Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Snow Days

The weather has calmed in Telluride, and the past few days have been filled with warm "spring skiing." Gorgeous views all around all the way to Utah; I will have great fun sorting through my pictures once I'm at home...

One odd thing this year about skiing by the way is how much greater the avalanche worries are compared to years past around the American West because of how quickly most of the snow has fallen in most areas. Usually this is something you usually hear about only in the backcountry and not actual ski resorts, but within the past week one skier was killed at Jackson Hole and another at Squaw Valley (Tahoe), prompting many "good thing we didn't go there this year!" comments from us. (Only second to the "good thing we didn't go to Whistler!" comments on the chairlift thanks to their recent gondola accident.) Telluride hasn't been immune either- our first day here a skier got buried up to his chest in a small avalanche!

Turns out avalanches are really bad for ski resort PR, so as a result this has mainly effected us by how slow some parts of the mountain have been to open its brand new area, Revelation Bowl, because it's above the treeline so the snow has a nasty habit to "slip." After days of hearing charges explode the area finally opened yesterday, which promptly became mogoled (ie bumpy) within hours because everyone wanted their chance at the Bowl. So goes the skier's life, but it beats getting buried!

Alright, that's all I have for now. Except excitingly enough, I saw a porcupine in the middle of a trail today. He looked like my brother when he hasn't bothered combing his hair.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Little Town in the Box Canyon

Because the family that skis together stays together, my family is spending our Christmas holiday in Telluride, Colorado. We're here because Telluride is our favorite ever since we came here four years ago- it's in remote southwestern CO so there are never any lift lines, the mountain has great varied terrain, and the town is exactly what you'd expect out of one in the West where a large fraction of people are still trying to eck out a living. And seeing as this is our 20th year of skiing as a family (we first visited Vail when I was 3, during my dad's spring break in his professor days) trust me, when we say we have a favorite there's experience to back it up!
Today I took an off day to work on graduate school applications due to the cold (1 degree Farenheit when I woke up, aka -17C!), but the weather's looking promising from here on out- particularly fine as our first few days here consisted of snowstorms, as Telluride has gotten ~50" of snow in the past two weeks.
Promise to be back here to post pictures later as the one above is cheating- it's actually from four years ago, but I figure the scenery doesn't change right? (Apologies for the sizing, as the public library here in town doesn't seem to agree with blogging.)

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Two days ago, after one last flurry of final exams and get-togethers, my brother and I packed up my stuff and I left Case for the last time as an undergraduate. The degree is promised to arrive at some point next month in the mail, though I was unsuccessful in my petition of having it converted into radians.

I confess leaving my university and home for the past 4.5 years has been difficult- even now it feels like I'll just be heading back soon after winter break, and my sister assures me I'll feel the same right up to next fall when I realize I'm heading somewhere else. We'll see what that new place will be like, once I learn just where it is, but all I know is it will be very difficult to find another place where it's natural to be on first-name terms with all your professors, where even the dean and department chair show up for your parties, and the university president knows who you are. Being personable never hurt but still, I worked my way quite nicely into that community and feel a bit left out already for leaving it.

But there we are. As a final note, I am happy to say that I got all As for the first time ever (as in, I think a B always slipped in even in elementary school) except this time there were things like upper-level English classes and graduate-level physics ones, so we can argue just how much sense this makes. But to quote my research adviser, "Congratulations. You've achieved perfection just in time to move on."

I was always impressed by how that guy can see through everything I've been working on to say what I should do next, all in an instant. Time to move on. I'll let you guys know where I end up.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

E&M Haiku

Written on my final today-

Maxwell's Equations
Brighten the universe, but
Are there monopoles?

(Don't worry, I wrote other things too, they're just not as exciting to share!)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Last Column Ever

Of "Quarked," at least. Someday I hope to do another, but that will have to wait. For now, though, you have to forgive me my sentimentality because I loved writing my column so dearly I nearly cried sending in the last one.

Anyway, this week's column. I focused on a favorite topic of mine as a writer, favorite words, because most people seem to have at least one or two of them. (Survey of friends revealed words like "brownie," "squeegy," and "cockatoo.") If anyone wants to mention a few of their favorites I'm all ears; here's what I came up with-

You are now reading the last "Quarked" column that will ever appear in The Observer.

I know. I can barely handle the suspense either. But instead of launching into thoughts about graduating, something that would only serve to bore you and depress me, I'd like to talk about words instead. I like them. I spend a lot of time thinking about them. And I have yet to meet a single writer who did not have words they particularly liked or disliked.

As a final column, it seems fitting to introduce a few of my personal favorites.

Phantasmagorical - This is my absolute favorite word, due to both its sound and meaning. In fact, when I was first starting this column I was very close to naming it "Phantasmagorical Pandemonium," after my first idea ("Perpendicular Thoughts from a Parallel Universe") was shot down due to length constraints. In hindsight, I probably chose the right one.

Succinct - Cool. Enough said.

Feminism - Of all the words that are improperly perceived and used, this is the one I most want to rein in. I will never forget the day in one of my introductory history classes when the professor asked who in the room was a feminist, and my roommate and I were the only ones who raised our hands out of a hundred people.

All feminism is defined in the dictionary as a belief in the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. This means a freedom that covers both my mother's choice to stay at home and raise my siblings and me and my ambition to be an astrophysicist. And there is nothing radical about that.

Smile - I don't know why people don't do this more often. You are, for all intents and purposes, among the wealthiest and best-educated people in human history. Two weeks from now you'll be on winter break. George W. Bush will never be president again. There's plenty to smile about, and people will wonder what you're up to.

Lambda-bar - This is how you pronounce, which is a physics term used when you combine relativity and electromagnetism. The reason I like it is because it sounds like a delicious kind of chocolate, preferably very dark with crème filling. If I ever start a candy company, the first product will surely be called Lambda-Bar and have Maxwell's Equations on the wrapper, followed closely by black-coated Graviton Gobstoppers and Gluon Toffee guaranteed to stick your teeth together.

Yes - Of all the words I list here, I think this one is the most important. It is the one that makes things happen. Life is too short to be afraid of living it, and having an experience is better than no experience at all.

So say yes. Say yes when someone asks you out even if you're not sure what you think of them yet. Say yes when you're offered a job even if you doubt yourself and your capabilities. And definitely say yes when you send in a rant to The Observer and are offered a regular columnist position.

It has been my great privilege and joy to share my words with you these past few years. Thank you.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

How to get a Bailout

Courtesy of my brother, click to view. Also viewable here-

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Three Thoughts

One month from now will be Christmas, and I will have a physics degree.

Two months from now will be my 23rd birthday, and I will be in Kyoto, Japan.

Three months from now I can't tell you where I'll be, short of somewhere in South East Asia.

What an extraordinary thing, this life I get to lead.

