Monday, December 31, 2012

To be a cat

It must be really nice to be a cat.

I think about it a lot, about the feline excitement when the humans open the front door.  You put a paw out, and the tip of your nose out.  Adventure is calling you; you stop to sniff it and feel the breeze of it in your whiskers.

The cat adventures that cats go on throughout the day; stalking through the neighbors' gardens for the scurrying, squeaking things to hunt.  Pouncing atop fences and exploring, seeing the sights humans hide from each others eyes and all the secrets of backyards and under porches and inside garages.  Wandering to the woods, and hiding up tress or under holes when strange humans and dogs appear, then back out, to stare cautiously and curiously at the dancing water of a creek.

The human is making aggravated human noises at you, as your wet nose and twitching whiskers are tasting the adventures before you.  So you turn your lamping cat eyes at the human in pity, at the poor human things that never hunt and never climb or jump or pounce, and merely open your doors and cans.  The human makes more noises and starts to close the door.

But you tense up, staring in to the bright light of the yard.  You hesitate; crossing the threshold, again in to the unknown, leaving behind the familiar for the wide world outside.

"Cat, will you move?" the human yells.

And as the heros in the legends who received the questing call, reluctantly you leave behind your home; you answer to adventure, allow yourself to be swept in the hunting and prowling it affords, and wonder if you will return, later in the day, the same cat as when you left.

Monday, December 24, 2012

What IS Santa?: a proposal for a modern understanding

For as long as I can remember, every Christmas, I have been confused by what exactly Santa Claus is.

Historically, Santa Claus is St. Nicholas of Myra, a Christian archbishop in modern-day Turkey who lived during the Roman persecution of the Church and was present at the Council of Nicea.  He was claimed to be a wonder-worker, and was also well-known for his anonymous gifts to the needy.  He has historically been honored on the 6th of December, and because of his generous reputation convents and monasteries began a tradition of sneaking out at night and delivering gifts to the poor. (see here, here, and here for references, the middle one being especially fantastic)

Among the hundred or so other things of which he was patron saint, one of them was sailors.  For this reason, sailors would often find themselves back home on the 6th, and be able to give a present obtained at sea to their children "from St. Nicholas".

That all makes sense to me.  Santa was a really cool guy who loved the poor and Jesus, and he was such a great guy we still do nice things for children and the poor because of him.  "Here's an extra toy, son, in honor of this really great guy."  Awesome, sign me up!

What doesn't make sense, though, is the weird Santa of American folklore, the guy who lives at the North Pole with a cadre of elves, who flies around in a sleigh pulled by magic reindeer and sneaks in to your chimney to deliver gifts to all the kids all over the world.

I mean, what is he?

goblin --> elf, Great Goblin |-> Santa
This is literally how I understood
this as a child
The Night Before Christmas, arguably the progenitor of the modern mythofigure, describes Santa as a "right jolly old elf".  As a kid, I took that to heart and assumed Santa was like the Elf King by virtue of being the tallest and fattest of the elves, and that makes him in charge (I guess the same way the Great Goblin in the Hobbit is king of the goblins).

Saturday, December 22, 2012

In Defense of the Perpetuum Mobile

Somehow, I stumbled on a series of YouTube videos on perpetual motion machines.  They are very fun.  The videos mainly consist of two types:

  1. Scammers looking for a laugh trying to trick gullible people into wasting their time building them, though secretly there will be a hidden engine or off-screen fan providing additional torque to the device.
  2. The people who fall for these scam designs, and their own self-imposed scam designs, who are honestly trying to build a perpetual motion machine and honestly think they have built a machine that runs forever.
You get a lot of failed designs, obviously.  Technically, you get all failed designs.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How to Prep for Doomsday: You Won't Need Guns or Food When You're Dead.

According to one poll, at least 10% of the international population thinks the world is going to end on the 21st/22nd of this month.

I can't understand why you'd think that, first of all.

The Mayan's had some good knowledge of the position and movements of stars in the sky, sure, and incredible considering how little they apparently knew about much else.  But they also didn't know that the planets moved around the sun in elliptic orbits.  Or what stars were.  Or that gravity was a thing.  Modern astronomers exceed their knowledge on how the planets and stars behave in the same way string theory exceeds doing addition on your fingers.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Quick Thought After Seeing "The Hobbit"

I just saw the new Hobbit movie.

I liked it.  It was good and enjoyable and done very well.  The story was wonderful, the animation was wonderful, and most thankfully of all the hobbit protagonist was an actual masculine hero and not a mincing whiner crying all over himself for three solid hours.  You should go see it, too.  It's well worth the ticket price.

