is going to work out and I am actually going to get some sleep tonight.)

It turns out that the cab driver was an epic failure as well, as at some point he went 20 miles in the wrong direction and had to backtrack and I ended up needing to walk the last half mile home. Hence, I am finishing this blog entry at 3:30 am instead of an hour and change ago. (By the way, Cornmarket street is really creepy at 3am.)

For what it's worth, none of my mad graph theory skillz were helpful for this LARP.

Anyway, goodnight!

Monday, November 12, 2007

What happens in Durham stays in Durham

No, I am not referring to the one in North Carolina, so I won't be able to visit the people I know in that state.

I'll be visiting University of Durham tomorrow and Wednesday and will be giving a talk in their atomic and molecular physics seminar series. (I'll be speaking about some of my work on Bose-Einstein condensates.)

For what it's worth, however, one of the people taking me to dinner tomorrow evening is a current graduate student at Durham who was an undergrad at Duke (i.e., in the other Durham).

I haven't revised my slides since the last time I gave a BEC talk, but I'm hoping to find a way to get the word "lollygagging" in it somewhere. (Hmmmm... I guess none of the UK people reading this are going to recognize this allusion.)

Update: It turns out that the graduate student I mentioned above first encountered my name a few years ago because of a preprint I wrote back in the day giving an introduction to LaTeX for people using LaTeX for the first time. (This preprint, which you can find here, has actually gotten a fair bit of circulation over the years. I wonder if more people have read that paper than any of my other papers? I've been meaning to update that article for several years because I know a lot more about LaTeX than I did back then, but it's very far down on the list as far as my scientific endeavors are concerned. Maybe I'll try to find an interested student to do that at some point just because while the article is already very useful, it would be nice to make it even more useful.)

On the way to Durham, I switched lines in a station in Birmingham --- does anybody remember if the train line that goes through Birmingham, AL also hits Durham, NC? I passed through a station in York. It's sometimes easy to forget that there was an old York. :) (Even though I have a dessert that hails from Yorkshire when I eat prime rib at Lawry's...)

Saturday, November 10, 2007


OK, it's time to belatedly review a few movies.

There are a number of flicks that by now have come out in the US but haven't yet made it to the UK (Darjeeling Limited, anyone?). I am eagerly anticipating being able to watch those. Then when I visit home in December, I'll watch some more movies that won't be out in the UK for a while. :) (And I'll watch more Buffy and Angel Yeah! And I'll see my Caltech friends! Lots of good stuff awaits!)

Here are the movies I have seen so far since I moved to Oxford:

Superbad: It was ok and had its moments, but I wasn't very impressed. Knocked Up was considerably better. (However, the name "McLovin" did partly inspire my Vampire character's name, which is "Billy McLatte".)

Control: This is a very good movie, although it's not exactly a happy film. It is a biographical movie about the life and death of Ian Curtis, the singer from Joy Division, which became New Order after Curtis's death. Other band members portrayed in the film (such as Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook) are also very familiar names. Anyway, this film is highly recommend! (I particularly recommend it to my fellow devotees of new wave and synth pop.)

Death at a Funeral: This movie is a so-called "British comedy". The only problem is that it isn't actually very funny. It definitely had it's moments -- which thankfully became more frequent as the movie progressed -- and the guy some of us like to call "Wash" did a particularly fantastic job in the movie. (The guy who played the defense attorney in Find Me Guilty also did a good job.) Overall, however, the movie was a disappointment.

Winter doldrums

I've been feeling kind of homesick and depressed today, and I think some combination of the winter weather deal and (predominantly) my not eating much all day triggered it. (I had a very minimal lunch because the stuff at Somerville didn't look particularly edible and I went to do some work after that rather than go and get food elsewhere.)

I went to a friend's housewarming party this evening and had fun, but after I was there for about 4.5 hours, I left because I really felt I needed to be on my own at that moment (and I also decided I should probably get some dinner so that I didn't screw myself up for tomorrow too). I didn't know very many people there, which in my depressed mood eventually started reminding me that I missed my Caltech peeps and made me feel anti-social. Anyway, I ended up getting far enough out of my comfort zone once the party got too big --- I was doing reasonably well before too many people arrived --- and decided that was enough for the day.

Of course, I'm very pleased that somebody thought enough of me to invite me in the first place, but my shy nature still often gets the best of me. (When we have our receptions in the SCR on guest nights, I tend to go sit somewhere and sip juice [before dinner] or eat some chocolate [after dinner] and wait for somebody to come up to me to talk --- in some respects, it's kind of reminiscent of how I always was during a certain thing I like to call Rotation. Things are a bit different when the younger people hang out together on Monday nights (the tone of the discussions are definitely different as a result of this) and because I know some more of the Somerville people now, it's usually also reasonable on the Tuesday guest nights (where more of the older people are also around) though my shyness still comes very much into play with the somewhat more formal setting.)

In other news, my stuff got through customs yesterday, so I should finally get all my things next week. (I am currently involved in e-mail discussions to try to figure out exactly when it will be delivered. The movers proposed Tuesday, but I am leaving early that day for my conference in Durham, so we'll see what can work.)

Among other things, this means that I will shortly be able to have a games night at my place. I've gathered a reasonable number of people I want to invite, so that should be fun. Also, because I'll be in my home base, that should help a lot with my comfort level. (I will also have a separate games and ice cream night for my mentees.)

OK, that's about it. I'm going to go blog about movies and then read a fantasy novel a bit.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Random Walker Ranking for NCAA Division I-A Football

Hey, guess what paper finally came out yesterday? That's right, I just received a .pdf reprint of the original random walker rankings paper that my collaborators (Peter Mucha, Thomas Callaghan, and I) first submitted to American Mathematical Monthly in November 2003.

