Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Season's Greetings

Merry Christmas! I hope you're not offended that I used the C-word, but in my defense, I am not a particularly religious holiday observer. I attend Christmas Eve church services when we are at one mother's house or another, but this holiday has always been about presents, decorations, family, and goodwill in my book. You show me a day when every store in America is closed,* and I will show you a secular holiday.

I suspect Christmas gains at least some of its power from its ties to the winter solstice and the beginning of a new year. Combining the message of peace and goodwill with the reflection and renewal of year's end creates a potent cocktail of emotion. Evergreen foliage, drinks made from eggs and cakes full of fruit, red, green and gold color scheme -- it's a Technicolor holiday for sure.

Life is a chain -- a line made of circles -- and this is the time when one link is closed and the next begun. Not coincidentally, December and January see more funerals than any other months of the year. (The most births are in August.)

There is comfort in the constancy of the seasons, and a reminder that history repeats, or at least rhymes.  Boxing up an old year and opening a shiny new one flavored with Christmas cheer brings a sense of relief and hopefulness, despite the fact that exactly nothing has changed except the date. Our traditions fortify these feelings.

I haven't written as much this year as some others, either professionally or here. I have always been a cyclical journalist, so I am neither particularly surprised nor distressed. Writing for me is inherently reflective, and I have been looking forward and outward this year, acting more than thinking.  My career change to academia inspired a great deal of self examination. I feel now like I am finding my identity, and steadily becoming a more competent professional me. My home life is as pleasant and stable as it has been at any time in my life. In short, I am currently too happy and boring to have much to write about.

But life is change, and this year is likely to see its share. A number of potential disruptions are floating about, personally and professionally. Career opportunities, home projects, unexplained rashes. I may buy a new car. And there will be the unexpected gifts from the fates. The quiet times never last forever, partially because I get bored. I try to savor the constancy while it lasts.

I hope you have a great holiday season and a wonderful 2015. Let's be careful out there.

* With the exception of Asian restaurants and movie theaters, of course.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Infamy passing

It has been three years since the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association officially disbanded due to the advanced age and ill health of its remaining members. Their dwindling numbers at the commemorations is a tangible reminder that the event that defined my parents' world -- and to a great extent mine as well -- is on the verge of receding into history. Within a decade, or maybe two, all who remember the worldwide conflagration will be gone, or entombed in rapidly failing bodies.

Image from here

I don't think we can imagine what December 7, 1941 meant to this country. We like to make comparisons to 9-11, and the general idea is probably similar, but the scale of the attack and ensuing conflagration make 9-11 look like a convenience store robbery by comparison. No one said, "Go back to the mall and try to live normal lives" on December 8th. The nation transformed itself in a matter of months into a weapons factory of almost unbelievable productivity. Factories were converted (in many cases literally overnight) from making cars, stoves, or clothing to production of bombers, artillery, and parachutes. Millions of men left farms, factories, and offices to join the fight, and millions more women shed their aprons to replace the men at work, or wear different uniforms.* Everyone was expected to do their part, and those who shirked were labeled bums, or cowards. Roosevelts and Kennedys fought and died with everyone else, though they probably wore better fitting uniforms than most.

More Americans died in an average two-week period -- and on a few unfortunate single days -- than were killed in ten years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army Air Corp (forerunner of the Air Force) lost about 80 heavy bombers and over 600 men in a single raid. Over a million Germans and Russians are believed to have died at Stalingrad alone, and best estimates are that more than 20 million Soviet citizens and soldiers died during the course of the war.

When it was over, much of the industrialized world was in ruins, with the notable exceptions of the United States and Soviet Union. It is no coincidence that those two nations dominated commerce and politics for the next half century. The first salvos of the Cold War were fired even before the war in Europe was concluded, and more than one Allied leader recommended pushing the Soviets back within their borders. If America were not still embroiled in a vicious battle in the Pacific, they might have tried it. As it is, some strategic German cities and facilities were bombed in the closing days of the war expressly to deny them from the communists.

I spent several days recently with a colleague who grew up not far from Berlin. His parents were about the same age as mine, and the war shaped their lives absolutely. The habits they formed were imprinted so strongly that they have not faded to this day.  For instance, if there is food on their table it must be eaten before anyone gets up. Leftovers are not a luxury they could afford.

