November 2005 Archives

These days, research is hard

Being the sort of grad student who will definitely not sleep in a bed seven times in the coming week, this quote really tickled me. Ah, to have worked before the days of that (now) old truism about all the easy problems having been solved.


[W]hen the Duke of Buckingham was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society on June 5, 1661, he presented the Society with a vial of powdered "unicorn horn". It was a well-accepted 'fact' that a circle of unicorn's horn would act as an invisible cage for any spider. Robert Hooke, the chief experimenter of the Royal Society, emptied the Duke's vial into a circle on a table and dropped a spider in the centre of the circle. The spider promptly walked out of circle and off the table. In its day, this was cutting-edge research.

Local Updates

Much time has been consumed hereabouts in the past week watching people sketch. Through the magic of the Internets, that is. See, has acquired and offered for mass consumption this ArtPad web-app, which is actually a quite nifty application of dynamic Flash programming. Just a simple painting program, except the process is the product. Probably best illustrated with an example or two, so here are two recent creations from the dept: good for a quick sketch, or it can be used for animation (watch that one on fast).

It is possible to go a bit overboard with the technique, natch. From a different site I picked up this animated sketch, demonstrating the extremely Classical technique of drawing a model from the skeleton out. (Yes, this results in brief nudity, if you're a complete prude (or have your completely prudish boss over your shoulder just now).)

In other local news, poor John's been trying to get this paper published for rather more than a year, in the face of apparently considerable intra-disciplinary politics. Probably because he contradicts people much higher than himself on that particular totem pole. I will therefore score its recent acceptance for publication as a point for the good guys, and the home team to boot. Congrats.

For my part, same old, same old. Research just won't let up for five minutes, much less long enough to write up my second-year project. So my oral exam continues to be pushed back. Probably have to be early January at this point, which means Christmas will just rock. Oh. Yeah.

What the ... ?


Hold up a sec. Thanksgiving is next week!?

I have got to get out of the lab more often. I seem to have missed a semester somewhere in there.

Autumn Passing III

My street! It's been flash-frozen! 2005:11:16 10:06:06

Finally, the first signs that winter is on the way. Autumn sure has been lingering.

Not quite enough for snowballs, I'm afraid. Mostly things are icy from the rain we had all day before the snow began. Not a proper ice storm, but the effect is similar -- everything is slippery and cruncy underfoot. Plus, my bike is grounded for the time being, as my lock is presently encased in ice. Napalm would fix that, but alas I have none handy. No matter, there are other ways.

NYU Intimidation

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I am constitutionally incapable of being dour or grim when there's snow in the air. But for the sake of my audience, I'll do what I can.

It's just about a week now since the NYU graduate assistants went on strike, mostly as I understand it in an effort to force the University's administration to recognize their union and bargin with them. (Link via Majikthise) After all, it's not much use having a union if your boss won't negotiate with it. And I can report that, whether or not the NYU administrators intend to be so perceived, some of their tactics look an awful lot like intimidation.

Over the weekend the story broke in the Chronicle of Higher Ed and elsewhere that administration was effectively evesdropping on the grad students communication with their students, by tapping into NYU's course management website. Like many institutions these days, NYU uses some web-based software (Blackboard, in this case) to serve as a central online meeting-point for students and instructors, where assignments can be downloaded, questions and answers posted, and such like. Many graduate instructors unwilling to cross picket lines to teach their classes used the Blackboard system to tell their students where to meet off-campus.

The Chronicle article quotes a letter sent this weekend to soothe professors who were already starting to raise a stink about infringement of academic freedom. In it, two Deans claim that the monitoring only took place to check up on "continuity of instruction" during the strike. However, I can report that this is not the end of the story. One NYU graduate assistant, who asked not to be named, was recently summoned to meet with a Dean and given the "nice academic career, shame if something were to happen to it" treatment. (My source indicates that many similar meetings took place on Monday.) In the course of this meeting it became clear that the Deans had used the fruits of their Blackboard monitoring to build a list of students who were actively supporting the strike, or even passively respecting the picket line by holding off-campus class meetings. This is particularly intrusive given that many departments had explicitly taken the position that they would not reveal which graduate assistants chose to go on strike, to avoid the potential for retaliations.

