My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Mon, 27 Dec, 2004

Falling Objects in Nashville

I did not forget my physics and mathematics while I was away on my vacation. I took a couple of my introductory physics books with me and when I had extra moments, read some sections and took notes. My hosts in Nashville have the schedules of normal human beings, who go to bed around 9 or 10 at night. My life is nocturnal and inhuman, so this left me with many hours on my own to do what I wished, as long as I was quiet about it. So I set up my physics study in their den.

In the four years I have been studying mathematics and physics, I have not yet gone beyond the most basic classical mechanics. I feel I must apologize for this regrettable lack of speed and brilliance. I am doing physics study that I should have done in junior high school. But by junior high I was already so behind in math skills and ability that my life path was locked into art and humanities. It would take almost forty years until I resolved to acquire what I never had. I am using texts designed for middle and high school children, even including one which uses cartoons to instruct the reader: THE CARTOON GUIDE TO PHYSICS by Larry Gonick and Art Huffman. This cartoon book was actually recommended by one of my Friendly Scientists, and despite its childish format, it uses real math, without which there is no real physics.

My original resolution, inspired by my Fermilab epiphany, was to learn physics all the way to the advanced level practiced by the scientists I am in awe of. Given my very, very slow pace, it may take decades before I get to quantum mechanics, let alone string theory. It is frustrating for me to watch the science guys throw around all these formidable concepts about which I have no clue, but which seem to connect with the fundamental structure of the universe. It is entirely possible that no one except these elite professionals actually works with string theory, that there are no honest, non-pseudo-scientific individuals who learn it simply for their own curiosity.

But back to Nashville. It snowed in Nashville, when I wanly hoped that being in the "South" would bring me warmer un-winterly weather. So there was plenty of time for me to stay indoors and work on my physics. I use another, non-cartoon book called BASIC PHYSICS, A Self-Teaching Guide by Karl F. Kuhn. This is a workbook with very easy mini-problems and it is usually quite clear. But when it came to the question of air resistance and the acceleration of gravity on falling objects, I was in the winter clouds. Kuhn's book explains:

"As downward speed increases, so does air resistance. Thus, there comes a time when air resistance equals the weight of the object. At this speed, the object no longer accelerates, but instead it continues at the same speed.….The final speed attained is called the object's terminal speed. … When an object finally reaches terminal speed, the air resistance is equal to (its) weight. At slightly less than terminal speed, air resistance may be considerable, but it is less than the (object's) weight. The net force on the object is its weight minus air resistance. Since air resistance is less than the object's weight, the acceleration must be less than the acceleration of gravity."

This kept me pondering for hours. The first thing that puzzled me was how weight was different from acceleration. If "weight," as the book explains, is an object's mass times the force of gravity, a quantity measured in "newtons," then what is its weight as it is falling? I finally figured out that the object's weight remained the same, as long as it was near the earth's surface. But the acceleration, due to air resistance, would not be the full acceleration of gravity at any point in that virtual object's fall. This would be more apparent if you dropped a ball of sponge foam rather than a ball of stone. I suspect that a stone ball's terminal velocity (in the atmosphere) would be much closer to the full acceleration of gravity than a ball of sponge foam, which would rather quickly attain a rather low terminal velocity and would sail on air currents before settling to earth. Thus the folks in Galileo's time, and for many years afterwards, assumed that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones.

No actual objects were dropped that night in my hosts' house, though I thought about it. I didn't want to wake them up. The cranking of gears in my head, though, was loud enough that I kept my door shut. Here I was faced with an equation where all the quantities were changing at every moment. It was Newton's second law, F = ma, but in the atmosphere the acceleration would decrease as the resistance increased. Gravity pulls on the object, making it go faster and faster, but air pushes on it more as it goes faster, making it go slower until it reaches terminal speed. But if it's heavy enough, and close enough to the earth, it won't attain terminal speed before it smashes into something on the ground. Or more specifically, the terminal velocity of ideas as the perplexed physics aspirant sinks into the pillows of the sofa in my friends' den. (thud)

