June 18, 2005

Still Here

dormcat_laptop.jpg
Cats have reputedly enjoyed a curious relationship with writers throughout human history. They purr and are fuzzy, which can help with concentration. Then they sit on whatever is being worked upon, which tends to be counterproductive. The fact that computers are warm and hum is just a happy perk of being felis domesticus in the modern era. 2005:06:04 11:57:22

Light posting to continue this weekend, as most of my computer time is currently occupied making sure I've got all data of importance off of the systems here before I go. The local firewalls will make it impossible for me to get in later if I've forgotten anything.

I'm told that it is considered acceptable, even fashionable, for a blogger to distract the reader from a perceived lack of content by posting photos of adorable animals. I wonder how that works out for Snail's Tales. I'll be thoroughly conventional and go with cat. (See, e.g., here for a far superior example of "cat blogging.")

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June 16, 2005

More Updates. Why Not?

BLAST has landed, I assume safely on Victoria Island. At least, the SIP readings indicate 937 feet altitude and zero air speed. Somewhat ahead of schedule, apparently due to faster-than-expected winds over Canada. This means they got in less observing time than planned, which is unfortunate but not necessarily a huge problem.

Via Majikthise, a touching story about grading essays with no end in sight. The TAs in the audience will relate:

So, we grade. And they feed us. We eat. And we grade. And we eat. We eat breakfast, then grade for two hours. Then they provide us with a tasty snack. We grade for two hourse, then go to lunch. We grade for two hours, then receive another tasty snack. We grade for two hours, then go to dinner. After that, many of us drink beer. It is a simple life.

Spent the morning up in Tel Aviv, mostly to pay a fee to and subsequently pick up my tickets home from Iberia Air. This would have been a quicker process if I hadn't somehow wound up on the world's slowest sherut.

Sherutim (this translates roughly as "services") are what you get when the free market decides that the bus system is pretty good, but not quite good enough. Private companies operate passenger vans that follow more-or-less the major bus routes; you flag them down like a taxi to board, and pay based on how far you're going. This typically winds up costing about twice the equivalent bus fare, but this is worthwhile since the service is usually much faster, both because there are more sherutim than busses on the route, and because they don't stop for more passengers once the ten or so seats are filled.

This arrangement seems to work pretty well, and it common throughout the Mideast. They are especially popular in Israel, though, since the Intifada bombings have left many Israelis skittish about riding public busses, not to mention the fact that they run longer hours and on Shabbat, when public services are closed by law.

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June 12, 2005

More Holiday

I mentioned a little while back that the 50 days following Pesach are the weeks of the Omer. They end tonight with the holiday of Shavuot (literally, "seven weeks"). "50 days" translates to Pentecost in Greek, which is what Greek-speaking Jews (and by extension, the early Christian community) called this holiday.

Like many ancient holidays, Jewish and otherwise, Shavuot/Pentecost stems from the progression of the agricultural year, but long ago acquired religious significance as well. In this case, it marks the end of the grain harvest which traditionally occupies seven weeks in the late spring. Pesach marks the start of this harvest, and it thus became associated with bread and the story of the Passover. In like fashion, Shavout commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Israelites and the promise of a land of milk and honey. It is therefore traditional to eat bread and cheesecake before staying up all night to read Torah.

I have not yet been offered any cheesecake, but the night is young. If I have to stay up all night reading Torah to get sweets, though, I might just pass. Trying to read Hebrew for that long would undoubtedly give me a headache.

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June 09, 2005

Sofa Change

Everyone knows by now that NASA is having budget problems thanks to Bush effectively giving the agency an unfunded mandate to colonize the Moon. The big issues are widely publicized: will they keep the Hubble flying or not, by how much will they push back the Mars exploration missions, which big next-generation space telescopes will get cancelled?

But it's the way NASA is seemingly checking all the couch cusions for loose change that is perhaps more worrisome, and not attracting broad attention. In the conference call I just got out of, there was mention that a mission study I'm involved with will have part of its funding "postponed", that a related detector R&D project was defunded ... the examples keep rolling in. These are programs that are providing, at most, stipends for a handful of grad students. Extremely small change by any measure of Federal budgeting.

And I wonder -- is the situation better or worse at other, lower-profile agencies? I'm inclined to suspect worse in many cases.

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May 28, 2005

Adventures Underground

Which is to say, I've been spending some quality time down in the dorm basement today.

Laundry had to be done, of course. But of more interest to me is the fact that the next stable release of the Debian GNU/Linux operating system is impending. So I had me trusty laptop slurp down a few hundred megs of package updates to test the upgrade before the release actually happens and the mirrors are swamped. No problems to report, I'm glad to say.

In fact, I didn't even get any snarky emails from my computer, which is a common side-effect of upgrading Debian systems. They have a bit of personality on 'em.

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May 26, 2005

Smokin'

Happy Lag B'Omer, everyone. Rehovot smells like a campfire. No, really, the whole place.

See, following Pesach are the 50 days of the Omer (literally, a bushel of wheat of some Biblically-prescribed magnitude), which are a period of mourning. No weddings, no dancing, no feasts, that kind of thing. On the 33rd day of Omer -- in Hebrew, Lag B'Omer -- comes a break from the mourning. This is a day for merrymaking, which apparently means bonfires.

I like this: according to the Wikipedia entry,

In Israel, you know that Lag Ba'Omer is drawing near when you see children collecting wood boards, old doors and anything made from wood that can burn. This happens from a week to 10 days before Lag Ba'Omer. As Lag Ba'Omer approaches, the situation gets to the point where building contractors have to employ extra night watchmen to make sure that wooden planks and wooden scaffolding are not taken by the eager youngsters.

