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 It is no longer being updated.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.

Fri, 29 Jul, 2005

I was like

In this virtual paper submitted to the Journal of Pointless Linguistics, I offer a few comments about an American English turn of phrase, or construction, that is becoming increasingly common across all levels of education, class, and gender. It is a feature that has its beginning in spoken dialogue though it is making its way into written texts as well, whether as quotations of an actual spoken dialogue or as a mirror of the dialogic intentions of the writer.

I am referring to the now well-known construction, "I was like," or perhaps more accurately given the punctuation as cue for timing, "I was, like…". This use of "like" is not the same as the many other uses of "like" in spoken dialogue which can convey anything from a "pause to think" ("So, like, when are we going to dinner?") or an indicator of approximation, especially in measurements ("It was like 95 degrees out there!") This use of "like" has a specific context: the recounting of personal experience or feelings.

The construction "I was, like" and its variant "I'm like" is always used either to recount a personal experience (or that of someone else) in the form of dialogue, or actual quoted dialogue of the speaker or someone else. Most of the time the dialogue introduced by "I was like" is not exactly repeated, but is paraphrased. Interestingly, feelings, opinions, and emotional experiences of the speaker are recounted after the "I was like" construction as a piece of dialogue, even if there was no dialogue involved. ("I was, like, how could I possibly do this?" rather than the more direct "How could I possibly do this?") The dialogue fragment after the "I was like" is often acted out with gestures and vocal emphasis, rather than a plain recounting. Among those who use the phrase very often (mostly younger people) you will hear a string of "I was likes" which report a conversation back and forth between two or more speakers which may have never happened, but effectively tells the story. ("I was like, no way I can afford this, and she was like sure you can, and I'm like I'm not sure I really want it all that badly…")

I have observed four dialogic contexts in which the "I was like" and the "I'm like" construction appears. The first is in the recounting of an experience, as I have described. The experience is more likely to be subjective than an actual recounting of an event. ("I dented the fender of my new car and I'm like I just got this car and I'm so pissed off.") The second common use of "I was like" is when the speaker expresses an opinion. ("I was like, I don't think that is such a great idea…") which invites a string of "I was likes" as the opinion is entered into debate. The third use, which is related, expresses a past opinion, expressed in the form of quoted spoken dialogue, whether it was a real dialogue or an approximation of what would have been said, or should have been said. ("I was, like, I'm getting out of this s**t.") The last, or fourth usage I will mention introduces a hypothetical dialogue or quote that might be said in the future, or what a person would like to say in the future. ("I'd love to be, like, "Hi Darren!") with the quote acted out in a lively and welcoming fashion. There are a lot of uses I haven't mentioned: the "I was like" is a very versatile, if not so "classy," verbal tool.

The origin of this way of speaking is possibly California "valley-girl" talk of the 1980's; it definitely originated among teenagers, usually female. But in the last decade or so the "I was (am) like" construction has migrated into much more general use, though it is still more common among young females. Young males also use it, and it seems to go across class and racial lines as well. Interestingly, it is migrating up into the talk of older people as well; I have heard people in their thirties and forties using it, even if they don't have children who talk that way. It is very common on television, at least in "unscripted" talk and reality TV shows. What is even more interesting is that it is being adopted even by educated people who would presumably not choose to talk like teenagers. Here is a quote from a (name withheld) highly skilled and educated person, age 48, who has just experienced hostility from new co-workers at a job she was appointed to: "It was bizarre," she says…"It was like being caught in a black hole. I was like, "Wow, what happened?""

What fascinates me is not only the ubiquity of the phrase, but the usefulness of it. It seems to take the place of a lot of other words which would have to be used to say the same thing. What did "I was like" replace? I have tried to "retrofit" the "I was like" quotes to what would have to be said before the phrase entered English casual talk. "My thoughts were…." or "I was astonished at what happened," or "I felt as though…". All of these sound rather formal compared to "I was like" followed by the paraphrased quote.