But then after you've seen it and gotten over how awesome it is, come back and I have to ask a question.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Ending that Would Have Made Harry Potter

I've spent a lot of time criticizing Harry Potter.  Just before the last book was movie-fied, I watched all of the movies on some HBO marathon special with my family, and spent the next several months abusing the series to anyone who would let me talk about it, for about as long as they'd let me talk about it.

I have recently finished reading all of the books (thereby eliminating that excuse for fans to ignore me), and my opinion of the books was elevated slightly.  It was.  The people who pestered me in to reading them have convinced me that Rowling put a good story together with good characters.

The books will obviously be around for a while, essentially owning their own table at Barnes and Noble, and may get inducted in to the Fantasy Hall of Fame with Tolkien and Lewis, and so no matter what I say the books are already a classic.  And no matter what I say, Rowling is the millionaire author with seven books and eight blockbuster movies, while I just have an internet connection.

But I think she really dropped the ball in the last book.

The ending we got was, basically, the ending that everyone would have expected from the very first chapter of the first book; it's the ending we would have expected from only the knowledge that it was about a prophesied chosen one and a powerful Evil Wizard set on destroying the world - no further details needed.  Spoiler alert: the prophesied chosen one wins.

Which obviously isn't bad.  I like the archetypes in fantasy fiction, otherwise I wouldn't read it.  I like "orphan farmboy runs away on adventure, becomes knight, kills dragon, rescues princess, rinse, repeat."  I would not get tired of it, and that's precisely the point of these archetypal stories.

But I think Rowling had the opportunity to do something completely, stunningly mind-blowing with the ending to her seven-book series that would have made even me swear by the series.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Leggings Are Not Pants

Did you know that leggings are undergarments?  Here's an easy test to determine if your legging-inclusive outfit is appropriate or not:

1) Replace your leggings with panties.
2) Would you feel comfortable wearing this in public?
3) If no, then don't wear it with leggings, either.

Pretty simple, really.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My Explanation for All Injuries

I have a small cut on my hand.  A friend asked how I got it.  This was my explanation.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Who Don't Understand Magic

So I've blogged before about how Harry Potter; in particular I've blogged about how the Sorting Hat is either intentionally destroying the wizarding world or completely incompetent, but also a more general point on the nature of the series.

The first book is unmistakably a children's book; when it came out I was 10, and it was the hottest thing at that time.  I was actually in the same grade as Harry Potter when it came out, and all my friends were reading it.  Yet in just the same way the 7th book is unmistakably not a children's book.  For one thing, the later books are all well over 500 pages. They also touch on such topics as death, torture, and making out.

In children's books it is okay that adults are blundering idiots, that kids get away with nearly dooming the entire world to destruction, and that villains and heroes both time their moves exactly with one another.

Yet in adult books, all of that is inexcusable.

So when characters in the 5th book refer back to the events of the 1st book, they should be able to refer back to them and see how they acted completely oblivious to the existence of magic or of magicians who could perform magic, and how the three kids then lauded as heroes actually came inches from handing the key to immortal life to the most evil wizard in memory.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, we meet Harry and follow him to Hogwarts where he learns magic, and watch as he tries to uncover the mystery of what is hidden in the forbidden wing and who is trying to take it.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

And ever as he rode, his hart did earne// To prove his puissance in battell brave

Then freshly up arose the doughtie knight,          
  All healed of his hurts and woundes wide,
  And did himselfe to battell ready dight;
  Whose early foe awaiting him beside
  To have devourd, so soone as day he spyde,
  When now he saw himselfe so freshly reare,          
  As if late fight had nought him damnifyde,
  He woxe dismayd, and gan his fate to feare;
Nathlesse with wonted rage he him advaunced neare.

And in his first encounter, gaping wide,
  He thought attonce him to have swallowd quight,    
  And rusht upon him with outragious pride;
  Who him r'encountring fierce, as hauke in flight
  Perforce rebutted backe. The weapon bright
  Taking advantage of his open jaw,
  Ran through his mouth with so importune might,    
  That deepe emperst his darksome hollow maw,
And back retyrd, his life blood forth with all did draw.
- The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser, Book 1, Canto 11

One of the Chinese students was asking me about graduation requirements.  After listing a bunch of things, a friend also listed "slaying a dragon".  The Chinese student was very confused by this, and so I drew this picture on the office whiteboard to illustrate (notice the thermodynamics scribblings on the top).  Then I felt really good about my drawing skills and decided to post it online.  And then I figured a suitably epic quotation was need to go with it.

