Monday, September 08, 2008


I have... moved?

I am trying to expand my blogging abilities in my very copious spare time (cough). To that end, I have imported this blog to a new home (same name, different domain) over at Come visit me there and, if you subscribe, switch to that one as future posts will happen there, unless I decide I totally hate it (or get off my lazy ass and get a personal domain).

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Large Hadron Collider to Destroy the Earth!

Well, not really.

However, it amazes me-although it should not-just how many folks apparently believe it will. Miniature black holes, strangelets, vacuum bubbles and more are expected by doomsayers to pop out and obliterate our world (and, occasionally, the universe).

It is all nonsense.

Even at full power, which the LHC won't get to until next year, the power of the large hadron collider pales in comparison to the experiment the universe performs on us every single day. So far, cosmic rays striking the earth have performed the equivalent of about one hundred thousand lifetime runs of the LHC on us and, unless I missed a memo, we have not gone poof yet.

A blog on today mentioned that now LHC scientists, including a Nobel laureate, are receiving death threats against starting up this marvelous machine. Dr. Brian Cox, as usual, has the perfect response. There are many sources explaining how not-at-risk we are here, although Wikipedia, as usual, has a good summary page on it.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Song of the Elements

George Hrab from Geologic Records (and frontman for the Philadelphia Funk Authority) also puts out a weekly podcast. He is also an excellent skeptic and freethinker. His music and references are frequently beyond me (I guess I am within the "hopelessly behind the times" part of life now), but I still find much of it enjoyable.

In any case, his July 3rd podcast #72 was awesome. For some time he had been writing little ditties about various elements but finally took the time to finish the entire periodic table. It's a very humorous listen and some of the songs are very well done! (Others are just plain silly.)

I have only listened through it a single time so far (more times will happen), so I don't have a favorite yet, although zinc's response to an earlier song was funny as were the tunes for silicon and uranium. Generally SFW, although a couple cuss words here and there. Would be great for children if not for those!

Speaking of NSFW, below is his video for "Out of My Mind" off his Interrobang album. The song is very good and the video is... technically very interesting. Get over any hangups you have and watch the whole thing.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Hardware Hell

Still attempting to recover from my MacBook's harddrive crash a couple weeks ago (to the - hopefully temporary - loss of all the vacation pictures from the summer), I began the process of setting up a backup system for our data this weekend.

The basic concept, stolen in its entirety from Mike Fischer, is that a Fedora server running in the basement will pull incremental data backups, using rsnapshot, from our laptops and sundry other machines onto a 1TB drive every four hours (one month expiration). That server, via CrashPlan, will copy the latest incremental snapshot across the street to the similarly-setup Fischer server (and possibly other locations) every day.

That is the basic plan. Simple, right?

So, first thing to do is create an install disc for Fedora. That should be easy. Except, apparently, my DVD-RW drive in the desktop no longer can write DVDs. (It writes CDs just fine, but this installer is 3.3GB in size.) In frustration, I head over to the old game machine (which will become the basement server) and turn it on to check for various functionalities. First thing I see is a drive failure notice. ARGH! No solutions found and cannot get past the message (found out today it is possible to get by it - it's not a catastrophic failure, just a S.M.A.R.T. warning). Much time lost through nearly 2 am until I give up for the night. Next day, I try the DVD writing again with predictable continued failure. So I move to my Mac. Unfortunately, that doesn't have a DVD-writeable drive, only CDs.

Time for Plan B - use the NetInstaller CD for Fedora and keep the entire image on my MyBook (the only USB device I have that's big enough). Except... after a couple more hours... I finally realize that my Mac's DVD drive is essentially hosed and won't write anything. During all the retries, I cart all the hardware into the basement and set it up (hoping for magic to happen and make it all work). Eventually, thanks to Mike's brilliant idea, I try burning the disc on Sue's machine and finally succeed in creating a net install disc.

Now I head back to the basement server and plug things in to try to install and reach the next barrier - the machine (or the installer) is not recognizing the MyBook. Now what?

More angst. Heading to Plan C - set up the DVD disc image on a web server on my Mac. Fortunately, this option actually works pretty simply. The installer starts, I select the proper options, it announces it has found a disc image (yay) and heads off into install land.

After quite a bit of time (a bunch of options selected, the existing working HD reformatted into linux mode, etc.), it finally gets around to failing again - this time it cannot find some important files. After a bit (and another failed try at burning a DVD, this time with a DVD+R disc), we realized that I had not specfically pointed it to the actual Fedora directory but to the one immediately above it. Why did it then say it found a disc image? No idea. Once I redirected it, the install continued without issues (albeit taking a few more hours to finish installing the 1176 applications and then getting all the updates).

Now I have the bad HD removed completely and the new 1TB drive installed physically. However, it is a SATA drive which that machine does not support natively, so I have a PCI card installed which provides SATA ports (thanks again, Mike) and SATA power converters (makes me think of Luke Skywalker). However, I have no idea how to access that drive for formatting and mounting - I will need to wait until morning when I can ping the expert again.

I probably forgot a few more PITA moments, but that should cover the lot of them in principle. I implied but did not mention explicitly that Mike was my IM Expert during nearly the whole process today (including virtual handholding during the actual install process). It is not pushing things at all to say it would not have happened at all without his help. Thanks, Mike! Let me know when you want that steak dinner.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

One Week Down

The first week of my last undergraduate semester didn't go so badly, although it did give me a slight taste of what is to come for the rest of this year.

I am taking two physics courses for credit and sitting in three others unofficially. That gives me Sr. Physics Lab, Astrophysics, E/M Theory, Astrobiology and Quantum Mechanics to worry about (total of 11 lecture hours and 6 lab hours per week), plus a weekly meeting with my research advisor (more below) and bi-weekly meetings for astrophysics journal club, physics club and physics club officers (I'm the VP). Plus occasional seminars here and there. Oh, and research to do.

When I stopped to talk with my research advisor, he told me he had come up with not one, but two (unrelated) projects for me to consider. One deals with NASA's AIM mission and the other with exoplanets. Both are way cool, but I suspect I will be going with the exoplanets one because it fits my interests and (very basic) foundation a bit better. So now I have another hundred or so pages of research papers and presentations to read plus some online work, preparatory to doing a lot more IDL coding. His hope is that the introductory work would keep me busy for the next two semesters (I'll have a lot more time after this one, since I'll have no classes at all this spring, most likely) and we would submit an official PhD thesis proposal(!!) next fall.

Of course, we've ignored (so far) the fact that I actually have to prepare for, take and suitably pass both the general and physics GREs to get into GMU's graduate program, but at least I have a direction in which to travel.

And some time during all this (3 days!), my darling children head back to school, so I probably should pay attention to them occasionally as well (plus their mommy).

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Atheist Quotes

Normally, I would have just "shared" this in Google Reader, but it's too far back to point so, so I'll do it the old fashioned way and link to it.

Back in February, The Atheist Blogger posted a great list of 101 Atheist quotes, including many from such entities as Einstein, Susan B. Anthony, Edison, Gene Roddenberry, Mark Twain, Robert Heinlein, and many other famous (and a few not as famous) folks from the past and present.

Monday, August 25, 2008

School Bell's A-Ringing

First day of the fall semester today.

I started it off with a visit to my research adviser, who has not one, but two different PhD thesis-level projects in mind for me. Gift horse, anyone? One of them involves an active NASA mission. One is related to (but not directly involved with) my Charon work. The first one comes with funding, wherein I would draw a stipend (plus, presumably, funding for conference travel). The second has no funding itself, although Dr. Summers said he could probably spring for a couple conferences.

Now I have to decide between an interesting project I get paid for and a (somewhat more interesting) project that I won't necessarily get paid for. And since I could conceivably be working on whichever one I choose for the next 6-8 years (although presumably I would eventually find some funding for the latter project - except in the current anti-science administration, that's pretty well impossible), I need to choose pretty carefully. However, it's a good problem to have - rather too many projects than not enough (or an unhelpful research adviser).

