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 It is no longer being updated.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.

Tue, 29 Nov, 2005

Salon Pyracantha

I've returned from north of Baltimore and am resting up from three days of conventioneering. It seems that it is taking me more time than usual to recover from the stresses of the weekend. This may be just because I am, uh, older, or it might be that I picked up a mild virus at the convention, or that my allergy to leaf mold is bothering me. But I am back at my day job, so whatever it is doesn't prevent me from going to work.

While at this convention, on Friday and Saturday nights, I played the role of Hostess in my room, holding what I and my friends have come to know as my "Salon." I invite them, and provide wine and tasty munchies (from Trader Joe's of course), wineglasses, and a chance to have interesting conversation. This is the kind of conversation that most of us wish we had more of in "real life," that is talk about philosophy, religion, science, or art. My Salon is not just a gossipfest! It's a chance for people who usually connect only online to see each other face to face and have a sip as well. Other Salon attendees usually bring more goodies, such as one of my Friendly Mathematicians who always brings his bread-baking machine to conventions. He brought fresh-baked bread to go with the wine and the sweets.

While at the convention I was able to sit down with another of my Friendly Mathematicians (not the one with the bread) and clarify a very simple problem of algebraic proportionality which I had not managed to understand. I didn't do that much math or physics at the convention, though; I didn't have the time. Much of my convention time was spent bringing people to the art show to see my display, and talking about my work both current and future. My efforts were not entirely successful. I sold five of the ten pieces I had on the display panel, and all of these for very low prices. Only one of the pieces I showed on the previous entries was sold, "Green Warp." The rest will be kept for the next show, whenever that is. Fortunately, with the day job I no longer depend on earnings from conventions.

I have often wondered what it is like at physics conventions, which must be much more high-powered and intense (and more abundantly provisioned when it comes to drink) than my little convention on Thanksgiving weekend. If I lived in a more spacious dwelling or an actual house, I would like to hold Salon more often. But socializing is tiring for me, and my hostess duties probably contribute to my after-convention dragginess. It's good to get back to the secluded studio, even if I haven't unpacked from the convention yet.

Posted at 3:39 am | link

Thu, 24 Nov, 2005

Art Experiments

I haven't had time to do too much physics, because I am preparing for another art show this weekend. The idea is to make as many small paintings as possible and sell them at low prices. If art is valued by its size, these are not very valuable. I do them as "experiments," opportunities to work out ideas, and if they work, that's fine. If they don't work, that's fine too, I'll just sell them at a lower price or even give them away.

An artistic "experiment" isn't at all like a scientific experiment. There is no quantitative factor, no way to measure whether an artistic experiment has proved anything or not. I could say that it's a success if someone buys it, but that really doesn't prove much, because I have known people to buy bad art, even my bad art. An artistic experiment is judged aesthetically, not quantitatively, and despite the praise of "beauty" and "elegance" among mathematicians and theoretical physicists, this is not what art aesthetics are about at all, at least not these days. What are the data from an art experiment? What does an art experiment prove? For me, it comes down to a combination of technical factors, aesthetic judgement regarding color, texture, and composition, and finally, how people react to the picture.

Regarding art technicalities, here's an example. Some of the pictures I have been painting, the space ones, are painted over the remains of an old unfinished picture on illustration board, which I cut up into smaller pieces. I like to paint space pictures on black backgrounds, but instead of using my airbrush to spray artists' acrylic paint on them, in the name of expediency I took a spray can of Krylon ultra-flat black interior/exterior paint and quickly laid on a coat. I think this was probably a bad idea. The paint dried with a granular texture and when I tried to paint over it with acrylic, it either didn't adhere too well, or it picked up the granularity which I didn't want when doing smooth space textures. So I won't be using Krylon again on my paintings. I guess that could be considered an experimental finding.

When it comes to aesthetic judgement, things get more complicated. Some viewers may like a picture that I think "fails." Why would a picture "fail?" Because, in my judgement, it doesn't show up well, its compositional masses are unbalanced (wait, isn't that physics?), or the colors are dull or clashing. And the ultimate failure of a painting, at least for me, is that no one likes it and no one will buy it. That means that it isn't communicating anything to possible viewers, and for me art is a form of communication. My dusty closets have some of these losers hidden away in folders.

