Friday, February 27, 2009


I am being berated by my brother right now about how I didn't wear sunscreen and got burned. I did wear it, but not on my chest. Therefore I got burned on my chest. Now I am being yelled at. Literally. By my brother. On the phone. For the last five minutes. Nice.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More Horrible Times in Hawaii

Yesterday during lunch we took a drive out to this place that has "Dragon's Teeth":

We saw something stirring in the ocean:

And saw the ocean with bluffs and surfers:

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bumming in Hawaii

Yeah, being in Hawaii sucks.

Here is are a couple of views outside of my window at sunrise.

I haven't actually taken any pictures at the beach. I will try to do that today.

Don't tell Crab-Mama that Hawaii is not horrible.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Thoughts on big numbers

I thought that I should write something interesting, instead of random rants....

My daughter’s favorite number is a google, which is 10 to the power 100. I tried to explain to her how big a google is, but was somewhat stumped. Let me explain.

Take the sun. The sun is about 100 times bigger than the Earth. Since we are only dealing with orders of magnitude here, let’s call it 1,000,000 km in radius, which is 10^6 km, or 10^9 m. The volume of the sun would therefore be 4/3 pi r^3, which is about 4x10^18 m3. Now, there are roughly 10^23 atoms in a cubic cm of water (I think…). This is 10^29 atoms in a m3. If we assume that the sun is 100 times more dense than water, we get something on the order of 10^31 atoms in m3 in the sun, so the number of atoms on the sun is something like (4x10^18 * 10^31) 4x10^49. Let’s round it off and say that there are 10^50 atoms in our solar system (i.e. add all the atoms of the planets together – the largest of which is 10 times smaller than the sun – and add it to the sun’s number of atoms).

Ok, I am reading this book that says that there are something like a billion (10^9 stars in our galaxy). That means, if the average star is about the same size as ours, there are 10^59 atoms in our galaxy. Now we really stretch things – if you take one of the pictures of a dark section of the sky from the Hubble telescope, it shows that there are thousands of galaxies in each little section of the sky (roughly about 1 million sections of the sky). Let’s then assume that there are 10,000 x 1,000,000 (or 10^10) galaxies out there, each of which is roughly the same size as ours. This means that there are a total of about 10^69 atoms on all of the galaxies out there. Even if we are off by a factor of a million somewhere, we still something like 10^75.

So, to get a google atoms, you need a billion, billion, billion universes.

A google is a BIG number.

BTW, if you assume that the universe is 20 billion years old, the universe is 6x10^17 seconds old. Compared to a google, the universe is a very, very, very young puppy.

Along the same lines, while walking on the beach in Chile, some friends of mine and I tried to figure out whether, in your life time, you breath in the whole atmosphere. Let’s assume that you take 1 breath per second and that you breath in 1 liter of air (which is 10^3 cm3, or 1^-3 m3). This means that it would take 1000 seconds (about 16 minutes) to breath in 1 m3. Assuming that you live to the rip age of 100 (3x10^9 seconds), you would breath in 3x10^6 m3 of air in your life time – 3 million cubic meters of air. Wow!

But, how big is the atmosphere? The surface of the Earth is 5x10^14 m2, while the atmosphere can be approximated to be a layer 10 km high (with uniform density instead of exponentially decreasing density!), which makes the atmosphere 5x10^18 m3 in volume. That means that you breathe in 0.00000000005% of the atmosphere in your lifetime. Yikes!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

In Memory of Paul

He was a good bunny. He will be sadly missed. We hope that his back legs work better where ever he is now.

I wasn't able to break the news to my own daughter, since I had to get on an airplane this morning, and we felt that it would be better to tell her after I left, since it was 7 AM. I have no idea how she is doing. Hopefully not too bad.

A Rant from Seattle

It is interesting how, sometimes, you can get so busy that you can’t concentrate on anything every well. At some point, you have so many things on your plate that nothing can get done. You turn to to-do lists, but still, the interruptions, e-mail, people knocking on your office door, the telephone, all serve to fragment your time to the point in which your switching algorithms in your brain overload. It seems like this is my constant state now. I have been traveling so much, always preparing for the next meeting, and trying to just keep up with the random sh*t that seems to constantly appear.

