11 December 2005

Nerdy t-shirts

Check out these sites: the geek section of CafePress.com and Threadless T-shirts.

A couple of interesting t-shirts: Zen Atom, i<3 lattice structures, What's Nu?, Vaarsuvius Quote, Schrodinger Cat, Einstein is my Homie

Of course, you can also shop for PhD Comics gear!

Bring back the old LEGO!

I recall with great fondness playing with LEGO, the plastic bricks with knobs. Most of my sets were from the Castle series and of those, my favorite set was the "Robin Hood" outlaw outpost. I even made a model of Fort McHenry out of Castle pieces! I also had a lot of fun with the Technic series, though I only had one set of that kind.

I was perusing the LEGO website recently. What happened in the last 10 years? There is still a Castle-like series called "Knights Kingdom". But in that series, there are very few large-piece sets. The only one I could find was "Vladek's Dark Fortress." The rest of the sets were very specific, simple things like a single knight "Sir Jayko." Where are the sprawling massive sets of my childhood? How can you be creative with these newfangled LEGO sets?

LEGO seems to have moved in the direction of recognizable labels like Star Wars. It's sad. I'll have to save my old LEGO sets for the next generation.

Favorite physics books update

I asked some more friends about their favorite physics books.

Here are the updated results of the poll:
  • V. I. Arnold, Mathematical Methods of Classical Mechanics
  • Neil W. Ashcroft and N. David Mermin, Solid State Physics
  • Ralph Baierlein, Thermal Physics
  • Grigory I. Barenblatt, Scaling
  • Herbert B. Callen, Thermodynamics and an Introduction to Thermostatistics
  • John Cardy, Scaling and Renormalization in Statistical Physics
  • Viktor Dotsenko, An Introduction to the Theory of Spin Glasses and Neural Networks
  • Bjoern Felsager, Geometry, Particles, and Fields
  • Richard P. Feynman, Feynman Lectures on Physics
  • Richard P. Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter
  • Richard P. Feynman, Statistical Mechanics (2)
  • Howard Georgi, Lie Algebras in Particle Physics (2)
  • Nigel Goldenfeld, Lectures on Phase Transitions and the Renormalization Group (3)
  • Michael B. Green, John H. Schwarz, and Edward Witten, Superstring Theory
  • David J. Griffiths, Introduction to Electrodynamics (5)
  • David J. Griffiths, Introduction to Quantum Mechanics (3)
  • John David Jackson, Electrodynamics
  • Charles Kittel and Herbert Kroemer, Thermal Physics
  • Daniel Kleppner and Robert J. Kolenkow, An Introduction to Mechanics (2)
  • E. M. Lifshitz and L. D. Landau, Mechanics
  • E. M. Lifshitz and L. D. Landau, Statistical Physics
  • E. M. Lifshitz and L. D. Landau, Theory of Elasticity
  • Richard D. Mattuck, A Guide to Feynman Diagrams in the Many-Body Problem
  • Albert Messiah, Quantum Mechanics
  • V. Parameswaran Nair, Quantum Field Theory: A Modern Perspective
  • Michael E. Peskin and Daniel V. Schroeder, An Introduction to Quantum Field Theory
  • Edward M. Purcell, Electricity and Magnetism
  • Gordon Raisbeck, Information Theory
  • John J. Sakurai, Modern Quantum Mechanics (2)
  • Steven Weinberg, Gravitation and Cosmology
  • Steven Weinberg, The Quantum Theory of Fields, Vol. 1: Foundations
  • Carlo Vanderzande, Lattice Models of Polymers
  • Anthony Zee, Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell (5)

I polled 8 condensed matter theorists, 2 condensed experimentalists, 6 particle theorists, and 1 astrophysicist.

And no, I'm not the one who picked Jackson.

07 December 2005

Fashionable watches for the geek in you

While I was reading a holiday New York Times article in the Circuits section, I came across a link to Tokyoflash. Check out the nerdy watches: watches that use LEDs to tell time, a watch that looks like an audio equalizer, even Morse Code!

30 November 2005

Rent movie soundtrack

I've been listening to the soundtrack for the movie Rent in the past few days.

Rent is actually an off-Broadway musical that was written ten years ago. Unfortunately, it came out around when I was merely a freshman in high school and couldn't appreciate it. I did remember singing the hit song "Seasons of Love" in my high school choir and rather enjoying the music. I still haven't seen the stage production. I finally saw the movie version (which is as good as the musical according to fans) less than a week ago.

Rent is very popular among people my age +/- 10 years. It resonates with me for several reasons. It's a musical about loneliness and friendship, about feeling misunderstood and underappreciated, about living in the moment, and about appreciating what we have.

I'll leave off this entry with a snippet of lyrics from the song "Life Support":
There's only us,
There's only this,
Forget regret,
Or life is yours to miss.
No other road,
No other way,
No day but today.

29 November 2005

Subscription TV

Sometimes TV shows that are popular with niche audiences get cancelled. For example, Firefly was cancelled after only one season, despite its rave reviews from the "nerd" crowd. TV networks seem to only care about quantity: the number of viewers. Could there be something in the quality of the audience, i.e. the level of a viewer's personal involvement in TV? Are a few million mildly interested watchers better than a hundred thousand fanatics?

Henry Jenkins discusses this idea in an article on Flow. He proposes that networks move to a subscription model where each viewer could pay $2 for an episode. Apparently, the BBC is already using such a model.

I see the TV subscription model as part of the popular movement where media is controlled by the payers/viewers rather than corporations. Blogs, online reviews, online auctions are all part of this trend.

28 November 2005


I recently heard about a new breed of mouse called "Rollermouse." It is well known that the conventional mouse gives the user pain after many hours of use, which may even lead to tendinitis or repetitive strain injury. But there are jobs where a mouse is required, for example, graphic CAD design.

Apparently, there are several inherent ergonomic design problems in the conventional mouse. First, the palm down facing desk position of the hand is unnatural. Second, when the user reaches out to his/her left/right to grasp the mouse, the arm is extended and strained. I'm not sure if the Rollermouse solves the first problem, but it addresses the second -- the mouse is right next to your thumb when you are typing on the keyboard. It's an interesting idea, good enough that PC World gave it an award for one of the top 100 PC products of 2005. I may give it the Rollermouse a try someday, particularly if its price drops.

Amazon Mechanical Turk

My sister sent me a link about "Mechanical Turk." The idea is that there are tasks that humans find very easy compared to computers, for instance, locating a person's mouth in a face. At the website, an experimenter (perhaps in artifical intelligence) can solicit human helpers who can do these kinds of tasks and thus teach a computer to do them on its own. The compensation is provided to the human helpers in Amazon.com credit. For more information, see the FAQ.

Favorite physics books

Out of the blue, I asked my friends for their favorite physics books.

Here are the results of the poll:
  • V. I. Arnold, Mathematical Methods of Classical Mechanics
  • Ralph Baierlein, Thermal Physics
  • Grigory I. Barenblatt, Scaling
  • John Cardy, Scaling and Renormalization in Statistical Physics
  • Viktor Dotsenko, An Introduction to the Theory of Spin Glasses and Neural Networks
  • Richard P. Feynman, Statistical Mechanics
  • Howard Georgi, Lie Algebras in Particle Physics
  • Nigel Goldenfeld, Lectures on Phase Transitions and the Renormalization Group (3)
  • David J. Griffiths, Introduction to Electrodynamics (2)
  • David J. Griffiths, Introduction to Quantum Mechanics
  • E. M. Lifshitz and L. D. Landau, Statistical Physics
  • E. M. Lifshitz and L. D. Landau, Theory of Elasticity
  • Richard D. Mattuck, A Guide to Feynman Diagrams in the Many-Body Problem
  • Gordon Raisbeck, Information Theory
  • Steven Weinberg, Gravitation and Cosmology
  • Carlo Vanderzande, Lattice Models of Polymers
  • Anthony Zee, Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell (3)

As you can probably tell, the majority of my friends are condensed matter physicists.

And here are my favorites:

  • Neil W. Ashcroft and N. David Mermin, Solid State Physics
  • Herbert B. Callen, Thermodynamics and an Introduction to Thermostatistics
  • David J. Griffiths, Introduction to Electrodynamics
  • Edward M. Purcell, Electricity and Magnetism

20 November 2005

Quote of the day from Firefly

The more I watch Firefly, the more I appreciate it. Too bad they cancelled it after one season! In the episode "The Message," there is a nice army-inspired quote:
"When you can't run anymore, you crawl... and when you can't do that... you find someone to carry you."

