Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Not much time to blog - I have been working on monitoring software for the ATLAS liquid Argon calorimeter and getting a talk together, which I gave this morning. Now, as I leisurely copy files back to LA Tech, I some time to put up a couple of links. Maybe if I have time I can type in my impressions of Geneva.

First off, a brilliant little animation on YouTube, a history of evil from the Greeks to today:

I really liked this illustration of the dynamics of being a super-delegate in the Democratic party - but then, I have a thing for superhero chicks in tight spandex, doncha know.

If you want a nice clear example of walkin'-talkin' evil, you need look no farther than the Rev. Benny Hinn, as sorry a corrupt piece of excrement as ever slimed his away across this planet. (But is David Kuo slowly becoming my favorite evangelical Republican? Hmm...)

And finally my hero Greg Peters of Suspect Device tears 'em a new one over, of all things, perfidiously assigning the La Republican delegates to McCain instead Mike "I Heart Fried Squirrels and Fundamentalism" Huckabee. And by " 'em" we mean our local state senator as well.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Reading Amsterdam in Amsterdam

I made it to Geneva yesterday. Long layover at Schipel in Amsterdam. I got to tryout the KLM Crown Club there, which was OK (free food drinks is always nice), but Schipol has a lot of nice places to sit compared to most airports, if you know where to look. Lost my power adapter plug to boot, had to buy a new for 15 CHF.

I am re-reading Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. I just finished On Chisel Beach, which I was not overwhelmed by. A very compact book about two idiots. I guess McEwan is making a statement about how missed communication can tear up our relationships, but I found it to be about how a couple of people's Britishness (ca. 1960) got in the way of their being human. Amsterdam is much better, also a lot of the theme about people talking around what they really mean (and ought) to say, but it isn't all that the book is about, fer cryin' out loud.

Geneva was right where I left it. I am staying at a nice, and pricey, hotel downtown, the Hotel Epsom. It was best bargain of what was left, the CERN hostel was booked up as were the hotels I usually stay at, like the Holiday Inn in Thoiry. I am saving a little by not renting a car - public transportation is basically free for visitors - you can get a free pass in the airport that gets you to you hotel, then the hotel front desk hands out passes for your stay. It takes about an hour to get from the hotel (located in an iffy neighborhood north of the Gare Cornavin train station called Paquis) to CERN, but with all the construction, I'm not sure a car would be much faster. I attended the last of the ATLAS Week meetings, then after lunch spent the entire afternoon, til about 7:00, working on calorimeter monitoring software with a Columbia U. postdoc named Francesco Spano.

Ate at a really good restaurant last night, called Carnivale do Venezia. Crappy way to spend Valentine's night, but food was good. Had Tartaglia al Carnonara and a 3 dl carafe of their house red (a Sangenovese, I think I overhead the waitress tell someone, but I was overhearing an Italian speaking French, so she might have said she was St. Anne from Vichy).

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

RoI Trivial Pusuit

(RoI=Academic jargon for "Report of Invention")

What patents do the following people hold?

Abraham Lincoln
Heddy Lamar
Zeppo Marx

OK, I should make you go look it up yourselves, but the answers are: 1) A device for extricating paddlewheel boats from sandbars, 2) the frequency key shifting technology now used in cell phones, and 3) the Marman clamp.

What a guy

So, what do you call someone from an old Virginia family (related to Jefferson and Madison) who grew up in South Carolina, and who as a wrestler, a wartime R.A.F. pilot and Foreign Legionnaire, recipient of the French Croix de Guerre and the American Eisenhower medal, movie star, socialite, trumpet player, songwriter, composer, Amazon explorer, horseman, stuntman, artist, ladies' man— who traveled the globe to help resistance movements in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

You call him Charles Fawcett, the man who, along with Varian Fry and a handful of others, helped over 2,000 Jewish refugees flee the Nazis through Marsielles, including such famous intellectuals as Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, the painters Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, and Heinrich and Golo Mann (the brother and son of Thomas Mann) . He passed away a few days ago, at the age of 92. I hate to find out about people like this after they die.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Wednesday Thoughts

I think I have the flu. I shouldn't have the flu - I had a flushot. Dammit.

One the many unique things about working for a Louisiana university is the fact you get Mardi Gras off. In fact, we got off Monday, Tuesday, and the students got off today. I think at one time the students had to come back on Wednesday, until the regents or whoever finally figured out that that wasn't going to happen.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans barely made it into the news, since the Super Duper Stuper Kerplooer Tuesday primaries were going on. What better time for the candidates to maybe mention that New Orleans is still suffering? But politicians don't give a sh1t.

