Monday, October 31, 2005

red sox, white sox, blue sox?

Like H-Bomb and lots of other people, I was pretty psyched to see the Chicago White Sox win the World Series last week. Although I think of myself as a transplanted Bay Area fan (Giants, A's, 49ers), local sports nationalism has carved out a (roughly equally sized) soft spot in my heart for the Sox and the Cubs. Plus I love underdogs, in sports and other things, so its nice to see both Red and White Sox take a series after so many decades of whiffs. So maybe that means it will be the Cubs' turn next year? Right? Right?

I actually watched or listened to most of the Series, although, lamely, I sat through the tedious first 13 innings of game 3 and bailed just a few minutes before it got interesting. My favorite bit was the Fox sportscasters name-checking Hyde Park (but not, say, Bridgeport) at the close of game 4. Probably had some UofC intern do their local color research for them; I'll bet Mayor Daley's friends will give them a stern talking-to. At any rate, the Sox played tough for the whole post-season; they didn't blow anyone out, but they did come through with clutch hits, clutch strikeouts and great catches when they needed them. Go Sox.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


I received my first "crackpot" letter in the mail last week. It was addressed to Carlo and I, but he seemed unimpressed. I choose to accept this as a sign that I truly have completed my graduate training and am now a card-carrying scientist.

Like snowflakes, each crackpot is different. Perhaps a wealthy dilletante will employ a vanity press to print 1000 copies of his personal refutation of general relativity and send a copy to every professor within reach of the U.S. Postal Service. Religion often enters the mix. I recently heard tell of a lengthy treatise, jam-packed with equations, calculating the probability that Mikhail Gorbachev is, in fact, the Anti-Christ (the answer was 10^17 to 1, reportedly). Periodically the entire Astronomy Department at my school receives email spam from a source claiming to prove that "THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE IS UNTENABLE" (yes, all in caps). One professor in my department deposits all such correspondence on a table in his lab and over the years the stack has grown to several cubic feets worth of quality reading.

Despite this diversity, some observers have tried to impose order on the chaos, for example, John Baez's crackpot ranking system. According to this system, a true crackpot champion must excel at both Delusions of Grandeur and Delusions of Persecution. My recent correspondent got points in the first category, but not the second, although they made up ground by including a rhyming short-story about something called "Nergs". Check out their website if you're curious. It's actually fairly fascinating and kinda creative, so long as you don't try to parse the sentences.

Another hallmark is the seemingly random arrangement of scientific terminology into sentence form. Okay, granted, a lot of scientific writing is just crap. It's unlovely, crammed with jargon and seemingly written specifically for an audience of seven or eight fellow specialists. Given a close inspection of a paragraph plucked at random from the arXiv, most rational people might reasonably conclude that it was typed by monkeys. That said, there's something about most crackpot writings that trigger the BS radar. For example, "In the 4th dimension, energy is always moving and turning." What does that even mean?!

Probably a lot of these people are sincerely interested in science, and could greatly benefit from a tutorial or a few minutes of explanation. And everyone once in a while a crackpot will turn out to actually be a revolutionary. Einstein was just a poor shlub working in a Patent Office when he single-handedly destroyed existing scientific orthodoxy, and the great Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, came to the attention of the European establishment through an unsolicited letter to the English mathematician Hardy. So who knows, the answer to Quantum Gravity may actually be sitting on that table outside of my professor's office, buried under the competition. Of course these days any jerk can put up a webpage to say pretty much anything they want, so maybe a google search will light the way.


Cheney Plan Exempts CIA From Bill Barring Abuse of Detainees

Moral values voters, take note, the Prince of Darkness (a.k.a. Dick Cheney) is now arguing openly for the "right to torture" detainees without limits, guidelines or oversight. As the Human Rights Watch guy says in the article, "This is the first time they've said explicitly that the intelligence community should be allowed to treat prisoners inhumanely". I'm sure Jesus would be totally down with that. Of course, John McCain isn't having any of it, but then years of first-hand experience with actual torture might tend to affect your thinking on the issue.

I'm sure the right-wingers will trot forward situations where torture is justified in a limited sense, but as a general policy it is immoral, ineffective and stupid, and I'm shocked that we as a nation will are still having this conversation. Someone needs to sit Cheney down and make him watch The Battle of Algiers. Guh.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Travellin' Again

This past week has been filled up with travels, first to California for fun and then to Boston for work. At any rate, I have a backlog of stuff to share.

