Monthly Archives: March 2006

Warning: mutant hillbillies, next 35 miles.

And on a related note, I will be making a lightning trip to L.A. this weekend. I’m hoping to get there late tonight; I’ll try not to stop at the Wrong Gas Station. (There are a few of those near I-5; I had to stop at one once with a nearly empty tank.) While on the road I will be unable to delete the comment spam that has been annoying me the last few days, so try to ignore it. (It’s mostly on posts from a week ago anyway.)
Instead of a Friday Random Ten, here’s my playlist for the road:

  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones

  • Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One
  • Liars, Drum’s Not Dead
  • Lilys, Everything Wrong Is Imaginary
  • Built To Spill, Perfect From Now On
  • Mercury Rev, Deserter’s Songs
  • Pixies, Bossanova
  • Ladytron, Witching Hour
  • Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit
  • My Bloody Valentine, Loveless

These are CDs that are actually in the car; I’ll also have my iPod so I really have more options than just this list.

Unofficial reunion at Caltech’s Alumni Weekend?

This post is primarily meant for the Caltech alums in the audience. Mohi and I were discussing alumni weekend—this year will be the five-year reunion for our class—and we’re wondering how many people are going to be there, or might be interested in meeting up there. We’re not necessarily thinking about going to the official alum events, but this seems like a good opportunity to get everyone there at the same time. Post your thoughts in the comments. The relevant dates are May 18-21.

Wednesday Schrodinger’s Cat Blogging: Coupled Qubits

The slides for my March Meeting talk, “Variable Coupling of Two Flux Qubits”, are now available online. As promised, below the fold is a non-technical explanation of the results presented there. This work builds on the single-qubit work, about which I posted in August; it may be helpful to review that post before reading the following.

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Scary vs. gross [Open Thread]

It’s spring break, but I don’t have any vacation plans. I do have some travel lined up later on this spring: I bought my tickets for Coachella so I’ll be seeing some of you there next month.
The Hills Have Eyes: This movie was so bad I’m just going to leave V for Vendetta on the sidebar. Normally I like horror flicks, but this one seemed unclear on the concept. Specifically, the film confuses “scary” with “gross”, and so we get a lot of gore and ugly mutants but not a lot of suspense. Instead of being frightening the experience was merely unpleasant, and it wasn’t even the most disgusting thing I’d seen all week (David Bowie’s eyeball hanging out of its socket being the clear winner there). The protagonists are dumb even by horror movie standards—Roger Ebert writes pretty much his entire review on how dumb they are—and some of them are sufficiently annoying that I was rooting for the mutants within ten minutes or so. Some critics have suggested that the movie is an allegory for the Iraq war. Such a film would have been much more interesting; in reality the movie drags out a few political stereotypes but doesn’t sign on to an agenda or pursue anything as sophisticated as an allegory.
Charles Stross:Iron Sunrise: Here’s the problem with “hard sci-fi”: sometimes the author knows just enough physics to get it wrong. For example: this novel’s faster-than-light communication scheme involving EPR-style entangled qubits. Now, I’m one of the few readers of this book who actually has a pair of entangled1 qubits in his2 basement. But any competent physicist should know that information can’t be transferred this way—you just get correlated random numbers. (You can make a one-time pad this way for quantum cryptography, and indeed this has been done.)
All this shows is that I’m a big nerd. Once I stopping thinking very hard about the physics in the book, it turned into a fun pulp novel, with spies, assassins, conspiracies, and Nazi villains (or near enough). Once the plot really got going I was hooked, and it was an excellent way to pass the time while I was stuck in the airport last weekend. One non-science complaint I had was that the plot twists were all telegraphed in advance, so there weren’t any big surprises. However, the characters were well-written and just reading about their interactions was fun.
1It’s actually debatable whether they are entangled (I suspect they are) but they are definitely coupled. More on this in an upcoming post.
2Actually, UC Berkeley’s basement.
Arab Strap: The Last Romance: I felt like I am not nearly bitter enough to appreciate this album properly. And this is supposed to be one of Arab Strap’s more uplifting records! Well, the tone does get happier as the CD plays, culminating in the nearly-triumphant “There Is No Ending”. (The US version of the album has two bonus tracks, but that one is clearly the end of the album.) Overall this is a decent album with a few excellent tracks: the first song and the aforementioned last song; another one I like is “Don’t Ask Me To Dance”. For the most part I like the darker music, which probably means I should check out their other records which are supposed to be along the same lines. (This purchase finally prompted me to find out that the Belle & Sebastian album The Boy With The Arab Strap was named after this band, and not the other way around.)

Absurd claims

I’m going to steal yet another meme from Tyler Cowen, who asks: What is the most absurd claim you believe? “It should refer to a view which you actually hold, but many other smart people consider untenable and bizarre.”
During a period overlapping heavily with my undergraduate years, my answer would have been that I think David Lewis’ theory of possible worlds is largely correct; in particular the notion that all possible worlds are just as real as the actual world. I’ve only read excerpts from Lewis’ works so I’m not prepared to accept or discredit his entire theory, but the underlying principle seemed right. Later, however, I realized that this could not possibly be true as I had imagined it: the reason being that the laws of physics in the actual world seem to be very regular and time-translation invariant, whereas there are many more grue-like worlds where the laws of physics randomly change than there are worlds like this one. So the probability of finding oneself in a world where the laws of physics are observably stable is vanishingly small. (A reasonable objection is that this probability isn’t well-defined. But if all possible worlds are equally real I would be very surprised not to find myself in a world with some grue-ish properties.)
So I had to shelve this idea. I’m still don’t have a convincing idea of what distinguishes the actual world from other possible ones, but I think there must be something, and maybe it has to do with why the laws of physics are fixed with time.
Anyway, I thought the modal realism thing would be an unusual answer to the question, but it was mentioned by the fourth commenter in the original MR thread so I guess not. But having given up on that some years ago, what is my current most absurd belief? Probably that many-worlds is the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics. (Even though I don’t like to call it “many-worlds”.) Of course this has some conceptual similarities with my previous absurd belief, but at least this one suffers from fewer grue-type problems.
Anyone else want to confess some absurd beliefs?

