February 27, 2006

Early morning hi-jinks

So this is maybe the funniest thing that happened to me on my trip to Minnesota. I flew onward to Detroit at 6 in the morning, and had to get up pretty early to check in for the flight, get through security and put my shoes and belt back on and so forth. Then I grabbed breakfast (Mexican bean salad) from the food court and stopped off to powder my nose, on my way to the gate. I wash my hands, look in the mirror and guess who has his V-neck sweater on backwards, none other than my mirror self. There's not much to say in my defense. The guys at the security checkpoint must have gotten a kick out of it though. Then thinking back to before we left the house, my kind host was sitting on the couch watching me do the back stretching exercises he had taught me a few weeks earlier. You lie on your stomach and stretch out like superman, lifting your left arm and right leg 20 times, and then lifting your right arm and left leg. I wonder if he thought I was actually lying on my back, since I had my clothes on backwards? He said nothing. Was it grace at work?

Trying to listen

One time Eldon Potter and I went to hear a band in the gym during Springfest at Macalester. I remember it was loud. (Was the band called Out of Time?) The lead singer was hyperkinetic, dancing around something and hitting it with the drumstick he held in his left hand. Eldon pointed and roared in my ear, 'He's using a break drum.'
And I just couldn't get it. Poor Eldon had to shout this at me about five times. A break drum? What's that? Shouldn't he just get it fixed? Anything to do with break dancing??
Turned out it really was a brake drum, from a car, on a welded stand.

February 26, 2006


Everyone has been telling me how warm it has been in Minnesota. (I just got back from my visit and it is kind of funny that when I was there the thermometer was hovering around 0 F!) Anyway this map from the folks at NASA shows the phenomenon was not local to the land of 10,000 lakes; pretty much all of North America was over 7 F (> 4 C) above average. And take a look at those poor folks over in Russia.

February 12, 2006

Slow motion sinking

Top thing I've been meaning to blog.
Thank you Jon Stewart for putting this all into perspective for me.
You watch the cars crash in slow motion, with fascination and a sinking feeling in your stomach.
I can't see how anyone involved has done anything right.
1. Jyllands-Posten and the Danish character. Basically Danes see it as part of their duty as humans to say what they think and do what they please. They are honest and blunt and you know where you stand with them. When the editor of the paper 'The Jutland Mail' heard that they couldn't get an illustrator to draw Mohammed for a children's book because everyone was scared, he took it as a double dog dare. The Danes are naive. Its a small country, land of Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tales, world's oldest monarchy and world's oldest flag. And like the rest of Scandinavia they have put their backs and their wallets into helping the third world, and being the good world citizens that they are it is double dog galling to find their flag being used as a welcome mat on the steps of mosques around the world. In order to see what the editor is not seeing, think of the United Kingdom which has a long proud tradition of a free press, the bane of politicians to left and right. The British newspapers all refuse to print the pictures! Good for them. Freedom of the press is a right, but sound judgment is a responsibility. One guy wrote into the Swedish paper saying that when he was a boy his grandma told him that it may be fun to throw rocks at a hornets nest, but its also stupid. The pictures were printed a half year ago and I knew at the time that they were going to mean trouble.
2. About three months ago the ambassadors of 12 Arab nations requested an audience with the Prime Minister of Denmark and he refused, saying that they didn't have anything to talk about. He is standing on the principle that the newspapers are free to do as they please and so he has no authority over or responsibility for what they print. But why couldn't he have just taken an hour out of his busy schedule and sat down with these gentlemen, served coffee and Danishes (or those Danish butter cookies with the crunchy sugar crystals sprinkled on top, they're even better), and explained this? And perhaps commented that personally he found the pictures insulting? That is the reason people pay taxes, very high taxes, in Denmark: to get a government that does something. For a politician, meeting with politicians should be like breathing air. The effect was to add insult to injury-- no, I mean to add insult to insult, insults to people who in many cases have little else than their honor. Due to omission by Anders Fogh Rasmussen the affair became a double dog insult to the Imams of Denmark.
3. One of the leading Imams of Copenhagen, Abu Laban, sent delegations throughout the Muslim world to explain to the leaders of these countries the state of affairs in Denmark and Western Europe. A scholar living in Egypt noticed a funny thing about the newspaper articles that started appearing: they all contained the same mistruths, for example not only were they drawing cartoons of the prophet, the Danes were also preparing a censored version of the Koran, etc. The delegations carried copies of the cartoons and copies of other pictures to show to the Muslim leaders. One of the other pictures was of a man with a beard wearing a pig snout mask and pig ears, and the delegations said this was an example of how Muslims were being insulted. (It turned out that this was a picture of a Frenchman taking part in his village's annual pig festival.)
4. It is obvious that the governments of every Muslim nation want to be on the right side of this issue, and outdo each other in their outrage. In these countries there is often no such thing as a free press, and so the people do not understand why it is not possible for the Prime Minister of Denmark to take responsibility.
5. Denmark has a coalition government and one of the parties is the xenophobic Danish People's Party, lead by Pia Kaersgaard. This week her column on the party website is titled 'Seeds from weeds: The enemy within has pushed Denmark into an uncontrollable situation.' (The weeds are the Muslim immigrants, in her view). The government relies on this party to stay in power and so they have been able to push through a lot of anti-immigration and anti-immigrant reforms in the last three years. And so there is understandable frustration on the part of Muslims living in Denmark that adds fuel to the fire.
6. People have been attacking my country and burning its flag for longer than I've been around, but all of this is new to Danes. Its a small country and they must feel very exposed. It has meant a lot to the people I've talked to that many leaders have stepped forward to express their support-- Spain, UK, US, NATO, etc. This is a time when friendships count. And so it has not helped one bit that the only thing that the Swedish prime minister had to say was, 'That isn't how I would have handled it.'