I myself do not use the "I was like" construction and I am actually not quite sure how to use it. This may be because of too much literary education, or verbal geekiness, or just being too old to get it right. But I'm sure that if I spent enough time among the people who use it, which is most Americans under the age of thirty, I would find it creeping into my own spoken discourse. I'm sure that sooner or later I will utter it. Is this a bad thing or a good thing? Is it a symptom of the Degeneracy of Modern Language or is it simply an evolving way of speaking which is morally and linguistically neutral? I'm like, I don't know.

The Electron will take a short break and be back, if all goes well, in the first week of August.

Posted at 3:34 am | link

Wed, 27 Jul, 2005

Hot enough for me

The weather is finally hot enough for me, as the saying goes. Everyone who knows me knows that I am a hot weather fan, and I'm certainly using the fan these days. I love the summer heat, and I even love the summer humidity. For the last few days I have been in the steam kettle along with millions of other people. There have been storms but not in my neighborhood, so nothing cools it down. I hide at work in my art closet, fortunately air-conditioned. In a few short months I will be freezing again, which is no comfort.

I dream of moving to a place (in the USA) which is summery all year long. There are a few of them, but I am not sure what life is like there or whether intellectual rigor is possible in a perpetually balmy climate. The Nobel-prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac ended his days as a professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee, and another physics Nobelist, Robert Schrieffer now teaches there, so someone is doing high-level physics in summery Florida. Would I like a world filled with sand and palm trees? It's yet another one of those things I cannot permit myself to think about.

I admire Dirac for his great achievements but also for his famous terseness and lack of effusiveness. I would love to be the brilliant but silent type who never talks too much. As it is I am constantly telling myself not to say most of the things I would like to say, either here on this Weblog or in real life. It's a never-ending effort.

Meanwhile, speaking of never-ending efforts, I am crawling my way through yet another round of acceleration problems and solutions, this time in Schaum's red book. The work is made a bit more confusing by several annoying typo's in the problems which cause me to solve diligently for a solution which isn't there, since the solution is given for the problem without the typo error. At least I know it's a typo, which is a kind of reverse satisfaction in problem-solving. I will review my way through what I have covered in the "easier" physics book and then figure out where to go next. Florida, perhaps.

Posted at 2:51 am | link

Sat, 23 Jul, 2005

Painting the Ocean

I have been painting the ocean for the last few days. This does not mean that I am trying to lay color onto a big body of salt water. I have often been bemused by the flexibility of language and interpretation that allows us to understand what visual artists mean when they say they are painting something. Literally, this should mean that an artist is applying paint to the subject. Instead, it is easily and correctly interpreted as "using paint to create an image of a subject." The interpretation becomes more complex if the artist is putting paint onto a three-dimensional object. For instance, if the artist is applying paint to a chair in decorative colors, she is actually painting a chair, rather than creating an image of a chair. It would become surrealistically complex if she were to then paint the image of a chair on that very chair. Then she would be painting a chair2, or painting a chair squared. And if the chair is rather evenly rectilinear, she is painting a square chair squared.

When I have just painted the ocean, the paint is wet. The ocean is wet, too, but not because my paint is wet. My paint will dry, but the ocean will not dry, at least not for a very long time. But when my paint is dry, the ocean will be dry too, at least in the verbal world of describing the process of art. Then I will start on another area, and the ocean will be wet again. But the real ocean is wet in all the parts where it is, from inlet to mid-Atlantic. If it is dry, then it is no longer the ocean.

This is what happens when you study mathematics and physics and art at the same time. I am working on beginning calculus, attending to the areas under curves between two designated moments in time displayed on the x-axis. Everything has to mean exactly what it should mean. You can't use artistic metaphors. This is why mathematical and physics types often take language extremely literally, even when it is meant figuratively, for example in the sense I referred to above about painting the ocean. The more math and physics I do, the more linguistically literal I get, which is why I notice things like the painting description. As a result I try to describe things in highly specific, non-ambiguous terms. I am painting an image of the ocean, in acrylic paint on illustration board. I am not painting the ocean.