After that meeting, and some chatting with various friends in the hallways, I headed to Senior Physics Lab. This promises to be quite an interesting class, with two half-hour lecture periods followed by 3-hour lab periods each week. Additionally, we can always get a key to the advanced physics lab to work independently whenever we wish. We each have to work solo (with a couple exceptions) on four different experiments throughout the semester. My first is a study of the Zeeman Effect on mercury vapor. On Wednesday, we have an oral pass/fail exam on our individual experiments which we must pass before we're permitted to begin work, then it's radiation safety education and quizzing next week and finally we can begin work.

Following lab I sat in on the first Introduction to Quantum Mechanics course. Although this course is packed to full (every seat taken), I have permission from the instructor to sit in on it unofficially. It is now a required course for all new Physics undergraduates. However, since I am running under an older catalog, it is only optional for me (I'm taking Astrophysics instead), but it is still a good idea to know the contents since a significant part of the physics GRE uses the knowledge. My main surprise in the class is the number of physics majors in there whom I swear I have never seen before. You'd think I would know (at least by sight) all the junior/senior level physics students by this point (since there are only a few dozen total physics undergraduates).

Tomorrow - three more classes (two audits, one for credit)!

Mickey at Sea

Note: I was saving this post for when I finished processing some more pictures. However, my laptop drive crashed and, at the moment, every damned picture I took this summer is unaccessable (hopefully only temporarily). So you get it sans images.

After the icebox trip to the port, we were all grumpy (and still soggy). A Disney cruise tradition (and possibly for all cruise ships) is a two-part entry ceremony. First, you get your family's picture taken in front of some appropriate backdrop. Then you are announced onto the ship with applause by nearby staff (which has to be genuinely mind-numbing for those poor folks).

Having passed by the fairly long check-in lines thanks to a resort-end check-in, we found ourselves stalled in the photography line. Being grumpy and soggy (and still freezing), none of us were in any mood to be shanghaied into getting our pictures taken, so I unhooked a nearby lane strap and passed my family into the center of the aisle, bypassing the entire event. When we looked back, we saw a goodly percentage of the folks behind us opting to do the same thing. Nice to be a trendsetter. Unfortunately, we could not avoid the silly announcement process, but at least that was quick.

Our stateroom (deck 8) was nothing special (typical family room - queen bed with pop-out bunk beds for the kids, separate shower and toilet rooms, nice-sized veranda for watching the sunset). Our stateroom hostess was very nice, however, and took good care of us for the whole trip.

For those who have never experienced a Disney cruise, I must say that they do a wonderful job at providing for the entire family. A lot is kid-oriented, of course, but there is a significant amount of teen-only and adult-only entertainment both on-board and at Castaway Cay.

The main deck (9) has three swimming pools - one for kids only, which includes a long, spiral waterslide, one for the whole family which has two hot tubs in the corner and a massive viewing screen above the one end on which are played various Disney movies pretty much continuously throughout the trip, and a third for the 18 and up crowd only (also with hot tubs, I believe).

The very top deck (10) has a sports bar (adults) and the Loft, a teen-only (13-17, I think) club.

Deeper in the ship are the Oceaneers' Club and Oceaneers' Lab - the former for the 3-7 crowd, the latter for the 8-13 (or so) crowd. There is also a nursery of some sort for the very young.

Down on Deck 3 are a variety of adult-oriented clubs - one like a sports/gentlemen's lounge, one a nightclub, and one a piano lounge. The nightclub has most of the evening events in it (karaoke, etc.) along with a variety of dance music.

There is also a regular movie theater which shows a variety of movies, including first runs and even an occasional world premier movie (since Disney owns most of the movies, it isn't hard for them to get the rights for these things!). Finally, there is a show theater where they give a different Broadway-style musical each night of the cruise.

Every night, you eat in a different themed restaurant (we like best the food in the French-themed Triton's and the show in the Animator's Palette). The cool thing is that your wait staff follows you to each restaurant, so you can build up a rapport with the people who handle your dining needs.

The first night, we headed out to sea and got unpacked (once all our luggage finally caught up with us). After eating a yummy meal at Triton's (and meeting our most-excellent servers, Radu and Monika), I registered the girls for the Oceaneers' Club, then took them down to see the first night's show, The Golden Mickeys.

After the excellent show (my favorite of the three), the girls demanded a swim. What the hell - it's vacation, right? Swimming at 10pm it is!

The next day we docked at Nassau, which Sue and I consider kind of a dump. (Exception: The relatively-new Atlantis Casino, which is not a dump but which is seriously expensive to experience.) We stayed on-board the whole day, most of which we spent by the kids' pool, where the girls tried to see how much water they could absorb in a single day. (They beat it the next day anyway.) That night we ate at the awesome Animator's Palette, which starts out all black-and-white and slowly morphs the walls, pictures and, by the end, even the wait staff into full color. The show of the evening was Toy Story, the Musical. This was my least favorite show overall. Supposedly they pulled the best of their music writers together to create the songs...but I think they got ripped off. They were merely "okay" for the most part (some terrible). One exception: Sid (the destructo-kid) had a wonderful, hard-rock song ("Make a Little Noise") which was a blast! I wish I could find a video of it. The cool thing, however, was seeing how they portrayed the toy-sized world from the movie. The costumes were incredible - it looked exactly like the movie - huge Mr. Potato Head, Slinky, everything. Two thumbs up for excellent costume and set design!

After the show, everyone crashed but me. After changing and relaxing a bit, I headed down to WaveBands (the nightclub) and sat through my first-ever karaoke session. It wasn't as painful as I expected (although the first song I heard, a guy singing Bon Jovi, was the best of the evening). No, I did not go sing. Around 1am, I headed back up to our stateroom for snoozes.

The next day, I woke up very early (pre-7 am) to see us slowly moving towards the dock at Disney's private island, Castaway Cay. CC has it all (well, if you like tropical islands) - beaches, parasailing, snorkling, jetskis, bars(!), quiet kid-free cabanas and adult-only beach, and even some hiking trails. Events folks even started the day with a 5K run! (I skipped, thanks.) The girls entered the water as soon as we found an open chair under an umbrella and rarely came out before dinnertime. They checked briefly into the equivalent of the Oceaneer's Club, but decided that was too hot and abandoned it after lunch to spend the next 5 hours or so never leaving the water. Amazing. I spent most of the day running here and there - back to the ship for something forgotten (long, long trip there and back again!), off for food, in the water with the kids for a while, retrieving some alcohol, and occasionally even sitting on my butt reading a book. Sue, much wiser, stayed in the shade (except, it is to be well-noted, not noticing the sun moved from behind the umbrella to illuminate her nice, white, unsunblocked legs for several hours) and made sure the girls didn't drown.

That evening, we dined at the Caribbean-themed Parrot Cay restaurant onboard. My (American-style) food was great - Sue's was much less than great. The girls had fun. Our servers, as always, were a hoot. The final show was Disney Dreams...An Enchanted Classic. It was a charming little show which showcased the favorite songs and characters from a bunch of Disney movies. Apparently, it is the favorite of most people who go, and it really was very enjoyable. I still liked the Golden Mickeys better (possibly because it had villains as well as heroes... and a giant Ursula appearance, complete with huge tentacles that could reach to the audience!).

After that show was a major deck party based on Pirates of the Caribbean. Lots of character appearances and line dancing and way too crowded. I had to take turns putting the girls on my shoulders just to see (and I was only about 5 people from the stage). The awesome part - besides Mickey zip-lining down the length of the midship! - was a pretty cool fireworks display at the conclusion of the show. Apparently Disney is the only cruise line in the world permitted to do a fireworks display at sea.