I hope I'm not creating too many of these for my upcoming show. After Thanksgiving, I'll be going up to the Baltimore area for a small fantasy convention show this weekend. Here are two more of the small pieces I've done for this show.

This one's called "Double Planet." Acrylic and Krylon on illustration board, 8" x 10".

I have also produced some fantasy pictures for the non-space fans. These pretty, trite castles and maidens never fail to appeal to buyers. Here's one called "Twilight Castle." Colored pencil and acrylic on blue paper, 9" x 11".

Happy thanksgiving, everybody!

Posted at 2:59 am | link

Sun, 20 Nov, 2005

200 Electrons

I've reached another round number of postings, and as 2005, the "World Year of Physics," nears its end, I am doing better. I do not feel as intimidated by first-year physics as I was earlier this year. I know that it's going to take me longer than a year to do the rest of first-year physics, since I have to divide my time between art, physics, and commercial work. But that's all right, as long as I'm doing some physics every day, even one or two problems. I'm still in Newtonworld, and will be for some time to come.

Another good thing at 200 is that I now have e-mail contact with another Friendly Physicist (again, my policy is not to name any names) who has given me messages of encouragement and even ideas on what to do with all this physics I'm learning, while not giving up my art work. Some people think it's important that I keep doing art. I treasure my contacts with my Friendly Scientists. Some of them I have known for years now. They are one of the ways I overcome my many moments of discouragement. So thank you all Friendly Scientists, older and newer.

If you have been with me since the beginning of this Weblog, you may have noticed that I often use automotive metaphors, and that the name of my car is the "Electron." I have loved cars since my youth, especially from the visual and artistic point of view. At one point I was even interested in becoming an automotive designer. I am always aware of car design, color, features, cargo load, and performance. Since I drive the Electron almost every day, I get to see an endless variety of vehicles, everything from ordinary Nissans and Fords to fresh new high-concept cars like the lovable, box-like Toyota Scion XB (best viewed on cable modem only) or the Euro-retro Chevy HHR (also viewable only on cable modem) which comes not only in my own color of "Electron Blue," which they call "Daytona Blue," but an awesome, fiery blaze orange. These exotic new particles are now flowing in the streams of traffic in the great urban accelerator. When I do physics, I feel like I am driving, even if I am really just sitting still in front of a book and calculations. So I will continue to drive my Weblog, one electron at a time. Well, that's 200 down, 3.14159 x 1080 to go.

Some new art

I have a small convention show coming up on Thanksgiving weekend, which I have gone to for the last twenty-six years. Science fiction fan children have been born and grown to maturity during that time. Even if I now have pretensions to being a "Fine" artist, I still love the fantasy and science fiction stuff. I have been making tiny pictures for this show, and here are a couple of the better ones.

This one's called "Green Warp." 8" x 10", acrylic on illustration board.

And this one's called "Chrome Probe." 8" x 10", acrylic on illustration board.

Posted at 4:02 am | link

Tue, 15 Nov, 2005

The Banked Curve of Lost Illusions

I am currently pondering the physics of banked curves in roadways. Everyone even slightly aware of roadways and cars has encountered turns in which the road is tilted up sideways so that one has to go uphill to take the turn. This is especially apparent in car racing tracks where the banking angle is quite steep to compensate for the high speeds of the race cars. But why are the turns tilted, while the straightaways are flat? It has to do with Newton's law of NASCAR: F = ma. And Newton's law of gravity as well. The force that keeps the car on the road when it is making a turn is the friction of the tires pushing the car towards the center of its curved turn (as if it were going around in a circle, rather than just taking a turn). The faster the car is going, the more the inertia of the car wants to just fly off the road in a straight line rather than keep turning. Hence the noise of tires and the excitement as a speeding car takes a turn. But there is a way to help the cars stay on the road: let gravity do some of it. The banked turn adds the force of gravity, at least a portion of it, to the anti-skid friction force of the tires. If the car skids, it has to skid uphill. But at the same time, as one of my Friendly Scientists has informed me, the incline also takes away some of the force holding down the car (the "normal" force) so that the drivers still have to be careful to calculate just how much speed they can have going into the turn. There are always mistakes to be made on the high-speed turns.