Am I the only one who thinks this would make a superb Scavhunt item? It'd save certain teams from having quite so much lumber to dispose of the Monday after, too. Might meet with some minor objections from the administrative types, though.

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May 24, 2005

Baking n' stuff

I have a mess of apples, so I'm baking apple bread. My roommate is somewhat suprised to see the toaster oven being used for other than making toast. But then again, he's eaten Cheerios for breakfast and dinner every day since he took up residence here, so far as I can tell. Not the culinary type, it would seem.

On a tangentially related note, a belated "happy birthday!" goes out to Cate. I need to look at the calendar more often.

On a completely unrelated note, Sharon is in the States, and the NYPD is bemused at the presence of Jewish protesters following him around. Abbas is headed thence presently, and it looks like he'll succeed in meeting with Bush before he's managed to set foot within 100 meters of Sharon.

Someone should do a survey to find out how many people actually like Sharon. I have an inkling that the number is now statistically consistent with zero.

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May 22, 2005

Roommate

Having spent all day explaining to various people how lenses work, I have little of general interest to add today. Although I suppose I could always post a treatise on design considerations for refractive optical systems for submillimeter receivers. But that would be like extra work.

I will, however, note that I have a new roommate, which demonstrates the odd humor of Nissim, our friendly local dorm manager and petty extortionist. The fellow is only here for a couple of months to volunteer in a lab. Let's review:

Former roommate
Sam, American taking a year off from MIT to do lab work here; this being a grad school, we made fun of him for still being in college and looking 19.
New roommate
Eddie, or Danny, or something, just graduated high school in Boston and is now spending a year in Israel with some youth program; this being a grad school, we will make fun of him for having not yet started college and being 19.

Okay, I could do worse than childlike Bostonians. But really, what're the odds?

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May 20, 2005

Optical Design

Had a bit of a breakthrough this week on the optics front. Namely, after several months of work, I have succeeded in producing a design for the optical bits of an instrument that I'm working on which would not only perform approximately as we'd like, but which could actually be constructed. While this is by no means the final design, and we're not about to rush out and start fabrication, this nevertheless pleased me to no end.

This week Pharyngula spent some time talking about optical design as well. But that being a biologist's blog, it's not so much about designing telescopes and more about the oddly sophisticated eyes of the box jellyfish. They turn out to have several; most of them are simple light-sensing affairs (apparently), but two are equipped with a proper cornea, a nicely corrected lens, and sensitive retina. In fact, these organs would dish up vastly more data than a jellyfish's simple CNS could possibly process ... if only they were in focus. They've actually evolved sophisticated eyes that are extremely out-of-focus, but as the article points out, this makes sense when you think about how a jellyfish works.

Designing a telescope on a computer is conceptually entirely unlike watching one evolve in a line of organisms. Natural selection ensures that at every stage, the organ in question must work (this also implies the very basic requirement of "can exist") ... but there are no particular constraints on what it must do, so long as it provides its host organism with some net advantage. I, on the other hand, began with a tightly defined specification of what this instrument would have to accomplish, and to get there I went through all sorts of absurd unphysical permutations involving apertures fifty meters wide and lenses with negative thickness.

The thing is, working closer to the order that natural selection works is arguably the more manageable approach. My ideal workflow looks something like:

  1. Arrange some reflectors to produce a basic image.
  2. Put in some lenses to get the light to where I actually want the image to be.
  3. Tweak that to get something that fits our miscellaneous manufacturing and packaging constraints.
  4. Tweak that to make a decent image.

Sadly, the computer doesn't really allow working like that, primarily because the optimizer routines have a rather inflexible notion of which qualities to optimize for. As a result, it's quite easy to crank out an intermediate design with a lovely sharp image a mile across with ten-ton lenses. Leaving image quality to the last step is somewhat trickier. So instead, I wind up spending most of my time creating these wacky-but-nicely-focused systems, and then trying to massage them back towards the system we're actually trying to build.

This is a common problem with computer-based optimization problems, which is why genetic algorithms are constantly the cool thing on the horizon. In theory, I should be able to just specify what I think makes for a good system, and set the computer running. It would spit out a gazillion random systems, choose the least bad ones based on my specifications, and use those as a starting point for a new generation with random variations. And so on. It turns out, there are many simple problems for which this works quite well. So far as I know, my problem is not among them, because in practice it's usually just not possible* to specify what makes a solution "good" and get out an answer you can use, unless you pretty much know the answer already.

* By "just not possible", I naturally mean "nobody knows quite how."

In other words, evolving complex things on a computer has a nasty habit of running into Haggunennon behavoir:

THE BOOK:

The Haggunennons of Azizatus Three have the most impatient chromosomes of any life-forms in the galaxy. Where as most races are content to evolve slowly and carefully over thousands of generations - discarding a prehensile toe here, nervously hazarding another nostril there, the Haggunennons would do for Charles Darwin what a squadron of Arcturan Stunt-Apples would have done for Sir Isaac Newton. Their genetic structure, based on the quadruple-striated octo-helix, is so chronically unstable, that far from passing their basic shape onto their children, they will quite frequently evolve several times over lunch. But they do this with such reckless abandon that if, sitting at table, they are unable to reach a coffee spoon, they are liable without a moments consideration to mutate into something with far longer arms - but which is probably quite incapable of drinking the coffee.