After the fireworks, we dumped the kids at the Oceaneer's Club for an hour and a half (it's open till midnight!) in order for me to drag Sue down to the nightclub for a bit, where I think she was fairly unimpressed overall. However, she was surprised to see the Disney dance crew performing a sexy dance to the somewhat un-Disneylike song, "Save a Horse [Ride a Cowboy]"!

In the morning, we woke up already docked at Port Canaveral. We actually had to put out our luggage the night before in order to take advantage of Disney's transport services (it was picked up by 11pm). We grabbed our backpacks and headed to our scheduled 6:15(!) breakfast at the Parrot Cay, served as always by our wonderful hosts. We snapped some pictures of the kids with them (also temporarily lost) and headed off the ship and onto a (cold) bus for the ride to Orlando airport.

At the airport, we grabbed a rental car and drove off to Tampa for part C of the vacation, a (fairly) restful week at a friend's house. More later!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Decision time approaches

As I enter my final semester as a physics undergraduate, there is a decision looming which I have put off for at least a year: What next?

My choices seem to be along the lines of:
- go back to slacking (the easy option)
- get a real job (the hardest option, in many ways)
- continue education

The final one comes with its own three options:
- aim to become a secondary education (6-12) physics teacher
- aim to become a university physics professor
- aim to become a researcher

Assuming that slacking and getting a real job are off the table for the moment, that leaves me with some complex choices to make, even if I stay at GMU for my continued education (UMCP is a far better physics campus, but I really dislike the idea of driving into MD each day for grad school).

GMU's College of Education and Development (CEHD) offers a Masters of Education in a variety of subjects, including physics. For admission, one needs 3 letters of recommendation, a goals statement and successful Praxis I exam results. The Praxis seems to essentially be a GRE for the education side of things. The LoRs will be interesting to achieve - I am not sure what they are to recommend (my physics knowledge? My teaching ability? My personality and work ethic?). I'm sure I can find three profs who attest to my hard work at school and in classes. Not much teaching experience, however (that's the whole point here!). The deadline for spring admission is November 1st. For next fall, it would be April 1st.

For either the professor or researching angle, I need a PhD. The work is essentially identical for either direction, only my concentration work would change. GMU's sparkly-new Physics PhD program requires acceptable scores (whatever that means!) in both the general GRE (fairly easy) and the physics GRE (very not easy). There are only fall admissions for the graduate program, which leaves me with an April 15th deadline.

Given that I am unlikely to get all my testing done as well as other paperwork within 2 months, the April deadlines are more achievable. That means I can get my various paperwork collected throughout this semester and schedule my test-taking in late winter or early spring (so as not to worry about studying for it during classes).

Now I need to find someone who can usefully advise me as to paths and suggestions of how to approach them. I've already had one person suggest I find a high school physics teacher and ask to sit in on classes just to watch how things go. (Alas, he also suggested I do NOT choose a specialist school like TJHSST, the only place I actually might have access to a physics teacher, because I know his wife!)

And, of course, after all this, there is no indication one way or another that I would be any good at research or teaching in any capacity. I already know I don't do well with teaching indifferent or uninterested students, which could be a challenge. On the other hand, research is undirected ultimately - a situation in which I also do not excel. That's what I get for redefining my existence in my 40s.

Update: Just after I posted this, I received email from my favorite professor, which included in part this sentence:
"I have a potential Ph.D. thesis project if you are interested." That may help narrow down my decision somewhat!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

It's a Large Park After All

On July 27th, we woke up the children at 6 AM, packed our (carefully weighed to be as close as possible to 50 lbs) luggage into Kat's SUV and were chauffeured to the airport to catch our flight to Orlando International Airport.

Note to future travelers: the airlines' suggestion to arrive 2 hours before your flight is well-founded. Even though we got there over an hour early, I was worried we would not get through the amazingly-long check-in lines for United in time. Security (the primary reason for the 2-hour suggestion) went quickly - the rest was very slow. We were the very last people to board the plane (to the disappointment of the standby passengers) and they made it clear they were waiting only for us in order to take off, which was silly because we were still on-board 10 minutes early. A very nice lady volunteered to swap seats so Beta could sit next to me (all our seats were separated). Alpha was stuck sitting between two older women and apparently did not stop talking during the entire flight (to their apparent delight).

At this point, the children still had no idea to what state we were even flying (and missed the cabin announcements) and when we did land, "Orlando, Florida" did not mean anything special to them. They finally figured it out when we got on the Disney bus and started to get really excited.

The bus was freezing. We'll revisit that point many times.

We checked into the Polynesian resort without incident. It is a great hotel and my primary regret there is that we spent so much time at the Disney parks that we missed nearly every resort-based event.

It was still reasonably early in the day, so we dropped off our unnecessary gear and headed to the Magic Kingdom.

Not much has changed in this park - Disney seems to be putting most of the new attractions and upgrades into the newer parks. We spent the whole time in Fantasyland, hitting nearly every single attraction there, Mickey's Toontown Fair for the Barnstormer ride (not a favorite for Beta!) and Tomorrowland for the fun Buzz Lightyear ride. We saved the rest of the park for later in the week and retired relatively early to the resort.

One cool feature of the Polynesian - it has a perfect across-the-water view of Cinderella's Castle and the evening fireworks show. Awesome! (Our room did as well, but the first night we were on the beach to watch it and didn't realize that!) I spent some time fiddling with camera settings to try to get some good pictures of the fireworks with the kids in the very dark foreground. Very difficult (for me), but I managed a couple different passable shots, I think.

Day Two started with a family-style breakfast at the resort where the girls got to interact with Stitch (their favorite character) and Lilo before heading to Epcot for the entire, exhausting day. This may have ended up the least enjoyable day for us, although for different reasons. Sue's sneakers left her with really ugly blisters after the Magic Kingdom and, even though she had switched shoes, it was a painful day of walking for her. The kids were enthusiastic about the attractions of Future World but fairly bored with the World Showcase (oh well). We hit up "Spaceship Earth" (cool - even though the ride broke down in the middle and we were stuck inside for a while), "Ellen's Energy Adventure" (with Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye), "Nemo & Friends" and "Living with the Land." Alpha and I took two rides on "Test Track" (she screamed the entire way through the high speed section to the vast enjoyment of our carmates) and I headed alone to the very awesome high-G "Mission: SPACE" ride.

In the middle of all that, Florida decided to dump a month's worth of rain on the park (which totally emptied out the Nemo line for us - thanks, Florida!). Then it was off to our painful walk around the World Showcase, stopping to at least snap a pic of the girls in each country (and occasionally partaking of attractions or shows). Sue and the girls took a seat for a long rest break. While I delivered a halfway across the park, Sue took some artsy pictures. After chow, we grabbed a fairly excellent position for the cool evening laser/fireworks Epcot show. We were wondering if we were going to get hit by a nasty thunderstorm we could see beyond the far end of the lake, but it stayed distant for the whole show (and I missed all the coolest lightning pictures).

We got back to our resort in time to catch the fireworks over the lake.

Day Three took us to Hollywood Studios via another very cold bus (why do the bus drivers insist on keeping the temperature around 60 degrees? Differential is important and a 35-degree drop is FREEZING!). The girls again were not super thrilled with the place because it did not have a lot of rides (maybe we should have done Magic Kingdom - with all the rides - LAST). We did hit a lot of the attractions - Muppet Vision 3-D, Star Tours (Alpha and me), Indiana Jones live action adventure (much fun), Disney Animation (Beta and me), Little Mermaid (all except me), Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure (girls), Aerosmith Rock-n-Roller Coaster (ZOMG fun! Alpha and me, then Alpha and Sue), and the Beauty and the Beast show (:yawn: except for the cool opening 4-man a cappella act, 4 For a Dollar/Return 2 Zero). We wanted to see the evening show, Fantasmic, but it was already standing-room-only 45 minutes before the show even started, and no way were we going to spend an hour and a half (minimum) standing after that long day. We retired (via freezing bus) back to the resort in time to catch the evening fireworks once again (from our room).

