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 It is no longer being updated.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, 30 Oct, 2006

Filial Piety

The Electron has been silent for the last week while I was up in the Boston area. Now I have returned, fighting my way through heavy weather and high winds southwards towards the sunny autumn of home. It has been a busy week for me. Even if I had not had some problems with posting from my Macintosh, I didn't have time to prepare a readable Weblog entry. My outpost room was mainly a place to sleep and store stuff.

My mother's eighty-fifth birthday went splendidly. She was showered with gifts, dinners, visits, and lots of love and appreciation. She enjoyed Godiva chocolates, "Bellini" peach and wine cocktail, and candied ginger. I helped her out in her art studio, sorting older works and hauling selected newer works to a private studio gallery where she will be showing them. I took a lot of photos and now, for the first time, you will soon be able to see some of my mother's art when I have the images prepared. I will announce the link when it is ready.

I also was able to hear some of my father's new music, a series of beautiful art songs setting the words of Massachusetts poet John Greenleaf Whittier. These are works in progress and he has more to finish. I am proud of both my parents because despite age and infirmity, they are both still making creative art.

The Chinese and other cultures have a concept of filial piety which is a complex mix of devotion, duty, practicality, thanksgiving, and emotion. Our Western "Judeo-Christian" culture simply has the Biblical fifth commandment of the Ten Commandments: "Honor thy father and thy mother." I do what I can, which can never be enough, but at least I try.

The day before I left, Mother and I had another gourmet meal at the famous Casey's Diner in our home town of Natick, Mass. Their steamed hot dogs are famous; you can read about them here. Casey's Diner and my mother are about the same age! Long may both of them live.

I brought my calculus books and some sketchbooks, but I hardly did any art and not a drop of math. Filial piety, done in person, is a full-time job. Now I am back in my studio to attend to my other jobs, and I can return to math and physics as well.

Posted at 1:34 am | link

Tue, 24 Oct, 2006

Outpost Natick

After a rough journey up from Virginia, I am now back in my original home town of Natick, Mass., for my mother's eighty-fifth birthday celebration. I have taken just about everything I need which is portable and have set them up in a cozy little room, where Pyracantha Studios and Electron Blue are now on "field outpost" status. I've got some of my calculus books (not the monumental Anton, which was too heavy to bring) and some art materials, in case I get a chance to make art. I also have with me as many gadgets as I could pack, including my mini sound system and of course SoyMac the laptop. This is the first Electron entry I am writing on SoyMac rather than on the stricken Fravashi or my main home system.

I've got good reading material and plenty of canned espresso that is, Starbucks Original (not "lite") Doubleshots. I also brought with me "juice boxes" of soymilk. Now you know what I can't live without.

We already had one family dinner at a nice restaurant in Newton, Mass. where my mother received flowers and a gift certificate to Barnes and Noble. When we got home, I gave her the first of my presents, a bag full of Trader Joe's goodies and a birthday card signed not only by me but by many of my Trader Joe's co-workers, including the "captain" (manager) and "first mate" (assistant manager).

This whole week will be devoted mostly to the Birthday Girl, but I will get some visiting in on my own, when I make my accustomed trip to Cambridge, my old Harvard habitat. More family festivities will occur. We should all get to be eighty-five and be as distinguished as my mother.

Posted at 12:01 am | link

Thu, 19 Oct, 2006

Windows Service Paralysis 2

Over the many years that I have used PC computers, Windows and Microsoft have been good to me. I always wondered what all those other users were complaining about. Everything worked for me, and my computers never had the kinds of troubles that my friends and correspondents reported. I never lost data to disastrous hard drive failures, nor did I suffer embarrassing computer breakdowns in the middle of writing important texts. I didn't even have mild computer complaints…until now.

I have a modest but very useful Dell laptop, which I bought in 2004 for use at work and on the road. Its name is "Fravashi," which means something like "Divine Immortal Spirit" in ancient Persian. (Aim high, I say.) I have knocked out hundreds of graphic designs on this machine both for my sign work and for my own use. Fravashi accompanied me on my recent journey through Pennsylvania and Maryland, where it stored the digital photographs I took of the countryside and the cows. It worked fine and never gave me any problems or complaints until I tried to upgrade its operating system.

Fravashi, for most of this year, always gave me a whining little screen pop-up when I started the machine, which said, "Windows Service Pack 1 will cease to be supported by Microsoft in October 2006." I knew that Windows Service Pack 2, the upgrade, worked well on my desktop machine (which is named "Pythagoras." OK, I admit it, I'm childish and Unscientific 'cause I name my computers.). Pythagoras, also a Dell, dates not from the fifth century BCE but from 2003, and it had no problems with Service Pack 2.