Example – We have a recruitment event in our department every spring. I helped organize it two years ago. I did such a good job, I was asked to do it again last year. I said no. Fantastic. This year, I get an e-mail two days before the event, saying that the department chair couldn’t make the event, and so could I come and give his talk (welcome to our glorious depart… we do lots of great/fun/entertaining things… if you come here, it is guaranteed that you will be a millionaire when you graduate… etc). I reluctantly agree and add it to my calendar. The day comes, and I show up to give a little speech. Who is there? The department chair. WTF, I say, why are you here? To watch. WTF? WTF? WTF? Come on. Then the next day, he tells two administrative assistants to light a fire under me to take my white boards out of the meeting room, since they have been sitting there for a while (I have 24 hours, or ~something~ is going to happen). While I am trying to prepare for a week long meeting that he is forcing me to go to (where I am presenting about 5 talks). It can’t wait? He is not even going to be there, since he is preparing for the same meeting. WTF?

Another Example – It is time to pick graduate students. I have actually only actively chosen two graduate students in my life. Both of who happen to be women from China. I basically picked the students with the best grades and GRE score. These happen to be women. From China. I am sorry. On the other hand, I have “inherited” graduate students from others. My other student (American male) came to me because the guy that he was working with was not working out. So, I took him on. He is a great student. And he is going to graduate very soon. I am sort of a strong believer in diversity. And, the sad thing is that diversity, in this case, means that I need to replace him with another American (male or female – it doesn’t matter to me.) Indeed, if you count the people in the lab where my students work, there are 4 people of Asian decent and 2 Americans. So, I look through the pool of applicants for Americans. I choose the top couple that have the highest grades and GRE scores and send them e-mails asking about whether they would be interested in working with some old crotchety bastard who happens to do magnetospheric modeling. All of the e-mails come back with something like “can you provide more details on what, specifically, I would be working on” and “I am not admitted yet, so I can’t say whether I am coming to UM.” To the first, I reply “Modeling. The magnetosphere. Magnetospheric physics.” (but more eloquently). To the second, I explain how they need to pair up with an advisor, who will be the one who actually gives them the nod whether they will be admitted or not. More e-mails. More questions. And not right away. They are spaced by a day or two. Come on. Do you want to come to graduate school or no? Quit pussy-footing around and make up your mind. One guy comes back with “I am starting an internship with someone in a few weeks, and after I figure out whether I like what I am doing there, I will let you know.” To which, my only response is “well, I am making a choice now. So, have a nice life.” So, what was my point? I have to spend tons of (fragmented) time dealing with these people, trying to convince them that this place is a glorious Mecca where all of their dreams will come true. Please, let me stroke your ego so you can just go somewhere else after jerking me around for a few weeks. I gotta say, this pisses me off like you would not believe. If you want to go somewhere else, where you won’t get nearly as good of an education or research experience, go ahead. Just stop wasting my time.

I genuinely enjoy dealing with students; graduate students and undergraduate students, both. Especially in a learning environment, in which I can spark imagination in them, or help them accomplish some goal that they would not have been able to accomplish on their own. It is a joy to me. Except when I help too many students. Or am asked to do too much. Then, some invisible line gets crossed, and I no longer enjoy it. And it is not like I enjoy 80% of it, and the other 20% is what pisses me off – it ends up being all of it. Once the line is cross, and the switching in my head starts to malfunction, I don’t enjoy any of it. I despise all aspects of my job. This then creeps into my home life, and I end up despising all of the little requests that my wife and kids make. That just kills me.

I watched the Incredible Hulk the other day (trapped on an airplane – I am writing this trapped on an airplane also). When his heart rate went above 200 BPM, he turned green and angry. That is how I feel when I have something like 20 things on my to-do list. Angry. Very, very angry. Interestingly, I actually get a physical symptom of this too – my eyes start to twitch. What is next - green rashes on my skin?

The thing that I have to try to do is to figure out how to not put things on my to-do list. How can I say no to the assistant who asks if I can talk for the department chair? “No!” But, at the same time, how can you not find a new graduate student? How can you avoid all the crap that comes along with recruiting? I guess I should think about it a little bit and be more intelligent about how I approach the subject. Maybe I make sure that my group web-site is up-to-date, and I tell them to go look at my web-site. If they like what they see, say yes. If they don’t, then fine. I somehow have to be smarter about this whole thing.