Posted at 3:42 am | link

Sat, 25 Dec, 2004

The Electron in the Blue Ridge

I first traveled through the Shenandoah Valley in January 1992, on my way to Chattanooga for a convention. From then on I have loved this area of Virginia, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the continuation of these highlands in East Tennessee. It doesn't matter what time of year it is, these places are always beautiful. The main highway is Route 81, much traveled by trucks, which follows the valley down into Tennessee before branching off into other southern routes. Route 81 features views of forested mountain ridges, hilly grasslands frequented by grazing cattle, geometric solids of barns and silos and rustic homes, big skyscapes, and plenty of hotels and shopping opportunities. It is not an "undeveloped" area and I am afraid that within the next ten or twenty years this route will resemble one long suburb. But no amount of built-up sprawl can diminish the dignity of the mountains above it.

This area is hollowed out with many caves and cave systems, including the very famous Luray Caverns. I have never been to the Caverns but hope that someday I might have the time and opportunity to visit. Every few miles there is an "antique mall" or junk shop which tempts me to turn off the road and buy more crap. But I resist, at least most of the time.

I love to explore new landscapes, at least within the USA. Last year, I spent my Christmas vacation in the prairie Midwest, including long drives through Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri. I have seen the awesome emptiness and flatness of the treeless Great Plains, and the surrealism of the Flint Hills in southeast Kansas, where cattle graze on a landscape resembling the background of a painting by Yves Tanguy (though fortunately without the weird Tanguy hallucinations). I've also visited the Deep South and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Missisippi, where it seems as though the Caribbean Islands have washed up some of their character onto the mainland coast. I have not yet seen the Rockies or the southwest American desert. But at least up to now, I still love the Shenandoah the best.

This area provides what I think is the landscape with the proper amount of complexity and interesting features to appeal to my basic primate instincts, inherited from my prehistoric ancestors. As a hunter-gatherer, I need a variety of environments to support my foraging and give me opportunities for security. Later civilization has only made things easier. There are forests and pasture hillsides, there are open areas, there are orchards and even vineyards, rocky glens, underhill hollows, and rushing streams. And of course there are roadside diners and Cracker Barrels, too, for the traveling prehistoric family in their stone-age utility vehicle.

This environmental diversity makes Shenandoah, and the Blue Ridge Mountain area, optimum for aesthetic landscapes. In all seasons, there is a variety of color, from the blue of the distant mountains in atmospheric perspective, to the near hills in brown and deep evergreen (in winter) which brighten to bronze and purple shadows in the evening sunlight. There was still bright green grass for the cattle to munch, as snow had not yet fallen, and the brushy browns of leafless trees and shrubs, the punctuation of dark red-cedar trees, and the occasional bright red or white of farm buildings. The whole scene tempts me to the rural ideal fantasy that I described in my previous post. Turn off from the built-up area of I-81, and the little narrow country road leads off into a paradise of distant hills, shadowy trees, and pure sky. It could be an eschatological afterlife vision of country heaven. Here, let me show you what I mean, in this photo that I took near Buchanan, Virginia. I want to wander down that cedar-lined country road, to some sunlit little cabin where I can spend a restful week or so gazing into the bright fields and distant hills, or the myriad stars at night, before I return to the shrieking, howling voices of pop and "soul" soundtracks, the roar and grind of traffic, the buzzing helicopters overhead and the toil of the real world.

Posted at 3:00 am | link

Fri, 24 Dec, 2004

Country and Christmas Fantasy

I'm back from my travels in Tennessee and Virginia. I did not go to North Carolina as originally planned because my prospective hosts had a death in the family and could not host me. So after visiting friends in Lexington, Virginia, I headed down to Chattanooga, Tennessee to visit an artist friend of mine, and then went on to Nashville where I spent restful time in a luxurious private guest suite in an upscale house owned by two more friends of mine. It's good to have friends! One of my Nashville couple is a real estate enthusiast and I volunteered to drive this aspiring homeowner and developer around on an extensive tour of many different suburban neighborhoods. We visited everything from decrepit bungalows, to hip neighborhoods under construction, to comfortable middle-class spreads, to freshly built McMansions which have sprouted like mushrooms all over the landscape. We also visited the mind-boggling palaces built by Nashville's richest, whether they are old-family industrialists or big successful country music stars. Those palaces have their own recording studios along with six-car garages and horse stables. I don't feel any sense of resentment toward someone who made big bucks in country music having a palace like this. It wouldn't be what I would spend the money on, but I'm not a country music performer, to say the very least.

