Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

EM, QM, and Frustration

October 23, 2013


Graduate school so far is strange sort of growing vacuum. When you’re expanding things in terms of Legendre polynomials one hour before midnight on a Monday, you really do forget that most people in the world don’t think about math constantly– especially when you honestly are in so deep that  can’t imagine your life without it.

I command my brain to work. Most of the time it doesn’t listen unless it wants to; I often feel utterly unengaged. I am longing to read, and I “waste time” reading news.  I try to will myself into being interested in homework instead, but the government was down for a while–so, can I blame the Tea Party?

What’s fortunate is that when you’re busy enough with something, it is easier to forget to think about what you could be doing otherwise, right? I could be writing, organizing, programming, running, drawing, working, saying hello, sleeping, worrying, etc. It’s a privileged position, to be paid for doing a PhD while thinking of what one could be doing otherwise.

So, this is it: We are learning what people smarter than us have come up with so far in terms of the Fundamental Ideas that order the world. I hope this time I’ll actually learn them. We are running through the canon (QM, EM) one final time– I doubt it’ll stick, but I’ll try.

It’s painful to think that this blog is dying, but I have to honest: It’s dying. I’m going to make one last promise to attempt to revive it. I furthermore promise that I’m not going to write about how much coffee I drink (a common, and rather boring and whiny theme among the grad-school social media crowd) or many hours I spend on problem sets (hint: a lot of hours, duh).

See you soon.

À tôt, Bisous!


nos vamos

April 8, 2013


Gratuitous California Photo, North of Bodega Bay. 

Possibly the worst and yet most common way to begin a blog post to to apologize profusely for not blogging frequently or recently. As you notice, I’ve done neither. If at all possible, it could be because as of late I’ve been too lazy and self absorbed to write here (strange, because blogging is typically the perfect outlet for me in a lazy and self absorbed state.) In the last month I’ve been to Madison and Vancouver, trying to decide where I want to live and work for the next six years or more. My visits to these schools seem to transport me into some alternate, bizarre, reality in which professors and graduate students try to win me over with promises of exciting research, excellent resources, a few fancy dinners, and the glamorous allure of student half price season ski tickets to Whistler.

And tomorrow I’m headed back up to Berkeley to receive the same kind of treatment from the department which over the last five years has not only given me access to every opportunity in Physics I’ve had so far, but also made me cry and bleed (no joke) on several occasions. I’m not quite sure what to expect, but admittedly I am a little nervous to re-encounter professors and graduate students to whom I’ve groveled, cried* and begged for homework help, practice problems, and basic explanations of highly abstract ideas in the very recent past. Am I ready to become, myself, one of them?

I was planning to continue by saying that I wouldn’t offer you a verbose apology and explanation for not blogging, but now I realize I already have. Whoops. Anyway.

As everyone knows, of course, there is a cycling metaphor for every shade of human emotion and enterprise: A great way to get back into cycling after somewhat of a hiatus is to go out and find the highest mountain in your vicinity, one that you’ve ridden before, and spin up it in your lowest gear. You’ll feel heavy, slow, and out of breath. You may or may not be taunted by rosy hued memories of shifting up, getting out of the saddle, and racing gleefully up similar peaks. You may or may not feel like crying as you realize you don’t have the energy to stand up and you begin to regret not having mountain bike gearing even if your road bike, somewhat embarrassingly, still has a triple.

I am going to re-approach writing, and writing here in this way. At least one post here a week, at least 250 (unpublished) words a day. My blog here is undoubtedly a bit old fashioned (original WordPress theme, not linked to any other form of social media, sometimes I use the word ‘whilst,’ etc.). I don’t really plan to change it that much, apart from possibly being a little less cryptic since apparently colleagues, mentors, and friends read this blog already. Actually using it again seems to be a good place to start.



* Yes, on one occasion I did cry in front of a graduate student instructor at Berkeley. I’m not particularly proud, but it is what it is.


Miscellany, Genève and Flanges

May 14, 2012

Genève, City of Rainbows, a view from Deux Ponts

From the silence here you may have guessed, the whirlwind has picked up here in PhysicsLand. Flanges, flanges…so many flanges. Leak checks, leaks, discarded copper gaskets. More flanges, bellows, pumps and gauges. Visible holes in weld joints…yes, seriously. Blood and sweat and tears (of joy and otherwise) but still: No beam. Not yet. It’s a long road ahead before we’re able to play with antimatter again; longer than I had truly been able to comprehend before.

