Wednesday, October 28, 2009

In response to: Gamma-ray photon race ends in dead heat...

In response to:

ScientificBlogging Gamma-ray photon race ends in dead heat; Einstein wins this round. We'll get you yet, though, Al.

Racing across the universe for the last 7.3 billion years, two gamma-ray photons arrived at NASA's orbiting Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope within nine-tenths of a second of one another. The dead-heat finish may stoke the fires of debate among physicists…
How do you know they started at the exact same time and not 9/10th a second apart?
Here are my collected comments:

The article itself says that the difference in arrival times is "… likely due to the detailed processes of the gamma-ray burst…", i.e. in the source of the γ rays.

Addressing Kevin’s question in more detail:
The telescope was looking at the same part of the sky, presumably small enough to contain only one source of γ s. A Gamma ray burst was observed (bunch of γ s with energies between the two extremes mentioned in the article.). Gamma ray bursts last on the order of a couple of seconds (See above article.). On a macroscopic scale, the photons traverse the same spatial trajectory and intervening objects, but one is a few seconds behind the other. Nothing changes cosmologically on a scale of two seconds - except of course for gamma bursts and supernovae, which weren't observed. Macroscopic dispersive effects (change in refractive index due to frequency) in large intervening nebulae etc. cannot in principle be ruled out, but what do I know about astrophysics? Presumably they carefully chose a very empty part of the sky.

So, in order to reject the null hypothesis (that there are no differences in the speeds of the photons of different energies) any observed difference has to be >~ 2 secs. If there are hypothesized physical processes that do predict larger differences in arrival times, the observed 0.9 sec difference will put very tight constraints on the viability of those theories.

Now, watch the string theorists squeeze themselves through those very tight constraints! They have had 30 + years of practise!
Bo Asciu wrote:
Kevin good point, keen mind.

Space/Time can't be that "frothy" since the laws of the universe are so precise. Too much looseness and the whole thing falls apart.
Briefly addressing Bo’s comments:

There is classical, deterministic chaos, there are classical uncertainties due to stochastic processes, and we haven't even got to talking about QM! -in terms of causing frothiness in spacetime.

The point is that there are viable and very precise theories - "laws of the universe" - that separately either hypothesize or predict a "frothy" universe on a scale somewhere between 10-18m and the Planck scale (10-35m). The observations discussed put presumably very tight constraints on the free parameters in the theories that distinguish them from Einsteinian General Relativity.
If say the two photons had arrived more than 8 secs apart, the observations would tell us precisely how "frothy" spacetime actually is – how big are the hyopothesized microstructures, on what time scales do they change, how do they interact with different photons.

Even Einstein's very beautiful, very precise etc etc General Theory of Relativity CANNOT rule out frothiness of the universe on some heretofore unobserved, untested scale, though very good arguments can be made that the GTR will break down at some scale > Planck. If frothiness is observed at some larger scale, it will put a lower bound on the domain of applicability of the GTR (Since it hypothesizes a smooth (or at least twice differentiable) geometry for spacetime, GTR is valid above but not below the scale at which those “violations” are observed.).

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Monday, October 26, 2009

How to select a babysitter

In retrospect, here is one piece of advice, which, if we could get a do-over, we would take. If you can do this one thing, do it, the rest is then irrelevant: When you are thinking of having a kid, move back - to wherever it is at least one of the grandparents-to-be is currently living. And by "grandparent" I mean something veeery inclusive - stepgrandparent of up to a couple of orders removed, a great-aunt of the birth mother of the child you are considering adopting (Housing is really cheap in Colombia and some of the best private schools have ex-Green Berets guarding them.) or even someone you've found through Adopt-a-grandparent, the not-for-profit that connects desperate parents to lonely old European emigres with interesting accents whose own children don't appreciate them and have all but abandoned them to an old people's home in Carpinteria.