The upgrade already existed in 2004 when I first attempted to load it onto Fravashi. The results were bad. Fravashi barely worked after the installation. In a panic I called Dell support (for a new computer, this was free) and spent two hours with a kindly Indian temple maiden, uninstalling Service Pack 2. After that episode, Fravashi worked perfectly well again, so I figured I just didn't need the upgrade at all.

Two years later, Fravashi started to clamor for its upgrade again. I think its appetite was bigger than its digital stomach. I spoke to my Expert Friends and they said that Microsoft had had two years to refine Service Pack 2 so that it wouldn't wreck my laptop's delicate constitution. I should then download it and re-install it. Trust Microsoft. Nothing will go wrong. Sure.

On a moist September night I downloaded the upgrade through wireless internet. I then restarted Fravashi a couple of times. I was duly disappointed to find that Fravashi had lost most of its performance and ran as if its circuits were slogging through virtual yogurt. The Service Pack 2 upgrade was no better than it had been in 2004.

Since it was two years after I had acquired the computer, customer service calls to Dell were no longer free. So I had recourse to my Webmistress, who has plenty of experience with these problems, and she came over to try to work on Fravashi. She poked around the software for more than an hour, and diagnosed one of its problems as an incompatibility with Norton's internet protection software. So I de-installed that, which did give Fravashi a bit more pep, but it was still working at a way slower speed than normal. Not only that, it was unprotected against Internet viruses and other "malware," the pleasant term for hostile transmissible computer programs.

In addition, my Webmistress' ministrations seemed to have un-subscribed me from my own home wireless system, though Fravashi could still be connected by cable, or, for God's sake, dial-up if I were really desperate. That didn't mean that Fravashi had no Internet, though. I live in an apartment building with at least four working wireless transmitters (routers) including those of my neighbors which are un-protected against being picked up by strangers, i.e. me. So Fravashi decided to connect to my neighbor's wireless system. Even then, it wasn't doing its Internet right, so in proper Microsoft Windows user fashion, I attempted to re-start the machine again. Fravashi, who had never had to apologize to me before, gave me this message:

"ATI External Event Utility EXE Module has encountered a problem and needs to close. We are sorry for the inconvenience.

If you were in the middle of something, the information you were working on might be lost.

Please tell Microsoft about this problem. We have created an error report that you can send to us. We will treat this report as confidential and anonymous."

I didn't know whether to be comforted or infuriated. I felt more of the latter than the former. It's nice to know that they want to hear about my error report. However, despite (or because of) being connected to someone else's internet wireless, the error report didn't go through. Instead, Fravashi seized up. I had to manually shut it down.

This leaves me with about 7 pounds of mostly inert Dell electronics which are no good to me either at work or while traveling. Fortunately, I now have "SoyMac," my Macintosh laptop, which will gladly, perhaps even gleefully, take up the duties that Fravashi is currently unable to perform. That is, if I can figure out how to operate it without getting that spinning rainbow MacBeachball "stuck" icon.

Posted at 2:08 am | link

Sun, 15 Oct, 2006

Deriving Pleasure

Books are friendly, even if they call you "dummy" in their title. A blogging friend suggested that I get "Calculus for Dummies" and its accompanying workbook. Since I am studying on my own, and live helpers are difficult to reach, books are all-important. Anton and the engineering calculus book, as well as the UC Davis website and others, are all good, but they expect you to have a bit more mathematical knowledge than I do. I backed off from the UC Davis site and returned to my texts, re-reading the chapters on how to get limits and slopes. Then, using the handy information that the Davis site offered me, I was able to recognize when something mathematical needs to be deconstructed in order to find where the limit comes from.

I have now successfully done some of the problems and it's time to move on to the next chapter, using Anton as my primary text. I have been formally introduced to derivatives, which I have already been working on without knowing what they are called. It is really beginning to look like calculus now. Derivative problems will follow. Meanwhile, my "Dummies" book is making sure that I remember my basic algebra and other mathematics that are necessary for doing calculus. "Calculus for Dummies" is folksy, cheerful, and often snarky, but it is much more friendly than the businesslike Anton book. I'm glad to have all this help on paper.

