My Zunivers

28 April 2007

You're Too Familiar With Your Repertoire

...when you listen to a recording you have on hand and say "Did you hear those two alto notes? They aren't using the Rutter edition."


I'm very sad that tomorrow is probably going to be my last concert with this choir. This choir isn't the sort you find everywhere. As our director said tonight "How many of you is this your first time with the Faure? [many hands go up] Well, you should know that Faure's Requiem is the bread and butter of choral music. You'll hear it everywhere. Everyone does it. But hardly any of them will do it like you do it. I once had a student who sang this piece with me come back a few years later and say 'You turned me into a musical snob.'" What else would you expect when learning from a musical snob?

I've made friends with a bunch of crazy old guys and a couple of students. They're all the sort of people who won't ever have your back in a fight because they'll be too busy enjoying the extra elbow room at the buffet table once you're gone; I will miss them, these men after my own heart. And I'll also miss the challenges. I can't think of where to go after being able to sing the Missa Solemnis in my sleep (Rachmanionoff's Vespers, maybe?), although I'm sure there is somewhere to head. My lower ribs hate me. But above that I'll miss the director we have. This guy doesn't look at the choir and ask "What can they do?" He looks at what he wants to do and asks, as if anything is possible, "How do we get there?" I like that attitude because it matches well with something else in life I enjoy. Average people are more intelligent than you can imagine, if you just tease it out of them. So too are average singers better than you would ever think, if you just herd them in the proper direction. I think there are a lot of decent choirs in this country, but there are few chances to sing with one like this. I'm going to miss it a lot, and I wish that I coudl stay, and that all the singers I know could come, and that we could all make beautiful music together.

The turnout for tonight's concert, by the way, was absurdly low. I thought the Missa Solemnis concerts were empty! Hah! Oh, well. A few hundred more people would pump us up better, but that's life. In a society where a six pack of Yoplait is more culture than one family can handle in a night without crapping themselves, we probably can't ask for much more tomorrow.

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27 April 2007

Do I, Or Don't I

Live blog HPC day?

I mean, who that reads this blog wouldn't want to know what's going on over here? I'm in this room full of nerds, and there's this guy in the front of the room yammering about NSF supported computing centers and the Cray XT3 at PSC and stuff.

I think I'll leave all of you alone and go read Fark.

Update: Network topolgy overload! Ha-ha.

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Life Without Cars

Well, go read about it. Orson Scott Card has made me mostly happy. My inner urban renewer (who I think is much more rational than the average person's inner suburb lover, and who also understands that the countryside minus the suburbs is as great a place as any of the renewed cities he can imagine) is pleased.

We no longer live in cities. We don't live in towns. We don't live in the country, either. We don't live anywhere at all. Just island neighborhoods in splendid isolation, with roads so convoluted that half our driving is just to get out of the island and onto a road that goes somewhere.

I'm pleased that the artcle gets into urban renewal without necessarily getting into new urbanism (which I loathe). Also, there is a really rational set of reasons to reduce our use of cars. The analysis he gives about oil running out is the same one I have, inclduing this

We can only make drastic changeovers in a time of surpluses. Anybody who thinks the "free market" will always guarantee surpluses understands neither the market nor history. It is strict government oversight that has softened the economic booms and busts that used to devastate us; the free market is perfectly happy to collapse under stress and leave us eating acorns.

I'm sure the neighborhood capitalists will be along shortly to call me a socialist. If you read Orson Scott Card's solution, you'll find it more libertarian than commie. And he goes on to say that carbon dioxide and global warming aren't related, just to make sure You Republicans (that's not "Republicans," it's "You Republicans," the irony being that only those of us who aren't You Republicans know who the You Republicans are) still like him.

So go read it.

A tip of my blogging hat to Nick for posting a link to this article.


26 April 2007

A Tasteless Joke

Did you hear the one about the tenor who was so stupid the section noticed?

Sorry, I couldn't resist. I could really use a hit of "The Young Lutheran's Guide To the Orchestra" right now.