It is not an accurate representation of the ocean. It is stylized and abstract. It is a dark blue wavy area, with a very straight horizontal line of demarcation, and a pale blue cloudy area above it. The whole painted rectangle is divided into geometric areas, formed by the intersection of many curved lines with one horizontal line. Yet it is unmistakably the image of the ocean and will be interpreted as such. Our human visual sense interprets this image as a familiar thing even when there is only limited evidence to go on. Even when a picture is totally abstract or even random, people will find patterns which they interpret as recognizable images in it. With abstract art, it is like physics. I am trying to reduce the infinitely complex, though simple-looking scene of the ocean and sky to an equation of shape and color. Yet it is not a mathematical graph. A shape under the line or curve of a mathematical graph does not translate into visual information which will immediately suggest movement to the viewer. You have to learn what the graph means; it needs more interpretation than the artwork. All oceans are wet, but not all math is literal and dry.

Posted at 4:01 am | link

Wed, 20 Jul, 2005

Apologizing for Everything

I have spent much of my life apologizing. Not for really awful things, which I usually don't even know I've done, if I've done them at all. I apologize for lesser things. I have apologized throughout my life for social gaffes, for inadvertent insults, for excessive intensity and forwardness of personality, for various forms of overdoing, for my lifelong uncouthness. I have gotten to the point, sometimes, of "pre-apologizing" whenever I meet someone whose good will matters to me (for instance, a Friendly Scientist), since I know that I will fail somehow in the ordeal of civilized social interaction.

I must now apologize for my lack of cultural input. I have become somewhat of a recluse. Instead of reading Serious Literature, I've read only one or two books at all this year, one of them being the vast doughy mass of "Harry Potter, book 5." I don't go to movies, not even trashy ones or fantasy blockbusters. I don't watch TV. I haven't even been listening to baseball games (though I check the results online). When people ask me about current cultural events, I can barely answer. I manage to read the newspapers at Starbucks, at least a few pages of them. The only thing I read at length are online articles, and not too many of those.

My excuse is that I have been under pressure at my day job for a few months due to lack of signmaking personnel. I have had to do most of the signwork. This may be changing as a new person with professional graphics background has finally been hired. I hope that she will take a share of the workload. Meanwhile I take care of hundreds of little signs at the gourmet store, dashing through the bustling store finding missing ones, making new ones, and correcting existing ones. It is like walking through a moving, constantly changing kaleidoscope image, picking and replacing pieces as you go. It is intense work (and noisy, too, with people, cell phones, and pop soundtrack together) and so when I get home, the last thing I want is to listen to something SERIOUS which demands even more of my attention. This is why I budget my attention so carefully and why I am not as much of an Intellectual as I am supposed to be. So if I apologize for being culturally out of it, this at least has a reason.

I apologize (at least to my classical-music listening audience) for my choice of music listening. I love electronic spacemusic, much of it endless drones or repetitive rhythm tracks without any discernible musical content. I find it soothing after a day in the kaleidoscope. It evokes vast quiet spaces, which I fantasize about. You can have a listen to my typical Internet "radio" stream at Live365 Internet Radio type "Moving Through Space" into the "search, find stations that play" box. I apologize, but I dream on and listen to the aural clouds drifting over the sonic prairie.

I must also apologize for my food choices. Despite the well-meaning lectures by vegetarian friends and clients, I still eat meat and lots of it, the saltier the better. Maybe one of these days I'll be able to just say "I'll have the salad" and actually prefer it, but not now. I apologize for getting that package of flavored tortilla chips and munching them. My diet is not virtuous. I apologize for consuming creamy gorgonzola cheese. (See "working in gourmet store" described in an earlier paragraph for excuse.)