Quarked: Campus Mysteries

Here is the most recent installment of Quarked, which covers a variety of things I have noticed around campus that I never quite figured out and figure I probably won't by this point. I'm not sure how entertaining some of the things are to those who don't know my university, but I write for a campus newspaper and figured I should cover a few more 'local' things as well.

Entertainingly enough, this column is not without controversey, due to the following passage-

Inscription plaque in Rockefeller - Our physics building was built in 1906,
but if you actually look at the dedication plaque, (between the two sets of
doors as you're coming in from the Quad) the dedication date for the building is
written as "MDCCCCVI." This is, of course, not the way you write Roman numerals
- you use subtraction notation, meaning you can only have three of anything in a
row and 1906 should actually be written "MCMVI."

I don't know what is more disturbing, the fact that the physics department doesn't know how to count, or the fact that I am the first person in over 100 years who has noticed this.

As it turns out, there is some controversey as to when exactly Roman numerals were "standardized" as we use them today- the Romans liked to use "IIII" for 4 instead of "IV" like we do due to superstition, but were fine with "IX" for example. Long story short, I now know more about this than I cared to know.

I mention this because it turns out some people writing to point out errors are not as nice as others, and one went as far as saying "the physics department is owed an apology by the snarky columnist." I always thought I was more curmudgeonly myself... Anyway, this led me to wonder who exactly I'd apologize to should anyone care. Myself? My friends, my professors, or my friends who are professors? The department chair who has shown up to my parties?

This is why letters to the editor are funny, by the way. They can take one person's opinion and totally blow it out of proportion so you'll remember it a long time even when everyone else has long forgotten the incident at hand.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Across the Universe

Sitting here doing physics homework, watching the snow fall and listening to The Beatles. Which leads to an interesting question in my mind- how many people have ever fallen under this description of activity? Many of the material physics classes you take haven't changed much in recent years- or at least since the 1960s- and the decades in between cover millions of physics students, Beatles listeners, and snow watchers respectively. Surely these categories of people overlap to at least a decent several thousand.

It's funny how united in experience we can be, even if we never stop to think about it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

New Toy

In the fashion of college students everywhere, my computer these past few years was a graduation present upon finishing high school four years ago. Said computer, a Dell laptop, has performed admirably for the most part, but in recent months it's started to get slow and cranky as computers do after a few years (particularly one that has been used and abused as much as mine). There were even a few worrisome moments where the darn thing refused to turn on for several minutes- quite worrisome, to say the least- and I decided I would feel better if I got a new computer to supplement the old workhorse. I've been eyeing a Mac (yeah I know, shut up) but galavanting the world makes one hesitant about carrying around an expensive thing, and combined with the weight factor I decided to pick something else.

Final result- the computer shown above, which arrived yesterday, an Eee PC 901. Weighing just around a kilo (a hair over two pounds), this little guy has six hours battery life, 20G storage space and, here's the entertaining bit, runs Linux. Which is totally exciting, if only because it turns out there's a game in Linux that's essentially Mr. Potato Head but you have the option of decorating a penguin if you desire. It's what my stuffed kiwi is so engaged with in the above photograph, actually...

(At this point I would like to kindly reassure my geeky readership that I do know my way around several versions of Linux, and I know it has more going for it than just this. But you gotta admit, the Mr. Potato Head game is a definite bonus!)

Anyway, in case you can't tell it turns out the Eee PC is tiny- check out the following picture, with my graphing calculator for scale-
This means I am no longer worried about portability in any sense of the word, but I am spending a little time trying to get used to the condensed keyboard. My main issue is I tend to use the right-handed "Shift" key but the up arrow is currently where I usually strike, so I'm down a few words a minute for now until I get used to things.

Other notes- I am now in the market for an external harddrive to carry music/movies while I'm on the road (no DVD player, as there's just no space), and I suppose I need iTunes on said external as well since my main gripe with Linux is it's not compatible with my iPod. It hopefully won't be too impossible to work around, but if this is my only gripe with an ultraportable $400 laptop I figure life isn't too bad at all! (You can run XP on these, but in the interest of conserving space I'm sticking with Linux for now.)

So to conclude this initial review, if you want to travel the world and not do much more with your computer than update your blog, play with your photos, and play an occasional movie then you should consider one of these guys. Particularly if you don't have chubby fingers.

And with that you'll have to excuse me- I'm still playing around with the preloaded software, and it turns out there's a "sky over your location for any given time/place" program! Must investigate this further...

Monday, November 3, 2008


I am not one to beg you to go vote only to get pissed if you don't vote for the person I want to win. I just want you to vote, as it is your duty and privilege to do so.

If you want brownie points check your local state's League of Women Voters page and get informed on the other things also on your state ballot. There's usually some other important stuff in there worth your attention!

And finally, for fun, as a few of you know I was an election official (aka poll worker) in the 2004 election. Cuyahoga County still did punch card ballots in 2004- we do paper ballots that look like the bubble sheets you use for standardized tests now- but it was one of the more unique experiences I've ever had. No time to do it this year again, unfortunately, I wrote a summary that I have dug up in honor of this anniversary:

Well the first thing to note about being a poll worker is it's rather
tiring or at least it was this time around. In my precinct we had all
told 466 votes cast whereas four years ago the same precinct saw 188
voters! Yep, we were one of the ones that had a line outside an hour
before the polls even opened and didn't let down from utter
pandamonium for about four hours after opening (here meaning a long
line that made voting maybe a half hour affair). We were relatively
uneventful compared to other precints in the ward however: some of the
other precints had a few dead people show up to vote! Which later led
to an animated discussion on just what we'd say if a dead person
showed, I was for "oh, you must not be feeling well, why don't you go
back home and lie down for awhile" but we never had to actually do

I was by far the youngest poll worker which means to start off with I
was in charge of tearing stubbs off the punch cards and putting
ballots in the ballot box etc to make sure that didn't get messed up.
I was also, as the only non-Democrat in the place being of "no party,"
the automatic Republican who had to be the second witness whenever
someone needed help in reading the ballot and such.

Later on in the day I got to keep the books and I was deemed "good at
it" (when my mom heard this she laughed- apparently on her father's
side there's a long line of bookkeepers) so I had to make sure the
signatures equalled the number of ballots cast etc etc. Rather
irritating when you realize you are ten off after counting all those
signatures and the only way to check is count them all again!

But I gotta admit, it was incredibly exciting last night to realize
that Ohio was going to decide the fate of the nation! And it made me
proud to realize that as far as Cuyahoga County 9-N goes there's no
grey area between what "should have" happened and what actually did.
Don't know how this election will go down in the books but I have the
feeling that down the line the fact that I was an Ohio poll worker for
Election 2004 will be a story for the grandkids.

Tape, X-Rays, and Why Physics Is Awesome

Check this out-

We saw this in one of my classes earlier today and I haven't gotten over it. What you're basically seeing is doing something very simple in unrolling tape and releasing ~50keV of energy in x-rays. That is a lot of energy in there, and no one knows how or why it would be so concentrated.