Is there hope for Arkansas?

Doesn’t look like it:

“Bob” is a geologist and a teacher at a science education institution that serves several Arkansas public school districts.
[…]
Teachers at his facility are forbidden to use the “e-word” (evolution) with the kids. They are permitted to use the word “adaptation” but only to refer to a current characteristic of an organism, not as a product of evolutionary change via natural selection. They cannot even use the term “natural selection.”
[…]
In his words, “I am instructed NOT to use hard numbers when telling kids how old rocks are. I am supposed to say that these rocks are VERY VERY OLD … but I am NOT to say that these rocks are thought to be about 300 million years old.”

It’s just insane that in the 21st century, young earth creationists are de facto deciding the curriculum in some parts of this country. In this case we should just refer to the Kung Fu Monkey motto: “Everybody who wants to live in the 21st Century over here. Everybody who wants to live in the 1800’s over there. Good. Thanks. Good luck with that.”

Workplace Physics

Classical theory: I tend to occupy either my office on the first floor or the lab in the second basement. Obviously the office has the higher potential energy. By the work-energy theorem, I can be promoted to the higher-energy state by performing work on the system. Once I am up in the office, I write up the results of the experiment and the energy exits the system in the form of a publication, so I find myself back in the lab.
Quantum theory: My state oscillates between the lab and office levels. Timescales for transitions are on the order of several weeks. Spontaneous absorption of data will cause a transition to the office state; the office state will randomly decay into the lab state with emission of one quantum of data (a PRL submission). My state is entangled with the state of the dilution refrigerator: if I am observed in lab there is a very high probability that the fridge is running.
A thermodynamic digression: When I am away from my office for several weeks, the number of objects on my desk increases with time. When I am away from the lab for several weeks, the number of items in the lab decreases with time (roughly in proportion to their utility to other members of the group). Conclusion: the chemical potential in the lab is positive, while the chemical potential on my desk is negative.

Belle & Sebastian blow their cover

Like I’m going to see two of my favorite bands in one night and not say it was awesome. First, the New Pornographers, who are without Neko Case on this tour. There’s definitely something missing without her formidable voice; I think they had their (excellent) keyboardist doing the female vocals although I couldn’t see the stage very well during their set, so I’m not sure. I also may have missed a song or two, since I was late looking for parking. I didn’t keep track of their setlist, but they played several of my favorites: “The Laws Have Changed”, “From Blown Speakers”, “The Bleeding Heart Show”, and “Stacked Crooked”. Carl Newman forgot the opening to “It’s Only Divine Right” and started in the middle of the song; after that no one else could remember how it started either and there was some confusion onstage. (Eventually it came back to him.) Despite the absence of Neko Case it was still a pretty good performance.
Then, Belle & Sebastian. After the March Meeting is when I often take up new projects, and one I was thinking about was learning all the songs from If You’re Feeling Sinister on the guitar. I’ve started with the first track, “The Stars of Track and Field”, and have given it a few attempts since I got back from Baltimore. So it seemed like an omen when Stuart Murdoch came out on stage, picked up his acoustic guitar, and led off with “Make a new cult every day to suit your affairs…” They played several other songs from that album, many from their latest (The Life Pursuit) and a couple from each of the others, excluding (conveniently) the two I don’t own (which are Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant and Storytelling). Also a few from their EP releases, including—to my delight—”Your Cover’s Blown”. That was probably the one track I was really hoping they’d play.
I could have stood there forever listening to them, and it seemed too soon when they stopped. Somehow they got away without playing “The Blues Are Still Blue”, even though the single just came out. (As I’ve mentioned, that’s my favorite song on the latest LP.) It was a great show, and I plan to see them again the next time they tour the U.S.
Belle & Sebastian’s setlist is below the fold; I was writing them down on an index card, which led at least one person to start asking me for the names of the songs he didn’t recognize.

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Music for productivity

On Friday there was a Lifehacker post recommending Brian Eno’s Music for Airports album as background music for doing work, the idea being that ambient music allows one to concentrate in a pleasant atmosphere. Indeed, I’ve found that downtempo electronica is good for this: I’ve used Air and Zero 7 to good effect. Shoegazer rock can also do the job, since it’s richly textured and can fade into the background—this accounts for some of My Bloody Valentine’s meteoric rise up my Last.fm charts.
If a deadline’s not looming this sort of music can be a little too calming and actually make me less productive, so if I really need motivation I will sometimes turn to power pop: The New Pornographers, and lately, Weezer. (Thanks to Lemming for recommending the Blue Album—it’s become one of my favorite ’90s CDs.) Less easily classified, The Go! Team also serve this purpose.
Right now I’m listening to a playlist of my 5-star-rated songs by Belle & Sebastian and The New Pornographers, since I’m seeing them both live tonight.
Any other recommendations for music to listen to while working?