Monthly Archives: February 2006

Pillow Fight Club

I heard about this beforehand from three separate sources, and really wanted to go, but unfortunately had a group meeting.

Hundreds attend mass pillow fight
Roughly 1,000 people drawn by internet postings and word-of-mouth converged near San Francisco’s Ferry Building on Tuesday night for a half-hour pillow fight.
The underground event erupted at 6 p.m. in the center of Justin Herman Plaza with a mass rush of shrieking, laughing combatants – many of whom arrived with pillows concealed in shopping bags, backpacks and the like.
Within minutes, pillows were arcing, feathers were flying, and by the time the Ferry Building’s clock tower clanged the half-hour, the plaza and hundreds of people were covered in white down that gave the scene a wintry lustre.

This is the sort of thing that makes me love San Francisco.

Dream: Room 17

I feel like blogging my dreams is sort of frivolous, but it’s also an interesting exercise in a kind of writing I don’t usually do. So: I had two interesting dreams last night. I remember waking up from the first one thinking it was interesting and significant, but I went back to sleep and forgot the actual dream.
The second dream began with a friend showing me a hidden entrance to a nondescript Berkeley building. I went inside and found that the interior of the building was a setting for an elaborate puzzle game. Each room of the building contained a puzzle based around some eclectic collection of objects; there were 20 such rooms/puzzles and I was given a limited time to complete them all. There was a sheet of paper on which I kept track of which ones I’d completed. (Maybe including the answers to the puzzles, which would solve some overall puzzle when the whole thing was done? My memory of what was on the paper in the dream is hazy.)
Anyway, I’m pretty sure I dreamed multiple rooms of this, and fast-forwarded through most of them, but at some point I arrived at room #17 (having finished the first sixteen) with some extra time on the clock. Room 17 contained a stereo cassette player and a stack of 20 cassette tape cases, none of which contained cassettes. The covers were all for classical music; I specifically remember Beethoven and Schubert among the composers, and no composer appeared twice.
The actual cassettes were in a box nearby, but the labels had been removed and replaced with small handwritten numbers from 1 to 20. The puzzle, obviously, was to match the tapes to their proper case by listening to them. So I started going through them one by one, trying to identify composer or at least time period by the musical style, and looking for pieces that I recognized.
This was a slow process, and I became aware that time was slipping away. I was debating whether to skip ahead to Room 18, in the hopes of finishing the later puzzles and coming back for this one, when I woke up.
So it was sort of anti-climactic, but I thought it was interesting that my dream came up with at least one realistic and difficult but possibly doable puzzle. And I was quickly able to think of a very specific interpretation for this dream, but there is probably some bias on my part towards reading things this way. So other interpretations are welcome.

Awesome Bible fact of the day

Via a comment at Crooked Timber, I learn that the Bible uses a unit of weight called the “homer”, which, literally translated, means: “an ass-load”. No, seriously:

The word homer comes from a Hebrew word which means ‘ass-load’. It may have been the amount that donkey could carry. The quail which fell in the wilderness were measured using the homer. The Homer or Cor contained 10 ephahs. Ezekiel 45:11,14 That would make it equal to about 6 bushels.

So how many homers are there in a metric fuck-ton?

Misleading notation [Open Thread]

I guess there are Olympics going on now? One of my fellow physicists was asking me where to watch them online; via Lifehacker, the answer is nbcolympics.com.
While on the subject of sports, I see via Boing Boing a helpful guide for quail hunters. And as usual, the Daily Show has the final word on this topic. (Unless Fafblog decides to weigh in.)
In music news, I woke up in the middle of today’s 290K seminar to see what appeared to be guitar tab notation on the blackboard under the heading “Stripes White”. But it turned out the speaker was talking about stripes in the 2D Hubbard model, rather than discussing the guitar part of a White Stripes song. Anyway, I have an album to review:
Cat Power: The Greatest: The title of this album must have annoyed Matador’s marketing department, who have gone to some lengths in the packaging to assure the prospective buyer that this is indeed a new LP rather than a greatest hits collection. I liked her previous record, You Are Free, but it was fairly minimalist, so the richer and brighter textures of this one are a nice change. There’s nothing quite as entrancing as “Werewolf” (which has become one of my mix CD standbys) but overall I like it better than her earlier works. Apparently she enlisted the help of some legendary soul musicians for this one, but since I’m not terribly knowledgable about soul the significance of this was lost on me. The song “Hate” sounds like her style from You Are Free, while referencing a Nirvana song and classic Engrish specimen; “Could We” is more representative of this album.

Attack of the Great American Novel

By popular demand, Tyler Cowen has been blogging about the Great American Novel. I’ve long been convinced that the answer is Moby Dick, so I was pleased to see that Cowen chose an appropriate set of criteria:

So what qualities must The Great American Novel have?…
1. It must reward successive rereadings and get better each time.
2. It must be canonical and grip the imagination.
3. It must be linked to American history and letters in some essential way.
4. It must span the intellectual, the emotional, the religious, and the metaphysical.
5. It must be fun. You must be sad when the book is over, and wish it had been longer than it was.
6. It must be about a large white whale and have numerous Biblical allusions.

He then chooses an interesting excerpt that was almost certainly left out of the abridged version we were assigned in high school. I decided I liked the book enough to be a badass and read the unabridged version instead, a huge tactical error since the 30-page nightly assignments ballooned to 80 pages this way. It would be interesting to go back and read it again, now that I’m ten years older and can afford a more relaxed pace.
Cowen also suggests some runners-up and dark horse picks. I can see the argument for Huckleberry Finn, but even though I love Mark Twain I wasn’t wild about that particular novel. Of Faulkner I have only read short stories, a gap I should remedy at some point.
My favorite piece of American literature from high school was Catch-22, but I can’t argue for this as the Great American Novel. The much-loved Catcher in the Rye didn’t do much for me; I suppose my teen angst was of a different character than Holden Caulfield’s.
So what are your picks for the Great American Novel? What’s your favorite “canonical” American novel? What did you read in high school that was the biggest waste of time? (My pick for the last question: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver; not especially canonical, but nevertheless assigned by my hippie American Lit teacher.)

