My Zunivers

27 April 2008

Something I've Wanted to Say

I don't think I could say it better than Mr. Thurley has. Go read it.

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I Need to Share

Tonight I wrote to my dad and, as I wrote, I was reminiscing inside about times that I've had trouble with older people who seem to be clueless about e-mail.

I know people who don't write back when I send e-mail, but I didn't have them in mind. They at least read what I send and realize that what they're reading is real communication from a real person. I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about the ones who are really clueless, just like the people who thought that maybe Galileo really wasn't seeing reality through his telescope. It's only that historical context that keeps me annoyed with, rather than enraged at, people who have but cannot make use of technology.

Anyway, even though I'm not enraged, I'm not happy. Here's a taste of why.

Have you ever met people who have e-mail accounts and talk about using them but refuse to treat them with the same level of seriousness that they give to talking in person or calling on a phone? You and mom are ahead of your generation. Come to my church and you can meet two dozen people your age who will, for example, arrange a meeting by e-mail but insist that there be a phone call to confirm it. Even worse is when they call you six times to confirm the meeting, blame you that they couldn't get through making a call that you didn't expect, wonder why you dared think that the plan was still on after you didn't talk together in person or on the phone about it, and all the while never think that their e-mail account is useful for more than sending annoying forwards like some set of bunny pictures that's been wasting internet space, including one of my many addresses, for ten years. They have no clue how any whole household could even get more than one e-mail address, let alone one person. And telling these people that they shouldn't put their e-mail address in the church directory if they don't want to use it doesn't help, either. They put it there so like minded people can send them things like bunny pictures.

Cat sweatshirt people.



A Clap of My Hands...

to the Lehigh Choral Arts, for an excellent performance of Verdi's Requiem on Friday (and hopefully an equally good repeat on Saturday). My only complaint was that the Choral Union baritones could have used about one extra voice during the loud parts. Sadly, unless we move back to this area I will never be that guy again. I do, however, already have my eye on tickets for April 25, 2009. In row G, of course. Why sit anywhere else? (I have, and I'll stick to row G.)

I will miss this bunch, a lot. I learned a ton from the director and from the guys around me (and we had to work our butts off to compete with the women, who outnumbered us two to one). Where I'm going I will have the chance to join a less interesting choir that charges membership dues, has a boring director, does every concert only once, and on top of that thinks a lot of itself for being the only thing of its kind up there in those hills. I'm considering hanging up the folder for a while. I'll probably get it out again once I realize I've been spoiled. Actually, I broke a strap so I'll need to buy a new one. And, grudgingly, no matter how much smack I talk now, the urge to sing will have me doing that by the end of summer.

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25 April 2008

I'm heading to my sister's concert tonight (which would also be my concert if I hadn't given up singing for a semester), so that afford me the opportunity to use the internet. You see, we've been having phone line trouble all week, so I'm basically disconnected when home. My office seems to still have a working internet connection, so here I am for now.

I've decided on a job. It's not going to be in Canada, unless some grumpy Quebecers invade Pennsylvania and occupy Centre County. This summer I'm going to be heading to Penn State to work with a professer who I found by accident and who is way out of my league. I'm not sure why he found me to be a good choice, but I've decided to humor him and take up the chance to work with him. My guess is that it will be complete disaster that ends up improving the rest of my life. Just to confuse all of you who wonder what proteins have to do with physics, I'm not going to be in the physics department. In fact, I'm not going to be doing proteins anymore, at least not in the way I have been. I'll still be doing physics with a physicist, but studying polymers in an engineering department.

That decided (the stress over that has kept me from posting recently) I'm finishing up at the Big School, as my wife calls it. I just had my third paper accepted by a major journal. This week I started a project that has me doing my own major coding, for once, and I'm probably going to end up in cahoos with the grad studnts in my group to do none other fast project. The new project I started is actually pretty spiffy, and it's getting me into some of the deeper parts of statistical physics that I haven't had achance to study in detail before. There is one snag that might hurt its quality in the end (so no prizes for this one) but it can and will be done. Also, it iwll get soem citations. There are people here and in Kansas already waiting around for me to finish it.