OK then, I'll apologize for everything, no matter how trivial. But what do I NOT apologize for? Two things: art and physics. No matter how much work I do at the day job, I am at the art table night after night, painting stuff. I am currently working on catalog number 924, an abstract geometric piece for my upcoming autumn show. This is a very stylized but still recognizable ocean scene, painted in acrylic, all in colors of light and mid-blue with one bright orange accent. In my physics study I am working through Schaum's rendition of acceleration and motion, this time done up in beginning calculus style with graphs and derivations. This time I don't just get the formulas served to me, but I get the mathematical lead-up to them, built from basic ratios and (classical) relationships of time, space, and motion. And there are plenty of problems to solve. These are the kind of problems I like to have; no apologies needed.

Posted at 3:30 am | link

Fri, 15 Jul, 2005

Math in the Mist

High summer is here, and the climate is tropical. The urban rainforest is grey in the hot mist as colorful birds twitter. Distant thunder echoes off the fading concrete of the city. In the afternoon, a short, loud thunderstorm with deluging rains, and afterwards, the sun emerges on the drenched world to light up clouds of steam. More rain at night, the sound of falling water on leaves, and a few rumbles of thunder. Bugs get in through the space between the screen and the sliding door, flying around my art light, landing on my painting, crawling across my physics book. I stick to everything. I stick to my physics and mathematics. I love it, love summer, it is the only season I really enjoy. I wish the rainforest world lasted almost all year, rather than two precious months. But can you do math and physics in the tropics?

I am working with Schaum's now. This book has a more complex introduction to the basic mechanics with which I have been working. Currently it is showing me calculus-related material about the slope of a curved line and how to find average and instantaneous velocity through graphs and slopes. This is all new to me and I'm glad I found it, as I will be continuing calculus as I progress in classical mechanics. Next will be instantaneous, average, and constant acceleration. I must pay close attention because there is a lot of mathematical notation and equations. I work them out along with the book's text, on my notepaper next to the book. It is not exciting, but that's what I signed on for back in 2000 when I made my resolution to study math and physics.

Acrylic doesn't dry quickly in the humid atmosphere. So I must wait a long time for the paint to dry. My art work used to be as dull as watching paint dry. Now, as soon as the layer is on, I turn to the physics text on the art table next to me, and do another page. I pay attention, until I see heat lightning flicker off to the west, and know that another storm is on its way.

Posted at 3:29 am | link

Tue, 12 Jul, 2005

Yellow and red

The screaming yellow physics review book that I attempted to work with last week was not helpful. In fact, it was confusing and even intimidating. Its notation was full of subscripts and superscripts and initials and carat-marks and arrows which were not only for vectors. Their way of approaching well-studied material somehow made it unfamiliar to me. So I have put it back on the shelf, for now, and picked up instead, yet another basic physics teaching and review text which I've had for a while now but haven't used yet. This is from the now-familiar Schaum's Outlines series, with the bright red spine. The cover has some bright yellow, but is mainly bold, bright text in red and dark blue on white. It does not convey panic, but confidence. This is what it means to be an artist studying physics: you actually pay attention to the design of your text book's cover.

Longtime readers of this journal will remember how much I liked the Schaum's outline for trigonometry. Schaum's does physics too, of course. Their text is in two volumes, both of which I have, and so I'm doing my review of basic statics and kinematics in volume I. This is BEGINNING PHYSICS I, by Alvin Halpern, of Brooklyn College and City University of New York (as the title page advertises). Professor Halpern has graciously given his precious time to write these textbooks for toiling students and at least one middle-aged artist, namely myself. He's also written a companion text called 3000 SOLVED PROBLEMS IN PHYSICS which sounds, depending on who is facing it, like an extended punishment, or a vacation in a land of fun and abundance. There are problems galore in my BEGINNING text, so I don't need the three thousand, at least not now.

To my relief, the numbers and texts are clear and the notation is in symbols I recognize. I've already done some of the problems and gotten them right. I am pleased to page through the first half and see things I have not forgotten. Vectors: did that. Acceleration: been there, done that. Coefficient of friction, Newton's laws, forces and equilibrium: Show you know them by solving those problems. Momentum: well, maybe, we will see. As the promotional text on the back of the book says, "Get the edge on your classmates. Use Schaum's!"