-- The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio play, by Douglas Adams, fit the sixth

Posted by Milligan at 08:58 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Meteorological Comment

We're starting to have the occasional day hot enough that the best approach really is just to spend the afternoon in a cool basement; today was such a day. This is why most organisms in arid regions are nocturnal, after all. So, after my usual Friday excursion to the market (peaches and the first spinach crop just came in from the north ... yum!), it was down to the dorm computer room with my laptop for a few hours. Probably nice weather for a bike ride after sunset, though, especially given that Shabbat has now started, clearing away most auto traffic.

Weather in Tel Aviv, Israel

Weather in San Antonio, Texas

So far this spring, the weather here is tracking very neatly with conditions where I grew up, in San Antonio, Texas. Here it hit 91°F today with slightly more than 80% humidity; there it was 88°F with humidity percentage in the high seventies. About a month shy of the summer solstice, the days are getting noticeably long, and the water temperature of the seas next door to both cities will be shooting up. (Rehovot's about 15 km from the Mediterranean; San Antonio is closer to 150 from the Gulf of Mexico, but since the topography changes much more slowly in Texas I figure that's about comparable.) Thus this is the time of year when both cities are assaulted by warm moist air rolling in from the coast. Feels like home.

The parallels will continue. As the summer progresses, both Rehovot and San Antonio will dry out once the land becomes hot enough to develop a stable cap of dry air warmer than what's out over the water. Heated air blowing from more arid regions further inland will help establish that pattern towards the middle of June, and it will likely persist (with sporadic intrusions of sticky) through September.

I've always found San Antonio altogether neat in part because it lies at this eco-topographic crossroads between coastal plain, hilly scrublands, and desert. It just so happens that what Texas manages in a region 500 miles across, Israel packs into 50. It's a real shame the highways here are so scary; if I were feeling bolder I could cycle from beach to mountains and back in a day.

Posted by Milligan at 07:41 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 19, 2005

Lucas Jumps ... He Shoots ...

aaaaand ... well, at least he hit the backboard this time.

While I have to disagree strongly with the reviewers who had been calling this one better than Episode 4, this movie is far and away the strongest of the prequel trilogy. This is in part helped by the fact that it is the final movie in a multi-film prequel, and thus the plot is pretty well constrained to dealing with the actual story we know. Since all the secrets and loose ends are revealed and tied up in the original trilogy, a chimpanzee could work out the script to this one, although frankly, it's still the case that a random ape could write better dialogue for the Anakin-Padme scenes. While Hayden Christensen manages to look appropriately troubled in his delivery (dress all in black, frown a lot), Natalie Portman is all but visibly wincing.

Besides which, a noticeable fraction of the dialog, good and bad, is just (pre-)parroting classic lines and tropes from the main three. I mean, Anakin and Obi-Wan yelling at each other about their respective points-of-view? We get it already! But this is at least semi-competently written. It's just Anakin and Padme that fail to interact remotely like human beings.

Thankfully, even in a 2+ hour movie, they don't have all that many lines together. It's mostly a RotJ-esque action flick.

Then again, Return of the Jedi had the sense to stick to basically three or four major settings. Here, I count five planets and three or four starships with major action, giving us literally dozens of settings to keep straight. Plus three major military combat sequences (including an old-school space battle that flashes by far too quickly to appreciate, since it is apparently included just to be background for R2 versus the googly-eyed robots) and something approaching a solid hour of lightsaber dueling. Honestly, who'd have thought I'd find myself getting bored of lightsabers?!

Okay, so it fails to be a melodrama, and tries way too hard to be a space shoot-em-up. But unlike the first two prequels, it believably sets up the pieces for what's to come, and if we hadn't all already seen how it all ends, the outcome would even be somewhat suprising. So how is this still not better than Episode 4, with its silly dialogue, stilted acting, and primitive special effects? Two reasons. First, absurd as Ep 4 can be, it never makes you wince or yawn. Second, the original knew it was being campy, and thus got away with it; this one is too overproduced for that.

Okay, so I know a bunch of you will be going to see this thing for yourselves in a few hours. Have fun, and get there early. Unlike here, your theaters are probably going to be more than half full.

Posted by Milligan at 04:20 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 18, 2005

Movie

Okay, so here's one unforseen advantage to being in a small town in Israel instead of a city in the U.S. Turns out that here, one can walk up the day before and still get a block of tickets to the opening screening of the new Star Wars flick. Probably won't have to contend with too many Jedi-robed types, either. (Nothing wrong with that, mind you. But I left my light-saber on my other, er, continent, and they'd only make fun of my poor grasp of the Klingon language.)

I wasn't actually planning on doing the whole midnight-showing affair; given how dismal the last couple were, I'd decided to wait until the reactions were in so as to properly callibrate my expectations. The Hitchhiker's Guide was disappointing enough, after all. But a gaggle of folks from the dorm are going tonight, so I told 'em to go ahead and buy me a ticket.

And hey ... for those of you who haven't already watched it on the internet or something, I'll let you know if it's any good. I figure that'll give most of you about five hours warning.

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May 16, 2005

Back on Track

Just as a program note, I'm now jet-delagged (de-jet-lagged? jet-synched?) and caught up on basic things like email. And, of course, done with international travel for a few weeks. So EGAD should now be returning to a regular posting schedule.

On an unrelated note, the folks leaving the cafeteria ahead of me after lunch were, if I understood them correctly, discussing an actual person named Joe Schmoe. I suppose there had to be at least one.

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April 21, 2005

That Guy in Abu Gosh who Owns All the Bread in Israel

Pesach (Passover) us coming upon us now ... most of the serious preparations are happening today, as religious Jews will have to stop whatever they're doing at sundown tomorrow to observe Shabbat.