18 November 2005

My email management strategy

Here's how I manage my email.
  1. I try to keep fewer than 20 messages in my inbox. If I have more messages than that, it makes me worry. I feel responsible for those inbox messages.
  2. To whittle down the inbox, I do several things. First, if it's an email I can respond to in 5 minutes, I take care of it right away. Otherwise, I do one of three things: I delete it, file it in another folder, or forward the email to a different email address (more on that later).
  3. I set my email checking interval to once per hour, to minimize interruptions. This may not be an option for everyone.
  4. If you're a fast typist, you may want to consider a text-based email program like Pine. I use it because I can do everything from the keyboard and it loads faster than web-based programs like Webmail. Reading, deleting, forwarding, and filing emails is really fast via the keyboard -- avoid the mouse!
  5. I keep two email accounts. I have my work account and my Gmail account. All important work-related mail and personal correspondence goes through my work account. Things like ad flyers from electronics stores, news article links from my father, and word-a-day emails go to my Gmail account. Sometimes if there is a work account email that I need to think about but isn't very pressing, I forward that email to my Gmail account.
  6. Sometimes if there is an important issue that I need to think about later, I will carbon copy (cc) myself. For example, if I'm working on a project with my advisor and I write up an explanation of my work, I will cc myself on the message I send. I do this, because the sent box is not sufficient (see below).
  7. The blind carbon copy (bcc) option is useful if you don't want people to look at the email addresses of the other recipients. For example, a department administrator might email some students to tell them they are in danger of failing a course. It's not efficient to send that email one-by-one to each individual, but privacy is also important. Then bcc is the right choice.
  8. The sent box is basically useless. It's difficult to search and many of the emails are trivial one-liners. Also, your email system may periodically delete messages from the sent box since they eat up the most disk space. I never leave anything important in it. I only use the sent box as a backup in case I accidentally delete an email that I had wanted to save and there is a copy of the message in my sent box.
  9. If I'm writing to many people on a regular basis, I try to use an alias. What that means is that I can type a single word, say "dormfriends", in the to: field and the email program will automatically insert the addresses of my 20 dorm friends. If I'm writing to a large number of people for work related reasons (for instance, a seminar group), then I use a mailing list.
  10. If I were to invite friends to a big party, I would consider using a web-based service like Evite.
  11. I use my work email account for reminders. I use a free service at 101 Reminders. It's a web-based calendar that will email me reminders (for instance, "go to the gym at 7 am"). I can set options like email me once a week on the same day, on the same date each month, one day before the event, four days before the event, etc. It's very useful to use email reminders not just for events but also for pending actions (say a reminder to email your out-of-town friend three weeks from now to schedule a visit).
  12. I haven't tried this, but many people keep a collection of "boilerplate" emails for common responses. There is even software that will semi-automate this process for you.
  13. Finally, there are filters. I don't find that I need them, but when I become an "important" person, I'll probably use them.

13 November 2005

Life hacks: Shorthand, VI, Remind, RCS

A few more ideas I got from reading links off 43 Folders.
  • Shorthand systems - I'm not sure I want to use these particular shorthand systems; since I'm a physicist, it might be best to create my own shorthand. It would also be easier to remember a system of my own devising.
  • VI, the famous UNIX editor - see for example, VIM. The advantage of VI over Emacs is that it's supposedly faster and uses fewer multiple key combinations. You also get VI to recognize abbreviations.
  • Remind, a simple text-based calendar system for UNIX - see an article about it here.
  • RCS, the revision control system - It's simple software for managing multiple versions of a file. My master's thesis advisor used it for editing drafts of publications. For more information, see this page.

06 November 2005

The Accountability Method

A friend of mine suggested a very good idea. He said that if you're having trouble working, share your goals with a friend you trust and respect. The idea is:
  • at the beginning of the day, email the friend with your list of daily goals (I also add a little bit of commentary)
  • at the end of the day, email your friend back saying what you accomplished, didn't complete, and why
  • save your writeups in a text file and look over it each week to see what works and what doesn't (of course you can also adjust and experiment during the week)

A few additional comments. I usually stop writing up goals over the weekend, to give myself a break. I also schedule fun stuff into my day (like read a non-technical book or watch a hockey game).

05 November 2005

Publish or perish

If you don't have enough papers on your CV, maybe you can try using SCIGEN, a program written by three MIT computer science graduate students. It generates computer science research papers that are superficially plausible, but complete gibberish.

01 November 2005

Life hack with Gmail

Gmail is an excellent way to organize your email. I send all my non-urgent email there (like mailing lists from companies I buy products from, news article links, etc.) Then I check my Gmail account late at night when I can afford a distraction or two. And of course, you have lots of space on a Gmail account!

Here's a great tip my sister sent me about how to turn Gmail labels into folders.

29 October 2005


I started watching the science fiction TV series "Firefly". It's pretty cool so far -- nice costumes and a wicked sense of humor.

I'll write more as I watch more.

Here are the lyrics to the Firefly theme song:
Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don't care, I'm still free
You can't take the sky from me
Take me out to the black
Tell them I ain't comin' back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can't take the sky from me
There's no place I can be
Since I found Serenity
But you can't take the sky from me...

25 October 2005

Proposition parties

Here's an interesting idea from a friend of mine:
Some of my friends hold an annual party that's a great idea. They call it a "proposition" or "prop" party. All attendees are invited to study up on a candidate or proposition that will be on the upcoming ballot. At the party, we mix food and alcohol with discussions by the informed among us on each ballot topic. This is not a vitriolic debate, since by and large the group holds very similar views, but rather a chance for all of us to become well-informed about all the ballot options. Thought I'd share the idea since it's a great one. Maybe this kind of event will eventually crop up all over the place.

Dealing with tasks efficiently

You worry about unfinished tasks, projects, etc.

If it's something you can do right away (whatever your definition of "right away" is), do it. If you can't, write down what you need to do and schedule it for a later time. I record the item in a calendar (e.g. "Check if department manager has setup voice mail on my phone."). Later, I get an email reminding me to do what needs to be done at the right time.

My idea isn't a new one; it's the foundation principle described in "Getting Things Done," a book by organizational guru David Allen.

Song of the day: "Falling for the First Time" by Barenaked Ladies

A while ago, I heard the song "Falling for the first time" by the Barenaked Ladies (an alternative group). I thought it was a song about falling in love for the first time. But then I looked at the CD liner notes from "Disc One." Steven Page, one of the Barenaked Ladies, says that the song is really about "a perfectionist who discovers the joy in failing -- how he's got to learn to fall before he learns to fly, and how that fall makes him feel a freedom he's never felt before."
I'm so cool, too bad I'm a loser,
I'm so smart, too bad I can't get anything figured out,
I'm so brave, too bad I'm a baby,
I'm so fly, that's probably why it,
Feels just like I'm falling for the first time.

I'm so green, it's really amazing,
I'm so clean, too bad I can't get all the dirt off of me,
I'm so sane, it's driving me crazy,
It's so strange, I can't believe it,
Feels just like I'm falling for the first time.

Anyone perfect must be lying, anything easy has its cost,
Anyone plain can be lovely, anyone loved can be lost,
What if I lost my direction? What if I lost sense of time?
What if I nursed this infection? Maybe the worst is behind.
It feels just like I'm falling for the first time.
It feels just like I'm falling for the first time.

I'm so chill, no wonder it's freezing,
I'm so still, I just can't keep my fingers out of anything,
I'm so thrilled to finally be failing,
I'm so done, turn me over cause it,
Feels just like I'm falling for the first time.

Anything plain can be lovely, anything loved can be lost,
Maybe I lost my direction, what if our love is the cost?
Anyone perfect must be lying, anything easy has its cost,
Anyone plain can be lovely, anyone loved can be lost,
What if I lost my direction? What if I lost sense of time?
What if I nursed this infection? Maybe the worst is behind.

23 October 2005

Email management, bookmarks, and listing

More cool links from 43folders:

22 October 2005

Concentrating, simplified technology

Here are some interesting links I've found on the archives of 43Folders:
  • Advice on how to concentrate while studying
  • Neo -- a dumbed down computer which weighs 2 pounds and only does word processing

20 October 2005

Song of the day: "La, La, La"

I think this song is cute; my sister hates it.

From Bert and Ernie's Greatest Hits:
La, la, la, la, lemon,
La, la, la, la, lightbulb,
La, la, la, la, lamppost,
La, la, la, la, lump in my oatmeal!

La, la, la, la, laughter,
La, la, la, la, lullaby,
La, la, la, la, lollipop,
La, la, la, la, lights in the sky!

La, la, la, la, linoleum!

Listen to me,
'Cause "L" is such a
Lovely letter,
For words like
Licorice and lace
The letter "L" lights
Up your face,
So why not, la-la-la-la-la
With me!

Life hacks

There is a community of bloggers devoted to "life hacks," i.e. ways to make your working life more organized. One popular site is "43 Folders," which was mentioned in a recent New York Times article.

Inspired by their example, I am going to post my own life hack ideas or other people's ideas which work for me.

It's hard to get going in the morning.

Find a way to wake up first (for me, it's to use a randomly shuffling mp3 player clock on my computer). Then jump in the shower and plan your day while you shower.

You can't get any work done. Maybe it's because you have too much work, other people are driving you crazy, a hurricane hit your house, or you're plain lazy. Whatever the reason, you now have so much work to do, you feel intimidated and hopeless.

Find a friend you respect. Make yourself accountable to him or her. Email the person every morning with a list of goals, then email the person at the end of the day with a report on your progress. If you don't accomplish everything, explain why. The idea is to shame yourself into working.

You're having trouble being organized. You get 100 emails a day, have appointments with people, etc.

Keep your tasks centralized in one place. I use email. I have a work account and a non-work account. I check my work account constantly during the day since urgent emails will only go there. I also send myself email reminders about tasks I need to do (for instance, see "101 Reminders"). These go to my work account. Less important emails go to my non-work account. I check this account at the end of the day. If irritating, non-essential emails show up in your work account, forward them to your non-work account. The idea is to keep your work email inbox clean. Only important things are in there.

Direct product vs. tensor product

Suppose you have two vector spaces. How can you combine them into another vector space?

