Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Some highlights of the break:

  • Books:
    1. Exile's Honor and Exile's Valor by Mercedes Lackey -- I enjoyed these more than I thought I would. It has been a while since I've read anything by Mercedes Lackey; perhaps I read too many of them in too short a time before. They do tend to be predictable, but I enjoy the writing style well enough, and the main character of these books (Alberich) is one of my favorites.
    2. Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold -- I enjoyed the book, as I've enjoyed most of Bujold's books, but it was not my favorite. The writing was fine, but the perspective seemed bleak and grim with little breaks of humor. I much prefer the Vorkosigan books, in which I think she takes herself a little less seriously.
    3. The Elder Gods by David and Leigh Eddings -- I was really disappointed by this book. In most of the Eddings books I've read, I've enjoyed at least one of the plot, the writing style, or the character development. But this book seemed flat.
    4. Service of the Sword by various authors -- This is an anthology of stories in David Weber's science fiction universe. Some of the stories were pretty good, some less good. But overall I enjoyed it.
    5. The Culture We Deserve by Jacques Barzun -- Excellent, even if some of the essays tend toward polemic. Barzun writes briskly, and is quite clear about stating and arguing his position. I enjoy the writing even -- or perhaps particularly -- when I disagree.
    6. Caress of Twilight by Laurell K. Hamilton -- Fun. Read quick.
    7. The Art of UNIX Programming by Eric S. Raymond -- ESR is one of the characters of the UNIX community. Sometimes I agree with his points, sometimes not -- but they're worth reading. The book has a lot of little useful nuggets, some of historical interest, others of interest from the difference in perspective. But it read quickly, and when I finished I'd added a few books and papers to my to-read list. That's always welcome, even if my to-read list is always too long.
  • Food:
    1. Fruit cake -- I've never figured out what people have against fruitcake. I really like the stuff.
    2. Cookies -- Cookies of all sorts are good. So I ate cookies of all sorts.
    3. Mandalay Cafe -- This is the first time I've eaten Burmese food. I liked it.
    4. Ham-bean-potato soup -- This is just green beans and potatoes cooked with ham and some water. With a loaf of homemade bread, it's hard to beat.
    5. Bread -- It's all good stuff: plain bread, bread with dates, bread with raisins.
    6. Veggies -- I rarely get radishes for myself. But I love them, and think I finished most of that part of the vegetable platter when it was out. I ate a lot of the little plum tomatoes, too.
    7. Popcorn -- I've never met anybody besides my immediate family who makes popcorn with brewer's yeast. Or rather, I don't know that I've met anybody out of my family who does; it's possible that I just don't know, as I usually don't ask people about their popcorn-eating habits. But it's good. I used to not particularly care for the flavor, but apparently my tastes have changed over the years.
  • XEmacs amusements
    1. M-x tetris
    2. M-x snake
    3. M-x sokoban
    4. M-x hanoi
    5. M-x all-hail-xemacs
    6. M-x spook
  • The cats:
    'Twas two nights before Christmas,
    And all through the house,
    The cats batted string toys,
    But never a mouse.
    1. Jasmine and Thyme -- The two black kittens were new arrivals since the first time I was home. They weren't going to curl up in my lap to be petted, but they were happy to play with a bit of string, even if I was at the other end. They were also fascinated by things moving on a CRT, whether it be a television screen or a monitor. I know Thyme has a few white hairs at her neck, but that didn't help me much when I tried to distinguish them. I still couldn't really tell them apart by the time I left.
    2. Pounce -- She was still happy to play the last time I was home. This time, she was less interested (though she did pounce on my foot under a blanket a few times). Mostly, she seemed happy to observe what was going on.
    3. Misty -- The old grey cat is just what he used to be. He still pounces on a bit of string -- more sparingly, but more effectively, than the kittens. And he was happy to hop into my lap and rest or be petted for a time.
  • Things to drink
    1. Hot water with lime juice
    2. Hot cider with lemon juice
    3. Ginger beer (not an alcoholic beverage, despite the name)
    4. Holiday tea blend (black tea with fruit bits)
    5. Russian caravan tea

This about hits the mark.