The California voyage was ostensibly to attend my 10 year high school reunion (more on that below), but we also stopped in on our dear friends, Mandy and Mia, at their new base of operations in Salinas. They are living there in community at an inter-faith Catholic worker house. The workers run a day shelter called Dorothy's Place (the colorful building in the picture) which provides two meals a day, showers, a place to rest your feet and a thousand other services for the folks living on Soledad Street (Salinas's Skid Row). Right now the community is small, just Mandy, Mia and another couple who are raising 15-month-old twin boys, but they seem to have great ambitions for building a thriving community dedicated to social justice.

Here's Mandy & Mia instructing one of the twins (I have no idea which!) in the art of silliness. While we were there we helped out with lunch preparation, played with the twins and checked out the community. I met the two of them through co-ops in Chicago and I've always been inspired by their insistence on making social justice and community integral parts of their lives. Conversely, I've always had a lot of respect for the Catholic Worker movement, but I never felt "Catholic enough" to really join in. So I'm intrigued to see how the interfaith nature of their community evolves, and I think Laura Jean and I would be interested in joining them at some point in our future. At any rate, it was great to spend time with them, and since Salinas is only a few hours from Fresno, it is nice to know we'll be able to see them pretty easily whenever we come home. We were also lucky enough to lure Cathy down from the Bay Area and spend some quality time catching up with her lovely self also. Very convenient, one-stop friend-shopping, I must say.

Last Saturday night was the 10 year reunion for the Class of 1995 at Clovis West High School. From right to left in the picture are Laura Jean, Elisabeth, her husband Dan, myself and Aaron. Since Lis is my oldest friend in the world, and Aaron is one of the relative handful of CW-folk I've kept up with, we banded together for the reunion. I have to admit I was a little leery of the whole reunion thing. High school actually became tolerable and even a little fun by the time senior year rolled around, but in general, Buffy has it right: before you understand who you are and what is important to you, high school really can be a minefield of insecurities. Old anxieties aside, it was actually a fairly interesting evening, full of double-takes and surreptitious name-tag glances. There were a several people I hadn't anticipated seeing and was pleasantly surprised to catch up with. In the end, we didn't feel compelled to party until they kicked us out, but we had a pretty good time anyway.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Sign of the Coming Apocalypse #316

I guess I missed this when it happened, but the above photo (courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory website) is of the first ever hurricane observed in the South Atlantic. Nicknamed "Hurricane Catarina" (that's a "C", not a "K", along with an extra "a") after the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina where it came ashore on March 28, 2004. Meterologists learn at their mothers' knees that hurricanes are "impossible" in the South Atlantic, and this one caught them so much by surprise that they didn't even have a naming convention like they do in the Northern Hemisphere. Although its tough to do science with one datapoint, Catarina is destined to become a heavily studied event, and scientists have already started to debate whether it was simply a fluke weather event or the sign of changing conditions. At least a few groups (here and here) have speculated that global warming may play a role in increasing storm activity in the South Atlantic. As the pros at explain in a nice article, it is a prediction of climate change models that the intensity of naturally occurring hurricanes will be enhanced by global warming, mainly as a result of rising sea surface temperatures. So even if any individual event, like Katrina, cannot be directly attributed to global warming, the next century may well see a rash of destructive storms in the Caribbean.

So crazy it just might work...

OK, so here's my crackpot theory on why we've stepped into this cowpie in Iraq. Turns out, we invaded Iraq precisely because they didn't have any WMD and we knew it. If we really thought they had some big, scary arsenal of WMD we might have been a bit more cautious about poking them with a stick. I mean, we're not exactly falling all over ourselves to invade North Korea, are we? And why not? Because they might nuke us, or South Korea, if we did. Plus, twenty years of war and a decade of harsh sanctions meant that Iraq's economy was in the tank, their army was in tatters and they couldn't even get eBay to ship the plutonium to directly to them. After 9/11, Bush and Cheney were looking for a way to assert American military dominance in the Middle East, just like they had been planning for years. Iraq was actually the easiest target: evil dictator that no one likes, plenty of oil revenues to pay for the clean-up, the army's a pushover, and we get to move our military bases out of Saudi Arabia but still keep a military presence in the region.

The hard part would be convincing the American Public that up is down, hot is cold, etc. etc. Obviously, I'm exaggerating, but only a little bit, really.

