Jobless, Homeless, Carless, Bikeless, Dogless

Posted in Uncategorized on 08 Sep 10 by richford

So here’s a sappy post about how hard it is to leave my dog.  For those of you that know me, you’ll likely sympathize.  For those that don’t, you’ll probably find this post a bit maudlin.  Oh well.  Here ’tis:

This has been a month of divestiture.  All within the past few weeks, I had my last day at work; we moved out of our house, donated our car, sold our bicycles; and I brought my dog back to St. Louis so that my parents can watch her while we’re on our road trip.  While I’ve been excited to unburden myself of these first four, I’m having a little trouble coming to terms with the last.  I was ecstatic to leave my job behind me.  The predominant feeling with the apartment, car, and bikes was one of relief.  I have to admit that some part of me was hesitant to see those things go.  I’m attached to some of my stuff and have fond memories associated with all of those things.  But I’ve convinced myself that the things I loved the most about those things are things that I can take with me.

But I have no such comforts with leaving my puppy.  I can console myself with the fact that she’ll be much happier at my parents’ house.  No doubt, this separation will be much harder on us than it will be on her.  But the simple truth is that I’m leaving my dog for quite some time and I’ll miss her dearly.  I know this is pretty silly to people who don’t own dogs and probably to most people who do.  But Mousse has been a permanent fixture in my life for a few years and Zoe and I treat her like she’s our child.  I missed her when I went to work.  Two years is going to be a stretch.

With the upcoming austerity of our Peace Corps service, it’s tempting to prepare by scaling down our lives beforehand.  But many Peace Corps resources counsel us to live it up before we leave.  Eat all the fried food we want to.  Watch all the trashy TV that we want to.  And so it is with Mousse.  I’m spending my last night with her as I’ve spent many nights before.  She’s sleeping on my lap as I write this.  I’ll cherish her until I leave.  Tomorrow, I’ll get on my plane, bite my lip, and try to find a good euphemism for abandonment.

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Road Trip and Peace Corps

Posted in Uncategorized on 08 Sep 10 by richford

Z and I are headed off for a three month road trip before we depart for our Peace Corps service in Africa.  If this comes as a surprise to you, I’m sorry that I haven’t kept you in the loop or written a longer post explaining our plans and motivations.

Anyway, if you’d like to keep track of us on the road trip and throughout our time in the Peace Corps, you can follow us on our photo-centric travel blog: AdventurerZ.

Who cares about fish?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on 17 Aug 10 by richford

Or: Fresh findings on the fluid flow physics of fish flurry are both fun and fruitful.

As a physics grad student, I’m sometimes accused of esotericism by my non-technical friends.  And sometimes I agree.  It is hard to pursue a life’s work in science when you feel the tug of other causes.  But I also firmly believe that the advancement of science is important to the well-being and flourishing of the human race and that I can leave the world a bit better than I found it by making my own modest but original contributions to the wealth of human knowledge. But I admit it is hard sometimes to maintain trust in the worth of abstruse and seemingly irrelevant discoveries.

I was therefore pleased to read a paper in February on arXiv about the relationship between wind turbine farm design and the hydrodynamics of fish schooling.

Clockwise from top left: 1) The Brazos wind farm with horizontal axis wind turbines. (public domain, wikimedia commons user Leaflet). 2) A vertical axis wind turbine. (public domain, wikimedia commons user Aeolus88). 3) The hydrodynamics of fish schooling. (ref: arxiv.org/abs/1002.2250: Fish schooling as a basis for vertical axis wind turbine farm design).

Reference: Fish schooling as a basis for vertical axis wind turbine farm design

The paper itself is fairly accessible. And if your not in the mood to read it, the folks over at The Physics arXiv Blog have written a very nice review of the paper.  But if you’re not in the mood to read that either (slacker), here’s the gist:

Wind turbines come in a couple flavors: horizontal-axis and vertical-axis.  You’re probably used to seeing vertical-axis turbines, which typically have higher power output per turbine.  But they don’t play nice together; the turbulence created by the turbines in front attenuate the power output of the turbines in the rear.  The solution is to spread these horizontal-axis turbines out, thereby taking up more land.