One significant feature of these preparations is that every Jew must clean their home of all chametz, or anything levened (plus various other things determined by halackic law). But many Jews consider the Land of Israel to be their home. Hence this bit:

In Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, observant Jews performed the ritual of "purifying" kitchen utensils by immersing them in boiling water to guarantee that no trace of leavened bread (hametz) remains.

At the office of the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem, religious leaders took part in the official selling of leftover leavened bread to a non-Jew, as is required by halakha. Hussein Ismail Jaber of Abu Gosh purchased the hametz from the state for the tenth consecutive year, and paid NIS 20,000.

So technically, this Jaber fellow owns all the bread in Israel. Or maybe just all the bread that was owned by Jews. I think he sells it back the week after Pesach. What happens if he gets really hungry and tries to enforce that contract, I wonder?

Last post. In Egypt 'til Tuesday. Enjoy the weekend, and for the Jews in the audience, hagg same'ach, shabbat shalom.

Posted by Milligan at 08:45 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Digital Media

A little while back, my former officemate Paul shot around an email pumping RadioK's pledge drive. I've always liked unusual and local music, and this station is particularly enjoyable, so I was happy to chip in. But I would observe that I wouldn't have any opinion on RadioK at all if not for the fact that they stream their broadcasts over the internet. And now, thanks to the magic of the net, I'm listening to my college station in Israel.

The "Power Surge" DJs sound drunk. But I think that's how they're supposed to sound.

I recently read Lawrence Lessig's new(-ish) book, Free Culture. Or more, had it read to me. Since the book was released under a Creative Commons license, it can be freely copied, performed, etc. So some of Lessig's fans made an audiobook of it, and posted the MP3s. Very handy; I managed to absorb a book while sweeping.

Been watching the new Doctor Who. One guess how I got my hands on that. Anyhow, so far I'm pleased; very nice to see it back after what, 16 years? The action moves a great deal faster than in the previous series, which after all were paced like a 60s BBC sci-fi thriller. No sock-puppet alien monsters in this one, either. However, it's quite faithful to the flavor of the original on the whole -- the first villains were living-plastic mannequins set on exterminating humanity, clearly done with people in plasticine masks. Classic. Hope it catches on.

New DJs now. One sounds stoned, and I think the other may be wearing a pocket protector. Studio microphones make people sound funny.

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April 20, 2005

Program Notes

Spent the evening in a conference call discussing a thermal management scheme for our payload's gondola that almost certainly violates the first, second, and possibly third laws of thermodynamics. Typically by factors suspiciously close to two. It turns out that if you put black things in a vacuum and then leave them in direct sunlight for a couple of weeks, we expect them to get somewhat toasty. And they said space was cold.

A heads-up for the regular readers: expect light-to-nonexistent posting this weekend. I will be kicking back in the Sinai, where I do not expect an overabundance of network access. Seeing as the beaches of the Red Sea are supposed to be particularly nice this time of year, I don't forsee all that much motivation to go find a cybercafe, either. Tomorrow afternoon I'm going out to pick up sunscreen and a snorkel.

Next week will be short, then. After getting back from Egypt on Monday, I head off to the States on Thursday. Astronomy folks should keep an eye out for me Friday. I'm still working out my plans for Chicago, but if anyone has a particular yen to put me up the following Monday or Tuesday, drop me a line.

Posted by Milligan at 11:18 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 18, 2005

Sbarro's in Moscow

Elle, one of the astrophysics professors here, spent last week in Moscow giving some talks and taking in the (predominantly gray) sights. Thought I'd pass along some of the anecdotes he shared over lunch. Allow me to emphasize that I have no idea how accurate these stories are, or to what extent it's the usual stuff that tourguides make up on the spot.

Fast Food Ascendant

Facing the Kremlin from across Red Square, there is apparently now a Sbarro's. I assume you all know what that is; think Subway with toast. While we immediately appreciated the cognitive dissonance implied, his impression was that most of the tourists didn't bat an eye.

So he ate there. Specifically, he attempted to get a salad. It would seem that the Muscovites don't quite get salad yet. For one thing, the salad bar was priced by the kilo. For another thing, it primarily contained potatos, beans, pork, and chicken. Like borchst without the soup.

[Ed. note: Just for some context on the final anecdote, Wikipedia states that the Statue of Liberty is 93 meters from ground to torch, or 43 meters from toes to torch. A 300-meter structure would come in around the 30th-tallest building in the world, taller than most corporate and financial headquarters, but still a smidgeon shorter than the iconic Chrysler building, and several floors short of the Hancock building. There are mostly only telecom towers over 500 meters.]

Life in the Big City

Red Square is brightly lit, quite clean, and full of happy smiling locals and tourists alike. Elle claims it feels just like being in Europe. (Last I checked, Moscow actually is in Europe, but let's not quibble.) This extends for about 200 meters. Moscow proper extends for about 25 km in every direction from there, making it one of the world's more geographically expansive cities, as well as merely populous. The rest of the city is apparently quite a bit like the stereotype of uniform grey Soviet housing blocks.

From the city center, (extremely) wide boulivards extend outwards, giving Moscow a wheel-and-spoke layout. These are the streets you sometimes see videos of with tanks parading and Soviet troops marching in formations a regiment across. Nowadays they're the domain of the private automobile. So much so, in fact, that at many larger intersections they've given up on pedestrians altogether and moved the crosswalks into subterranean passageways. At other crossings, you merely have to wait for a gap and then run for your life. Elle had a suspicion that the motorists probably wouldn't stop even if one did hit him, but he opted not to test that theory.