So far, I am actually enjoying calculus. This is because I am not under pressure to learn it. I love solving problems. But I would hate to solve them if I knew my future college and career were dependent on them. I read constantly of scientists trying to interest young folks in science. They work hard on outreach to middle schools and high schools, they run learning programs and write books and even help make films and TV shows to attract young people, hoping that perhaps a few of them will decide to go into professional science. I wonder whether the scientists know that here and there, older people are also interested in it, and devoted enough to work through calculus and physics even though they will never contribute to the field or even connect with the "scientific community."

Posted at 3:16 am | link

Wed, 11 Oct, 2006

Circumventing Indeterminacy

I have not been able to replicate my early successes in solving limit problems. They all seem to get away from me. What's more, they are consumable. Once I've either solved or failed one, I can't go back and solve it again until I've forgotten it, which will take about a week. Meanwhile the problems in the set, in the unbreakable tradition of math problem sets, get harder and harder as you go on, so that if I missed the early ones I will not have an easier time with the later ones. Thus I must quest for more introductory calculus problems, hoping that sooner or later I will figure out how to do them again.

One of the reasons I'm not doing so well as I did before was that earlier on, I was doing them simply by rote, in a mechanical way, as I learned in Anton's book. I had no idea why I should do the work, only that I should do it. But why do it that way? When do you factor out the algebra, and when do you leave it alone? (Why am I learning calculus? Because of a challenge to myself many years ago. In 2001, a blind man climbed to the summit of Mount Everest. If he could do that, I could learn mathematics and physics.)

I had recourse to almighty Google (Please don't be evil, even if you can buy the whole Internet!) and typed in "Calculus Problems." Up came a site from the University of California at Davis (where, coincidentally, my geo-chemist cousin teaches in the Geology department) which offered typical lists of calculus problems. I addressed the first set of "Limits of Functions as X approaches a Constant" problems and promptly got lost. I needed to read the introduction again. It always helps to read the instructions. Sometimes I forget that. This time the virtual professor offers up this advice.

"…In fact, the form "0/0" is an example of an indeterminate form. This simply means that you have not yet determined an answer. Usually, this indeterminate form can be circumvented by using algebraic manipulation. Such tools as algebraic simplification, factoring, and conjugates can easily be used to circumvent the form "0/0" so that the limit can be calculated."

So that's why you have to factor those polynomials out. Why couldn't the book just tell me that, or did I miss it? And the using isn't so easy, when I haven't done that type of factoring for about four years. I dusted off my beautifully calligraphed algebra notes and found out how I deconstruct this or that. And then after you've done the work, then you crank the Newtonian wheels and out pops the limit. But I've consumed the problem. Now I can't solve it again for a while, and I need to find more fresh calculus problems, rather like a squirrel foraging for acorns in the autumn woods.

Posted at 2:58 am | link

Sat, 07 Oct, 2006

Please help a puppy condemned to death by gas chamber

As of October 2006, I now have 2,429 correctly printed address labels. They've been coming in almost daily, in packs of anywhere from around 20 to more than 90. I have flowers, autumn leaves, cutesy cartoon people, snowmen, kitties and puppies, and bright folksy patterns, as well as the noble first letter of my aristocratic last name in pompous Old English characters.

In order to use all of these in a legitimate way, one to each regular fare domestic American letter mailing, I would have to spend $947.31. That's if each piece had a 39 cent stamp on it. If I were mailing overseas, it would of course be more, but still a single label use.

I incurred all these address labels by no more than five innocent acts of charity. I gave to an animal welfare organization, a cancer research foundation, UNICEF, and a couple of other worthy causes. I wonder what kind of labels I would get if I gave to other kinds of organizations. Perhaps, for a modest contribution fee, I could amass a vast collection of printed name and address labels in the tens of thousands, embellished with a wide variety of images and causes. People and animals are suffering all over the world. Every label calls my name in a pleading voice. All I have to do is keep giving, and they'll send me more.

Posted at 3:44 am | link

Fri, 06 Oct, 2006

Calculus Review Panic, episode 2

I have now spent more than four months on learning about limits and instantaneous velocities. Yet when I returned to the sets of problems that I had already done (in August) I found that I had forgotten how to do them. This was dismaying, but not unfamiliar. I doubt whether I could solve any of the trigonometric identity problems I solved back in 2004, let alone the logarithm problems I struggled over later that year. And if I were called upon to do one of those sliding block problems in first year physics, I couldn't work it right away. I'd have to look back at my notes and the relevant text in the book before I could solve it.