Conversely, vertical-axis wind turbines typically have lower power output per turbine, but don’t have the same turbulent wakes that the horizontal-axis turbines do.  Whittlesey and the other Caltech folks who wrote the paper realized that an array of vertical-axis wind turbines is similar to a school of swimming fish (from a fluid dynamics perspective).  And what do you know, some guy named Daniel Weihs (reference #15 in their paper) studied the hydrodynamical aspects of fish schooling in 1975.  It turns out that not only can you pack the vertical-axis turbines (or fish) closer together, the leading turbines create vortices that can accelerate the current around the tailing turbines.  In other words, the fish draft off of each other and there’s no reason that we can’t exploit that behavior to increase the group power output of vertical-axis turbines.  So despite the lower power to unit ratio of the vertical-axis turbines, we can get a higher power to acre ratio than with horizontal-axis turbines.  Whittlesey claims that the power per unit area can increase by an order a magnitude.

This wind turbine stuff is interesting in its own right but my main point is this: Daniel Weihs’ research on fish schooling may seem esoteric, but it is no feat of mental masturbation.  In 1975, he probably had no idea that his modeling of fish schooling behavior would play a small but original role in solving the next century’s global climate crisis.  On the rare occasion that I doubt my choice to become a scientist or the importance of scientific literacy in public policy, I’ll think of fish power.  And once I’m done giggling, I’ll get back to work.

Morgan Freeman is a crappy science ambassador

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on 08 Aug 10 by richford

This post is a bit overdue but I’ve finished my thesis and have discovered some free time today so I’d like to catch up on some things I’ve been thinking about.  First up is this overdue criticism of Morgan Freeman’s appearance on the Daily Show.  I’ve embedded it below.  You watch this segment and I’ll go over to the other side of the room and break things.  Then we’ll meet up and chat about it.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Before I go on, I’d like to juxtapose Morgan Freeman’s brand of science advocacy with that of astrophysicist and science ambassador Neil deGrasse Tyson, who’s been on The Daily Show many times by the way.  I highly recommend you watch those appearances if you want to know how to be a steward of the scientific endeavor.  Okay, let’s compare Tyson’s description of dark matter with Freeman’s god factor.

Now riddle me this: which approach to science publicity makes science more accessible?  Which approach promotes critical thinking?  Which approach properly relates the passion of scientific inquiry to the public?

The first thing we should notice from the comparison between Tyson and Freeman is that scientists are not nearly as baffled by dark matter as Morgan Freeman is.

“One should make a fine distinction between the known laws of physics and the laws of physics known to you.”
Hannes Alfven, Nobel Laureate, in response to someone’s claim that Alfven’s theory violated the known laws of physics.

But never mind that.  Let’s assume that Freeman’s befuddlement over dark matter is representative of the scientific community’s understaning.  A typical creationist criticism of science is that scientists are arrogant in claiming to know the certain truths about the universe.  I’ll quote Sam Harris’ response to this myth because I think it’s germane to our discussion:

When scientists don’t know something — like why the universe came into being or how the first self-replicating molecules formed — they admit it. Pretending to know things one doesn’t know is a profound liability in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based religion. One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be found in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while claiming to know facts about cosmology, chemistry and biology that no scientist knows. When considering questions about the nature of the cosmos and our place within it, atheists tend to draw their opinions from science. This isn’t arrogance; it is intellectual honesty.

Freeman’s invocation of the god factor is a trademark of religion’s aversion to the lack of answers.  In talking about dark matter, he could just as well have said “we don’t know,” or more accurately, “there are many theories about this but there’s no scientific consensus yet.”  The practical meaning would have been exactly the same as using “the god factor.”  But it wouldn’t have carried any of the epistemic baggage of religious supplication.  Instead, we get a treatment of dark matter that fails to explain the true gaps in our scientific understanding.  Moreover it portrays scientists as clueless and scientific truth itself as inherently inferior to religious truth.

Let’s compare this to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s answer.  As Tyson said in one of his own Daily Show appearances, “[not knowing] is not the trouble.  [It’s] the seduction.”  In the video above, Tyson freely admits to our ignorance of the sources of dark matter.  But he does so in a way that relates the competing theories and engages the audience in scientific matters.  To steal a phrase from Feynman, Tyson’s approach conveys “the pleasure of finding things out,” while Freeman’s approach suggests that the lack of complete understanding implies the futility of rational inquiry.

I understand that Morgan Freeman has a right to his own opinions about the philosophy of science, but if he wants us to believe that he’s more than just the voice talent for a science show, then he ought to act like it.  The “god factor” doesn’t help science by occupying the real estate of scientific ignorance.  Science is perfectly capable of allocating that space on it’s own.  What the god factor does do is inveigh science by equating ignorance with incompetence and insignificance.  As Phil Plait says of astrology, “it takes away from the real grandeur of the universe.  [it] dims the beauty of nature, cheapens it.”

