Thursday, January 31, 2008

Belated honor for Falco

Lemming just sent me this link, which is about an honor recently (and belatedly) received by the late, great Falco. (By the way, contrary to popular belief, Falco is not a one-hit wonder. He, in fact, had two big hits and also recorded the original, German version of "Der Kommisar.")

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Do you know what's astoundingly fun?

Spending several hours of one's time customizing colormaps in Matlab and adjusting the figure format in various ways (swapping axes and so on) at the request of a coauthor. (And I needed to rerun all of my numerics because in this case, it wasn't space-efficient to save the matrices but was easier just commenting out appropriate parts of the .m file and running things again.) Grrrrrr.....

Update: And you know what's even more fun? I'll have to do it all over again. (Sigh...) I'll deal with this in a while after I have dealt with various teaching duties. I could write a much longer rant, but it's not worth it. I don't think there's much to be gained by having a conniption (that's one of the words of the day), and I already spazzed out a little while ago (that's another of today's words/expressions) in an IM to Lemming. (But, believe me, my frustration really is justified here.)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Highly Nonlinear Solitary Waves in Phononic Crystal Dimers

My paper, Highly Nonlinear Solitary Waves in Phononic Crystal Dimers, was just published as a "rapid communication" in Physical Review E. (For those of you who don't know the lingo, that means we almost pushed it into PRL but couldn't quite get it in there.)

My coauthors on the paper are theorist Panos Kevrekidis and experimentalists Chiara Daraio, Eric Herbold, and Ivan Szelengowicz (Chiara's grad student).

Here is the project in English: We have a chain of beads in which soft particles alternate with harder ones. We hit the thing and look at the properties of the pulse that goes through the system---basically, how its width and propagation speed depend on the properties of the beads and on having two different types of them (and the ensuing periodic structure) in the first place. We do analytics, numerics, and experiments and have some nice agreement between the three. (In fact, the analytics even got pretty technical in this paper.)

Here is the official abstract, which many of you will probably find much less understandable than what I just wrote (if you look closely, however, you can see that it basically says the same thing as what I just wrote---just without the technical terms that make things more precise): We investigate the propagation of highly nonlinear solitary waves in heterogeneous, periodic granular media using experiments, numerical simulations, and theoretical analysis. We examine periodic arrangements of particles in experiments in which stiffer and heavier beads (stainless steel) are alternated with softer and lighter ones (polytetrafluoroethylene beads). We find good agreement between experiments and numerics in a model with Hertzian interactions between adjacent beads, which in turn agrees very well with a theoretical analysis of the model in the long-wavelength regime that we derive for heterogeneous environments and general bead interactions. Our analysis encompasses previously studied examples as special cases and also provides key insights into the influence of the dimer lattice on the properties width and propagation speed of the highly nonlinear wave solutions.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Copernican Myths

The December 2007 issue of Physics Today had a very interesting article that debunks several myths that our science teachers and textbooks have promulgated regarding how Copernicus's ideas were received.

One reason that it was especially interesting is that I hadn't actually realized that much of the stories regarding how his research was perceived are grossly wrong (though, in retrospect, I'm hardly surprised). The other was because of the parallel it draws with any significant scientific advancement and the parallel which I drew with the current ID garbage (or "rubbish", as the people here like to say).

Basically, the original way it was received was the same as we'd expect any new theory that doesn't offer immediate predictive/explanatory advances to be received. The advantages came later and took some time and the scientific establishment accepted the Copernican theory gradually not from overcoming religious nonsense but because of it did a better job of explaining the new data. Sounds very familiar, right? We could have been talking about any number of more recent theories.

The religious attacks on the Copernican theory also came gradually and, according to the article, seemed to be largely politically motivated. This also seems very familiar and here, unfortunately, the parallel is with attacks on Darwin. (All praise the FSM!)

Quote of the Day: Amusing Physics

There is a fantastic quote in an article in the December 2007 issue of Physics Today that discusses the awarding of last year's Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and Rajendra Pachauri for their environmentalist work. (Notice, by the way, that Gore can get an Oscar and a Nobel but not the U.S. Presidency. We all lost there...) The beautiful line was uttered by Michael Oppenheimer:

"The award will add further momentum to the accelerating engagement of politicians and the public toward solving the problem."

Instead, I would like to see them accelerate and thereby increase the momentum (assuming constant mass). Anyway, I was amused by the wording of the above sentence.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

My (brand new) namesakes

I was doing a quick google search for myself to see if anything interesting would come up, and I just saw this doozy.

Apparently, Friday was the 8-month anniversary of the birth of twins boys named "Mason" and "Porter". There is something seriously wrong here.

I have a bit of an urge to post a comment on that blog entry, but these people are completely random and I'm leaning towards the fact that they wouldn't appreciate it, so I won't do it. Still, this is weird. It would have been even cooler if that family had triplets and the third kid was named "Alexander". Nevertheless, I am clearly going to have to add their birthday as a day that I celebrate regularly.

By the way, there's no word on what these twins think of American television.

Friday, January 25, 2008

What is quantum chaos?

In January, the Notices of the American Mathematical Society published a short article in their 'What is...' series called What is... Quantum Chaos. It was written by Ze'ev Rudnick, and if you look very closely, you'll find that I am mentioned in the article. (Alex Barnett, another quantum chaotician from my generation, is also mentioned. Lots of old people are mentioned too.)

The article does a very nice job of describing the gist of quantum chaos, so I wanted to post a link to it here (given that this field forms the namesake for my blog, and also given that I wrote my dissertation on this topic). Here is the wikipedia page for quantum chaos. (By the way, if you google 'wikipedia quantum chaos', my research synopsis web page comes up third. This was a happy byproduct of linking to the page in order to help prospective students and postdocs know what the subject is in case they want to work with me on it.) A 1992 article that Martin Gutzwiller wrote in Scientific American after encouragement by Predrag Cvitanovic provides an excellent introduction to the subject for intelligent people who aren't physicists or mathematicians.

