In theory, in reality

I had a dream about a year ago.  At the time, I was wholly enamored of the block-and-tackle; a system of pulleys which affords us an ease of lifting directly proportional to the amount of excess rope you are willing to pull.  In other words, it allows you to lift a 10 pound weight 1 foot by attaching a 5 pound weight at the other end which will be lowered 2 feet.  We attribute its invention to Archimedes.  I and others like to think of him as the father of engineering.

In my dream, I was pulling myself up a rock face.  My rigging, naturally, employed a block-and-tackle.  In addition, I had a spotter at the top who, on my command, would add another pulley to the system lessening my strain.  Of course, for every ounce of exertion I conserved, I had to exhaust an equally large length of rope to get me to the top.  Physics is so amusing.  Energy is always conserved.  There is no free lunch.   I don’t remember how many pulleys were involved in my ascent by the time I woke up but I know for sure I hadn’t yet reached the summit.  I had arrived however, at a conclusion that still makes me smile.

Phycisists, it seems, are fond of ignoring certain variables for the sake of exposing and isolating others.  In the case of the block-and-tackle, one would want to ignore the effects of the friction on the axle of the pulley.  In reality, it would take a little more than 5 lbs to lift the 10 lb weight because some energy would be lost to friction.  Or to put it another way, the 10 lb weight would rise a little less than 1 foot and the 5 lb weight would drop a little less than 2.

But I can still dream as the phycisist can pretend temporarily that friction doesn’t exist.  And so, upon waking, I imagined what it would mean to hoist yourself up with infinite, frictionless pulleys arranged as necessary.  Ha.  So your muscles would feel absolutely no fatigue but pulling an infinite length of rope would get you absolutely nowhere.  Slack forever.  So that’s how infinity and zero know eachother.

Now back to reality.  Time to get up and start the morning ritual.  Make some coffee before considering anything else.  Mmmmmm.  Tasty.  Now consider infinite pulleys subject to friction as per reality.  Ha.  So you could pull infinitely hard but wouldn’t be able to budge the rope a hair?  The opposite of slack.  That’s hysterical to me.

To sum up.  you cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps.  Even with a frictionless pulley, you’re still responsible for some energy if you intend to get anywhere.

Infinite patience

I must liken patience to erosion.  You can not say that they aren’t aggressive tactics, only that they seem passive because they elude time.  Rivers have cut gorges through rock and patience, provided it is practiced religiously, can do the very same.  Time itself has no interest in our meddling’s but, if you can grab hold of its incessant flow, you can make it work for you as you can any other force.

Nature is lazy but that’s not to say it doesn’t accomplish it’s tasks just the same.  Water has no interest in destruction but if you speed up the video tape (so to speak) , it’s seen to cut just like a knife.  Martin Luther King, king of all catalysts said that the time was now.  Of course what he meant was it’s time to pick up the pace.  Things do not happen overnight.  But things do not happen without incentive either.

It is quite a chore to employ patience for the purpose of change.  It requires a seemingly reckless abandon of haste.  Still, we recognize that there are some accomplishments that do not come so easily; some that can not be obtained by brute force.  For example,  no degree of of admonition nor encouragement will make your ice cubes freeze faster.  The process is simply a function of temperature.  And in our lives, some processes ,like temperature, are out of our control.  It is the business of science, as best it can, to control such conditions as it should be our own business to do so.   Take responsibility for your actions and take a moment to think of the actions of others.  This is how I interpret the serenity prayer.

You can not predict the circumstances you may find yourself in, but you do oversee your reactions to them.  This is the only thing we have control over.  Nature gives us processes’ that happen under certain conditions and says, “Here…tell us what the conditions are”.

Ahh, I can not help it.  I am deeply immersed in the study of physics…and of chemistry…and can not help but seek causes for what happens in my life and explanations for how to divert said causes for my own purpose.  I can finally consider myself an engineer but the realization is both a curse and a blessing.  I have the desire to accept the magnitude of the difficulty before me and the sentence of determining the solution. It is with pleasure and great pain that I take on the task.

For some unexplainable reason I have not seen my daughter, the gem of my reality, for some weeks now.  The best solution I have yet come up with is patience.  But what quantity is sufficient for my purpose?  Infinite it seems.