The simplest way is to use a direct product. For example, suppose I have vector space A with Cartesian coordinates a1 and a2 and vector space B with Cartesian coordinates b1, b2, and b3. The direct product of A and B is a new vector space with coordinates a1, a2, b1, b2, and b3. Basically, the idea is to add the dimensions of A and B together. Notice that A has 2 dimensions, B has 3 dimensions, and their direct product has 5 dimensions. Pictorially we might imagine a direct product as taking the union of vector spaces A and B. Then we get a new vector space where you label the elements of the set by a set of coordinates in A (a1, a2) and a set of coordinates in B (b1, b2, b3).

A slightly more interesting thing we can do is to take a tensor product. Let's call the basis vectors of A, ^a1 and ^a2, and similarly the basis vectors of B, ^b1, ^b2, and ^b3. The tensor product of A and B is a new vector space with basis vector space with basis vectors ^a1 x ^b1, ^a1 x ^b2, ^a1 x ^b3, ^a2 x ^b1, ^a2 x ^b2, and ^a2 x ^b3, where "x" connotes tensor product. So the tensor product is kind of like multiplying two vector spaces. The tensor product space of A and B has 6 = 2 x 3 dimensions.

In physics, a simple example of direct and tensor products is spin-1/2 particles. A single spin-1/2 particle is a direct product of |&uarr> and |&darr> -- dimension 2. However, the Hilbert space of 2 spin-1/2 particles is a tensor product of two single spin-1/2 Hilbert spaces -- dimension 4 = 2 x 2. We see that in general that a tensor product space is larger than its corresponding direct product space. For example, the direct product of 3 spin-1/2 particles has dimension 6 = 2 + 2 + 2, but the tensor product of 3 spin-1/2 particles has dimension 8 = 2 x 2 x 2. That means that there are vectors in the tensor product space that can't be mapped to the corresponding direct product space. We know that spins combine in tensor products because we observe "entanglement." A direct product of 2 spin-1/2 particles would have states like |&uarr&uarr> but not Bell states like |&uarr&darr> - |&darr&uarr>.

12 October 2005

Chaotic perspective on solving quantum mechanics problems

I heard something very interesting in class recently.

The lecturer nicely summarized the main methods of solving quantum mechanics problems.
  1. Separable solution: gives you special functions (Hamiltonian has some symmetry)
  2. Perturbation theory: sometimes works well, but not always
  3. Semiclassical method: works for large wavelengths
  4. Numerical analysis: broadly applicable but doesn't give much physical intuition

The first method isn't realistic; we don't have perfect rectangular and spherical potentials. Perturbation theory doesn't work very well in highly degenerate systems (e.g. the high energy levels of a stadium billiard). So for analytic solutions to general problems, we can only use the semiclassical method.

The lecturer's insight was that the generic Hamiltonian in quantum mechanics is partly chaotic and partly quasi-periodic. We can deform a symmetric Hamiltonian or quantum system a small amount and if the system is in certain areas of phase space, the system still has locally conserved quantities (KAM theorem from chaos theory).

This sounds a little bit like Noether's theorem where you make an infinitesimal transformation which leaves the Hamiltonian invariant. Noether's theorem says that for a continuous symmetry like this, there is a corresponding conserved quantity. The KAM theory adds to this by saying that symmetric Hamiltonians can be robust to small perturbations, which break their symmetry.

A friend of mine raised the following objection:

Probably true, but don't forget scattering theory for the continuum, which has lots of powerful methods related to perturbation theory and semiclassics. Also the partial wave expansion of scattering theory is powerful even when the system is not spherically symmetric in the same way that the multipole expansion is useful for arbitrary current and charge distributions when considering radiation and other distant fields.

For fun, here's a Poincare section I made in a graduate level class on mechanics and chaos:

09 October 2005

The history of gauge theories in physics

The most basic gauge theory in physics is Maxwellian electrodynamics. While Maxwell developed his theory in the late 19th century, it was not realized until the 1950s and 1960s that the concept of gauge invariance was crucial to developing theories that explain the fundamental forces between elementary particles.

But what does gauge mean? Here's a hint from the Webster dictionary:
A measurement (as of linear dimension) according to some standard or system: as (1) : the distance between the rails of a railroad (2) : the size of a shotgun barrel's inner diameter nominally expressed as the number of lead balls each just fitting that diameter required to make a pound [a 12-gauge shotgun] (3) : the thickness of a thin material (as sheet metal or plastic film) (4) : the diameter of a slender object (as wire or a hypodermic needle) (5) : the fineness of a knitted fabric expressed by the number of loops per unit width

Hermann Weyl is the scientist who first introduced the idea of gauge invariance, but in a different context. He was trying to come up with a theory to unify electromagnetism and gravitation. For him, gauge meant "scale". He thought that physics might be invariant under a change of scale at the local level.

Weyl's ideas were a remarkable insight at the time, but unfortunately he was wrong -- his theory does not describe nature. In modern physics, gauge theories refer to physical theories that are preserved under certain local symmetry transformation. For instance, in quantum electrodynamics, the Lagrangian is preserved under multiplication by a complex phase (technically known as a U(1) symmetry).

But whenever you encounter "gauge" in physics literature, it might amuse you to think of railroad tracks!

08 October 2005

A public declaration

All right, this is the last straw. You know that the world is messed up when even your mom has heard of string theory.

The public seems unaware that there are other equally interesting areas of physics that have nothing to do with strings, extra dimensions, subatomic particles, or the cosmos.

When I get tenure, I'm going to write a popular science book on condensed matter physics. You just wait!

29 September 2005

Wine recommendations by a physicist

Jo-Anne Hewett at the blog "Cosmic Variance" apparently was in charge of ordering wine for the SLAC summer school.

I have a similar job to Professor Hewett. I sometimes buy wine for large social functions, but unlike her, I have zero confidence in my ability to choose a good wine.

I wonder, maybe I should try some of these recommendations?

Communicating scientific results to the public

Lisa Randall has written very nice op-ed piece about the difficulty of communicating science to the public.

Thanks to Lubos Motl for the link.

26 September 2005

What are your politics?

I took an online poll to find out. Here are my results.

You are a

Social Liberal
(63% permissive)

and an...

Economic Liberal
(36% permissive)

You are best described as a:


You exhibit a very well-developed sense of Right and Wrong and believe in economic fairness. loc: (49, -50)
modscore: (22, 38)
raw: (2635)

Link: The Politics Test on OkCupid Free Online Dating

Flight of the phoenix

The quantum mechanic is back!

I just saw a great episode of Battlestar Galactica a week ago. It's entitled "Flight of the Phoenix" which refers to a famous old movie about a wrecked, stranded crew who rebuild their airplane.

Like the movie, the Battlestar Galactica episode is a metaphor about a man whose life is wrecked and how he tries to find hope by constructing a fighter from the ground up. Not easy rebuilding your life from scratch! Nothing new about this story, but the acting is moving and believable. I wish real life were this easy.

"All right, here's the deal. We are going to build a new fighter."

Now for the lighter side of life, check out this link to Boston's messiest office. MIT physicist Alan Guth was nominated for an office "make-over" last spring. Read more for the before, during, and after cleanup pictures. Guth is famous for his contributions to cosmology. They are said to be important enough, that if verified, he would probably win a Nobel Prize.

04 August 2005

International radio operators phoenetic alphabet

Now you can flawlessly communicate your airline confirmation numbers over the phone...


A - Alpha
B - Bravo
C - Charlie
D - Delta
E - Echo
F - Foxtrot
G - Golf
H - Hotel
I - India
J - Juliet
K - Kilo
L - Lima
M - Mike
N - November
O - Oscar
P - Papa
Q - Quebec
R - Romeo
S - Sierra
T - Tango
U - Uniform
V - Victor
W - Whiskey
X - X-Ray
Y - Yankee
Z - Zulu


0 - zero
1 - one
2 - two
3 - tree
4 - fower
5 - fife
6 - six
7 - seven
8 - eight
9 - niner

03 August 2005

A commencement speech for artists and graphic designers

Spotted on Ian Ybarra's blog, a commencement speech for artists and graphic designers.

It's a pretty good speech and voices an unusual opinion -- that the future belongs to right-brained people. My favorite part is the three step process in a new job.
Peggy Noonan, who wrote speeches for President Reagan, said she had a three-stage reaction to working in the White House.

Stage One: I hope nobody figures out how stupid I am.

Stage Two, after few months in the White House: Hey, I'm as smart as everyone else.

Then a few months later came Stage Three: Oh my God, we're in charge?

27 July 2005

Blogs as a tool for research

Following up on my recent post about the usefulness of blogs, here is a long discussion about possibly using blogs as a forum for scientific research ideas.

26 July 2005

Two good reads: A Prayer for Owen Meany and Blink

I recently found a couple good books in my local Barnes and Nobles.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is a novel about faith and the meaning of life and lack thereof, set during the Vietnam War Era. I've never read anything by John Irving before, but apparently he is quite a famous author worldwide (incidentally more popular in Europe than here in the United States). Irving has been called a Dickensian author and rightly so. His characters are larger-than-life and well-developed. Irving uses language cleverly and grabs the reader. He also makes maximum use of the flashback to drive home his theme of faith; the events are mostly in chronological order, but they jump around a little.

