Recently in 2008 Narrative Category


So when I got to New York a couple of months ago, it mostly looked like this:

Ardsley, NY, at the top of the incredibly steep hill where I stayed; taken around Halloween

but by the time I left, this sort of thing was becoming common:

Looking down the gully side of the same hill, late November, sporting morning fog and a dusting of snow.

Then I declared myself finished there and came home to this:

Coming in for a landing in Minnesota in early December, we fly over the frozen Minnesota River with downtown St. Paul some miles in the distance

It's a bit colder here, I must say.

Anyway, I'm here for about a week, then I traipse off to Texas with Elena for Christmas.



These days Thanksgiving Day tends to get defined by reference -- as one bookend to the Holiday Season of mass consumption, as historical allegory, as jokes about turkeys -- but rarely is regarded head-on as the direct descendant of millennia of harvest festivals celebrating the realization of summer's promise in the form of autumn's storable crops. Inspired by such tangible evidence that my community probably would not starve to death over the winter, living in any but this time and place of incomprehensible bounty, who would not be moved to celebrate and give thanks?

Elena's chopstick-fu is strong.

For my part, I am also glad that I and those I love will probably not starve to death this winter, but it's hard to muster the real gratitude for this fact that it probably deserves, given how remote a possibility that was to begin with. Had McCain won the recent election and doomed us to several more years of recklessness and inaction, I might have had to reevaluate that position sooner than I would like.

That sounds like a jumping-off point to discuss some things for which I am, in fact, deeply grateful. This is intentional.

Getting top billing on this particular list has to be the newest member of my family, Elena. Over the past couple of years she has brought a great infusion of happiness, adventure, and love into my life, and when we got married this summer, I became a very lucky fellow indeed. How lucky? I should only have to point out that she's been exceedingly patient with the fact that I've been here in New York for the past five weeks, and doesn't sound inclined to murder me when I get back!

Of course, I'm grateful for the rest of my family as well! They may not always understand me and some of the odd decisions I make and things I do, but they've reliably made up for it with more caring and acceptance than I could reasonably hope for. Also, they are pretty awesome folks in their own right.

I already alluded to the deep swell of relief I felt when McCain lost our recent Presidential election, and more than that, I am profoundly grateful that our incoming president is sane, competent, and appears to show actual and genuine respect for the human race. Fortunately, the feeling appears to be mutual. This has dramatically increased my optimism that homo sapiens is not facing imminent extinction (nor, even, reduction to a state where harvest festivals regain their original significance, if we play our cards right).

Obama addresses approximately 105 cheering supporters last October. From The Big Picture's photo series on Obama.

And I am grateful for the apparently boundless curiosity of humankind. In addition to keeping me in a job -- yay for science funding -- it's that curiosity (about how nature works, sure, but also curiosity about ourselves, about our neighbors, about the future) and the harvest of creativity it inspires that will keep that bleak winter at bay.


And to follow up on yesterday's post, I have in fact voted.

At my suggestion, today after our lunchtime group meeting we staged a lab field trip -- the Minneapolis residents hopped a bus to city hall (and the St. Paul residents did the same going the opposite direction in the advisor's car) to vote at the early voting desk. Discounting the slightly creepy spectacle of the grandmotherly window clerk who only seemed able to address us in baby talk ("You filled out your whole ballot now? Oh, who's such a good boy!" *shudder*), the process went smoothly and probably quicker than standing in line on election day would have been.

Minneapolis folks: sendoff party at my place Sunday afternoon!


I suppose I should mention, one reason why I've been terrible at blogging lately is the chaos that is my lab right now. The experiment I work on is designed to hang underneath a giant balloon, so as you might imagine, assembling it requires something like a hanger bay. We don't have one here, but our collaborators at Columbia have one north of New York City. And so now that we're ready to try putting all the pieces together (pretty much just to see if they fit), we're preparing to pack up the lab and head to New York for several weeks.

I leave on Tuesday. There are a number of things I have to do, pack, ship, etc., before then.

Fun fact: this will be the second presidential election in a row in which I will have had to vote absentee due to science-related travel. (Last time I was in Israel.)