The trip back to California was long and crowded, but otherwise mercifully uneventful. I took a window seat in the back, and spent most of the eight hours on the plane sleeping, reading, or staring out the window. I finished reading The Culture We Deserve by Barzun and The Art of UNIX Programming by Raymond. Both were interesting books. As far as the view from the window goes -- there were a lot of clouds. For parts of the flight, the clouds came in neatly painted stripe; for other parts, the clouds looked like a snowy landscape, with snowbanks and crevasses. Near Oakland, the clouds were irregular, and often sat close to the ground. I was briefly reminded of superficial fascia, the connective tissue that ties together muscle to skin -- but only briefly. After a moment's thought, I decided that the resemblance wasn't that strong, and that I'd worry if I ever saw muscle that shade of green.

After I returned home yesterday, I went grocery shopping, surfed the web briefly, ate something, and went to bed. I'm not sure what it is about air travel that I find so tiring, but there is something there. I slept until late this morning, too. I spent some time reading, and then spent a while walking around outside. I felt restless after sitting all day yesterday. I thought about going to campus to retrieve some papers that I want to reference, but I didn't.

According to the news, there will be 200000 revelers at the official New Year's Eve celebration at the Embarcadero in San Francisco. I'm immensely glad not to be there, particularly since the weather predicts rain, occasionally heavy. I'll be next door with a small group of neighbors and friends instead. The path from here to there is entirely covered.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

When I was young, Dad built beds for my brother and I. I grew up dealing with essentially one major piece of furniture in my room: the bed, desk, and dressers are all of a piece, with the bed perched atop the dressers and over the desk. The ensemble is a sturdy monument to my Dad's engineering skills and his love of power tools.

When I was small, my brothers and I used to pretend the bed was a ship -- whether a sea ship or a space ship depended on our mood -- manned by our favorite stuffed animals. I dubbed the game Frog and Other Animals, modestly putting my favorite stuffed animal (a threadbare frog which I creatively named Frog) in a position of prominence over the equally creatively named Bear-Bear and Whale. I doubt Dad intended it this way, but the structure of the bed lent itself perfectly to our play; under the desk was the engineering deck, the middle deck was the bridge, and the top of the bed was the watch deck -- I think. We had a grand time passing orders, information, and Lego constructions of questionable purpose between the decks.

Over the years that I grew into that bed, I refined my technique for entering and exiting it. To get into bed, I would put one foot on my desk, swing my body down and my left leg up, and roll into place. I exited by a similar procedure. By high school, I frequently bypassed the desk when entering or exiting; I jumped instead. I might have tried further variations on the theme, but I was somewhat restricted by the fan and light fixture that jutted perilously close to the edge of the bed. If I jumped into the fan, I figured I risked possible decapitation and almost certain embarrassment, neither of which sounded particularly appealing. I bumped my head against the fan at times despite my cautions, but managed to avoid the more drastic of my theorized fates.

I remember waking up on weekend and summer mornings and spending a lazy time draped over the guard rail on the bed, staring out the window at the play of light and dark in the leaves of the trees. I'd engage in similar contemplation in the winter months, particularly when it snowed, but in such times I usually didn't leave a leg dangling over the edge as I was wont to do in other, warmer seasons. I kept my feet together, tucked under the warmth of my old yellow quilt. It may have been warmer around my perch near the ceiling than it was near the floor, but it was cold enough that I practiced caution.

I've been using the desk, but I'm not sleeping in my old bunk bed this winter. Mom has turned the top into storage space and a staging area for various cloth-based projects. I've slept instead on a more ordinary box spring placed where I used to keep the gooseneck rocker. It suits me well enough. Sometimes I sit on the new bed and look at the old bed and think its time may be past. It should be packed away, or passed on to some other child who will treasure it as much as I did; a simple desk would take up less of the room, in perception and in fact.

But tonight, I'm feeling nostalgic, and I'm glad the old bed is still there.

We picked Dad up from the hospital on Christmas morning, and Rick returned in the early afternoon. So all five of us were home for Christmas. Dad will be wearing a cast on his hand for a while, but the doctor said he thought it looked good at Dad's appointment on Friday morning. He'll have to return Monday for another checkup, but it seems likely that his hand will heal to full function again in the next several weeks.

I spent the past few days visiting. On Friday, the whole family visited Rick and Sarah's new house. They've done a lot of work on it, and while the basement still needs some attention, it's a very pleasant place. Mom and I took a tour of the neighborhood as well. And we all had lunch together at the Mandalay Cafe in College Park. That was a fine meal; it sounds like it's a favorite of Rick and Sarah and Scott.