Anyway, I've been Doing Things. My adviser and I are talking at length every day quite seriously about science, which is unusual but productive. I realized why even though he and I have some very different approaches we still get along well. Both of us learn best by talking, arguing, and listening. It turns out that Le Projet Perpetuel puts out what appears to be a very unphysical result (we'll see what happens when I repeat one of the simulations; did I mention that the HPC people screwed up the scheduling software libraries?), so we're concerned. Luckily, we have all the tools we need, so if the model is screwed up we can rewrite literally five lines of code and in a week or so have it all fixed. It's still annoying, though. When will this stinking project end?

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20 April 2007

Here's Some Real News

Okay, it isn't much, but it's given me some funny thoughts.

"Pestilence Still Death's Top Choice Among Horsemen"

related articles:
"Why War Lost Death's Favor"
"Famine, We Hardly Know You!"
"Jersey Drivers Seek Little-Known 'Fifth Horseman' Title, Would Become Death's Best Friend"

Details at 11.

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19 April 2007

New Science

Today is a happy day for me, because for the first time in a long time I've done something fun that nobody else has done before. Unlike the last time I did something original, I am actually satisfied because this new thing new and meaningful. Unlike the time before that, my study of stable phase space for the happy bowling equations, this result is actually useful for any theorist in our field. And this one is going to get published (I can add it to the otherwise rather boring and mundane results so far for le projet perpetuel). Granted, it wasn't brilliance on my part, because I needed to do only a simple thing to make a new use for someone else's complicated thing. No PRL paper for me. But it's cute at least.

You'll need to see me for more details than that. See me soon, though, because I'll be morose as usual by Saturday at the latest.

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17 April 2007

An Update On Sumatra...


So much for the ongoing national dialogue cum variations on a theme of Imus hype. Now it's time for ongoing national dialogue on themes cum nutjob shoots up large university hype. So, anyone dare to make predictions about what next week's ongoing national dialogue will cover?

Seriously, when the people who make sure that everyone's attention span on events lasts ten minutes go on to encourage ongoing national dialogue (that would be the mass media), I just want to move to Siberia or some other place where I don't get told what we're all supposed to talk about for the long term this week.


14 April 2007

Positively Sloppy

Actually, it's wonderful. I just read a book called A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder--How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place.

I was attracted to this book for a few reasons. First, I don't keep a tidy ship. In all that, I manage to do some of life's more difficult things, like study theoretical physics and resist the urge to punch New York drivers in the face. On top of that, a lot of people I know are similar. They do great things, some of them much more impressive than anything I can conjure, and are just as much, if not more, of a mess than I am. It's not only clutter at home or the pile on the desk that I'm talking about. It's also temporal things like never writing down appointments, and the occasionaly olfactory mess that we call forgetting to bathe. Note that I'm not saying that all the accomplished people I know are messy, and I'm also not saying that organized people are inferior. What I am saying is that being diosorganized is not necessarily an impediment to a happy and productive life.

I admit, though, that the knee jerk reaction to all of this by organized people does tend to be a little less than intellectually curious. "But being tidy just is better," they say when told it might not be. When they're told that Einstein had a messy house (and I won't even begin to start wiht C. S. Lewis), they say "Just imagine how much more he'd have gotten done if they were tidyer!" This sort of reaction isn't exactly the brightest on the market, and people would do well to try to understand rather than offhandedly dismiss. Fat chance that A Perfect Mess will help, as it's one of those books that self selects its audience and preaches to the choir (what nonfiction doesn't?). But we can hope.

I, for one, actually was curious about this subject, so I read the book.

One major thing that the book points out near the beginning is that people who champion high organization do an improper cost-benefit analysis. A deck of cards is a nice analogy for spatial messes, where things are scattered over an area. If you consider two decks of cards, one shuffled randomly and one unshuffled, it's easier to find a particular card in the organized deck. This is similar to the way that you can find things more quickly in an organized pile, right? Okay, sure. That's what most people say. Unfortunately, most people stop here, when we've only done the benefit part of the analysis. What about the cost? The cost of making a deck of cards organized is quite a bit higher than making one disorganized. Similarly, the time it takes to organize things is longer than the time it takes to let them be a mess.