On the notorious Washington Capitol Beltway, there is a stretch near Bethesda and Silver Spring in Maryland, which takes three or four rather sharp turns, at least for a major highway. If you drive (as I have done countless times) on this stretch during one of the less trafficky hours of the day, you come into this segment at speed and take those turns like a race driver. Each of these curves has a very noticeable tilt, to help the Beltway bashers keep their vehicles on the road. I call this section the "Bethesda Speedway."

The section is anything but a speedway at evening rush hour times (which last from 3 PM until 8 PM in the DC-Metro area). The cars are packed in there for miles, halted by roadwork, accidents, or just plain "volume," as the traffic radio announcers euphemistically say. I have inched along with the hapless drivers in this dreary stream many a time. When they get to the inclined curves which were designed to be taken at 50 MPH or more, they are going about 5 MPH. So the speed is not compensating for the tilt, and the drivers and passengers just sit there on an incline, oozing downward toward the left-side doors of their speedless conveyance.

There is, though, one especially sharp curve at Silver Spring, where no matter how dense or slow the traffic is, things speed up. I never fail to hope, when I am about to enter this curve where things are moving, that this is the end of the backup and I will be in the clear to drive freely. I see the cars speeding up in front of me. I see space between them. They are taking this banked turn with adequate speed. Free at last! But no, after the curve, out of my sight, the cars back up again, and the slow line of traffic continues as it did before. There must be some sort of physics which explains why the traffic speeds up only for this few hundred yards of curve, and then stops again. Is it the incline? Is it because drivers coming up on it can't see beyond it? What mysterious force liberates the flow just for that moment and then bottles it up again? I have a name for this Beltway curve, which is so full of physics and disappointment. I call it the Curve of Lost Illusions, where brief hope is quickly crushed under a multitude of slowly turning wheels.

Posted at 3:30 am | link

Sun, 13 Nov, 2005

Geek Thrills

You know you're a geek when the most exciting thing to happen to you all week is the arrival of a big new bookcase. If you've ever wondered what my dwelling looks like (can't imagine why you would), it probably looks JUST LIKE YOURS. I have too many books(over 2500), many of them big picture books about art and architecture. My apartment is crammed with books, CD's, art stuff, plants, and collectible items, just as yours probably is. I would love to move to larger quarters, but I don't know where. Certainly anything larger in my neighborhood is way out of my price range. When I finally do move, which will happen eventually I hope, it will be a huge undertaking.

There is nothing in the universe, short of a major black hole, more gravitationally attractive than an empty bookcase shelf. Seeing it in my dwelling gives me a kind of drug-like high which says to me: LOOK EMPTY SPACE YOU CAN GET MORE BOOKS! I don't think there are many people left in the world who feel this way, maybe a few thousand in each big city. I happen to know that an old man who lives down the street from me in a decrepit house with junk all over the yard, has an outbuilding in the back where he keeps more than 10,000 books. I wonder what will happen to that collection when the old man goes to the great library in the sky.

Progress in physics

I thought I was making no progress in my physics studies, but it's not true. I really have made progress in this first year of physics. I may not have gotten through standard college classical mechanics yet, but much of it is now familiar to me. It's like learning a language. Let's say physics is like Vietnamese, a language of which I know not a single word. Vietnamese is written in somewhat modified Western characters, rather like physics, so I can read it, but at first nothing means anything to me. But as I learn this language, or, in analogy, physics, bits and pieces start to make sense. Now when I look into classical physics texts or sites, I recognize stuff. Vectors. Acceleration. Gravity. Force and equilibrium. Trajectories. Mechanical advantage. And mass, work, and energy. I am still in the middle of it and will be for quite a long time, but after a year, I am beginning to understand the language. As for Vietnamese, I still don't know it at all, despite the intriguing restaurants.

