Monthly Archives: March 2003


Ok, I was supposed to be updating while in Houston but that was before I had this kidney stone to deal with. On top of that I keep getting calls from the lab because they can’t get my software to work. (I will bet money that there is in fact nothing wrong with my software.) Anyway, the pain medication is making it hard for me to focus, so I can’t put up any long updates right now.


I have returned from Pasadena, and tomorrow my travels take me to Houston until Sunday. It’s likely I’ll be able to update once or twice while there. I come back on Sunday only to go directly to Santa Cruz, but after that I’m in Berkeley for a while.

The Call of Cthulhu game was fairly successful; one of the better games I’ve run in recent memory. A little preparation goes a long way, apparently. Joe ran a very enjoyable D&D game as well. I’ve been toying with the idea of converting scenes from RPG sessions into short stories; there’s an obvious choice from yesterday’s game so maybe I’ll try it (and post it here).

I’ve been almost totally cut off from the news since Friday. Are we winning?


In about two hours I’ll be on the road to Pasadena, which is where I’ll be until Tuesday. I can still be reached by e-mail and (probably your best bet) cell phone: 510-219-0382.

Now that we’re all getting our war on, here are the sites I’ve been frequenting: Like apparently everyone else on the internet, I have been reading L.T. Smash and Salam Pax, blogs by a US military officer and a Baghdad resident respectively. For general war coverage I use The New York Times. TNR’s Gregg Easterbrook has been running an interesting series on tactics and technology. I haven’t had time to take in the war commentary on Plastic, but I’m sure there’s plenty of it.


As of this afternoon, I have three problem sets and two term papers remaining in this semester. Once these five items are complete I will be finished with the course requirements for the physics PhD. (I’ll also earn my MA in physics at the end of this semester, but this is only significant insofar as I will have the credentials to teach high school physics.) The next four years or so will be devoted to research for the dissertation.

In principle, not having to take courses means I should have more time on my hands. Realistically, of course, all this extra time could get sucked up immediately by my research. I should be able to get away with scheduling some of my extra time outside of Birge (the physics building I live in), so I’ve been mentally throwing some ideas around.

  • I’ve wanted for years to take a foreign language that I can actually speak to people in, but have never had the time. (As most of you will recall, my foreign language in high school was Latin. Very interesting and fun, but there aren’t too many people who speak it these days.) Lately I’ve been leaning towards Mandarin. It’s sufficiently different in structure from Western languages that I expect it to be intellectually very interesting, and ideally by allowing me to structure my thoughts differently it should give me a new perspective in some sense. Plus I think the writing is very beautiful. (I’d still like to learn Japanese at some point, and that may still win out.) So, one way to fill the time that I used to spend taking courses is… to take more courses. I won’t have to do any integrals though, and languages must be easy to learn, because even small children can speak them, right?
  • I’d like to take up martial arts again. Probably karate, because it was fun when I was doing it before. However, UC Berkeley has several to choose from. Any recommendations? (Taekwondo is right out, by the way.)
  • I was serious when I mentioned ballroom dancing in this space last month. If I can find a beginner-level class, it could probably be fun. Despite certain self-deprecating remarks I’ve made in the past, if I can do DDR or karate, I can do this.
  • I should really try to see more of San Francisco while I’m here. I won’t be this close to the cultural center of the western United States forever, after all.

If I don’t make a real effort to get myself out and do stuff like this, though, I’ll spend the next four years playing video games when I’m not in lab. So we’ll have to see whether I really want to do these things. Any other suggestions for stuff I should try once I throw off the burden of problem sets forever? Post a comment!


Call of Cthulhu

This is an update containing information for my upcoming Call of Cthulhu game. For my regular non-RPG playing readers, this is a horror themed role playing game based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft. I am attempting to mix these elements with Indiana Jones-style adventure. Those not playing in this game may find these updates interesting on their literary merit, or you may want to skip to my next rant about whatever the Republicans are doing.

That said, I am pleased to present:

Call of Cthulhu: The Souls of Them That Were Slain

Summary: The game will begin in the city of Tripoli, in the year 1936. The attempted theft of a rare book from a Zurich hotel has drawn a group of strangers into a shadowy struggle for occult power. Now, the party races agents of the Nazi-controlled German government to the excavation site of an ancient Carthaginian military outpost, the legendary Statio Quinta. In its dark crevices lie secrets not meant to be uncovered, and power that will shake the foundation of the world.