How is that to say, though? What about a brand new deck of cards? Those need to be shuffled to be disorganized, but they're organized out of the box, right? Honestly, that's not a fair place to start, because it's taking the card analogy away form the real world. In the real world wehre things get moved and used, disorganized is a much more normal state of affairs. Even in a deck of cards that actually gets moved and used disorganized is a more normal state of affairs. It's perfectly fair to take into account the cost of ordering a random deck instead of the cost of randomizing an ordered one because random is what you're more likely to be where you start. In fact, this tendency toward disorganized is why the "see how long it takes to find cards game" doesn't always favor organizing. If you take the difference in finding card finding times and then factor in the difference in organizing times (these have been measured well; the numbers are in the book), you need to play at least a few dozen times before the organized pile comes out ahead.

The cost benefit analysis here shows that there are optimum messes that depends not only on the thing that's messed or ordered but also on the situation in which the mess or order goes. Too much mess is definitely bad if you're going to play "find the card" a few hundred times. Too much organization is definitely bad if you're playing for best of three. It isn't the cards that determines the optimum, it is the situation in which the cards find themselves-- how many games are being played. As I said, being diosorganized is not necessarily an impediment. Qutie beyond that and to the other side, being organized can get in the way.

Most people don't pick up on optimum mess, but they use it to their advantage every day. This is something the book didn't discuss much, but something that I was thinking about at the time I came across the book. I'll give you an example of a real person I know (especially because he's a pretty tidy person and I want to poke a little good natured fun his way about this subject).

My friend is a contractor who remodels houses. He has a truck where he keeps the tools he takes to job sites. Of course, that's not exactly where he keeps them. When he gets to the job, a few of the tools are pulled out from the truck. One thing he might do with a tool when he's done using it and he is switching to using another tool is to set down the first tool somewhere out of the way. Why, I ask, isn't he putting it back in the truck? Well, that's kind of obvious. He is going to use it again in a few minutes, and it's silly to waste time going to the truck and back every time he needs it. But the place that the tool belongs is on the truck, not on the floor somewhere in the house he's remodeling, even if that spot is out of the way. In other words, to save a little bit of time after using a tool, my friend doesn't completley clean up after himself. He lets his tools be a bit messier than perfectly stored, and he benefits from that tiny bit of disorganization.

One thought upon reading this will probably be "No, he's not making a mess, because he knows where the tool is. He's temporarily saying it belongs off the truck, and then he's just putting it where it belongs. And he's even putting it out of the way." That is a fair statment, I say, because it's one that every messy person makes about every mess they make. Our culture is so entrenched in the idea that messy is bad that we define ourselves out of being messy whenever possible. We assert that messes waste time necessarily, and then we conclude that anything we do that saves time is not messy, because it's not wasting time, and therefore must be somehow organized. Of course if the action was purposeful (remembeing where something is when it is out of place, putting it to the side, and so on) there isn't possibly any messiness going on it, because we don't make messes because that's uncouth and improper and wasteful and... unorganized.

So if while reading a book we become thirsty and place the book on the coffee table, instead of on the bookshelf where it belongs, until we return with a glass or water, we don't simply admit that we temporarily made a little mess to save ourselves some time. Instead we seem to say "No, because of the situation the place the book belongs isn't the shelf, it's the coffee table, right whre I put it. I know it's there. So I'm not being messy. And besides, I saved time. Messes can't do that." It might be fair to say that, simply because everyone who makes little messes says it, but it's probably incorrect. In teh long run, the book is not really where you would say it "belongs." It would be better to say that you made a tiny mess to save some time, because that's exactly what you did. You didn't file those papers but instead made the ones on one subject stick out of the pile one way and those on another subject stick out in another way? that's your system? Your "system" is a bit of a mess, and for the love of the way we live comfortably stop avoiding that fact and embrace it.