We visited one of the clothing shops where country and western music people get their performing clothes, the inimitable "Katy K's Ranch Dressing." This hilarious establishment sells everything you need to look the part, whether you really are a performer or not. You can get decorated cowboy boots, all sorts of those wide-brimmed hats that all the country guys wear, and a wide variety of Western style shirts. I liked one in particular which was black with glitter bronze paisley lame' on the shoulders and glitter trim on the pockets. I would not be caught dead wearing this, though. There were also outfits for other types of music, such as southern rock (black T-shirts with rude slogans and pictures printed on them) and soul (sequined sheath dresses for ladies) and blues (two-toned shoes and wide-lapel jackets). You could also get a silver and gold metallic fabric jacket, if you just HAD to have the Elvis look.

Classical musicians don't get to wear this kind of stuff, unfortunately. Your average male string quartet musician, orchestra player, or concert pianist is locked into a black and white music box, though the lady soloist or singer can wear a fancy formal gown (but no sequined sheath dress and spike heels).

I drove quite a bit through Tennessee, to and from Nashville. I had a library of my own CD's with me, including modern classical, jazz, and ambient. I suspect that I was the only person listening to Hindemith, at least while driving, in the entire state of Tennessee. Occasionally I turned on the radio and listened to country music. I like listening to the words of country songs. Country music is not entirely about misery. A lot of it is about nostalgia for an idealized rural world now gone by. Many songs are about happy, devoted couples who still love each other after many years. What other type of music, or any art form, dares to write about this theme?

Of course there was plenty of Christmas music of various kinds, including country Christmas tunes. I must confess something (no, not shocking, this is a proper and decent Blog). What is it? I love anything that is "country." I grew up in the suburbs and have lived in cities for most of my life. But I love old country stores, country cooking, rural scenes and architecture, woodstoves, calico calendars, country crafts, hayseed music, tractors, old splintery barns, kerosene lamps, silos and feedlots, rocking chair porches, cattle, window box flowers, and other manifestations of rural Americana.

I am well, well aware that everything that I love about "country" is a fantasy. I have never lived or worked in anyplace rural, and have never experienced the drudgery, squalor, and impoverished misery of real rural life. I hope I never will. Every time I go down one of those old country roads, I am the city not-so-slicker from the outside who sees only the image and not the reality. But I don't care! It is that idealized fantasy, celebrated in country songs, which I believe in. The fantasy is packaged for us city travellers in the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain which despite its bad reputation among intellectuals, is my favorite roadside eatery. Where else can I get deliciously greasy country ham biscuits, glutinous chicken and dumplings, stewed greens with ham shreds in them, and stewed pinto beans with ham chunks? Make these things myself? Are you kidding? If there was a Cracker Barrel near me, I would weigh three hundred pounds.

Cracker Barrel does the country fantasy perfectly. They have displays of real artifacts, a crackling wood fire to warm folks in the winter, rocking chairs on a "porch" to sit on in summer, real barrels with checkerboards on the top and oversize checkers for kids to play with. They have a "country store" laden with fresh-made nostalgic stuff and old-style country music playing on their soundtrack. They've got everything nice, without the pig stench and the cow manure. The waiters and waitresses and cooks and maintenance people do the hard work. All you do, for a modest price, is eat. Even if you live in the big city, this can be your totally artificial old country home.

Just as "country" is a fantasy, so is "Christmas." Christmas comes in two main fantasy scenarios: the retro-American and the Victorian, or medieval, English. Have any of you ever seen, let alone heard the jingle bells of, a one-horse open sleigh? I was astonished when one of my co-workers told me that horse-drawn sleighs are still used as winter transportation, items of civic pride in the small New Hampshire town of his parents. You mean sleighbells really exist? What about wassail? What about silver bells, nutcrackers, toy soldiers, Yule logs? As far as I'm concerned, all the things I hear about in Christmas songs are ritual mythology, frozen into existence from some previous century when they may have existed, but now brought out only as a kind of collective cultural drug to get us through the dreadful dark days of the Winter Solstice. What I find even more weird is the use of winter motifs such as snow, evergreens, icicles, and furry hats to celebrate Christmas in tropical areas like South Florida. Fake snow among the palm trees! I don't even want to get into the religious mythology of the Christmas fantasy, what with its bizarre worship of the baby God (I've already said too much right there).