So, here are just a few random stories for fun, because I’ve been neglectful, and because this is what blogs are for, right?

1. CERN may be one the only place in the world were you can take an hour long break from working with ion pumps and go wine tasting.* Caves Ouvertes is the annual Saturday during which all of the Geneva Canton wineries open up their cellars to the public. Basically, they will serve you as many wines as you can possibly desire/handle for no charge. It does make one a bit loath to return to the ion pump, however.

2. I broke a spoke on my rear wheel (while climbing) two weeks ago. I dropped it off at a sports store in France and was promised a quick turn around. After one very polite phone call from my francophone colleague, one probably impolite phone call in mangled French from me, and many sad days spent on public transportation, my American colleague and I went to the shop to gang up on the bastards. After a bit more mangled French, emphatic gesturing at my literally untouched wheel in the back corner of the shop, and barely ten minutes of repair work, I had the wheel back. Winning.

3. Last weekend, at the other, better, sports store in Annemasse (surprisingly affordable), I attempted to buy a yoga mat. I knew it would cost 17 Euros, but the woman at the counter didn’t. She phoned her coworker, he said it was 2,50.  I sort of pretended I didn’t really understand what just happened, and payed 2,50 for it. I walked out feeling a little guilty but with a yoga mat.  Winning?

4. Spotted at the sports store in Annemasse. I love Euro conceptions of ride food. Yes, that is indeed Ritter Sport Chocolate, billed as an energy bar 🙂

5. “Whoa, what did you do to the guy?” my Italian colleague asks when he sees the repaired computer I’ve just received exceedingly promptly from tech support. At about this point, typically I would seethe in feminist anger, but now that I’ve been on this continent long enough, I know that you just have to let Italians be Italians. Briefly: If you can’t understand what he’s hinting at, it’s likely something dirty and slightly offensive. But really, he doesn’t mean to offend you. I’m about to just not reply but then I remember: the tech support guy was Swedish. God, I love it when esoteric language skills come in handy.

“He was Swedish, I just spoke to him in his own language…”

“Hehe. Well, don’t mess up the harddrive, or else you’ll have to talk Swedish again.” His thick eyebrows go up and down. Freakin’ Italians. I quit.

6. As a result of my ceaseless and unfortunate obsession with proving something (I dunno what) to someone (the world!) I am beginning to truly derive great pleasure from wailing the heck out of the bolts on large vacuum flanges with more force than (some) of the boys.

7. You know it’s time to leave the experiment when you start beat boxing to the rhythm of the compressors.

8. You know it’s time to leave the blog when you admit to beat boxing to the rhythm of the compressors. Good night, Europe. Good Day, California!


*Wine tasting, yes, I did that. Believe it. I actually don’t even really like wine. Call it cultural due diligence, and it was fun.

St Jean, samdei soir

April 30, 2012

Flânuer, flânuerie…a word in French, a flow, a stop and go. I see you there, smiling, your bright teeth, your face in the glass. Visions from the St Jean neighborhood on a Saturday evening, the first warm one in a while: Go, stop, go.

1.Warmth. At the first sun I’ve seen in a month this scene plays in my mind. Often, this godforsaken saccharine song bursts out at inopportune moments. But as I am walking alone now down Rue de St Jean, it hardly matters. I’m sorry to say that, despite how awful it truly is, this song makes me almost disgustingly happy. Until the sky again explodes in rain, of course. And as this is Geneva, it’s only a matter of time.

2. At the thai restaurant at the end of the block. Dancers are visible through the window on the dinner stage; their gold adorned heads rise and fall with a beat I cannot hear. I imagine it must the beat of a slow tambourine, a metronomic procession of many small bells; a deep red, lethargic color. Watching the dancers from outside has that aquarium quality: the arranged display of some other world behind a few millimeters of glass. I am transfixed by how rigid their postures seem, how their arms are suspended like marionettes. It must be only their legs that are moving.