And this is why I love physics. Because there is always something new and fascinating that shows up no matter how much you think you have things figured out.

Quarked: Trip Around the World

My column this week was devoted to my trip around the world to address a few details about the whole thing and discuss the concept of crazy dreams in general. Because it's fun to talk about crazy dreams, isn't it?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ballet Class Has Ruined Everything

Why is it I'm incapable of watching the first snowfall of the year without getting "Waltz of the Snowflakes" from The Nutcracker stuck in my head? Not even the melody, mind, but rather "one-two-three, two-two-three, three-two-three, PORT DE BRAS!"

Some stuff just never leaves you.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Pumpkin Carving Festivus 3

This past weekend was our third annual Pumpkin Carving Festivus. This is the hands-down favorite party amongst me and my friends, to the point where several people who graduated last year traveled several hundred miles just to make it this year. How we have fallen in love with taking giant gourds and carving intricate patterns into them above all our other activities I don't know, but when people come in from Chicago or Syracuse to do it you'd better show up!

And of course it was great fun again. I have an established reputation as "the artsy one" when it comes to pumpkin carving, which I blame my uncle for because he bought us a book of pumpkin carving patterns and tools when everyone else in our area was still stuck on doing plain jack-o'-lanterns. As I am never considered exceptionally artsy in anything else because my drawing ability plateued around age ten this means I spend a decent amount of thought on how to do a good pumpkin...
I decided a ghost rising from his grave would be a good starter. After a bit of work, here's the final product-Of course, later on a friend of mine busted my bubble by looking at this photo and saying "did you carve a turtle on your pumpkin?" Sigh... Perhaps I don't get to call myself artsy after all.
My gravestone+ghost pumpkin when illuminated. I think it turned out nicely.
Partway through work for Pumpkin #2, which is wolves howling at the moon (for full disclosure, this was partly inspired from a pattern). The main problem here was my little pumpkin carving tool decided to break not too far into things- some of the guys had been pretty rough in using them- so I was suddenly faced with using a tiny saw blade with duct tape wrapped around the end in order to get the fine details. Which I did eventually, but I probably spent nearly an hour carving everything out as it was so painstakingly slow...
Wolves howling. I'm satisfied, though I should note that my favorite pumpkin of the night was a joint project from several people. Ever wonder what happens when a pumpkin drinks too much pumpkin ale?
Even better, a few of his pumpkin buddies looked downright concerned about his condition-
Unfortunately, later this night marked the first and only time my pumpkins got destroyed by pumpkin smashers. (Except the vandals left drunken pumpkin and his friends. Who would have guessed the sort of person who would smash pumpkins on a Saturday night would identify with such a state?) Quite understandably, this makes me sad. Stupid cretins.

All is not lost however- today one of my suitemates recieved a Pumpkin Lite-Brite set in a care package from her mother. You either recall why this is brilliant from your childhood or you don't. It cheered me up at least, hopefully enough to last until Pumpkin Carving Festivus next year.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fall Break

I'm going to come out right now and say my fall break was too short- that dratted Physics GRE exam was scheduled for 830am Saturday morning (a great way to kick off your vacation, I assure you!), and honestly it's amazing how much a difference one night makes when you only have four to work with. But a few hours after I hopped on a plane-
(The view over Western PA was just awesome...)

...And ended up for a few days in New Hampshire. Where the most beautiful foliage on the planet was in full swing, of course, so this was the best Fall Break activity one could concieve of doing.
Gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous... Though to be fair, I was probably a week late for foliage because it had clearly peaked on the mountainsides (if this sounds odd as Ohio hasn't yet, keep in mind it's already snowing up there meaning it's a fair bit colder!). Luckily the lakeside keeps things a few precious degrees warmer, meaning the area was ripe for canoeing about to see the leaves. And what a stereotypically pretty activity it was too- this time of year most of the cottages are vacant on weekdays, not to be visited until next summer in most cases, so while there were one or two motorboats on Sunday I saw or heard none at all on Monday/Tuesday. Absolutely silent, and the only ripples were the ones from paddling.
Another pretty foliage shot from the lake. The odd structure to the right is actually a hundred-year-old boat house, built by a wealthy Bostonian who used to own the whole lake shore in this area back then. His daughter had a steam-powered yacht with a tall mast (click here for a picture), thus the odd boat house was constructed to accommodate it.
This little guy was what got me most excited about going past the boat house that day- believe it or not, it's a loon! Loons are very iconic for their gorgeous summertime plumage on lakes in northern North America, of course, but this guy is busily changing into his winter duds. If you look at a close-up of the picture you'll see his beak is still primarily black and he still has some semblance of a checkered back, but overall he looks a totally different bird.

And because I've always liked loons ever since I did my "bird report" in 5th grade on them and I'd never seen one ready for winter before, trust me, this was very exciting. Unfortunately the loon decided this was fall so he didn't need to stick around for photo ops anymore, so he dived under for a long time and we never really saw him again.
The reddest tree I have ever seen in my life, even if you might not be able to tell in the picture. You could spot this tree as standing out even though it was on the opposite shore from us.
This picture was taken on Tuesday, when it was cloudy so the leaves didn't look half as impressive, but I was nonetheless a fan of the orange tree and thought I would post this in the name of tree foliage diversity.

Tuesday was also noteworthy in canoeing because I went out alone, and it was dead calm again so I set off for the opposite shore. Except it turned out on the opposite shore it wasn't calm at all and in fact quite breezy, and believe you me when the wind picks up canoes just go. And this wind will always blow in the exact opposite direction of the way you want to head! To make a long story short, there was a fair bit of frantic paddling while kneeling in the middle of the canoe to overcome the wind (as opposed to the seat in the back- more awkward, but more stable), and my jeans got a bit wet. Not complaining though, as the story of paddling small craft over troubled waters is way better than whatever I would have been doing at school.
And I will now finish my fall break post by posting a picture of my Halloween gingerbread man from the local grocery, as he was just that awesome. Almost too cool to eat, until I remembered the only thing cooler than looking at a Halloween gingerbread man is cannibalizing him. The poor guy's disguise was no match for the hungry canoer.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Prelude to Winter

I take a lot of pictures that never make it to this blog (usually because I don't get them off my camera until their timeliness is questionable) but I noticed this set in my archives and they look lovely enough to share-
Date: March 5, 2008. We'd had a spate of freezing rain the night before, so despite the fact that it was practically springtime every single thing on campus was covered in a coating of ice, as if it was being prepared for display in a museum. For further proof, here's what the traffic light looked like on my usual route-
One of the funny things about winter, I think, is how I look at these pictures now and am utterly amazed by them but back when I took them no one even thought it was extraordinary at all. You consider the concept of shorts and t-shirts extraordinary, in contrast to how you can't imagine life in summertime without. All in all it says a good deal about human adaptability.