In my defense, by the way, let me just point out the correlation between the rise of the University system and the decline in reported dragon sightings.  Coincidence?  Hardly.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wherein Politics is Discussed

Apparently a number of states are talking about secession from the Union.  I live in one of the states with such a proposal.

Frankly, I can't see why anyone else would care?

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Dirac Sea: Turtles All the Way Down

This semester, I am taking a course on relativistic quantum mechanics.  Currently we are covering the "hole interpretation" of negative energy solutions to the Dirac equation.

I've done this stuff before, as an undergraduate, in private study, and in various grad-level courses.  So I'm used to the interpretation being given.  But I decided recently that it is perfectly absurd.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Why I'm Writing In Ron Paul

One day, maybe ten years from now, as I am standing in a breadline to pick up my weekly food rations for my "domestic cohabitation partnership", I want to at least be fed on the moral victory that I, apart from my fellow grumbling peasants in the breadline, that I at least did the most I could, and that I at least voted for the candidate who I actually thought could fix the country.  That I didn't cast my chips in with a candidate I found terrible even while calling him terrible.

At this point, that's the most I hope to get out of this election.

And that is why I intend to write in Ron Paul, and why I have decided not to vote for the other candidates.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Adventures in "Christian Dating"

soure: http://phraseologyproject.comnce upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a beautiful princess, whose room stood atop the tallest tower in the land.  As she grew older and came of age, she began to wish for a valiant knight to come and rescue her from her tower prison.

She wasn't locked up there or anything, nor was she enchanted by an evil witch, nor was there really anything at all inhibiting her movement; she just didn't want to come down until a knight rescued her.  So she sat in her room, and stared wistfully out the window, longing for a knight - any knight - who might come to her aid.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


There's this particular scent that I catch sometimes, that smells like nothing so much as my grandmother's house.  To be around it, it's almost as if I had just walked in off her front porch, on to the atrocious yellow carpeting that had probably been installed in the 70's, and in to the kitchen where she was over-boiling green beans.  It reminds me of sitting cuddled up on her pseudo-suede couch while she read through one of her catalogues, showing me the things she thought were pretty, or pointing out articles in the Jonesborough Herald and Tribune, or trying to explain the bizarre comic strips that ran in their paper, like Snuffy Smith or Andy Capp or the Phantom.  I can barely, nearly even hear her voice - and her sweet country accent - explain her opinion on various characters in the panels.  Sometimes she would save clips from the paper, and after she passed away, as we went through the clippings, my cousin remarked wonder at whether she saved a clip because one side was about the king of England abdicating, or because the other side mentioned a sale at a department store.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Thought Experiment on Entropic Restrictions in Time Travel

In a discussion of time travel, questions will come up about freewill and causation.  I have always found this conversation frustrating because the common view is just so plainly wrong.

The common view is the one espoused in Back to the Future, which arguably is where most Americans get their understanding of time travel. (I guess as opposed to empirical time travel science?)  Everyone knows this so I don't even have to summarize it, but here goes:  You go back in time but you have to watch out that you don't accidentally change anything, because if you change something because then you will change the future.  In particular, you need to make sure that your introduction to your parents when they were in high school doesn't keep them from falling in love, or else you would undo your own existence, the fact of which alone should point out that there is something screwy here.

In this idea, because you can change the future you came from, there are different "timelines".  When you go back in to the past you go to a different timeline or split the universe or whatever and the effects of your meddling will be in the new timeline and not the one you came from.

So why do we think there are multiple timelines?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Berenstein Bears: We Are Living in Our Own Parallel Universe

if only facebook would make this the preview photoWhen I was growing up, all through elementary school we would watch movies and read books about the Berenstein Bears.  I still even remember the theme song for the TV show, mostly, which wasn't a song so much as a guy in a gruff bear voice speaking in rhyming couplets.  If you don't know who the Berenstein Bears are, they were nuclear family of anthropomorphic bears who lived in a tree out in Bear Country and had family-based situational comedy and taught life lessons.  And Ma Bear always wore a blue shower cap.

These bears appeared in a series of children books by the married Stan and Jan Berenstein, that later became a TV series, that got beamed to 3rd grade classrooms all over the country.  Anyone between the ages of 23-30, and maybe more, will know who the Berenstein Bears are.  And they will remember the flashy cursive bubble-letters on the front of every single book and in the opening credits of the show.  The bubble letters that spelled out "Berenstein Bears".

About a year ago, Jan Berenstein passed on, as had Stan some time before.  And appearing in headlines across the internet, I saw "Jan Berenstain Dies at 88".


They misspelled her name.  In her obituary.  Gosh, that's really just morbidly embarrassing.  "Berenstain" doesn't even make sense.