To explain very briefly, quantum systems can't actually exhibit a rigorous form of sensitive dependence on initial conditions (the butterfly effect; small differences in initial conditions leading to exponentially large divergence of trajectories) the way that classical systems can. (For one thing, there is the issue of defining something that corresponds to a trajectory in quantum mechanics, though the headaches don't end there.) However, if I hold a classical chaotic system in one hand (for simplicity, say that it's fully chaotic rather than mixed) and a classically non-chaotic (regular, integrable) system in the other and I quantize them both, I can tell which one was which based on certain properties (like the distributions of the spectra, the scarring of classical periodic orbits, and so on) of the quantum systems even though I can't define chaos rigorously in those systems. In the case of mixed systems with well-separated regular and chaotic regions, one can see the signatures of the different regions. (For example, see the paper that my student, Tom Mainiero, and I published in Chaos in December 2007. Also see recent work by Alex Barnett on quantum mushroom billiards.) If the different types of regions are not well-separated, then it can get pretty hard and lots of subtleties ensue. (Actually, lots of subtleties ensue even before you start dealing with the quantization of systems with poorly-separated mixtures of regular and chaotic regions. It's just that there are even less tractable subtleties that arise when the regions are completely interspersed with each other.)

This entry was longer than I intended, but I hope it can give normal people some idea of what quantum chaos is.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Doesn't entirely make sense

I'm a bit confused at the moment. I'm starting to become better friends with some local people. I went to the pub with a couple of them tonight. We hung out and had fun, opened up a bit, and and in general had a good time---and I very much like spending time with these particular people. Yet, I am back in my apartment and I feel a bit depressed at the moment and hope it's mostly because I'm tired. I think it goes go beyond my feelings of at guilt at not having worked on my grant proposal tonight (which is what I had intended to do). I have a thought or two on the matter, but I don't particular want to share them in this space. My thought processes aren't unfamiliar, though I still think that this isn't what my mood should be at the moment. Ah well, I guess I'll do a bit of stuff with my grant proposal because I need to give a new draft tomorrow so that I can get some more feedback.

I also got IMed with a 'thank you' from one of my SURF students because today is apparently 'Thank your mentor day.' I have several people I need to thank, so I think I should e-mail them before I go to bed. That helps my mood. (Actually, blogger was down and I couldn't post this when I first wrote the above. The IM from my student helped my mood a bit, as did sitting down and working a little on my grant proposal (even though I am not going to revise the draft as thoroughly as I'd like---nevertheless, I would like to get some more feedback on it without waiting the 3 weeks I'd need to wait if I didn't send in the new version tomorrow. So I think part of how I am feeling is guilt over the grant proposal, but I think some of it is also the thing that's bugging me that part of me feels very strongly shouldn't be bugging me at all. (I'm really annoyed at myself that I am worrying about what I probably can't have instead of focusing on the good stuff that I can and apparently do have. I really wish I could rewire myself on this.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Caltech's North Houses at "risk of being declared historical buildings"

According to this article in The California Tech, Caltech's North House are at "risk of being declared historical buildings." That would then prevent the Institute from tearing them down and starting from scratch.

While I have tons of great memories of Lloyd House and have severe misgivings about tearing down the North Houses and rebuilding them from scratch (this is for nostalgic reasons; my emotions are kind of clouding my rational thinking on this one), I think the idea that they are "historical buildings" is absolutely preposterous. Can anything from that decade be reasonably be declared a historical building? How about that sand castle that I built on on a beach in Malibu when I was 8 or so? Is that also a historical building?


What exactly is a tragedy?

I think a decent amount of time has passed since I've made a horribly insensitive comment, so I feel like I may need to break this streak.

I was reading one of my usual baseball venues (Rob Neyer's blog), and he was using Heath Ledger's untimely death (which I hadn't known about until I saw this article) to illustrate his point that the five-year waiting period normally present for a player to be elected to the Hall of Fame is a bad idea. (The comparison was to Ledger having lost out to Hoffman for a "Best Actor" Oscar victory with a speculation that perhaps the voters assumed Ledger would have many more chances given that his career was in its infancy.) Here is what Neyer writes about tragedies in this context:

Reading the message boards, one sees Heath Ledger's death described as a "tragedy."

No doubt. But for whom, exactly? He was someone's son, and the father of a two-year-old daughter. It's tragic for his parents, and for his daughter. In the grand scheme of things, though? Every day there are tragedies that would, if you could figure all the equations, rate larger than this one.

If you think Ledger's death is a tragedy, it's because of how it affects you, not his parents or his daughter. It's because he meant something to you. It's because you found his performance as Ennis Del Mar incredibly affecting and you wanted to see if he'd ever get another role as good. It's because you've been jazzed about seeing his take on The Joker since you first heard about that (presumably) brilliant bit of casting.

Or maybe that's just me. I just know I felt the same yesterday as I do when some long-ago major leaguer has died. It's my tragedy. I don't feel sorry for his wife or his children, or his grandchildren. They're mostly just abstractions in my mind. I feel sorry for me, because Johnny Podres and Tommy Byrne and Gerry Staley were all small-but-important pieces of my life.

I agree with the above sentiments. I have felt something when particular people (actors, baseball players, and so on) I've never met have died, and it essentially has to do with whatever pleasure they have brought to my life (and will no longer bring) because otherwise it's (all else being equal) the same as if it had happened to a random person. Obviously, things are much poignant if it's somebody I know personally (and am presumably fond of). Maybe my ability to empathize with other people is just woefully inadequate (I'm not sure, to be honest), but I think it is possible to simultaneously empathize with the family of somebody who has died way too early and keep the big picture in mind as well. Frankly, I think that most people are way to quick to apply the label of "tragedy" to things that are unfortunate, sad, and so on, but that aren't true tragedies. What that accomplishes is to trivialize real tragedies (of which there are than enough) by elevating things that are perhaps extremely poignant but not at the level of what an actual tragedy is.