On Saturday, I went to visit college friends. We exchanged news, and I heard about houses and kids and career plans and such. We all gathered at Will and Liz's home in Towson, and while I made it there without incident, I got lost on the way back. I wandered into some fairly run-down neighborhoods of Baltimore along North Avenue before I found a road I recognized and made my way back. The detour only added about half an hour to the trip, though, so I can't complain too much.

Today, my aunts and uncles came to visit, and we all had lunch and then chatted and ate cookies and sipped coffee. My relatives are fun. They're sharp, pragmatic, silly folk, and I miss visits with them when I'm in Caifornia. In the evening it was just Dad and Mom and I, and we sat and talked for a while more before we dispersed to our solo evening activities.

I've done less fiction reading this week than I thought I might. I spent a lot of time visiting, and playing with the cats, and eating. I spent some time helping chop, saw, and stack wood for the stove. I spent time admiring the woods, and time listening to music, and time playing Tetris (M-x tetris under XEmacs) while thinking about nothing in particular. I saw Return of the King. I extensively edited a technical report that I'm working on, though I've only finished revising a bit under half of it. The total length is about 45 pages right now. And I've read a substantial chunk of Eric Raymond's Art of Unix Programming, which is a far more entertaining work than one might think from the title.

Time flies. I have only one more full day at home; I return to Caifornia on Tuesday. I'll miss leaving the woods when I go. I always do. But it feels like time to return, since right now I'm starting miss my daily work routine.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

While diagnosing a problem with the tractor early this afternoon, Dad broke a high-pressure hydraulic line. The stream of fluid cut his right hand, and some of it got into his finger. Scott took him to the emergency room, and early in the evening he went to Union Memorial in Baltimore to see a hand surgeon. They'll probably have done the surgery by now -- they were going to cut the had open to irrigate it, in order to clean out as much of the fluid as possible. He's there overnight, but should be back tomorrow.

Otherwise, it was a quiet Christmas Eve. Rick and Sarah visited, and Scott came back from waiting at the hospital around 9:30. We ate well, and the cats were funny. I enjoyed listening to the rain in the morning, and spent some more time editing my paper in the afternoon, and in the evening I visited with Rick and Sarah, played Tiddlywinks, and nibbled on various food items.

Rick and Sarah took off a little while ago, and Mom and Scott retired to their beds. I think I may retire to my bed soon, too.

  • Currently drinking: Hot water with lemon

Friday, December 19, 2003

Programmer job reductions worry me.

I planned to come home and do some reading, writing, and arithmetic (or at least algebra) along with visiting friends. I've done more reading than I have writing or arithmetic, but I did finish a sanity check calculation last night that has been on my plate for a while. And maybe I'll do some more this evening.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

I'm home. Big flakes of snow are falling, though they don't seem to be sticking right now. The cats are hilarious, particularly the two little ones. They're still a little afraid of me, I think. And I've been reading and sleeping a great deal for the past couple days. I think I was more tired than I'd realized. That always seems to happen at the end of the year, almost independent of how much or how little I've been doing.

And I can't get PPP to work under Linux. I tried for several hours last night, and again for several hours today. After fixing the initial problem with the kernel module for the driver for my WinModem (which I'd apparently hosed since the last time I was home, doubtless in an attempt to do something else that required a kernel patch), I've been stymied. The PPP daemon connects, negotiates an IP address, fetches the DNS information -- and fails to transmit any IP level packets.

How annoying. It all worked the last time I was home.

On the other hand, I can watch the snow from my window and listen to it on the roof. I have something to read, and the cats are fun. And I'm trying hard not to set to howling, about the computer or about anything else.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

I'm listening to classical music on the radio. It's a familiar tune, one by Bach, but one I can't name. There are a lot of tunes I can't name.

I remember in a conversation with Kahan once, he commented that he thought about mathematical concepts not verbally, but as ghosts and images. I know a number of people -- myself included -- who as often think nonverbally as verbally. Verbal patterns are great for working through details and for communicating ideas. But mathematical inspiration is, for me, a nonverbal process. The problem with nonverbal thought processes, though, is that they are often difficult to translate accurately into speech. The same difficulty holds for feelings, which is perhaps the reason why the phrase words cannot describe is a cliche -- because so often words can't accurately describe a feeling.