I try to take a few minutes to reflect every year on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Some years go better than others.) It is a day commemorating sacrifice and war, situated between major American holidays of gratitude and peace. The people who experienced that war learned to be thankful just for living another year. Peace was a tangible goal to work toward, not an abstract concept discussed in church.

The Pearl Harbor generation shaped our world, and our expectations of our world, for better and worse. The world -- and Fox News -- will miss them.

* This surge of responsibility, and disillusionment when it was unceremoniously taken away at war's end, planted the seeds for the Women's Liberation movement.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Good Craic (Part 2)

When we last saw our intrepid travelers, they were dealing with an unexpected itinerary change. After leaving the bored, gum-snapping ticket agent at the Aran Islands Ferry office unsatisfied*, we returned to the Doll's Cottage to take advantage of our remaining hour of free wifi and some informed advice. We consulted with Sean and his other guests (a crazy-for-hiking German couple, and a nice American school teacher traveling with her two adult children), and decided we would check out Bunratty Castle and then spend the night at Loop Head, unanimously declared the most beautiful place that no one goes to in Ireland. We set the GPS for Bunratty** and headed back toward Shannon for the second of what would end up being four times.

Bunnratty is a fully restored Edwardian castle surrounded by historical buildings, livestock, and agricultural machinery. Think Jamestown or Williamsburg, but quite a few centuries older. It is a miracle that we managed to get this picture of the castle with no one in front of it. One of the guides told us that she sees a thousand people on an extremely slow day. They have medieval dinners in the evenings. I think it's blackbird pie and typhus, but I didn't look at the menu that closely.

After a drizzly but pleasant couple of hours at Bunratty, we made our way to Loop Head via the Coast Road (aka the scenic route). We were bound for a "wonderful B&B" Sean had recommended at Carrigaholt. We were almost there when we realized he had never told us exactly where it was or what it was called. Fortunately, we started seeing signs for a place called Glencarrig B&B. It was getting late, we were tired and a tiny bit grumpy, so it seemed good enough.

It turned out to be better than good enough. Luke and Mary Aston live about a mile from town, and Mary runs the Glencarrig guesthouse for her husband's charter fishing business. Had it been summer we probably couldn't have gotten a room, but in early October we were the only people in the place. The guesthouse is separated from the main house (connected by the dining room), so it was very much like having a cottage to ourselves. Mary recommended The Long Dock for dinner, so we headed back to town.

The view from our room at Glencarrig. It is hard to believe that this whole country isn't covered with condos. 

Downtown Carrigaholt is three pubs and a stop sign, and we were at the end of a long day. We really weren't looking for much except edible dinner and sleep. It ended up being our favorite night in Ireland. After a relaxed supper of local seafood, Biscuit asked about local music. Live music shuts down with the season in all but the most tourist of towns, but we asked anyway. They sent us next door to Morrissey's Village Pub. There was no music, but before we could turn around the locals called us in, made a spot in the center of the bar, and treated us like long lost friends. We had a wonderful night talking about life in Ireland, life in America, what sort of snacks sheep would like (nuts), big tech companies, fracking, and it gets a little fuzzy after that. We may have had a pint or two too many -- at the insistence (and expense) of the locals.

After a slow start in the morning and a much needed full breakfast, we drove off to see the sights of Loop Head. Once again, the pictures can tell the story better than I.

The lighthouse at Loop Head. It is every bit as lonely and beautiful as this shot might lead one to believe.

The Bridges of Ross. There used to be three bridges, but one fell in the sea.

The coast at Loop Head may not be quite as spectacular as the Cliffs of Moher, but it was close, and we didn't see a single tour bus while we were there. 

The parking lot at the Bridges of Ross. We spent close to an hour there and never saw another person. There were three cows, but I believe they were locals. This was typical of our time at Loop Head.

Our last stop in Ireland was to be the Dingle Peninsula. We had originally planned to start the drive to Dingle somewhat late in the day from the Aran Islands ferry, so we scheduled an overnight stop in Ballybunion to break up the drive. More gorgeous coast, this time with golf courses. More good food and local music.

Ballybunion is a golfing resort that is perhaps not as popular as it was before the crash. Consequently, there is plentiful lodging, quite a few pubs (open and closed), and of course beautiful coast, ruins, etc. The women's beach is to the left here, with the men's beach on the right.

This is getting long again, so I will save Dingle for another day. I assume you quit reading it ages ago, in any case. There is only so much of someone else's vacation that any of us can stomach. Since you won't be paying attention, I'm definitely going to talk about you in the next post.