Posted at 3:38 am | link

Fri, 11 Nov, 2005

Cycles and epicycles

I'm back in the studio after a couple of weeks of not painting or drawing, due to sickness and travel. My next show is at a small fantasy convention, the same one I've been at for the last twenty-seven years or so. It is one of the few remaining conventions I attend. My earlier days were full of these meetings, which marked the cycle of my year. I can only make tiny pictures for this show now since no one there has any money to spend. They are old hippies and Pagans and have never had any more than a few dollars for books, trinkets, and bits of fantasy art. Now they are really getting old, greyer and less healthy, but not any richer.

I do get to see a couple of my Friendly Mathematicians at this show, though, which is one of the reasons I go to it. I am there mostly for socializing anyway. I will bring my books and problems. It is easier for me now than it was back in my freelance days, because I have the day job now and a steady source of income, so I don't have to worry about selling anything at the convention.

I am also back doing my physics. I have almost returned to the place I was at before I got sick and before I went to Massachusetts. Once I return there, I will move ahead into material I have studied before but only very simply. The cycle for me is simple introduction, then more complex re-working of the same material, and then more complexity with extra examples not found in the earlier, less complete lessons. This is why it takes me three times round to learn anything in physics. It is interesting, if dismaying, to see what the simpler books (such as Barron's "made easy" book) leave out.

This way of learning things, by circling round and round again in cycle and epicycle, seems quite inefficient, but I don't know any other way. It takes me at least those three times before I remember something for good. And even then, I forget a lot of it until I review it again. One learning problem I have not solved is how much I need to know perfectly by memory so that I will always have it at hand, and how much I can half-remember and look up again. There is nobody to tell me whether I have made any progress, only the amount of book that I have gone through, and the amount that remains.

Posted at 2:52 am | link

Mon, 07 Nov, 2005

Trying to get unblocked

The fall colors are glorious: golden and red against a crystal-blue sky, and the temperatures are unusually warm for this time of year. The leaves whirl on the sidewalks and streets, and the pumpkins are still orange. Elsewhere on this little planet, people are suffering and dying in mass numbers, from natural disasters, wars, plagues, and poverty. The internet or the TV or the newspapers will always remind me of this. I recently read an excellent article on the Boston Globe website by James Parker, a review of English fantasy books, but one of its last paragraphs describes my mood perfectly. I'll quote the relevant excerpts from it here:

"Who can ignore the merry foreground, the delirium of distraction, that currently prevails in American life—in a country at war, under threat of terror, with an impending energy crisis and a scandalous political culture? One senses that unknown dangers are preparing to assert themselves, and the closer they get, the dreamier everyday life seems to feel. (Italics are mine.)"

Maybe it is a November thing. Those bright fall leaves are just the last flames before the freezing darkness that will envelop me for the next four months. North is winter, south is hurricanes. Am I living in a dream? Which world is real? Where will my place of refuge be? One of them is physics.

I am going through the chapter on sliding blocks and Newton's laws again. I will work on it until I understand it. Two steps forward, one step back. I am sometimes asked why I don't just skip this tedious high school stuff and go to more adventurous things: non-linear geometry! quantum mechanics! string theory! I don't know if I will ever get to study those things. I need to have a solid background in the "ordinary" physics before I work with any of the modern, more exotic physics. I wish that I were smarter, and faster, in math and physics, but at this point, this is what I can do.

I have another refuge from the world of sorrow, and I have had it for most of my life. The English fantasy authors that James Parker was writing about knew about this refuge. I am hardly in their literary league, but that does not stop me from doing what they do, in my small way. If you are interested, please visit my Pyracantha main page and you will find a new section there.

Posted at 2:51 am | link

Fri, 04 Nov, 2005

Washing the rapidograph pens

The stress of the last few weeks has given me a slowdown, and when it comes to art or physics, I can't do very much. I seem to have forgotten everything I tried to learn about sliding blocks or F= ma or gravity. So what do I do? I do the dumb tasks that I left undone while I was preparing for the art show.