Also fun: It is twice the distance to walk from the lab we'll be working in to the apartment we're renting than to walk to goodguyseatpie's place in Dobbs Ferry. I foresee outings to the tasty vegetarian Mexican restaurant he frequents there.


My memories of Galveston are mostly of summer trips with the family; they weren't all that frequent, since San Antonio is nearer to the cleaner beaches of Padre Island, and in any case, Texas is a big place, so it was a pretty long drive. But even though the gap between my parents' house and Galveston is over 250 miles -- comparable to the drive from Chicago to St. Louis, and far enough west that they got barely a drop of rain from the storm -- Texas as a whole still feels like home such that a hurricane headed for Houston sets me on edge in a deep way that one headed for Florida does not.

At any rate, I was struck by the photo attached to today's article on the hurricane. Crews are finally making it to the hardest hit, northern end of the island, and this is what they found:

Pool photograph from the New York Times by Smiley N. Pool, according to the byline.

Nobody knows yet how many people tried to ride out the storm there, but of 5,000 or so original residents only about 100 were there after the storm passed. I really hope the rest realized the vulnerability of that peninsula and are safely elsewhere, but I worry that we might never know how many were swept right out to sea.


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Almost lost in today's coverage of, well, quite a few important things, I discover that David Foster Wallace has died.

The NYT has the requisite obit; I actually heard about his death via a firedoglake posting.

I haven't read all that much of his work, and in particular am unlikely in the immediate future to have time to tackle the behemoth that is Infinite Jest. I am told that he was a major influence on several of today's more interesting writers, but I am very much not in a position to comment on that at any length. However, given all that, I have something of a soft spot in my heart for Wallace, as he was rather an outsized figure during my college years. Arriving a couple of years after his signature work hit the scene, all the tragically hip GS-Hum1 concentrators (i.e. the grungier, mostly more authentic but equally pretentious antecedants to today's hipsters) were obsessed with Infinite Jest. Not only did I have many such friends early on -- they tended to cluster in my neo-Gothic, nearly-on-campus dorm, but being mostly older than me, graduated and thus featured principally in my first couple of years there -- but said folks essentially dominated the editorial staff of the Chicago Maroon, which made the campus organ considerably less useful, but an immeasurably more intriguing read. Moreover, at that time the Maroon staff overlapped heavily with the ScavHunt Judgeship, and thus the literary voice of David Foster Wallace was a pervading presence during my first few Hunts. To this day, the ScavHunt by-laws endorse terrorizing Wallace, wherein "terrorize" is implicitly defined to mean "to worship, creatively and intrusively."

From reports, it sounds like Wallace was a casualty of severe -- and eventually untreatable -- clinical depression. Brain chemistry is a brutal and flighty thing.

1 GS-Hum is the UofC department code for General Studies in the Humanities -- this wasn't a real department, but was instead a program that enabled those types who were planning to have to hold down a white collar day job after graduation anyway, to get a degree for reading and writing widely and with eccentricity, for example by learning a foreign language and falling in love with the literature and drama of that language's national past, going on to study modern nonconformists living lives inspired by fictional characters contained therein, and finally writing and staging a difficult-to-follow drama informed by the experience2. Yes, that's the sort of thing the GS-Hum concentrators did. I believe the program survives today under the heading of Interdisciplinary Studies.

2 Apropos David Foster Wallace, this post is brought to you with extra footnotes and unnecessarily-long sentences.

Low-Car Entertainment

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Nothing much to report; had a kind of busy weekend that segued smoothly into a contractor dismantling my house this week. (Actually just the windows, which all need to be replaced, because the city has developed an abundance of concern about lead paint in old windowframes.) Also, my house has been killing entirely too much time squawking at the Olympics. Haven't spotted a single protester yet. That's why NBC gets the big bucks, I assume.

At Streetsblog, I checked out photos of the new Times Square. As part of the "Broadway Boulevard" project the street has been redesigned to prioritize the types of traffic that make the city work -- i.e. primarily foot traffic. And I think the new bike lane aware traffic lights (example shown at left) are too cute.

Speaking of which, who else knew that World Carfree Day falls on my birthday? Sweet.

