My Zunivers

29 September 2007

Big Fricking Whoop

Some science reporter has apparently got to do a little work on the informativeness department. Actually, he can take a lesson in the relationship between "mathematically possible" and "shown to exist" in theoretical physics and then we can haul him over to the "actually tell us something" room.

Of course, I'm just one of those old fashioned scientific realist types who thinks that science is empirical and news should actually tell us something.

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The Newest Cloud in the Garage

The last hurrah for the K cars, our 1995 special edition Plymouth Acclaim with the alloy wheels and cargo rack, is gone. Well, she isn't gone, but I no longer have her keys on my keyring (and in fact I don't know where I put them).

Today we welcomed to our wall-less garage a second year JR car, our friendly new Dodge Stratus. It has a 2.4 I4 EDZ engine (nobody calls them that, but after owning a K-car during the 21st Century I don't know if I can live with calling it a Neon engine). It also has alloy wheels, some power stuff, and looks quite silvery on the outside and quite black on the inside. My wife will probably write in her blog about how it has air conditioning, a CD player, and cup holders, which I think were near the top of her list, right after "Honda or Toyota" and right before "sunroof (optional)."

My wife and I are negotiating on a name for the car. Her choice is Brenda, which in my opinion is a name no car deserves. I prefer a German name like Gerda or Sieglinde or Ute, not only to make up for never having a chance to have a daughter with such a name but also to ballyhoo to the fact that, against my own ideals, I bought a Chrysler vehicle from the Period of German Occupation. Obviously we are trusting that this is a girl car. If she is a he, we'll know soon enough, when he throws a rod or some awful thing. Strangely enough, my mom's Korean car got a German name by accident.

After a few adjustments, I think I can drive the car comfortably. The accelerator and steering are a bit soft for my liking-- I like driving to be a bit physical-- but I can get to everything easily enough. I've rented this kind of car before (always when I rented a Neon and got thankfully upgraded) and those worked out fine.

I would post a picture if I had a good one, but I don't, so you'll just have to wait.

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27 September 2007

Clearing Things Up

I have enough friends outside academics that I think a little cleaning up of vocabulary is in order. All of this is of absolutely no consequence and is only a bother to intellectuals with too much time on their hands. Intellectuals with less time on their hands don't hang out outside academics (what people outside call the real world) but instead spend all their time in the real world (which is called academia by those in it). Only in the real world do these things matter.

There is a difference between a doctorate and a specific degree or title containing the word doctor. General talk of a doctoral degree or doctoral degrees is the only place where the word doctorate should be used. Just about any degree that has the word doctor in it is a doctorate. Nobody is a Doctorate of Something. They are doctors, and their degrees are doctorates. But note that their degrees, while doctorates, are never Doctorate of Something. The degrees are all Doctor of Something.

Moving on, my doctorate is not in physics, it is in philosophy. That is what Ph.D. means. It just so happens that I studied physics. Physics comes out of what used to be philosophy, back in the day when people studied theology, medicine, or philosophy. Physics grew out of natural philosophy, which a few centuries back was the name for the study of nature. If physics had come out of medicine, like gastroenterology did, then I would have a doctorate in medicine. While as a licensed and legal gastroenterologist I would be Doctor, I would be a Doctor of Medicine rather than a Doctor of Gastroenterology. So, back to business, it grates me when people say I am a Doctor of Physics. I've never heard of that degree or title, although it might apply informally to some gastroenterologists. Ask anyone over the age of 80.

Confused yet? If you just gave up talking about it, life would be simpler for you.

The word doctor comes out of the Latin for teacher. It took on a life of its own meaning something along the lines of "high degree" instead. Medical doctors seem to get into people's lives more often than other doctors, so the title of Doctor becomes confusing. Actually, it isn't confusing. The word Doctor means basically means medical doctor outside of the academic world. Rather than trying to get you to buck your plebeian social trends, I'll just say again that if you avoid the subject then you avoid confusion. The same is true if you avoid doctors of any sort, or what they call the real world.