The last full day, we split into two parts. First, we headed back to the Magic Kingdom to visit Frontierland. Alpha and I hit Big Thunder Mountain Railroad twice (I love fastpass!) while Sue and Beta did Aladdin's Magic Carpet ride. We all jumped on the surprisingly-empty Pirates of the Caribbean ride (updated with Captain Jack Sparrow) and caught a little street show with a Jack Sparrow and an actor who has Johnny Depp's Sparrow mannerisms down cold! I could almost believe it was the "real" character (i.e., Depp) there.

Then we headed over to Animal Kingdom for the remainder of the day and morning of the last day, catching Flights of Wonder, Expedition Everest (way cool, but I rode alone - couldn't even convince Alpha to join me), DINOSAUR (Alpha and me), TriceraTop Spin (Beta and Sue), Kali River Rapids (me - soaked! - and the kids) and the very cool Lion King Show. We wanted to see the new Nemo show, but it would have involved unreasonable line waits the first day and started too late to catch the second. However, the cruise line got us priority seating at the Lion King, which turned into VIP front-row seating once we got there (they have 4 VIP benches and only had 3 VIP passes present - and we were next in line - yay us!). It was just as exciting and entertaining as the last time we were here. The girls spent a lot of time at various moments playing in the Boneyard (an archeological-themed playground) and we caught the Killimanjaro Safari tour both days. The first day, we all went. The second day, I took the girls there while Sue waited up front we knew we'd have to hurry (to make the cruise bus) and she still wasn't up to fast walking. Little did we expect another super-soaking all-day storm to move in. The girls and I were swimming-pool soaked when we finally got to the front gates (the safari is at the back of the park), then we (all the cruise passengers) had what seemed like a half-mile walk in the downpour to get to the cruise buses, resulting in 100 or so extremely wet people boarding, of course, extremely cold buses.

For about an hour and a half, we sat there dripping and frozen until we got to Port Canaveral. When the welcoming lady came onto the bus at the port, she asked how were we all doing and was startled when the entire bus responded loudly with "COLD!" The girls were so uncomfortable, they could not even get excited about the cruise (which had also been a surprise until then) until after we managed to get warm.

Fortunately, boarding was relatively painless (we had already checked in back at the resort) and we began Phase B of our vacation.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Don't do it, MTV!

MTV wants to remake Rocky Horror (with new songs, yet). Why can't studios leave classics alone? Go give your opinion. (NSFW language through the link.)

Stop the Remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show
(Thanks to Wil Wheaton for pointing this out.)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Hiking with the Buzzards

Even though I arrived at home at 10 PM last night from a 2-week (fairly tiring) vacation with the family (more on that later), I headed out at 9:30 this morning with Pat and Ben to hike up to Buzzard Rock in Shenandoah Valley near Front Royal.

This hike was supposed to be fairly innocuous, but I found it nearly as difficult (without the rock scramble) as Old Rag. According to the web site, we gained about 2500 feet in elevation (same as Old Rag) and you actually dip down a bunch into a pass and then climb up a second time, just to increase the "enjoyment" of it. The climbs were exhausting. (N.B. I am in far worse shape now than I was when we did Old Rag and I was doing kung fu three times a week!)

On the positive side, the surroundings were peaceful, the couple views we had awesome (sorry, no pictures) and we only saw one other group of people (taking a break near the first peak) the entire 4-ish hour trip.

On the negative side, the distant storm we saw decided to come our way after we passed the second peak and were exploring a trail on the far side. It caught us near the top on the hurried way back. After a very near - and frightening - lightning strike (lightning and thunder were simultaneous), we decided that speed and shortcuts were the better part of valor and abandoned the trail entirely, heading straight down the side of the mountain.

How we avoid major injuries (although I will probably not walk well this entire week), I have no idea. Slipping, sliding and half-running when we could down the wild side of a mountain through a torrential downpour which probably added at least 20 lbs to our load, we eventually got down into the valley. After some minutes of minor worry about finding the trail (and my not-unreasonable worry that we had gone down the wrong side of the trail and were on the opposide side of the mountain from the car), we located our original trail and hiked the relatively-short distance, now in sunshine, back to the car for a soggy ride home.

I took no pictures on the hike because I had (intentionally) left my backpack in the car, thinking it was going to be a short, 2-hour hike. I forgot that it had the camera in it as well as my inhaler, both which might have come in handy. On the other hand, the backpack is not waterproof, and I'm not sure the camera would have survived the soaking, so it may have been better this way.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

TAM6 - Day 4

The final day of TAM began with the normal continental breakfast. Since there was no early event today, I actually sat in that room and enjoyed my food, along with some friendly, talkative companions. This morning closed the conference, consisting of 20-minute paper presentations by a variety of individuals with very mixed results.

First up was John S. Janks, a retired remote sensing scientist from Texaco/Chevron. His talk attempted to demonstrate that "hard scientific data can successfully explain...the Marfa Lights of West Texas." It was, arguably, the least interesting talk of the entire conference.

Don G. Nyberg, Professor of Analytical Chemistry (SUNY), took the stage next to discuss "What Every Student Needs to Hear from Every Science Teacher." His fairly hardcore viewpoint says that students with preconceived pseudoscientific beliefs need to be confronted with evidence-based science and the methodology of critical thinking and scientific inquiry. The talk was pretty interesting (if somewhat on the extreme side), but Professor Nyberg was not well-prepared for this audience - he prepared what looked like a 60-minute talk (for a 20-minute slot) and expected only about 15 people (instead of the 300 or so in attendance).

At 9:20(ish), Steve Cuno, the chairman of RESPONSE Prospecting & Loyalty Strategies, talked about "Niche Pseudoscience" and the need to fight pseudoscience in very specific niches, such as his own field of marketing (many examples given). It was an interesting talk, although Mr. Cuno had an odd speaking style.

Next up was Tracy King, Managing Director for February Marketing, assistant to Richard Wiseman, Miss February in the 2008 Skepchick Calendar and TEEK on the JREF Forum. She discussed what she called "The Most Famous Science Video in the World" (the Colour Changing Card Trick) and "How to Make your Message Famous." In addition to various marketing techniques for creating successful marketing campaigns she also discussed other viral videos such as the Evolution of Dance (love that one), Filipino prisoners, Star Wars Kid and the Gorilla Drum commercial. Informative and entertaining, as I would expect from an associate of Wiseman.

After a short break, Lee Graham, a PhD student at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) took us on a tour of his zoo of 3D virtual creatures in a talk about "Artificial Creatures, Real Evolution" where he discussed his project to use evolution rules to evolve computer-generated creatures. It was a fascinating discussion. My favorite creature shown had to be the end-over-end worm, shown below. More of his work can be seen on his project site. We can even play in his zoo, although his program only operates on Windows and I'm nearly purely Mac-based now.

Following the 3DVCE presentation was a discussion on the "Psychology of Anomalous Experiences," by Christopher C. French from the Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths College in London and editor of Skeptics Magazine, U.K. Although somehow he managed to have the wrong version of his presentation on hand, the talk on the "study of extraordinary phenomena of behavior and experience, in an attempt to provide non-paranormal explanations in terms of known psychological and physical factors" went well nonetheless. Interesting, although Sue is more the psychological type than I am.

Tim Farley, creator of "What's The Harm," discussed "Building Internet Tools for Skeptics" to help disseminate the information needed to encourage critical thinking. The site seems pretty interesting and I plan to delve more deeply into it.