The story is about an abnormally small boy named Owen Meany who grows up into a Christ-like figure. The narrator is Owen's best friend, who gradually becomes a "believer" in miracles. I found the first 3/4 of the book fun, but not striking. However, the ending was shocking and moving. It made me want to go back to the beginning and read the book over again. Overall, a very well-written story with a strong, moving message (no, I won't give it away).

Blink is a pop-psychology book, but well-written compared to others in the genre. The theme of the book is the split-second decision or judgment. Gladwell doesn't really have a coherent message, which makes the work feel more like a biography of split-second decisions. He says that sometimes quick decisions can be amazingly accurate or incredibly wrong, depending on the situation and the knowledge of the observer. The lack of a strong conclusion may be disappointing to some, but as a scientist, I was relieved to read a book that didn't make grand statements and I appreciated Gladwell's patience and throughness in covering all the nuances of his subject. Gladwell has a gift for researching vivid examples and writing eloquently. For once, I wasn't bored by a popular science book.

17 July 2005

What are blogs good for?

[I seem to be on a writing binge today.]

I still remember an email exchange I had with a former mentor of mine. He said that blogs were narcissistic and that most people (including him) didn't really have anything worth saying.

I was pretty mad at the time. I read blogs all the time. Is that a comment on me?

In the months since that email, I've lingered over this issue. I'll write up a few thoughts here.
  • Yes, most blogs are silly and narcissistic. I still remember the blog about raising a baby and the blogger posting pictures of the amount of breast milk they went through daily (complete with graphs.) A lot of blogs are diaries (and if you post that on the web, you are by definition a narcissist.) But then again, so is the majority of TV, books, and other media. Blogs are mostly a form of entertainment.
  • There are serious people who write blogs. I haven't read them, but I assume there are some interesting blogs about politics. Michael Nielsen writes my favorite science blog. Unfortunately, you have to either be really smart or have a lot of time to write anything meaningful.
  • Blogs can be a useful way of obtaining hard-to-find information. If you want to get a review of an obscure or just-released gadget, blogs are an excellent resource. I've also found many interesting links to articles in blogs. Plus, it's fun to see what "smart" people are reading.
  • Blogs can foster a sense of community. It cheers me up when I read about a fellow grad student struggling to finish her thesis. I guess it's a little sad if you're reading blogs to get a vicarious thrill, but maybe there are some people out there who are lonely and live in the middle of nowhere.

Most of my posts are of several forms: comments on other things people have written, links to things other people have written or created, explanation of an idea (my way of teaching myself), and my original thoughts (rarely). You can see a pattern here. This blog is mostly me writing to myself! It's like my personal scrapbook, so I don't publicize it. Hmm, maybe I am a little bit of a narcissist.

Bad physics jokes

Here is the link. I don't think I need to add more.

Tamar Schlick on women's issues in science

I'm a member of a women scientist group, made up of mostly biologists, some chemists, and me -- the lone physicist. The group recently hosted Professor Tamar Schlick of NYU for a discussion about women's issues in science. Schlick studies computational biology and holds a PhD in applied mathematics. The discussion was actually quite general and not really so much about women's issues.

One point I remember was about politics. There is a lot of politics in academia, but that's true of almost any job. Some departments cross-list female professors from other departments so they can claim to have more women professors. There might be the crazy department head who gives assistant professors the worst teaching assignments. And as an assistant professor, you can't say no to anyone senior until you get tenure.

There was also an interesting discussion about interdisciplinary science. While it's exciting to speculate about the possibilities for interdisciplinary work, it's quite difficult to organize the people and resources to make it happen. Being an outstanding interdisciplinary scientist is different from being an outstanding one-discipline scientist. You only have to be, say, the 90th percentile in several fields rather than the 99th percentile in one field.

I asked Prof. Schlick what she thought good mentoring was. She said that the best mentors give you advice about the big picture (which I assume is career related guidance and ideas about what research problems to pursue). Technical advice is easy to get; sometimes you can even buy it (e.g. software administrators).

In general, Prof. Schlick appeared to have a balanced view about the obstacles women face in academic science. I got the impression that there are obstacles, but you just have to deal with it and roll with the punches. There are definitely unique problems that women face, but we can have a rational discussion without resorting to the kind of hysterics raised by Nancy Hopkins (the MIT scientist who told reporters that she left Larry Summer's talk because she was feeling ill).

A new kind of sci-fi TV show

I used to be a die-hard sci-fi fan. I read Orson Scott Card, Isaac Asimov, etc. and loved Star Trek and Babylon 5. However, I think, like many fans, I was turned off by the recent incarnations of Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise. It just got old. There were too many plot shortcuts (time travel was a real culprit) and too many non-humans who for some reason wanted to be human (what about diversity and happiness in being yourself?)

Sci-fi fell off my radar for a while, but just yesterday, I saw a New York Times Magazine feature about a genre-shaking sci-fi TV show called Battlestar Galactica. Despite the awful title, the show is apparently outstanding. I guess it has to be pretty good to make the New York Times, the default newspaper of high culture addicts.

I read a number of reviews and watched some trailers. The premise is very intriguing. Strip away all the high tech gadgetry and romance of sci-fi and focus on the story. This idea sounds much more like Frank Herbert's Dune or Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy where there was technology and weird stuff but it was merely the backdrop for an interesting story. The technology was interwoven naturally into the story, rather than overwhelming it (as in later Star Trek shows).

Battlestar Galactica takes this idea very seriously. The characters look like they're running a 21st century naval fleet which happens to be in space. They use phones and pencils. They dress and look like people we would see on the street today. There is advanced technology (for instance, androids), but it's pretty limited compared to Star Trek. I'm not sure if I would have went that far, but then this show is about breaking all our conceptions surrounding science fiction TV. The focus is on the characters and how they deal with the version of reality that they face.

If it works (I haven't seen the actual show yet), it sounds like a clever idea. A major problem with sci-fi and fantasy is that the writer can spend far too much time on constructing the alternate "world." The new technology that is introduced has be logically consistent and the author has to stop and explain why things are the way they are. [There are people who like this type of world-based sci-fi/fantasy, but I'm not one of them.] A way to keep the writing tighter and more focused on a particular issue is to only introduce significant technology (like DNA modification) -- stuff that really impacts the human condition.

Update your spyware detection software

I thought I was religious about keeping my computer clean. But I didn't realize that I needed to update my spyware detection software.

Today I downloaded the new versions of Ad-Aware (last version: 27 May 2005) and Spybot (last version: 1 June 2005). My previous software was about a year old and therefore wasn't catching a lot of new spyware.

A scan using both programs removed over 100 "problems," mostly tracking cookies.

13 July 2005

Washington, politics, and science

In my recent issue of the APS (American Physical Society) News, there was a nice op-ed piece called "Making the Case for University Research" written by Norman Augustine.

If you work in science and care about the state of your field, I would urge to read this article.

What I found most interesting was Augustine's claim that Washington politicians have a low regard for scientists especially ones that appear self-serving (when they ask for government funding). Reminds me a little of sitting next to an MIT alum on a plane and being told that people in industry view an MIT PhD as a negative asset. Fortunately he quit grad school and merely left MIT with a master's degree!

The right attitude

Over the past year, I've seen many articles written either by activist female scientists about the injustice women face in science and engineering or conservatives labelling these activists as whiny feminists who have an unbalanced perspective.

So it was a refreshing breeze when I read the following article in the San Francisco Chronicle. I hope that the women of my generation and younger will find science and engineering welcoming fields in which to pursue their dreams.

11 July 2005

Steve Jobs's commencement speech

Since I'm collecting commencement speeches, check out a nice one delivered by Steve Jobs at Stanford's 2005 graduation.

People seem to really like it. I've gotten it from two folks already.

Introductory quantum computation text

If you're trying to learn about quantum computation for the first time (technical reading), here's a text by Riley Perry (via Michael Nielsen's blog).

09 July 2005

Link of the day: Art of Science

And you thought art had nothing to do with science. Check out the Princeton Art of Science Competition webpage for some mind-blowing pictures.

08 July 2005

What to do with loose change?

I switched to a wallet without a coin pocket so now I find that I have spare change lying around all the time. While this is sometimes useful for the soda machine, I'd like to put the change to better use.

Check out this article I found on the web for some advice.

22 June 2005

My favorite commencement speech so far

Everywhere across America, college seniors have graduated this May and June. My own graduation ceremony two years ago was mercifully short and it didn't rain!

In honor of this occasion, I wanted to post a link to my favorite commencement speech, given by (then) Dean Brodhead of Yale College. The speech was touching, relevant, and down-to-earth. I have to say, most commencement speeches suck. They are either irreverent like the Car Talk guys or grandiose (no need to give examples) and almost always useless. Well done, Dr. Brodhead (who, by the way, is now the president of Duke).

17 June 2005

The decline of high culture

Sometimes I hear about a past America where people wrote better (stylistically and vocabulary-wise) and people were more interested in culture that went beyond their narrow life experiences. I wonder if it's true. Maybe I'm imagining things or being nostalgic. Yet a recent New York Times op-ed piece seems to corroborate my feeling that popular culture was different a couple generations ago.