You may rightly gather from the paragraphs above that I don't like the "Holiday season." I don't just not like it, I detest it. I want to hibernate in a cave until it is over. I don't want to eat more sweets. I don't want to be rolled in the sticky frosting of the Holiday Season. Somewhere out there are physicists and mathematicians, probably from China or India where the quickly globalizing fantasy has only just begun to corrupt their solstice time. I bet there are even some from the "West," ignoring the season. They are sitting with their experiments or their theories and are unmoved by snowmen or candy canes or tinsel or trees or ornaments or pretty wrapping paper or the idealized simulation of Victorian England or snowy imaginary small-town northern America. My sentiments are with them. (God) rest ye merry gentlemen of science!

Posted at 2:52 am | link

Wed, 15 Dec, 2004

Electron on the Road

The Electron will be on a short hiatus while I go on a "pre-Christmas" vacation. I will be traveling in my Electron Blue car to visit friends in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. I am looking forward to Southern cooking and hospitality, as well as beautiful mountain landscapes. I'll have my physics books with me as well as my sketchbooks, and I hope to do at least a few drawings and problems. Currently I'm still pondering Newton's third law of motion and reviewing vectors. I'll be back, if all goes well, just before Christmas. Happy holidays to all Electron readers. Celebrate the winter solstice (in the Northern hemisphere) with rejoicing and light.

Posted at 4:15 am | link

Thu, 09 Dec, 2004


It's Brumalia time, which is the period of the shortest days of the year. "Brumalia" is a Roman name for this time of year. The word is from a contraction of the Latin brevissima or "shortest." In this era of religious innovation, Neo-Pagans have devised neo-Roman-pagan celebrations for this holiday. Clever, those ancient Roman Internet webmasters! There is also the familiar refrain, oft repeated by educated folk, that "Christmas" is "just a borrowing from pagan celebrations, such as the 'Saturnalia,' that happened around the winter solstice," thus helping to prove to their satisfaction that Christianity is an eclectic and ultimately trivial mish-mosh of previous traditions. I am still wondering whether there is any "pure" cultural practice which does not borrow and transform anything from previous traditions. Bona Saturnalia!

I am doing the things I usually do around this time of year, which are "artsy." I make my own Christmas/holiday cards, cutting and folding and painting them individually with spray and spatter paint and markers. This is not as time-consuming or difficult as you may think, as it's easy to put about 15 or 16 down on newspapers spread on the floor and spray them all at once.

Each year I choose a different "theme color" which I use in art and graphics and clothes accessories. Sometimes I choose a combination of colors. I have been doing this for a long, long time. It is part of an artist's management of color, and ensures, over the long run, that I don't paint too many pictures or create too many graphics with the same color scheme. I get to "explore" a new color every year, and see how it can be effective in combination with other colors. Most of the time, I choose a bold, highly saturated color; for instance, the color for 2002 was deep luminescent blue, the color of my Honda CRV which is known as "Electron Blue." (See the header for this Weblog for the explanation of the color in "Why the Title?") But the last few years, I have chosen ladylike pastel colors. 2003 was lavender, 2004 was light sky blue, and 2005 is pale mint green. I can choose to jazz it up by calling it "electric green," which is the color of the brilliant flash you see when a transformer blows up. So my holiday cards for the winter of 2004-2005 are electric green.

I'll also be painting my journal note/sketchbook for 2005 that color. My Web journaling is a very recent phenomenon compared to my written journal, which I have kept, without interruption, since 1968. (Yes, 1968. That's 36 years. My written journal started during the time I was barely passing math, and hating every moment of it, in high school.) I write in it every night, although my entries may not always be gems of literary merit. Often it just chronicles what artwork I am working on, or what the weather was, or whether the Red Sox lost or won that night. It also contains a daily report of expenses. These mundane details prove to be useful years later when I am trying to track down a reference, or the date of a purchase. Occasionally I do get literary or philosophical. Every so often news from the wider world shows up in this journal, but it has to be something really important, such as the Red Sox winning the World Series. That merited half a page in big red headlines. I don't think I had ever done that before.