Posted at 3:54 am | link

Sat, 09 Jul, 2005

Alarming Physics Review

The color of the cover alone tells me that I am in trouble. It is a violent yellow with bright green, red, and white graphics on it. The color of the yellow is the one that is used for those "accident/crime scene: do not cross" tapes you see on the road, roping off a place of crashing and carnage. The book is "THE HIGH SCHOOL PHYSICS TUTOR, Second edition. The complete study and answer guide to any textbook," by the ominously anonymous "Research and Education Association." Inside, some names surface: Dr. M. Fogiel, chief editor, and Joseph J. Molitoris, from the Department of Physics at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. The alarming cover, with its hectic graphics, only underscores the fact that if I took a test in classical physics right now, I'd fail miserably.

It's all problems, all the time. Not only that, the problems are all worked out and explained, with the solutions right there, so if I want to test myself without any recourse to help, I have to cover the solution part with a piece of opaque paper so that I won't cheat. I scribble away, try to find a solution, and only then do I pull the paper away to reveal that I have forgotten what I learned only a month ago. Back to the industrial drawing board, back to tensions in ropes and hanging weights and ladders and struts and supports and forces and inclined planes and accelerating objects.

The notation in the Yellow Book is different from what I learned in Barron's. I still haven't figured out what some of those signs mean. I'll figure 'em out sooner or later. And some of the problems cover stuff I haven't done yet, because the sequence of things to learn in each book I have is different. I've been wondering, for instance, just what a force is. Now I have a definition: "A force is a push or a pull acting on some object," says the "Research and Education Association" collective, henceforth referred to as REA. (The more one advances in physics, the more acronyms you use, so I'd better get started now.) Push me, pull you; the forces are equal and opposite.

Chapter one covered vectors, which I have actually managed to learn. I do wonder, though, whether you can do vector problems without drawing a diagram. There must be some ultra-pure mathematical types who can do them without drawing anything. That isn't me, unfortunately. As a visual artist and graphic designer, I live in a world of color, type, design, composition, and symbol that most physicists (unless they branch out into the arts) are blissfully unaware of. That eye-blasting yellow cover might not bother Joe Physicist, but it yells DANGER! DANGER! to me. At least I won't lose the book in the clutter of my studio.

So it's back to reviewing, for the second and third and fourth time, all those problems from the industrial floor of the seventeenth century, with cable tensions, rough-hewn blocks, toiling workmen, rumbling carts, and falling weights. If I keep having to review, I may never get farther than beginning classical mechanics. Sisyphus, endlessly rolling his stone up the inclined plane until it rolled back down, must have been an early physicist.

Posted at 3:07 am | link

Tue, 05 Jul, 2005

Parabolic Trajectories of Light

It was another fine Fourth, not Bradbury-esque as in last year's nostalgia-fest, but up close to the action as I attended a full-scale fireworks display. They were set off in a field belonging to a big neighborhood high school less than a mile from my home. It was a perfect, balmy, cloudless evening, and I sat with the multitude to enjoy a half hour of pure joy. The hazy sky was filled with brilliance and blast and showers of sparks and rainbow colors, the kindest of explosions. Modern inventions lit up the crowd like the fireflies that now fill the forests: glowing plastic light-tubes (I believe they use the same biochemicals as the fireflies do), little screens of cell phones and digital cameras, and even the briefly green-lit dial of my digital watch. Children spun the light tubes in patterns, making elaborate mathematical diagrams out of persistence of vision. And then, once I returned to my neighborhood, there were more fireworks, this time small fire-fountains permitted, on this one night, for use in the driveways and yards.

If there needs to be any more proof that I am now truly a geek, my appreciation of fireworks is it. I kept on thinking of the skyrockets rising up against the force of gravity, against 32 feet per second2, until the upward force is spent and it reaches the top of its trajectory, at which point it explodes and fills the sky with brilliance. What a way to reach zero velocity! Some of the burning fragments kept going, and I could see them trace over the top of the parabola before they burnt out. The chemical explosions add their own momentum, sending the fragments out with much more momentum than the rocket which brought them, but these too are subject to the pull of gravity, thus creating the glorious downdrift of sparks, creating willows and waterfalls of golden fire. I thought about gravity and momentum as I exclaimed over the fireworks. Meanwhile, behind me, another spectator discussed her cholesterol measurements loudly as the rockets soared and blasted away.