One final note, most scum sucking lawyers have a degree that contains the word doctor (Juris Doctor, abbreviated J.D.) but we don't let them call themselves doctors at the front of their name. The reason is because it is a professional degree and on par with an academic master's degree. They can put their abbreviation at the back of their name, if they want. We also let them swap out the J.D. and call themselves "Esquire" instead, despite the fact that half of them probably couldn't help a knight if their life depended on it and few of them are truly gentlemen. I vote for letting them keep their silly title that does not match the silly name of their degree. They shouldn't use it in first person anyway.

That all said, I need a nap, and then I need to figure out what my next goal in life should be. Get up in the morning sounds reasonable, although it might be lowball even for me.

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Odss and Ends

I was looking over a form I'm filling out for someone, and I noticed that one of the questions is not grammatically correct. While I know what it is asking, the sentence is not asking what the author intends it to be asking. If it was just my life at stake and not the someone, I would pull out a red pen, circle the sentence, and write that I cannot fill in that section. As it stands, I will answer it anyway. This should make anyone in the education profession feel dirty, and call the English majors to action. It won't, but it should.

We're getting a car, on Friday afternoon in fact. The first thing I will do is read the manual. Silly of me, I know, but that's what I do. The sad thing is that the car we're buying is the only kind I've ever rented, and one of the three kinds of cars that I've ever driven, all of them from Chrysler. This weekend I'll need to make some late night trips so that I can learn how to use the new one. Suggest any names you might have. (I'm saying that to be polite. You lot were so unhelpful with the fish that I'm going to ignore your ideas.)

I need to find a job. My main problem with this, though, is that I need to do it on my own terms. My (former) adviser is hovering over me about it. I appreciate his help, but I need him to give it up for a week or two to let me breathe. Then I can get back to business, and I'll be happy to have him help.

The baby has decided that sleeping is Evil and crying is more fun. For the past two nights, she has been screaming at the top of her lungs every half hour for no identifiable reason. This is screaming that nursing doesn't even calm screaming. Walking around is quite helpful. Anyone want to come pace with us? I'm also trying Operation Anything That Moves. If she wants to be bounced up and down gently, why hold her instead of using the chair that lets me do it with my big toe?. It's been working for... ten minutes or so. Let's hope for more. I will have her doctor check the kid's hernia tomorrow. (She has an umbilical hernia. It's kind of cute, because she has a little belly bump instead of a belly button, but her intestines could get caught and cause problems.) Tomorrow the kid gets five or six vaccinations. Oh, goody, that will make the day even more fun.

I looked up my last name on Google. Would I be in the first 100 results? Wouldn't that make me accomplished, or something? There aren't many of us, but there are a good number, so I figured I had a sporting chance. It turns out that I was not in the first 100 results. My sister, however, is.

I'm enjoying learning this semester's choir music. We have exactly two pieces that we've rehearsed, both in German. They are quite beautiful. Have I ever mentioned that I think German is a lovely language? It's not harsh at all when done properly. It might have some hard consonants, but it flows so beautifully off the tongue. A nice melody just makes that better. I pointed out o my sister that I really have no idea what is going on in the soprano section. She doesn't know what the basses are doing. So I think we're even.

I've been intently watching The War, Ken Burns newest documentary,on PBS. If you're missing it now, you can see it again later this fall, but probably in weekly installments. It is a film about World War II, following the war in Europe, the Pacific, and here in the United States. It is really well done, with a lot of personal stories from veterans and people who knew them. If you like deep, you'll like this show.

23 September 2007

From UnNews

Anti-genocide group announces new plan to get American government to intervene in Darfur

Totally funny, and so sad that it even needs to be said.

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21 September 2007

Questions of Great Importance

When will the new season of This Old House start?


19 September 2007

Here's a New One

There is a man, whose name I am not using, who claims that a local government official has violated the copyright of his name, and is seeking $450 million in damages.

I, in my legal laity, would like to make a few points--

Point 1: The government official was performing official business of her employer, so to make more money the lawsuit should be against her and her employer.

Point 2: Even if it is copyright infringement, the defendant, who was doing her job, has an excellent argument for fair use

Point 2.5: and even if that is not true then the damages claimed are well in excess of any demonstrable loss.

Point 3: It is rather silly to sue someone to "make a point" when anyone with an understanding of common law can tell you why the point will never be made.

Point 4: It seems a bit odd to file a lawsuit in a public court and then claim that a judge has no authority in the case because it is a private matter.