* No, I mean we left unsatisfied from our visit. Not that she was unsatisfied. Because, well, that's just not going to happen, know what I mean? What? We're not doing phrasing anymore?

** Bunratty is the setting between "stun" and "electro-convulsive therapy".

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The good craic

Biscuit and I try to take a trip every few years around our wedding date to congratulate ourselves on continuing to put up with each other. This year we chose Ireland as our destination. Biscuit has wanted to visit the west coast of Ireland since she saw The Quiet Man as a girl, and I am all about rocks, ocean, and pubs.

We didn't want to spend the whole time in the car, and most Irish roads resemble bike paths, so it was apparent from the start that we wouldn't be able to see the whole country, compact as it is. After a ton of internet research (hers), and a few ill-informed opinions (mine), we decided on stays in Galway, Doolin, and Dingle, with a side trip to the Aran Islands and an overnight stay in Ballybunion.*

The trip was super-relaxing, I didn't hit anything in the Skoda (look it up), and I'm full up on scenery for at least a year. I will let the pictures do (most of) the rest of the talking. We took over a thousand photographs between us, and at least half of them are worth seeing. Here are some of my favorites, with a few shots thrown in for narrative purposes.


After a surprisingly comfortable British Airways flight from Dallas to Heathrow, we caught a surprisingly uncomfortable Aer Lingus flight to Shannon, the "other airport" in Ireland. They lost my bag somewhere along the way, and by the time we finished filling out the paperwork, customs was deserted and we walked out of the airport unmolested. After a bit of a wait at the rental agency, we headed off to Galway, with me trying to remember to stay on the left side of the road.

Shannon airport from the rental agency car park. There is a Radisson hotel that is actually closer to the terminal than this, out of the frame to the right. We stayed there on our last night in Ireland. As hotels go, it was very close to the airport.


We spent our first two nights in Galway at the Park House Hotel. The hotel was well located, with private parking (which we really came to appreciate in Ireland) and helpful staff. My bag arrived about four hours after we did, so I didn't have to spend ten days in the same pants. We were asleep before it was dark both nights, awake through the middle of the night, and asleep again through the morning, which kept our time wandering the city somewhat limited. We did manage a nice drive around Connemara, and even had time to find Nora Barnacle's house.

Galway is the fourth most populous city in Ireland (75,000 and some), a college town, and a seaport since 1124. The River Corrib flows through the city and into Galway Bay.

Did I mention I like pubs? This one is across the street from John F. Kennedy Park, and served the best hamburger I have had in a while. Our hotel was across the street about halfway up the block. 

It seems about half of Ireland comes here to shop. This area between the park and the sea is restricted to foot traffic for several square blocks. I mostly bought beer. And an umbrella.

Doolin and the Burren Way

We left Galway on the third morning and drove down the coast to Doolin in County Clare. Doolin is known for traditional Irish music and is very near the Cliffs of Moher, so it's a pretty popular tourist destination. Luckily for us, the tourist season ends on October 1st, and the crowds were fast disappearing. The town consists of a harbor, three pubs and some wool-centric souvenir shops. Since it's too warm for sweaters where we live, we focused on the pubs. We enjoyed some good food, great traditional Irish music (we even tried to dance once), and the best stout I have ever tasted.

We stayed at Doll's Cottage B&B in Doolin, owned and operated by Sean O'Connor. Sean's parents Gus and Doll had owned Gus O'Connor's Pub, a fixture in town and less than a hundred yards (or "meters") from the B&B. As an itinerant chef and storyteller, Sean is an ideal host, as long as you like to listen and don't mind opinions. We had a blast, and he was very accommodating, even offering us a ride to the Cliffs of Moher to start our hike. The room was generally clean, with a few dusty spots in the corners that let you know it was the end of a long tourist season. This was common with the accommodations on our trip. I had the impression that all would be spic and span again come Spring.

For our full day in Doolin, we walked from the Cliffs (about 3 miles distant) back to Doolin village along the Burren Way. I can't begin to do justice to how simultaneously relaxing and stimulating it was. The weather was grand, and there were sheep and donkeys besides. Combined with the pub experience the night before, this had to be our favorite 24 hours of the trip.

The Cliffs of Moher, a breathtaking stretch of coastline. The combination of active erosion, strong winds, and poor survival instincts send a few people over the edge every year. The authorities finally relented and put some barriers in the most heavily trafficked sections. 