The problem, right now, is I can’t think. I can’t form coherent thoughts in my head because I am torn in 50 different directions. How can you catch up and be smart about it all at the same time?

So, instead of working on one of my talks that I have to give in 48 hours (of which, I have accomplished nothing), I am writing in my blog and reading a book. I feel guilty about this, but I just physically can’t work anymore. A breaker has been thrown.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

WTF did I do?

Reasons to not take your family to LA:

1. You spend a lot of money bribing them that they don't need to go to Lego Land (which costs >$200 to get in for a family of 4). We bought 4 wands at Whimsic Alley and a bunch of other crap. But, we "saved" $130.

2. You get a f*cking dog and ship her home with you.

What they hell did I do???? We were supposed to be making decisions that would make our lives easier. Every major decision, we ask "will it make our lives easier or more difficult?" If yes, then we should NOT do it. But, we did it anyways.

Now we have 2 dogs, a bunny, a bearded dragon that won't sh*t to save his life, two fish tanks with 2 and 5 fish. That is an *ss-load of pets. WTF?

Ok, the new dog, Lilly (already named), loves me, while our old dog (Heidi), hates me. She is deathly afraid of men, and won't let me pet her unless I am sitting on the couch or laying down in bed. Lilly, on the other hand, follows me around everywhere. She wants to go for walks with me, and comes when I call her. We hope that she will teach Heidi to be a normal dog.

But, our pets significantly outnumber us. Crap.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


About 2 weeks ago, I was making plans to come to LA for a workshop (conference, meeting, whatever), and went to buy tickets.  They were only a couple hundred dollars, so I asked the Crab-Mama if she would like to come out with the kids with me.  She agreed, so we bought tickets, and now we are all in Los Angeles for the week.  Obviously, we can't do this often, but once in a while, it makes it quite nice to bring everyone along.

Crab-Mama's Mama lives out here, as well as good friends that we have.  So, while I listen to scientists pontificating on why their ideas are the only relevant ones around, the Crablets will be enjoying things like the zoo and Sea World and such.  Well, maybe.  It depends on how much we can actually afford to do.  Maybe swim in Granny-Crab #3's pool for a bit...???

It is funny that the week we come out the LA, the weather turns very nice in Michigan, and crappy in California.  Nice.  Oh well, anything is better than the -10 that we have been experiencing for the last couple of months.  It has been pretty bitterly cold.  Interestingly, I think that I am getting used to it.  Got the really-cold-weather coats (layers of winter coats!), gloves, boots, 3 shirts, etc. to protect myself from the elements.  I am all good.  Not to say that I won't be happy with 40+ degrees.  Maybe I can wear shorts!

Ok, it is 12:24 AM in MI.  I am exhausted.  Crab-Mama just shut her computer, so that is a hint...

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Standing in the Shower, Thinking

As I stood in the YMCA shower this morning, I got to thinking. First, I should point out that the water at the YMCA is not piping hot.

Crab-Mama and I have had many (too many) conversations about people at gyms in locker rooms who walk around buck-naked. To us, it is bizarre. Why would you walk around naked in front of 10-20 other people? Baffling.

This morning, I was once again struck by this thought and it got me thinking about distribution functions and Gaussians (Bell-Curves). The general idea is that most people have similar beliefs or morals or height or weight, etc, but there is a nice (normal) distribution of people that can be described with a standard deviation. For example, the average height of an adult white male is 70 inches. 90% of the adult white males are below 74 inches, and 95% are above 66 inches. The standard deviation is something like 2 or 3 inches in this case. Thanks Google!

The exact same thing is true for our thought processes and morals. For example, most people believe that you should go something like 75 MPH on the expressway. There are a few people who go over 85 and a few people who go under 65, but most people stick to something around 75. If you surveyed enough people, you could figure out the mean and standard deviation, etc, and the distribution function would like a Gaussian. The 75 MPH speed that people go is obviously a function of the speed limit. I would imagine, if you looked at this in terms of morals, you could state that most people believe that it is morally acceptable to go 5 MPH over the speed limit, while 10 is pushing it. 5 under is pushing it also.