If you really read about who does have WMD, it sure seems like Iraq is the only kid on the block without the new toys. The case of the Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan got a little bit of press (from the New Yorker) last year when it came out that he (with tacit support of the Pakistani military) had for decades been selling highly sensitive nuclear technology on the black market to North Korea, Iran, Libya and probably others. Khan, a hero in Pakistan, may be the world's expert at wriggling out from under the world's non-proliferation rules. The Pakistani nuclear program got its start when Khan stole centrifuge designs from a European consortium, and it succeeded despite sanctions and international opposition. Nicholas Kristof opined that "if a nuclear weapon destroys the U.S. Capitol in coming years, it will probably be based in part on Pakistani technology." However, Khan was officially pardoned by Musharaff, and since Pakistan is a key ally in the War on Terror, the U.S. is looking the other way. Goes to show ya, our guys can do no wrong, and when you're drumming up support for war, sometimes you gotta bend the rules.

So now let's compare and contrast. In Thomas Friedman's latest apologia for the Iraq war, he theorizes that Saddam's foolishness regarding the U.N. inspectors was actually a stab at deterrence. By making it appear that he was hiding WMD that he did not actually have, Saddam was actually putting on an act to persuade his enemies (both internal and external) that he was dangerous and not to be messed with. Still, Bush and Cheney had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find even lousy forged evidence for Iraq's (apparently non-existent) nuclear program and yet took the nation to war over it, all the while next door our good buddies in Pakistan are running a free-for-all nuclear shopping spree. What gives? Obviously I'm not saying we should invade Pakistan next, but a little perspective and some accountability would be nice.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Happy Birthday HETE-2 !

Yesterday was the five-year anniversary of the launch of the High Energy Transient Explorer (HETE-2), the first scientific satellite entirely devoted to the study of Gamma-Ray Bursts (shown here before its launch, obviously). It's hit a few bumps in the road, but in the last few years has made some great discoveries. These have included the localizations of bursts on March 29, 2003, which finally proved the connection between long GRBs and Type Ib/c supernovae, and the short burst of July 9, 2005, which shed light on the nature of short GRBs. An international collaboration led by M.I.T., with help from Japan, France, Los Alamos, Berkeley and a few of us here at U. of Chicago, deserves the credit for keeping HETE running these past five years. To learn more about how HETE works, check out our home page:

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Born Into Brothels

Friday night was replete with UofC style entertainment. First up Happy Hour, this week the $1 pizza and beer deal was discounted further to "free" to celebrate the start of quarter, then followed by the Doc Films showing (usually $4, but cheaper since we bought quarter passes). I figure I need to get my fill of student discounts for the next few months until they kick me out and I have to pay the grown-up price for everything.

The film we saw was "Born Into Brothels", this last year's Oscar winner for Best Documentary. It is an unusual film in that it righteously tramples down the barrier of objectivity that so often exists between documentarians and their subjects. Zana Briski (along with Ross Kaufmann) has made a vivid and touching chronicle of her efforts to teach photography to a group of children living in Calcutta's red-light district -- go see it if you can.

She hands them each a camera, teaches them how to use it and sends them off to document their world. Like their mothers before them, the girls in her class are all in danger of slipping into prostitution, and the boys are not any safer for their gender. And so the filmmaker also throws herself into the children's lives, tromping the streets of Calcutta to find a boarding school that will take the children, making sure their papers and medical tests are in order, and in one case, securing a passport so one student can attend a youth photography summit in Europe.

The gift of the cameras seems so innovative in that it not only gives the children something to be proud of and to occupy their talents, it also gives them a voice and a method for analyzing and understanding the world they live in and each other. Their perceptiveness is at times heartbreaking, and several scenes have stuck with me. One girl offers bite-size comments on the personality of the other children while the film superposes the portraits they have taken of each other. Another girl pauses to consider whether she will "join the lines" when she is a bit older. A boy notes that he tries to love his father "a little bit" even though he is a drug-addict that nobody cares about. When talking about the photos, about what they like and why, all of them could easily hold their own in a college art class. The children seem to blossom in the camera's gaze, which is a tribute to the trust the filmmakers have earned with their subjects. By contrast, there are a few scenes showing the children's interactions with other grown-ups and the looks of stone-walling and rebelliousness that cross their faces are telling.

One problem I had is Briski's relationship to the parents. More often than not, the parents are shown as obstacles to the children "getting out." There is not a lot of sympathy for the parents who are about to lose their children to a boarding school in a different part of town. The film doesn't offer a systematic analysis of prostitution or child poverty in India, and so while I completely related to Briski's very human reaction of wanting to do something for the children she loved, part of me wondered if taking the children and putting them in boarding school was preferable to doing something to help the community itself thrive.