This is reputed to be the landing spot for Harry and Dumbledore in their search for a horcrux. I didn't see the cave, but I assume the entrance is concealed by magic.
O'Brien's Tower at the Cliffs of Moher. You can hardly throw a sheep in Ireland without hitting some medieval structure or ruin.

The view along the coast toward Doolin village. The village is near the center of the distant coast. The harbor is toward the left of the frame, 

In case the seaward view isn't holding your attention, this is what the other direction looks like. Biscuit and I talked a lot about what it would have been like to grow up in one of these houses.

Donkeys! You can see that they are already walking toward us, hoping for carrots, or beer or something. Also, cow butts.

Looking back along a section of the coastal path. As you can see, we have left the barricades far behind.

Doolin village. Gus O'Connor's pub is the two story building to the right of the frame. Doll's House B&B the reddish house with the bay window. I think that's Fitz's Bar at the right edge but it was always dark when we were there. And people were drinking.
The next morning we were scheduled to travel to the Aran Islands and spend the night on Inis Mór. Unfortunately, we woke to rain and tropical storm force winds, and were disappointed to learn that the ferries would not run "for at least a couple of days." It was by far the biggest disappointment of the trip, and we were left with 36 hours to fill.

Whatever would we do? Could we find something else fun to occupy our time? Would the 2 euro umbrella we bought in Galway survive? How many times would I go to the wrong side of the car before remembering it was right hand drive?

Find out in the next installment of The Good Craic! (This is getting long, and Biscuit is growing tired of me crippling our internet connection uploading gigantic pictures, so I will take up the second half later.)

*Do you love the names of these towns, or what?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Kids are the future

This past Thursday I was privileged to evaluate fifteen or so student proposals to "deliver news to communities using social media." The contest was conducted through the Mass Communication* School, with the winning proposals receiving a cash grant, presumably to help complete the project.

I learned a few important things. First, this group of Mass Comm. students are ambitious, innovative, and as dedicated as one could reasonably expect of 20 year olds. Their proposals were generally well thought out, though they had a blind spot when it came to creating original content, or understanding why commercial entities would not be excited about someone else aggregating their original content for free.

Another thing I learned was the virtues of being able to do everything on one's phone, without ever having to look up, rely on another device, or interact directly with another person. Seriously, I heard this repeatedly, to the point that I was a little frightened. I knew that these kids relied on their phones more than old people believe can be healthy, but I didn't realize that the people shaping tomorrow's media believe heartily that this is a good thing.

Perhaps the most important thing that was confirmed for me was that reading is boring.  I heard repeatedly how tedious it was to wade through New York Times articles, long e-mails (with bullet points, no less!), or even verbose Facebook messages. A minute is entirely too long to watch a video. We should be able to put the salient points of any news story into a clip no longer than 45 seconds, and usually more like 15.

I really don't know what this means for our media future, but I know that it seems like what we see will be shorter, more immediate, and more personal than social media and smartphones have wrought to this point. Good luck, young ones.

* What used to the Journalism School.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Just words

I feel surrounded by Death,
and the Promise of Death.

Too many dear to me have lost friends,
and mothers, sons, and fathers,
in what seems the space of an afternoon.

Others have been sentenced, and
now they wait.
And I wait with them,
counting under my breath.

I cannot help.
My cup is empty
in the face of such loss.
Their pain overwhelms me.
I fear my own weakness.

My thoughts move unbidden to places where this
much death and more is truly the work
of an afternoon. Families and friends
wiped away, each day after day.

How do they do it? How do they stand?
How can a soul face so much death and live?

Ebola, ISIS, Russian Separatists.
They are only words to me. Pictures on a screen.
But every day they deliver Death,
and the Promise of Death.

Call it tragic.
It is the Way of Things.
These are the
rules of our existence.

So, this is middle age.
Perhaps I should have taken more
risks in my youth, though I am
not sure what else I could have done.

I will recover. I will find my feet.
I will help as I can.

But it won't be today.
Today I am paralyzed by Death,
and the Promise of Death.

Image from here

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Are you ready for some chaos?

Back to school time is my least favorite season of the year. There, I've said it. It's not that I don't like the approach of Fall. It's my favorite season. And I don't really hate the return of the academic year. I try to appreciate all of my days, valuing each as the gift from Bokonon that it is. Some days are easier than others, but generally I feel pretty good about the results.