Two other entertaining bits I ran across in the past few days:

A joke made at an American Geophysical Union meeting has emerged fully formed in Deep Time for Dummies. Why bother memorizing 4,600,000 millennia of geological history when the Bible says you only need six? An expert maps 6,000 years of history onto the geological record, starting with:

* 23 October 4004 B.C.: Hadean Era ends with Lucifer's fall to Earth
* 4003 B.C.: Earth still largely molten , Adam and Eve cover their shame with asbestos waders

and including such world-historical highlights as "48 B.C.: All of Gaul is divided into three parts as Corsica collides with the European Plate" and

A.D. 1492: Panama's rise from sea thwarts Columbus's discovery of Japan.
A.D. 1522: Sneak asteroid attack by Hernan Cortez smashes Aztec Empire

And so on in that vein, although the modern bits of the timeline seem a tad off.

Also, check out the Periodic Table of Awesome. Finally it is revealed that the suggestively similar awesomeness of pirates, zombies, dwarves, robots, and aliens is caused by their common (halogenic) valence number.

I also like the idea of The Idea Vending Machine. It's disappointing that it only occurs to tourists to use it. And since that actually makes three entertaining bits, I hope the Idea Vending Machine includes one that reads "learn to count."


Covering all the bases, eh? British Airways lets you pick from a pretty wide array of titles when applying for a frequent flier account. Just take a second to peruse that drop-down menu.

I wonder, how many people so qualified actually feel the need to be addressed by their airline as "Brigadier General"? The hereditary titles I understand, as European nobility does make a rather big deal about such things. I'm rather curious to know who would qualify for the title of "High Chief", though. And seriously, I don't think people going by "His Holiness" or "Her Majesty" generally bother with frequent flier programs. (I checked -- there's no "Her Holiness" option, I'm sorry to say.)

The drop-down list of preferred languages, while impressive (how many people do *you* run into that speak Altaic?) is not quite such a comprehensive overkill.


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At my house, yesterday morning, regarding a window fan: "This fan should not be on! It's cold! Winter is coming! It smells like winter outside!"

It may be true that we are past the summer solstice and the climatological summer temperature peak, and we are having an unusually mild summer in general. Nevertheless, given that the date was August 10, I expressed some skepticism.

Walking down University Avenue, this morning: a honky-tonk rendition of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" blasting from a passing pickup.

I'm not sure how I feel about that one.

Back To It

It appears that my last content-ful post was back in May; it now being August, I'm retroactively declaring that EGAD observes summer vacation this year.

In reality, though, I stepped away from the blog because EBEX, the experiment I've been working on for the past several years, was scheduled for a test flight this fall, and all Hell predictably broke loose as we stretched and struggled to get it ready to fly. As that flight has now been postponed to the spring, I think the pressure has subsided sufficiently that I can go back to blogging, although I don't yet know what the posting schedule is likely to be.

What I can say is that there will be a few posts coming up soon, as I clean up and clear out the half-written posts that have accumulated over the past couple of months. It continues to be the case that I read an enormous amount online, and I'm not even going to try to summarize everything interesting that I read, but I probably will put up a few link-dump posts.

I'm intrigued that my monthly traffic only fell by around 20% over two months of non-posting -- I suspect this is because my archived posts are rather popular with the search engines. However, that other 20% is probably most of my regular readers, which means that it may be a while before anybody actually reads this. (Not actually true, as it will show up in RSS feeds and the LJ feed shortly, but people reading EGAD that way probably don't show up in the site counter, either.)

I bet more of you would click through and visit the site if the comment system was less flaky. I should look into that.


Oh right, I have a blog. I knew I was forgetting something.

Up Next

My sister's wedding is this weekend, so I'll be in New York for the remainder of the week, hanging out with family, dressing unusually well, and generally making merry and trying not to stress out the bride. Oh, and totally not working, since it's extremely unlikely that I'll have time to do much more than check my email once every couple of days.

However, in an effort to keep things interesting around here, I've queued up a few posts on time-delay to go up over the next few days. Or more to the point, I am presently doing so, in between compiling things and running tests in preparation for totally not working for half a week. Fun!