(Posted because today was the first day I needed to wear my winter hat with the giant pouf ball and my gloves, as the wind chill whilst bicycling required it, but two days ago I was still in shorts. Which made me start thinking about how it's probably the end of any warm weather I will see in Cleveland, which is a somewhat disturbing thought...)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

In Which Yvette Attempts to Explain the Economic Crisis

Yep, this was my column this week. It was inspired by the fact that I realized most students didn't particularly understand what's going on, nor understand how big a number the $700 billion from the federal bailout really is. Plus it let me write fun little things like this-

Let's start first by trying to grasp the scale of the numbers. Imagine I gave you access to a gigantic bank vault filled with nothing but one dollar bills, and said you could keep every bill you counted. How long would it take you to reach $700 billion if you counted one dollar bill per second without stopping?
As it turns out, if you were to count a dollar every second it would take you just under 17 minutes to earn your first thousand. You could count on being a millionaire after eleven and a half days, but it would take 115 days to count $10 million and over three years for $100 million. You could take pride in passing the one billion dollar mark at 31.7 years, but it would take you just under two thousand years to pass Warren Buffett as the world's wealthiest person. And it would take you no less than 22,182 years to reach $700 billion, the maximum amount authorized in the federal bailout.
For some perspective, 22,182 years ago you could still find glaciers in the Cleveland area and Neanderthals in Europe. And I guarantee none of your ancestors have the foggiest idea as to why you care so much about green pieces of paper in the first place.
The rest of the column can be found here (linked this week in particular because our newspaper has a new website and it looks snazzy). Special thanks to my dad and brother who read it over to ensure that no economics professors write angry letters because I got facts wrong.

Monday, October 6, 2008


My favoritest YouTube video ever-

Shared because I finally purchased the first legs for my round the world trip today, set to begin on January 20 with a flight to Tokyo (and continue for six months through Southeast Asia, Europe, and Southern Africa). Psych!

More on this once my brain fully wraps around the implications of what I just did, but until then I will leave you with the translation of the song in the video above, which was sung in Bengali-

Stream of Life
by Rabindranath Tagore

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth
in numberless blades of grass
and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth
and of death, in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.
And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

From The Sandbox

I have a friend Dave (but who I call Norm- long story) who graduated last year from Cornell University in Physics and Astronomy. As Norm joined the ROTC while in college because military service is something he believes in, one thing led to another and he's been deployed in Iraq since early summer. There's really not much I can say that you can't already imagine, so I won't.

Anyway, Norm is kind enough to keep his own blog on his observations which I realized I never linked to and really ought, as he does a marvelous job. So go read it. His tour is up in a few weeks anyway, after which you'll need to find somewhere else to read war dispatches from and I can't guarantee their insights will be nearly as good.

On the Physics GRE

Most of my spare time lately is being spent studying for the Physics GRE- that insidious test required for admission to most American astronomy/physics graduate schools. The reason it's insidious (beyond the silliness of reducing physics to multiple choice) is the grading curve is so heavily skewed towards international students, mainly coming from countries like China where they spend several years essentially studying for the Physics GRE. Us domestics make up for this with things like good lab experience, but you still have to try your best of course even if the percentile you're hoping for is probably 50% lower.

There are two GRE Physics exams in the fall (and the general GRE, of course, but no one cares excessively about that) and the first one is two weekends from now- conveniently right at the end of my midterms and the first day of Fall Break. Beyond the obviousness of doing practice questions and tests, I also have about 200 flashcards with various physics equations on them, because when you only have a minute or so a question you need to know the stuff like the charecteristic frequency of an LHC circuit or the van der Waal equation of states like that. I find this silly because I guarantee none of my professors could tell you most of these without looking them up, but no matter.

On the bright side, I realized I got a lot better at all this when I started treating my stack of flashcards like a violin concerto, and progress has gotten better. Each concept is like a measure, ten are a phrase so you have to go back and review, twice that you need to go back again to reinforce it... and then once your "problem spots" are out of the way (everyone's got them, in my case it's stat mech and some of the quantum) and you can waltz through the cards however they're sorted you find a few questions and see if you can do that. A musician's dicipline comes into life in odd ways...

So that's what I've been doing. (Yay?) I could rant about this topic a little more but think I'll abstain for now on the grounds that topic irritates me, except for one last observation- if I end up not getting into graduate school, remind me to go work for the GRE people. It's costing me $140 a pop to take this test, and they must make a killing.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The 2008 Presidential Debate Drinking Game

Yes, this is my column this time around. I only needed to have a debate with the editor twice over this, the first time because it turns out some may not think this is appropriate material for a university newspaper, and again when McCain decided a few hours before our layout to perhaps not show up to Friday's debate. The editor appears to have extracted revenge, however, because the online version of the article is significantly shorter than the one I wrote. I'm not going to lie- I am really pissed at my editor right now because a. she cut out half the material and didn't tell me, b. it's not like we don't have the space, evidenced by c. they've run several longer columns than the space this one would have taken in full. Grrr...

Anyway, because this is my blog and I can do what I want here is the entirety of what was supposed to run in The Observer this week. As a disclaimer to anyone who's worried that people actually think I'm serious with my columns (not mentioning names, but you know who you are), I think it's safe to say that by this point I have a reputation. Trust me.


The 2008 Presidential Debate Drinking Game

by Yvette Cendes

Any time a candidate says…

- Change- 1 drink

- Expounds on the need for change without any specifics about how said change will work or be implemented- switch from beer to hard liquor, we are going to need it

- “Ready to lead”- 1 drink

- Gun control- 1 shot

- A word that doesn’t exist- 1 drink

- God, or any euphemism for God- 1 four horsemen

- Afghani… you know, it’s been so long that this been mentioned that I’ve forgotten how to spell it- 2 drinks

- Someone speaks Spanish in an effort to court the Hispanic vote- 1 tequila shot

- Terrorist- 1 car bomb

- Ethanol- do I really need to spell it out for you?

Whenever McCain…

- Addresses the audience as “my friends”- 1 drink

- A member of the audience jumps up shouting “shut up McCain! You’re not my friend! It’s not like you call me asking if we can hang out on the weekend or would lend me twenty bucks!”- 2 drinks

- Recommends increasing troop protections by issuing +1 armor- 3 drinks

- Makes a joke about being old and/or references his mother- 1 gin and tonic

- Tries to market himself as a unique maverick in vain hope that people won’t remember he’s from the same party as George W. Bush- 1 drink

- Mentions he was a POW- 1 drink

- The moderator says “wait, you were a POW? I didn’t know that!”- 2 drinks

- Is questioned on how exactly being a POW prepares him to be president- 3 drinks

Whenever Obama…

- Says “folks”- 1 drink

- Mentions Indonesia, Hawaii, or Kenya- 1 drink

- Is referred to as “Osama” by McCain or the moderator- 2 drinks and a kick in the shins

- Tells an anecdote about a middle-class woman who can’t get by- 1 drink

- Says something so socialist that he could be quoting a communist leader- 1 vodka shot