Climate Control

While the East Coast is buried in snow and Southern California struggles under a scorching heat wave, it’s been 65 and sunny all week here in Berkeley. And we’ll get the same weather in July. With this kind of climate, one might expect that the heating and air conditioning needs of a campus building like Birge Hall would be pretty minimal. And indeed, through efficient design the building is maintained at a pleasant environment with hardly any energy.
Ha! I’m joking, of course. What they actually do here is run the heating and the air conditioning at the same time so that they cancel out. I only discovered this fact this week, when the heat pump broke—leaving the air conditioning running unchecked. Naturally there’s no way to adjust it, and so I end up carrying a sweater to lab with me, so that after walking through perfect weather to get there I can bundle up when I enter the building and avoid freezing to death.
Somehow, you’d think a physics building would have a more efficient solution to the problem of temperature control, but maybe it’s a corollary to the fact that the architecture building is always the ugliest building on campus. It brings to mind a common method of temperature control in condensed matter physics: cool the sample down to 4.2K with liquid helium, and then use an electric heating element to warm it back up to the desired temperature. But I’m not sure it scales up as well as the designers of Birge Hall’s HVAC system seem to believe.

Stars

Last night I went to The Fillmore to see Canadian band Stars, whose most recent album I reviewed here. If you get a chance to see this band live, definitely take it—this show was amazing. I spent most of the performance completely enraptured by the music, and towards the end even found myself compelled to dance, despite the fact that this is not usually done at indie rock shows. I wasn’t sure beforehand if a violinist would be present, since the violin on their album wasn’t played by one of the band regulars, but indeed they had one who put in a stellar performance. I’d like to say something about the setlist, but I didn’t recognize a lot of the songs since I’m only familiar with the ones on Set Yourself On Fire. They played most of that album, but about half the songs were unfamiliar to me. (And somehow they skipped two of my favorites: “Sleep Tonight” and “Celebration Guns”. But the rest of the show was good enough that I’m willing to forgive that.) Today I went out and bought another one of their albums so I will be more knowledgable the next time they come to SF.
The opening band was Rilo Kiley spinoff The Elected, playing country-tinged indie rock. They were decent but not terribly exciting.

Developments in FSM Cosmology

I meant to blog this story over the weekend, but was distracted by, um, football. Anyway: here’s a pretty good illustration of why I said last week that the Bush administration should just stay away from science.
So George Deutsch, an asshat Bush appointee (is that redundant?) to the public affairs office at NASA, took it upon himself to make sure that everything coming out of the agency was, well… “politically correct” would be a good term for it if it didn’t have other connotations. This included trying to stop NASA’s top climate scientist from speaking about global warming, and insisting that the Big Bang be referred to as “the Big Bang theory”, because, like evolution, it’s “just a theory”. (I am pretty much the last science blogger to comment on this.)
What happened next was sort of hilarious: a blogger discovered that Deutsch lied on his resume, claiming to have graduated from Texas A&M when in fact he never received a degree. This has resulted in Deutsch’s subsequent resignation, which would be heartening if this administration weren’t so good at finding even worse people to replace the ones who leave.
And this would be why I’m suspicious of Bush’s increased funding for physical science. How much of it is going to guys like Deutsch, or projects of which they would approve? (Is there a cosmological equivalent of Intelligent Design? Maybe The Onion’s Intelligent Falling.) As has been pointed out by others, this administration just doesn’t do policy. Everything is politics to them.
UPDATE: I see we have nothing to worry about, now that Duke Cunningham’s seat on the House subcommittee responsible for NASA’s budget has been filled by… Tom DeLay.

But I still… haven’t found… a solution to the problem of evil.

Slacktivist has excerpts from U2 frontman Bono’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. Mostly, it’s good stuff, in which he chastises George W. Bush for not doing more to fight poverty around the world. But there’s one section that I thought was very self-defeating, because while Bono wants to make this a religious mission, he runs right into the problem of evil (which I’ve written about before). I have to wonder if Bono is really thinking about what he’s saying here:

I mean, God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill … I hope so. He may well be with us as in all manner of controversial stuff — maybe, maybe not. But the one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor.
God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.

Bono is describing people who live in abject misery, and if we are to assume that God exists, the obvious question to ask is, why does God permit such suffering at all? It seems to me that one of the following statements has to be true:
1. God doesn’t know about the suffering of the poor.
2. God knows about the poor but does not care.
3. God knows about the poor and cares about their suffering, but is powerless to help them.
Now religious people generally try to obscure the issue rather than admit that one of these things is true. But Bono in the above remarks has just ruled out statements 1 and 2, so we are left with the disturbing fact that Bono believe in a god who has less power to help the poor than George W. Bush, or Bono himself. Why even refer to such a being as a god? Seems more like sort of a concerned spirit, or something.
One could argue that God works his will through the charitable actions of humans. This doesn’t reflect well on God’s character: basically, he’s the lazy manager who gets his subordinates to do all the work, and then takes all the credit at the end.
Or one could argue that the charitable impulse itself comes from God. This, in addition to resembling a common and vicious slander against atheists, argues for a very weak god indeed, as (by Bono’s own admission) there is not nearly enough charity in the world.
So what good is it to the poor if God is with them? If man living in a cardboard box could trade the presence of God for a roof over his head, shouldn’t he do it?