3. An older man sits at the café near the library. He rocks back in his chair, the slanting sun shines through his beer.

4. At the Portuguese butcher a stuffed badger is perched in the window display, frozen in soundless, perpetual attack. I look into its glass eyes and sympathize with the strange mixture of terror and defeat that they seem to project before thinking: Surely, if I were Portuguese, I wouldn’t advertise the fact that I butcher and eat badgers.

5. Flute sounds from the plaza: the music here is fast, lively. A group of people is grilling, drinking, and at the center there is line of dancing women. One hand raised, shuffling across the expanse, hips swaying, counting time: “Uno, dos, tres, quatro…” Ah, they are speaking Spanish. Maybe they are Colombians, I think, as if I could tell.

6. Next morning, Sunday, the bells ring for a near quarter of an hour. A long, doleful resonance. Listening I feel pulled, stomach first, back in time several centuries. I can see the church from my balcony, a pastor stands on the steps. No one goes in.

eftersmak, eftertänk

February 16, 2012

I have two memories, several years apart, that I have been visiting lately. I’m playing them over and flipping back and forth and in between, for whatever reason, listening to them on repeat. They are really nothing remarkable. But as with music, singing or playing aloud is typically the cure for such common insanity. So here goes.


I sat on the curb outside of my school; it rained but it was not cold, or at the least I don’t remember it being cold. I don’t remember even being wet though surely, I was. I do remember the dull ache in my legs, fourteen being about the age that our bodies decide to remind us after exercise, that we are in fact only human. A small stream was coalescing in the gutter behind my heels. I watched for a long time, tributaries formed and joined with the others, neat planar tides folded into one another in the shape of the Nile River Delta. A boxy black car, no one I knew, pulled up in front of where I sat. When it stopped, the red from the breaklights cast my little river and the skin on my ankles en rouge—an image I haven’t forgotten. This is beauty, I remember thinking. It is not always glad, I remember thinking. And it is everywhere, all the time; it is as inescapable as horror. Here, even.


People think of nature as trees and streams and mountains, she said. Really, nature is everything around us. She bent low, prayer-like, and stretched her arms out over the table we were sitting around: a long and gleaming slab of pine. This table, she said, is nature; it was after all, once, a tree. I don’t remember the faces the students in the class at that moment. They may as well have been a cabinet of ghosts: All in collusion against me to remain speechless, lifeless and impenetrable but nonetheless present. I do remember the professor’s face, motionless. Her chin was suspended just grazing the tabletop and her uplooking eyes were engorged behind the necessary glasses. The table seemed itself, the most living thing in the room and it pulsed bright yellow; this being one of those times when the small oscillations of everything in the world, in my immediate nature, just barely registers beneath the point of my pencil.


In case you were wondering: I’m posting a lot more often these days because my current job title is “Cat Babysitter.” Which means I have time.

Familial Counsel

January 11, 2012

What I’ve learned about myself and the world in general via family over the last few weeks, during which time I have had very little contact with anyone who is not related to me:


Advice from Grandma:

“Words can never be unsaid.”

Never take a complement at face value. Most of the time they’re just flattering you in order to manipulate you.

If you need a date, just go to Whole Foods. You can pick him out of the lettuce section. “I always wear makeup to Whole Foods.”

Diagnosis from Mom:

“Well, you are a little retarded. Socially retarded.” (Feelings. Not. Hurt.)

“You need to be more feminine.” (No mom, I do not want to wear a fluffy lavender-colored sweater with a ruffled collar.)

Uncle Says:

Parker Schnabel. (He is a seventeen-year-old who runs a gold mine featured in the reality series “Gold Rush Alaska,” and for some reason has become somewhat of a hero around these parts. Seriously, on Christmas weekend we did not watch the football/basketball/whatever game. We watched re-runs of “Gold Rush” and rooted for Parker. Don’t ask me!)

Auntie Says:

“What would Parker Schnabel do?” (A question to ask oneself when faced with a tough decision.)

Constructive Criticism from Brother:

“Your guitar playing makes me want to blow my brains out.” Note that this is coming from the same guy who listens to Kings of Leon and also, confusingly, makes hasty generalizations like:

“Bob Dylan is the greatest musician of all time!”