- He is quoting a communist leader- 2 shots

- A communist leader makes a guest appearance- 3 shots

Vice-Presidential Bonus Round! Guys ‘n Gals Edition

- Biden mentions Scranton (and it’s not a reference to The Office)- 1 drink

- “That” SNL skit is mentioned in an attempt to connect with pop culture- 1 drink

- Palin mentions Alaska- 1 drink

- Biden and Palin get into a “small state smackdown” arguing over the merits of Delaware compared to Alaska- 2 drinks

- Palin mentions her extensive executive experience, moose hunting, why abstinence-only education is best, how close she is to Russia, etc- disqualified due to worries of alcohol poisoning

Things we won’t see, but would like to…

- Someone walking onto the stage stroking a white cat- vodka martini, shaken not stirred

- A candidate responding with “you know, I was mistaken on that point. I’m sorry about that.”- time to stop drinking

- A debate resembling a rational, honest discussion of ideas instead of a never-ending slew of catchphrases and attacks that bring us nowhere closer to addressing the serious issues facing our country- put down the drink and start making a fire, hell has frozen over!

Cendes is a fifth year physics major, meaning she is old enough to remember the 2004 Vice-Presidential Debate held at Case. She still has the pictures from sneaking into the debate room with her roommate the day prior, where they pretended to be Cheney and Edwards until Secret Service threats forced them out.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

For Those Keeping Track...

I just turned in my form declaring my intention to graduate in January 2009 with a Physics B.S. and a minor in history. Awesome.

In other news, don't wait until the last possible week to declare your history minor and then go to the history luncheon later in the day just because you want the food. Most of the conversations steer towards Karl Marx regardless of whether he is relevant or not to the discussion, and that gets really boring after awhile.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Baby Black Holes

Shamelessly copied from my friend and suitemate Megan's blog where she was (of course) expounding about the LHC-

This historic event reminds me of the two concepts that first really got me interested in physics - gravitons and black holes. Seriously, how awesome would it be to have a pet baby black hole? Never need another trash can, if you’re ever attacked nothing to worry about just sic Wilbur the Baby Black Hole on the guy...
I, for one, have absolutely no idea how I went through life never thinking of this. Only problem I can see is you couldn't pet it, unless you were ok with never using your hand again.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Griffiths Was Here!

We had a huge bit of excitement yesterday as our weekly colloquium speaker was someone we were all very eager to meet- Dr. David Griffiths. Every physics student the world over knows Griffiths because he has written the standard textbook used in upper-level electromagnetism courses, as well as dominantly used quantum mechanics and nuclear particle texts. Clearly we had to invite him, and clearly by "we" I mean "I" in this setting because this was a student-inspired idea and I always get tapped to do these things.

As a secondary note, because I did the inviting this meant I also got to do the hosting, so I hosted my first colloquium speaker. Probably a first time a student ever did such a thing at our institution (I don't know why, it's really fun and you get a nice dinner!), but I like to see how far I can get away with things...

Anyway, comments about Griffiths' visit-

1) David is, it turns out, really really awesome. As in we had a pizza lunch in the undergrad lounge with him for the students, and most of the 1+ hour was spent with ~30 physics students staring at him in rapt attention while he talked about various topics.

2) If you think it's awesome to be on a first-name basis with David Griffiths, and moreover hang out with people who are jealous of you for the fact, you might be a nerd. Just maybe.

3) He was nice enough to sign our books. Was not even perturbed when asked to sign international editions of books that some students had, on the grounds that the publishing industry is such a racket in the US.

4) Because everyone wants to know I'm sure, the quantum book cover with the live cat on the front, dead cat on the back was his publisher's idea and not his. The funny thing about the cat, apparently, is David noticed it was visibly plagiarized off a Scientific American cover a few months prior. Upon writing his publisher urgently saying something needed to be done, he received the cryptic response of "don't worry about it" so the cover has stayed the same since.

5) About once every three or four months, someone emails Griffiths outraged over the mere image of the dead cat. He thus far just responds by saying the cat might just be sleeping, but I suggested he write back saying the cat was killed by the act of looking at it just to see what happens.

6) One last note about the quantum book: the fact that the last word in the whole thing is "gullible" is deliberate.

7) The E&M book and quantum book in particular were written from class notes from classes David taught where the students hated the book (the nuclear particle one was written mainly while at SLAC on sabbatical). There are notes for perhaps one more book, on general relativity, but he says he likes the book he uses for GR so the motivation really isn't there.

8) I asked him if he'd ever considered wirting a thermodynamics book because I hate Kittel & Kromer so much. He said no, because he didn't think he understood thermo or that most anyone really does. Fair enough...

9) The colloquium itself- ie the technical excuse we used to drag him all the way to Cleveland to speak- was really neat. It has the distinct honor of being a theory talk I actually followed most of since you could if you had a general quantum background, about what happens to an electron orbiting a +q charge when a -q charge approaches it (originally worked by Fermi, but not to much precision). It involved a few really nifty and elegant explanations involving a 1/x-squared potential and left both theorists and experimentalists in the audience alike in good spirits, so I'm glad that worked out!

10) I think my favorite thing about the talk though was how, for lack of better explanation, it was exactly the sort of thing I imagined David Griffiths would give. He lectures very well and speaks in a manner very similar to how he writes, so combined with using the exact same font used in the books for the equations I was captivated. The man must give wicked lectures!

On Too Much Stuff

Ok, whether I have too many or too few things compared to the average person can be debated- I'm told I don't have much for a college student even- but every once in awhile what I do have annoys me to the point where I half-think I want to travel the world next semester just to cut down on my material posessions. This thought hit me harder than usual earlier this week when I was supposed to write my fortnightly column but was still working hard on organizing my room, so the following article resulted-

Senior contemplates need for accumulated possessions

Last weekend I went home for the first time in months to pick up my stuff. I realize this is a few weeks later than most people furnish their dorm room with a beanbag chair and a couple posters, but my situation was complicated since I arrived on campus straight from my summer job in California. And while my time on the West Coast did not do things like leave me with a mystical urge to expand my mind – I do physics, my mind is weird enough – it did reduce me to two bags worth of possessions until just a few days ago.

Now let me say this: I have way too much stuff. I realize this is an odd statement to make when your worldly possessions can fit into the back of your parents' minivan, but my mind can't help but notice how I survived several months without missing most of it. I'm not quite certain yet why a lot of this junk is here anyway, except to stand in front of whatever I happen to be urgently looking for.

What sort of things am I talking about? For starters, let's take my bookshelf. I didn't really need it for all these months, but I needed to bring it now to shelve the books and DVDs I also brought (which, of course, were living quietly undisturbed lives in the basement until I brought them to live quietly undisturbed lives on the bookshelf). I brought back a large quantity of pillows for my bed as well. These serve no discernable purpose except as projectile missiles whenever my suitemates annoy me, but I like them for inexplicable reasons so I hold onto them.