The book is full of other examples, too. I won't spoil your fun by listing them all. (Well, okay, just one. Children hate routines. Psychologists know that routines of the wrong type at the wrong times in development can lead to behaviorlal problems and so on. So why so much empahsis on "get the kids on a routine and keep them there?" Because, I paraphrase the authors, adult society is dominated by organization whores who just insist that rigid organization is better for children whether it really is the best or not.) I will say, though, that the book points out the multifaceted nature of mess and organization. There is no one way to be messy and there is no one way to organize, and there is no one place in "organized" that is perfect for any situation at any time.

I do have some feeling for people who get depressed about messes. You know who I'm talking about. They don't see any good in any mess, they've never bothered to think that there could be something right about it, they have social ties who are cleanfreakish and fully willing to share how bad a single peice of clutter is*.... These are the people who hire organization coaches or go on shows like "Clean This Dump." are reaching for an ideal that is not necessarily the best. These sorts of people Unfortunately, they are reaching for the wrong kind of ideal. They're going after what is supposedly the best--organized to the max-- not what is really the best. There can be pathological mess problems, like hoarding, and there can be benefits from tidyness, for example in keeping food preparation area clean. But focusing on "all tidy all the time" adds a dimenstion of stress that soemtimes becomes just heartbreaking for me to watch. Unfortunately, I don't have enough feeling to help them, because part of it is that they can't, and even outright refuse, to get their minds around some messes being okay and their hearts out of what other people think.

That all said, I'm going to go to my clean laundry pile to find some socks, and then go read a paper that is on my pile of stuff in front of my bookshelf. And instead of cleaning it up, I'm going to go visit some people for a while. If you don't like my mess, you clean it up. Just make sure that when you do that you don't remove any of the method from my madness.

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11 April 2007

Media Dumbness Continues....

Oh, look, someone got fired for quoting Imus. I'm here to talk about this only as an example of media incompetence.

Currently the article gives this information about the context of the Imus quote--

Musselman [manager] said Smith [host] took it upon himself to use "I'm a nappy-headed ho" as the "Phrase that Pays" on the air at WSBG yesterday morning.

Bravo, Morning Call! Now, all that the readers needs to do is what I did-- find out exactly what that means! The newspaper of all places can't tell us, oh no. We need to go figure it out on our own!

Some might argue "But this is local news, so details get skipped because people just know." I say "Yeah, it is local news, but the Poconos down to Doylestown and over to Pottsville* is not exaclty a small town where everone knows everyone else. Put in the whole extra sentence needed to understand the situation and get on with life."

[*The area isn't quite that big. I'm being hyperbolic, okay?]


09 April 2007


A big rock.

Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, is a big red rock in the middle of Australia famous for being a big red rock in the middle of Australia.

That's it. Honest. Millions of parents drag kids from all over the country - hell, all over the damn world - to look at it. You're not even supposed to climb it or take photos of it, thus making it the third most boring and stupid tourist "attraction" on Earth after the Eiffel Tower and the grave of still-living Chuck Norris.

Funny stuff, that.

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New CDs

I just got the album Truckers Christmas in the mail! Good stuff. There is a touching songg by Logan Daniels about a trucker from Bethlehem, the one I'm in, who is racing home from Albany on Christmas Eve/Christmas because his wife is having a baby. Touching. Also on the CD are "Haulin' Mistletoe," "One More Truck Stop Christmas," "Truckers Need Christmas Too," and "Dear Santa (Bring Me a Brand New Dream Machine)" among others.

Also in the box, a CD of Double Bass works by Giovanni Bottesini that I couldn't hear well in my crappy computer seakers. I'll listen to it tonight.

I am also totally tempted to open up my sister's birthday present, which came in the same box, but that would be totally tacky.


Weather Gripes

To everyone complaining about the weather in the eastern US,

Where were your complaints about how wrong the weather was for most of last fall and early winter? You know, that other time in the past year that the weather wasn't normal at all?

Oh, that's right, you liked that abnormal weather.

Maybe you should continue this "what is normal" routine and admit that you're a bunch of altruists who really do care a lot that the weather is normal for this time of year. Not. If the temperature were as high above normal as it is below, you'd be all happy. Normal, therefore, doesn't have anything to do with what you're trying to say, and that's why you should stop bringing up normal. Poor abused normal.