Finally, Brian Dunning, host of Skeptoid, took the last spot, showing us the making of "The Skeptologists." At some point during the conference (possibly today), we actually got the watch the entirety of the pilot episode. I think the cast they have chosen is potentially a good one (with an excellent scientific/skeptical background), but the scripting and other technical work could stand to be handled by those with more experience. I do hope the show gets picked up by a network so it gets the chance!

All in all, TAM6 was a fascinating experience. It would have been a bit better if I had gone to it with a friend or two (people who knew me, as opposed to the couple dozen people I knew who have no idea who I am) - I am not gregarious enough to spontaneously generate new friends wherever I go, although I did meet a few folks.

The rest of the day was spent largely in the main bar chatting with various TAM attendees (none of whom seem to have gone home after the convention!).

TAM7 will be held at the new Southpoint Casino in Las Vegas (off the Strip) from July 9th through 12th in 2009. We'll see if I brave a second trip out to Vegas for it!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

TAM6 - Day 3

Saturday at TAM began the same as Friday - the long, obnoxious trek to grab breakfast and back to the conference room. This time I took a tip from the prior day's experience and claimed a seat before heading to breakfast. Even at that I was four rows back - some folks had begun claiming seats the night before (or, likely, kept them claimed at the end of the conference the previous day). Another interesting SGU live podcast and then the talks began.

Hal Bidlack brought on Michael Shermer by saying "A man who needs no introduction to this audience..." and walking off the stage (to much laughter). Shermer showed us one segment of the Skeptologists pilot before launching into a discussion of his upcoming book, "Why People Believe in Unseen Things." I took a few notes on Type I Errors (false positives - believing something is real when it is not) and Type II Errors (false negatives - believing something is not real when it is) before fading off. His talk went on a bit longer than I could handle at that hour.

After Shermer, Newsweek senior editor Sharon Begley took the stage with a talk titled "Creationism and Other Weird Beliefs: The Role of the Press (Hint: Don't get your hopes up.)" It was an interesting talk on how the press has been reacting to various movements (e.g., bringing in opposing views on science stories where there really is no serious science opposition). All in all, interesting although not terribly exciting.

Steven Novella
from the SGU (as well as publisher of the Neurologica and Science-Based Medicine blogs) spoke on Dualism and Creationism. He describes dualism (the idea that the mind and brain are separate entities) as neuroscience-denial and creationism as evolution-denial. As always, Steven was entertaining, well-spoken and well-prepared.

Continuing the "war" between Pharyngula and Bad Astronomy, PZ Meyers interrupted Hal's introduction of Phil Plait with a bribe to give a humorously scathing introduction of Phil. Phil responded by commenting (to a room of atheists) that "PZ's writing is godlike" before going on to give a tour of the solar systems from Mercury outwards. Poor Pluto got dissed again. When he got to this poor binary planet system, Phil merely said "This is Pluto. Since it's not a planet, we don't care" and clicked to the next slide. His final slide stated it all: The universe is cool enough without making up crap about it!

Next up, Mythbuster's Adam Savage talked about his obsession with recreating rare items (such as a dodo bird skeleton) through sculpture in a hilarious tale about his quest to rebuild the perfect Maltese Falcon. He also discussed the Mythbusters viral videos concept, the "Plane on a Conveyor Belt" advertising debacle and then went on to show us what he and Jamie call "Explosion Porn" to uproarious laughter. Finally, he indicated he had brought 1000 of the ping-pong balls that he and Jamie used to raise a sunken ship and gave them away to anyone who wanted one (along with an autograph). Adam seems a rare celebrity - someone who loves being amongst his fans and willing to just sit and chatter with them all day long (with many, many breaks for snapshots and autographs).

Following Adam was Matthew Chapman, the great-grandson of Charles Darwin, discussing some of his experiences related to evolution (e.g., The Dover Trial) and organizing ScienceDebate2008 (which, sadly, is being ignored by both Republicans and Democrats).

Another quick auction raised a boatload more money for JREF in the form of $800 for Adam Savage's steel-toed boots (worn an entire season of Mythbusters), $400-$2600 for signed posters from prior TAMs, and $2000 for a nice, useable set of bent silverware (in a gorgeous wooden case) from Banachek.

Richard Wiseman came up next to entertain us, talking about his upcoming 20-part BBC series on psychology, "Change Blindness" (or the psychology of magic misdirection), including outtakes from the wonderful "Color Changing Card Trick" video (it took 62 takes to film!). He brought in a guest spoon-bender - Teller! - to teach us how to do spoon-bending, then regaled us with a tale of spoon bending and an heirloom 12-place dinner setting (moral: Make sure you're not doing it with an irreplaceable piece of art!). He finished up his talk by filming what he hopes is a world record-breaking bending of 800 spoons simultaneously. You can read about it and see the video at his new site. (I am visible in the video at 0:57, fourth table back on the left, 2nd person in.) Richard is an amazingly-dynamic person. I could listen to him talk for hours.

The day closed with a Q&A panel on the "Limits of Skepticism" consisting of Steven Novella, Ben Radford, Banachek, Adam Savage, Richard Saunders, George Hrab and James Randi. The best quote of the day, from Adam, was "The plural of anecdote is not evidence."

Saturday, July 05, 2008

TAM6 - Day 2

The Friday sessions of TAM6 started with a continental breakfast which took place at the extreme far end of the hotel (and two floors down) from the conference room. To make it worse, simultaneous with breakfast was a live SGU podcast in the main room, so the start of the day went like this: Take elevator from my room to the 3rd floor. Walk halfway down the length of the hotel to reach conference room. Find out breakfast is elsewhere. Turn around walk all the way past the elevator and continue walking the same distance again, down several flights of escalators and enter breakfast area. Pile up a sufficient amount of pastries and fruit for the morning. Grab a glass of juice and, balancing the food carefully, begin the long walk back to catch the rest of the podcast.

Not a fun way to begin the day.

Fortunately, it got better! The SGU podcast was informative and amusing as always, talking about such things as the recent psychic claim of child sexual abuse of an autistic girl, running a Q&A session and offering SGU trivia.

Next, Hal Bidlack welcomed us all and officially opened the conference, bringing James "The Amazing" Randi up onto the stage.

Dr. Ben Goldacre gave a talk on homeopathy. Goldacre is an amusing Brit and offered a well-explained definition of just what homeopathy is and the problems associated with it. He also discussed the amazing, still not understood, ability of placebo effect to offset symptoms.

Finally, what many consider the main event of the whole conference, the keynote speech by Neil deGrasse Tyson. My first exposure to Tyson was during a show about Pluto's demotion from planet to minor planet. I was on the "leave Pluto alone" side and he was in the other camp, so I was not really fond of him. I have changed my mind since then. The man is an amazing speaker. His speech was supposed to last about an hour. We forced him to go 90 minutes and would gladly have sat through a full two hours, even though it would have destroyed the rest of the schedule. He opened up by first establishing his geek cred, having everyone with a laser pointer (mostly everyone - we got one free at registration) to shine their pointer at the far end of the room. Then he whipped out his uber-green laser pointer and outshone every other light in the room even though he had the maximum distance to cover. Nice touch.

Tyson's talk was an eclectic group of topics he called "Brain Droppings of a Skeptic." He covered UFOs, alien abduction, inept aliens (you flew trillions of miles just to CRASH at the very end of the trip?), conspiracy theory, astrology, birth rates & full moons (means you got knocked up during a previous full moon), behavior and full moons, surviving terminal cancer (more likely to believe God did it than that you had 3 idiot doctors and a misdiagnosis), swami levitation, the moon landing "hoax," Mars "virus," fear of numbers (13th floor!), naming rights (scientists are on currencies worldwide - the Germans even have a Gaussian chart - but not in the U.S.), his experiences with jury duty, math (an educational report was alarmed that half of the schools in the district were below average), George W. Bush, Intelligent Design/Stupid Design (the human body, the universe trying to kill us), religious penetration (80%-90% of Westerners, 60% educated people, 40% scientists, 7% "elite" scientists), the bible in science classrooms and Albert Einstein and God (no, he was not a believer). It was very, very fun, well-paced and informative.