Most of these journals are illustrated, and in this, my mathematical/physics era, I put my math and physics notes in them too. As I review my classical mechanics, I refer back to my blue-painted 2002 journal which has many nicely illustrated pages on exponents, progressions, and the formulas for acceleration and the distance traveled while accelerating. The entry for August 17, 2002 features an account of an experiment I did in my Electron Blue car while driving on a straight and momentarily traffic-free highway. I accelerated from one round number to another, ten miles per hour faster (I did not exceed the speed limit, at least not by more than 5 miles an hour) in 13 seconds. When I had returned safely home, I put the numbers together to determine my rate of acceleration and the distance traveled. Change in acceleration divided by change in time gives me the (steady) rate of acceleration. The distance formula is more complex, made of components including time2 and the average of two quantities. Revisiting my journal notes, written by me and for myself, is a good way to review what I need.

I wonder whether any professional physicists make their own holiday cards, choose "theme colors" for the year, and decorate their journal-books, or even keep personal journal-books. These things are from the realm of artists (and women) and I would be interested whether any such thing crosses the cultural and gender gap between artists and scientists.

Posted at 2:48 am | link

Sun, 05 Dec, 2004

A Plethora of Pyracantha Projects

I live in a big East Coast urban area where overwork and "workaholism" is common. And it is not only necessary to remain competitive and financially secure, it is admired. I am being only slightly ironic when I say that since I moved to my current location 16 years ago, I have aspired to that hard-driving work-centered ideal. This same kind of work-intensity is part of the scientific life, and the ideal is the man (or rare woman) who can spend thirty-six hours straight on an experiment or a project, or who can sleep in the laboratory or office only to return to work a few hours later.

Being "busy" is thus the ideal condition for a worthy human being, and being super-busy is even worthier. I soon learned that in this area, I had to say whatever I was going to say to someone in thirty-second sound-bytes, because he or she had no time to listen to anything longer. In fact, for the time I have been here, most (but not all, thankfully) of my social and business encounters have been with people whose lives are so full and so overworked that they have no time for anything except brief moments of interaction. I have come to accept as the "default" condition that anyone's life here in urban east-coast America is HECTIC! CRAZY! OVERWORKED!

Feeling left out of this hectic lifestyle, I finally have, with my day job and other jobs combined, achieved at least some measure of overwork. As 2004 comes to an end, here's a list of all the things I am working on at this moment in December.

1. My day job. That's Trader Joe's, part-time, about twenty-five to thirty hours a week, attending to the prices of broccoli and apples and organic tomatoes, among other more luxurious goodies such as pesto-stuffed Brie, olive tapenade, and chocolate truffles.
2. Sign work for Starbucks. I do the "Daily Offerings" and "Specialty Coffee" signs for Starbucks, in markers on black metal chalkboards. I embellish six different Starbuckses in my local area, for which I am paid in coffee and food. I never have a problem obtaining fancy coffee or espresso jolts.
3. A logo for a T-shirt advertising a cat show. Two of my good friends are running a large international cat show next year, and they've asked me to design the logo for the show. My first attempt wasn't right, so I'm back to the drawing board on this one.
4. Prints. I am currently preparing a set of prints of my "Zoroastrian Angels" to send to a collector overseas.
5. Fine arts paintings. I am experimenting with "fine arts" abstract paintings, using geometric forms inspired by my mathematics and physics studies. I have at least one in the works, and in my most recent show at a fantasy convention, exhibited two or three of them. The orange and blue "logarithmic spiral" painting (see my entry for October 13) is an example of this kind of art. This art can be rightly defined by High Art Criteria as "serious" art. I expect to show some of this next year, and perhaps, though it may seem like a totally naive and fanciful idea, find a way to exhibit it in a "real" art gallery.
6. My graphic novel. A "graphic novel" is a long-form comic book, or a long story told in the form of pictures with word balloons. I have been working on a Graphic Novel now since 1999. Its title is THE FLAMING RAMPARTS. It is a rather straightforward fantasy-adventure story, set in modern times on an "alternative" Earth, about a psychic power-wizard, who looks a bit like a beardless Gandalf, who is involved with geologists investigating a big volcano. Wizardry must work with science when the mountain erupts catastrophically and sends a flood of lava and ash towards a city. The projected length of this volcanic epic is 80 pages, and I am now about to finish page 32. I don't know how long it will take to finish it; my pace is very slow since I don't get much time to work on it. As far as I know this has No Commercial Potential (no sex, "dark" themes, or violence!) and it is not at all Serious Art but I like it anyway and want to continue.
7. Fantasy writing. I have been doing a kind of "fantasy chronicle" since March 2004, set in the same imaginary world as the graphic novel (though thirty years later). This is just words, no pictures. Like most science fiction and fantasy fans, I have an imaginary world which I have been "building" for decades. I am always coming up with new ideas and characters and I want to set them down in words and pictures so that they won't just be vain and fleeting daydreams. With art and writing, I can make this imaginary world come to life. Again, this writing probably has No Commercial Potential, but I like doing it. The chronicle is supposed to encompass a period of a year, and I'm writing it "real-time," so next March I will round it off and end it, unless something happens (fan appreciation? publication?) that might cause me to continue writing it.
8. Lest I forget: Math and physics. The main reason I'm here on ELECTRON BLUE is to keep you posted about my studies in mathematics and physics. What with all that other stuff going on, I still make time for this, because it's really important to me. I still have hopes that I will be able to reach the level of knowledge and mathematical skill that would enable me to follow the work of scientists (physicists) as if I were another scientist.