All of this is really confusing to me, because I feel like I'm in one of those uncomfortable transitions in life. I'm sort of stepping towards being an honest to goodness for-reals scientist. I'm beginning to re-think the plans I had when I got into this thing eleven years ago, and I'm wondering how much I can stretch my dreams before they become delusions, or before they make me do things that are unhealthy for me or others. My usual course in this situation is to ignore it and go about life. A consequence of that path is that people think I'm stalwart and confident, a tall tower of reason and might. The truth is I'm just a fluffy little weak thing with a deep voice and lots of hair.

Anyway, feel free to post your well wishes here. God and I both know you won't be around to say them when it comes time load the moving truck :)

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14 April 2008


My kid is at her grandparents' house for the week! My main method for killing time isn't home! And my wife isn't home either, so wild animal sex all over the apartment is not an option! What to do with my time?

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10 April 2008

Scientists on Drugs

It's a sad world when a self selecting survey makes a ruckus, but nonetheless here it is.

I'd like to point out one or two things. First, before you get any ideas, I take my medication for medical reasons. To get any thoughts otherwise out of your mind come look at my blood pressure when I miss a pill. Marvel at how I do not rupture like a balloon when I bump into something. Run.

Second, I'm interested in seeing the demographics of this sort of thing in more detail. I'm specifically interested in what scientific disciplines are represented. I say this because the respondents were mostly in the U.S., but in the U.S. Nature isn't equally read among different disciplines. I only a few physicists who ever bother to read Nature, for example. I know a lot of biologists who do.

Comments on the Little Canadian Adventure

I'm back from a jaunt to sunny Montreal. It's an interesting place. Where should I start?

Okay, let's start with driving. The French influence makes these people pretty uptight about directing things. There is an inner French need to direct and be directed. In A Perfect Mess, Abrahamson and Freedman do a great job explaining ways where, contrary to popular myth, the French are uptight and the Germans are, pardon my language, laissez-faire.

The French need for direction comes out when you get to an intersection in Montreal. If the intersection has stop signs, you don't need to guess which other streets have stop signs. You don't even get any of this "Two Way" or "All Way" crap to guide you. Oh, no. You get something better. You get a small map of the intersection from your perspective showing small stop signs over the streets that have stop signs. Too creepy. And "arret" does mean "stop." Honestly though, ignore that and look out very intently for the red octagons with a white border. (That is actually harder than you might think, by the way. Most likely you describe road signs as shapes, colors, and symbols but you recognize road signs as a complete unit. With different text, your brain might not realize it's a stop sign. If you aren't colorblind the bright red might at least get your attention, but you'll still take extra time processing.)

At many intersections there are also white signs with black arrows and green circle around it. Think of something like a "No Left Turn" sign but make the circle green and remove the slash. They have the red ones like we do telling you where you can't go, but they also have these green ones to tell you where you can go. I had a conversation about these with my host.

"Those signs with the arrows and the circles like that-- we don't have those in Pennsylvania."

"Really? How do you know which ways you're allowed to go?"

I'll spare you the details of what amounts to to navigational equivalent of solving a system of equations. Heck, I wish I'd thought of it that way sooner. I could have just said it that way and he would have understood.

The island of Montreal is the only place in Quebec where you can never turn right with a red light. Off of the island in the suburbs, I am told, many intersections have a sign forbidding the action. So much for progress. If they would only ban right turns when a huge pile of sooty snow obstructs your view of the cross street, it would be really fun to try to get from one place to another. Tortuosity is a word for that, in more ways than one.

Montreal residents drive in a manner similar to their bosom buddies behind the brakes in Boston. I recommend that you turn off the music, breathe deeply, and take care of the front of your car. Or drive only at night. The rest takes care of itself... if you can read the signs on gut instinct and you remember to follow the proper units on the speedometer instead of our awful American system. (And please don't talk about miles per gallon. Don't even talk about kilometers per gallon. Or kilometers per liter. Or any other such combination. You're doing it plain wrong that way. Everyone knows that it's liters per 100 kilometers, with the volume of gasoline on top instead of on the bottom and the distance multiplied by 100 to muck up the works.) The good news is that if you're from a one-plate state, only the people behind you know you're from out of town.

I didn't spend much time driving in Montreal. I'm sure I could tell you more if I had more time.