Next up, Alec Jason, the man who, along with Randi, helped expose televangelist Peter Popoff as a fraud, discussed his experiences with crime scene analysis. The information content had the potential to be interesting, but the talk itself was fairly dull (especially coming after Tyson).

After a lame lunch (with good pastry desserts), the fun continued with Penn & Teller. They didn't do a mini-show or even a talk, but did more of a Q&A session (yes, Teller talks and is of normal height - Penn is just freakin' huge). Interesting, but not what I anticipated.

George Hrab hit the stage for brief chat ("Good news: We'd like you to perform at TAM6! Bad news: You're going on after Penn & Teller.") and performed "God is not Great" (from Christopher Hitchens' book title). It occurred to me that Hrab reminds me of a bald Weird Al.

Biologist blogger PZ Meyers then came up for a talk on bat embryology. The talk was interesting, but the interplay with Phil Plait, continuing their very friendly blog competition, was the entertaining part.

President of the Australian Skeptics and first-time TAM-goer Richard Saunders (coincidentally a pseudonym of Ben Franklin) was up next, talking about the "TANK Vodcast" and his origami books (Pigasus!) before performing a water divining experiment using educators from the audience. Very entertaining.

Following Richard was an auction for tickets to visit Penn's house, "The Slammer." They sold about 15 of these tickets, each for around $1000 (proceeds to JREF).

Finishing up the day was a panel discussion. Randi, Phil Plait, PZ Meyers, Michael Shermer, Hal, Margaret Downing (from AAI) and someone whose name I didn't catch discussed the main theme of the conference: Identifying as a Skeptic.

That evening was an SGU Meet & Greet at one of Caesar's restaurants. We filled that restaurant's available seating (80) and apparently overflowed into a second restaurant to the point where they had to turn folks away as well. Pretty popular. The Italian food was good, my tablemates were excellent (I wish I had written down their names!) and the SGU rogues totally blew us off (outside of a very brief flyby by Jay), apparently preferring to spend their time at tables with copious quantities of alcohol (by chance, our table all stuck with water and lemonade). I do recall that one of the guys may be starting up an econ-based skeptic blog sometime soon, so I will look for that announcement and try to contact him then.

Friday, June 27, 2008

TAM6 - Day 1

Since registration for the event did not open until around noon, I decided to wander over to Caesar's Palace. Mistake! It was then that I found out that my miles(?) of walking the day before had wreaked some havoc on a variety of motion-related body parts (damage which is just now starting to abate, 8 days later). Caesar's got a lot bigger since the last time I was there (17 years ago) - apparently they added a whole new tower and a new "wing" to the shopping hallways. I remember thinking how cool it was the first time I saw it. Now it was just "oh, that's nice." I guess tastes change.

Around 11:30 I headed towards registration to find that it was already up and running full steam. I checked in and got a surprise - I remember thinking that the Banachek and Mathemagic workshops might be interesting when I registered, but I did not sign up for them because there was additional costs involved. However, I had tickets for each show in my registration packet. Bonus! (Or my subconscious checked off the items during registration - some day I'll check the bill.)

So at 2:30, I sat down to Banachek's 2-hour workshop with a couple hundred other folks. This was a very interesting workshop on how to aid your memory using a variety of techniques. During it, we memorized the a "grocery" list of items (by memory: chicken, melon, scrubbing pads, shredded wheat, milk, baked beans, shampoo, tangerine, hamburger meat, car polish, evening newspaper, bread, Earl Gray tea bags, soap, eggs) through word linking. He also talked about a variety of other memorization methods such as acronyms, peg system, and the phonetic alphabet. All in all, very enlightening and worth every dollar (if I actually spent any).

After Banachek, I headed to my room to get ready for the reception, which lasted from 6pm until... I dunno when (I left for another show). At the very nice reception, I finally met up with a facebook friend (who lives about 20 miles from me - had to travel 2000 miles to meet him!) and we wandered around together for a bit. I got to meet up with Phil Plait, PZ Meyers, George Hrab and some of the SGU folks. A women picked a fine time to pass out and immediately had 9 MDs (including a neurologist), 2 nurses and a few EMTs at her side - probably better service than she would have received at a hospital!

Next, at 9pm I headed off to Art Benjamin's Mathemagic workshop. This was an intriguing show where Dr. Benjamin stunned us all by calculating squares of 2-digit, 3-digit, 4-digit and even (43779^2=1,916,600,841) attendees with calculators (geeks!) could perform. The 4- and 5-digit responses were somewhat slowed, but still dead-on accurate. He explained the trick to doing those as well as creating magic boxes (4x4 grids where the numbers add up the same horizontally, vertically, diagonally and a variety of other ways). I was impressed enough to pick up a copy of his book the next day.

After Mathemagic, I spent an hour or so finally eating dinner and doing some brief socializing in the main bar of the Flamingo before collapsing in bed.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

In which I go to Las Vegas

Some time over the past year, I was made aware of the existence of The Amaz!ng Meeting. This is an annual* meeting, called TAM for short, of skeptics and freethinkers which takes place in Las Vegas. This year's meeting, TAM6, was held at the Flamingo Hotel & Casino on the main strip (right across from Caesar's Palace) from June 19th-June 22nd. With gracious spousal approval, I joined the fun this year.

Since I am still playing with my new camara and Lightroom, I will not bore anyone with a vast panorama of amateur, unprocessed photos. I'll just pop up a couple here and there for the highlights.

TAM6 started on Thursday, but I showed up a day early so I could get in some touristy stuff. I checked into the Flamingo and discovered an ugly little advertising gimmick of theirs. They state that their "Flamingo GO" rooms have a wireless internet connection (something not mentioned in other room descriptions), so I went with that slightly more expensive room option. Well, it is true that wireless (and wired) internet is available. However, it is not FREE internet (and the wireless is available throughout the building, so unclear why some rooms do not have that description). Alas, I am too cheap to pay $13/day for internet access so these are back-dated posts.

I found something very ironic about a conference on skepticism and, to a minor extent, atheism being held in a hotel which has no 13th floor (out of 27 floors) and a bible in every room.

After settling in to my room (and whining unsuccessfully at the management about the not-so-free Internet), I took a very, very long walking tour of "nearby" casinos (nothing is truly nearby in Las Vegas). Over the next 4 hours, I stopped by the Mirage, Caesar's Palace, Paris, Planet Hollywood, MGM Grand and New York New York casinos, as well as a couple less-famous names.

All the casinos are pretty much huge beasts of floor space. The MGM is massive, though. Over the next 4 days, I had the experience of becoming disorientated and needing a few minutes to figure out which way I was going (lack of windows and generally bad signage contributes). In the MGM Grand, however, I actually got lost. The size of that space is just amazing (and, generally, boring). It probably took me 25 minutes or more to find my way back out to the street. My general goal was to ride the roller coaster at NYNY, but by the time I got there, I was way too tired to enjoy it, especially knowing what a long walk I had to get back to my room. Instead, I ate a very good burger while sitting at the bar in NYNY's America restaurant, snapped some more pictures and hiked back to the Flamingo.

I never did get around to riding any roller coasters.

* It is actually somewhat more than annual - there was a TAM5.5 this past January and there may be a TAM-UK1 sometime in the upcoming year separate from the already-scheduled TAM7 in Vegas.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Video Game Halftime

I am a sucker for marching bands, drum corps, halftime shows and the like. If the D.C. area had a decent drum corps (hell, if it had ANY drum corps) within reasonable driving distance, I would possibly still be in one. My summer with the Reading Buccaneers was awesome, but that is way too far to drive every summer weekend. I am also, as anyone who knows me is well aware, an avid video gamer, much as I would like to stop.