I lamented the decline of writing skills a while ago in a February post. Imagine a society where middle-class people spend their leisure time reading literature and find world politics interesting. Why has that world disappeared? Part of the reason may be economic. It seems like many middle-class families have parents who both work full time, perhaps even overtime. After taking caring of the kids, there isn't much time left. I think another reason may be the career-driven, goal-oriented nature of today's society. We're too busy trying to match or better the living standards of our parents, trying to be as successful as the people we see on TV and read about in the papers. And there's the backlash against the American melting pot. Maybe people are sick of hearing about diversity and the rehashed mantra of learning about other cultures. Maybe they just want to protect what they know.

15 June 2005

Link of the day: language, culture, and politics

Geoff Nunberg is a Stanford linguist who caught my attention when I read a profile on him in the Stanford alumni magazine.

You can find more information about him on his website.

What caught my interest is Nunberg's talent in applying his academic knowledge of linguistics to politics and culture. Nunberg is quite well known for his witty commentary on the NPR radio show "Fresh Air" and in the New York Times. Check out this link for audio segments from Fresh Air and this link for some of his written commentary.

Addendum to future projects list

8) Launch home-made rockets. Apparently, this is a hallmark of budding young engineers and scientists. I was supposed to do this as a child, but I'm making up for lost time.

9) Learn to drive and buy a car (probably used).

13 June 2005

Future projects

It's summertime -- that time of year when life becomes less hectic for us academics and we have time to think about the course of our lives. I've decided to post a few of the long-term (non-academic) projects I have in the pipeline:

1) Work out more often and build a ripped body (well, maybe). I currently go to the gym three times a week, but my workouts aren't too serious.

2) Build a Linux box (down with Microsoft!)

3) Learn more about personal finance and investing.

4) Score another goal in an ice hockey game. I have one so far.

5) Ice skate on the Netherland canals.

6) Visit Maine and Arcadia National Park.

7) Visit Italy and see Michaelangelo's sculptures.

30 May 2005

Feel good movies

Today, the New York Times published an article about the 40th anniversary of "The Sound of Music." The movie was apparently bashed by critics at time. One called it a sugar coated pill. Well, of course it is! But for "normal" people looking to have a good time, it's a exhilarating, delightful film. I think the music is wonderfully engaging and the cinematography is beautiful (particularly for 1965). The best musical film of all time is still, in my humble opinion, My Fair Lady, but The Sound of Music comes close.

That reminds me of another movie. When I was feeling down a few years ago, a professor asked me if I had seen Galaxy Quest. He said there was a really great quote from the movie, but he wouldn't tell me what it was. I was pretty skeptical but I watched the movie with a friend. If you're not familiar with the movie, it's a spoof of Star Trek. Boy was I embarrassed during the scenes with rabid fans seeking autographs of the TV stars at a Star Trek-like convention. (I've been to two Star Trek conventions.) The professor was right; the film was incredibly funny and hardly what I would expect a sophisticated Ivy-League educated professor to recommend. For the record, the quote he liked was "Never give up, never surrender!"

Sometimes we have to forget about our busyness and just have some fun.

22 May 2005

Mascot of Magedeburg, Germany

The famous German scientist Otto van Guericke demonstrated the properties of vacuum with two copper bowls ("Magdeburg hemispheres") in 1663. He put the bowls together to form a hollow sphere and pumped all the air out of the sphere. Two teams of eight horses were unable to pull the bowls apart. The German emperor was impressed!

Now Magdeburg, in honor of their favorite son Guericke, has chosen the copper hemispheres as their mascot. They even have a stuffed animal version:

18 May 2005

Hockey drills

The two (inanimate) things I love most in life are physics and ice hockey. In the last few months, I decided that I had spent too much time away from hockey, so I joined a summer league. Then I found out there was a development group so I joined that, too. The development group is basically a skills session where you work out different aspects of your skating and puck handling. The coach is really good, so I want to post some ideas I've learned here.

The usual athletic weight program is squats, benching, etc. But for hockey, much of an athlete's power comes from twisting and turning. You twist your torso to put power into a shot or make a sharp turn. So a hockey player should really spend a significant amount of time building abnominal strength.

We've also been doing some nice drills. For now, I'll just give a short written description. When I have a chance, I'll draw them out.

1. The basic slalom. You skate around all the red face off-circles, emphasizing your cross-over. Do it forward and backwards, then with the puck.

2. The modified slalom. You zig-zag between the red dots on the ice and make a sharp hockey turn at each dot. Then do it with the puck.

3. Pivot drill (this is hard one.) The basic pattern of movement is a big "W". You skate up to a cone forwards, pivot backwards around the cone, then skate backwards to the next cone, and pivot to go forward around the cone, etc.

4. Butterfly warm up drill. Skate forwards up the middle of the ice, doing some kind of stretch (touching your toes or arm circles). Then you turn and come up the boards working on outside or inside edges.

5. Basic passing drill. Line up across from a partner so when you extend your arms your sticks touch. Then pass forehand to forehand. Increase the distance and repeat. Do the same thing with backhand to backhand. After that, practice catching passes on the backhand, stepping around the stopped puck, and passing back on your partner on the forehand. Don't stick handle in between receiving and giving the pass.

6. Moving passing drill. Line up across from a partner so when you extend your arms your sticks touch. One person skate forwards and the other skate backwards. Keep passing forehand to forehand. The goal is to make as many passes as you can between a fixed distance.

The coolest bandana

Actually, it's not a bandana at all. It's called "Buff" headwear. I originally found it on sale at REI.com. I never thought I'd get excited about headwear (not to be confused with the dental appliance headgear). To see why it's so cool, check out the demo video at the company's US website. You can wear it as a scarf, a ski mask, a bandana, etc. The material is silky smooth and seamless. It supposedly wicks, too. The best part are all the awesome designs (US site, European site). Apparently, Buff has been quite popular in Europe (particularly as a fashion statement for athletes and bikers). Yet it is still a relatively unknown treasure here in America. No, I was not paid by the company to write this testimonial. If you're curious, here's the one I got.

15 May 2005

Popularity of my favorite books on Friendster

I'm a member of Friendster (not that I've found it particularly useful so far.) One interesting aspect of the service is that you can search for people who have similar interests.

Here are the numbers of people on Friendster who liked the same books that I do:

I, Claudius [240]
Middlemarch [287]
To the Lighthouse [607]
Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, David Copperfield, Ender's Game, Foundation Trilogy [> 1000]

Maybe I should screen for potential friends by asking them if they like I, Claudius or Middlemarch.

Notable blogs: personal finance and life aspirations

The first notable blog is "I Will Teach You To Be Rich" by Ramit Sethi. As crass as that title may seem, the blog is filled with concise entries teaching the lay person how to be practical with money. After reading Ramit's blog, I have started paying more attention to my spending (currently I save about 50% of my disposable income, but I hope to do better). I will also probably get a money-management software program (like Quicken or Microsoft Money) to track my spending.

Ramit's blog pointed me to another cool blog by Ian Ybarra. Like Ramit, Ian is also interested in long-term aspirations. His entire blog is about figuring out what your career goals are and chasing your dreams. I like how he tries to inspire people to do what makes them happy and fulfilled rather than following social expectations or trends. As I noted in a previous entry, I could have used more of that perspective when I was a young undergraduate.

13 May 2005

A neat paper by Garcia-Ripoll, Zoller, and Cirac

I attended a recent talk by Peter Zoller, who, along with Ignacio Cirac, is a master of quantum control. I especially enjoyed his description of a geometric phase gate which is resistant to temperature fluctuations. These ideas are contained in the article at quant-ph/0411103, written by Zoller and collaborators.

Unfortunately, I don't have time to digest the article right now, but I can say a few words. The thing I found most interesting is the fact that geometric phases can be non-adiabatic. Many people, including myself, are familiar with the concept of Berry's phase which is a geometric phase that arises when the system evolves adiabatically through a closed path in parameter space. For the geometric phase gate that Zoller described, you can design a laser pulse sequence so that you can perform a two-ion gate operation which results in the ions having a fixed relative phase afterwards. The phase is the same no matter what the initial state of the ions. Even better, if the operation is perfect, the temperature of the system doesn't matter eitiher.

03 May 2005

Michael Nielsen: "Principles of Effective Research"

My friends in humanities and science have really enjoyed Michael Nielsen's article on effective research, so I have decided to post a link to it on my public blog.

As a graduate student, I find the process of going from student to independent researcher quite daunting. I'm not sure I can add much to what Michael has already said, but if I learn anything new, I will be sure to write about it in the future.

01 May 2005

Living a balanced life

We often are told to have a "balanced life." What does that really mean? I think an individual's "balance" is a highly personal idea. One person might be happy spending 80% of their time working and 20% of their time on their personal life. For another person, it might be 40% work and 60% personal life. The work and personal mega-categories can be broken down into further sub-categories, for example: job, fixing the house, volunteer work, exercise, blogging, family, friends, cultural events, etc.

The main point is that we strive for diversified lifestyle (sounds like a stock portfolio!) so that if one part of our life fails, we don't collapse completely. For instance, if you focus all your energy on work and fail to get a much-desired promotion, you'd be crushed. Or, if you focus on enjoying your personal life and suddenly become disabled, you wouldn't have anything to fall back on.

Let me play philosopher. What are the essential parts of a balanced life?

1) Something you do (independent of other people) that makes you supremely happy, so happy that you get a rush of good feeling. Examples: a favorite sport, hiking, traveling, volunteering to build houses, painting, reading, movie watching, writing poetry.