Friday, August 3, 2012

On Reading "His Dark Materials"

I originally wrote this February, 2011 on a different blog, but decided to repost it here.

Lyra and Iorek
This week I read the entire His Dark Materials series.  I started with Golden Compass idly at about ten last Sunday just to give me something non-work-related to do before I went to bed.  I finished the Amber Spyglass yesterday evening sometime.  I put aside work and school and sleep (I slept in my office one night to get more reading time) and to some extent eating as I read through the series.

It's a really, really good book.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

I Hope It Doesn't Have Gears on the Cover...

Note from Reece: this is a guest post by one of my friends, explaining his position in a running debate between ourselves.

That's how you know a book isn't worth reading; if it's got gears on the cover.

A close friend of mine and I have a running bet on the nature of steampunk. I think the premise of steampunk as a genre is inherently flawed whereas my friend thinks the genre has potential to be good, if done right. It seems like a somewhat unfair bet; If he can provide one example of a good and well written steam punk novel he wins the debate, while I can only be right if from now until the end of time no one ever creates a steampunk masterpiece.

I am fairly confident in my chances of winning.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Sorting Hat Is a Jerk

I've posted before summarizing, briefly, why Harry Potter is terrible.  Essentially, it is this: she took a kids-book fairytale world and slowly moved it in to the realm of adult speculative fiction.  Plot elements that existed for no other reason than to entertain and light up the imagination now were expected to conform to some kind of sense, so some kind of sensical explanation was fabricated post-hoc, and those explanations fail to explain.  Partly they fail because the explanations don't really make sense if looked at, but they primarily fail because characters in earlier books behave as though they are entirely unaware of the way that their own universe is supposed to work.

Total Jerk
Let's look at one of the more iconic characters in Harry Potter, the Sorting Hat, which (who?) is charged with sorting first years in to their respective houses.

Either the Sorting Hat is objectively bad at its job, or the Sorting Hat is an actively malicious and evil entity bent on destroying the wizarding world.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fantasy Fiction is Broken

A friend of mine recently "read" The Sad Tale of the Brother's  Grossbart.  I use scare quotes, because he put the book down in to the third chapter, it was just so abhorrently tasteless.  I respect his opinion a lot; he's the one who got me started on fantasy with recommends like the Game of Thrones.  He and I regularly trade opinions on books we've read, and he has yet to steer me wrong.

This book, he gave the much coveted award of Worst Book Ever.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: Batman Punches Criminals

Last night, I went to see The Dark Knight Rises.

I don't normally go to see movies, because most of them are simply terrible.  Typically, they offer nothing more than crude jokes and flashy special effects, with explosions and jiggly ladies.  The times when I do go to see a movie, it is because a friend has harassed me enough into seeing it, and I leave half wanting to demand my friend repay me for my wasted money and my time.  Really, my most enjoyment from movies tends to come from abusing the fans by loudly insulting it
to them.

But not so with Christopher Nolan movies.  Because Christopher Nolan makes great movies.  He makes movies with great depth, yet he conveys the entire message through the visual medium of film.  He effectively uses movies to communicate messages and stories every bit as intriguing as anything you could read in a book.

So I went to The Dark Knight Rises excited, prepped, stoked, ready to see a master do what he has mastered... and I left disappointed.

There aren't any "spoilers" below; nothing like "Dumbledore dies" anyway.  Nothing you couldn't have learned by watching a trailer.  Maybe you'd want to see the movie first before reading, anyway, just to be sure.

Friday, July 20, 2012

From The Magicians

I recently read The Magicians by Lev Grossman.  The story is sort of a commentary/deconstruction of childhood fantasy novels, especially Harry Potter and Narnia.  I suppose I have more I could say about it, but I was really struck by this quote:

Penny chose Oslo -- not even New Oslo, just Oslo, as if they thought they came up with it first -- for its total lack of anything that might distract him.  He arrived in mid-September and had no trouble renting a small farmhouse on the outskirts of town on a one-lane rural route.  His landlord was a retired schoolteacher who handed him the keys and then fled to his winter in South Carolina.  Penny's nearest neighbors on either side were a congregationless one-shack Pentecostal church and an out-of-session summer camp for disturbed children.  It was perfect.  He had found his Walden.

He had everything he needed: silence; solitude; a U-haul trailer packed with an enviable library of magical codices, monographs, chapbooks, reference books, ad broadsheets.  He had a sturdy desk, a well-lit room, and a window with an unscenic view of an unmown backyard that offered no particular temptation to gaze out at it.  He had a manageable, intriguingly dangerous research project that showed every sign of maturing into a genuinely interesting line if inquiry.  He was in heaven.