But that is just a minor (and perhaps unfair) quibble. In his review of the film, A. O. Scott compares the film to the books of Jonathan Kozol. Both revolve around an insistence on the full humanity of those people who are marginal in our societies. For evidence of this you can view a few of the children's photos here.

Friday, October 07, 2005


We went and saw Sleater-Kinney perform at the Metro last night. Since I am a huge S-K fanboy I've been looking forward to this concert for months, and I'm happy to say they did not disappoint. The Metro is a great small venue - no seats but we were able to get pretty close to the stage. I had seen S-K years before (with Fugazi) at a huge free Food Not Bombs benefit concert in San Fran. I was impressed then, but live music is immeasurably better when you can actually see the performers' faces. And last night S-K gave a great, passionate performance and even seemed to be enjoying themselves at the same time.

For those not initiated, Sleater-Kinney are a punk rock trio from Portland, Oregon. They've been around for a decade or more now -- some people call them the last of the riot grrrl bands still standing. Like a lot of great artists they have managed to evolve and not fade away once their original sound gets played out. That said, the basic formula remains two guitarists, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, who fire off a rapid sequence of complex guitar riffs so that each seems to intermesh and bounce off the other. At their best, this interplay gives their sound a lot more intricacy than the usual power-chord-rhythm-plus-lead-guitar paradigm that most bands employ. Add in interlocking vocals and some thundering drums courtesy Janet Weiss, and they're pretty much unstoppable. Still they've had to put up with their fair share of sexist amazement that a trio of women can somehow flat-out rock harder than MTVs entire lineup of boyish pop-punk bands.

Anyway, their latest album, The Woods, might end up being my favorite even though it represents a pretty big departure from their usual style. Committing a bit of punk rock heresy, the new albums sounds very classic-rock-y, not so much The Clash as Led Zeppelin or The Who, with maybe a dash of Sonic Youth. They've also (somehow!) upped the volume -- as Spinal Tap would say, they've turned their amps up to 11 for these songs. The vocals sound borderline unhinged on a few songs and Carrie whips out a few yowling guitar solos that would make Jimmy Page sit-up and take notes. Here is a great interview with Carrie where she describes the methods and madnesses behind the change of style.

The show last night was very much in this new style. Many songs featured guitar solos either as a bridge between sections or acting as a segue to another song. The transition from "Let's Call It Love" into "Entertain", and the instrumental intro to "Words and Guitar" were both pretty awesome. The highlights for me were "Jumpers", which is the single although not a favorite until I heard it live, "Modern Girl" which is softer and more melodic but no less pointed for it, and "Rollercoaster", which is just a fun fun song that they played with big grins on their faces. They also played several rousing political songs, both "Combat Rock" which asks,
Where is the questioning? Where is the protest song?
Since when is skepticism un-American?
and an energetic cover of CCR's "Fortunate Son" (which now seems more relevant than ever). Horray for rabble-rousing feminist punk rock!

If anyone wants to check out their music, they have a few free downloads on their official site,, in addition to seven great albums.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

I have a blog now.

So. I have a blog now. I have to say I'm a little dubious that I'll be a religious and consistent poster, my life thus far is strewn with journals and diaries begun and quickly orphaned after a few days or weeks of zeal. On the other hand I do spend a fair amount of time in front of a computer and tend to procrastinate by reading blogs, so maybe there's hope. Plus, I do love to write and it will be nice to have a place to collect what I do write and make it accessible to anyone who might be vaguely interested in what I have to say.

You may be wondering about the name: Goats Reading Books. The name actually came from Laura Jean and it was her idea to use an alternate phrase that shares the acronym for gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), which is what I spend a fair amount of my time studying. Also goats are somehow inherently funny. Example given, this article from our friends at The Onion; not only is the picture of the goat really cute but the article pretty much killed me when I read it. I suppose GRBlog would have been a good choice too, but it's already been taken and put to excellent use.

What sealed the deal was a Google search on the keywords "goats reading books", the second hit from which was an listing for "My Pet Goat". Unintentional, but pretty awesome.

I tend to think a lot about science, culture, politics, activism, movies, music, friends and a fair bit of silly stuff thrown in, so I'm sure all that will come rushing out in my future posts. Stay tuned...