Meta Humor

Humor, in many ways, bears a strong resemblance to the first law of thermodynamics.  Namely, it can neither be created nor destroyed.  Yes, the  comedian creates his jokes but the essence of what makes them funny lies in a process; and that process is either (as chemists put it) spontaneous or it is not….it’s either funny or it’s not.  I’ve heard the phenomenon of humor analyzed in many ways but perhaps my favorite observation is regarding the pun.  Puns, one author says, cannot be invented but only discovered.  To exist they must be already embedded in the structure of our language.  Anything funny, you will find,  is only amusing because of it’s absurd, ironic or otherwise ridiculous relationship to reality.  As such, reality should be regarded the source of humor.  Truth, in fact, is stranger than fiction.

A new phenomenon in the humor market is truly splitting my sides.  To write about it will not seem funny at all but I promise you, if you catch a glimpse of it you’ll be laughing.  That is, after all, the measure is it not?

Every so often,  a phrase comes along and somewhat metaphorically takes on a well defined meaning beyond the suggestion of the actual words involved.  The cliche has become a prominent function of communication and I guarantee you’ll hear one uttered in the next day or so if not in the next hour.  What’s hysterical to me at present, is the occasion when one utters a cliche but actually means it in the literal sense.  The irony just kills me on more than one level hence the term ‘meta-humor’.

Regretfully, I can only offer one example at present  and it is quite an infantile one but I’m certain that many more exist and that they will surface if you wish to notice.  Again, to read about this is not funny but to experience it is…I think.   I was explaining something to my friends tonight and, wishing to convey his girlfriend’s approval of my opinion, this guy said ‘That’s what she said’.  Yes.  It warranted audible laughter (aka LOL).  Childish as it is, that phrase has succeeded in causing laughter on many occasions.  It speaks silently of a reference to something else and that surprising, sudden re-routing of thought makes us laugh.  That, I think is the true stuff of humor.  The irony is, that the whole thing has come full circle.  The connotation of that phrase has become so accepted (in this discrete culture of mine) that to hear those four words spoken in earnest just cracks me up.

Humor is a delightful accident is my point.  It comes about when our mind is forced to crash and laughter is it’s spontaneous result.  It is pre-existent in the languages, cultures and situations that arise and does not exist apart from them.  Today we have at our disposal a whole new encyclopedia of phrases that have taken on a life of their own.  As each is just a combination of words, they’re bound to be uttered literally at some time and, when I’m fortunate enough to witness this, I burst into laughter, uncontrollably.  Let me know if you have had this experience too.

2 simple things you need to do with your 5 year old ASAP

(1) Play for them Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’.  Children love stories, they love music and they love animals and  sometime during the twenty-eight minutes this piece consumes, a magical thing happens.  The clarinet no longer represents the cat but becomes the cat, the oboe is the duck and those glaring, sinister French Horns are as terrifying as meeting up with a real wolf.

Of the senses, hearing is the least reliant on how you are  physically situated**.  If you lift your hand from the table, you don’t feel it anymore.   If you turn your head away from the television you are no longer seeing it and if there is nothing in your mouth, that is exactly what you taste. Enjoying this event however demands nothing but your attention.  Your ears you can’t turn off.

Limited only by the need for a free half  hour, Sarah and I often find ourselves staring deep into eachother’s eyes as the suspense builds.  She clings to me with her arms when the wolf is about to snap and we march triumphantly around the room at the end as Peter proudly presents his accomplishment.  As enriching as other events can be, you just don’t have this same freedom when you’re reading a book or playing a board game.

My infinite gratitude goes to Mr. Prokofiev for affording me this pleasure.  Were the themes not so brilliantly constructed, they would not suffice in capturing a five year old’s attention and I would not know the added delight of catching my daughter humming them to herself while it is not even playing.  The experience ranks among  the deepest connections I could ever hope to have with my child which is why I write of it; in hopes that it happens again somewhere.

**The sense of smell of course has rather broad physical boundaries, however, I would argue that its affect dissipates much more rapidly than that of hearing.