I know that many of you know this, but it bears repeating-- Montreal is turned sideways. Literally. A proper map of Montreal has the west to east streets going left to right, like any common map. The west-east streets are also in good alignment with what would normally be called north and south. Yes, that means exactly what it says. The streets marked east and west are the ones that go north and south. East is north, west is south. The "west island" is the southernmost part, and "east Montreal" is up at the north end. Don't try to translate it in your head while you're there, just think 90 degrees counter-clockwise from above whenever using astronomical navigation and then get on with life. Before you ask... yes, it has to do with the river. The St. Lawrence generally runs westward to eastward, but happens to go almost straight south to north past Montreal. Going "west" on the river corresponds to going "south" on a globe, and similarly for north and east.

Montreal is a pretty clean place. The streets are really sandy and salty right now. Even without that, the city would have the overall grittiness that cities tend to have. There isn't a whole lot of trash around, though. There isn't much gum on the sidewalks. There people don't stink in the winter, although McGill students do need to spruce up their concept of fashion. It is a busy place with lots of people around and lots of places to explore. The subway is comfortable and quiet for its speed (rubber train tires!), and its reach is extensive. Montreal is a pretty safe place, too. Juvenile delinquency still isn't much past shoplifting and spray paint, and the bad neighborhoods aren't places to fear in terms of walking down the street alone. Actually, just about everyone I met was friendly. It's not the same as Midwestern friendly, but it also seems more genuine than the superficial friendly you find down south or in the kinder parts of the northeast. Overall, Montreal isn't quite Chicago, but it is almost that good. Montreal is definitely much nicer than places like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Atlanta.

Before I change subjects, everyone wants to know one thing-- what's up with the French? Well, most conversation you hear on the street is in French. French lovers will enjoy the accent, which I find a good bit more bearable, and even more understandable, than run-of-the-mill Parisian. (I did once have a French professor tell me that my French has a fairly good Quebec accent, so maybe it's just my tainted brain from thinking it the way I speak it.) You don't need to speak French to get along in the much of Montreal. The more of it that you understand, however, the simpler your life will be. In public, greetings tended to be in French. If you reply in English, most people figure out very quickly that you want to speak English. That's good until you find a person doesn't speak good English. Having a Canadian English vocabulary is definitely helpful, especially in these cases. In many situations, though, there is a strong desire to communicate, so do whatever zany things cross your mind.

I enjoyed being surrounded by the French speakers. The language started coming back to me as I had to deal with them. Reading the map, for example, I found myself charting out my routes without using English in my head. When it started raining, I wondered to myself about an umbrella, followed by my English side saying "Um, what?" And so on. I also read some neat children's books at a book store. One that I highly recommend is "Le Livre des peut-être." There's funny stuff in that one. I should have bought it.

In other news, I do have a job interview coming up next week. I don't know how likely I am to take it. The place I went to visit in Montreal has its good points, but I do have one or two concerns about it. I never expect perfection, so that's okay. We'll see where it ends. Talking to my old college roommate on the phone tonight (he called literally seconds after we walked in the door!), we concluded that it would be nice to accept the journey of life as something that goes wherever it ends up, but we're not comfortable with that. So maybe I can figure things out. Or maybe I can just get comfortable with how things are.

My kid, by the way, has very distinctly started calling for her mother by name. She has developed a sound, exhibited a few times, where she has a quite distinct "mama" sound. Each time I've heard it (two or three times) she has said the "ma" syllable exactly twice. Unlike her normal whining which contains a lot of m sounds mixed with generic voweley stuff, the "a" comes out quite crisp, a short "a" with little aspiration like the "a" in "apple" rather than the "a" in "ahhhh." These are the only times I've heard that a sound. She also has only done it for me when her mother is out of her sight. I'm not big on first words and whose kid talked earlier and all that crap, so I don't care if it's a total accident on her part or if she's made an interesting discovery or what. It's cute no matter what. People honestly need to think more about cute and less about how great their kids are.

Speaking of cute, there is one more baby note. Every once in a while I will attack the kid's cheek or nose with a flurry of little nibble kisses. This delights her greatly and sometimes produces a string of giggles. Recently she has started to fight back every once in a while. When I stop and she is in the right posture, sometimes she will throw her mouth at my face and, on contact, making a chewing motion. This is particularly amusing, and somewhat disconcerting, when she manages to gnaw at my nose. A baby face suddenly descends on me, mouth on my nose, blocking all sight of the world and happily chewing my facial projection like it is a teether. Of course I just giggle and then get her back.