Notes from Sister:

“You’re sooooo old! I don’t know anyone in 9th grade who has a sister as old as you!”  (Gee thanks, but really, don’t blame me for that one.)


Can I go back to Berkeley now?

reference frames

December 24, 2011

Sunrise over the San Joaquin Valley, first light meeting with sky cresting the silhouettes of Livermore windmills. Dropping down, over the hill and into the till, at once liquid goldenrod bubbles up from behind the tanglestemmed almond orchards, revealing a fertile and windswept expanse: the cows licks of jet black on browned and flattened grass, the Aqueduct a silver serpentine gently contorting up the Valley center, the Sierras in the East somewhere invisible.

North is at my back and all of my life is in the trunk of my car. Mere hours ago I stood in my half dark and half empty room, contemplating the redness in the corners of my eyes. Berkeley, I can hardly believe this is it. But, something tells me I’ll be back. I’ve lived in a couple of places (not everywhere, of course) and I’ve never felt more at home than I do in the Bay. For now, though,  SoCal, suburbia, and desert Christmas await. Surely, traveling, and changing, slides by easier when you’re just barely conscious, accelerated forward by the strange magnetism of the unknown laid out before.

taking back

December 4, 2011

Now the dust has long since settled, and as my friend reminds me in an email: “that last post was a bit of an overreaction.” Point taken. I’ll save my rage for something a bit more worthwhile.

Applications to Physics PhDs (choke) are looming, and I’m sitting at my desk, cramming what I know about myself and my convoluted relationship with Physics over the last 4 years (well documented by this blog, in fact) into a crisp 500 words to be copy pasted into some text box in an online application form. Le Personal Statement: You, en bréve. Where to begin?

All the trips down memory lane get me going contemplating the strangeness of the fact that, as of last night, I will never again sit in a class as a student at Berkeley. Considering I pass my last classes, of course. It’s a joyful but melancholy moment, the realization ‘of moving on.’

there is just one thing…

September 22, 2011

I plug in the FPGA board, like I have hundreds of times before. A spark flies and smoke begins to curl out of one of the capacitors. The smell of burning plastic is one of the worst things you can smell in a lab.

Turns out I accidentally used a power supply plug for computer speakers, which has the exact same connector as the power supply for the FPGA and was lying around by the computer and puts out 12V instead of 5V.  Fortunately the thing I destroyed was not so expensive, and hence a good thing to learn my lesson on. Still, I feel a sinking sense of stupidity settle like a rock in the bottom of my stomach. I have to email my professor. How could I have been so careless?

Well if you, my dear must think that-a-way

Absent-mindedness and recklessness seem to be themes for me during the last 72 hours.

Well then surely your mi-ind is roamin’

This morning I’m supposed to be doing something about getting a job or something. Instead, I’m browsing the Plasma section of the Physics library. For no particular reason today I’ve brought along my orange binder. Most of the articles inside of it don’t quite fit,  since they were printed on European paper. It’s messy, but I like it because I recognize the names of all the authors on the articles when they stick out of the top of the binder. Still so much in that binder I don’t understand. I sit down in the library and open it up.

Surely, your hea-art is not wi-ith me…

I have a Physics 105 midterm in two days. Why am I sitting here reading about, of all things, the pbar lifetime in the trap vacuum?

But with that country-y whe-ere you’re goin’

Oh. I think I get it.



September 3, 2011

“20 cm by 40 cm”, I say, staring down at ruler beside the arrangement of electronics that has been the bane of my existence for the last several days. the horror (the horror!) I will gladly blame on National Instruments, Xilinx, and most of all godforsaken Windows Vista. I hate computers. Fixing up a nice plexiglass box for my 20cm by 40com boards will be so much simpler than battling the mystic vodoo of installing drivers on Windows Vista (my terminology here is pretty definitive of problem with physicists being forced to haphazardly masquarade as computer scientists.) All I need is 20cm by 40cm piece of plexiglass and a drillpress, and I’ll be happy.

“Centimeters?” he says. “You’re in AMERICA now.” He flips the ruler around, to the side with inches. My chest seizes up. Holy crap, inches. I forgot about those. A little gray box pops up inside my head. It reads, mockingly:

Error: Your driver is not compatible with this operating platform.