Compensating?

Even now, a good many Russians grudgingly admire Stalin. Sure he killed tens of millions of people; still, he was the kind of leader that could get things done. So some years ago (not sure if this was pre- or post-collapse), it was decided that the time had come to build Stalin a proper monument. Plans were drawn up for a statue.

300 meters tall.

They got as far as building a gigantic concrete slab that would serve as the base of the statue. It was too heavy, and sunk into the ground. Wisely deciding that a 300-meter statue isn't the best thing to have topple over one day, the city planners abandoned the project. The sunken slab became the Moscow city pool.

On another occasion, an attempt was made to erect a 500-meter statue of Lenin, but that project merely ran out of money.

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April 14, 2005

25 Questions

Recent Nobel Prize winner David Gross has spent the past few months wandering the globe giving a talk about 25 questions likely to drive physics for the next 25 years. Today he spoke here.

As a quick Google query will turn up dozens of articles and blog posts by other people who have seen this talk, I don't know that I have much of substance to add in the way of reaction. I could gloat about the fact that astrophysics and cosmology takes up nearly a fifth of the talk, about as much as fundamental particle physics (which is, after all, his specialty) and considerably more than anything else. I could also brag that I'm personally working on three or four of them.

But it's arguably the sociology of the thing that is really interesting. Gross's 25 questions were harvested during a conference of high-powered theorists at the Kavli Institute, which he directs. The idea was to gather theorists from every branch of physics, ranging from quantum mechanics to astrophysics to complexity theory to biophysics. (Yes, there apparently is such a thing as theoretical biophysics. It's not what you might think. See questions 18-20.) Lots and lots of five-minute talks were given. He says this is why experimentalists weren't invited.

The questions about condensed matter (that's solids, crystals, and most of modern electronics among other things, for the lay audience) were lousy. Gross claimed that condensed matter physicists are reluctant to pose big theoretical questions, and prefer to operate by searching for explanations of experimental results. The local CM types came away vaguely offended by this; there's a lot of condensed matter theory here. My officemate proposed an even less politically-correct answer: CM has become so specialized, that it's run out of interestingly big questions.

I rather suspect it's no fault of the CM physicists at all. The early-21st century hubub that is physics is filled with dark energy, string theory, quantum computers, and the like. In that context, it's a tall order to distill sexy soundbites from what might be best described as the study of ordinary matter.

"So how do we tell who is a physicist? The physicists are the ones who studied E+M from Jackson. That way we can exclude the engineers." Some of the participants at this conference had expressed the concern that physics might become so balkanized that it splits in numerous, academically disjoint, subfields. Gross hopes the results of the conference were reassuring to them. It turns out that physicists of all stripes can still talk to each other.

The question that really resonated with many of the particle physicists who have heard this talk is number 25, the problem of "big physics" outgrowing humanity's will to support it. We've already reached the point at which the largest projects can only be pursued as international collaborations, after all. The proverbial accelerator the size of the solar system would be cool, but could take a while to get funded. However, my suspicion is that this problem is overblown, as a lot can get done if you're willing to let it take a while. Just need a way around the problem of building projects that take longer than the lifetime of a grad student to produce data.

Posted by Milligan at 01:10 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 13, 2005

More Looniness

moon_872.jpg
The moon setting at twilight through a gap in the accelerator tower structure. A 1/8 sec hand-held exposure. 2005:04:11 18:32:49
moon_880es.jpg
The moon setting, shortly after dark has fallen. Tripod-stabilized 1/2 sec exposure taken through (not so much stabilized as well-balanced) binoculars. I've pumped up the levels to emphasize the degree to which Earthshine was illuminating the Moon's night side. 2005:04:11 19:08:29

Yes, more pictures of the moon. It's just an absurdly attractive astronomical target for those of us with very minimal tools. As the moon was new just last Friday (hence the eclipse -- did any of you see it?), we've got a thin crescent now, setting in the much-discussed prongsy configuration. The earlier shot, I took as I was leaving the physics building at twilight and noticed the Moon peaking out through one of the gaps in the accelerator structure. It took me a few attempts to get a good shot, since I was just holding the camera.

Later that night I set up on the roof of my dorm (actually to show one of my friends an Iridium flash), which has a decent view of the horizon. After a considerable bit of fiddling, I found a way to get the camera stably pointed through my binoculars -- a tricky proposition, since I only have the one tripod, and the tripod I have doesn't easily allow pointing the binoculars upwards.

Below, the full-resolution version of this shot. I think I'm getting better at this.

moon_880b.jpg
The same shot as above, but not scaled down and with the white level toned down slightly to bring out surface detail. Consider this a proof-of-concept for digital camera+binoculars astrophotography; looks like I can do roughly 1° FOV, low-elevation fields now without too much trouble.

Notice the prominent blue band just below the Moon's illuminated limb in the above shot. This is clearly differential refraction at work, but I haven't yet decided exactly where it is taking place. This field is close to the horizon, so the light does pass through a rather considerable air mass. On the other hand, it could just as well be in the binoculars or the camera, too (although I think other high-contrast shots of things like the Moon rule out chromatic abberation in the camera). I could find out by taking a similar picture of the Moon when it is higher in the sky, later this month. But to do that, I'll have to work out the attendant mounting issues first.

Posted by Milligan at 11:35 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 12, 2005

Slow Posting

P.S. Sorry about the light posting over the last week. I can't even claim to have been really, really busy as an excuse.

Mostly, the weather got absurdly nice all of a sudden, so it's been less tempting to stay indoors and write blog posts. Plus I ran low on interesting photos. But my target continues to be roughly one post a day.