While starting this blog entry, the background song "Sound of Silence", which seemed quite appropriate. (After that was "Goodbye-Goodbye", which is a bit livelier and perhaps less appropriate for this entry.) I'll miss Heath Ledger's acting and I do feel some sense of loss after reading this news, but please let's keep a bigger picture in mind.

Anyway, I don't think I've pissed off too many people lately, and I wanted to fill the sudden gap in my life.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

2007: The Year in Theatre

I think I've figured out the way to get me to finish blog entries that I have been meaning to do for a while---I'm supposed to be grading right now and I've finished checking e-mail, so I need to do something else that doesn't involve marking papers. (In principle, I could work on my next book instead, but I find it hard to do much of that when I am working this hard on real work. Somehow if the number of actual work hours gets above a certain threshold, then working on my book fades into the background for another week. I have several e-mails from a few months ago with people who are supposed to give us information for stories...)

Anyway, let me talk about some of the plays, musicals, and operas (well, there was only one opera) that I saw in 2007.

The opera in question was Carmen, which I saw in December at the New Theatre in Oxford. It's actually quite a nice venue and I enjoyed the show quite a bit (and couldn't get "The Torreador Song" out of my head for several days after I attended).

The big disappointment of the year (in terms of musicals... "Leave my personal life out of this!") was Chess, which played for one night only in Hollywood and which I had been looking forward to seeing for over a decade. The problem is the acoustics were lousy and they screwed up the song "One Night in Bangkok" completely, so I need to see this musical properly at some point.

Avenue Q was extremely fun! I'm glad I finally had a chance to see that!

Along with Caltech's CPA theatre group---hey, does anyone here want to go to theatre together? I'm still trying to figure out who is into what.---I saw two Shakespeare plays (Richard III and MacBeth) in a park in Hollywood. (The plays were produced by a small indie Shakespeare company and were quite well-done. Plus, it was a relaxed atmosphere, so I dug it.) The latter was a good reminder that a particular line of Tom Lehrer's that I like ('full of words and phrases, and signifying nothing!') actually comes from Shakespeare. Then again, so do a lot of lines that I take for granted. (Did you know, for example, that Shakespeare actually invented the term "metric fuck ton"?)

With the CPA group (and Lemming), I saw All About Waalken at a small theatre in Hollywood. It gave me quite a fever, which I couldn't find even close to enough cowbell to cure. I also saw some other stuff with the CPI theatre group, such as a small play whose name escapes me. There might have been something else of note, but I can't think of it at the moment, so this will have to be it tomorrow.

I'll be seeing my first play of 2008 on Saturday: Sheridan's The Rivals, which I read back in the day in 10th grade English.

By the way, I just noticed that I have a slight redundancy problem in parts of this entry. (I think that's the story of my life...) CPA stands for "Caltech postdoc association," so "Caltech's CPA" is a bit awkward. (And I can no longer ask, "Who's the CPA now?" Do any of the Lloydies reading this remember that one? It was classy.)

On a completely different note, does anybody have any bright ideas for ancient Somerville (or Oxford) traditions that I should introduce in the near future? I was going to get my math minions to do something on pi day but then I was reminded that we list the day and then the month around here, which foiled my plans entirely. (I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those kids! And their stupid dog, too!)

Alright, I better go do some more marking. Oh what fun we have!

The Steroids Social Network

On this website, you can find a visualization of the social network (apparently with some community detection, at least by hand) of the players mentioned in baseball's Mitchell Report on steroids.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Rock Band

Given that I want to play some Zelda today, I will postpone my long-promised remaining year-end update entries and instead provide my belated review of the video game Rock Band, which I spent a good amount of time playing with the old gang when I was visiting Pasadena during the holidays.

First of all, the game is very fun as a group activity. Because I don't like most of the songs on the set list very much (and some of them seem to repeat excruciatingly often for songs that are not part of my paradigm*), I wouldn't want to spend too much time on the game on my own. (If there were more songs that I like a lot, my opinion would be different.) Rocking out with friends, on the other hand, is a different story entirely. (Though even then I heard some of the songs a lot more than I wanted to. I think this makes it ideal for me to play a good amount of time for some stretch and then put it down for a while so that I can spend some time not hearing certain songs. There are a lot of downloadable songs, so depending on the new stuff that gets added to that collection, I expect that some more stuff that I like will show up.)

I mostly played guitar when I was visiting, so I used my modest skills that I accrued from that to start on medium and do better on medium level than I had before. (Hmmm... iTunes just started playing "Buddy Holly", which is one of the downloadable songs that I like. Now I am thinking of doing this on the drums, because I had a lot of fun on the drums with this song.) I even got 100% a couple of times, which I think I had only done once before. By the end of my visit, I was trying to practice on hard mode but I was having a lot of trouble making the jump. I did pretty well on some songs on hard, but got my ass handed to me on others. I created a guitarist character (a perky goth named "?Lynx?" who specializes in pink --- with things like long bright pink hair, a mini skirt with pink skulls on it, and so on) with whom I have impressed nobody but myself. (But I think it might be fair to say that I "impressed" a few people.) I hope to eventually post a link to a picture of my creation. (Yes, I am alluding to Weird Science.)

I had the most fun on the drums, which I started on the easy difficulty level. I am now reasonably comfortable on medium for the lower-level songs, but I was able to do some of the upper middle level songs on this difficulty as well. I am really looking forward to doing some more drumming when I next visit my friends in Pasadena.

Another thing worth mentioning here is that one of the hallmarks of a great game (or great anything else) is that it gets you thinking about things in a different way than you did before. In this respect, Rock Band is a tremendous success. First, it has increased my appreciation even for songs that I don't like (with respect to the skills required to make them). In principle, this could get me to start liking songs that I didn't previously like, but this hasn't actually happened. If a song doesn't sound pleasant to me, a greater appreciation of how difficult it is to play doesn't make it sound any more pleasant to my ears. Second, when I hear a song I have recently had a tendency to wonder how good it would translate to being in this game. I am doing things like listening for "rock beat" and so on. So, although I am still waiting for the game "Synth Hero" that will probably never be released, here is a list of five songs that I would really like to see in Rock Band. They aren't necessarily the top five I would like to see there and there is only one of them that I consider even remotely likely (can you guess which one?), but they are all parts of my paradigm and I would very much enjoy playing them:

Sunglasses at Night
Land of Confusion
Take On Me
Enjoy the Silence
Tarzan Boy (I couldn't avoid mentioning this one and keep a clear conscience)

* Songs that are part of my paradigm (like the one discussed on this page, to mention a random example), on the other hand, can pretty much never be played often enough. :) Not that I have a history of this or anything...