When do I sleep, you ask? Well, that would be giving away too much information. I use no illegal drugs and am not any weirder in my lifestyle than any other tech-geek in this urban world. I am hoping to put some of my fantasy art and writing up on my main Pyracantha Website, in its own special section, in case some of my Electron readers might be interested.

Posted at 3:52 am | link

Sat, 04 Dec, 2004

The Sunny Winter Day Problem

The season is Brumalia, the ancient Roman word for the period of short days leading up to the Winter Solstice. You'd think it would be appropriately dark and misty and gloomy, here in the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere. But the reality is that at least where I live, there are many days in winter that are brilliantly sunny and dry. You'd think this would be welcome, but it has its problems, at least for me. The sun is lower on the horizon during the winter months, and that means that in the afternoon, it shines directly into my west-facing home studio windows. For the twelve years that I have occupied this place, this means that on sunny winter afternoons, I can't work at my home studio because the sunlight is right in my face. I have tried sun-blocking or reflecting curtains, but this doesn't seem to stop the problem because any gap in or around the curtain still shines those bright beams into my eyes. In fact, one of the reasons I took my current day job is because I was getting nothing done during the daytime in the winter, so I might as well make signs for Trader Joe's in a windowless back room. The store, however, is also flooded with that low-angled sunlight on these relentless sunny winter afternoons. I had a conversation with a customer who struggled to pick out her organic tomatoes against the blazing Solstice sunlight. Her sentiments were the same as mine, seasonal and ironic: why should dark winter be so sun-bright?

My plants in the window area like the sun, and my brave little cactus is still in bloom, as are some of my aloe plants (the flowers are too ugly to show here). During these weeks, my apartment resembles that Pharaonic rock-cut tomb of ancient Egypt which was designed so that the sunlight only reaches the interior on the winter solstice. Low-angled beams of golden photons show every bit of dust and fiber on my floor, and enter into a closet and a bathroom which in any other month of the year is mercifully dim. There are some places which should not be brightly lit, lest too much be seen.

I have gone back to my embarrassingly simple middle-school physics text to review things I first studied in 2002. Sure, if I were that boy genius on his way to being a "real" physicist, I would already be studying quantum mechanics. But in my circling, elliptical, solstitial way, I need to review things over and over again in order to keep them fresh in my memory. I looked again at my notes from 2002 about acceleration and distance and scalars and vectors. Now that I am beginning calculus I see the presence of time and change in those acceleration formulas. I have also been pondering the formula for distance covered while accelerating, which is closely related, but not identical to the formula for the sum of an arithmetic sequence. Or perhaps it is identical at least in some situations; I can't quite figure it out. I will be reviewing vectors next. I need to make sure I know my speed and direction at the same time.

Posted at 3:16 am | link

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