Which reminds me of what the judge in the Corps of Engineers suit said (from NOLA.com):

In his
ruling, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval wrote that the Flood Control Act of 1928 provides immunity to the corps and other federal agencies involved in building flood projects. He relied on 1986 and 2001 Supreme Court rulings that found the law "provides immunity where, as here, a flood control project fails to control floodwaters because of the failure of the flood control project itself."

Duval, however, issued a stinging condemnation of the corps and its actions in building the city's hurricane protection system.

"Here, the court must apply this broad immunity based upon the facts of this case," Duval said. "
Often, when the King can do no wrong, his subjects suffer the consequences. Such is the case here."

"This story -- 50 years in the making -- is heart-wrenching," Duval, an appointee of President Clinton, said in his 46-page ruling. "
Millions of dollars were squandered in building a levee system with respect to these outfall canals which was known to be inadequate by the corps' own calculations."

But, Duval said, "it is not within the Court's power to address the wrongs committed. It is hopefully within the citizens of the United States' power to address the failures of our laws and agencies."


So let's change the country. The happiest outcome of Tuesday's primaries is that the election is still not decided. I am glad that I get to vote in a primary Saturday that will actually mean something! To all of you who say that prolonging the campaign helps the Republicans, I can only say 1) The Republicans are still tearing at each other, despite McCain's lead; 2) Every Obama-Clinton contest is free air time for them to present their views to the American electorate; and 3) F*ck you, this is America, and I am as pleased as I can be that the two candidates were not decided by freakin' Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Crackerlina.

Obligations & Responsibilities

The Edge (www.edge.org) sponsors a yearly question, which it poses notable thinkers and writers. Last year the question was "What are you optimistic about?" This year the question is "What have you changed your mind about?" The answers are found at http://www.edge.org/q2008/q08_index.html (the list of contributors to date is given in the sidebar to the left). One answer apropos to our discussions was given by my academic grandfather(*) -


Physicist and Nobel Laureate; Director Emeritus, Fermilab; Coauthor, The God Particle

The Obligations and Responsibilities of The Scientist

My academic experience, mainly at Columbia University from 1946-1978, instilled the following firm beliefs:

The role of the Professor, reflecting the mission of the University, is research and dissemination of the knowledge gained. However, the Professor has many citizenship obligations: to his community, State and Nation, to his University, to his field of research, e.g. physics, to his students. In the latter case, one must add to the content knowledge transferred, the moral and ethical concerns that science brings to society. So scientists have an obligation to communicate their knowledge, popularize, and whenever relevant, bring his knowledge to bear on the issues of the time. However, additionally, scientists play a large role in advisory boards and systems from the President's Advisory system all the way to local school boards and PTAs. I have always believed that the above menu more or less covered all the obligations and responsibilities of the scientist. His most sacred obligation is to continue to do science. Now I know that I was dead wrong.

Taking even a cursory stock of current events, I am driven to the ultimately wise advice of my Columbia mentor, I.I. Rabi, who, in our many corridor bull sessions, urged his students to run for public office and get elected. He insisted that to be an advisor (he was an advisor to Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, later to Eisenhower and to the AEC) was ultimately an exercise in futility and that the power belonged to those who are elected. Then, we thought the old man was bonkers. But today......

Just look at our national and international dilemmas: global climate change (U.S. booed in Bali); nuclear weapons (seventeen years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has over 7,000 nuclear weapons, many poised to instant flight. Who decided?); stem cell research (still hobbled by White House obstacles). Basic research and science education are rated several nations below "Lower Slobovenia", our national deficit will burden the nation for generations, a wave of religious fundamentalism, an endless war in Iraq and the growing security restrictions on our privacy and freedom (excused by an even more endless and mindless war on terrorism) seem to be paralyzing the Congress. We need to elect people who can think critically.

A Congress which is overwhelmingly dominated by lawyers and MBAs makes no sense in this 21st century in which almost all issues have a science and technology aspect. We need a national movement to seek out scientists and engineers who have demonstrated the required management and communication skills. And we need a strong consensus of mentors that the need for wisdom and knowledge in the Congress must have a huge priority.


* My adviser David Levinthal was Leon Lederman's graduate student at Columbia University.

Saturday, February 02, 2008


Don't ask me to explain, just click this link.

And a star to guide me by

NASA will commemorate its 50th anniversary, and the 40th anniversary of the recording of the Beatle's song Across the Universe, by beaming the song into space using the radio telescopes of the Deep Space Network. As Phil Platt at the Bad Astronomy blog points out, there are better candidate stars to send the song to, if our intention is for some alien life to eventually intercept the signal. Polaris, an old star and part of a binary pair, almost certainly has no planets, and if it does they are unlikely to harbor life.