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05 April 2008

In Peril

The Great Canadian Adventure is in peril. Why? Because one of the few things that would keep me from going there, namely a job offer from one of three other places, has started trying to wedge its way back into my perfect little life where I know exactly what to do because there is only one option. I talked to the man in central Pennsylvania for about 45 minutes, mostly talking about science and work stuff. He's incredibly smart, and if his personality is okay I think I could learn a lot from him. But that's also true of the guy in Canada, and the people in Virginia and Maryland. And Calgary and Spain. Hmm.... I guess it's actually six places, not four.

Anyway, last time I had to make a decision about moving somewhere, graduate school, I screwed the pooch the first time. In hindsight it was good for me, but at the time it sucked. Thinking forward, far future hindsight enlightening near future suffering just doesn't justify not worrying about the near future sucking. So I'm lost and confused.

Early next week we will probably still take off on The Little Canadian Adventure, visiting Montreal and its environs. That has the potential to make up my mind one way or another, or just leave me stewing in uncertainty. The whole moving out of the country thing is looking rather bleak economically, with the increase over my current pay in line to be sucked up in miscellaneous expenses. I know it's not all about the money. I'm not looking for great riches now that I have a PhD. But I also can't go around losing money just to go work in mildly exotic places. I've wanted to visit Montreal for years. Go Habs.

Oh, and the following week, I'm going to visit the man in central Pennsylvania. This is sort of like an interview, but if you're used to low level business world interviews then you should get that word out of your mind. It's more of a cross between a gab session, a research group meeting where I present some of my work, and mutual feeling out of compatibility.

On the bright side, I finally got my current research running. This involved taking half an hour to modify code used for a previous project, then three weeks of beating up a beowulf cluster and its administrators so that the program, which ran fine on the cluster before and ran fine on any regular stand alone machine after modification, could run with the continually tweaked system. Anyway, it's good I have it going. My adviser was almost verbalizing the thought that there might be something wrong with me, not being able to make simple change to a program and then run with it. The answer is that getting other people to solve their problems took most of the time. So now I cross my fingers, hope that the system I'm simulating remains ergodic, and go worry about my other problems.

Other than the overwhelming tide of the future, life is pretty nice. I have money for decent food. My kid is well behaved. My wife is great when she's not bent half out of shape about the future. She's actually still great then, just in a less jovial way. I've been getting to spend oodles of time with my little sister. I have recreation time that I could use for things besides memorizing maps of Montreal. Every job option I've got open has the opportunity to join a decent choir and head outdoors for my styles of outdoor recreation (hiking, cross country skiing). And over on Facebook I beat my sister at the dot game using some combinatorics.

(By the way, sis, that's why I ended up winning even though I was sitting here sure you had it won. I set it all up a few moves previously, and there was nothing you could have done. When I was sitting here telling you that you had it won, I was letting my immediate lack of seeing where I was going to move to win overwhelm the fact that the numbers definitely gave me a move to win. Sorry I planted false hopes.)

And did I mention my Kid? She's so totally cute! Last Saturday my sister and I, fighting illness, went to see my magician friend do a magic show. He was good by the way. By the time I got home the kid had figured out how to make an "s" sound. She seemed absolutely thrilled that I could make the "s" sound too, and she squealed delightfully when she heard me using the "s" sound in words. For a few days, my little chicken turned into my little snake. The past couple of days she's been sticking out her tongue then bending it so the point is upwards. She then moves it back and forth trying not to lick her upper lip. It's really odd, but exceptionally cute.

We've also been playing the game where the kid tries to grab my tongue and I pull it back into my mouth right before she gets it. In exchange, I sometimes grab her tongue when she has it sticking out. She doesn't like it, but, as I tell her, fair is fair. It's not my fault I can get hers but she can't get mine. So far this hasn't led to a meltdown. She's also been working on muscles lately. I found way to trick her into doing shoulder exercises without putting her on the floor on her tummy, and she's getting stronger from it. Tonight, on a hardwood floor at our friends' house, she figured out how to scooch herself backward while in a sitting position. Of course that took he way from the toys, but I think she'll start to understand the concept if she practices more.