All this takes place in the context of an increasingly charged atmosphere that is ripe for the spread of rumors. Late last week many grad students were sent messages to the effect that their access to the NYU email system had been blocked. Access was restored the same day, but the outage went completely unexplained, and the affected students naturally suspected foul play. Also, I am told that there is currently an email circulating from the Faculty Democracy group (I will try to get my hands on a copy of it) accusing the NYU administration of having offered to pay grad students from nearby universities to replace the strikers.

There's a town hall meeting with the faculty Wednesday afternoon. One imagines it will be exciting.

Autumn Passing II

My street! It's been denuded! 2005:11:10 11:13:14

It's that volatile time of year now. Today we hit 62°F, about 20°F above normals for this time of year. By Monday the forecast has us below normal temperature with the potential for accumulating snowfall. I made a point of spending some time out of doors today, then, even though it was objectively a somewhat dreary day. Quite unlike a couple of days ago, when I took the picture to the right. That one was decently crisp and clear all the way up. Today, well, you may know the kind ... not actually cloudy, but the afternoon sun seems tired and can't quite muster the gumption to cast sharp shadows. Not dark, but still grey. All in all, an interesting transitional species that my native climate mostly lacks.

The oaks haven't quite finished changing, and presently range from bright red to still nearly green. 2005:11:11 14:43:12

The cold front last week, even if it didn't amount to all that much of a wind storm -- certainly not compared to the thunderstorms we had last month -- managed to blow the remaining leaves off most of the local trees. The major exception appears to be the oaks, which haven't quite finished turning. A couple of other less widespread varieties, too. I also notice there's a significant variation from one end of campus to the other, which I would speculate is tied to the change in average temperature, wind, and humidity as you move away from the river.

If I had to guess, next week will see the rest of the trees get with the program. Yes, a week of good solid freezes should do the trick.



While I generally leave the politicking to the (many, many) commentators having more time and qualifications than myself, this is just too egregious to pass without comment.

The Senate has just voted to strip Bush's detainees of access to the courts, among other things bringing an effective end to the right of Habeas Corpus. And the kicker?

The five Democrats voting for the bill were Senators Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Now just down the road the citizens of St. Paul overwhelmingly voted to chuck their (Democratic) mayor out on his ear, basically because be betrayed the party and endorsed Bush in 2004. I'll grant you, Nebraska is no Democratic bastion like the Twin Cities (although Connecticut? Seriously?), but is it too much to ask that Democratic Senators not stand in active opposition to obvious and fundamental principles of justice?

Autumn Passing

The Mall, our official Central Campus Green Space, gets into the spirit of autumn. 2005:10:20 10:13:49

Look! More photoblogging!

Vaguely apropos of which, the local blog techie has announced that we will shortly be upgrading to a thoroughly modern Moveable Type. Nothing much will change on your end, and at first I'll mostly get to appreciate improved spam filtering. Eventually, though, this will mean more integration of the technological goodies that can make blogging so dizzyingly neat of late.

Which gets me to the apropos part. One of the hot services out there is Flickr, if you're into blogging and photography, or so I gather. Which raises a question. Currently I edit my photos here on the ol' workstation and upload them to our MT server, whence they get linked into my posts. Would I gain anything of value my moving the photo end to a Flickr account, given that they'd still primarily appear here? Does anyone out there use Flickr and thus know what the key advantages are? Let me know.

Okay. Moving right along...

Autumn arrived about on time this year, though things briefly looked as though it would last about 12 hours. But that cold snap ended, and we've had a gloriously extended fall. It was only a couple of weeks ago that the leaves started turning in earnest, as seen here. I'm told the colors are better those years when the turn happens in a sudden weekend, rather than this gradual de-greening, but I've yet to see such an occurence.