My point, you see, is that if you don't like weather then you don't like it. I won't have a problem with that. But if you don't like the weather, your complaint should not focus on how the weather is different from normal. You should simply say that you don't like the weather. You won't spontaneously die when your subjectivity stops being covered by such a transparent veil of "objectivity."

Thanks awfully.


06 April 2007

My Evening Adventure

I'm sort of depressed right now, but I think that's because I just fell off a total high.

Tonight my wife and I went to dinner with my officemate-- good food all aroud but boy was the service slow-- and then back to campus so my wife could grade. After dropping of the wife and the officemate I parked near the wife's building and then walked to my office to gather my schtuff and go to her office.

On the walk to my office, I heard a sound, distant, but one that I recognized instantly. I turned my head slowly over my shoulder, and I saw it up the hill behind me. There was a street sweeper.

I ran up to the next level to watch it, of course. (Those unfamiliar with the campus must understand that it is built into a hillside and is terraced, albeit in a loose sort of way.) It wasn't brushing, but it was spraying some water and vacuuming. It parked there, so I then ran back down to my office, gathered my stuff, called my wife's office (I basically said "There's a street sweeper. I'm chasing it down on foot" and hung up), and then tore off up the hill in pursuit.

I caught up with the sweeper cleaning where it had parked and some of the nearby road. Bliss! The brushes were going!

It headed uphill on the lower level, and I headed in another direction guessing that it would break east once it got up to the next level. It did. So I got to watch it go by again, this time above me because I hadn't gotten all the way to where I wanted to go (that sucker could move!). I took off once more in pursuit up over by the dorms and back down the hill, following it as it went along brushing. It was kicking up a good cloud of dust, too, as it was brushing without any liquid to keep the dust down.

I followed at a trot as the sweeper opened up distance going down the hill. It disappeared out of sight, and I heard the vacuum go off. Oh no, I thought. I kept going, and caught some reflections from flashing yellow lights on a building downhill off campus. That helped me find it. Off in the direction I went, just in time to see it do not one but two passes through a parking lot that had only one entrance.

The brushes were spinning up a storm! It went by, and I could hear them wooshing. They were tilted forward for a nice deep scrubbing, the little lights above them turned on to help the driver see where they were doing their work. I got to the driver adjust the brush position, and I even got to see him slow down and adjust the tilt to clean out a pothole!

At that point, fearing that the driver would recognize that I was following him, I decided against introducing myself to the driver and asking for a ride (I was tempted) and instead gave up the chase and headed back to my wife's office. I showed up, giddy as a schoolboy, and quite ready to chat about my adventure. Alas, my wife was the only one there and she was too busy to get the whole story! Of course, from her office I could hear the sweeper nearby, and once or twice I bolted to the window to look. I didn't see it! The view from up there is limited.

I eventually remembered that I needed to get something at the library, so I went over to do that.

On the way back to my wife's office, in the parking lot up behind her math building, I heard a familiar sound and saw on the next building uphill the flashing of the sweeper!

I got msyelf a good position on the hillside, ignoring the funny looks form the students walking by-- "Why is that guy out here in the cold staring up the hill?" If they had asked out loud I could have answered. I wanted to be at just the right spot to see the brushes going but still be able to see the bottom of the truck. My spot was perfect, although a little far away. Binoculars would have helped. I got to see what I wanted, I just wasn't prepared so the view wasn't perfect.

This was the best street sweeper day ever for me. The only thing better might have been if one of the Chik-Fil-A cows had been riding it. I've never met a Chik-Fil-A cow. This was the first time I've followed a sweeper on foot, and on such challenging terrain four parking areas in one chase is a good count. The fifth was just icing on the cake. On foot is so much better than in a car (yeah, I admit it, I've done that, in Pennsylvania and Texas) because you get lots of angles, not just a rear view.

Of course, any such high must lead to a crash.

I'm heading to my in-laws' house for the weekend. Either I'll have plenty of time to post or I'll have none. I will quite likely get a chance to see my old roomie, too.