Posted by Milligan at 10:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 08, 2005

Little Things

A heavy cloud blanketed the Institute grounds this morning. Gnats! Enough to make the air visibly hazy, covering the whole campus. I'm still brushing the darn things out of my hair.

So, it was off to the market and away from the (worst of) the little buggers. Strawberries are in season, brought down from the Gallilee, which pleases me greatly. Artichokes were also on sale, so I picked up a few for the equivalent of about a quarter a piece. I'll do something or other with 'em. Suggestions?

The newest flavor at my preferred ice cream shop is rose. Yes, rose. Looks like bubblegum, tastes pretty much like rose hips smell, which actually is pretty nice.

Lest anyone think I've been slacking off over here by staying past the end of the semester, I'll have you know that I gave the astrophysics journal club talk last week. As my officemate and I are the only observers in the bunch by any stretch, I decided a change of pace was in order. The last several talks got seriously bogged down when the various theorists saw a chance to pounce on something touching their pet topic -- magnetic fields, plasma turbulence, structure formation, whatever. So I talked about the 2002 occultation of Pluto. Low on theory, and kind of a neat observation.

Unlike any journal club meeting I can remember, I got complements afterwards. It would seem that watching one professor berate the victim of the week for not understanding some fine point about magnetic reconnection is not the preferred format. I wonder if anyone will decide to emulate my strategy.

This, naturally, wouldn't have worked back in Minnesota. Ed would have made trouble.

Posted by Milligan at 05:57 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 05, 2005

Mediterranean Dusk

sunset_793.jpg
We get some pretty decent sunsets here, of course, but dusk is also rather colorful. This shot was a 1-second exposure taken about a half-hour after sunset from the top of the accelerator tower (through a clear patch that I meticulously cleaned on a very dirty window). It was part of a largely unsuccessful series of attempts to photograph Mercury last month. My theory on that is that since I'm looking out over the Mediterranean here, the line of sight passes through a long thick layer of moist and turbulent air, resulting in more scattering and opacity near the horizon than you'd otherwise expect. 2005:03:18 18:23:01

Connor thinks he photographed Mercury last month. He's usually pretty good about checking these things, but it definitely wasn't that dark when Mercury was setting here. But he's also a lot farther north. I'd have to think a little more to decide what effect that should have.

Fluff post today. I'm heading out early to go grocery shopping and then file my taxes.

Posted by Milligan at 07:48 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 04, 2005

Half a year

As of 2 am local time, I have been in Israel for 182.5 days, one semi-annum.

Where did those six months go, exactly?

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April 02, 2005

Weekend Bat-Blogging

bat_859.jpg
It's not clear to me whether this bat has a severe sunburn, or if it's just some funky flash effect that gave this fellow such a rosy glow. 2005:04:01 21:50:20

It turned unarguably warm this week, repeatedly dashing past a glorious sunny 80°F. Naturally I spent most of that time in my subterranean lair, but that's the life of an astronomer for you. The insects are happy, though, and have been buzzing about in great numbers to take advantage of the barely annual spate of warm-but-not-yet-dessicated air. This makes the bats happy, too. They've moved into the trees lining the street by my dorm.

If I were faster, I could probably get nice action shots of them shooting past my balcony. But from up there, I can't seem to see them coming in time to aim the camera. Even from the ground it's a pretty hit-and-miss operation, you know.

bat_861.jpg
Close enough to see the hair on his chinny-chin-chin. And my, what long toes you have! I'm particularly proud of this one. 2005:04:01 21:50:43

This crop of bats is particularly fearless. Although they do quiet down when a big group ambles by, they seem to think nothing of diving for insects over the heads of all manner of folks coming and going from my dorm. Actually, that's how I noticed them last night. Shouts of indignation from someone who'd just been clipped by a bat.

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March 30, 2005

Small Stuff

Further evidence that there's some deep connection between math and language: it would seem that I can't add in Hebrew (I mean, even more so than my calculus-addled brain generally has trouble with arithmatic). This evening I walked down the block to grab a snack. The drink was three shekels, and a handful of nuts was seven or so. Yet I didn't blink when I mis-heard ten-seventy as seventeen1 and tried to give the shopkeeper way too much lucre.

That reminds me of a wonderful book review I read the other day2. Excerpt:

The precise mathematical formulation that is Gödel's theorem doesn't really say "there are true things which cannot be proved" any more than Einstein's theory means "everything is relative, dude, it just depends on your point of view."

The commentary that led me there from CT is, as always, lots of fun as well.

And hang in there. I've been busy, but there'll be more photo posting tomorrow.

1 Roughly, esser shivim, ten-seventy, versus esser ve sheva, which would be a silly but marginally acceptable way to say seventeen (correctly, sh'vah-essreh).

2 Don't see the connection? You need to re-read your Hofstadter!

Posted by Milligan at 10:26 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 27, 2005

Easter Greetings

This post exists to wish y'all out there a very happy Easter. Those of you not down with Easter are still encouraged to do something fun and post-hibernal, even if the local climate seems doggedly pre-vernal from your vantage point.

Also, allow me to briefly grumble about the fact that I'm at work on Easter Sunday. Darn Israeli work week. And no, I can't just not show up, because my advisor needs results for a meeting in California on Thursday. At which I will be presenting via the magic of telephony, because I don't rate a quick jaunt to Pasadena.

But that's okay, because it was 75° here today. I've been wearing sandals all winter!