But one afternoon a few weeks after he arrived, as he sat at his desk, his watery blue eyes trailing over words of consummate power written centuries ago with a pen made out of a hippogriff feather, Penny found his mind wandering.  His large, usually lineless brow crinkled.  Something was sapping his powers of concentration.  Wa he under attack, maybe by a rival researcher?  Who would dare!  He rubbed his eyes and shook his head and focused harder.  But his attention continued to drift.

It turned out Penny had discovered in himself a weakness, a flaw he never would have suspected himself of in a thousand years, an age to which, with a few careful modifications that he would look into wen he had the time, he had every intention of living.  The flaw was this: he was lonely.

The idea was outrageous.  It was humiliating.  He, Penny, was a stone-cold loner, a depserado.  He was the Han Solo of Oslo.  He knew and loved this about himself.

This describes me almost perfectly.  Sometimes I want cloister myself off and just read and study and solve problems, free from the oppressive burdens of human interactions... but I just can't.  I can go with very little human interaction, but very little still isn't none.  And it has been interesting to learn of my own possession of the weakness of needing human interaction.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Kingkiller Chronicles Speculation: The King and Caesura

I am continuing my speculation on the fantastic series, the Kingkiller Chronicles.  I've discussed Denna, the identity of Master Ash, the use of Copper, and what the plan of the Chandrian might be.

In this post, I want to look at the title "Kingkiller", and the name "Poet-killer" given to the sword Caesura.

Obviously, Kvothe is called Kingkiller because he kills at least one king.

Friday, July 13, 2012

It's Got Gears on the Cover!

Antikythera mechanism

That's how you know a book is steampunk; if it's got gears on it.

A close friend of mine and I have a running debate on steampunk.  He thinks it's an inherently flawed genre, whereas I think it's a genre with the potential to be good, if done right.

I've been trying to prove him wrong, to little avail.

The heart of steampunk, from what I can tell, is the fantastical machines.  Clockwork androids, aether flux shields, steam rifles and bicycle-powered flying machines.  It's about a future that might have been, where mechanisms were just slightly less complicated and inventors only slightly more brilliant and insane.  With a hammer, some wrenches, and a lathe, the dedicated professor can pound out some incredible piece revolution of precision engineering.  It attempts to capture that era of uncertainty and excitement that surrounded the huge technical advancements of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Any thing could have been made, anything could have been discovered; the world was young and large and waiting to be explored.

That is a good setting for a genre.  It has so much potential.

Sadly, I've found very little that really captures it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Identity Crisis

Sometimes, oftentimes, I wonder if I actually "count" as a scientist.  If I'm really a scientist, or just someone with high-functioning autism and a love of applied mathematics.

I don't find myself fitting in with the rest of the scientific community, or not very well.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Let Me In: the anti-Twilight

Vampires are evil.  It's easy to forget that simple fact, given the way modern culture looks at vampires:

Vampires aren't evil, they are cool!

They have sarcastic anti-hero personalities, and make witty quips while defying authority.  They are super-sexy and seductive.  They have super strength, and can fly, and make awesome boyfriends.  They can have children, and they can half half-vampire children with mortals.

They're basically a race of superheroes, only they can't go in to the sunlight.

They aren't even necessarily undead, either.  As mentioned, they can give birth to offspring.  When I Am Legend (the book) first came out, it offered a new explanation in terms of a virus, and that has become the stock explanation of not only vampires, but zombies, too.

So it's easy to forget where they came from, and that is medieval notions of the antichrist.

Vampires are evil.

Not the cool, sexy evil.  They are the horrifying, creepy, upsetting evil.  You do not want to be a vampire, or know a vampire, or date a vampire, or have babies with a vampire.

I saw a vampire movie recently that, very subtly, I think showcased this more than anything else.

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Dragon's Psalm

I took this from The Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis.  It is one of my favorite books by him, as it is just so packed with symbolism you almost need a philosophical encyclopedia with you when you read it.  It is the first book written by Lewis after his conversion, and tells the allegorical struggle of a young man from the town of Puritania as he goes on a quest after a vision of an Island.

At some point, there is a miserly dragon living in a frozen waste, living alone over a hoard of gold, and it sings this song to itself.

Illustration by Michael Hague
Once the worm-laid egg broke in the wood.
I came forth shining into the trembling wood,
The sun was on my scales, dew upon the grasses,
The cool, sweet grasses and the budding leaves.
I wooed my speckled mate.  We played at druery
And sucked warm milk dripping from the goats' teats.