I'm sure that some people hold artists in as much awe and esteem as I hold physicists. They think artists do magic just the way I think physicists work with arcane power and knowledge. So I will share an insight into what artists really do. They wash equipment. At least I do. The most annoying task which I left undone during the busy months was cleaning the rapidograph pens.

Rapidograph technical pens have been around for a long time now. Even in an age of digital imaging, these thin-pointed pens are still standard equipment in many drafting studios. They are basically fountain pens with an ink reservoir and a small, straight, unyielding tubular point, which can range from about a millimeter at the largest, to superfine hair-thin lines. They use a pen-ready, thinner form of old-fashioned black or brown India ink, as well as pigmented colored inks. They are easy to draw along rulers and straightedges, and they don't bend, which makes them ideal for technical and architectural drawing. But if you want a changeable, expressive line, this is not the pen to use.

I've used them for decades, mostly for architectural drawing. I used to use them for sketching on-site, but they don't travel well; they leak at the slightest motion or change in air pressure. In the last ten years, fiber-tip markers such as the excellent "Pitt" series by Faber-Castell of Germany have become my first choice for on-site sketching. But in the studio, the Rapidographs are still the ones to use.

Anyone who has used Rapidographs, though, knows that they are temperamental and clog easily. If you leave one uncapped for more than a minute or so, it dries up and becomes frustratingly unusable. They also don't like rougher paper; they perform best on smooth surfaces. And they can suddenly glop, too, releasing a curse-inducing blob of ink onto your perfectly drawn rendering.

To prevent this and keep the pens working properly, you have to worship them. Well, not really, though I used to refer to Rapidograph maintenance as "worship" because you have to be devoted to it. They just won't work if you don't clean them. I do this every few months, as long as the pen is in use and has ink in it.

To clean a Rapidograph, you must disassemble it into its tiny parts, including miniature plastic tubes most of which are fastened together by clips or screw helixes in the cylinders. The point itself comes apart into the tube point and the delicate wire inside which guides the ink down the tube. If the point is thin, the wire is also very thin and easy to break.

I take apart the pens in a sink, with a drain stopper that allows water through but will catch small pen parts that roll towards the drain. I run a trickling stream of lukewarm water to wash the pen parts in. Once disassembled, the point and ink reservoir yield black streams of ink as they are purified. You might think that only the most delicate of instruments and cleaners could be used on these pens, but surprisingly, I use rough brushes, bottle-washers, strong detergent, and even bleach-enhanced scouring powder on the plastic pen parts. This treatment doesn't seem to damage the points, as I have maintained some well-used individual Rapidograph points for more than ten years.

Once I've gone through the job of cleaning and shaking all ink out of the pens until water running through them is clear, I then wrap the disassembled pen parts in paper towels and bring them into my studio, where I gently dry them with tissue paper. Then I lay the aggregated parts out on the paper towels to air-dry. Each pen is now a handful of tubes and connectors, carefully sorted out to match. I leave them unassembled for a day or so, and then re-assemble them for further use. I will be re-assembling things later today as I return to studio work. My clean pens remain empty until ready to be used again, kind of like my brain right now.

Posted at 3:44 am | link

Wed, 02 Nov, 2005

Electron Home

I am back in my studio residence after an exhausting week traveling to Massachusetts, putting my art show up, and returning. The journey to New England takes two days of hard driving. I have to go through six or seven big cities to get there, and all but a few miles of this almost-500 mile trip are through heavily urbanized areas.

Most of my readers already know where I start my journey, but for those few Electron readers who don't know, I am located near Washington, DC, in the teeming suburbs of Northern Virginia. To get to Massachusetts, I must pass through or near DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia/South Jersey, North Jersey/New York, New Haven, and Hartford. Only north of Hartford, Connecticut, does the road lose its urban congestion and pass into the dark, piney woods.