Posted by Milligan at 06:44 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 25, 2005

Purim Claus

purim_claus.jpg
After the Purim costume party. Myself as Purim Claus, with Naomi going as, basically, herself. 2005:03:25 01:33:25

It has happened on more than one occasion that Israelis have referred to me as "Santa." They are obviously unfamiliar with such traditional features as white hair and a jovial nature. Nevertheless, having about ten minutes to prepare a costume for last night, and given the already conflictingly juxtaposed holiday environment of this weekend, I decided to run with it. It was pretty much that or Arafat.

I don't have a red fur coat. So sue me. But I swear I've seen Santa pictured wearing green as well, although I don't know about canvas being his springtime fabric of choice. Nevertheless, a pillow in my coat, some talc in my hair, and with a sack (of underripe lemons) slung over my shoulder, I was reliably taken for either St. Nick or Hagrid. I call that a success.

Posted by Milligan at 09:13 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 23, 2005

Superposition

I'm in for a bit of calendrical dissonance this week. As many of you are aware, this is the Christian Holy Week, culminating in the Easter Triduum this weekend. Center of the liturgical year and all that.

On the other hand you have Purim, a relatively minor holiday that serves as the rough counterpart of Carnivale or Mardi Gras. A day of feasting and merriment mandated in the Book of Esther. Actually two days, since as I understand it walled cities celebrate the day after everyone else.

Normally at this time of year we would be approaching Passover, but the Jewish lunisolar calendar is a curious thing. This happens to be a leap year, which means an extra month(!) is added in the spring, pushing Passover (properly, Pesach) back into late April. The end result is that, purely by chance, Easter and Purim fall on the same weekend this year.

I'm still debating the ecclesiastical implications of being dragged to a costume party on Maundy Thursday.

Posted by Milligan at 04:23 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 16, 2005

Yummy

I'm going to go ahead and add ice cream to the list of things that Israel should really be known better for.

Apparently it's a big sign that Spring has arrived when ice cream shops start popping up, I guess trying to position themselves for the hot season. Over the past month, two ice cream parlors have opened on the same block as an established one, and they all seem to be busy. Very dangerous, as I have to walk by all three in quick succession to get to the grocery store, market, or bank.

Not that ice cream wasn't already widely available. Every street in every town in Israel has several sidewalk snack shops, which mainly subsist by selling bags of nuts a handful at a time off of warming trays. They often have some magazines and drinks, too, and the bigger ones double as liquor stores. But they all have at least one ice cream case, too.

The new shops are different. They make the ice cream in the back, in dozens of flavors, in batches large enough to last two or three days, tops. You can't take three steps into one without being issued samples of the latest five or six flavors. Which are, I might add, absolutely delightful. I wonder, though, about the rather shocking density of these shops. Really, can any single block hope to support three of them?

This isn't the first time I've noticed Israeli businesses seeming to adopt some odd theory of safety in numbers. The block next to my dorm is dominated by two car rental lots. A couple of blocks down you'll find all five bars within easy walking distance of the dorm, lined up side by side. A couple of lights past that is the corner dominated by shoe stores. The Israelis I've pointed this out to all acted like it was the first time they'd noticed anything of the sort.

As an aside, while it's no secret that I am a bit of a geek, sometimes I even shock myself. Walking back from a groceries-and-ice-cream run tonight, I caught myself using calculus to estimate the dollar value of my cone. Being too lazy to divide by 4.3 in my head, I divided by four and then started doing expansions to work out the error. This may be a side effect of the high school-flashback-inducing problem that's been occupying me in the lab this week. It involves lots of analytic geometry and simple algebra, in annoying quantities. Yay, optics.

Posted by Milligan at 12:39 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 13, 2005

Nocturnal Photogeekery

orangesky_trees.jpg
5-second exposure of the light-polluted cloudy March skies over the Institute. 2005:03:12 22:56:17

As a break from the normal gravitas and pretension of this blog, this post consists entirely of me playing with my camera on what might be otherwise described as uneventful evenings.

Naturally this sort of thing attracts some strange looks, what with me being myself, shuffling around with a camera and mini-tripod in the middle of the night. After a while a guard trotted over and briefly inquired as to my relationship with the Institute. Least inquisitive guard on campus, though. This was the first one in the entire time I've been here to just take me at my word that I'm a student. Generally they want some photo ID with that.

This photo is the product of funky clouds and a decently stable pocket tripod.

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A bat in mid-flight. I haven't yet bothered to work out just what species this is likely to be. 2005:03:10 00:13:15

On the other end of the spectrum, it takes some practice and fancy footwork to photograph a bat in mid-flight. Especially when one considers that oft-cursed feature of digital cameras, the infernal focusing delay between pushing the button and actually taking the picture. On most cameras the delay is a couple of seconds, but one can typically do the hold-the-button-halfway routine to get it set for a snapshot. The trick here is to focus on something about as distant and dark as a bat, and then wait with the camera so primed for the next one to fly by.

This resulted in only thirty or forty pictures of trees and black sky. But also two or three rather photogenic flying rodents.

bat_732s.jpg
Another bat sporting severe red-eye. They were definitely diving for insects, so it's not a fruit bat. Beyond that, search me. 2005:03:10 00:36:59

Another neat trick is to set the camera for a long exposure where the flash still goes off. Handy for getting a bright picture of something in the foreground, while still capturing a dim background. Standardly you'd be shooting something like city lights in the background, so the exposure isn't too long. But if you're doing clouds like here, your subject had better stay pretty still for several seconds.

Combine this with a delayed shot, and one can do a charmingly apocalyptic self portrait.