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05 April 2007

See What I'm Reading

I just discovered total science geek happiness. This is the most amazing thing in the world. Well, the most amazing thing short of Lee Iacocca saving Chrysler's butt again (but fat chance of that).

Fess up-- how many of you knew all about this and just never told me?

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04 April 2007

Which Reminds Me...

Recently an important question has come up--

Are we all going to die from global warming, or is the Kool-Aid Man going to get us first?

I know at least one professional who works in the field, and I will be asking her for her professional opinion. In the meantime, we amatuers can, of course, speculate away.

My take-- It's gonna be the Kool-Aid Man.

Some fundamentalists, including my pastor, would have me believe that I, in a fit of sugar induced delirium, am confusing the Kool-Aid Man with God again. Others would disagree, pointing out, rather dyslexically, that the majority of our cultural problems come either from confusing Jesus with Santa or from worshipping God instead of the Bible. I'm not making any of those mistakes. I just think that pitting the Kool-Aid Man against CO2 is simply no contest for the CO2. Even the CFCs will have to run for their lives. Pollutants of all kinds fear the almighty "OH, YEAAHH!" Kool-Aid Man is one big dude, and he's gonna turn on us. I just know it.

Of course, the fundies will be right about one thing-- the Kool-Aid Man is a flaming liberal. After all, nobody takes down walls quite like he does, and we can't have any of that.


This Week's Zunivers

My adviser liked the draft of the paper. We worked out our differences in comparing our results to the experiments, so we can now complete the conclusion. I will finish it tomorrow and then we will send it off to a few people for commenting (including a coauthor who is a coauthor becuase I completely hocked his code, with his permission of course).

Meanwhile, my life has been a mix of...

Failing to find time to go hiking

Partial boredom with this spring's choir selections

Resentment towards fundamentalist whackjobs who don't like us hip evangelicals

Partial boredom with my current music collection. I have little that I want to listen to lately.

Re-reading Moneyball for fun (actually for lack of a better book) so that I can have yet another summer of conversations with people morons about how batting average and "tools" are so important in baseball

Not watching car racing on TV because I can't

Fretting about jobs, finding a few more places to apply, and avoiding places that require writing a proposal (which is very difficult because I'm trying to change subfields; three years of the same old crap has gotten boring). That avoiding ends tonight, bugger all.

So, you can see, my life is so interesting that I've had so much to write about. And that's why you haven't seen more posts. As I told Eric the other day, I think that there is a maximum in my blog output that reflects the amount of work I have, which increases my fodder and need for release, and the amount of time I have to write, which decrease as work increases.

We're on a lazy minimum now.

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01 April 2007

Boring Day

Today was not a great day. I didn't eat a bit of real food, just two bowls of cereal, some fastnachts, a bit of some sort of frozen chicken-like product heated in the microwave, half a tube of Pringles, and some dried fruit to add something else with a little less fat. I've spent the past 12 hours wanting to go somewhere and having nowhere to go. I would have liked to have gone hiking, but by the time I would have been ready to go I wouldn't have had enough daylight to cover the rather long hike I want to take. There was a memorial service today for my friends' grandfather, too, and I would have gone to that (I don't believe in having fun with people during their good times and then ignoring their low times) but that was just too early in the day for me.

I tried listening to music but nothing really caught my ear. There's nothing worthwhile on my two TV channels. I don't have anything nice to read right now (I'm in the middle of one or two really dry academic type books). I've been online for nearly five hours now, since my wife went to bed, reading random brain-dissolving crap and looking at various bits of hiking gear (including options for replacement tips for my hiking poles and tons of stuff I'll never be able to get). I've even tried writing some music, but today is lacking the intersection of capability and inspiration (I've been humming some quarter tone stuff in my head, but I don't have software to work with quarter tone music and I'm nowhere near good enough to think it and write it on paper).

I think the highlight of the day was about an hour flipping through stacks of ungradded homework that my wife has sitting here, making fun of some thigns I saw and explaning to Wifey how I grade so fast. I should have just found a pen and went at it.

Perhaps Sunday will be a nicer day. Maybe I'll have somewhere to go or something to do.

I doubt it, but I can hope.

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