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Perils of Good Ideas

It's never a good idea to have a good idea. Do you know what happens when you have a good idea in front of your colleagues? You get put on a committee--that's what. Bloody Hell!

Baseball pictures from days of yore

I found this link mentioned on Rob Neyer's blog. That site links to a bunch of historical photos from the early 1910s that was posted by the U.S. Library of Congress (library?). This includes a lot of baseball-related ones, which one can apparently find with this search.

I haven't had time to look at the pictures yet, but hopefully I'll get a chance to do that later tonight when I'm not dealing with work emergencies (my plans to see the new movie about Bob Dylan tonight have again been delayed, though I should probably take that as a sign to bother to check if any of the other locals want to go... I need to stop being so apathetic about things like that and go and find out.).

A couple of comments on the first of the links above are quite priceless. They mentioned that the Library of Congress managed to unearth Julio Franco's rookie card and that it was apparently etched in stone. That's just awesome!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Quote of the Day

I found the following quote, attributed to French politican, Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, on Rob Neyer's blog:

"There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader."

Truer words have hardly ever been uttered.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Dinner and Lunch at High Table

Last night at dinner, I was dangerously close to presiding, as I was actually the second highest ranking person present. This indicates how much of a low-brow affair it could have become, but just wait until it's my turn to sit in the important (but very uncomfortable-looking chair) and preside. Somerville's grace is short and simple and actually manages not to offend me (which is very hard for any sort of grace to accomplish), but as a matter of principle I do feel compelled to do something other than say grace over at least the first dinner over which I preside. I'm looking for suggestions from the audience. (FYI: Mooning the undergraduates is not one of the viable options that I am considering. I prefer words to deeds anyway.)

After dinner, we went to the SCR as usual. Then a bunch of us young folks went pub crawling for a few hours. It was basically just flicking, from which I have always gained a great deal of pleasure when the company is good. (I'm going to have to get that term into use here. Flicking is reasonably common here, so I'll have to work on teaching them some of my language.)

I had been intending to not stay too long because of all the work I need to do (including marking papers, finishing the design of my lecture course, and so on), but I ended up returning home at 2:00 am (several hours later than intended... such is the way of flicking!). I also had a new addition to the family when I came home (no, I didn't impregnate anyone!): a very cute stuffed rat who I have dubbed Schrödinger (aka Schrödinger the Rat). Some pictures were taken last night, so if/when they're passed on to me, I'll post a link.

After returning home, I knew that I needed to get at least some of my work done, so I stayed up until 3:30 doing that. Then I couldn't fall asleep until 6am, so I feel like crap today. (And I'm the one among last night's crowd who is not hung over. Some benefit, eh?)

At today's lunch at High Table, we had an interesting discussion about what seat placement of people would lead to maximize mixing in terms of sitting with different people on different days. Apparently, there was an old convention of how the table would be filled in (from one particular side to the other) that has fallen into some disuse. One Fellow was wistfully mentioning that, and of course I made my comment about understanding the idea but that people can sit where they want. (Incidentally, the two sides of the table have switched roles in recent years---people who sit in the far side tend to do so to engage in private conversations. People who sit on the near side do the standard fill-in. The near and far sides had reverse roles at some point back in the day, and there was even some chastising on at least one occasion if convention was broken.) Moreover, I stated, I think there are sitting algorithms that would lead to more mixing than the convention because where somebody is in the table is very strongly correlated with what time they usually come in for lunch, which for many people has strong correlations due to lectures, meetings, and other regular commitments. (In fact, I'm almost positive that one can come up with an algorithm that would mix things and now I'm damned curious about how to do this as a math/physics problem. Unfortunately, I'll have to think about this more at some other point rather than now. I still need to prepare a lecture and I have a Vampire game tonight.) This led to a question about convention for convention's sake versus somebody employing whatever they want to achieve the same goal as the convention (assuming that they agree with that goal, which in this case I do). I'm definitely in favor of the latter, though I don't think that that was the most prevalent opinion among the crowd at lunch today. Though a visitor---who turned out to be a physicist---appreciated my using of terms like "energy minimization" for certain things that basically confused everybody else. (I was not trying to use scientific language per se but rather was going for Caltech undergraduate language.)

Anyway, that's it for now. I still owe some blog entries about other things.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Snake at a party!

As promised, here is one of the pictures of the guest of honor (by which I mean the snake) at last Tuesday's nonlinear waves party, hosted by Ricardo Carretero-Gonzalez of SDSU. Enjoying his company with the snake (by purposely looking much more harrowed than he actually was) is Keith Promislow of Michigan State.

Forthcoming: a model of the food that the snake is currently disgesting (apparently, that would be the softer stretch of the snake's body) as some sort of propagating wave.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Tales from the arXiv: nuclear war edition

In case you missed it, here is today's psychoceramics lesson:

arXiv:0801.1694 (*cross-listing*)
Date: Thu, 10 Jan 2008 23:23:53 GMT (835kb)