I have finished my introduction to momentum, gravity, orbits, Kepler's laws, and other basic material from Chapter 4. I will return to them in due time. Meanwhile, it's on to another very relevant subject: parabolic trajectories for objects shot out at an angle (rather than vertically, as with fireworks). I never know when I might be called on to man the artillery and besiege a stronghold. In the rockets' red glare, the light is still there.

Posted at 2:35 am | link

Mon, 04 Jul, 2005

Big Fat Books

I haven't posted to the Electron in a few days, and the reason is that I have been finishing reading a big fat and very popular book, namely HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX by J.K. Rowling. In case you have no contact with children whatsoever, this is the fifth installment of the famous children's series by British author Rowling about the education and adventures of young wizard Harry Potter in magical school. The sixth book is just about to be released, so I needed to keep up with the series, having read the four previous ones. ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is a massive tome, 870 pages long, and yet the kids (and many adults) just ate it up. As a moderate fan of the series, my opinion is that this epic could have used some editing, like maybe 300 pages worth. But those 300 pages are full of the character interaction, chitchat, descriptions, and other non-story-line stuff that the Rowling fans crave, so no editor dared make the cuts. I was disappointed in the ending, which I thought was kind of trite, but then as I said, I am not a true "fanatic" Harry Potter fan.

When it comes to massive books, I've got a couple of favorites. There are no young wizards or Dark Lords in them; they aren't even fiction, but reference books. One of my favorites, which is so huge I have to store it sitting on its side rather than vertically, is THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF VOLCANOES edited by Icelandic volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson. This massive volcanic bomb of a book contains highly technical articles on everything volcanological and geological, all written by experts in the field. It also has lots of excellent photographs both in color and black and white. And it goes beyond just crunchy geology; it has well-written articles on the cultural and social impact of volcanoes, and even articles on volcanoes in art, literature, and film. I am much more of a volcano fan than I would ever be a Harry Potter fan. So let us recite a reading from the Book of Phreatoplinian Eruptions:

"…In phreatoplinian eruptions, formation of pyroclastic density currents occurs both on a local scale by lateral ejection of material directly from the base of an otherwise stable plume and through partial or complete column collapse, forming flows on a large scale."

This is known in more common language as "blowing up real good." Better than a Harry Potter spellcast any day!

My most recent Big Fat Book is the answer to many of my nagging questions about the history of science. I found it on my latest visit to the Harvard University Coop/Barnes and Noble bookstore in Cambridge. Its size made me hesitate; how could I ever schlep this book home? But when I looked in its pages, I had to have it. It is THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, written by Bryan Bunch with Alexander Hellemans. The history is presented in the form of a timeline of years, packed with thousands of small articles describing what was invented or discovered during those years. Side boxes and illustrations go into more depth. Each mini-article is categorized into a field, for instance mathematics, transportation, physics, energy, construction, or biology. The Encyclopedia goes all the way back to the earliest works of humanity in prehistory, for instance the use of fire by hominids. Ancient history is well-represented, for instance the mathematics of ancient Babylon and the early Greek scientists such as Democritus or Hippocrates. The timeline also covers science and technology in non-European places, for instance a Chinese calculation of Pi to eight significant digits in what would be our seventh century CE. Turn to the seventeenth century in Europe and there is my new acquaintance Isaac Newton and his law of universal gravitation. This is in the 1660's. Now I am well aware that the simple physics that I am learning is hardly as sophisticated as the math and physics that was really being done during that period. But the equations that I'm learning in my high school physics book came from these decades in the seventeenth century. This book is definitely worth the weight.

Posted at 3:28 am | link

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