My personal pick would be Epsilon Eridani or 55 Cancri - both are known to harbor planets and are very close in astronomical terms - but there is something apt about sending the signal to Polaris, the Northern Star. Think George Harrison's It's Only a Northern Song, or the Beatle's publishing company, Northern Songs Ltd.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Across the Universe

Petr Ginz was born in Prague in 1928. His father was a clerk, and both of his parents were involved in the Esperanto movement - in fact, they had met at an Esperantist meeting. As a young boy, Petr was interested in science and space, read the novels of Jules Verne, and dreamed of one day going to the moon. He also wrote his own stories, even a novel when he was just twelve, and he drew and painted illustrations for his stories. He also learned Esperanto from his parents and became fluent.

Petr's mother was Czech, but Petr's father was Jewish, and when Petr was 14 he was taken from his parents and put on a train, which took him to a camp called Terezin. Although he was sad and afraid, he continued to study science and mathematics, and he continued to draw, and he even started a magazine in the camp, called Vedem, which means "In the Lead". He wrote an Esperanto to Czech dictionary, so he could help the others in the camp learn the universal language that would bring peace to the world.

While he was in the camp, Petr drew a picture. It showed what the Earth would look like when he was standing on the moon. The picture looked like this:

After two years, another train came to Terezin, and the guards told Petr to get on board. The train went north, into Poland and west of Krakow, to another camp called Auschweitz. No one told Petr, but his was one of the last trains that would be going to that camp. The guards made Petr wait with a large group of other children, women, and old men. Then they told Petr they were going to go to the showers.

Petr's picture survived the war, and eventually it was given to a man named Ilan. Ilan's mother and grandmother had also been in Auschweitz, but they had survived. Ilan was also a student of science, and like Petr, Ilan dreamed of going to space. He became a pilot for the Israeli airforce, and flew planes that probably would have seemed like spaceships to Petr Ginz.

In 1997, Ilan was told that he would really go to space, as a payload specialist on board the space shuttle. Ilan moved to Texas, and began training for his mission. When his spaceship, the Columbia, took off into space in January, 2003 - almost exactly 58 years after the Russians had liberated Auschwitz - Ilan had Petr's picture with him. It orbited the Earth 255 times, 15 days in space, and Ilan and his fellow crew members did a lot of experiments and took videos of dust glowing in the atmosphere of Earth.

And when that spaceship fell apart on re-entry, five years ago this morning, I was watching it on the television with my children, in shock and horror at the loss of life, never knowing that Petr's picture had also turned to smoke and ashes.

What The L Word Means

So, I have known for a long time, at least since high school, that when the average person calls someone a "liberal" he means "that person I don't agree with". The "liberals" are the "others", the people who have the whole thing wrong; since our hypothetical interlocutor is obviously right, and he knows he is a conservative, so anyone who disagrees with his must be one of those liberals.

Sure there are intelligent conservatives, but for every politically mature thinker who has read Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss, there are at least 10 and probably 100 who wouldn't know William F. Buckley from Harry Dean Stanton. The mass of self-proclaimed conservatives are Republican voters who moved to that party as a response to the civil rights and associated movements, the "How dare the guvmint give out all that welfare money and hey where's my farm subsidy check" crowd, augmented in recent years by the "Kill a Fag for Jesus" and the "We're Pro-life Til the Kid is Born, Then F*ck Em" evangelicals.

A few days ago, a friend of mine (and yes, he's friend, though we probably do not see eye to eye on any political issues) sent me an email with The Wheel & Beer: A World History Lesson, which fortunately I have discovered he did not write, and which can be found several places on the web (I'll omit including it here). Reading through this, it finally struck me what these folks REALLY mean when they use the word "liberal" - they mean "nigg3r". It is the same jokes, the same lame stereotypes, the same mockery and hatred disguised as humor that I remember from growing in the south in the Sixties. There have always been code words in the South, and they have crept into the national political debate. For a large group of people, and I would dare say the bulk of Southerners who vote Republican these days, "conservative"="white" and "liberal"="nigg3r" or "niggg3r-lover" (a term I remember being called at least a couple of times when I was a kid).

Am I a liberal? Well, yeah, I believe in liberty guaranteed by law in a democratic nation with the greatest possible number of its citizens enfranchised to participate in the political process. I believe in a secular nation where freedom of conscience is an ABSOLUTE, and not a relative, right. I believe in small government, but in those instances where we have to work together corporately through government, the bias should be toward helping the least fortunate in our society rather than most well off. But most of all, yeah, I ain't one of these pseudo-conservatives, and I never will be.