(2) Watch with them BBC’s Planet Earth documentary.  It is one of the most visually stunning programs I have ever seen and the content will both captivate your child’s attention and give you loads to discuss with them as well.  I let Sarah watch it tonight  and had her explain to me what the narrator was saying while I made chicken soup.  I was amazed at how many details she was picking up on.  “Whoaaahhh” she said at one point, “that bug is 20 centimeters long” which is hilarious to me because she has almost no concept of units…making it a perfect opportunity to stop chopping and show her something that is approximately twenty centimeters long.

The segment about caves came on and they showed how stalagmites and stalagtites are formed from limestone.  Then they showed a cave that had become submerged sometime after these alien like features had formed and Sarah said with excitement, “Dad, look at this world.”  Fireworks went off in my head and I turned around to look at an underwater landscape as foreign to me as it was to her.  “But Sarah,”  I said, “This is our world.”  Neither of us could really wrap our heads around this fact and again we found ourselves, happily, on the very same level.

We spend a lot of time as parents, teaching our kids that this is this and that is that and, inadvertently, I think we convey the assumption that we ‘know’ more than them.  At the tender age of 4, Sarah once asked me “Why are there so many rules and why are they always made by the grown-ups?”.  This well posed question stopped me in my tracks and I thought about it…for days and days and days.

As a student of Physics, I have developed a deep appreciation for all the minds that have brought us into the current era.  Einstein however, above all other scientists I know of, harnesses the most childlike wonder about the universe and contains it with a most mature humility.  Our children have very little context in which to judge the things they experience and in this respect, are afforded a relatively limitless potential to understand them, hence we refer to them as sponges.

I truly enjoy embracing these realizations and relish the opportunity to tell my daughter that ‘I don’t know’.  I love for her to see that the grown-ups wonder too and to be by her side as we ‘find out’ together.  As enriching a parent as I consider myself though, it is a fruitless endeavor unless you have a good catalyst to draw upon.  On Earth Day (April 22nd), Disney is releasing its ‘Earth’ movie which features much of the photage from the BBC program.  I can’t wait to take my child though I confess, I’ll probably go alone if I have to.

I am not a very good writer and so I often fail to capture the point.  I love my daughter and to share in her spark.  I love kids in general and to see their spark ignite.   The days go by and their clothes stop fitting and, as the parents of teenagers tell me, the next day they are driving.  While I am still in its presence however,  I can’t help but celebrate childhood and some of those events which illuminate its nature.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie….exactly as it happened.

Pie is to baking as soup is to cooking and if cooking is an art, then baking is a science.   There’s just more chemistry involved in baking and consequently, more potential for your experiments to go horribly wrong.  Making a decent pie however is as easy as…strawberrywell…pie.

Chances are, if you throw some vegetables and appropriate seasoning in a pot of boiling water and leave it long enough, you’ll end up with some soup; edible if not surprisingly delicious.  Trade the pot for a pastry lined pie dish and fill it with fruit and sugar instead of vegetables and salt and you’ll end up with pie.  This is a great discovery for me, who has devoted much more time to fine dining than to the practice of actually preparing food for oneself.

The other day, I could no longer stand passing by the rhubarb in the produce section of my grocery store and so I bought some, with the intention of making the only thing I know of that features rhubarb, namely strawberry-rhubarb pie.  Sounded like a great idea and it was.

Here’s my recipe for cooking in general.  First, think of what you want to eat.  Next, Google the key ingredients and try to hone in on a general plan.  Finally, combine the most interesting elements of all the recipes you’ve looked at, pour yourself a glass of wine, don’t measure anything and begin.

rhubarbToday was the first time I worked with rhubarb and I decided to heed the advice I’d read to peel it first.  I could see how the celery-like stringiness of rhubarb and the squishiness of pie would not go together well.   Of the recipes I studied, the constant ingredients were strawberries, rhubarb, sugar and pie crust.  Variable ingredients included, but were not limited to,  flour, corn starch, instant tapioca, milk and eggs.  From this information I concluded two things.  (1) There is a liquid issue to which starches or gelatins but not both provide a solution.  (2) Some people enjoy a custardy variation.  I incorporated the facts as follows.