Now I'll go worry about whether this guy is crazy enough to sue someone who says all of that for libel, slander, and sedition.

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Burning Water

Philip Ball has an interesting blog where he puts a lot of things that he writes for other media. I'm really happy with his recent post on the whole "burning water" thing, focusing specifically on recent claims that one could use salt water in an RF field as cheap source of power.

Here's what made me happiest--

It’s easy to scoff, but if the effect is genuine then it is also genuinely intriguing. Plain tap water apparently doesn’t work, but test tubes of salt water can be seen burning merrily with a bright yellow flame in the r.f. field. The idea, articulated with varying degrees of vagueness in news reports when they bother to think about such things at all, is that the r.f. field is somehow dissociating water into oxygen and hydrogen. Why salt should be essential to this process is far from obvious. You might think that someone would raise that question.

But no one does. No one raises any questions at all. The reports offer a testament to the awesome lack of enquiry that makes news media everywhere quite terrifyingly defenceless against bogus science.

And it’s not just the news media. Here is all this footage of labs and people in white coats and engineers testifying how amazing it is, and not one seems to be wondering about how this amazing phenomenon works. As a rule, it is always wise to be sceptical of people claiming great breakthroughs without the slightest indication of any intellectual curiosity about them.

You'll need to read the article if you don't know why water can't be a fuel source.

I find the above quote much more intriguing, because scientists everywhere share the same sentiments about popular science. If far-fetched claims are true, the most intriguing thing isn't speculation about applications but rather why the things works. Why doesn't anyone ask why?

My guess is that asking why isn't sensational enough. "Men Breaks Laws of Thermodynamics?" in news even with the question mark. "Laws of Thermodynamics Work for the 58,972,638,114,843 Time This Week" is just dull to people no matter how you put it.

The cynical view that a lot of scientists I know have is simple. Big story hits the news because the news isn't smart enough about science to see why it isn't news. People get frustrated at science for not coming through. Real scientists knew all along that it would amount to nothing, they weren't the ones said it would, but the value of their real science is what gets diminished due to public distrust in anything sounding scientific (distrust that, I add, lasts long after Joe Crackpot's scheme is forgotten). In fact, those of us who ponder the history of this effect blame Walt Disney, who peddled more "faith in technology" and "better living though science" crap to my parents generation than anyone else I can identify, for making America scientifically illiterate.

When it comes down to it, it is indeed hard to believe any claim when those who make it are not interested in why and how at least as much as they are into other questions. Asking why and how will probably measured the claim against things already known. Asking why and how is a way to filter the possible from the impossible, or at least the probable from the improbable. Not getting answers to questions asked is better than not asking questions in the first place. The former means that the right approach can yield an answer, but the latter is just lazy.

(FYI: Philip Ball is a physicist, author of Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another which is one of my favorite books ever, and is an all-around "take real science to the thinking public" guru. He is a freelance science writer and a consultant editor for Nature. I recommend his blog.)

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Farewell Sylvia

It appears that my beloved Sylvia will be going off to car heaven, 35,000 or so miles short of the target to strip her down and rebuild her (complete with a yellow racing stripe, matching powder coated exhaust manifold, and a dragster fin).

As evidence, I show you this:

You don't need to know what that is, you just need to know that it is seven inches across, weighs about eight pounds, is the sort of thing that is normally connected to something else on the engine through its middle, but is now on my living room floor. The picture does not clearly show the little flecks of metal near the middle that demonstrate the disintegration of the piece of metal through the middle, which is partly missing and partly in the engine where it belongs.

Ahem. At least she was less noisy after it broke.

This of course makes me Very Very Very Sad because, while Sylvia was old, she was one of those happy old cars with pep and charm that was still fun to drive, not one of those sad old cars that's half dead and boring and that you hope will die so that your inner cheapskate won't feel guilty getting another one.

While she is still present, I'll never be seeing her again. I hate car funerals, so I don't go to them. They're too emotional for me. In my childhood I was forced to go to say goodbye to an Aries named Betsy. That scarred me for life. Saying goodbye to the car that took me to graduate school, suffered my learner's permit, traveled through snow and high water, helped me feed myself, skidded through intersections, bounded along dirt roads up and down mountains, went with me all over a few states, ran into all kinds of crap with me at the controls, and still was always kind enough to tell me her engine codes and when she needed oil... that's best shoved off into the past, when I last saw her getting towed around the corner, so I can get on with my life.