Now I keep watch on the gold in my rock cave
In a country of stones: old, deplorable dragon,
Watching my hoard.  In winter night the gold
Freezes through toughest scales my cold belly.
The jagged crowns and twisted cruel rings
Knobbly and icy are old dragon's bed.

Often I wish I hadn't eaten my wife,
Though worm grows not to dragon till he eat worm.
She could have helped me, watch and watch about,
Guarding the hoard.  Gold would have been safer.
I could uncoil my weariness at times and take
A little sleep, sometimes when she was watching.

Last night under the moonset a fox barked,
Woke me.  Then I knew I had been sleeping.
Often an owl flying over the country of stones
Startles me, and I think I must have slept.
Only a moment.  That very moment a man
Might have come out of the cities, stealing, to get my gold.

They make plots in the towns to steal my gold.
They whisper of me in a low voice, laying plans,
Merciless men.  Have they not ale upon the benches,
Warm wife in bed, singing, and sleep the whole night?
But I leave not the cave but once in winter
To drink of the rock pool: in summer twice.

They feel not pity for the old, lugubrious dragon.
Oh, Lord, that made the dragon, grant me Thy peace!
But ask not that I should give up the gold,
Nor move, nor die; others would get the gold.
Kill, rather, Lord, the men and the other dragons
That I may sleep, go when I will to drink.

I think it is beautiful for its ugliness.  It describes a miserable and wretched creature whose obsession is the source of all its misery.  The dragon yearns for surcease from the cold, hungry loneliness that it has caused itself, yet asks for it on its own terms, in the terms that let it keep the source of all its misery and remain essentially the same pitiful worm it always has been.  It does not want any change, rather that the entire world be bent around it and all the men and dragons slain so that it may have the peace it could have if it would just forget about its silly golden hoard.

I think it is such a complete picture of the fallen state of humans, how our own pride and desires generate all of our misery, and how we reject the insurmountable joy of God, being unwilling to let go of our golden hoards.

That's all I have for today.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Kingkiller Chronicles Speculation: the Chandrian and Their Plan

I'm going to continue speculating about the Kingkiller Chronicles.  I have already covered Master Ash and what I think copper is used for.

SPOILERS AHEAD!  Please don't read unless you have read both of the books, and thoroughly at that.

Very early in the first book, before we even know who the silent innkeeper is, we hear about the Chandrian.  From the story, we quickly pick up that they are some sort of evil sorcerers with eery powers.  We learn some weird stuff, like fires going blue and metal rusting, but most importantly is the children's rhyme:

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Physics of a Chess Board

In Through the Looking Glass by the Reverend Lewis Carol, Alice walks through a mirror in her living room and finds the chessboard that normally resides there to be teeming with little chess pieces running around.  Leaving her mirror-house, the entire country around it has been transformed in to a chessboard.  Alice starts as a pawn and has to walk forward one step at a time to the end, when she will become a queen and be able to run as fast as she wants across the country.

While Carol's story is whimsical and fun, what would be the implications of living in a chess board?  What are the "physical laws" experienced by a given chess piece?

So imagine all the universe to be a discrete 8X8 grid, alternately tiled with black and white, and conceive of a chess piece as being a kind of elementary particle in this bizarre chess world.  We will look mostly at the free dynamics of such a chess particle - that is, how it behaves dynamically in the absence of other pieces.

Friday, June 29, 2012

"Magic Isn't Supposed to Make Sense!"

I wrote a post a while ago that, really, was supposed to be about the plausible impossibility of interacting with any sort of "parallel universe", if one were to exist and going there were possible.  So if you found a passage in to Narnia in some old professor's mansion, likely you'd find Narnia very much the way Digory and Polly found it - empty, lightless, and with nothing in it (not even the singing Lion).

However, while going there, I stopped to comment on fantasy fiction, which is how the thought struck me.  Parallel worlds are pretty common, after all.  Sort of in the vein if The Gods Themselves by Asimov (or more like it The Ring of Truth by Lake) I tried to think of a parallel universe that had an entirely different set of physical laws.  Where things behaved totally differently.  I guess it would have been a sort of partial ingress into Level IV multiverse theory?  I don't assert such a universe would actually exist, just that modeling one would be neat.  The goal was that the emergent behavior of these laws would make magic work.  Or something so totally different that we would see it as magic... whereas the inhabitants therein would look at a light bulb from our world and cross themselves to ward off evil spirits.

So contained therein was this idea of "hard magic", analogous to "hard science" fiction.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Kingkiller Chronicles Speculation: Copper

SPOILERS AHEAD!  Please don't read if you haven't read both Name of the Wind and Wise Man's Fear.