2) A network of friends you can count on, to varying degrees. This network consists of three main groups. First, there is your boss (or employees) and colleagues at work. I typically eat lunch with fellow science graduate students. Second, there is your local social group. For me, these are the people I live with. Third, there is your family and long-distance friends. I think one should have meaningful relationships with all of these groups. Then out of everyone, there should be a few people who can be relied on in dire emergencies (whether emotional, medical, academic, etc.) I like talking to my peers for the short-term perspective (i.e. getting through grad school) and talking to older people for the long-term perspective (i.e. finding an ideal career).

3) Personal growth. You don't want to stagnate. For some people, life effectively ends after they finish their formal education. They're the same person at 45 as they were at 25. The main ways to achieve personal growth are intellectually challenging work and cultivating new personal relationships or improving existing ones. If you're a professor, that might mean switching research fields. If you have a family, that might mean joining an activity club to meet new people. Friends can be a good influence. If you surround yourself with creative go-getters, you'll obtain inspiration to try new things. A smaller way to influence personal growth is to read different books, listening to new genres of music, travel, etc. I don't consider these activities as effective for personal growth because they're more passive.

Of these three essential ingredients, personal growth is probably the most difficult because it requires constant work.

The value of living a balanced life can be difficult to appreciate until you experience your first "life failure." I think most people have to learn the hard way. There are also some people who never even try to construct a balanced life. I also notice that many young people get bogged down in details (living up to parental expectations, pleasing their boyfriend/girlfriend, getting A's, brushing up their resume, figuring out how to get ahead in the job market, etc.) rather than trying to develop their identity and understand what they're good at and what makes them happy. The important thing is to lay a solid foundation. Once you know where you're going, the details are easy to pick up. I fell into this trap myself. In my last two years of college, I became so worried about doing well in school that I stopped seeing my friends and never thought about what kind of physics research I wanted to pursue in graduate school. The emphasis on the GPA for graduate/professional school admissions and entry-level jobs ruins the college experience for a lot of people. Students spend all their time hoop jumping instead of exploring.

Our society might be happier and more productive if life philosophy were incorporated into basic education.

25 April 2005

Being thankful

We physicists grumble a lot. Maybe we should look to the example of Eric Cornell, 2001 Nobel Laureate in physics. He lost an arm and shoulder to a deadly bacterial infection yet he told the media that it was merely "inconvenient." A full text interview with Eric is available at the NIST website. Here's a photo of Eric after surviving his near-death experience.

This story reminds me of another physicist who lives with a disability: Ian Shipsey, a physics professor at Purdue. He lost his hearing while taking drugs to treat a deadly illness. After 11 years, he got a cochlear implant and heard his daughter's voice for the first time. He also remarked that his wife still had a beautiful Italian accent; he thought she would have lost it by now after living in America for so long. I wrote about Ian in an earlier post.

23 April 2005

Relative attractiveness of men and women in academia

Following up on my entry about the dressing habits of women physicists, I spotted an entertaining writeup by Sean Carroll. In his original post, Sean said that women physicists are, on average, more physically attractive than male physicists. Unfortunately, due to a barrage of comments (which are fun to read), the original post was taken down.

Some people found Sean's opinion offensive, but I thought it was quite insightful. When I look around at my graduate student colleagues (across all fields in the academy), the number of really attractive women is much higher than the number of really attractive men. I hope it's not the case that male mentors encourage more attractive women to attend graduate school over less attractive women. That is not to say that a great mind is not attractive either. As Sean comments in an earlier post, women really like Nobel Prize winners.

In general, I find that most science/engineering professors (of both genders) aren't very attractive, but the few who are good looking really stand out. What can be better than a guy/gal with a great mind and body?

Before I get attacked, let me say that I rarely think about the looks of my colleagues on a daily basis. But just because we're intellectuals doesn't mean we should stop being human.

18 April 2005

Music of the day: Cuban son

My sister introduced me to Cuban son music recently. A prime example of this style is the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack. The Buena Vista Social Club is actually a documentary about the aging Cuban son musicians. Another good album is Buenos Hermanos. Ibrahim Ferrer, a 70+ year old man, sings the lead vocals.

Here's what Rhapsody has to say about the history of Cuban son:

The Son was created in the nineteenth century in Santiago de Cuba from a mix of French, African, and Spanish elements that came together as a result of Haitian immigration. The Son developed as the Spanish decima (a ten line poem) and French parlor music brought melody and harmony to African rhythms. Standard Son was played on (tres) guitar, acoustic bass, maracas, bongo, and most importantly, the clave - two sticks that mark the rhythm when struck together. In the early twentieth century, Septeto Nacional, Trio Matamoros, and Sexteto Habanero popularized songs such as "Manicero" (the Peanut Vendor). The addition of trumpets made the conjunto sound of artists such as Arsenio Rodriguez jazzier and more urban, creating the template for modern Salsa. Its lyrics are generally about love, women, and country life, as exemplified by the song "Guantanamera." The Son is the true godfather of Cuban music, giving birth to many forms such as the son montuno, guaracha, guajiro, and later, the modern songo of Los Van Van.

Philanthropy as a future of basic science funding?

If the federal government is reluctant to fund basic science, at least we are getting a little help from some enlightened benefactors. One such person is Fred Kavli who was recently profiled in the following New York Times article. He has given money to establish centers of research in nanoscience, neuroscience, and cosmology. Kavli also has the clever idea of awarding $1 million prizes in these areas to draw media attention to basic science. Another idea I admire very much is prize postdoc fellowship sponsored by Neil Pappalardo. The money allows the awarded MIT postdocs to pursue their own independent research. I think the idea is similar to the Harvard Society of Fellows but the Pappalardo Fellowships are restricted to MIT physics postdocs.

10 April 2005

Music of the day: Van Cliburn playing Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff

I'm hooked on a new CD of Van Cliburn playing Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 and Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. These are showpieces and you won't be let down.

The CD was produced shortly after Van Cliburn (a lanky Texan) won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow during the Cold War. He instantaneously became a sensation and a hero for Americans. Supposedly small children grew up hearing his legendary recordings.

The Cold War seems to have inspired many good things in the United States. For instance, the Russian Sputnik launching created a huge interest in pushing American children towards science. Too bad there isn't anything like that nowadays. Young people these days tend towards safe, lucrative careers (law, medicine, business) -- though there are some admirable individuals who opt for service careers (Teach for America, Peace Corps, etc.) At the university where I study, there has also been a surge of interest in Arabic languages and current events.

07 April 2005

Public art - Bottleproject

A friend of mine sent me a link to an interesting art project in Philadelphia. It's the work of a UPenn student.

The idea is to put messages in bottles and place the bottles around the city, then see what happens. There is an email address on the bottles so people can write back to say where they found the bottle.

06 April 2005

Funding in particle physics

There have been some recent posts by Sean Carroll and Peter Woit related to a recent Science article about the decline of high energy physics in America.

05 April 2005

Trouble waking up?

If you have Winamp mp3 player, you can turn it into a nifty alarm clock with the plugin WinAlarm.

If you really have trouble waking up, maybe you can be the first one to test the prototype "Clocky." It's an alarm clock modelled after your most annoying pet.

Eli Yablonovitch on the future of semiconductors

See this neat report about Eli Yablonovitch's Loeb Lecture at Harvard (thanks to Lubos Motl).

01 April 2005

Cuts in federal money towards basic research

The New York Times reports that DARPA is scaling back funding of basic computer science research.

Physicists have been complaining for the last few years as the NSF budget for basic physical science research keeps dropping. Now the computer scientists are in trouble, too.

This trend is disturbing, particularly for young scientists. How can we convince Congress to fund basic research?

30 March 2005

"The Physical Genius" (from the New Yorker)

For all you ambitious, perfectionist overachievers out there, here's an article for you.

(The link is from Eugene Wallingford's blog.)

29 March 2005

What do woman scientists wear?

Seriously... this is an interesting question. For starters, see the recent discussion on Sean Carroll's blog and the links therein.

But come on, how about some pictures? You can check out what the president of MIT (Susan Hockfield) is wearing. That's the example of the formal, middle-aged respectable scientist. Then there's the baseball cap wearing physicist (also at MIT): Nergis Mavalvala. (I've seen her in real life and that's really how she dresses at work.) For the hip go-getter, Middlebury chemistry professor Sunhee Choi is supposedly very well-dressed.

Unfortunately, I don't have many role models since there aren't many woman physicists around. Tenatively, I think that if I become a professor, I will wear a oxford-type shirt (sometimes called a blouse) over slacks or jeans (but no belt). This is the female equivalent of the shirt and slacks dress that is standard about male physicists. Of course, alternative suggestions are welcome. It's easier for men because everything is so standard. I also feel that it's much worse for a woman scientist to dress inappropriately than for a man. I pretty much ignore the dressing habits of male scientists (though Bob Jaffe always looks really good). However, if a woman wears something slightly unusual or looks sloppy, I always notice.

26 March 2005

Physics rumor mills

I try not to think about the future too far in advance, but I have to admit it: physics graduate students are worried about getting jobs.

To see how desperate the situation is, check out the so-called physics rumor mill. For the United States, there are rumor mills regarding particle theory, nuclear theory, astrophysics, and condensed matter/atomic experiment.

I'm ambivalent about rumor mills. As long as you're not directly connected to the field, you do get a small vicarious thrill in reading them. But I can imagine that if I were one of the job candidates, I wouldn't appreciate having private information posted for everyone in the world to see.