My sister already has dibs on the steering wheel cover, but if anyone needs parts for a Plymouth Acclaim or a Mitsubishi 3.0 before we scrap her, you know who to call. And if anyone local sees a decent American car sitting around for sale that costs as much as a nice notebook computer, let me know. You can ignore the Fords.

On a better note, the proofs for my newest paper came this evening, and most of the errors were already corrected by the editors. Maybe things will start looking up soon.


Although I'm not usually material, cars are like friends to me. They each have a personality independent of the one I give them. Cars aren't a dull mode of get form A to B for me. They are things I use as much for the way that they are used as for their utility, and that I try like crazy to know and understand them. Cars are not just transportation, they are an experience.

Although the disappearance of a car and the appearance of a new one is no more traumatic than painting a room, active involvement in disposal of a car is just not fun. I get sad when I see pictures or videos of cars rotting in scrapyards or being destroyed in crushers. It's worse to be there, and worse still if the car is a friend.

I finished my PhD six weeks ago. My adviser has a history of his students' cars dying soon after graduate school, so this shouldn't surprise me. In a perfect world, you could choose between the university giving you a printed diploma or a new car.

John will be along soon to tell me that I don't want an American car, but what I really want is a Subaru station wagon, so nobody else needs to suggest that.

Thank you for dealing with my quirkiness.


17 September 2007

Ode To My Sister

I have to post this, because my sister is the coolest person in the world. Among her accomplishments are

--Actually doing her school work when we were homeschooled

--Living with me for years and not going insane.

--Doing missionary work in Oman... during high school

--Getting screwed over by a college financial aid office, but then cleaning up their mess and doing what she wanted to do

--Teaching math to middle school and high school students, seeing all the problems, and just getting on with doing her job the best she can anyway

For the past few weeks, I have seen her almost every day for the first time since back before I got married. I always enjoyed when she could visit us while I was in grad school. What I had forgotten is that even if I do see her every day, she never gets boring, she never gets in the way, and she never stops caring about what matters to her. Seriously. Many times in the past few weeks I've shooed her out the door before I wanted to shoo her, not because I want to get rid of her but because she and I are both dawdling while she needed to get work done or get to bed. I have a lot of fun with her when we're just in the same room living. We don't need to do anything special, we just know how to be under the same roof together and make the best of it. It transcends friendship. That's what 25 years together does to people.

On a practical level, my sister is also so selflessly helpful, which is something she does that is special. She comes over after work, and even after spending a day teaching in a hot classroom and driving with traffic, she then cleans, cooks, holds the crying baby, changes diapers, accompanies one of us shopping, or does whatever else needs to be done. I often can't ask for more from her, not because I'd feel like I was using her but because I actually can't ask for more. Many times she volunteers on her own.

So, thanks to my sister, who has made the last few weeks of my life much more bearable and enjoyable. I owe her a few, and in the great scheme of families I'm sure I'll get my chance.

Of course, I'll probably whine and complain about it, too, but even though she never complains a bit she knows me well enough not to take all of my grumping seriously....


Bite Me

Item 1: John McCain being silly?

No, he isn't. I can say that because I'm nearly Episcopalian myself. Looking at my friends from all over who are Episcopalian, I would fit in rather well in their circles. At the same time, due to some points of theology and culture, I would have to lose a few other options before I would go to an Episcopal church. Baptist is lower on my list than Episcopalian, though. I've had enough bad experiences with self-proclaimed Baptists that I avoid them.

Perhaps john McCain is jumping for votes. Perhaps he's had a struggle to identify his faith. Perhaps both are true. We do him a disservice to immediately conclude only the first option. While on one hand he has been politically snuggling some creepy fundamentalists, on the other hand he has been doing this Baptist thing for quite a long time. If he had recently changed churches, at the time that he started playing fundamentalist conservative, I would be a little more concerned about his motives. As it stands, I think we who are not close to him know too little to decide on his motives.