I am going to continue posting my own speculation about the Kingkiller Chronicles.  In a spasm of fanboy insanity, I had written up some twenty or so pages detailing everything I think I had deduced from the text.  Recently, in his own blog, Patrick Rothfuss brought up a totally awesome copper knife a fan had made him, noting that it would be good in a fight against a Namer.  Rothfuss said this showed the fans had been paying attention.  I was glad to see that apparently I had been paying attention too, and that others (in the comments) had noted things similar to me on the use and possible function of copper in the books.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Zeno's Paradox and Why It Annoys Me

I have always been greatly annoyed by Zeno's paradoxes.

The reason why is due mostly to my stubborn pride at being ignored when I'm right.  When I was in 10th grade trig, we learned Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise.  The problem so presented is an extremely simple algebraic equation, immediately solvable to anyone who has finished high school.

So in grade school, when I was taught this "paradox", I did solve it algebraically, almost before my teacher had finished reading it from the book, and I told her the answer, and she sort of gave me this exasperated smile and said "Yes, I know, but don't think about it that way."  And ever since, mention of this paradox as anything other than an ancient Greek misunderstanding of mathematics has infuriated me.

Basically, Zeno's paradox amounts to asserting that the geometric series cannot be summed.  Which is absurd; Archimedes was quite proficient at it, even in terms that Greeks would accept.  Some examples are below.  In terms of modern algebra, let $S$ be the sum of a geometric series; then
$$S = \sum_{n=0}^\infty a^n = 1+a+a^2+\cdots = 1+a\left(1+a+a^2+\cdots\right)=1+aS,$$
and rearranging, $S = \frac{1}{1-a},$ the formula you hopefully learned in high school.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Why Harry Potter is a Terrible Series

In modern fantasy fiction, there are essentially two prototypes of approach; that of Lord of the Rings and that of Narnia.  Not that every work will copy one of these or be like one or the other or any other generalization that pedants will feel the need to scold me for, but that there's two basic, classic approaches to fantasy worlds.

The Narnian approach is simple, and usually followed by children's books.  There's some hidden land of fantasy magic, it gets discovered, and you go on a fun tour through your imagination.  It's almost an extended dream sequence.  There's trolls and goblins and witches and elves and fairies and satyrs and... and it goes on.  The magical creatures are there because they are magical creatures and this is a magical world.  Nothing is really supposed to make sense, so much as present a fun escape from boring reality.  The narrative space of the story is just a big bag for holding mythical creatures.  It's fun.  You're supposed to feel wonder at all the incredible surroundings, and not really think about why Medusa moved to New England and why no one has called the cops for missing persons.

It's pleasant, and there's nothing wrong with it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Kingkiller Chronicles Speculation: Denna and Her Patron

This is the first in what may be a series of posts speculating on characters and events in the Kingkiller Chronicles.

SPOILER DENSE!  Contains tons of things from the first two books in the series.  Please don't read unless you've read both books carefully yourself.

As has been noted, the Kingkiller Chronicles leave open the unique opportunity of an unfinished epic fantasy series with a solid and fixed resolution.  We know that whatever happens in the third book will bring us to the Waystone Inn.  We know that Kvothe will trick a demon and kill an angel, and then kill a king, and somehow start the entire war with the Penitent King.  We know that something is going to happen to unleash fairy creatures in to the world.  The whole series has already been written (and is just being revised), so there are definite hints and foreshadows and the material can be trusted to lead somewhere. It's like a murder mystery in that regard.

Seeing the unique opportunity, I decided to wildly speculate, as have so many other fans.

In this post, I will focus on Denna.  It is long.

Monday, June 18, 2012

To Stand on Charn

Since C.S. Lewis showed us a world on the other side of a wardrobe (and perhaps before), fantasy and science-fiction stories have abounded with this idea of traveling to parallel universes and experiencing strange new worlds.  It's almost iconic: awkward teenager struggling in school and with bullies, gets sucked in to an alternate magical world, meets fascinating elves and confronts evil, and finds confidence to face real-world issues on his or her return.

Typical example

So here's my question: how do they interact with matter in the alternate universe?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Virtual Aristotelian Physics

I spent several hours the other day looking up some sort of reference to a computer simulation of Aristotelian physics.

The thought came to me in connection to fantasy worlds.  Good fantasy authors will create their own fictional worlds with different histories, cultures, languages, and religions, similar to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.  Lately authors have started going kind of crazy, and have been experimenting with alternative physics, like flat earths and sentient quanta.