But, being on a major college campus during the transition from summer tranquility to the busiest time of the year comes with no shortage of aggravations. Like the first cool breezes that foretell the arrival of autumn*, the precursors show up about a month in advance. Advanced orientation begins for incoming students, and one starts to see guides walking around campus holding large numbered placards, trailing several dozen lost looking former high schoolers, still sporting the latest styles of their home town.

By two weeks before school, college-sponsored camps and programs begin, and traffic around campus starts to pick up. The organized orientation groups are replaced by family groups, the parents regaling their kids with outdated wisdom and stories of past college glory. A short round woman and her short round son** stopped me in the student union a couple of weeks ago, and she demanded to know if there were anything to eat in the building besides McDonalds and Einstein Bagels.

Me: "Sure. If you go through that door there is a place where you can get a built-to-order salad or sushi."

Them: (blank stare)

Me: "Further on there are plate lunches, po-boys, and other sandwiches.


Me: "You will also find Panda Express, Chick-Fil-A, ..."


And they wandered off without another word. This is a pretty typical -- and thankfully not that common -- interaction. For the most part it's people meandering from one side of the sidewalk to the other, or stopping dead in a group in the middle of a hallway, squinting at their phones.

Next comes rush week, generating hordes of identically dressed hopeful Greeks-to-be. The surreality of the whole thing is evident in the array of Hawaiian shirts, jerseys, and whatever other ridiculous garments the participants are required to purchase and wear. This is also when it starts to get hard to get a meal or cup of coffee on campus.

The green flag drops on move-in day, when every street on campus is infested with bumper to bumper Suburbans and U-Haul trailers packed with more crap than will ever fit in a dorm room. Crosswalks become kill zones, and the exhaust from a thousand idling SUVs provides the little extra push to turn the humid August air into toxic steam you can breathe. On the plus side, I am thinking it could give me superpowers.

After a month of this, the actual start of classes is almost a relief. Almost. Traffic now backs up several miles from campus, and every sidewalk and passageway is filled with students in a great hurry, most going the wrong way. I won't leave my office for at least two weeks, and it will be a month or so before Thirsty Thursday infects the rest of the calendar, and attendance drops by a quarter or so. By the middle of October, enough students will have stopped going to class that I will be able to walk the campus again. I might even be able to get lunch if I don't go between 11:00 and 3:00. By February, many will be back in their home towns or working full time at Chili's, and I will be looking forward to summer.

*Which won't actually show up here for another two months.

** Seriously, I thought they might be Weebles.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Research Abides

Our Center hosts a two month research program every summer for thirty or so undergraduates, and a lesser number of high school students and teachers. It's a surprising amount of work for those of us who volunteer as mentors, but is also a fair amount of fun, and always satisfying. The students come from all over the country, from colleges of all descriptions.

My mentat this summer is a student from our school who just finished her freshman year. She is intelligent, ambitious, overprivileged (drives a nicer car than I do), and reminds me of my favorite philosophy professor's observation that, "no one on Earth knows more than a college sophomore." She had a great time and tied for first in the poster competition, but that's not important right now.*

I do all of the grocery shopping. Image from here.
We built a rapport, since she exudes the insecurity inherent to being nineteen and I am generally awesome. During one of her daily drop-ins to my office she mentioned that I had acquired a nickname among the summer students. She said something about her mentor, and several of the students replied, "You mean Jeff Bridges?" She is too young and normal to know which of his roles had likely inspired the comparison, but I knew immediately. I guess there are some things we really don't live down.

* And don't call me Shirley.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Finding your passion

This is commencement week at Large Southern University. Young people around campus are busy gluing glitter to their mortarboards, figuring out how to conceal booze under their gowns, planning their graduation blowouts, and realizing that they should have been looking for a job already.

The last time I cared about who was speaking at commencement was my own graduation, but I am sure whoever it is this year will exhort the new graduates to "follow your passion."  I remember a news story published last year that centered around this universal commencement advice. One new graduate, concerned that he had not yet found his one true calling, sought advice from an economist about what to do. As our young protagonist pointed out, some people find their passion early in life, while others search for decades, or forever. (Spoiler alert: this is another area where economists were sure they could provide an answer, but in the end were as clueless as the rest of us.)

Follow your dreams, no matter what others tell you. Now put on this identical garb and line up to receive a certificate of your worth as a person. Image from here.