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Editorial note: The good folks over at Physics Buzz responded to this very soon after Freeman’s appearance on the Daily Show.  I read their post after drafting mine, but before reviewing, editing, and posting it.  I’ve tried to capture my initial reactions but it would be inauthentic of me if I failed to mention and reference their post.

On war stories and the soldier myth

Posted in Uncategorized on 08 Mar 10 by richford

The New York Times Opinion site has been running a series lately on veterans’ perceptions of war titled Home Fires: Retelling the War.  Before that, Shannon Meehan wrote an opinion article on his combat experience and readjustment to civilian life.  While I enjoyed the candor of Meehan’s article, there were certain parts that I found overly simplistic at best and self-servingly contrived at worst, especially when compared to the much finer offerings from the Home Fires series.

Firstly, I resented the implication that Meehan spoke on behalf of all military members.  His language frequently insinuates that his feelings and attitudes are representative of the feelings of all of us in the military.  For example,

Killing enemy combatants comes with its own emotional costs. On the surface, we feel as soldiers that killing the enemy should not affect us — it is our job, after all.

Throughout his article, Meehan shifts subtly between “I,” “you,” and “we.”  In my most cynical interpretation, I imagine Meehan would like to appoint himself the warfighter representative in order to help his book sales.  His 2009 book Beyond Duty recounts his actions and attempts to reconcile his experiences in Iraq.  I have not read it, but I should say that it is highly reviewed by other authors that I admire.  In truth, I think Meehan’s motives are pure.  But compare his language to that found in Roman Skaskiw’s article Narrative and Memory at War:

…the problem with war narratives isn’t lying. The problem is there’s too much truth. Everything you’ve ever heard or suspected about armed conflict is likely true. The enterprise is so vast that writers, myself included, can choose whichever truths support a particular thesis.  So yes. We struggle. We struggle famously, and probably more so as our wars approach the decade mark.

But who will tell the story of those who don’t struggle to adjust? Is there space in our consciousness for those who enjoy themselves? For those who choose to return to do similar work as contractors for a salary three times as high? Those who return because they didn’t get enough action? Who will admit that many of us are capable of facing combat? I never met anyone emerging from an intense firefight who wanted to go back, but those who folded under the pressure were the exception, not the rule. Who will admit that some of us even revel in it? And if such statements are made, who will listen?

I much prefer Skaskiw’s depiction of the diversity of combatants’ attitudes.  (In fact, it’s similar to something my good friend Nick once told me about assuming a representative experience of life in India, but you’ll just have to wait for Nick to start a blog to hear that one).  And I’m more receptive to his message when I know he’s telling me his story, rather than telling me what everyone else’s story should be (a point that Skaskiw makes much more eloquently in his entire article).

Secondly, Meehan closes with:

Soldiers bring the ghosts home with them, and it’s everyone else’s job to hear about them, no matter how painful it may be.

Again it’s easy to imagine that Meehan has concocted this newfound civic responsibility because it will help his book sales.  And yet again, I don’t think that’s correct but the truth is even scarier: he really believes it.  Let me start with my initial reaction to Meehan’s closing line (with the caveat that I’ve had a chance to cool off a bit):

  1. Sorry Capt Meehan, but I am under absolutely no obligation to hear your war story or anyone else’s for that matter.  Your suffering is not more special or more deserving of consolation than civilian suffering.  Nobody says that it’s “our job” to hear the stories of rape victims or abused children, but it’s somehow incontrovertible that it’s “our job” to hear your story.  Yes, you should be cared for before, during, and after your service.  So should everyone else.  And I have no problem with my tax dollars going to fund your treatment.  If I know you personally, I will invest my time into hearing of your experiences and helping you recover.  But beyond that, I have no more obligation to hear your story and help you heal than I do to the untold numbers of other trauma victims.  Meehan is not invoking a national call to psychological service here, he’s advocating an unconditional support structure for military mental health.
  2. And because this support is unconditional and accorded a special privilege above the plane of normal dialogue, it becomes much harder to combat when it supports the war or supports the military recruiting machine.  It provides protection to the myth that the military is uniquely qualified to foster good character or service ethic.  Challenging the soldier myth becomes conflated with obstructing veteran rehabilitation.  As Skaskiw puts it:

Although it puts me and many of my personal friends in a flattering light, I fear the narrative of the reluctant, well-intentioned soldier because, along with similar reverence for all things military, it seems a requisite for endless war. The misguided motives of empire hide behind the sympathetic portrayal of its servants. I also know, as we all probably do but hesitate to admit, that many of us servants were far from reluctant.