For a long time, I never thought of things like this, especially when it came to morals. For example, on the expressway, again. I like to leave a fair bit of space between myself and the person in front of me. Not as much as the government recommends, but more than the average person. I am a statistical outlier in this regard. It actually makes me angry when people follow me too close. I know that this is relatively dangerous and shouldn't be done, but it is the "morally acceptable" thing to do. Look at the distribution functions. If you get TOO close, then you get out of the distribution on the other side, and my outrage would be felt by almost anyone.

This concept can be applied to almost any moral issue. Let's take the biggest moral issue out there - Abortion. While I don't know for a fact that people's feelings on abortion fall onto a Bell Curve, I am pretty confident that they do. I would imagine that most people are centralists in that they think that abortion is basically a thing that you don't really want to encourage, but can see that in some circumstances it is justified. People fall with a distribution around this central idea - some people have an easier time justifying it, while others have a harder time. As you go more out on the fringes, you have people who believe that anyone should be allowed to have an abortion no matter what no matter when. On the other side is the opposite - no abortions for anyone.

I got to thinking about this specific issue because of a line in a book that I am reading. The main character was counting all of the people he knew who had died. He discounted a still born baby because it had never been alive. There are many people who believe that life begins at conception, while others believe that life begins when the baby emerges from it's mother. I would imagine that the vast majority of the people believe that it is somewhere in between these two events - somewhere around the end of the first trimester or when you can hear a heart beat or when the baby could be born and survive (on it's own or doctor assisted?)

It is interesting to me that we can describe the start of "life" by taking a poll of people and putting it at the point at which the majority of people believe it to occur. There is no science in that at all.

For religious people, when does a baby get it's soul? What is a soul? I would have to think that if we believe that people have souls and other creatures do not, then you would gain your soul when your brain is developed beyond the point of animals that do not have souls. Does your soul exist in the cerebellum? If a person is born whose brain is not developed adequately, do they still have a soul? If it has nothing to do with the brain, why do humans have souls and other animals do not have souls? If other animals have souls, do they go to Heaven or Hell? How do you differentiate good and bad in animals that act with instinct? For that matter, how can we judge or even know what is good and bad as human beings? People who act 3 standard deviations away from a mean behavior are considered bad? In many ways, this is how we do judge people. Drinking alcohol is acceptable because a vast majority of people do it. Smoking marijuana is bad because significantly less people do it, and it is not socially acceptable (because less people do it!). Each have severe issues if done in excess and very few consequences if done in moderation, but one is punishable by years in prison and if you don't do the other, you are considered a social outcast.

With many legal issues, we let the people on the extreme edges of the bell curves set our laws. They are the ones that are so morally outraged that they go to their congress-person and fight to have it turned into a law. Most of us are unaffected by the law, so we don't give a crap. We only fight when we are put into a situation in which the law directly affects us or people around us, or ends up being so far out the distribution function that we can't stand for it. It would be nice if people (journalists, congress, pastors, me, etc.) realized that there is not much that separates the vast majority of people in the US. We are all under a bunch of bell curves.

That, to me is interesting. As interesting as why I wear a towel when I walk to back to my locker and why the guy next to me brushes his hair in front of a mirror wearing nothing but back hair.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

25 Things

A few people are listing 25 things about themselves that others may not know about them. Maybe I will try to list them in the order of shock and awe that you may feel when these truths are revealed.

25. I drink Mt. Dew. Pretty much everyday. Twice a day. Rarely three times a day. Non-shocker.

24. I don't like coffee. I like fruity alcohol drinks, but not beer or wine.

23. My wife and I had most of a house built for us, and then we finished it. I personally did the following: cleared the trees; helped put the radiant floor heating tubes in the basement, first floor, and second floor; built the U shaped stairway - both floors and all aspects of the stairs; built a few half walls and railings; installed the hardwood floors on all three floors; did all of the plumbing (supply and waste); installed the kitchen; helped do the concrete counters; cut most of the tile (which Crab-Mama put them down); painted; put up some of the siding; built window trim for the outside; built cabinets for the mudroom; wired the house for internet and phone and cable; destroyed my 30 year old table saw in the process; and got a whole lot of new tools. I am exhausted just thinking about it. I should also mention that my father has done a HUGE amount of work on our house also. Without him, our house would have no window or door trim, no doors, few cabinets, no bench in the mudroom, and many other things would be missing from our lives. Thanks Dad!