When I get back: pictures of me in a suit! (And not the green evil-leprechaun suit, either. Some of you know the one I mean.)


And while I'm online and posting, a photo.

We're likely to get our first thunderstorm of the season in the next few days, which is a prospect that I'm relishing. (The thunder-snow we had a couple of weeks ago, while neat, isn't quite the same thing.) So with the thaw basically complete, and spring about to pounce into green any day now, let's recall the long winter just past with a tree.

Good accompanying reading: around the time I took this picture, I spent an entire evening engrossed by Wikipedia's List of Notable Trees.

A knarled tree tops a snowy knoll on campus in early February, reaching upwards into a cold sky. Not cloudy exactly, but the high cirrus do obscure the stars and throw back enough city light to create a noticeable sky glow.



Happy passover -- chag Pesach same'ach -- people. How do you know it's pesach in Israel? Here's a hilarious (and true) list: You'll know it's passover in Israel. Seriously, the fact that there's an Arab dude in Abu Gosh who theoretically owns all the remaining bread in Israel for a week is probably the most delightful thing I learned the whole time I was there.

And since the advisor has been in Israel for the holiday, you'd think this would have been a slow week. Not so much. I'm actually having an astonishingly busy spring, which isn't terribly surprising if you consider that we have to pack up our experiment and leave for the field in something under three months. This has been annoying to a number of people, as my tight and shifting schedule has made it hard to commit to things very far in advance.

In other news, contact lenses are curious things.

See, I have at last gotten fed up with my ancient, battered, scratched, pitted, and soldered-back-together glasses, so various activities are in process to remedy this situation. One of these is that I am wearing an evaluation pair of contact lenses. Ignore for a moment the trick that was suppressing my finely honed reflexes enough to literally stick my finger in my eye without blinking. Optically, they basically work by reshaping the cornea, which is a totally different mechanism than the pre-eye correction done by glasses. Overall I think the vision correction isn't as precise as what good glasses can achieve (I also have new glasses coming in the mail any day, so I'll soon be able to directly test this assertion). On the other hand, for as long as I can remember I've been plagued by some subtle visual artifacts, like chromatic abberation caused by thick lenses (I can tilt my head and be a human spectrograph!), and ghost images around high-contrast borders (e.g. I see double or triple images of stars, which as you can imagine is extremely annoying to me as an astronomer) due I think to some asymmetric abberation of my cornea. Both are now gone, which is awesome and totally bizzare. While I wouldn't wear contacts all the time by any means, I'm really looking forward to trying a public observing night with these things.


P.S. I'm still alive. I was in Montreal last week attending this conference, which was very educational. A full report and pictures will follow. But since I spent the whole week preceding working on my talk (20 minutes on EBEX, room full of our competitors, no backup), and came back to things like a broken dishwasher and a serious coding backlog, I've been a little bit preoccupied.

And since I've been kind of delinquent in posting photos, here's a sunset from February:

In early February, steam from the power plant immediately condenses into a thick fog in the subzero air. 10 February 2008

My Life, My Reading

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So it's been an entire month since I posted here. Huh. That's rather impolite of me.

Story is, I've been a bit occupied with the whole grad school thing of late (more so than usual, that is), and side projects (like blogging, e.g.) have taken a hit. One thing is that on my experiment, we've reached the point where the subsystems I develop have suddenly become crucial for day-to-day life around here, and now I'm supporting considerably more users than before. Let's see, what else? Oh! I've been accepted to attend and speak at this workshop, so I get to visit Montreal at the end of the month. My attempt to give a 20-minute practice talk today turned into a two hour debate about the correct philosophy and strategy to use in approaching this audience. But I also got some good tips on my presentation.

Also: I have a minion now. Just a freshman undergrad, who requires enough babysitting that I'm not sure he's a net gain yet, in terms of productivity, but he seems to be a pretty quick study.