You need strawberries and rhubarb.  I used all the rhubarb I bought; what was I going to do with the leftovers?  I used all but the strawberries I needed for my daughter and I to put on our cereal in the morning.  This is as precise a measurement as I made throughout the process.  I love molasses so I poured a bunch of that over the chopped strawberries and rhubarb.  Later, I drained some of it out but this was a mistake;  I should have left it in.  I used it as a partial substitute for granulated sugar and also because I thought it would be influential in the viscosity crisis.  I sprinkled some corn starch on top as well and then sprinkled some more after it instantly dissolved.  I’m glad I did.  I added a bunch of granulated sugar as well as a safeguard.   Regarding dairy, sour cream is delicious so I threw a good amount of that in there too.  Nutmeg?  Absolutely.  Just a little though, and then a turn and a quarter from my sea salt grinder.  Lastly, I totally dug the orange zest idea I read about so I broke out the grater, being careful not to get any of the bitter white pith into the bowl,  and continued zesting until I tired of the chore.   Lastly, I’m tempted to lie, but I lined my pi dish *(see footnote) with  a store bought pie crust, filled it with the goodness in my mixing bowl and tossed it in the oven.  Usually I bake with my daughter and so the dough making is the best part.  Today I bake alone and so I cheated.

stoveAnd now a brief interlude to honor my oven, glorious appliance that it is.  It’s a porcelain Universal circa nineteen-fifty- something by my estimation.  I don’t know if it’s in cahoots with the three dollar oven thermometer I bought  but you set that dial to 400 and that’s exactly what you get…and that’s exactly what I did.

I baked my pie at 400 degrees for fifteen minutes after I remembered to set the timer then I lowered the heat to 350 when I noticed that my delicious pie filling was escaping, drop by gooey drop to the oven floor in audible intervals.  About 30 minutes later I could stand the anticipation no more, and the crust was golden brown, so I removed my pie to let it cool.

Though it is painful, I fully recommend tasting your pie immediately after removing it from the oven.  Your taste buds will not soon recover from the scorching heat of the filling but who the hell wants to wait another 10 minutes after all this chopping and mixing and trying not to peek in the oven every other minute?

Now that your pie is done you’ll want to start drafting a short list of people you intend to impress by sharing a slice of it with.  If you are a single male like me, I recommend including attractive women you are interested in.  Of course, always save a piece for mom and grandma if they are near; you’ll get far more appreciation than you deserve.  The rest, I like to just enjoy by the fork or handfull as I pass by the refrigerator during the course of my day.  It feels kind of like a pat on the back every time you do so.

To sum up, pie is nearly impossible to screw up yet the accolades following its production are gauranteed to be disproportionately in your favor.  So if you have an hour or so to spare, an oven and even a hint at what tastes good, try making a pie;  you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


*My mother bought me a pie dish with the Greek symbol Pi in the center and the first 100 digits of the mathematical constant named after it around the edge.  3.141592654…….

A transcendental day


Last night I opened yet another transcendental Pandora’s box not realizing the irony of the fact that, being 2 o’clock  in the morning it was officially Pi day.   I have this rather unpractical habit you see of trying to resolve ancient mathematical paradoxes in a single evening.  It’s ambitious, while largely unproductive yet educational and entertaining all the same.

While driving home I thought it quite unsatisfactory that the year has a fractional number of days in it and so resolved to look at the numbers and see if anything could be done about dismissing leap years, normalizing the length of the months and things of this nature .  My apologies to Kepler, Galileo and the mathematical community in general for assuming this would be within my capabilities.

Half an hour after I got home I found myself entering data in the excel spreadsheet I’d created to compile all the many categories of numbers I found.  Our understanding of our position in the universe, of course, is a relative one and so even the question ‘How long is a year’ is a subjective one.  Furthermore, none of the lunar months or astronomical years I looked at were divisible by an integer number of days (or even seconds in many cases) and so I found myself once again in transcendental quicksand, with no foreseeable end to the quantity of significant digits that would suffice in pulling me out.

This afternoon I am patting myself on the head thinking ‘nice try killer’.  I will have to rank this excursion with the time I tried to calibrate integers such that Pi and Euler’s constant would be whole numbers or the time I tried to reinvent music by splitting the difference between Pythagorean tuning and Equal Temperament.  I concede for now.  1 is 1 and Pi is Pi.  Regarding musical temperament however,  I’ll get back to you.

I put a spell on you – Nina Simone

This performance, as it should, could not be more haunting.