Title: Cheap Method for Shielding a City from Rocket and Nuclear Warhead
Authors: Alexander Bolonkin
Categories: physics.gen-ph physics.soc-ph
Comments: 31 pages, 11 figures, 4 tables
The author suggests a cheap closed AB-Dome which protects the densely
populated cities from nuclear, chemical, biological weapon (bombs) delivered by
warheads, strategic missiles, rockets, and various incarnations of aviation
technology. The offered AB-Dome is also very useful in peacetime because it
shields a city from exterior weather and creates a fine climate within the
AB-Dome. The hemispherical AB-Dome is the inflatable, thin transparent film,
located at altitude up to as much as 15 km, which converts the city into a
closed-loop system. The film may be armored the stones which destroy the
rockets and nuclear warhead. AB-Dome protects the city in case the World
nuclear war and total poisoning the Earth atmosphere by radioactive fallout
(gases and dust). Construction of the AB-Dome is easy; the enclosure film is
spread upon the ground, the air pump is turned on, and the cover rises to its
planned altitude and supported by a small air over-pressure. The offered method
is cheaper by thousand times than protection of city by current anti-rocket
systems. The AB-Dome may be also used (height up to 15 and more kilometers) for
TV, communication, telescope, long distance location, tourism, high placed
windmills (energy), illumination and entertainments. The author developed
theory of AB-Dome, made estimation, computation and computed a typical project.
Discussion and results are in the end of article.
\\ ( , 835kb)

You know what's really cool, however? We can use these domes for tourism!

Anyway, I'll remain quite skeptical of this project until I see some experimental results...

For those familiar with the APS March Meeting, note that this article was filed under "general physics."

Ice cream and games night with my Somerville students

Today I hosted my first ice cream and games night with my students in Somerville. The term starts tomorrow, so the timing was good (for example, there are no problem sheets due tomorrow). I wanted to do this last term, but I needed my stuff to arrive and for me to unpack first. By then, we were at the end of the term and the only possible day would have conflicted with a Somerville party. That obviously wasn't going to happen.

The inspiration for this is twofold: (1) The basic idea comes from the good old 'pie and ice cream' nights the RAs use to host in Lloyd; (2) I want to get to know my students better in a different environment---especially the students that I haven't had in tutorial sessions---and it's also good for them to get to know me in a different environment (seeing what music I listen to, what games I play, discussing non-academic stuff, etc.); (3) I remember the stories of Richard Feynman getting to know students, that's something I would like to bring to Oxford, and living in residence at Somerville gives me a mechanism to actually be able to do this.

Oxford prides itself on having a history of close interactions between students and faculty/tutors. I see some of this, and it's certainly much more common to see students and faculty hanging out than it is in the States but much of it seems to have lapsed a bit from how I have heard it was in the days of yore. (Maybe it wasn't really that way, but some of the whispers from yesteryear that have made it into books and movies suggest that it sometimes has been.) Thus, I am hoping that we can have some more social gatherings like this among the Somerville math crowd during my tenure here. Faculty and students are definitely much closer here than they are at the other places I've been---it's basically along the lines of what I have seen at several of the liberal arts schools in the States.

In addition to the ice cream (from the really awesome local place across the street), we had juice and some other junk food. We also played some Monopoly (the Dodger's edition, so I could wax poetic about my favorite team just a little bit as well) and took advantage of the fact that I now have four Wii controllers by playing some Wii Sports. Several of my students made Miis; a few of them were good resemblances and a couple of them were absolutely hilarious. (I can copy these directly onto my computer with a USB stick, right? I want to post them if it isn't too annoying to do so.) I encouraged them to make Wiis of "Somerville personalities" (though I didn't mention any names).

Overall, I think the night was a great success and I very much look forward to having more of them.

2008 Grammy Nominations

Here are the 2008 nominations for Grammy awards. (For people in the Old World, the Grammys are American music awards that are given out by critics to music that isn't necessarily popular, well-liked, or good. Some of them are one or more of the three, but I suspect that that's mostly an accident. Truth be told, there are always a few high radio-airplay songs in the list if for no other reason than because there would probably be rather violent riots if Kanye West weren't nominated for something.)

It has now been close to two decades since there was much overlap at all between the music I like and the newfangled stuff being played on the radio (there are always a few notable exceptions) and more than 90% of the songs nominated for some award to which I have listened (and I am counting sounds when I have only heard a part of them rather than the whole thing --- I can thank a commercial for that one) come from one of two albums: An Ancient Muse by Loreena McKennitt (nominated for best contemporary world music album) and Beauty & Crime by Suzanne Vega (which was nominated for some sort of album engineering award). I also recognize a few songs as covers of songs I know, though I haven't technically heard the nominated versions of them. I've heard of many of the artists who were nominated, but there were still a rather large number of unfamiliar names.

So why am I blogging about this? First, I relished the chance to write the snarky first paragraph above. Second --- and this is the reason I was curious enough to check the nominations in the first place --- a mathematician was nominated for his role in helping restore a Woody Guthrie recording. That's really cool!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Faraday Wave Blues

Courtesy DSWeb (SIAM's online dynamical systems magazine), here is a bluesy YouTube video about holes in Faraday patterns. The narrator has trouble keeping a straight face at the end of the video, but in general this is extremely amusing for quite a while. As discussed in this article, this video (and other ones with different narratives and background sounds) started life as a non-winning entry in the Gallery of Fluid Motion. Maybe my nonlinear science gallery video will ultimately have a similar fate?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Back in the Old World

I arrived in Oxford today, and I'm really tired. I actually made it just in time for a brief SCR meeting. (Q: "How long have you been back?" A: "About 2 minutes.") It was held in the same room where I can get espresso, which definitely encouraged my attendance.

I had a shitload of snail mail waiting for me (a relatively light load at my apartment, but a ton at my office --- still no reimbursement from Charter, however), and about 50 or so e-mails had accrued in the roughly 24 hours since I had last checked. I went through a bunch of the snail mail, though there are a couple of things (principally ones related to e-mails I received while I was out of town) about which I need to ask people. A couple of the e-mails are also going to require some work on my part once I talk to the relevant people. I also need to do some marking (though that stuff is not yet on my desk) and some lecture organization, though that will need to wait until a meeting that is happening on Tuesday. I also should finish unpacking the boxes in my office, and I think I'll get through a bit of that tomorrow. However, I think I'll also have time to come close to finishing draft 3 of my grant proposal and I think I'll go to the local indie theatre and watch the Bob Dylan biopic. (By the way, I watched Tootsie on the airplane. I had heard good things about it for years, so I'm glad I finally had a chance to watch it. The film had some excellent performances---including one by Bill Murray, who displayed many of his now-famous mannerisms.)