The second best option is to become a faculty member in any non-physics/math/computers/engineering department. Then, while you are busy writing papers about the power relationships and the exploitation of gender roles in obscure 1920's fiction, you ask your female grad students to volunteer to babysit your adorable kid/s, and of course they can work on their thesis proposal after the children are in bed for the 3rd time that night.

Needless to say, since at the time we didn't believe in the exploitation of either old people or young women, we went with fall-back option 3, which was to spread the word in our neighbourhood. Pretty soon we had amassed a list of 5-6 bright, affable and enthusiastic middle and high schoolers, all from well-to-do families. We scheduled hour-long appointments with each of them, over a period of a couple of weeks. We then hit the parenting websites and, after plagiarizing freely, soon compiled a short list of 30-40 of the most important questions to ask a potential babysitter, leaving time for discussion at the end. An extract from our list follows:

7. Why do you babysit?

8. What do you like about babysitting and being around children?

10. Have you taken any babysitting or first-aid courses?

11. Do you know CPR or other emergency procedures?

12. Do you have any experience babysitting children my child's age?

13. What are the ages of other children you have watched?

14. What kind of activities do you enjoy doing with children? What type of activities would you do with my children? How would you pass the time with them? What do you like to do with them to keep them amused?

16. Tell me about your school life. Sports? Activities? Grades? Do you like school?

17. What do you do in your spare time? Any hobbies, other jobs?

18. What do you want to do after school/college?

19. What days and times are you available?

24.. What would you do if my child refuses to listen to you?

25. Have you ever had an emergency situation arise while babysitting? If so, how did you handle the situation?

26. Can you tell me about the best child you ever babysat for? How about the worst?

28. How do you soothe a crying infant (or an angry toddler)?

35. Do you have any questions for us?

Then we watched them play with the kid.

After a couple of these sessions, Isa said that no matter what the parenting blogs said (that it was vitally important for both parents to attend the interviews) she was sure I could handle it by myself and I could just share the Excel spreadsheet with her later.

Those hours I spent interviewing and getting to really know the people to whose hands I would be consigning my offspring, those hours were the closest I got to actually getting someone to babysit my kids.


Exhibit A: A sample weekly schedule of the average half-awake semi-human middle schooler:

M: Hockey practice

T: Music lesson

W: Hockey practice, every other week band or orchestra (Oh, so you can skip hockey practice occasionally? Oh no, because Coach says it is doubly important for me to attend the other practices since I am missing so many already due to soccer. Soccer?). Plus, weekly math test on Thursdays that I have to study for.

Th: All the rest of the homework is due on Friday and my parents really don't let me do anything those nights, which is when I get to see Dad. Oh and rowing.

F: Hockey practice, I guess? Yes, I am sorry, somedays practice is cancelled, I'll let you know if that happens.

Sa: Oh that is OK, in any case, what with Isa's working during the week Saturdays are the nights we would most like to go out. Well, this Saturday is kind of the last opportunity for me and my girlfriends to have a sleepover, so I can't do it this Saturday. {\typeface\grovelling12pt How about later, say in October?} Oh, in October, I almost forgot, our travel team away games start, and then on the 17th I am auditioning pan-flute for the Erie County Youth Orchestra and the first weekend of November I am playing in a concert.

Su: Sundays, how about Sundays? Sundays is dinner with Grandma.

Do you really want someone who can't make even their school Lacrosse team to watch over the vessels of your future glories?

Exhibit A': A sample weekly schedule of the average half-awake semi-human middle schooler before Title IX:

M: Available to babysit

T: Music lesson

W: Available to babysit except every other week band or orchestra. Oh and before Title IX girls didn't do math.

Th: All the rest of the homework is due on Friday and my parents really don't let me do anything those nights, which is when I get to see Dad.

F: Available to babysit

Sa: Available to babysit Except, this Saturday is kind of the last opportunity for me and my girlfriends to have a sleepover, so I can't do it this Saturday. In October, on the 17th I am auditioning pan-flute for the Erie County Youth Orchestra and the first weekend of November I am playing in a concert.