I’ve thought about it a bit more since my initial reaction and I applaud both Meehan and Skaskiw and the other Home Fires contributors for telling their story.  It is brave to confront your war trauma and even braver to do so publicly.  I don’t wish to silence anyone who wants to talk about their experiences.  More dialogue is almost always better.  And the psychological toll of any experience shouldn’t be swpet under the rug, especially not when that toll is taxpayer funded.  But I do have reservations about the simplicity with which we treat our war stories.  There is a fuzzy line between the glorification of war and the psychological repatriation of the warfighter.  As Skaskiw closes, “wars, like everything else, are replaced by the telling of them.”

Destroying the power of white

Posted in Uncategorized on 10 Feb 10 by richford

“Destroying the power of white” is an insipid phrase that I once heard used to describe the act of scribbling or jotting on paper in order to get you thoughts flowing and to overcome the intimidation of the blank page. So here it goes.

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while guys. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

  • Published my first article in a scientific journal (I’ll link the preprint version once it’s available/legal).
  • went back home to St. Louis for Christmas and reconnected with some great friends.
  • Traveled to India with Zoë to visit my good friends Nick and Elizabeth.
  • came back to L.A. and have been working crazy hard on my thesis ever since.
  • plus some other career related developments that I won’t go into here but that are the subject of a future blog post.

So I’m starting to get back into the swing of things. Thanks for the harassment/encouragement from those of you who’ve been bugging me. I’ll try to not to disappoint.

Thoughts on Čapek and religion

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on 25 Jan 10 by richford

For my mother’s birthday, I gave her Richard Henry’s biography of Norbert Fabián Čapek, conveniently titled Norbert Fabián Čapek: A Spiritual Journey.  Čapek is something of a martyr to the Unitarian Universalist (UU) community.  He was a profound and compassionate dissident (both religious and political) and the founder and figurehead of the Czech Unitarian Church until his murder in Dachau in 1942.

norbertcapek2.jpg

I got the book for my mom simply because she’s always had an interest in Čapek and I thought the book would be entertaining for her. To facilitate a religious conversation, I read the book before I gave it to her and wrote margin notes whenever the book piqued my interest, which turned out to be often. I honestly did not expect to find the book so engaging, nor Čapek so compelling. Every year as a child, I would celebrate the flower communion that Čapek invented in Prague in 1923. But beyond that (or perhaps in spite of that), I didn’t feel much of a connection to Čapek or to my UU roots. But Čapek’s story made me reconsider the role and meaning of liberal religion. Over the next few blog posts, I will try to summarize my reconsideration using quotes from the book. For reference, all quotes are cited in Norbert Fabian Čapek: A Spiritual Journey by Richard Henry, 1999, Skinner House Books, Boston.

Liberal religion is, by the way, a very prickly term. I’ve often been tempted to describe myself as spiritual, so as to differential my beliefs from that of most organized religion. As Tomáš Masaryk declared:

We want a religious life that goes beyond all churchly forms of religion. This new religion can be nothing other than a non-revealed religion; we are seeking for the non-revealed God.

Tomáš Masaryk, from the lecture “Arguments with Catholicism,” delivered at the 1907 International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston, MA.

Just as Masaryk demanded a “non-revealed religion,” I’ve tended to avoid the term religion in order to distance myself from “churchly forms of religion.” But there is something stale and solitary about the word spirituality. A spiritual journey seems very independent. A religious journey on the other hand, seems made of bonds and commiseration. Religion has congregations. Spirituality seems to lack them. In some interpretations, the word “religion” itself may stem from the Latin religare, meaning “fasten” or “bind fast.” (See also “rely” from Latin religare or “ligament” from Latin ligare. All binding words). This could emphasize the bond between the humans and the gods. Or, in my more convenient yet not at all linguistically supported interpretation, it could emphasize religions ability to bind its congregants together, fostering compassion and kinship.

But the term also has a lot of baggage. Rightfully so. Most people that know me have heard me quote Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens (sorry Daniel Dennett, I haven’t read your books yet). Religion’s vast and pervasive failures are somewhat beyond the scope of this post though.

The point is that I’m pleasantly confused about the role and meaning of liberal religion. Can one proselytize reason, curiosity, and love? Can I be both religious and anti-theist. I’m not sure what the answers to these are, but I guess I’ve decided these are worthwhile things to strive for. Like I said, over the next few blog posts, I’ll try to use Čapek’s words and journey to reflect upon my own spiritual journey and the need for progressive spiritual engagement. I would really appreciate your comments, reply posts, links, etc.