A lot of my trepidation, I freely admit, is from all the moving around I have done since my freshman year. You move a lot in college – this last one was my 12th – and you pick up pretty quickly that the less stuff you have, the less you need to pack. Put it this way; there is a reason a miniature legion of people are on hand to assist freshman to move in while most everyone else just corrals their own resources.

To be honest though, I very much appreciate the items that stuck around this long. Few material possessions will ever delight me as much as my set of colored pens, for example, and I'd be embarrassed to publicly admit how little time needs to pass before I miss my computer. Further, once an item of clothing gets in my wardrobe it doesn't leave very easily, to the great annoyance of my mother. This results in her passive-aggressively taking my favorite shirts out of my laundry hamper whenever I visit, to which I retaliate by finding the shirts behind the dryer and putting them back where they belong. I figure if this is as big as our mother-daughter strife is, I should just leave it be.

And now you'll have to excuse me, because my suitemate just came into my room to tell me she ate the last of the ice cream. Doggone it, where are those pillows when you need them?

Cendes is a fifth year physics major. In her spare time, she plans for what she politely calls "galactic domination."

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The LHC Poetry Slam

Sorry everyone, been busy with the start of the semester... lots of random things popping up, such as the LHC party I was invited to last night (aka Large Hadron Collider, aka the big particle smasher that was tested today in Europe). Also known as "Geekfest 2008," I was invited by a bunch of physics grad students to stay up until 4am to celebrate the turning-on of the largest experiment ever conducted by humankind. As the next generation particle accelerator won't be seen for several decades, of course I had to accept.

Anyway, somewhere during the course of the night the LHC Rap was shown to those who had not seen it for some reason yet, and I expressed my sentiment that I really don't like it. A guy challenged me on my reasons, and beyond explaining the cheesy nature I broke down and said "not trying to sound pretentious, but I think I could write something better." Clearly I wasn't going to be allowed to get away with such a statement and was handed a pencil and paper and told to get to work.

So what follows was my result after a half hour or so of work- what does everyone think? Considering it was 2am and I was nursing a beer while writing, I hope I will be forgiven for the lack of proper pantameter-

The LHC Ode
by Yvette Cendes

It was mid-September and the leaves were flying
The grass turning brown and the wind a-crying
The physicists were gathering late at night
To witness what could only be an incredible sight-
It was the LHC! In the entire world
It would throw particles faster than they'd ever been hurled
The truth behind theories earlier fabled
Would finally be pinned down and properly nailed,
It would find the Higgs, and possibly see
An answer to baryonic asymmetry!
Oh how marvelous! Oh how grand!
All the things we would finally understand!

So the physicists chatted while they lay in wait
Not knowing they'd taken the universe's bait,
For when the switch went "on," that exciting goal,
They accidentally created... a black hole.
Yes, that's right, the nuts had held the truth
(Even if they'd seemed silly and rather uncouth)
And the black hole was there, it grew and grew
As black holes accreting mass are known to do,
It ate all in its path, and before the dawn
The planet called Earth was forever gone.

Now people will say it's an unlikely case-
On par with creating an elephant in space-
But if there are infinite universes, as some like to say,
Eventually it would happen and we'd all die away
So it's unlikely, it's true, but just for some fun,
Ask yourself this- what if THIS is the one?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Quarked Returns!

Who remembers my really awesome column from last year? Well this week was the first week of class, meaning the first edition of The Observer came out today, meaning the first installment of "Quarked" ran this week. This semester I get to write every other week and actually get paid too (just enough to cover the expenses should I go to the coffeeshop to write, basically) so things are looking up.

The first one is available here, covering my observations on what it's like to be a fifth year student. Exerpt-

Being a fifth-year student is rather odd, because you have passed the traditional framework of college progression. This means you find yourself doing things like arranging your schedule to include naptime and telling stories to underlings whether they want to hear them or not. As an example, just a short while ago I found myself talking to a freshman – you can tell by their small size and tendency to travel in packs – and the poor thing asked what the winter was like around here.

"Oh, they're not so bad nowadays," I said with the air of an aged veteran. "But back when I was a freshman, shovels hadn't been invented yet, so we had to use our hands to dig to class! And there was more deuterium in the water back then, so the snow was heavier…"

Ah, memories. It seems like only yesterday that I made them up...

The Future Cometh

I just learned a few minutes ago that the USA will either have a woman vice-president or a black president come November. Now I don't like talking politics on the Internet much, but policies aside this makes me proud of our country.

It also reminds me of a joke John Stewart gave at the Oscars this year. Something along the lines of how Hollywood was worried about there potentially being either a woman or a black man in the White House- "How will we know it's the future?!?"

Monday, August 18, 2008

Lounging Around

After a hectic goodbye from California, I am taking a break this week in New Hampshire before the semester starts next week. And clearly I am spending it well- as everyone knows, no vacation is perfect without reading old paperback novels while lounging on the back of a giant inflatable killer whale...

I found the killer whale (promptly dubbed "Willy," of course) two summers back when he washed up on our shore after a big storm. No one came around to claim him after a few days, at which point informal lake rules decreed him as ours and I realized how much my life was missing in the pre-whale days. Ah, this life of busily doing nothing is a good one.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Wrapping Up

It's my last week working at the SETI Institute, meaning I am spending time banging my head over code with greater urgency. Presentation on Friday, gotta catch the redeye back to the East Coast that night...

Until then, here is a hilariously staged photo taken at the Allen Telescope Array a few weeks back sort of explaining what I'm trying to finish up. In short, there's a lot of radio frequency interference (RFI for short) that is detected at the ATA, and I have the job of cataloging it- or, primarily right now, the clock frequencies from all the processors in the control room. I'm holding a spectrum analyzer here- which we didn't end up using much, but has a great dual use as a ray gun-looking device- detecting the evil RFI (shown here as Billy, one of the telescope operators at the array).

If you look really closely, you'll notice by the way that there is a gremlin used to depict RFI here, which is out of a really bad movie that used to scare me when I was little. This is because, as Billy put it, RFI is like the gremlin in radio astronomy because it causes all sorts of problems. That or we were just really bored and looking for an excuse to take silly pictures, conclude what you will.

Ok, until I sort out my code, I will leave you with this other shot of Science In Action (or, depending on your take, Science Inaction). Be very, very afraid of the girl with the spectrum analyzer...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Testing Physics

Um, yeah. There's really no way to display this picture without giving away that I went skydiving this past weekend, is there?

Basically, this is something that I've wanted to do even back in New Zealand, but we just never got around to it. A few other students here in the program were keen on going, though, so we joined up and finally did it halfway towards Sacramento from the Bay Area. Mind it was $100 for a tandem jump from 13,000 feet, which is a relative steal as far as these things go...
Our motley crew, waiting for the plane to take us up. Mind I didn't notice at the time that I was the only one of us with a purple harness; this was only pointed out to me later...