I have been making this journey for more than seventeen years, two or three times a year. So I have made it at least fifty times. It does not get any easier over the years. I am not a trucker, used to doing this professionally. The entire trip takes ten to eleven hours if driven straight through, but I break it into two segments, with a stopover. There are always traffic backups due to accidents, roadwork, or just plain crowding. There are messy, pot-hole-ridden roads. There is bad weather, as I had on my way up, and there are bad drivers, which I must watch for at all times. But there are also my favorite landmarks, which I wait for: the tall bridges of Maryland and Delaware, the BASF plant in central New Jersey, the awesome oil refineries of Elizabeth, New Jersey, with their blazing gas flares. There are the towers of New York, now diminished by two; the first white New England church spire in southern Connecticut, the glimpse of ocean near West Haven, Connecticut, the groves of dark pines north of Hartford, and the "Traveler" restaurant in Union, Connecticut at the Massachusetts border. This eatery with its distinctive yellow roof also features a used book store and an antique store among the pines. This is the path of the Electron.

I'm often asked why I don't just take the plane, which would get me to New England in much less time. The reason is that I am often taking wagonloads of stuff to and from my parents' home, and the bulky goods would be impossible to haul on board a plane. This time, my car was full of art. Or as they say in the Boston area, my cah was full of aht.

So now the art is up on the walls. That mission is accomplished, and I have no idea whether anyone will buy the paintings. It is a market that I have never entered before; the Bakery on Natick Center's Common is frequented by a much wider assortment of people than the science fiction fans who have previously viewed and bought my art. I am interested in what their reaction will be. The art is quite close to the tables. But fortunately, coffee splatters wash off of acrylic paint.

As an aspiring physicist (to which I cannot really aspire) I've noticed that many physicists do risky, macho endurance sports like mountain and rock climbing, high slope skiing, marathon running, and triathlons. It seems to be part of physics culture. For my physicist endurance sport, I have chosen "long-distance high speed urban driving." This sport takes me from the desolate stretches of the New Jersey Turnpike to the chaotic orbits of the Capital Beltway. During my journeys, I get to watch physics in action: acceleration, momentum, centripetal force, banked turns, even low-speed relativity as I watch vehicles "recede" in my rear-view mirror, though they are not going backwards at all.

Lost October

Despite my art production and my road-tripping bravado, my physics studies are not going well at all. I tried to keep at the work while I was finishing my show art, but I was just too busy to do a lot with it. I was also sick for two weeks, and unable to concentrate, so I lost a lot of time in October. I will have to review the whole tedious business of cord tensions and sliding blocks. I tried to go through the section on Newton's law of universal gravity when I was up in Massachusetts, but I didn't get far. I am bogged down not only in gravity, but in the notation that Schaum's uses to describe physics and its equations. For instance, there are lots of different sub-scripts which are not always adequately explained. Evidently a subscript indicates what the main letter is referring to. I've had to figure out the difference between capital G (the constant of gravity) and small g which is the acceleration of gravity. This is the written notation of physics, and I have to learn it. It's kind of like Russian script, where I can figure out some of the letters, but not others. I'd better get used to it.

I've been through these things before. Do I really have to go through things three times in order to learn them? I guess I do. I started with a very simple introduction book. Then I went through the same thing in Barron's "Made Easy" book. Now I am working through Schaum's, and it is as if I never studied it before. Maybe I should have just started with Schaum's and not used the easier intro books. I feel obligated to learn the material well enough so that I could solve problems in it without referring back to the examples in the book. It seems that the only way I can learn something is to solve many, many problems with it. I cannot skip over problems in Schaum's lists, because each one builds on information that is solved for in the previous one.

I would like to straighten out some of my confusion with the help of one of my physicist friends, but my "Friendly Scientists" are scattered throughout the USA, accessible only by Internet. The closest one is in Baltimore, and I only see him once a year, at the Baltimore science fiction convention. Some things are best worked out in actual face-to-face tutorials, rather than online. But that's very hard to do, for me. In a classroom, I'd already be hopelessly behind, the way I was in high school. But if I can travel the Jersey Turnpike fifty times, for seventeen years, I can somehow work out the difficulties of high-school physics.

Posted at 2:20 am | link

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