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Self portrait with olive trees and clouds. This is a five-second exposure with a relatively luminous background, so I had to actually hold a pose for five seconds. I almost succeeded, but there's some drift evident around my elbow. 2005:03:12 23:21:27
Posted by Milligan at 08:26 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 06, 2005

Weekend

The posting gap is thanks to having spent the past weekend in Jerusalem. Back in Rehovot now, and salient details will follow presently.

Also, I owe you all a map for last week.

Posted by Milligan at 12:24 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 01, 2005

Milestones

Chalk up two notable events for 28 February.

Yesterday, for the first time, I noticed myself hearing things in Hebrew. As opposed to stuttering English translation in my head. Not everything, or even very much. My vocabulary is still too limited, my comprehension too slow, to follow most conversation. But it's an important step.

The phrase that caught me was "lamma lo?" Means "why not?" Or failed to catch me, might be more accurate, since the important bit is what I noticed not happening for a change. Fitting, I think.

And speaking of language aquisition, my big word for the day was "pitrie'ot" -- mushrooms. Which suggests (I haven't checked) that the singular is something like "petr'ah." Anyone who knows my cooking might be suprised that I didn't learn that until now. Phonological -- and visual -- parallels aside, I'm pretty certain there is no relationship to Latin's "petrus."

Second? My original visa expired yesterday. As did my original return ticket. I'm now on extended time.

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February 17, 2005

Crosstalk

Since I had to head over to the other end of Rehovot to talk to a travel agent -- just one step in the suprisingly active process of not leaving the country in two weeks -- I made my weekly shopping run this morning. Which means I've been nibbling freshly-made baklava all day and have a freezer full of pitas. It hit me the other day that I'm actually getting settled in here, since I've stopped grumbling about the lack of tortillas so much. Pitas get the job done well enough, and I don't know that hummous would be all that great on a taco, anyway.

Yvette over at Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast said nice things about my blog and even threw me a link, so it only seemed reciprocal to hop on over and browse her posts. Right now she's in the midst of a series of 31 daily posts on Black History Month (February, at least in the US). Obviously she has far more blogging discipline than myself.

From what I've read so far, I'd like to highlight this post, which deftly pinpoints an intersection of three strands having some present currency: Black History Month, the fact that 2005 is the Einstein-honoring World Year of Physics, and the media's tendency to ignore significant but inconvenient stories. But of course, that's exactly why we have a calendar full of days and months and years earmarked for commemoration. Without a reason, a good hook, people can't be bothered to remember much beyond the personally relevant.

On the other hand, give a person a clear interest in the past and memory can be very long indeed. I need only pick up a paper, or glance at the heavily armed guards outside, to remind myself that this isn't always a force for good. One of the lead stories in today's Ha'aretz documents a recent decision in the Israeli Army to stop demolishing Palestinian homes in some cases. It would seem that the supposed benefit of a population scared of having their house knocked down without warning didn't quite outweigh the downside of thousands of suddenly displaced people stoking old grudges.

Just at what point does remembering the past doom us to repeat it?

Posted by Milligan at 09:19 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 13, 2005

Change of Plans

I must confess, the prospect of diving into Methods five weeks after the semester began was starting to loom somewhat daunting. And on the reverse side of that coin, I was just coming to the disappointed realization that I would be leaving this place before I'd gotten to see any number of interesting things, and just as I was managing to feel like I'd gotten my bearings.

Change of plans. New date of return is unknown, projected for late spring or early summer. Discuss.

Posted by Milligan at 11:04 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

January 13, 2005

More Astrophotography

Comet Macholtz C/2004 Q2 glided by the Pleiades the other day. A very pretty sight, if you have the right equipment and a decently dark sky. I have neither. I do, however, have a light polluted sky, a digital camera, and a mini-tripod.

See below for my effort.

macholtz.png
Right: my photo, with significant processing to enhance the contrast and, if you'd believe it, subtract out the noise. Can't really subtract out light pollution, though. Left: Output from xephem showing that portion of the sky. 15-second stabilized exposure. 2005:01:06 23:57:08

Now go check out what's possible under favorable conditions.

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January 10, 2005

That Other Election

As expected, the election for PA president went off yesterday without too much trouble, and Abbas appears to have won an unquestionable victory, as everyone knew he would.

Expected, that is, by everyone except the Israelis, most of whom seem to have been only dimly aware that anything of the sort was going on. After all, the Israeli media is obsessed with the Disengagement, phony hand-wringing over the prospect of the settlers precipitating a civil war, Sharon's contortions to keep his government together and avoid new elections, etc., etc. Anything but the election next door, it would seem.

The observation has come from a number of quarters that free elections do not routinely take place in occupied lands. While there remains some debate over just how free and fair these polls really were, you'd think that point alone would merit a bit more coverage. But the very observation that it's hard to hold an election in the Palestinian territories rather emphasizes facts that the Israelis would mostly rather not think about too much. I can't quite buy Price's theory that they're bored with the Palestinians.

But as American politics so often demonstrates, indifference is easy.

Posted by Milligan at 08:19 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Going Public

Not that it was exactly a state secret before, but the EBEX collaboration that I'm a part of has gone public. Which is exciting to me, because it means I now have a publication that's actually available online. Check it out at astro-ph/0501111. (For the non-physical scientists in the crowd who don't hang out in the pre-print archive and want to see the pretty pictures, try the PDF link.) Yes, this was technically published in a conference proceeding last summer. Yes, there was probably a good reason for waiting until now to post it.

I'm not claiming it's the must-read page turner of 2005. But it's an informative overview of what I'm up to these days, broadly speaking.

Posted by Milligan at 07:38 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack
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