22. I don't really like watching sports on TV. Except the Tour de France. In Fast-Forward.

21. I have been married twice. To the same woman. Separated by 6 months. The second one was a fake. Sorry Mom.

20. I don't really like my job. Not really because of my job, but because I take on too much responsibility and get extremely stressed out. I did this as a bagel baker. I would definitely expect it as a professor. I am trying to reduce stress in my life. Trying.

19. I watch TV. I watch a fair bit of TV. I love comedies the best. 30 Rock. Arrested Development. The Office. I love that crap.

18. One of the reasons that I like to watch TV is that I need some down time at the end of the day. I like to sit and turn my brain semi-off for an hour or two. Well, I also sometime work a bit while watching TV. Coding is easy to do during this semi-off time.

17. I wish that Heroes was a better show. I want to love it. I really, really do. The plots could be just a bit better.... The forth season of BSG sucks. *ss. Oh, I guess you think that these things don't state any facts about me, but, I think they do. They really, really do.

16. I don't like to tell people what I do. The typical reaction to my job is to want to leave my company as soon as possible. The second most common reaction is to ask me about astronomy or astrophysics. Both of which are definitely not my field of interest. Or knowledge.

15. I hate travel because I can not bear to be away from my kids. This means that places that are a long ways away, even though they are exotic, are just painful for me to go to. I don't want to be away for that long.

14. I am a slave to e-mail. My Blackberry pretty much sealed my fate.

13. I make noise, just to make noise. Like my son. I am but a child. If no one is talking in the car, I will talk.

12. I love the idea of video games, but I don't ever really play them. I would like to, but I don't. I just don't know why.

11. I wish that I could play an instrument, like the drums or the guitar. I can't. I can barely sing. I sing loud and I sing proud. But not well.

10. I love music. I would listen to music constantly, if my wife liked music. We are truly opposites here - she likes talk radio on all of the time, and can stand to have it going while talking to other people, but thinks that music is very distracting. I can't stand to have talk radio on while I am trying to talk to other people. It drives me insane. Music is the thing for me.

09. You can tell that I am a geek because I include the "0" in front of my single digit numbers. This orders them in the correct order in Unix. Without the zero, "2" comes right after "19", which doesn't make any sense. Except it does.

08. I am mildly allergic to tomato sauce. Fatty foods also tend to do not so nice things to me. So, pizza is the devil's food. It is utterly blissful to eat, but I pay for it. Dear lord, do I pay.

07. I believe my daughter and I are "super tasters". We are both extremely picky eaters. I am pretty ashamed of not being more adventurous with food. I just don't like very much. I pretty much eat the same things at restaurants all of the time. Eating in a foreign country scares the crap out of me, since they may put something on the food that I absolutely detest. Like pickles.

06. I love to bike. I love being on the road and sweating. It is a great feeling. Drinking a Mt. Dew after 2 or 3 hours in the saddle is fantastic. I would say better than sex, but that would be a lie. Maybe better than bad sex. I love when I can eat anything that I want because I burn 1000 calories in a day. Except a Whopper. You can never really eat a Whopper.

05. I used to really love to woodwork. I think that it was teaching me patience. I am a person who believes whole heartedly that you should finish a task 80% of the way done as fast as you can, and screw the last 20%. I will settle for a B, thank you very much. The problem with this mentality is that the last 20% is extremely important in a wide variety of things. Definitely in woodworking. Definitely in science. Patience. I need to learn patience. The problem right now is that building a house cured me of wanting to do woodworking. Now I just want to sit on my *ss and do nothing. Well, maybe blog.

04. I am addicted to schedules. I want to know when something is happening. I want to know what I am supposed to do next. I want to know what to expect. Follow the schedule. Live the schedule. I have a thing for clocks. I am starting to collect them at work. I want a clock in my line of sight, no matter which way I am looking. I don't know, but this might be the opposite of patience?

03. I fear death. That is because I don't believe in God. Or in Heaven. I am sorry. I am just too hard-core of a scientist. I believe that when you die, there is nothing left. That scares the sh*t out of me. If you think about it, there are probably only a few hundred/thousand people who are remembered beyond a generation or two. Everyone else is gone. That is really depressing.

02. I pretty much only cry at the movies. All other times, I go to a place in which I am just angry.

01. I purchased Madonna's first album, and I own almost all of her albums since then. Now you know. The shame. Oh, the shame!