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.