Previous session summary: Elsa Meier had come to Zurich, Switzerland in hopes of selling one of her father’s rare books (De Rebus Occultis Mundae) at a convention. One suspicious-looking Italian man (by the name of Antonio) who had expressed interest decided to steal it from Elsa’s room in the Hotel Regentschaft rather than go through the hassle of purchasing it. He was stopped on his way through the lobby by the surprisingly well-armed hotel staff and conventioners. However, Elsa and the book were taken into custody by the Zurich police.

It became apparent that the German government was using a fair amount of diplomatic influence to obtain the book, and possibly send Elsa to an unpleasant fate. She managed to escape with the assistance of some of those involved in the hotel incident, as well as her shockingly unnatural skill at disguise.

Elsa has now convinced those involved in stopping the hotel theft to go with her to Libya, where they hope to prevent the Nazis from unlocking the occult power buried in the legendary Carthaginian outpost, Statio Quinta.

Pre-made PC’s/NPC’s:

Elsa Meier: rare book collector; Jena, Germany

“The Nazis seem unusually interested in my father’s dusty old tomes. I won’t let them have the books, though – the voices wouldn’t let me hear the end of it if I did.”


Elsa’s father had the most interesting books. Most were in German, but some in Hebrew and a few in Latin. The young Elsa once, with the aid of a chair, pulled one off the high shelf and pored over the strange and fanciful illustrations. Her father was very upset when he caught her with this book – at the time, she did not understand why – and the next day installed a door, with a lock, on the bookcase.

Her father was killed in the war, and her mother succumbed the next year to the Spanish influenza. She and her father’s books passed into the care of the local rabbi. From him she learned to read Hebrew, and in school she learned Latin. And so she read her father’s books, looking for a sense of connection with her parents. Instead she found knowledge she was not meant to know.

Meanwhile the darkness over Germany deepened, and she decided to leave. For her own safety, but more importantly for the safety of the books. In the hands of Hitler’s goons, this knowledge could be wielded to a terrifying end…

Andrew Carter: archaelogist; Providence, USA

“That belongs in a museum!”


Dr. Carter is the sort of archaeologist who believes one can get further with a shovel and a gun than with a shovel alone. This sort of attitude has made him a rising star in his field of ancient Mediterranean civilizations, if not particularly popular with the locals. Fortunately for him, the artifacts he brought from Turkey and Palestine carried more weight with Brown University than the opinions of the natives, and he now enjoys a position in the archaeology department at this institution.

Andrew’s latest project has brought him to the Libyan coast, where he and his team are excavating what appears to be a Carthaginian military outpost dating to the Second Punic War. The site was discovered by the Libyan military while performing naval exercises in the area; they persist (much to Dr. Carter’s annoyance) in overseeing the area, though they have conceded to move the firing range elsewhere. To complicate matters, the excavation is being financed by a reclusive American millionaire, who on occasion has been known to send his own people to check on the progress. This would all be very frustrating if it weren’t such an unusually interesting site.

Stan Deacon: theoretical physicist; Pasadena, USA

“My colleagues speak of uncertainty and randomness, but these are words for the weak and the blind. Where the mandates of physical law end is where the human will begins. The strong take their place in the gaps between the equations.”


The new science of quantum mechanics prompted much debate among the physicists of the time. The equations were very accurate, but what they meant was not clear. What was clear was that the mechanical, deterministic world as understood by Newton had to be abandoned in favor of a probabilistic one strongly influenced by the observer. In the strange facts of wave-particle duality and coherent superposition Niels Bohr saw reflected Eastern mysticism. Stan Deacon, on the other hand, sees the occult – the path to magical control over the universe.

By day Deacon does calculations, derives formulae (after praying to Pan for guidance, of course), and publishes papers that do not particularly stand out from those of his colleagues, except for the occasional flash of insight that earned him his Caltech professorship. At night, he does some experiments of his own. These are experiments with pentagrams drawn in blood and powdered silver, with chants in forgotten languages and calculations that are a mixture of physics and numerology. Sometimes, he sacrifices Schrodinger’s cat.

His neighbors, his students, his colleagues whisper about him, but he does not care. Dr. Deacon knows he is on the edge of true understanding – true power – over the laws of nature.

Jun Murayama: imperial envoy; Kyoto, Japan

“A falcon released
Diving at unknowing prey
I race with the wind.”


The Empire of Japan trains kamikaze troops to guide tons of metal and explosive material into the enemy at tremendous speed. Sometimes, however, the Emperor requires a more precise and delicate weapon. For cases like these, he has men like Jun.