Item 2: Baby Questions

Only one person asked me about the presence of any particular parts in my child's nether-regions, and that person read my blog.

This week's questions and comments were much more confusing because they were a random combination of the questions and comments from the last three weeks. It was enough that I didn't want to say any of the things I previously wanted to say. By the time we left for home I just wanted to walk around the church with a t-shirt that said "Here's Your Sign."

Item 3: Belts

My car has been making some creepy noises ever since the expedition to Bake Oven Knob. I could've sworn that something was loose in the exhaust. On Wednesday, it started to sound more like a belt, but just a little. "You should get that checked out either way," my officemate said, "Before something breaks."

Too late for that.

On the drive into church this morning, my wife made a hard turn as usual coming off eastbound 22 and up the ramp to Schoenersville Road. There was some clumping sounds under the hood, and then the power steering died. The car also became eerily quiet. Well, now we know what was making the noise. It was actually so quiet that my wife though the car had stalled.

I didn't get a good look under the hood once we got home, but there is unwound and intact serpentine belt kind of hanging out randomly. Tomorrow is the big day to find out what let go. I didn't have a chance to look carefully before dark. I also might have done a nice number on the battery driving her home without the alternator running, but she was still showing a good bit over 12 volts on the gauge, so I might even be able to drive her to the shop (which is half a mile away).


13 September 2007

A Progression of Annoyance

Scene-- the baby at church

Week 1: Oh, she's so tiny!

What I wanted to say: "Duh, sherlock. She was born early. How big were you two weeks before you were supposed to be born, huh? Five-one and 280 like you are now?"

[I didn't feel justified being annoyed at this point]

What I said: "Yes, she is."

Week 2: Oh, she has so much hair!

What I wanted to say: "I guess you never noticed me, then. If you had, you'd still be asking things like how I'm doing, which you haven't done since my wife got pregnant. Of course, the fact that you actually didn't care about my answer makes me think it was good that you stopped asking. Morons."

[I am becoming concerned at the originality. Why is everyone saying the same thing as everyone else the same week?]

What I said: "Really? I hadn't noticed before." I wanted to add "Not even two minutes ago when this subject came up for the seventh time in five minutes."

Week 3: Have you gotten her to sleep through the night?

What I wanted to say: "Oh, good, the questioning phase has begun. Babies sleep when they want to sleep. Come back in six months. And could you move the verb to show that it is the baby doing the sleeping, not someone getting her to do it? Oh, wait, you can't do that. If you could stomach the idea of sleep being physical, rather than a result of willpower and responsibility and parenting, you would stop doing things like calling me lazy when I get my work done after sleeping in until noon. Buttheads."

[This subject annoys me almost as much as people's ignorance about it.]

What I said: [I merely scowled, which worked rather well to end the conversations]

Week 4 [estimated]: Your baby is a girl! Does she have a vagina?

What I will want to say: "That you have to ask explains the past few weeks rather well. And your IQ."

[They deserve to be beaten at this point.]

What I will say: "Screw you. With your own."

Oh, if only next Sunday really did turn out so simple! They will probably still say something to make me want to mock their intelligence and beat them, at least.

As a side note, in response to one of the elders happily walking around informing everyone that the service was about to start last Sunday, I am on record saying "Church service? Shove that! I don't come to church for church services."

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12 September 2007

Bye Bye Alex

When I was a kid, I was inspired to love birds in part because my family has some history in owning and breeding birds and in part because of a grey parrot named Alex.

Alex lived at various times at Univeristy of Arizona, Harvard, and Brandeis. As a coddled and well-taught little guy he was the crown jewel of avian academia. Some scientists suspected that Alex was developing true phonetic and grammatic skills. Even if he wasn't, he was still putting on a good show.

Sadly, over the weekend, Alex the parrot died at the age of 31. I never got a chance to meet him, but he still inspires me to be a bird-brain, learn for myself, and think outside the flock.

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10 September 2007


I've been kind of dreary and sad lately, with most of my thoughts centering on spewing flames on everything that bothers me, so I haven't been around here posting much. Seriously, if I'm tired of what I'm thinking and I take myself more seriously than you do, then you're probably tired of what I'm thinking too.

Otherwise I am still alive, overeducated, and underemployed.

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