Just about every morning at some point the kid has been doing something that disturbs my recently rather distressed sleep, and some of it is quite funny. Last night she rolled her head onto my arm right before my last rollover before conking out, so I stayed up while she snored. It was fun to watch her half wake up and wonder why the heck mommy smelled like daddy, had daddy's chest, and daddy's face, and... oh, there's mommy on the other side. The previous morning, I woke up to a smiling baby grabbing at tufts of my chest hair. I rolled over, and she started happily pounding on my back and giggling. And earlier this week, I woke up to a baby grabbing at her feet, stuck up in the air, rocking back and forth while happily practicing her "s" sound. I don't mind these interruptions to my sleep. It's not like she's in her thirties and has a superiority complex about being a morning person. And she's too young to know that happiness in the morning is annoying.

So, life isn't all bad. It's isn't all in peril. I'm just sick of not knowing what is around the corner.

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02 April 2008

Street-Sweeper Cameras

I might be a fan. In fact, I think one of the fundamental rules in life is that you should never park in the way of a street-sweeper. I live in a place where, every spring and fall, half the blocks I drive on have a bell-curve mark from the sweepers going around an illegally parked car. It almost always happens within sight of my apartment. The driver needs to do more work, the street doesn't get as clean, and my view of the spinnybrushes gets blocked. That's rude and inconsiderate at its finest. I get up early to watch that! Grrrrr.... And no, I'm not impressed by how they go to their cars and drive away within minutes of the sweeper passing.

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01 April 2008

The Great Canadian Adventure Begins


In the next two months I'll probably be starting a job for one year in Montreal. The only reasons I won't be taking it are rather complicated and I doubt they will come together, so I won't get into that here. If those events do happen, the adventure will end in a week or two and all of you can make fun of me.

At some point I'm sure I'll have some sappy post thanking everyone for everything they've done for me in the past six years. Yeah, it's been almost that long. Six years of friends to bid farewell, and six years of crap to throw away or find somewhere to store....

Of course, on the bright side, all of you will get my totally irreverent and uncensored opinion of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Well, you'll get as much as I can give without getting myself kicked out of the country, anyway. Their conservatives are more into tolerance and acceptance than the average U. S. liberal.

So I'll begin now with what I know about Quebec, and talk about Montreal later.

For those directionally challenged, Montreal is up above New York in a place called Quebec. Quebec is basically part of Canada, stretching from the low arctic waters and tundra of James Bay, Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, and Ungava Bay in the north to the U. S. and New Brunswick borders and the Gaspe Peninsula in the south. South of James Bay, the Ontario-Quebec border heads south until it meets the Ottawa River, then follows the Ottawa to the St. Lawrence River. On the east, the border with Labrador, the mainland part of Newfoundland, follows some terrain features of the from the Ungava Bay south, to a line tha forms the southern border of Labrador.

The Gaspe Penninsula is home to the Chic-Choc Mountains, the northernmost range in the Appalachians. The highest point in Quebec, Mont D'Iberville/Mount Caubvick, is not there. It is north, along Quebec's border with Newfoundland in the ranges of the Arctic Cordillera. Just north of the Saint Lawrence River are the Laurentian Mountains, a northward extension of the Adirondack Mountains (which most people need to be reminded are not part of the Appalachians). Between the Appalachians and the Laurentians are the Monteregian Hills, to which Mont Royal, the mountain in the middle of Montreal, is related. Most of Quebec north of the Saint Lawrence River is part of the Canadian Shield, a feature you can look up for yourself because I always forget the details. Also most of Quebec is sparsely inhabited. Like the other large mainland Canadian provinces, the majority of the population of Quebec lives in a narrow band along the U. S. Border. Climate in this region is humid continental (warm summer, rather than hot summer like Pennsylvania), and to the north subarctic and arctic.

Just over half of the people in Quebec grudgingly consider themselves Canadian. The rest remember the Night of the Long Knives (Canadian Version) like the British remembered the Boston Tea Party around 1811, and think that Quebec should belong to nobody. Quebec is actually in a weird sort of limbo, the only province of Canada not to endorse the Constitution Act of 1982. Of course, for someone from the U. S. the content and scope of the Canadian constitution is a deep mystery anyway, more so than it is to Canadians.

The only thing you really need to know about Quebec is that they speak French, specifically Québécois. English speakers are entitled to English language services in health, education, and in the justice system. More is provided, but if something is in only in French then you had better get a translator because it's your problem you don't know the official language.

And so, the adventure begins....

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