I could have been the poster boy for the (vocationally) passionless. After abandoning uninspired attempts to live up to the potential that people constantly told me I possessed, I drifted through several careers, pursuing goals of the moment, and prone to fits of depression. I realized later that my problem was not that I didn't have a passion. The problem was (to quote a friend) that I felt like a raging failure because I didn't have a passion, and everyone else had one. Didn't they? A lot of my friends had Volvos and college degrees, so I assumed they had driving ambitions.

The first days of Spring of the worst year of my life found me unemployed, almost unmarried, far from friends and family, and an unwelcome guest in my own house. I loathed myself, my life, and my prospects more than I have at any time before or since.* By the time my birthday rolled around I had divorce papers,** a crappy apartment, a crappy sales job, a few pieces of donated furniture, and an old station wagon with a slow leak in the right rear tire.

By the Fall I was back in school, and working odd jobs to pay the bills. My apartment was still crappy, but I had a new tire, and designs on the hot girl at the opposite end of my building. I had also stopped worrying about finding my passion. I was so busy trying to survive, and working to accomplish my next objective, that I really had no time for self-absorption.  I was content with the satisfaction that came with learning something new, acquiring a new skill, or making a new friend. I learned to enjoy my own company again, and to appreciate the days as they passed.

Along the way, I fell in love with computer science. I realized that my passion had always been learning new things, understanding how the world works, and thinking hard. CS is a perfect fit. It's not that I only care about computer science because I stopped worrying about my passion, but I do believe that focusing on what I have and enjoying who I am, rather than what I wish I had or who I would rather be, has made it easier to stay committed and enthused. Corny, I know, but no worse than "follow your passion."

* Much better now, thanks for asking.

** Served on my actual birthday. The ex claimed it was an accident, but my lawyer was certain it was intentional.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The mother of all days

When I called my mother yesterday and asked her how Mother's Day was treating her, she replied, "I'm having a wonderful day. I have all my children here with me, except one."

This is hardly a first for my mother. It is actually an improvement over all the years we drove hundreds of miles to be home for Christmas, only to hear, "It's just a shame Eldest Brother couldn't be here." A double-edged guilt sword that would make any mother proud, it admonished Eldest Brother for his absence, while letting the rest of us know that our presence wasn't quite enough to make this one count.

One of the blessings of growing older is that these too revealing pronouncements amuse us now. They are almost a family tradition. This sort of thing frustrated me greatly when I was younger. The worst years were those when I was old enough to see clearly what was being done to me, but powerless to stop it, despite the fact that it had been years since I had needed to borrow money from my parents.

Now I feel the years counting down, and I know that too soon I will have only memories. On the occasions that my siblings and I gather we will reminisce about our years as decorations in my mother's holiday tableaux. And we will miss her.

Be nice to your mama whenever you can manage it. She gave you everything you will ever have. If you don't believe me, just ask her.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Science for the hard of thinking

I went to a lecture on quantum computers last Thursday, given by a famous Canadian molecular chemist.* Despite being a professional computer scientist, I know fuck-all about quantum computing, and I have to admit that this hour and a half did little to change that. I mean, I know probably 85 or 90 percent of the words this guy used, but I don't think he was using them right. I felt like I was listening to someone read Lorem Ipsum while they flipped through Powerpoint slides of B-2 bomber schematics.

I was in good company. Of the fifty people in the room, only one seemed to be following along, and he was clearly a vampire, which I consider cheating. (Tall and very thin, pasty and pale, indeterminate age, hair like Bill Compton, you do the math.) Two others recognized a concept and asked a question, but they were obviously grasping and we pitied them.

Computer scientists generally don't know much about quantum computing, even though it's supposedly our future, which makes it fun to bring up in faculty meetings and watch everyone try to fake it. In fact, the only people who know anything about this seem to be physicists or molecular chemists.

In spite of all that, I quite enjoyed the talk. Freed from comprehension, I was able to focus on the trivia I found interesting, and marvel at what science has become.

First, I think we should establish -- and I can't stress this enough -- that quantum anything makes no sense whatsoever, and quantum computing is no exception. I felt a lot like someone trying to imagine what bathrooms would be like if we were built inside out. So even when I found a familiar concept it was immediately inverted and set on fire. Under water. It sounds like quantum computers will not calculate things so much as tell us all the things we could calculate if we had that kind of time, and then pick the correct answer from a set that never existed.