It should also be noted that it turns out that the sort of people who decide to be professional skydivers are really the sort to get excited upon the word that they're ferrying a bunch of students working at the SETI Institute. As in they get very much into the joke of which one of them we've come to take away, and appreciate responses like "sorry, we're only looking for intelligent life..." and "I could tell you the truth [about aliens], but then I'd have to kill you."

Which raised the obvious question in my mind of why exactly people who professionally do SETI and people who professionally skydive are probably considered mildly crazy (probably in slightly different ways, but not much), and why at the same time you would trust someone society at large considers a bit crazy to jump out of an airplane with you and make sure you land safely. But I digress...
On the ride up- the guy sitting in front of me was the guy who took all the pictures you see here (I ordered them, seems kind of silly to go skydiving and not have pictures!) and the guy behind is the guy who operated the parachute and all that... This plane btw was a little one, just big enough to hold 15-20 people, and we were sitting crammed in on two benches by the window like they do in WWII movies.

And because it's inevitable to be asked, no, I really wasn't scared at all- there might have been a bit of a "huh, I'm actually going to do this" thought when the plane was taking off but I never gave it another thought since.

To be honest, I am almost worried sometimes about my inability to get scared about things a lot of people get really freaked out about. This started when I was in New Zealand last year, where I never thought I could do bungy jumping but ended up realizing that rationally there's nothing to be scared of. You know the physics and how it works, you know the statistics of something happening, so why be afraid?

Skydiving is, to me, the same idea- you are about twenty times more likely to die in a car accident than jumping out of a plane and you know the physics works, so what is there to be afraid of? Just a simple kinematic equation is all.

(Yes, I realize I'm essentially saying something along the lines of learning physics helped me master my fears. I don't think that was the intended consequence, but it's definitely a nice one.)
So for anyone who is curious, in my experience it is a lot easier to skydive versus bungy jump. This is because first of all you don't have much time to think in skydiving- they open the door and everyone hops out in pretty quick succession- and because unlike bungy jumping the ground is really, really far away so that instinct of "maybe this isn't the best idea" doesn't cut in as much. Even better, in skydiving once you hit ~50 mph (terminal velocity is 120 mph when you're on your tummy) the wind resistance makes you feel like you have some weight, meaning after about a second you don't even feel like you're falling. You're just... floating, I guess, which was so great that I spent the entire time alternating between laughing and grinning like an idiot.

One cool thing I really liked about all this by the way is how we did some sort of backflip on the way out, meaning I spent the first few seconds watching the plane go away. Per my frame of reference, however, it felt like I wasn't moving, so I watched the plane go up and away at an odd angle all the while thinking "huh, that's mighty interesting!" And then I got even more excited, as it was by far the best demonstration of relative reference frames I have ever experienced and physics has destroyed any chance I have of thinking normal things even when falling out of an airplane at a hundred twenty miles an hour.
Falling. It was the most absolutely lovely sensation. In fact, he photographer spent some time towards the end trying to get me to do a thumbs up or some other gesture for photographic purposes, but honestly I was only vaguely wondering who the hell this guy was and what he wanted because I wasn't even bothering to pay attention to anything more than the moment. There's just too much to process... Now I'm told if you go skydiving again it's a lot easier to figure out what's going on the second time, but we're going to ignore that line of thought because my mom still has yet to progress beyond saying "I'm glad you survived."
Parachute deployed! This is a rather abrupt stop- taking you from 120 mph to a less splattering descent is guaranteed to be- and I was frankly amazed that it was over that quickly. I was told that free fall lasts about a minute, but it definitely seemed much shorter.

And here's something that I only remembered later, on the ground, while rethinking everything. Somewhere along the way, probably right before the instructor deployed the parachute, he shouted in my ear, "do aliens exist, yes or no? I'm not pulling until you answer!!!" Such wonderful senses of humor, those skydivers... And fyi no, I didn't answer, as a. I wasn't processing what he was saying, b. it's not like he would've heard an answer due to the wind, and c. I was too busy smiling and laughing at the awesomeness known as skydiving.
Gliding through the sky, ho-hum. Still very awesome though, it lasts maybe three or four minutes and I got to steer the parachute. Pretty simple, you have two ropes, and you pull the one on the right to go right and the one on the left to go left. If you pull one of them really, really hard you go into this nice looping spiral, which is similar to the scale of a looping decent on a tall roller coaster. The only problem I had with the parachute part is your weight is essentially held entirely in check by the straps on your legs, which isn't the most comfortable thing in the world but is obviously necessary and doesn't last long so we'll let it slide.
Coming in for landing on the landing field. Landing is so gentle that we ended up standing (slight winds and you might end up sitting instead) and you're unsteady for a second or two on your feet until you remember how to deal with real ground again.

So that is skydiving, or at least the best description I can possibly give of it. I must say explicitly though, in case it wasn't clear, that skydiving is wonderful and you all should most definitely go do it when you have the chance. Trust me on this. After all, you'd trust the astrophysics student who searches for aliens and goes skydiving on the weekends, wouldn't you?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair

I'm sure most of you have had this cross your mind by this point, but there's a huge international city just an hour's drive north of me that I haven't written about. And it's probably high time I changed that, so without further ado...

Jill and I came back from the array last week very late on a Friday night- so late that the train back to Mountain View was really not feasible, so I ended up spending the night at her house in Berkeley. This worked out rather well, honestly, because I had to go through San Francisco anyway to get back to Mountain View. Even better, the Fisherman's Wharf Hostel had a bunk and breakfast for under $30 for Saturday night- quite a steal in a metropolis like this- so I nabbed it. And with that, I had a whole weekend in San Francisco.
First stop, cable car! I just happened to come out of the subway to find a cable car waiting with no tourists swarming around it, which I found fascinating in itself because the lines for the Fisherman's Warf- Union Square cable car often wrap around the block due to sheer tourist numbers. But as it turns out, cable cars in San Francisco are a lot less crowded on the other routes, and as an additional benefit this one ran all the way to Van Ness, the first street I needed to get to the hostel. Really not a difficult decision...

Also unlike the heavily touristed line, here there was plenty of room to either sit down or stand, but I was warned in advance that standing was more fun. And I agree with that...
Once I made it to the hostel, it was immediately obvious that it was the right decision to make. The Fisherman's Wharf Hostel is actually one of the more famous ones in the world with good reason- it's located in the park that stretches all the way from Fisherman's Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge, specifically in an old barracks building of Fort Mason. And I mean, damn. The next time you stay in one of the biggest cities in the world in a gorgeous park with a view like this right outside the window and the rest of the city within walking distance, all for just a few dollars, let me know.
Now perhaps you noticed in the Golden Gate Bridge picture that there were a lot of sailboats. And there's actually good reason for that- I just happened to catch the Sailing Festival happening in the bay that weekend. The best part of it, though, were these two old vessels (shown while crossing in front of Alcatraz- whose touristic intrigue I never quite understood but whatever). When I first spotted them I thought they were just having a nice romp around the bay, but pretty soon some loud booming noises made me pay more attention. If you looked really closely you could see that one boat was flying a US flag and another the Jolly Roger- and there were wisps of smoke originating from the deck, meaning they were firing at each other. Sweet!