Su: Sundays, how about Sundays? Nobody goes out on Sundays.

Exhibit B:

$8/hr, the parents' perspective: That is 50% more, all tax-free, than Barbara Ehrenreich earned working for Gualmart and almost double the rate earned by double-shift working Mexican immigrants trying to send money back to feed their families or build a garishly painted house in Tchixabomba.

$8/hr, the potential babysitter's perspective: I barely break-even paying for all the chatting and texting I would have to do. Lets' see, 4 hours for their dinner and movie, I would earn like, about 40 bucks, but in two hours I can wheedle a new iPod nanomegaplex from mom and dad for "between occasions". Did they sign me up for hockey practice? That assistant coach is like sooo awesome.


Now, we have much more success with Option 4: school-rich college-poor students. Our interview question: Are you available tomorrow?

Sunday, October 25, 2009


As I drank the last of the last Yuengling I heard a squirrelly voice call across the parking lot, “Them cliffs are called “Indian’s Jump”. Used to be a Gas station here called that.” I walked up to this 60-ish white guy sitting in his retiree car, on the far side, “Isn’t that restaurant down the road called that?”
“No! No! The gas station was right here, this fruit stand’s been here for over thirty years, but the gas station’s closed down - all boarded up. You can drive a road up from behind those houses to the top of them cliffs, you seen them?”
“Yes, my friend and I were climbing on them today.”
“You can drive to the top, you bin that a way? They say some Indian was being chased and jumped off them cliffs. There are some caves back there too, you can walk in them, I ain’t been there but they are there.”
“That’s interesting, we didn’t see any caves but we were up on the rocks.”
I noticed a small dog in the back seat, eating what looked like the remains of a hamburger and fries off the front armrest.
“There is a cave right in town, you know the Methodist church, there is a cave runs right under it starts in the back. Tunnel goes right under the church. You can go in with ropes and all. George Washington’s cabin is right across the street, you been there?”
“No we haven’t been in town much, just walked up to the base of the cliffs from this end of town.”
“General… is buried in town[i], with a big cannon mouth-down sticking up, you seen his grave? Lots of battles here during the war, as kids we found an old cannonball in our yard and all these people go around with these machines looking for old bullets near the church. Man from New Jersey scattered his ashes over the cliffs.”
I didn’t say anything but he continued, by way of explanation, “See he was born here but he told his New Jersey wife to scatter his ashes over here so this plane was flying around those cliffs.”
His wife walked back, laden with groceries, got in the passenger side and took over, “Lived here all my life and never been up there.”
“You should go, they say there is a road that takes you up all the way to the top.”
“Is that factory up there still working?”
“I think so.”
“They say there is a nice view from up there.”
“Yes it was a nice view when we climbed up to the top.”
“The’re snakes there, rattlers.”
“Yeah? My friend has been climbing there for two years and not seen any. We did see this beautiful orange and black turtle though.”
“Copperheads too, but I’d rather a rattler than a copperhead, you know what a copperhead smells like? Smells like an old cucumber, that’s what.”
“If I smell an old cucumber there I’ll be sure careful.”
Now the husband interjected, peeking across through his wife’s window, “I ain’t much for this spelunking but I was in Texas, where Elvis is buried, Elvis Presley.”
The wife asks, “You heard of Elvis, you born in this country?”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Don’t look like it.”
Don’t doubt it, with an empty beer bottle in one hand, grey bandana tied over longish straight black dirty hair, limping across the parking lot holding an ice-bag to my torn hamstring with the other.
“But I’ve been here fifteen years.”
“Oh so then you know about Elvis.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of Elvis, I listened to his music back in my country, in fact I saw him there.”
Pleased smile, “Oh you did?!”.
“Just a couple of years ago.”
“I thought he was dead?”
“So did I. Goodbye, my friend is waiting.”