I did get a few interesting (to me, at least) tidbits, though I couldn't begin to tell you how they relate to the topic, or even what the topic was, if I'm being honest. It all started with a thing called a neutron interferometer. The idea is simple really (clearly a lie, but always how they start these things).

This apparatus is machined from a single crystal of silicon that costs north of 50,000 Canadian dollars. After months of machining, it is practically guaranteed not to do anything useful. (Image from here)

First you take a single crystal of silicon** about the size of a football, and machine most of it away. The idea is to get exactly parallel surfaces that are precisely spaced and smooth to the atomic level. Since this is plainly impossible, almost none of them work. Apparently this guy has a cabinet full of these things that are good for nothing, but much too expensive to throw away. The fun part is that no one tells the grad student spending two years of his or her life creating this thing that it won't work. They let it be a surprise.

Recently someone invented a machine to address this issue of non-workiness. The part I remember is that it uses a single cut facet of a large diamond to grind away 6-8 angstroms (ten-billionths of a meter) of silicon on each pass. After (I assume) about a millennium, you will have a working interferometer. I got a mental picture of someone's engagement ring stuck in this gigantic laser-driven Dr. Evil death ray, but that may not be exactly what it looks like. If it works out, they expect the graduate student suicide rate to decline precipitously.

As you can plainly see in Figure 1, the hypothetical neutron does or does not go one way or another as it passes through each  blade. Once the non-existent particle passes through the apparatus, assuming it has possibly taken the path we have not observed until now, we will be able to tell something. I guess. Figure 2 shows the graph generated by the passage of the midi-chlorians through the aether. (Image from here)

The idea behind this thing is that you shoot an individual neutron (a ridiculous idea to begin with) at one end. The crystalline structure will cause the neutron wave form to deflect one direction or another. Because a magic crystal is stuck on one path, you will be able to tell something about which way the non-existent neutron went once you look at it and it starts to exist. Or something.

One more fun fact. These things are crazy sensitive to vibrations and temperature change, so they spent six years and a crap-ton of money building three spring-mounted nested rooms and a special table to eliminate virtually all external interference. About the time they finished, someone figured out that if you just add a couple of extra fins to the crystal thing, noise wouldn't be a problem, so the room is unnecessary.

The guy also talked about some lattice of carbon and chlorine atoms that I think was supposed to be the computer part. There was something about stable free radicals and electron spins effecting nuclear spins, but by then I was feeling lightheaded and it all gets a little fuzzy. I never did figure out how that part connects to the neutron cannon we started out discussing.

I probably shouldn't admit it, but I love this part of my job. Every day I get to talk to people who are doing crazy shit with government money that not a hundred people on the planet understand. There is not much of it that you can do in your garage anymore, and most people think the work is preposterous, but if we ever get our flying cars it will be because of these guys.

* I know, contradiction in terms, right?

** The stuff that Star Trek pizza monster was made of, not the stuff they put in boobs.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Up for air

Didja miss me? I did.* I should probably make up some story about traumatic amnesia, or accidentally hiking across the border into Crimea and being taken into custody, but who has that kind of time?

In fact, I have spent most of this past year doing things. Not particular things. The focus has been more on the doing. I tend to write when I'm feeling reflective, and -- oddly enough -- not so much during creative periods. My medium of creation is source code, grant applications, project collaborations, and business lunches. My inner child is sent to his room, and the storming part of my brain is kept on a short leash. I think very little about myself during these times, and go days at a time without so much as glancing in a mirror.

Eventually I start to feel ways about things again, and the urge to put something down on paper, or whatever this is, returns.  I have felt it coming for a while now. The culmination was probably the trip home for my uncle's funeral last week. He was a bit of a self-important blowhard and alienated a lot of people, including his kids, but somehow his passing seems to have washed much of that away. We had a wonderful time catching up with relatives who haven't spoken in years, and my uncle's shortcomings barely came up. Except for his toupee. We talked quite a bit about that.

There is a lot changing in my professional life right now -- turning of the academic year, new management, shifting roles all around -- and I will be shifting my priorities as well. Hopefully, I can use the uncertainty to break some bad habits, and maybe even become less habitual over all. I like being productive, but it's very hard to live in the moment going full speed.

* I never really planned to stop posting here, any more than I planned to write this post since before about five minutes ago. I may not write another one for a year, for all I know. What I do know is that I like having this outlet when I feel like writing, and for now I plan to keep it.