So the below halftime show for Cal vs. Washington State in 2007 was pretty much ideal for me. I only regret that a video has not surfaced taken from center field from the "correct" side of the field. Picture your TV set upside down... and enjoy!

Bonus points if you can identify every video game shown.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Late to the game...

...but I have finally jumped onto the (now parked) bandwagon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans. More accurately, with the fans of the Buffy TV series (1997-2003).

I have always been a fan of the Buffy movie, which apparently puts me outs with most hardcore fans. It was super cheesy, intentionally so, and I loved it. Then along comes the TV series and I avoided it with the honest expectation that it would royally suck, as most conversions from the big screen to the couch potato screen do. Even though Mike & Kat kept telling us we were missing an awesome series, we still did not pick it up.

Finally, a couple months ago, I happened to stumble across a Buffy listing on (after viewing Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy videos). I watched the opening shows for season one and was totally hooked. After devouring the two seasons available on hulu, I not-so-subtlely got M&K to loan me the next five seasons on DVD. I continued my nearly continual viewing of it through season 5, then slowed down because school ended and video gaming began. I finally finished watching the last two seasons yesterday.


I heartily recommend the series to anyone who has not seen it (which may just have included me!). If you have not seen it and may in the future, stop reading now - some spoilers below as I randomly spout off some thoughts.

I didn't like the first or second principals - I'm not sure they were even meant to be liked. The final principal was pretty cool. I disliked that they kept killing off every teacher or other authority figure who was even remotely cool.

The end of Season 2 still stands as my favorite episode. If the whole series had stopped there, I would have been perfectly satisfied. This is not to say that the series went downhill after S02 - but that was a great ending and as good a place as ever to finish things.

"Hush" rocked.

The various incarnations of Willow ("Bored now!") were all cool. Lesbo Willow was a downer to start, but mostly because I thought Oz was awesome and did not want to see him go. Tara turned out a pretty decent character.

"Once More, With Feeling" in S06 was extraordinarily funny. I wish there was more musical talent present (Anthony Stewart Head - great! Tara okay. Everyone else should not sing in public.), but it was still very entertaining.

I hated the robot episodes - the Hellmouth concept permitted magic, demons, vampires, etc. The robots were only technology and undetectably-human-like robots broke the suspension of disbelief.

The sudden end of Anointed Boy Colin (by Spike) was a bit confusing. They worked so hard to build him up, then destroyed him before he actually really did anything. Maybe the writers couldn't figure out where they were going with him.

The "Halloween" episode was cool.

Faith was okay. Riley not bad. The College years should have gone on longer (but I guess maybe they wanted to move her back to the high school?).

Xander was great (better once he stopped being a total goofball). Giles was always entertaining and well-done. Dawn was cute (and less annoying over time). Anya was... Anya.

Buffy/Sarah Michelle Gellar was awesome, of course.

I could go on, but that's probably enough fanboy stuff for one night.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Another Semester Ends

The Spring 2008 semester is over, the grades are posted. I hear you breathlessly asking, "How did it go?"

Not too badly.

While I only registered for 6 credits this semester (3 lecture, 3 research), I actually sat through 9 credits of lecture. One extra class was by invitation from my research advisor. The other less invited, but he did not seem to mind (after all, I was a more consistent attendee than half the class). The full rundown then...

Senior Research Project - I talked a bunch about my research project here. I did not do any more flux work since my last post, but did continue working on vapor pressures of certain molecules (N2, CH4, CO and a variety of C2H* species) at very low (30-60K) temperatures. I originally was asked to turn in a sort of journal of my efforts for the grade. Before the semester was out, however, Dr. Summers let me know I had already earned an A (yay me!) for my work, but he still wanted me to turn in a paper which might be suitable for publishing on the low temperature vapor pressures. I finished writing that today and will submit it tomorrow for his review/editing.

Modern Physics - This was a very interesting class -- a "survey" course (touching relatively lightly on a number of topics) covering special relativity, introductory quantum physics, Schrodinger's wave functions, perturbation theory and similar fun. My one big regret is that we did not get to the last part of the book, which deals with subatomic particles (quarks and things). That was what I was looking most forward to! The instructor, Dr. Karen Sauer, is engaging and effective. I enjoyed her teaching and look forward to having her again for Senior Physics Lab next semester. The tests were not easy - GRE-based multiple choice plus course-based quantitative questions. No equations were given (just like in the GRE), so we had to memorize all the formulas as well as knowing how to use them. I studied harder for the final exam (5 full days) than I have for any other exam I have ever taken. Result (including her substantial curve to get the class average up to a B): A+ for the course.

Thermal Physics - I just sat in this class, not signing up for it (or talking to the instructor about it) because I was told it was critical for an astrophysics career (it probably is). However, it is not (currently) required to graduate - just one of a list of electives - and I chose to take a second semester of research for more fun. The instructor, Dr. Peter Becker, was not bad, if occasionally a goofball (humor is good, though). The book, however, was horrible. It was written in 1965 and completely unsuitable to today's education environment - just page after page of text spamming your eyeballs without a gap. I could not take it and did not even crack the book after the first week or so. I still took very thorough notes throughout the semester in case it ever becomes important to me.

Atmospheric Physics - Another survey course! (Don't we ever get to learn the real stuff?) This one was taught by Dr. Summers and I sat in it at his request. As expected, it was an enjoyable class full of great slides and interesting information about how the atmosphere works.

All in all, not a bad semester, although I started losing the urge to be in school somewhere in April (about par for me). One more semester of undergraduate courses - currently scheduled for Senior Physics Lab and Introduction to Astrophysics, although I may sit in one or more other classes as well again. We'll see what happens!

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Charon Research

Another semester nearly done and I have hardly posted at all. I'll do a full summary once grades are in. For now, my classes are essentially done (one more on Monday night). Now I just have to finish writing up the journal/log for my research project, which I just realized I have not actually talked about before. Fairly briefly, then...

My last research project (with advisor Dr. Shobita Satyapal), done in Spring 2007, was based predominantly on Spitzer Space Telescope (and some older) infrared observations of a variety of galaxies. In that project I did a fairly rough, low sample comparison of various methods of determining star formation rate in galaxies (infrared, UV, visible light, etc.). Ultimately, I determined that infrared was the way to go for a variety of reasons. I am not sure how valid my results were (this was all new to me), but I got some interesting reactions from Shobita and one of her grad students, so that's a plus.

This time around, I am working with Dr. Michael Summers, as I mentioned in an earlier post. He is working up a paper discussing the possibility of Charon having an atmosphere and the composition, density and lifespan of that atmosphere, if present. While the great bulk of the work (and all the theory) is his (and a collaborator's), he has had me running some mathematical models using the IDL programming language. Technically-speaking, I am not really doing Charon research for much of it, because a lot of the models I am running (like determining equilibrium vapor pressures for a variety of gases at very low temperatures) has nothing to do with Charon specifically. Some of it, my earlier work (I actually started this work last May), used Charon parameters, however, so that qualifies. (Current direction of conclusions: yes, Charon most likely does have an atmosphere, which is picks up in part from Pluto's evaporation while it is near enough to the sun.)

Since it is not really a full research project (I have no theory, no position, not much of anything), I am not sure how he will be grading it - hopefully just grading the quality of the programming output I did plus whatever journal I write up talking about my adventures making the models. He has used at least one of my output plots in a talk he gave to other atmospheric sciences, so I can't be too far off in my models.