There are so many simple things that I enjoy: walking, reading, cooking, eating, thinking, learning, or just sitting alone. I enjoy cleaning and organizing. I enjoy bullshitting with friends. I enjoy feeling like I'm helping make the world a little better. I enjoy coding, and solving problems, physical or mathematical. I enjoy playing with words and ideas. I enjoy my research. I enjoy a lot of simple things. But I have a hard time saying why I enjoy these things, exactly. Why do I find some things so engrossing? Why do I sometimes feel so strongly the need to retreat and be alone? What is so comforting to me in a warm cup of tea? I cannot say clearly, and am frustrated when I try. Perhaps that's part of the beauty of time alone: the freedom to think in a manner as verbally fanciful or as completely nonverbal as I wish, without concern for whether anyone else understands or cares.

I've had occasion to think deeply of late on what I enjoy and what I want out of life. Right now, I want to finish my degree and move psat graduate school. Life as a graduate student at Berkeley has been rewarding, and I don't regret it in the least. And I'm getting very ready to be quits with it -- not with research but with the Berkeley graduate student status. So is that the reason I seem to have such a strong affinity toward work of late? Why not take it easy and go one step at a time? I have my own answers to those questions, but the answers seem weak when translated to speech. Is that because the answers themselves are weak? I think not.

I spent a lot of the day feeling pretty miserable. Work didn't help in this case; bullshitting with friends for a little while and then spending time alone listening to music did help. Actually, bullshitting with friends who talked about three-dimensional visualization of molecules and who asked me about quaternions really broke through the cycle of gnawing self-doubt; sitting quietly and listening to music just brought me the rest of the way back to good cheer.

I leave for home on Monday, and I'm looking forward to the time off. I look forward to seeing family and old friends, and I look forward to some time late at night when the cats are playing and everyone else is asleep, and I'm alone with my thoughts. Historically, this has also been a very productive time of year; perhaps it will be a productive time this year as well. I will probably take a break from writing in this blog until the new year -- if I feel the urge to write, it will probably go into papers or into e-mail. And so, gentle readers, though there may be few of you, and fewer still who I will not see on my trip home: best wishes to you as the winter starts and the year ends. It is a hard season, even festooned as it is with holidays. Be well.

Good night, moon.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

The right thing is such a nebulous phrase sometimes. Body shakes, stomach aches. It's probably best to sleep.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Two of the three problems on my fluids final are done. The remaining one looks trivial, but in the interest of not making foolish errors, I will put off finishing it until morning. For similar reasons, I think I will put off reading about micromechanics of damping, thermoelasticity, structured matrix computations, location of codimension 2 bifurcations, or any other of the technical things that I could be working on.

Instead, I'll write about shaving.

I learned during my first year of college that I don't look particularly good with a beard. It grew unevenly, and was laced with more silver than I cared to see. My friends seemed to agree with my assessment; when I eventually shaved it off, one friend told me that I'd started to look too much like some stereotype of a crazed mathematician. I took it as a compliment, much the same way I try to take my neighbor's exclamation that I look like the original Unabomber sketch when the hood of my sweatshirt is raised. But at the same time, I shaved the beard, and I have not let it return since.

I continue to wear the hood of my shirt, at least when I think nobody is around. It keeps my ears warm.

At any rate, some time in the middle of my college years, after the unfortunate experience with the beard, my electric razor ceased to hold a charge. And so I started to shave with an ordinary safety razor, and discovered that I got a much cleaner shave. I found the experience of shaving with an ordinary razor enchanting for about a week. After that, enchantment faded to a more prosaic sort of enjoyment. I enjoy shaving in the same way I enjoy showering, washing my hands, or brushing my teeth. It's a pleasant ritual that yields concrete results.

At the same time I enjoy shaving, there are a few things about the process that really irk me. The main source of irritation is a simple matter of geometry: no matter how I stretch my jaw, my chin remains pointed, and the corners of my jaw remain sharp corners. Consequently, I'm usually unable to shave my chin and the corners of my jaw quite so clean as I might wish. On the other hand, I tend to scratch itches on the back of my hand with the scruff at my chin, so perhaps there is a silver lining. In fact, there is certainly a silver lining -- and it's a good deal harder to shave than the part that is brown.

Pointy facial features aside, shaving is simple and the effects are immediate. Alas, the same can rarely be said of programming computers or proving theorems. Perhaps I would feel differently were I a barber.