I hear the job search is not fun for the faculty either. Check out Gordan Watt's blog entry on this subject.

When I have a chance, I'll try to write up what I've learned about job searches and different academic jobs.

23 March 2005

Encouraging community in graduate school

I've been in graduate school for almost two years now. Thus far I have found graduate school to be far more isolating than my undergraduate college. That is not to say that my current situation is horrible, but it could be better.

At my old undergraduate place, people certainly worked just as much but they just seemed friendlier. I find that the harder I work, the more I need a kind word of encouragement to keep it up. So I try to be open-minded and gregarious with everyone I meet. Unfortunately, most of my fellow graduate students act like typical real-world adults. They go to work in the office and they have their own social lives outside the university. It's sad but the only really cohesive groups are the graduate union, which heckles the administration for better grad student benefits, and the few dozen social people at my dorm.

The situation is even a little worse in my department. Many scientists are fiercely anti-social and when I try to talk to these individuals, the conversation seems forced and awkward. One solution is to recruit friendly people to the department, but that takes a lot of work and probably also a great location (e.g. Berkeley or Boston).

I suppose this state of affairs is probably typical in graduate schools. But isn't the model of a university supposed to be one that encourages community, collaboration, and common purpose? Here are some ideas to move towards that goal:

1) Build many (decent) graduate dorms so that students from different departments can mix.
2) Start a prestigious lecture series where famous people come to talk about interesting topics to a general audience.
3) Build a university where the buildings of the different departments are connected together so you have to walk through other departments to get to your own building.
4) Throw a party or happy hour for several closely related departments. For instance: physics, electrical engineering, and chemistry.
5) Put lots of money into graduate activities and clubs. Of course, this success of this effort depends on the self-motivation of the graduate students themselves.
6) Create a graduate student government council and give it a large amount of money, independence, and responsibility.
7) Encourage interaction between undergraduates and graduate students. In my experience, this interaction usually benefits everyone. It also creates a larger groups of students with similar interests.

The world is a small place...

I thought that when I started this blog, no one would ever know about it, but apparently Michael Nielsen found a link through my writings here.

It's on the righthand side of his site. The link is "Bob Laughlin on Reinventing Physics (via Quantum Mechanic)."

I have no idea how Nielsen found my blog, but I guess I should be careful about what I write!

People can even find out which sites are referring to theirs. For an example, see the bottom righthand side of Lubos Motl's blog under the section "Referring Web Pages."

03 March 2005

More Irving Berlin: "Suppertime"

Here's another song I really like. How sad but how beautiful (when Miss Ella Fitzgerald croons it)!

by Irving Berlin
Supper time
I should set the table
'Cause it's supper time
Somehow I'm not able
'Cause that man o'mine
Ain't comin' home no more

Supper time
Kids will soon be yellin'
For their supper time
How'll I keep from tellin'
Them that man o'mine
Ain't comin' home no more?

How'll I keep explainin' when they ask me where he's gone?
How'll I keep from cryin' when I bring their supper on?
How can I remind them to pray at their humble board?
How can I be thankful when they start to thank the Lord

Supper time
I should set the table
'Cause it's supper time
Somehow I'm not able
'Cause that man o'mine
Ain't comin' home no more

27 February 2005

Song of the day: "All by myself" by Irving Berlin

The Ella Fitzgerald rendition of this song rocks! I'm particularly fond of music that twists from minor to major melody and music with unusual rhythm. This song possesses both qualities. I love how songs written in the 20s and 30s have prologues. Sometimes performers cut the prologues, but I prefer to leave them in.
I'm so unhappy
What'll I do?
I long for somebody who
Will sympathize with me
I'm growing so tired of living alone
I lie awake all night and cry
Nobody loves me
That's why

All by myself in the morning
All by myself in the night

I sit alone with a table and a chair
So unhappy there
Playing solitaire

All by myself I get lonely
Watching the clock on the shelf

I'd love to rest my weary head on somebody's shoulder
I hate to grow older
All by myself

26 February 2005

Life beyond theoretical physics

What can you do with a degree in theoretical physics besides teaching, research, or Wall Street?

Here's an interesting answer. Martin Fisher is spending his life developing technology for Third World countries. His story is described in this Physics Today article.

If you're a condensed matter theorist, you might know that Martin is a member of the famous Fisher family, which has produced three top-notch theorists: Michael (the father) and Matthew and Daniel (both brothers of Martin).

Perspectives on the Larry Summers controversy

I'm frankly tired of discussing President Summers's remarks, but I thought I should get some personal closure on the topic by writing one last post.

First, here are some other people's perspectives from various personal conversations.

One woman graduate student (in science) told me that she didn't feel discrimination. However, her work and accomplishments were constantly undervalued because certain men believed her success was solely due to affirmative action.

Another woman graduate student (in science) said that she had been discriminated against and often felt like she didn't quite belong in her field. However, she said that these were minor issues compared to the "two-body problem." She is getting married to a fellow scientist. It will be extremely difficult for both of them to get great jobs and have a family.

A woman graduate student (in humanities) felt like Larry Summers's comments were yet another manifestation of men questioning the ability of women. Formerly, these type of speculations had been directed towards women in humanities but now the arena has shifted to science.

Another woman graduate student (in science) defended Larry Summer's comments. She thought the public outcry was disappointing and found Nancy Hopkin's behavior particularly disturbing [Hopkins walked out of the conference and phoned the Boston Globe to report Larry Summers's remarks]. She said there was nothing wrong with speculating about genetic differences between genders. She thought that, rather, the most troubling issue facing women in science today is the difficulty for a woman to do science and have a family at the same time. For the moment, she has chosen to be a mother rather than continue her scientific career.

A male friend told me that there is discrimination all the time against women and men. The women shouldn't be treated as a special case. In the long run, though, arguing about discrimination is a waste of time. Every person is an individual and should be judged on his/her own merit. We all have our advantages and disadvantages in both genetics and socialization, but it's up to us to make the best of what we have.

As for myself, I agree most with the last two comments. If you have enough self-confidence and motivation, discrimination can be largely ignored. It's up to society to raise its children with strong characters and constitutions so they can grow up to realize their full potential, whatever that may be.

Movie review: The Notebook

The Notebook is an idealistic story about first love, young love, and true love (if such a concept really exists). Noah is a working class boy who works at a lumber yard. Allie is a well-educated girl from an old money Southern family. One summer vacation, Allie's family stays in Noah's town. Noah spots Allie at a carnival and wins her heart with a little persistence. They proceed to fall madly in love with each other, but the romance breaks up because 1) Allie's parents disapprove and because 2) Allie goes off to a women's college. I won't give away the rest of the story, but will merely say that true love triumphs in the end.

I'm a bit of a romantic, but even I had trouble sometimes giving way to the utter optimism and sappiness at some parts. I did enjoy the chemistry between the actor playing Noah (Ryan Gosling) and the actress playing Allie (Rachel McAdams). They made the true love aspect of the story believable. According to the commentary on the movie DVD, Ryan Gosling is an outstanding actor but he is more well-known for intense, dark, brooding roles. Maybe that is why I liked his character; he seemed serious and self-assured but young and ardent at the same time.

Overall, the Notebook is an average movie for average circumstances, a good movie for a date, and a delightful movie for the hopeless romantic.

25 February 2005

Music from "Nature's Symphony"

For you classical music lovers out there, here's a great selection of music that was used in "Nature's Symphony" (think of it as a music video on American national parks). The list I have here was taken from Michael Wanger's website.

1. Holberg Suite, First Movement, by Edvard Grieg
Program Introduction and Title

2. Vissi d' Arte from Tosca by Giacomo Puccini
Snowstorm, Sun after Snowstorm, Snow Falls from Trees

3. Troika from Lieutenant Kije Suite by Sergei Prokofiev
Icy Rivers and Waterfalls

4. Return to Rundarne by Edvard Grieg
Spring in the Yosemite High Country

5. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Fourth Movement
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
High Mountain Rivers, Waterfalls and Wildlife

6. Symphony No. 9 in E Minor ("From the New World"), Second Movement (excerpt), by Antonin Dvorak
High Mountain Sunset, End of First Day

7. Overture to Mignon (excerpt) by Ambroise Thomas
Spring Rain, Spring Flowers, Green Hills, Wildlife

8. Overture to The Gypsy Baron (excerpt) by Johann Strauss, Jr.
Wildlife, Yosemite Valley, Forests

9. The Musical Snuff Box by Anatol Liadov
Spring Flowers, Bumblebee in Lupin

Transition: Summer in Yosemite Valley

10. Ballet Music from Aida (excerpt) by Giuseppe Verdi
Yellowstone Bubbling Pots and Shooting Geysers

11. Theme from Swan Lake (excerpt) by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky
Waterfowl, Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls, Yellowstone Canyon

12. Rumanian Rhapsody No. 1 (excerpt) by Georges Enesco
Forest and Autumn Wildlife

13. Serenade by Franz Josef Haydn
Autumn Colors

14. Praeludium by Armas Jarnefelt
Autumn Wildlife at Play

15. The Pines of Rome (excerpt) by Ottorino Respighi
Winter in Yellowstone

16. La Mer (excerpt) by Claude Debussy
Full Moon and Dawn to Midday in the Grand Canyon

17. A Night on Bald Mountain by Modeste Mussorgsky
Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, Sunset, Moonrise

18. Concerto for Trumpet, Third Movement (excerpt)
by Franz Josef Haydn
Closing Credits

23 February 2005

What do Feynman diagrams mean?

