Thursday, June 02, 2005


Blogging has a rhythm, it turns out. Some people prefer to blog in small bits -- hardly more than a sentence or two, with an interesting link, etc. I like longer bits of writing, long enough to have a couple of turns and to leave the reader with something substantial to chew over. This sort of entry has to come less frequently, particularly from those of us who have regular jobs and so forth. But not everything of interest comes in big chunks. Now and then it is helpful to write a miscellaneous post with little odds and ends that don't fit in anywhere else, to clear the decks for more productive stuff later on.

Anomalous dispersion for alumni. Last weekend I gave a talk on information physics at the alumni reunion, and of course I had to make up something new instead of recycling pieces of old talks. So I spent the first half of the talk discussing the fact that "nothing can go faster than c" (where c is the speed of light in a vacuum, around 300,000 km/s). The question being, of course, what constitutes a "thing" that must obey this limit. So I talked about phase velocity in a wave guide and group velocity in anomalous dispersion, and the challenge was to make this all pretty clear to folks who were classics majors 20 years ago. This is the most fun part of my job, I think.

Amusement park rides. Yesterday I went with five buses full of seventh graders (including my younger daughter) to King's Island, which is a big amusement park a couple of hours away. This was billed as a "Math and Science Day" field trip, and indeed the students had to spend about a half hour filling out a packet of questions with some simple calculations. Once this was done, though, it was pretty fun. I was a chaperone and came (as I did three years ago, when my older daughter's class went) armed with some measuring instruments for use on the rides. My daughter's friends think I'm a pretty cool Dad, though a little weird.

The most fun experiment was the plumb line, which in my case was a piece of string with a few nuts tied on the end of it. (I mean nuts like nuts and bolts, not nuts like fruit and nuts.) The behavior of this during a wild roller coaster ride is amusing. On the straight loops, the ones that mostly lie in a vertical plane, the angle of the effective direction of gravity stays pointing right at the floor, without changing much at all. On the corkscrews, it flies around quite a bit. This confirms my visceral impression that corkscrews are much harder on your viscera than loops.

They have a nice coaster called the "Flight of Fear", which launches you flat using a linear induction motor (like the California Screaming coaster at Disney in Anaheim), then zooms you around some tight loops and turns inside a pretty dark building. My daughter has the same problem with coasters that my wife does -- she does not like going up high and then falling. But the fast, very exciting coaster with the horizontal launch was a big hit with her.

Good reading. Last year I read and much enjoyed Lee Harris's Civilization and Its Enemies. Although I'm not very sure about its theory about the development of civilization -- the Spartan brotherhoods were a crucial step in Harris's mind -- I did think his contemporary points were spot-on. Very influential book for me.

Anyway, Harris has a remarkable essay in Policy Review about the concept of tradition, its meaning and its defense. Tradition, in his view, is not about the past at all; it is a prescriptive structure for propogating civilization into the future. Once again, I find Harris to get at the heart of something important, and I'll be re-reading him and mulling it over in the days ahead.

Computer worries. Today my laptop, when I tried to boot it up at the office, gave me instead the Alarming Blue Screen Of Woe. I managed to boot in "safe mode" and backup a bunch of data, then roll back the system to a previous date. Two weeks wasn't enough. Four weeks turned out to be enough, or at least the thing seems to be working now, for the moment.

My guess is that the problem lies with a great sound-recording program called Audacity, which I installed some weeks ago. I think that Audacity expects a more up-to-date version of Windows XP than I am running. I have deliberately kept an archaic version of XP, since a previous update caused some crucial applications to stop working and I had to go backwards to restore functionality. So this is now all catching up with me, and I have some updating and problem-solving to do. What fun.

I'm using Audacity, by the way, to create a "recorded book" version of a long story that I've been writing for my kids over the last several years. This is a big hit with the audience, since new chapters do not come out frequently enough for them, and this way they can just listen to some old ones whenever they like. I am pretty pleased with the program Audacity, and recommend it for whatever household sound work you may need to do. (I am recording voice to MP3 files, which I then make CDs out of. I can record in chunks of arbitrary length and easily edit out errors afterward, then save to whatever format seems convenient.)

More later on. Summer should be high blogging season, after all. (Of course, the temptation when you are in academia is to take all of the things you'd like to do but don't have the time to do and say, "Lots of time for that in the summer." Which of course becomes a self-negating prophecy.)

Note: The title of this post was suggested by my wife, and seems to capture the flavor of the thing. Which reminds me of something that happened to me the other morning. I woke up and the first thing I thought of was a new word that isn't in English, but should be. What would you call the intense excitement generated by something wonderful that hasn't happened yet? How about "expectasy"?