There's a thought to sleep on.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

My PDE final is done. The apartment is clean, my laundry is done, and I have food for the next few days. I have new (nonleaking) shoes, and hair that no longer curls into my ears. I spent time with Winnie, and I spent a little time just staring into space. I read Michael Crichton's Timeline, which I don't recommend, though it was fine for a couple hours entertainment. I slept well, and I ate well, and I finished the work I absolutely needed to finish, plus a little. I didn't finish all that I wanted to finish this weekend, but perhaps that's simply a sign that I need to strive for more realistic expectations.

The fluids final is assigned tomorrow at 9:00, and is due 48 hours later. I hope it only takes a few hours, as I would very much like to have an extra day for writing. I've made good progress on a number of fronts over the past few weeks, but I have not written as much as I intended.

I look forward to going to the family home to visit. I only have another week before I take off.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Evans made what I think is one of the most amusing remarks of the semester in class today.

This technique [deriving an inequality by contradiction rather than calculus] is sort of like the One Ring. On the one hand, it has great power, and when you use it you get all sorts of magical results. On the other hand, it makes you evil. I'm neutral -- this is a really slick proof, but if you do the calculation directly, as your Puritan work ethic tells you to do, you get a little more information. Any questions, either about the proof or the Ring?
  • Currently drinking: Mint tea, I think -- the label was lost.

I did a few things today, but perhaps the most satisfying was the reorganization of my collection of papers. When I found that I could no longer put my hands on the paper I wanted, but had three copies of a paper I no longer cared about, it seemed time to do something. It's now possible to tell at a glance roughly the topics I work on: eigenvalue computations; computational mechanics and finite element simulations; modeling MEMS at a variety of levels of abstraction; and floating point arithmetic. There are folders for other topics, too, but those are mostly thin folders each containing a few papers related to a side project or a secondary line of inquiry.

One of the papers I uncovered during my sifting was a short piece entitled Research as a Life Style, written for the Retrospective section of Applied Mechanics Review (Aug 97). The author is the eminent fluid dynamicist George Batchelor; it was a name I recognized when I happened across the article about a year ago while looking for something else, and it is a name I know even better now that I've spent a semester using Batchelor's fluid dynamics text. It's an entertaining article and a pleasant counterpoint to some of the essays by Barzun which I've read recently.

A few sentences particularly plucked my interest:

  • On the central role of research in a life, sometimes at the expense of other activities:
    Any assessment of the nature of scientific enquiry as a human activity must recognize that research is more than an occupation or a career. One becomes hooked on research, which can be, an usually is, a demanding and compelling search for knowledge which dominates your life.
    I do not know how to reconcile these two aspects of the life of research, firstly, the pure bliss accompanying a bright idea or clarification that comes as a consequence of a long period of concentration, and secondly, the guild accompanying demands made on family and friends and the loss in personal relationships. Perhaps the best a scientist can hope for is a compromise rather than a reconciliation.
  • On how collaborations begin:
    ... since I knew him [Alan Townsend] to be a first-rate physicist and an electronics wizard I suggested that he too should work on turbulence under G.I. Taylor and that we should collaborate. He said he would be glad to do so, although he wanted first to ask two questions: one was What is turbulence? nand the other was Who is GI Taylor? My answers were evidently satisfactory, for the outcome for both of us was a marvelous decade of turbulence research which began in 1945.
  • On my new favorite coffee table design:
    The Department at which I work at Cambridge encourages this informal communication by providing coffee tables with laminated tops on which people may draw or write, and I believe this simple device has endeared the Department to several generations of young scholars.
  • On scientific writing:
    Reading a paper is a voluntary and demanding task, and a reader needs to be enticed and helped and stimulated by the author. Contrary to popular opinion, the words in a theoretical paper need to be understood no less than the equations for the effective communication of science.
    If the present poor average standard of composition in scientific papers is to be raised, and if the preparation of a paper is to be turned into a minor art form, as is desirable in view of its dominant role in scientific communications, we shall need to proclaim openly and often the importance of good writing.

And that, I think, is enough for the day.

  • Currently drinking: Chamomile with lemon
  • Currently nibbling: Freshly baked cranberry-carrot bread

Monday, December 01, 2003

I just took a break and found more math jokes. There are a lot of them, some of which I'd heard before, some of which I hadn't. Two of them really tickled me:

An engineer thinks that his equations are an approximation to reality.
A physicist thinks reality is an approximation to his equations.
A mathematician doesn't care.

Q: What do you get when you cross the Godfather with an economist?
A: An offer you can't understand.