I've been really busy lately and haven't had a chance to post. But for now, check out the latest post on Serkan Cabi's blog about Feynman diagrams. Be sure to read the comments.

12 February 2005

Statement by the presidents of MIT, Stanford, and Princeton

The presidents of MIT, Stanford, and Princeton have prepared a response to Larry Summers' comments. They are all scientists or engineers. Two of them are women.

It's a bit politically correct and has strange wording like "our nation will be considerably less than the sum of its parts." However, I think the main message is right. I like how the authors emphasize that we don't just want more women in science and engineering, we want to make sure that the really talented ones who are interested in science and engineering, that these people stay in the system.

10 February 2005

Bob Laughlin on "Reinventing Physics"

Bob Laughlin, the 1998 Nobel Laureate in Physics, has just written an article about the future of physics. Basically, he slams particle physics and its reductionist philosophy. He claims that string theorists and cosmologists are particularly arrogant to think they have the monopoly on the secrets of the universe. He further advocates that collective behavior, as studied by condensed matter physics, will be the next frontier.

06 February 2005

Go Patriots!

Tom Brady (a Bay Area native!) and the New England Patriots take on the Philadephia Eagles tonight in the Super Bowl. Having lived near Boston, I've adopted the Patriots and Red Sox as favorite teams (along with the San Francisco 49ers, San Francisco Giants, Oakland A's, and San Jose Sharks). How fortunate for me; the Patriots and Red Sox have had astounding success in recent years.

If you haven't been to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, I highly recommend it.

But back to the main point, go Pats!

05 February 2005

Washington Post article about women in physics

To get some perspective on Larry Summer's comments, the Washington Post asked Professor Meg Urry to write an article about women in physics. She's a tenured professor in the Yale astronomy and physics departments.

The article relates Urry's personal experiences with discrimination throughout her academic career. The article is well-worth reading. The other articles I have read on this topic have always been rather vague and abstract whereas Urry's writing is very personal and eye-opening.

04 February 2005

Sophistication in the English language

A fellow graduate student and I were discussing the following topic during dinner. Why has English writing become less varied and sophisticated with time? Even the everyday literate person in the 1880s or supposedly even the 1960s could write better than today's American college graduates. Our vocabulary has diminished and the length of our sentences has shrunk. The graduate student I was speaking with claimed that she was told in Britain that one should only use words with Anglo-Saxon roots and not words with Latin roots. Yet there are many words in each system that have no duplicate (in connotation) in the other system. It's not just that our present day vocabulary is smaller; the way we use it is also less sophisticated. I sometimes have to re-read passages in Victorian novels because the sentences are far longer and convey so much meaning. I've also been told that biology students who have read articles from the 60s are struck by their clarity and elegance.

My graduate student friend argued that society has an obligation to educate its citizens in the better usage of language. If journalism and media raised their standards, everyday people would, too. Even in the academy, both of us have been told to use the simplest language. The advice makes some sense in science where articles are read by an international audience. However, it is strange that this tenet holds in humanities culture as well.

Perhaps I will make it my goal to write science beautifully.

31 January 2005

Jack Frost Designs

One of my fascinations in life is with snow and ice. This morning, I came across a New York Times video about a man who takes pictures of ice formations on his greenhouse windows.

29 January 2005


I've moved the blog from qmengineer.blogspot.com to qmechanic.blogspot.com.

I originally wanted qmechanic when I started this blog. Now it's available so I'm making the switch.

Parental blogging

The New York Times today has an article describing parents who blog about their infant children.

Of all the blogs mentioned, my favorite was "The Trixie Update", complete with graphs of the baby's projected growth and detailed explanations of milk feeding.

I think parental blogging is a rather nice addition to the blogging world as opposed to say, diaries of one's sexual exploits.

28 January 2005

Title of this blog

To my loyal readers,

I am trying to come up with a new title for my blog. Here are some ideas:
  • One path of a quantum mechanical engineer
  • Qmechanic's picture
  • Life, quantum mechanics, and all that
  • Learning to love the uncertainty

and the original title: "Some thoughts from a quantum mechanical engineer."

Please let me know what you think and/or give me your favorite idea.

- qmechanic

Additional note added 5 February 2005:
Amoebe thought my ideas were lame, so I have came up with the accurate but unexciting title above.

What is a quantum computer?

Let me first explain how a "classical" computer works. The main components of a classical computer are the CPU (central processing unit), memory (in a modern computer, the RAM and hard drive), and the software. Of course, you usually have user input and output devices (e.g. keyboard, monitor), but they are just for communication with the computer and not central to the computing process itself. The software contains lines of "code" which are written instructions for the CPU to execute. For example, one instruction might be for the CPU to add the numbers 5 and 6. Another instruction could be to save the number 15 in memory. How is the memory implemented? Well, the information is saved in bits. Each bit can be in the state 0 or 1. Physically, a bit is usually implemented by placing a certain electrical charge on a capacitor (two small metal plates very close to each other). The voltage on the capacitor will then depend on how much charge is on it. If the voltage is between say 0 and 0.5 volts then we identify that state as 0 and if the voltage is greater than 0.5 volts, then that state is 1. We can change the state of the bit by moving charge on and off the capacitor.

In the last ten years, scientists have become interested in studying quantum computers. There are several reasons. First, we know that there are limits to how much classical computer power we can pack into a given volume. The rise of the computing age has been spurred by the fact that semiconductor companies can squeeze more and more circuits into smaller and smaller chips with each passing year. Computers that used to fill rooms (40 - 50 years ago) now fit into 5 pound packages. However, we know from fundamental physics principles that this trend cannot continue. After all, you can't make a circuit out of one atom! So one motivation is that to continue increasing our computing power, we will have to look into alternative approaches from silicon-based classical computers. One of these is quantum computation.

Second, it appears that quantum computers can calculate some things "faster" than classical computers. What do I mean by faster? An algorithm is a set of instructions that when executed perform a useful task (like putting a bunch of words in alphabetical order or multiplying two numbers). Computer scientists measure the speed of the algorithm by comparing how many instructions have to be executed (i.e. the number of steps) and the size of the input data. For example, if the algorithm is to multiply two numbers, the size of the input data would be the total number of digits in the two numbers. In 1994, Peter Shor discovered that if you have a N-digit number that is the product of two prime factors, a quantum computer can find the factors in approximately N squared steps. In comparison, the best known algorithm for classical computers needs exp(N^(1/3)) steps. So the quantum algorithm is exponentially faster than the classical algorithm. It happens that modern encryption of data depends on the fact that it takes a classical computer exponentially increasing time to find the two prime factors. If a quantum computer could be built, it could conceivably break all the encryption codes at banks, the CIA, etc.!

Now that I've explained why quantum computers are interesting, I will try to explain how they work. A quantum computer has all the same elements as a classical computer: CPU, memory, software. The distinction is in the implementation of these elements. Recall that a classical computer saves information in bits, which can be in the state 0 or 1. A quantum computer, however, stores information in quantum bits ("qubits") that can be in both 0 and 1 at the same time. To be more precise, the most general state of a qubit is
|psi> = |state 0> + |state 1> * exp(i*phi)
Here exp(i*phi) is a complex number whose absolute value is one and phi is a continuous number between 0 and 2*pi. Notice that I've put the words "state 0" inside "|>". This notation emphasizes that these states are no longer classical objects (like voltages on capacitors), but they are quantum states. This is a difficult concept to explain without a course in quantum mechanics, so I will merely try to give you a flavor of the idea. If we tried to put a classical bit in both states 0 and 1 at the same time, it wouldn't work. For instance, if we added 0.3 volts (the capacitor in state 0) to 0.7 volte (the capacitor in state 1), we would get 1 volt which the CPU would read at state 1. However, for a qubit, we can perform an operation on the quantum state |psi> and this operation would be performed independently on state 0 and state 1 at the same time. It's as if we are performing a computation on one classical bit that is in state 0 and on a separate classical bit that is in state 1. So we already have double the computing power! If we have N qubits, then we can perform computations on 2^N different states at the same time.

The bad news is that we can only read the result from one of these 2^N states. This is a consequence of a fundamental postulate in quantum mechanics. Therefore, we have to design very clever quantum algorithms that somehow focus all the information into one state, the state that we read out. So far besides the prime factoring algorithm, scientists have only found a handful of useful quantum algorithms which are faster than their classical counterparts.

How do we actually build these quantum computers? The key is to find a way to implement the qubit. There are many ideas so far, but the simplest is to use an ion (an electrically charged atom). If you remember your high school chemistry, you may recall pictures of an electron orbiting a nucleus. That electron can occupy different quantum states, which can be used to implement a qubit. Then you can shine a laser on the ion to move the electron from one state to another (analagous to the CPU). The problem is that if you put an electron in an excited state (as opposed to its ground state which is the most energetically favorable), then the electron will be "unhappy" and want to return to its ground state. The technical term for this behavior is "decoherence." We lose quantum information because our quantum bits interact with the environment, which causes them to relax to their most energetically favorable state. The decoherence problem has limited quantum computers to 10 qubits or less so far.

Thus quantum computers are an interesting piece of science but not yet a practical technology.