Among the snail mail I got were the statistics (plus comments) from my student evaluations from my perturbation methods course last term. Thankfully, the students were very pleased with how I did (the evaluations were actually through the roof in the positive direction, so let's hope I can continue that). The only really big complaint was my messy handwriting, which has been a constant struggle with my teaching. I think my next lecture is in a room with a whiteboard rather than a chalkboard, and that will help things a bit. I'll try to remember to write bigger, however. Some students thought the course was too hard, but not as many as I was expecting. A few students asked for more examples, though given the limited time and all the stuff we have to cover, that may be hard to accommodate even though in principle I highly agree with the request. People should be cautious about encouraging things like my sense of humor in class, because that's the type of fuzzy-headed liberal thinking that leads to my playing "Tarzan Boy" over and over again. :) (On that note, I will be able to borrow season 3 of Angel from a local very soon and once he gets the rest of Buffy on DVD---he has some of it on video tape---I'll be able to continue with season 6 of that as well. Or I'll buy some of it, especially if I can find it at a reasonable price.)

I also listed reasonably closely to Travis's new mix CD today. It seems solid in general, and there are a couple of songs that sound really good. At the moment, I can't figure out what I did with the 2006 mix CD (the one at the end of the year, not the one that went with Coachella). I might need this one sent to me again, but we'll see if I faked myself out by putting it in a strange spot.

I have a couple more things to mention from the Joint Math Meetings. My student Alex, who attended the conference, e-mailed me to let me know that she did very well on her talk (I had to leave before then to catch my train) and that she got good feedback in terms of both ideas and opportunities. That is always excellent news! Alex also mentioned that my name was called in the Exhbitors Hall, which means I won something. That was news to me, so it also means that I wasn't there to claim it. I admittedly filled in a number of these things---more than usual, I think---so we'll see if this was one of the raffles where they'll send it to me later or if I got disqualified from not being there. The most interesting thing being given away (as far as I was able to figure out) was an iPhone.

One of the unfortunate things about this conference was that I was so busy that there were several people I know who I barely had time to say 'hi' to (or was so intent on going wherever it is that I was going) that I didn't even get to do that. Basically, enough things were going on that the social part of the conference had to be curtailed a bit. This is rather unfortunate, as that is one of the reasons I usually enjoy this conference. I did get a chance to have lunch with science writer Barry Cipra (who I know from numerous previous conferences) on Wednesday, but I had to miss the undergrad student poster session (which is usually one of the conference highlights for me) and a talk on mathematics in the social sciences to attend the entirety of the marathon nonlinear waves session on Tuesday. (I also couldn't see Terry Tao's talk on stability of solitons in the nonlinear Schrodinget equation, which occurred not only during the session but also during my talk. Because of the asinine scheduling, we lost half our audience for the 1 hour that that talk was going on.)

After the nonlinear waves session ended, the session organizer (a collaborator of mine) hosted a party at his place. He's from Mexico, so the party had traditional Mexican food that kicked my ass. (Well, I was able to handle the tortilla chips, the sparkling apple cider, and the desserts.) It turns out that there was a snake at the party: My collaborator has a pet boa constrictor at home---he also has pet black widows in his office, but I managed not to notice them at all when I was there for a while on Saturday---that was living up to its name on Tuesday because it constricted people. A couple people asked it for it to be put around their necks for pictures---I'll try to look for one at some point, so that I can post it---and then very sharply asked for it to be extracted from their necks. This snake is not as large as it would be if in the wild, so it was maybe 5-6 feet long instead of several times that length (in which case it would also have a larger cross-sectional width). Although the party was very fun, it conflicted directly with the Project NExT reception, which is another of my favorite Joint Math Meetings events that I had to miss this year. Why do the two best parties have to be at the same time? That's so frustrating. Some of the people I didn't get a chance to talk to are people I know from Project NExT, so as a result I missed out on a whole group of my peeps almost entirely this time around. All of us were very busy doing our own things this time, and in my case it seemed rather extreme this year.

I think that's it for the Joint Math Meetings blogging for this year. I'll add more if I think of it. Now I'll try to finish off my end-of-year reviews in the next few days, and then I can do things like review Rock Band and list a few songs to which I'd like to jam. (Pump it up!)

Game Theory and Showering

Here is a recently-posted paper about game theory and showering:

Date: Thu, 10 Jan 2008 10:32:41 GMT (62kb)

Title: Taking a shower in Youth Hostels: risks and delights of heterogeneity
Authors: Christina Matzke and Damien Challet
Categories: physics.soc-ph
Comments: 15 pages, 6 figures
Tuning one's shower in some hotels may turn into a challenging coordination
game with imperfect information. The temperature sensitivity increases with
number of agents, making the problem possibly unlearnable. Because there is in
practice a finite number of possible tap positions, identical agents are
unlikely to reach even approximately their favorite water temperature.
Heterogeneity allows some agents to reach much better temperatures, at the
of higher risk.
\\ ( , 62kb)

By the way, the title of the paper sent my mind in a bad direction. Also, I suspect that the authors neglected to include the effects on the dynamics of playing The Ride.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

More from the Joint Math Meetings

I have a bit of time at the moment before a 1:30 meeting and I've dealt with various urgent e-mails the best that I can before tomorrow's work day starts in Oxford, so here's some more of the promised blogging.

In the 'about bloody time' department is SIAM's new journal dedicated to undergraduate research and exposition intended for undergraduates. I heard rumors about something like this a few years ago (though in a slightly different form than what ultimately came to pass), and I'm very pleased that it's finally here. It is long overdue. Hopefully, it will be as effective as I think it can be.