[i] No major War of Secession battle was fought in Cumberland and I couldn’t find any record of any general having died there during the War, though two Union generals were abducted by Confederate Rangers before being safely returned to their local fiancées. The only reference I could find to a War of Secession general buried in Cumberland is to Brig. Gen. C.M. Thruston, who died there during peacetime in 1873 and is buried in Rose Hill cemetery, which is not near any Methodist church. Only Generals who died on the battlefield were honored with a mouth down cannon half-buried at the spot.

A Diré

Durante mi visita de vuelta a Tombuctú, viajé a Diré con mi hija seisañera, a instancias de mi madre, para presentar nuestros respetos a mi abuelo. Utilizo esa frase intencionadamente. El siempre se mostró remoto durante mi niñez y, en las pocas ocasiones en que tuve contacto con él, fue demasiado autoritario para que yo le amara mucho. Diré está al suroeste de Tombuctú, en la parte más poblada de Malí. Muy diferente de la region del Norte, que es tan despoblada que ni siquiera Michael Fay la ha sobrevolado aún, y eso que ha sobrevolado África entera. Diré está en una curva del río Níger, aguas arriba de Korioumé, donde habíamos abordado el barco. Si Naipaul no hubiera basado su libro en otro lugar, lo podría haber basado en Diré.

Mientras nos disponíamos a subir al barco la multitud había permanecido silenciosa (el equipo de Costa de Marfil acababa de eliminarnos 3-0 en un partido clasificatorio del Campeonato Mundial). Hasta las malolientes cabras parecían desalentadas. Cuando por fin conseguimos meternos, me encontraba muy incómodo por lo estrechos que eran los bancos. Tenía una rodilla doblada contra el respaldo del asiento de delante y M estaba sentada en mi otra rodilla, la cual sobresalía al pasillo. Esa pierna me impedía caer al pasillo desde mi medio asiento, el cual me había ofrecido mi vecina, a pesar de que yo no hubiera hecho el más mínimo esfuerzo de pedírselo: yo ni siquiera lo había visto. Ella se había deslizado hacia el interior, apretándose a su vez contra su vecino, que se había movido un poco encogiéndose de hombros, como disculpándose. Me trajo a la mente el autobús del aeropuerto de Chicago: más de 20 asientos, pero 5 personas grandes y sus maletones, ocupando dos sitios cada uno no dejaban lugar para nosotros. Haga Ud. los cálculos.

Cabras malolientes. Hace 15 años, antes de haberme ido de aqui, nunca habría utilizado ese adjetivo superfluo: el olor era el mar en que nadaba. Ahora me estaba ahogando en él. Me di cuenta que miraba a la gente de mi alrededor con cautela, sospechoso, después de haber sido estafado por el taxista tuareg en mi propia ciudad natal. Cuando nos hubimos sentado con el equipaje el me había dicho, despectivamente, sólo dos palabras: "¿Tarjeta verde?". Me recordó una frase que mi amigo indio solía repetir los viernes por la noche en los bares de Madison: "El perro del lavandero no pertenece ni a la ribera ni a la casa.". En el barco, yo miraba con envidia a una fotógrafa española, tan claramente a gusto, tan contenta de estar aquí: toda sonrisas, sacando fotos, prestando su cámara digital a un joven quien, con timidez, le hacía preguntas. "Sonia Villegas", decía su tarjeta. Sus fotografías no se habían vendido aún, pero tenía muchos seguidores en la red.