Last night an airmass worthy of late autumn blew through -- cycling home against a 40 MPH headwind was a good workout, which is just as well since the temperature had also dropped 20 degrees below what I had dressed for riding in that morning. I've come to think of late autumn as beginning at about the point when a good stiff cold front manages to blow most of the remaining foliage off the (deciduous) trees. Tomorrow, it has arrived. And none too soon, either: while we might actually hit record high temperatures tomorrow (if we make it to 65°F), there are multiple possible snowfalls forecast for next week.

Patently Weighty Nonsense

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Fig. 1 from Boris' patent -- looks like he ain't kidding about building a spaceship, either. Scroll to near the end of the patent text for the number key -- #14 is helpfully labelled as "Crew," but no indication of what these big scary (M) tanks are. Now what I'd like to know is, how come the one guy gets a nice workstation, but the other one has to take his laptop and go sit on the nuclear reactor core? Besides which, doesn't Boris know that women have been allowed to fly spacecraft for some years now?

Or not, actually. See, the US Patent and Trademark Office, in its infinite wisdom, decided to issue patent #6,960,975 last week for a Space vehicle propelled by the pressure of inflationary vacuum state.

That's right. Some Boris fellow in Indiana now has a patent on the antigravity drive. I expect he will be following this up shortly with a pixie-dust-powered BS detector. Does make you miss the days when patent examiners at least pretended to read the applications, though. (On the other hand, I suppose I'd rather they spent their time approving patents for blatantly impossible inventions that rely on crackpot made-up physics. It would be better than the usual arrangement of bulk rubber stamping patent applications for ancient and obvious bits of software, which is causing serious problems out here in the real world.)

Boris isn't even being terribly original, by the by. Google for "antigravity" and "superconductor" and you'll see that there's a whole cottage industry of cranks and conspiracy theorists based around the really strange notion that superconductors can somehow block gravity. Sometimes they have to be spinning, or charged, or some such. This idea dates back to experiments in the early 90s, when high-temperature superconductivity made the effect much easier to play with. This, in turn, harkens back to 1950s-era military research that, again, relied on wild speculation about magnetism and the like. (Let's recall that, during the Cold War, US researchers actively tried to develop everything from mind control to nuclear airplanes. Ah, irrational exuberence!)

All of this ultimately ties back to the fact that for most of recorded history, magnetism has been known only as a completely mysterious force associated with certain kinds of rare mineral. As such, magnets have always been ascribed with various mystical powers. The BBC radio program "In Our Time" recently hosted a fascinating discussion on the history of thought about magnetism, which is well worth a listen or a read of the transcript.

Race to the Bottom

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Okay, so what I was going for with last week's pumpkins was not so much squinty-me, but more like The Corinthian. Just for the record.

As a side note, let me just toss a hearty "Bwa-hahaha!" to A Tiny Revolution for taking the time to plot readily-available data. It's a Presidential race to the bottom: W and Nixon are now in serious contention for the title of Most Hated President.

All Hallows II

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Guess who!

A combination of busy schedules and last year's incident with the trabavorous pumpkin nixed departmental Jack-o-Lantern carving this year. But I still got one in. I even gave the fellow two faces, but that's meant as before-and-after, not Janus-style (in case you were trying to work out the identity). It was intended for Pearl's porch, but by the time we finished eviscerating it all 20 or so trick-or-treaters in her neighborhood had already come and gone. Sad.

Stormy Scary

A storm rolls in, as seen from the roof of the physics building. 2005:09:21 19:08:28

A little while back I hung out on the roof taking pictures of a storm rolling in. Sadly, a static photograph just doesn't do justice to the dynamism of a midwestern thunderstorm. Happily, I had just worked out how to use the rapid-fire mode on my camera. Rather than take up scads of space on the page posting hundreds of images, I have (in a fit of supremely geeky procrastination) encoded them into a movie. Which *should* play on most any computer, I think.

Minneapolis thunder storm -- air-raid sirens not included.

MP4 format might work better on some computers.

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