I gave my two talks. On Monday, I discussed social networks as a vehicle for teaching computational linear algebra. My perspective is based on two theses: (1) No student should get a bachelors in mathematics without having at least some computational algebra; and (2) students taking linear algebra think that it is a dead subject rather than a vibrant one. Basically, we should exploit the ubiquity of things like Google and Facebook and the fact that such things from everybody life can give students relevant intuition. If they become better at web stalking as a result, so much the better! (By the way, I should mention that Oxford fails on this count because our math majors seem to hardly see any numerics at all before they graduate, let alone some of the specific things they ought to see. It's pretty atrocious, actually. I hope this can be changed.) As a result of this talk, I basically got an offer to write another book in addition to the one I have planned about mathematics and sports. I didn't sign a contract yet, but the publisher is planning to send me free copies of a couple of their graph theory books in the relevant series (which I am certainly interested in having!) so that I can see examples of other books they've published. My talk yesterday concerned nonlinear waves in granular lattices (a.k.a., chains of beads). It went pretty well, though half the audience of our session skipped my talk and the one immediately before it so that they could go see Terry Tao give a very abstract talk about stability of solitons in the nonlinear Schrodinger equation. I certainly don't blame them---he's rather famous and these recent results are quite important---but it was absolutely retarded of the conference organizers to schedule a plenary talk about solitons at the same time as a session that is devoted predominantly to solitons. Whose idea was this?

On Monday, I saw an absolutely fabulous talk by Robert Lang about mathematics and origami. Lang is a Caltech alum (he was a Scurve) and is officially a laser physicist by vocation, but he's also one of the foremost researchers and practitioners of origami.

Another interesting thing I saw on Monday was a set of short mathematically-oriented comedy plays that were written and performed by some of the conference attendees. A couple of them were actually pretty good, though the first couple (especially the second one) dragged on. I'm glad that I stayed for the better ones.

I'll have a little more to write later.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Tales from the arXiv: excellent rapper name edition

The following article just got posted on the arXiv:

arXiv:0712.3008 (*cross-listing*)
Date: Tue, 18 Dec 2007 17:45:03 GMT (606kb)

Title: Classical and Quantum Features of the Mixmaster Singularity
Authors: Giovanni Montani, Marco Valerio Battisti, Riccardo Benini, Giovanni
Categories: gr-qc astro-ph hep-th quant-ph
Comments: 166 pages, 16 figures, ~500 references. Invited Review paper to
appear on Int. J. Mod. Phys. A. Comments are welcome to the e-mail address
This review article is devoted to analyze the main properties characterizing
the cosmological singularity associated to the homogeneous and inhomogeneous
Mixmaster model. After the introduction of the main tools required to treat the
cosmological issue, we review in details the main results got along the last
forty years on the Mixmaster topic. We firstly assess the classical picture of
the homogeneous chaotic cosmologies and, after a presentation of the canonical
method for the quantization, we develop the quantum Mixmaster behavior.
Finally, we extend both the classical and quantum features to the fully
inhomogeneous case. Our survey analyzes the fundamental framework of the
Mixmaster picture and completes it by accounting for recent and peculiar
outstanding results.
\\ ( , 606kb)

My immediate thought on seeing this: Don't you think "Mixmaster Singularity" would be a great name for a rapper?

In other news, Goose Gossage got elected to the Hall of Fame this year. It's about bloody time. Bert Blyleven's dramatically larger vote total provides hope that the voters will finally wise up and elect him as well.

I'll post more stuff from the conference when I get a chance. This will include some comments about the boa constrictor at today's party. (Apparently, it's actually called a boa constrictor constrictor.) Anyway, this stuff is coming reasonably soon. I'll also finish up my year-end reviews and so on.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Tales from Exhibitors Hall

There are several types of booths in exhibitors hall. Among the groups that exhibit at the Joint Math Meetings every year are the following:

1) Commercial publishers
2) Academic societies (MAA, AMS, SIAM, ASA, etc.)
3) Various programs (Budapest Summers, Project NExT, etc.)
4) A few universities
5) Individuals and companies who sell mathematically inspired art, puzzles, t-shirts, etc.
6) An art gallery (ok, this seems like more of a compilation, but it's there every year, and it's usually pretty good)
7) The tourism bureau from the city hosting the JMM the following year
8) Navajo jewelers (yes, they really are there every year --- so presumably they are selling enough of their stuff to justify it)

This year, however, there was a booth in Exhibitors Hall for which my immediate reaction was WTF!: There was a booth selling a product to make one's fingernails harder.

On the subject of "awesome," one old guy at the conference was wearing a t-shirt that said, "I'm a better kisser than I am a mathematician." I was pretty amused by it, but there also seems to be a hint of desperation there.

A Mathematical Phenomenon

Because I was busy attending a grant proposal writing workshop, I only saw one talk today. (Note that at 8:30 pm, I will be going to this year's Gibbs Lecture, which is one of the big events at this meeting every year. Hence, I'll end up having attended two talks today.) The speaker was Terry Tao, who I know by reputation but whom I never actually had the chance to see speak before. His introducer described him aptly as follows: "He is a phenomenon." My mind immediately went in the expected direction...

As usual, I've already run into a lot of people I know. I also recognized a mathematician I know at the Ghirardelli chocolate and ice cream store (which is much larger than the one in Pasadena; they really had a nice setup), though I didn't talk to him. I wasn't even sure it was the guy I had in mind (i.e., I thought it might be a random person who looked kind of like him) until I saw him at the conference today. I went to lunch and worked with one of my collaborators yesterday, and I today went to lunch with someone else I know. I also made a point to drop by and see my contact at Princeton University Press in their booth in the exhibitors hall and (as always) ran into lots of people amidst the usual hustle and bustle. Finally, I went to a couple of the usual receptions I attend at this meeting and got enough free food that I won't need dinner tonight. There will be another reception after the Gibbs lecture, so hopefully I'll get to have some dessert there.

Tomorrow, I will be giving one talk and I'll also be interviewed for a podcast meant to accompany the AMS "Mathematical Moment" that is based on my research on Congress.

That's it for now.