One thing I have learned about doing this research is that advisors are very hard to contact! Both of my advisors have been very out of the loop with my daily activities. In Shobita's case, she delegated pretty much all of my handling to one of her post-docs. She was out of it enough that my conclusions were a surprise to her - she had not inquired as to my progress for many weeks prior to the final paper. I still have not gotten my graded paper back from her after almost a year of asking. In Mike's case, he is a very busy man - two active NASA missions (New Horizons, AIM), one hopefully soon-to-be-approved mission (ARES) as well as papers he is working on and his class time. It is lucky for me I am sitting in on his atmospheric physics class this semester - it gives me 10 minutes each week to talk to him on our way to the parking lot after class! He apparently has a good number of grad students (like 6-8) working for him, although I only know two of them - neither of which gets much face time either, so at least I know it is not just me.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Expelled Exposed!

Been a big hubbub in the Skeptic blogosphere (and in the real world) lately about Expelled, a Ben Stein creationist movie. It all started a year ago, of course, with interviews requested under false pretenses, but the huge news started hitting with a post by PZ Myers.

Best defense against this kind of idiocy - get the word out. Go visit Expelled Exposed (hopefully they will get their server back up soon - traffic has been huge, apparently). Tell your friends and relatives to do the same.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Guitar Heroes

I don't normally push music on anyone because tastes vary so wildly. However, I caught this video by Rodrigo y Gabriela on a random walk through Yahoo's music site. This is excellent!

Monday, March 10, 2008


This webcomic of "romance, sarcasm, math and language" is written by CNU physics graduate (there's one plus) Randall Monroe, who used to work at NASA's Langley Research Center (another plus!) working on robots (goal!). While frequently NSFW, he's got a lot of great stuff in the above topics (plus a scattering of physics and other science) in relatively simplistic, but effective, artwork (stick-figures, black & white).

If you are using Firefox, be sure to get the Long Titles extension so you can read his mouseover comments without having to do gymnastics with the properties option.

I have many strips that I like, but this one is good:

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Faculty Candidate Interviews Redux

The final candidate (on Wednesday, not Monday OR Tuesday) spoke on the formation of terrestrial planets beyond our solar system. The topic was interesting, but the speaker needs a lot more practice. He was personable, but clearly nervous and lacking some polish. We did not feel drawn to him as a teacher, nor did he seem especially interested in teaching.

Our final recommendation - hire the first candidate if they want a teacher, hire the third one if they want a researcher, higher the last one if the first two say no and do not hire the second one under any circumstances (sorry about that). We will see how it all goes. The faculty committee makes its decision tomorrow and passes the recommendation up the chain.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Faculty Candidate Interviews

One of the more interesting things the Physics & Astronomy Department at GMU does is get students involved with the hiring of faculty. Last Spring and again this month, I have been on the student committee responsible for interviewing the short list of candidates for new teaching positions. We go to seminars the candidates are giving at GMU, then participate in an hour-long, student-only interview session with the candidate. After seeing all the candidates, the student committee (about 4-6 of us) sends in our collective commentary on each one, along with our hiring priority preference (including any opinion against hiring). The hiring committee takes the recommendations of the student committee very seriously - the last few times they have given the first offer to the students' first choice (and they never offer a job to someone the students say not to hire, even if the other candidates all turn down offers).

Last year's candidates were not too exciting for me - largely based on fields in physics (including neuroscience) where I had little interest and less knowledge (or maybe vice-versa). This year, however, the candidates are all in the field of planetary science, which is awesome.

Our first candidate presented some current research based on magnetic fields (called crustal fields) on the surface of Mars. This is new research, as the mission responsible for gathering the data is still orbiting the planet. He was very excited about his topic and a good speaker. Even better, based on our interview of him later on, he seems like he would be an interesting and engaging professor for freshman and sophomore students, especially those not already in a science field (hopefully getting them to choose a science major).

The second candidate was a letdown from the first. His research, on the possibility of earth-like planets in stable, habitable obits around binary stars, was fairly interesting (and the models of how planets may be forming in those systems pretty cool), but he definitely lacked the excitement value of the first one. His interview did not improve matters. We rate him a distant last place.

Today's candidate discussed the current mission around Titan (and various other Saturnian moons) and the fact that, instead of finding 300m of methane seas around the whole planet, they found sand dunes! There seems to be a lot of methane missing and they are trying to figure out where it went (including the most obvious conclusion - the models are broken). He was an engaging speaker (after a shaky start) and very personable. I had lunch with him and several other faculty members and my opinion only improved. We feel he would be a decent teacher (he does not have the experience the first one does) and an incredible research advisor. I'd say he is either tied for first or a very close second place.

The final candidate will do his schtick next week (Monday or Tuesday - I'd better check). I almost hope he's not quite as good as the two we already like - it isn't too useful to send the hiring committee a recommendation to hire 3 of the 4 people they sent us (when just getting 1 of them will be tough).

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

PhD Comics

One of the more interesting comic sites I have been redirected to (this one from the Bad Astronomer) was to PhD Comics, a strip devoted to the life of a grad student. From what I have seen, PhD is, like Dilbert, all too accurate, even where it seems like it should be hyperbole. I find it very humorous, even though it makes me worry about my own potential future as a grad student!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Astronomy Cast

Astronomy Cast is a weekly podcast by Fraser Cain (of Universe Today) and Pamela Gay (from SIUE). They cover all aspects of the universe from just above our atmosphere to far, far away, from the very beginning to the theorized end. A tour of our Solar system. Dark Energy. Birth of the Universe, Galaxies, Stars, Black Holes. Tidal forces. Relativity. Monster telescopes. No astronomical topic is too large, too small or too complex for them to handle.

Each episode is about 30 minutes long. The format is very easy to listen to - Fraser and Pamela essentially have a conversation about the current week's topic. In general, he asks questions and she answers them using very little jargon - no math (well, not counting the Drake Equation episode)! Occasionally, Fraser will branch off and try to rephrase an answer in a different mode to give users another chance at understanding some of the really complex issues they ably handle. Pamela is a master at getting across astrophysical concepts without coming across as talking down to anyone. Additionally, she has one of the most awesome speaking voices I have heard in many years. I could listen to her for hours in a lecture hall (come to GMU and guest lecture, Pamela!).

I have listened to all 76 episodes (plus a few bonus tracks) to date and it sits at the top of my list - if there is an Astronomy Cast episode to hear, it doesn't matter what I am in the middle of listening to, I switch to that.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Change of Pace

In an attempt to have something to post more than two or three times a semester (since it's rarely exciting to hear me talk about individual class sessions), I am going to branch out a bit. Given that there are maybe 3 people in the world who read this (including me!), I suspect nobody will much mind.

Future posts, in addition to normal school stuff, may include podcast reviews, cool viral videos and anything else I feel like posting. Why not? It's my time.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Spring 2008

A new semester begins tomorrow. As I mentioned earlier, this time I am foregoing the wisdom of my advisors (sorry!) and dropping Thermal Physics in order to pick up another semester of research, this time under the direction of Dr. Michael Summers.

I purchased my text book for the Modern Physics class from Amazon. Got it "used but really new" for half price. Seems mint condition to me - the pages are still even slightly stuck together from cutting! There is a small binding error - the periodic table on the inside back cover is skewed and will need to be trimmed or, more likely, scanned and repasted in correctly so I don't twitch every time I see it.

That is actually my only truly required text. I will be semi-auditing (showing up when I want for as long as I want) an atmospheric physics class, but I can check that book out from the library. I may try to sit in on the Thermal Physics class - we'll see what vibes I get from the unknown instructor when I sit in on tomorrow's class (I'm still technically registered for that class, not research). If I plan to do that regularly, I may have to see about picking up the text.

My big problem so far is that the Physics department redid their web site. While I applaud the move (the only one was very old tech and hardly updated), they seem to have broken more than they fixed. The new format is wiki-based, which I suppose is fine, but there is a lot of information which was there before that seems to be missing now. I suppose it will appear over time, but I am a proponent of having all your data set up before relaunching a site, especially in the week before classes start when some folks (ahem) are trying to dig up class information!