As a solitary learner, I don't know whether this is typical or whether I am just, well, dim. I found pencilled notes in my calculus textbook from a couple of months ago, that made no sense to me now. In fact, one of them was completely wrong, a result of mistaking one problem for another, and I had to erase it. I patiently went over the instructional chapter again on finding limits for various kinds of functions. "Divide the numerator and denominator by the highest power of x that occurs," says author Anton helpfully. Then set x to zero, or find out what would make the various denominators go to that forbidden zero. Somewhere in that process, a limit emerges.

These are techniques that are still new to me. I guess I will have to do these calculations many, many times before they become familiar. They are mechanical and remind me of clockwork, or a mathematical crank that I can turn as long as I have the right handle or key. It has a kind of Enlightenment early-industrial feel to it, just like the seventeenth century era in which calculus was born. I will have to turn a lot of wheels before I can make this engine work.

Posted at 3:01 am | link

Tue, 03 Oct, 2006

Old College Fantasy

In October, with the leaves turning red and gold, and students well-settled into their new year, fantasies and false memories of college drift through the air. We are not talking about the universities and colleges of our modern time and culture, but the idealized American "collegiate" world of the early twentieth century. It is documented not as much in "real life" as in books, songs, images, and films, as well as a whole tradition of advertising and illustration art. Classic American artists like J.C. Leyendecker and especially Norman Rockwell popularized the idyllic but strenuous image of "college days."

Interestingly, these fond fantasies rarely have to do with education. A look at the Rockwell (and other artists') series of "college-themed" Saturday Evening Post covers shows us images of graduation gowns and diploma ceremonies, social life, crew, singing, flirting, and an autumn bonfire, but few images of studying or learning. The main theme of these college images is football, football, and more football. What else is college for?

They wore raccoon coats and rode in open cars with rumble seats, waving bright banners with big block-letter names and initials on them. Young men learned to smoke pipes, and adopted the fashions which even now distinguish the intellectual class: tweeds with leather elbow patches or wool blazers, crew-neck sweaters, casual slacks, and even argyle socks. The Collegiate Girl is part of the whole scene, with her own wardrobe which, unlike the man's outfit, has almost completely disappeared.

I went to college in the early 1970s. This was, as those of us old enough to remember know, a time of major political and social turmoil. My college years had no crew, singing, bonfires, cheerleaders, block letters, seasonal ceremonies, Greek-letter organizations, and no football at all. Instead, college life was just as tempestuous, or even more so, than the chaotic American society of the later Vietnam War era. There was no cheering and bright banners, but picket signs, chanting, and the noise of anti-war and anti-whatever demonstrations. Instead of parties, there were cadre meetings and sit-ins. Instead of bonfires of autumn leaves, I smelled the burning of a more perennial weed. And I did far more studying than these carefree collegians of the Post covers and the illustrated ads. But I'm sure that one thing is the same then and now: those Rockwell boys and girls drank as much, or even more, than I and my fellow "collegians" did.

Some years back I did a series of guest lectures (on art and Zoroastrianism) at a big state university in Indiana. While on my way there, I visited DePauw University, a small but prestigious college located in the beautiful town of Greencastle, Indiana. If you have the time and the bandwidth, I invite you to take the "virtual tour" of the DePauw campus. You can see photos of their nineteenth and twentieth-century buildings in all four seasons. I saw them in the iconic college month of October, at the peak of the fall foliage season. It was my first trip out to the Midwest (I have since been back many times) and as I walked through the bright sunlight on the green lawns of DePauw, I felt as though I had somehow gone back in time to the 1920s or 30s. Unlike the grinding, arrogant, surly college life I knew in the urban Northeast, I saw what seemed like those Post covers come alive. There were cheerful, sweatered collegians walking on the paths carrying bookbags. The streets were lined with well-kept residences and cars, and there was no sign of unrest, demonstrations, graffiti, violence, or drugs. I could not help thinking that perhaps DePauw had escaped the harshness that I had known in my academic years, and that the colorful banners could still wave in the crisp blue sky.

But I knew better. Just because DePauw looked ideal, did not mean that it was ideal. No doubt behind those neat walls, students drugged, drank, cheated, and fornicated just as they do everywhere else, and professors engaged in those academic politics that are so bitter because "so little is at stake." I wanted this green castle in the distant, open Midwest to be better, more peaceful, more polite and well-behaved, and perhaps even kinder than my Northeast. I didn't stay around to have my illusions broken.

Now that I am studying "college" math, I think about college experiences, and I remember why I have not hastened to return to some institution of higher learning to work out my calculus and physics. I just don't want to go through those years again, or any part of those years. The sunlight shines on the golden autumn leaves on the campus of fantasy, but the campus of reality is a far different, and darker place.

Posted at 3:44 am | link

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