Al rato M bajó de mi rodilla (la cabeza nudosa de la cabra entre sus rodillas le había proporcionado diversión para un buen rato) y pasó a través de la multitud, acompañada del hijo del cabrero, a mirar el agua de color café insipido, tanto ella como él colgando sus cabezas y hombros a través de las rejas sin protección. M estaba entusiasmada, y buscaba hipopótamos en el río, aunque yo ya le había explicado que, aún si hubiera hipopótamos, en todo caso probablemente sólo se encontrarían aguas arriba, en los pequeños afluentes. Ella insistiía, "Pero ví una foto en Panoramio, papá, los ví, más hacia el océano." "¿Hacia Tombuctú?" "¡No! En la otra dirección!" Inútilmente, intenté explicárselo otra vez mas: " Querida, no hay hipopótamos en Malí ya, tal vez río arriba en Guinea". "Pero yo los he visto!" Ella había aprendido poco antes de nuestra salida de Madison que el nombre de nuestro país tenía algo que ver con los hipopótamos, y una vez aquí, me ví obligado a limitar, a un total de 10, su colección de monedas de 5 francos con el hipopótamo en el dorso. Durante la semana que había estado aquí, M había aprendido algunas palabras de sus primos, y ahora se comunicaba felizmente con el hijo del cabrero. M, que nunca había aprendido ni una sola palabra de bambara en los EE.UU., que había rechazado mis intentos mas desesperados de enseñarle, que había encontrado la complicidad en la risa de su madre, mi ex, quien nunca aprendió a decir ni siquiera mi nombre.

En Diré, al acercarnos al muelle, el cabrero sacó su móvil y empezó a regatear el precio de sus cabras.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Blood and shit day

"How was my birthday last week?", you ask?

Well it was a blood and shit day. Maya was off from school so Elsa, Maya and I had lunch together in the kitchen. Maya finished and asked whether she could cut herself an apple which she has been doing with the slicer. I said "Sure!", and jokingly, " Don't cut any fingers!". A couple of minutes later, w/o a word, she ran upstairs and I started up curiously. It was only once she got up that she started howling, probably from seeing the blood. I rinsed her hand once, elevated it and tried to stanch the flow - which only coagulated when I used 4C powder. In the midst of all this Elsa had been headbutting us trying to see what happened to her didi and "Waz dat?".

While I was bandaging Maya in the bathroom, Elsa said she had to pee. I told her she knew what to do, so she took off her pants and diaper, sat on the potty and peed. I cleaned her off and turned back to Maya, who I now discovered had cut two fingers; there was so much blood I saw the second cut only in the midst of cleaning up.

Meanwhile Elsa ran off to play in the blue room. A few minutes later, she came back and said very urgently and worriedly, "Daddy, tengo pupu." . Since her diaper was off anyway, "luckily" I thought, I just sat her on the potty. Then she immediately said "Done, done!".
"What do you mean "Done, Done!"?" "Como que "done, done"?"
" I've finished!" "Ya he acabado!"
"But where?" "pero, donde?!!??"
"In the blue room!" "en el blue room."
Of course.

So anyway, how was your day?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Letter to Tom Ashbrook and On Point on "Polanski"

In response to an interview with Henri-Levy and Ferraro:

I'd like to state that I am in favor of extraditing Polanski and making him stand trial. There are three points I would like to make:

1) Even though his victim has pardoned him, which she is welcome to do, she should no longer interfere with the criminal case. In India, bigamy is illegal for Hindus and it is a crime for Hindu men to have more than one wife. However, it can't be prosecuted and has almost never been prosecuted because only the injured party or someone with standing in the case can file a police complaint or file charges. In the case of bigamy, this translates into this responsibility being put on the first wife, who is all too often either submissive, subjugated or financially totally dependent on her husband.

2) Ferraro points out that Polanski's status should not affect the decision to prosecute or not. However, hypocrisy in prosecuting crimes or in access to justice is nothing new: when the Americans sign on to the International Criminal Court, and begin to prosecute those Americans who broke the law on torture (be they ex-Presidents or film-makers) and those soldiers and mercenaries who continue to commit crimes in Iraq and cooperate with international justice, perhaps it will then be easier for the Europeans to swallow the Americans' sanctimonius arguments about "no one is above the law".

3) Polanski should be tried not because "he is vile" but because he has broken the law. Judgments of character should not interfere with judgments of action - lest we fall into the fascist and hierarchical trap of letting the "good" people off the hook for their misdeeds - ranging from massacres during fascist Spain to rapes by high caste men against low caste women in rural India.