I was thinking, why not Aristotelian physics?  Is it that impossible?  A professor of an old friend of mine, remarking to a room of Thomistic philosophy students, asked why they were so enamored with Aristotle when you couldn't make your car run on Aristotelian physics.  Maybe not their cars, but any car?  Can a car run in a world of Aristotelian physics?
Aristotle with impetus

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Smoke Rings

Last night it dawned on me that I consider the ability to blow smoke rings an essential part of fatherhood.  There is of course financial stability, emotional support, supportive family structure.  If I found out I would soon become a father, I would worry about these things.  And I would also worry about being able to blow smoke rings.

I just would not feel ready to bring a child in to the world before I could blow smoke rings.

Maybe that sounds silly?

When I grew up, my favorite book was the Hobbit, by Tolkien.  This was my favorite book because it was my dad's favorite book.  (I don't know how many times I have watched the Rankin/Bass animated version of the Hobbit, and I don't care how much spectacular CGI Peter Jackson uses, Rankin/Bass' the Hobbit is THE movie version of the Hobbit.  Forever.)  My dad was a huge fan of all of Tolkien's work.  And in addition to gripping fiction and overly-detailed world building, Tolkien was also really good at pipe smoking.

9/10ths of all Tolkien photos in existence
(Seriously.  Do a Google image search for "Tolkien".  Nine out of ten photos, he is smoking a pipe.)

So my dad smoked a pipe, too.

On the back of our old house, my dad had built what we all called the "bonzai porch".  It was screened in, with a built-in water hose.  In the winter we'd cover it in plastic and set out space heaters to keep the plants from dying.  In the summer, my dad would sit on the back porch and smoke an old pipe and blow smoke rings, and my sister and I would play with them.  We'd chase them around as the wind pulled them, or poke our fingers through them, or try to grab them like doughnuts.

And there is something magical about it.  About smoke rings.  The way they float out spinning in to the air, and then pause, hovering, then spread out like a lasso.  It's mesmerizing to watch.

I don't know why that's such an ingrained memory of mine.  When I think of my early childhood with my dad, I think of playing chess and smoke rings.

I sat on my back porch last night, pulled out an old paperback copy of the Hobbit I got at a used bookstore, lit up my pipe, and practiced my smoke rings.  I'm not very good at it yet, but luckily I still have plenty of time to perfect the art.

Why Blog?

I recently decided to start a blog.  This blog.

There's some amount of self-consciousness that goes in to that decision.  Am I doing this because I think I'm so important and brilliant that my thoughts matter to anyone?  Is it conceit?  Is it desperation?  Are people going to see me as self-important and conceited and desperate?

The idea has been rattling in my head for a while to start a new blog.  I say "a new blog" because I have an old blog.  The old blog I started to express theological and apologetic ideas I was exploring at that time.  It was really thick and heavy, and sometimes uncomfortable.  And sometimes mean.

And I wanted to talk about different things, sometimes.

Currently, I am a graduate student in physics.  Going on my third year.  I have been in my research for about a semester and am still learning the ropes.  The research isn't anything sexy, like dark energy or string theory; I use some computer algorithms to calculate electronic properties of crystalline solids.  It's useful. (I have not even begun thinking about what a thesis might possibly cover, so please do not ask when I graduate.)

Sometimes I have ideas pertaining to physics, or science more generally, or to math (I majored in math), and will want to share it.  Nothing groundbreaking or even researched - just thoughts I have.  I might use math to express those thoughts, and if you don't understand mathematical notation then you might just learn something.  I 'm still learning, a lot.

I enjoy reading.  Mostly I read fantasy literature (knights and dragons and wizards).  If I get in to a book, I will cease all activity until I finish it.  Like, I will cut out eating and sleeping.  I got a "B" in second semester quantum mechanics (angular momentum and perturbation) because I started reading George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series the week before finals and ended up not studying and barely sleeping.  If left to my own devices I would just read constantly.

It happens when reading that something in a story strikes me, or that there's an unfinished series and fans are speculating on how it will end (I'm thinking of Song of Ice and Fire and Kingkiller Chronicles in particular at the moment).  I'd like to share that sort of stuff, with whoever would read it.

I'm also an evangelical Christian.  To some of you, that means "embodiment of pure evil".  Fine.  I used to be worried other people in the physics community would think less of me if they learned that, and that it might affect my employment prospects, but I have ceased caring.  If you find me less intelligent because of my religion, all the problem there is on your end.  But sometimes Christian overtones will come out in things I say, when I'm being good.

Anyway, the reason I want to start a blog, is because I want to.  I enjoy talking about certain things and I want a place to talk about them.  I would like as many people as possible to be able to agree or disagree with the things I say, beyond just the usual people that I talk to.  So there.  I started a blog.