They carried out their mock battle for quite awhile, but I don't know who won. For whatever reason, I don't think they wanted to sink one of the ships.
After unwinding by watching the sailboats in the harbor, it was time for a walk. (Which is, it should be mentioned, what I did most of the weekend. Hills be dammed, I walked through most of the city of San Francisco.) After a quick jaunt to and away from Fisherman's Wharf to say I'd been I sort of walked with vague direction that happens when you know the geography of a city but are too lazy to have a map, admiring the views. This isn't the most advisable of methods, of course, because then you'll do something like walk up Lombard Street just because you'll think it's fun to walk down it.
The iconic view of Lombard Street, complete with the perpetual cloud of tourists taking pictures. Mind, I walked up the other, steeper side of the hill where the cars were backed up a fair bit just so they could come down this windy stretch- and it should be noted that here the cars park in the street perpendicularly to the curb rather than parallel, and EVERYONE'S wheels point into the curb. Anything less would be just plain silly.
A house on Lombard Street which I liked just because, well, look at how the guy's car is parked in the driveway. I'm pretty sure most places having your car parked on a tilt like that would result in some concern, but here the guy's just happy that he gets to get a great view in one of the prettiest cities in the world.

I've decided, by the way, that if I had a choice I would live on top of Lombard Street- the view can't be beat, and you would definitely always be in good shape. I might have to wait a little on that though, as even a tiny slip of a house here goes for millions of dollars.
What I happen to think is one of the best street names in the world. It was in Little Italy. I went there for dinner and happened to choose a place where they put a little free dish of little European vanilla-flavored tea cookies for desert. I consumed said little cookies in copious quantities as a child, so they did not go unappreciated.

After that it was getting dark, meaning time to head back to the hostel because wandering around in the dark in a strange city isn't the smartest of moves. I was fine with it though as spending the entire day walking does get you tired, and everyone knows it's fun to talk to fellow travelers in a hostel. (In case anyone is curious, it should be noted that the Germans were the dominant crowd I came across at least. I'm thinking they're fans of the current exchange rate.)

The next morning, after discovering with delight that the free breakfast included waffles, I poked my head outside. Definitely typical San Francisco weather, but not as nice as yesterday-
Guess the sailboats didn't mind, as they were still out, but fog doesn't exactly leave you brimming with an urge to sit and watch. And because the bus stop was nearby and I'd already walked most of the way the day prior, I caught the bus towards Union Square instead.
The bus, of course, went through Chinatown (which I hit up the evening prior but was a lot more vibrant in the morning), which bustles with markets on Sunday morning and has nary an English word in sight. I even noticed at one point that I was the only non-Chinese person sitting on the bus, which absolutely delighted me because it was like unexpectedly stumbling into another country.
Union Square, which had a free art exhibit going on that I thoroughly checked out. I'm pretty sure you're supposed to wander around Union Square to check out the shopping, but that activity was never my forte so after awhile I just wandered into a Thai restaurant for lunch and, later, a bookstore. After that, I wandered out to the CalTrain station to get back to Mountain View.

So all in all, I was rather happy with how this weekend turned out- it's difficult to not like San Francisco, of course, and dipping a toe in the international hosteling world again was fun. Plus it's always nice to find yourself in an unexpected mini-vacation over the weekend, even if you have to go to work the next day.

Lick Observatory

The problem with having lots of adventures is then you have to catch up on them. Let's see how far I get...

My program takes little "field trips" on occasion to Interesting and Important places in the area, and a little while back there was an organized outing to visit Lick Observatory for a day trip. Lick happens to be the first astronomical observatory built on a mountaintop, Mount Hamilton, which happens to be visible from most of Silicon Valley, so it was cool to get up there. The fact that Frank Drake was taking us and the nerd bragging rights associated with saying Frank Drake took you to see Lick Observatory never hurt either.
Anyway, this is the view from the top of Mount Hamilton. See that road curving down the mountainside? That's the one we drove up on. I'm told there are 365 turns on it, as back in the day you couldn't have too steep a grade for mules and buggies. It's a fun drive.
This is the first building of Lick Observatory, constructed between 1876 and 1877. It and the ten telescopes on the mountain today are owned by the University of California system, but the money originally came from James Lick who made most of his fortune buying real estate during the California gold rush and essentially built the observatory as a memorial to himself. He's buried under the telescope...
And this, my friends, is the telescope James Lick is buried under, also known as the 36" refracting telescope which was the largest in the world at the time. (We've come a long way!) Upon first looking at this telescope I confess I felt like it was incredibly familiar to me- the mounting, the labeling for the RA and Dec wheels, the way I instinctively wanted to shout to the tour guide pushing the telescope around "you need to move it in RA in order to get over the pedestal..."

Then I saw a plaque on the base of the telescope which read "Warner & Swasey Co., Cleveland OH." But of course. It's the very same company that built the 9.5" refracting telescope built over a hundred years ago and presently used by the students of Case Western Reserve University, meaning the telescope I've had the most experience with is just a small-scale version of the Lick Observatory telescope. There are even ship's wheels incorporated into the steering design, as Warner & Swasey is the only telescope-building company I am aware of that realized just how satisfying it is to steer telescopes via ship's wheel.
This is obviously a bit more modern a telescope- it's the 3m reflector! Now the reason this one is exciting, boys and girls, is because it is the very same instrument used by the world's best extrasolar planet-finding team, led by Geoffrey Marcy at UC-Berkeley. Forty-nine of the fifty first extrasolar planets were discovered here (which is a fancy way of saying Marcy's team didn't find the first- they didn't have enough computing power unfortunately to be the very first), and over 200 of the extrasolar planets. Truly a powerhouse...

It's also worth noting that in order to deal with the light pollution from Silicon Valley the telescope operates primarily towards the infrared part of the spectrum. Infrared parts of the spectrum are determined not by optical pollution but rather by your latitude- the closer you are to the equator the brighter the atmosphere is in infrared- and since Lick Observatory is relatively high in latitude for an astronomical observatory they have an advantage.
As a final thing, this has nothing to do with astronomy whatsoever but I still thought it was exciting. You know how California is known for earthquakes? Well I've always rather been fascinated by them- I confess my first reaction upon hearing of a big shake is "cool!" rather than "oh, those poor people"- and while I have yet to live out the goal of being in one I always thought I could settle temporarily for seeing a seismometer needle twitch as I was watching.

So this is the seismometer on top of Mount Hamilton, which obviously sees a lot more then one in Cleveland or Pittsburgh (where nothing happens, of course, but you're rather waiting to see a really big tremble from somewhere far away). And see that little bump in the picture recently created by the needle? I saw that happen!!!

I am such a geek. I know. It's awesome.