For those of you who don't know the gory details behind getting this paper published, that is not a typo. It took 4 fucking years! Moreover, the paper was never even rejected so it's not like it bounced from one journal to another. The Monthly was the only journal to which we ever submitted this. We first had to revise the paper after getting referee reports 6 months after submission (which is much longer than most journals where I submit stuff). Then we spent a good period of time over the next year addressing the extensive comments (which required a lot of new analytical and numerical work), and then once we resubmitted the paper, we didn't hear anything for 6-8 months only to find out that the referee who wanted that stuff done in the first place was completely AWOL. (The other referee was already extremely pleased with the whole endeavor, and the referee who complained insisted on certain things that were technically in direct contradiction to some of the stuff on the Monthly's masthead in terms of what article formats and content were acceptable.) Then a new referee had to be found (and then that guy had comments too) although by that point (mid 2005) the paper was guaranteed to be accepted once we addressed the points of the third referee (some of which were a request to make certain aspects of the paper more like the version we had submitted in the first place). The paper then got officially accepted in early 2006 (I think in February) although the Monthly does an extensive mark-up of papers, so we exchanged some iterations to deal with small changes that indicated various degrees of fastidiousness on the part of the editor. Then the paper got put in a queue for when it would be finally published. It didn't make it out in 2006 because of the journal's huge backlog and then when a new editor took the reigns of that journal in 2007, he found additional points that he wanted us to tweak even after the so-called "final" version had been approved by the previous editor. We dealt with those in 2007, did the usual deal with page proofs, and waited a bit more for the journal's backlog to run its course a bit so that our paper could finally be officially in print. Then we got our .pdf file of the reprint yesterday, so this paper is finally out.

I should also mention that leaving aside the considerable extra effort that the journal required of us, the final paper was improved considerably as a result of all those shenanigans. It was often quite painful and frustrating (and I still maintain that the journal didn't handle our paper appropriately), but as good as the original version of the paper was (you can find that on the arxiv by looking at the paper's posting history), the final version is considerably better. And now that the pain from this tribulation has faded away, I am not as bitter towards the Monthly as I used to be and I am even considering eventually submitting another paper to it (though I hope that my collaborators will talk me out of it the next time I make that suggestion, because a 4 year gap is just absurd even if the chosen journal truly is the optimal one for this paper, which I believed when I first suggested we submit to the Monthly and which I still believe now).

Now, I have discussed this work on this blog in a good amount of detail before. So, I will defer to the paper to which I linked above, the expository paper my collaborators and I wrote for the Notices of the AMS, and (of course) the project's home page.

So, with this long, ranty preamble out of the way, I hereby dedicate to the editors and referees of the Monthly (which, in my opinion, seems to be somewhat of an inbred journal in terms of who the referees are and how blindly the editors seem to trust them) this partial list of some of the events that have transpired in the 4 years since my coauthors and I originally submitted this paper for publication in November 2003:

1. The three authors of this paper have undergone a total of four institution changes. (Thomas Callaghan started out as a junior in college and is now in his third year in the applied math doctoral program at Stanford. Peter Mucha was an assistant professor at Georgia Tech and is now an associated professor at UNC Chapel Hill. I was a postdoc at Georgia Tech, and then a postdoc at Caltech, and now a faculty member at Oxford.)

2. Peter and I both have much more than twice as many publications as we did in November 2003. In fact, I have more than 3 times as many publications as I did back then and Peter may have that as well.

3. Peter has twice as many children as he did then and his older child is over twice as old as he was in November 2003. (We need to stop using those pictures of him when we include this topic in seminars that we give. He's probably already embarrassed by the fact that all of our colleagues have seen this particular picture from his infancy at all these conferences.)

4. Thomas was part of the first batch of 5 undergraduate students I advised or co-advised on a serious project. I have now advised/co-advised close to 30 undergraduates.

5. At least one of my undergraduate research advisees is now married, and many of them are now in Ph.D. programs. (If you'll excuse a little bit of bragging, this includes 1 person at Harvard, 3 at Stanford, and 1 at Cornell.)

6. Most of the college freshman from fall 2003 have now graduated.

7. When we submitted this article, Facebook hadn't yet launched. (It launched on February 4th, 2004.)

8. Since we submitted the article, the Chicago White Sox won their first World Series in more than 80 years.

9. So did the Boston Red Sox. And then the Red Sox won a second World Series three years later. (During this year's postseason, I knew this paper was coming out imminently and I was actively rooting for the paper to come out after the World Series just so this comment would be even better.)

10. Since we submitted this article, the Caltech men's basketball team won its first game in over 10 years.

11. The Caltech women's basketball team won its first two games ever.

12. The video game systems that have come out since we submitted our paper include (at least) the Wii, XBOX 360, PS 3, and two versions of the Nintendo DS. (But Duke Nukem Forever still hasn't come out, and I was supposed to be a secret character in that game! OK, that was a private joke between me and one of my friends who was working on that game back in the day and I don't know if that would really have seen the light of day. But still...)

13. My first book was published. (I started it in May 2003, so I can't say I started it after we submitted this paper.) I also served as the mathematical consultant for a movie.

14. I started blogging (in October 2005).

15. Back when we first submitted this paper, George W. Bush was President of the United States. Oh fuck, he still is.

16. Division I-A isn't even called "Division I-A" anymore. It's now called "FBS" and "Division I-AA" is now called "FCS". (Just to screw with us more, "Division II" and "Division III" have retained their old names.) Hence, the terminology in our article's title is technically now incorrect. (This change occurred after we were done with the page proofs.)

I think there was more that I wanted to mention. Maybe I'll add some other amusing things to the comments if I think of them.