I'm enough of a politics/news junkie that I've read an enormous number of things since last time I posted. I'll just highlight two. One is an actual book: just after the invasion of Iraq Dahr Jamail declared himself an independent journalist and headed there to try and report what the embedded media wasn't. He wound up spending large chunks of 2003 - 2005 there, living and reporting from among the Iraqis, until it simply became too dangerous for a westerner to do that anymore. Now he's written a book: Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq. It is not an especially easy read, especially if you're American (and thus, by extension, largely responsible for this mess). The writing reflects the Iraqis', and Jamail's own, evolution over the three-ish years chronicled in the book: at the start optimistic, if dismayed by the ongoing chaos and evidently poor planning, with time the mood grows darker and, yes, angrier. On the ground the occupation is seen first as bungling and ineffectual, then progresses to arrogant, dangerous, and finally malevolent and tyrannical. By the time Jamail left for the last time, the Iraqis with whom he interacted were mostly of the opinion that things were better under Saddam Hussein's regime. According to the afterward, most of the people he knew there have either fled Iraq or are dead.

Beyond the Green Zone, I should note, isn't a political text, and doesn't purport to explain why things turned out as they did, nor does it even try to describe in any systematic fashion what exactly happened. In fact, it reads like a diary: often scattered or hastily written, moving simply forward in time the reader is mostly allowed to discover things as Jamail did. Great literature it isn't, but if you don't read Arabic it's probably the best source out there to learn what the Iraq war looked like from the outside of a Humvee.

The other: Jack Hedin is the farmer who runs Featherstone Farm, to which my house subscribes through a CSA membership. (We're still finishing off the enormous amount of assorted greens pesto I froze last summer.) Anyway, Jack had an op-ed in the Times a couple of weeks ago on the farm bill and a problem for supporters of local agriculture: in some cases, it's illegal to plant those watermellons! In particular, there's an obscure provision of the farm subsidy rules, jealously protected by the California growers in particular, that effectively bans planting fruits and vegetables on land that used to be used to grow staple crops like corn or cotton. Which is, basically, all farmland around here. Funny, that.


At roughly -10°F (windchill somewhere below -30) I look up the Mississippi River at sunset: past the river ice and the bones of the new I-35 bridge; past the dam and the power plant; towards downtown Minneapolis and the Saint Anthony Falls.

I had to stitch three pictures to get this shot, which also let me fake the apparently high dynamic range here: I took the sky from a 1/800 second exposure, but the buildings and ground come from 1/160 second shots. Click to super-size.

It's generally likely that last weekend's cold snap was our last dose of seriously Arctic air, and we won't see the negative double-digits until next winter. But they said that three weeks ago, too. They also keep predicting snow that fails to materialize. The river is still too warm to maintain it's ice.

Anyway, it's official -- my experiment's test flight has been pushed back to the fall. NASA (technically, the CSBF) is still trying to qualify their largest balloon for the weight class we were planning to use. Evidently fully inflating a 37-million-cubic-foot helium balloon poses some engineering challenges. (Here's what it looks like for our (smaller) sister experiment, BLAST.) So CSBF will do another qualifying flight in the spring, and with any luck we'll be first in line to use it when the winds turn back around in September or so.

In fact, this is a pretty handy delay. Not just because it was going to be a real scramble to get the payload ready to launch by May. I mean handy for perfectly selfish reasons: I probably won't have to miss the ScavHunt, and won't be flying in from the field for my sister's wedding.

Fine, Fine Line

As a postscript, from Elena (who moonlights, or rather daylights, as a code monkey) on coming home from work in a musical mood:

(Sung, obviously, to the tune of "Fine, Fine line" -- sadly the internets have failed me and I cannot find a video of the original to link to. While the sound is somewhat poor, this gives a general idea.)

There's a fine, fine line
between the database, and a mess
There's a fine, fine line
between it's working, and it ain't
And you don't even know until you've taken your break
if it was even worth it to compile
Because there's a fine, fine line
between the code ... and a waste of my time!

Not Brrr -- Ouch


The thermometer outside my window read -1°F when I started getting dressed, and the weather pages said it was two degrees warmer than that when I got to the lab. Not far from my house, there's a section of sidewalk that got covered in slush during the thaw, which is now frozen into a rock hard uneven and cratered moonscape. Biking over it this morning, I figured I'm pretty much just an air tank away from riding on the surface of Europa. (No, I don't generally bike on sidewalks; this is the sidewalk that runs in front of my house, which I take for a block when there's too much frozen muck plowed up in the driveway.)