The Murayama family earned the Emperor’s trust during the Restoration, and has enjoyed a privileged position in Kyoto since then. The sons of the Murayamas are given the best education and training that the Empire has to offer, and that they are expected to use it in service of the Emperor is considered an honor. Jun is the latest of this line, and having completed his training has been sent to Europe to fulfill his duty.

Jun’s official position is as a young diplomat, and this is indeed an important part of his role. However, this is only half of what he is trained for. Sometimes a bit of force, carefully and secretly applied, helps diplomatic negotiations along, and for this purpose Jun has studied martial arts, marksmanship, and the art of stealth.

Word has come to Jun that the Germans are stirred up about a rare book that appeared in Zurich. The instructions from Kyoto are clear: find out what is important about the book, and make sure its eventual owner is one satisfactory to the interests of the Empire. In Jun’s position failure and death are the same, and Jun does not intend to die today.


For those of you wondering about my new addition to the sidebar, I should note that while “Valkyrie” and “Rhinemaiden” were chosen for historical reasons, they don’t correspond to what they did historically. The team to root for, of course, is the Valkyries.


I would be remiss if I failed to note that today is both Pi Day (3/14) and Albert Einstein’s birthday. Wolfram Research has a great page, somewhat mathematical, on pi. I personally will be certain to celebrate Pi Day by losing or finding spurious pis in my homework.

Updated 12:02: It’s come to my attention that today is also the anniversary of the release of NCSA Mosaic, the first graphical web browser. One of the developers was Marc Andreesen, who went on to found Netscape, while the Mosaic browser code was later used as the basis for Microsoft Internet Explorer.


From this NY Times article on Bush’s judicial nominations (emphasis mine):

The Republicans brought Hispanic recording artists to perform in the Capitol last week to “demonstrate how the Estrada nomination resonates in the Hispanic community,” held a session on Tuesday devoted to the Senate’s role in confirming nominees, conducted a prayer session today and have presented numerous letters from President Bush and his counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, deploring the situation.

Now it doesn’t say explicitly but the only way the prayer session fits into this paragraph is if its purpose was to help the Estrada nomination. Come on, now, a prayer session to get your nomination approved? Isn’t this along the lines of praying for your high school football team to win? How is it that a political party that tries to achieve its goals by prayer controls the White House and both houses of Congress? Unless… uh oh.

That said, bringing in Hispanic recording artists to perform is at least as ridiculous. Though no more so than the Democrats on the Senate floor reading out of phone books… our leaders, ladies and gentlemen.


You know when you’re browsing Amazon and it says at the bottom “People who bought this book also bought X?” There’s a study of these connections, and I find it very interesting and somewhat disturbing, though maybe not so surprising. (That link is worth clicking on just for the visual impact of the results.)

The reason I find it disturbing is not the high degree of clustering – I think that’s to be expected. Rather, it’s that there are only two clusters. I tend to think of “liberal” and “conservative” labels as convenient but limited shorthand; there’s no a priori reason why economic conservative opinion should correlate with social conservative opinion, for example. From looking at this data, though, it seems as if a clean division can be made. What it suggests is that large numbers of people are getting ideologically trapped; certain sets of ideas have been artifically lumped together by political coalitions, but having grouped in this way people only see one view on every subject. (I actually think this is an overly strong interpretation; I’ll say more about that.)

I’m reminded of a column I once read (I think in the National Review) that presented a secular argument against legalizing gay marriage. I think we can all agree that hostility to gay rights in this country is motivated by religion (or by simple bigotry) so it’s hard to imagine what a secular argument would look like. In this case it was weak, convoluted, and at times disingenuous. The author seemed like an intelligent person, so he had to know it was a bogus argument, right? Or maybe he was just surrounded by socially conservative material, to the point that “gay marriage should be illegal” becomes a premise rather than a conclusion.

I do think it’s easy to read too much into this study, and here’s why: the above chart only shows the strongest connections, and not all of them. What the chart looks like is going to be very dependent on where the researcher sets the threshhold for which connections to illustrate. Maybe there are more books in the center, maybe there’s more intermixing between the two clusters, but these are not drawn because they’re just slightly less common than the connections to What Went Wrong. In other words, the author has a lot of control over how this data appears, and he’s going to pick the most striking version.

Where The Night of the Dance fits in to this chart, I have no idea.

Also, this gives me an idea for a game. (I am certainly not the first to think of this, but still…) The obvious name is “Six Degrees of What Went Wrong“. The idea is to pick two books, for example Stupid White Men and Slander, and try to connect them on Amazon through as few steps as possible, using the “People who bought x also bought y” link. Those of you who are really really bored, and have a web browser, I encourage to try this and report the results in the comments.