Top n things

Top n things I would have blogged about in the past two weeks if I'd only had the time.
2. Our youngest son has turned a corner, after going through a period of absolute spike-in-the-headedness about just about everything. (My family tells me this is an old German term for a stubborn person). Kids eat up enormous amounts of time. Kid won't go to bed? There's the evening.
3. I am having dreams in preparation for my trip to Minnesota in a week's time. A recurring dream concerns crossing a large wildlife area with Tim McGuire, to get from St. Paul to Minneapolis. The wildlife area is swampy, bordered by highways and full of fish and birds. My dreams do not contain mosquitos. Aircraft fly overhead. Somehow when we get clear of the cattails we can simply drive away on the highway but when I think about it, where did the car come from? But that's how it is in dreams about the US isn't it, the cars are just there.
4. Thank heavens and earths for the mp3 player I got for Christmas. Almost makes me look forward to the daily commutes. Top tracks: Charlie Parker, Al Green, Hotel Costes, Bob Dylan, Eno, Flatt & Scruggs.
5. I have started to teach my class on the physics of molecules again. Great times! I am happy if I can make demonstrations using the abolutely most basic everyday objects possible. Today I talked about diffraction gratings and to introduce the idea I took a big-ass flashlight and shined it onto a CD, reflecting the image onto the wall of the auditorium. A nice colorful rainbow appeared. Now how the heck does that work? On Tuesday I snagged our older son's compass and a battery and a wire. Connect the wire to both poles of the battery and the compass needle moves. Nice illustration of the work of Danish Physicist/Chemist Hans Christian Oersted, showing the link between electricity and magnetism.
6. Neck and shoulder ache has gotten better, thanks to all for their concern.
7. Our nutty neighbor still has his Christmas lights up. He refuses to climb onto the roof when there is frost. He refuses to turn the lights off because he is afraid water will get into the tubes.
8. Beard Politics! Something had to give. I walked around for a couple of days with the Amish Fisherman, trying to convince myself of its timeless virtue. I couldn't muster the inner courage to inhabit this beard with sufficient revolutionary zeal (and that's the whole point of a beard, isn't it?), and ended up shaving it off. My son told me I looked younger without it, so that was something.

February 06, 2006

The world turns white

February 02, 2006


A friend wrote to me, Time is a strange thing. It comes to you and bundles instead of in single quanta. Now, how is it possible to understand this in a quantum mechanical context?

And like any good student who doesn't know the answer to the question I started to dither:

Time: the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future, regarded as a whole.
-Oxford English Dictionary

Time: A non-spatial linear continuum wherein events occur in an apparently irreversible order.

Although sitting next to a pretty girl for an hour feels like a minute, placing one's hand on a hot stove for a minute feels like an hour.
-Uncle Albert

The smallest possible measurement of time is the Planck time, 5.391 x 10^-44 seconds = (h_bar*G/(c^5))^0.5, the time it takes a photon to travel the Planck length. The universe has existed for 8 x 10^60 Planck times. In our universe, by the end of one Planck time, all four of the fundamental forces were unified and elementary particles did not exist.

February 01, 2006

SPAM haiku

Here is a website dedicated to SPAM haiku.

I put my shoes on
But remembered far too late
My secret SPAM stash

SPAM frying in lard
The whir of the kitchen fan
Summer of my youth

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