It occurred to me that this is why Arctic cultures have umpteen words for things like cold, and snow. Because what it is outside just now, is a completely different thing than what I grew up calling "cold." Cold was when you put on thick socks and a jacket before going to school, when you could see your breath and if you stood around outside too long you'd start to shiver. Biking on a sunny subzero day there's no danger of shivering if you're dressed at all appropriately (which is to say, a bit like an astronaut). Outside the cold is like a form of radiation that you must shield yourself against. Choosing what to wear becomes a tradeoff between the ability to see and the fact that your face will hurt when you arrive from exposure to the outside, the ability to operate brake levers versus fingertips that will be red and stinging as though scalded.

Tomorrow it will be even colder, and if I go out I'll take my chances with the brakes, and wear the big warm gauntlets.

New Year

I suppose global warming can mostly be said to be rendering Minnesota more habitable. Still, it was pretty weird spending yesterday morning slogging around in ankle-deep ice water trying to clear melting slush from the walks. With limited success, I should note: you could definitely ice skate in the breezeway beside my house.

While it's maybe a little late for new year's memes, since I've been doing this one for a couple of years now, I feel like keeping up the tradition.

So, to summarize EGAD's year, in 2007 I published 108 posts, a little under half of which were categorized as Narrative (then, in descending order, Politics, Science, and Entrances to the Labyrinth). EGAD got 15,308 hits, probably one-third of which was my dozen or so regular readers. Most of the rest came from Google. For most of the year, the top draw appears to have been my maps and photographs from the trip to the Sinai back in 2005, but starting in November I started getting a lot of visitors looking for information about Comet Holmes. The internets at large continue to care not one whit about my musings on grad student life, politics, or science. That's pretty unsurprising, as Jorge Cham takes care of the first, and there's whole blogospheres devoted to the latter two.

And as for every year, here we have the first and last sentence of each month of 2007:


... I apparently was on blog-vacation all month.


First: Groundhog Day... as good a day as any to bring my blog-vacation to a close.
Last: Via Pandagon, because cows with guns are catchy:


First: So it looks like the Duluth zoo's porcupine was right -- here we are in our fourth week of rather conspicuous winter since the conflicting predictions of Groundhog's Day.
Last: In an effort to keep you folks up-to-date, let's assume a couple-posts-per-week schedule for now while things percolate.


First: I am, however, amused by the fact that the United States Postal Service webpage now has a "Star Wars Experience" on/off button.
Last: The list also includes a bunch of medieval European inns and breweries, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about Europe.


First: I was probably six or eight when I picked up Azimov's Foundation trilogy.
Last:: Just a quick question to brighten your Sunday morning: does it invoke Godwin's Law to point out that the Bush administration is actually lifting its doublespeak from the Gestapo?


First: Collaborators leave town tomorrow; then I rejoin the outside world.
Last: Okay, I'll go to bed now.


First: Life with the CSA has been an adventure so far -- you don't realize the degree to which laziness nudges variety out of your diet until you're confronted with eating from a box full of whatever happens to be ripe this week.
Last: And finally, I would be remiss if I failed to cite the newly-discovered Cheney Superposition (via Dean)


First: So first of all, I was nowhere near the bridge.
Last: Best of luck to Sean Fritz and Tim McQuillan; I think the next few months will be very interesting for them.


First: Friday night I was out at O'Brien running a Universe in the Park event, and throughout the evening I and the attendees kept noticing a highly unusual number of bright meteors in the sky.
Last: I also learned some trivia about brown eggs.


First: No, I haven't abandoned the blog.
Last: Since we've got clear skies here, I plan to take the telescope for another spin, even despite the cold I'm battling.


First: It's Guy Fawkes, er ... Counterterrorism Day.
Last: Which might explain why I enjoy cranking up the old refractor and fiddling around until I can take acceptable photos with whatever cheap equipment I have handy. It's just fun.


First: First of December, and right on cue it's snowing.
Last: I'll be here in Texas, thawing out, for the next week.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the 2008 Narrative category.

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