Category Archives: Thoughts

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.

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.

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*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

the-unit-circle1

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.

Why Mind our Manners?

Apart from the joy in just witnessing my daughters growth from a 19 inch rather helpless infant to the 42 inch bright, beautiful and fully conversant five year old she is today, one of the great rewards of fatherhood for me has arisen from the constant need to revisit and call into question those principles which were ingrained in my own mind during those same formative years.  Recently, my daughter has been asking “Daddy, why are there so many rules and why are they always made by the grown-ups?”.  “Actually” I said, “There is only one rule: stay safe and healthy.  All the other rules are just to help you with this one and that is my job; to keep you safe and healthy.”  Once in awhile I am brilliant and I was pretty satisfied with this answer.  Still, I am constantly questioning the rules I make and the practices I try to encourage and It supports a lot of real thinking to explain why I think my daughter should do this or that at any given moment.  Much thanks to Popeye for setting such a fun example about why iron intake is so important, but for the rest of the billion why’s, it takes some reflection on things we, as parents, have merely assumed for a long long time.  Why do I have to clean my room?  Why can’t I finish my homework after I play?  And Why must I mind my manners.

To be honest, my daughters manners have been impeccable as of late, so pristine in fact that I’ve had to wonder why we regard them so important a tool as to spend all this time cultivating them.  My answer?  Manners are an advertisement.  Advertise-verb: to describe or draw attention to.  Manners describe and draw attention to the benefit one gets from knowing us in any capacity.  If you are applying for a job these days, you know a well crafted cover letter can be far more important than the contents of your resume.  You want the salutation, body, and signature of this letter to reflect not only your capabilities but your esteem for the company and the position you are applying for as well.  The details of your qualifications are to be found in your resume.  The province of respect however, it is the sole duty of the cover letter to address.

This is the purpose of our manners then.  To premise our actions with the promise of respect.  Let our consequent behavior define our integrity but let our manners at least start us out on the right foot and get us ‘in the door’.  It has been said that ‘ it doesn’t matter what people think of you’ but this statement is quite in need of modification.  Better to say I think, that it only matters what certain people think of you.  We are a collaborative society, humanity, and it is always to our benefit to cultivate the interest of those who promise to further our goals.  Manners then, are also the quintessential social networking resource that help us both identify  and make ourselves known to those we should associate with.

I consider myself a musician, a trumpet player, before anything else and I have absorbed several mantras from my teachers.  ‘Practice makes permanent’ I will cite for the purpose of this article ignoring others like K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple stupid) that are not so relevant.   It is to our benefit to be courteous on line at the grocery store, for example, if for no other reason than that it keeps us in shape to exhibit good manners when it matters most.  As a side note, you never know when it matters most and are continually making a first impression.  The guy on line behind you could be your future employer or the person who introduces you to your spouse.  Practice your manners every chance you get.  It is the only way to make them permanent fixtures.  I have cracked enough high notes to know this is true.

Give credit where credit is due.  It’s only polite.  Recently, a waitress (in her 40’s I presume) observed me pushing in my chair after dining at her table.  “Your mother raised you right.” she said.  Some weeks later, after I held a door open for an older woman she said “Thank you very much.”.  “Don’t thank me” I said overcome again by brilliance.  “Thank my mother.”  It made my day, the opportunity to say such a thing, as I like to think it made that woman’s day to hear it.  Nothing ventured nothing gained.

And so my dear daughter, I tell you this.  First of all, never start a sentence much less a paragraph with ‘and’ like I just did.  And always mind your manners.  Are they the key to success?  No, those would be oxygen, water and food in that order.  Somewhere along the line however, we find ourselves at liberty to act as we choose.  Say please and thank you every chance you get.  Say may I instead of can I; it will distinguish you.  At the very least, with minimal effort you’ll have offended no one.  At best, you’ll enjoy a more fullfilling life by noticing and being noticed by those that practice the simple discipline of manners.  Now will you please clean your room.  I am afraid that you will trip on one of your toys and hit your head on the bookcase.

HTML-Bridging the gap between human & machine

Amazing.  Having outgrown the customization options of the wonderful free services here at wordpress.com, I decided to venture over to their .org sister site.  Minutes later I was (virtually) knee deep in HTML tutorials and today, a mere 18 hours later I’ve written pages and pages of code defining an attractive and fully functional web-page.

I will take about 2% of the credit for this, give another 8% to the age I was brought up in for preparing me, and give the rest to the genius’ that have developed this code and the mechanisms necessary to decipher it.

I suppose I’m what ‘they’ call a newbie and I’m sure the learning curve begins to level off significantly from here on in, but that’s just the way I like it.  Entice me with instant gratification and then toss me to the wolves and see how I fare.  How could I fail though?  The language is so damn logical and, who knew what that magical menu item “page source” was for on your browser.  Learning HTML is much simpler than teaching your five year old to read is all I have to say.  Sound it out?  Sure, that works about 10% of the time.  Do you know how many different sounds the letter ‘a’ makes?

<HTML>-one tag, one meaning.</HTML>  Brilliant.  The only challenge is planning ahead and remembering to close all your “‘s and <‘s.

It is truly a credit to our great minds and not a thing to be taken for granted that we have developed a language so powerful.  The syntax is such  that a human can begin to write it with little practice and a computer can understand it provided you ‘dot your i’s and cross your t’s’ so to speak.

I don’t even have a web-host yet much less a reason to publish a site.  I’m only writing to celebrate the awakening I’ve had.  If I wanted to I could do this, or that, or this-and-that….and it would show up in your home for $6.95 a month.  Currently, I don’t have any monthly bills in the single digits and most, to tell you the truth are in the triple if not quadruple digits and so I’m enticed all over again.

All I need now is some inspiration.  Hmmmm?  What to publish and why?