Update: The Gibbs lecture was really good. The speaker was Avi Wigderson, and the talk concerned the relationship between randomness and computational complexity. I think that several of you (Lemming, in particular, comes to mind) would have really enjoyed the talk. Many of these lectures have had accompanying survey articles in the past, so if I'll try to pass along a link if that eventually appears.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

What happens in San Diego stays in San Diego

Well, this assumes that I actually get to San Diego. Plan A (hitch a ride from a collaborator) appears to be undergoing a last-minute cancellation to the storm that has hit Los Angeles. (Next we're going to have locusts --- or at least angry hornets.) It looks like I'll be heading down south by Amtrak instead tomorrow (via getting a ride to a Gold Line metro station in Pasadena and taking the metro to Union Station), though it's still feasible that that could change back to getting a ride.

Starting on Sunday, I will be attending the Joint Math Meetings.

On Monday, I am co-running a session on using technology for teaching. My interest in this is the use of blogs and wikis, but some other stuff will be discussed as well.

On Tuesday, I am giving a talk on wave propagation in phononic crystals. That is, you hit a one-dimensional chain of beads and study the properties of the ensuing wave.

On Wednesday, I am giving a talk on computational linear algebra and social networks. This talk is part of the "MAA Session on Innovative and Effective Ways to Teach Linear Algebra." My talk made it in under the 'innovative' rubric.

More than any other conference, this is the annual one in which I am invited to several receptions and parties---with multiple things that I would like to attend occurring simultaneously. I will also get to see some friends from other fields of mathematics who I don't see at other conferences.

As promised, I'll try to provide some snarky commentary in this very spot. (I also owe you some more year-end reviews and a discussion of Rock Band, but I'll get to that stuff later.)

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The not-quite-regular cousin dinner

As some of you probably know, I have cousins. Lots of them, in fact. Among other things, this means that some of my ancestors apparently fucked like bunny rabbits. (OK, that statement's not technically accurate for numerous reasons, but I think it's funny, so it's staying.)

Occasionally, I even see my cousins---like tonight, when we got together for dinner at Island's in West LA. Islands is another of the restaurants I really like that I miss now that I am in the UK, so I was pleased when that was the suggested location. The group of cousins that met today were those on my father's side. This was the third of our "annual" dinners that has taken place during the last roughly 7 years.

On this occasion, only two cousins were missing: Brooke Porter, who is at home in New York at the moment (though we did talk to her briefly on the phone and passed the phone around the table); and Debbie Porter (the eldest), who has been AWOL for O(20) years. I'm pretty sure I actually met Debbie once. As far as I can tell, nobody even knows where or how to find her anymore. The youngest, Andrew Porter, is now in college at University of Arizona. His comment about USC was the best line of the night. ("USC is not a real school. It has a condom as a mascot!") Jeffrey Porter is the brother of Brooke, Andrew, and Debbie. Their father is Jack Porter, the youngest of the three original Porter brothers. (And, yes, they were "original" in some sense, because the family name was changed to Porter upon their entry into the U.S. for reasons for prejudice---that is, to try to avoid it---and pronounceability.)

The middle of the original Porter brothers is Abe, whose hair currently resembles that of Shirley Temple (except for its gray color). His kids are Scott Porter (the second oldest member of the family present tonight) and Leslie Porter.

My father, Samuel, is the oldest of the three original Porter brothers. My brother Adam was today's elder statesman. My sister Tamara (Tammy) was also present.

Among the Porter cousins, Adam, Tammy, Jeffrey, and Leslie live in Los Angeles. Andrew's official home is still here at some level, though he only comes back during college breaks at this point. Note that 7 of us came to dinner, and we used 6 cars to do it. I was the only one sensible enough to mooch a ride.

I'm tempted to make comments about the baldness rank-ordering among the males, but maybe I'll just get ahold of recent pictures at some point and post them.

Now let's see how long it takes for snarky comments to show up...

Tales from the arXiv: Former student edition

This is something that is going to become increasingly common over the next several years, but one of my former undergraduate advisees (Austin Webb) has coauthored a paper (he's the second author) that has now been posted to the arXiv.

Here is the information about the article:

Title: Wavefunction preparation using a quantum computer
Authors: Alexei Kitaev and William A. Webb
Categories: quant-ph
Comments: 10 pages, 3 figures
In this paper we describe a set of algorithms for preparing certain quantum
states (representing continuous functions) on qubit ensembles. This research is
part of a broader effort to develop techniques for digital simulation on
quantum computers. We present an algorithm that prepares an ensemble of qubits
into a wavefunction corresponding to a multidimensional Gaussian. This
algorithm uses a very simple subroutine to prepare a set of independent
one-dimensional Gaussian states and then employs a reversible transformation to
produce an arbitrary Gaussian. These Gaussian states have applications in
multidimensional resampling, a technique that allows for simulation of
wavepacket stretching and squeezing using a fixed grid.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

2008 Inductees in Rock & Roll Hame of Fame

All this time spent playing Rock Band over the past couple of weeks reminded me to go and check the identities of the 2008 inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

They are Leonard Cohen (who everybody knows), The Dave Clark Five, Madonna, John Mellencamp, and The Ventures.

Of these new members, Madonna (who is obviously a very worthy selection) is the one who is definitely part of my paradigm. Of course, most of the songs of hers that I really like are her older pieces. All of this said, she's a complete tool, as we found out at Coachella a couple of years ago (or, at the very least, that removed any doubt there might have been). In terms of talent and musical achievement, however, she's certainly top notch.

Leonard Cohen has always received high critical praise, though I only really know him for recording the definitive version of "Everbody Knows".

I like a couple of John Mellencamp's songs a lot, but I'm not overly familiar with how much critical praise he's gotten---presumably quite a bit given his 2008 induction.

I have heard of The Dave Clark Five and The Ventures, though I can't remember any of their songs at the moment.

Eventually, I hope that Depeche Mode will get their rightful place in the Rock & Roll Hall. I know they've gotten at least some consideration in the past, so I suspect it will happen eventually. (I also suspect that they may have to wait in line for several performers who are likely ahead of them in the queue.)

In the near future, I'll post a blog entry on rock band---ideally with a picture of the guitarist I created, although it seems like it takes more trouble than it should to actually do this.