Fig Emergency

Saturday morning’s fig harvest.

fig harvest

I think you’ll agree with me that this constitutes an emergency. I need to make some tasty thing or other in order to use these up. I’m thinking of something in the pie department. I have a few ideas of my own, but nothing is blowing my skirt up at this point. Recipe suggestions welcome… So dust off those recipes… Help!


The Uncertainty Event

Well, we had a full house. Really full. The auditorium at Annenberg has a seat capacity of 220, and all of those were in use, with people standing at the sides and sitting on the floor. In view of the fact that I was prepared to live with the fact that only ten or fifteen people might show up, this was a pleasant bonus. I think it helped that we were the first of the events of the Visions and Voices program (not counting the big gala opening last week), a fact that I did not take note of until I began to notice several of USC’s big cheeses milling around. This is a manifestation of the (relatively new) Provost’s vision, and so why would they not be there?

The audience was exactly what I’d dreamed of -or more appropriately, what the Provost had conjured up when he pitched the Arts and Humanities Initiative to all of us (see my earlier posts for extracts of his speech, here and here)- there were students and faculty from from an astonishing cross-section of the numerous schools, departments and programs that one can encounter by tracing a random 20 minute path through the campus on foot. I’m lucky enough to know a lot of these people, so it was a pleasure to look into the audience and see faculty, students and other friends from from Physics and Astronomy sitting next to faculty, students and other friends I know from the music school; and behind friends from the English department; right across from friends from political science who in turn were near students and faculty from the school of theatre, of cinema-television, etc. It was rather like happens when you invite friends from lots of different cicles to all come together to meet each other at a dinner party at your house. You’re excited since you’ve always wondered what it would be like to bring these people together, but you don’t know how it is going to turn out….but you’re sure it will be interesting. And maybe that’s enough to make it worthwhile.

It was worthwhile. We started off much closer to the appointed time than one can reasonably expect for any such large event. We had the Executive Vice Provost Barry Glassner deliver some introductory remarks, and then he handed over to Michael Parks, the Director of the Annenberg School of Journalism, who welcomed everyone to the Annenberg School and who in turn introduced KC Cole. He introduced her by recalling what he called a “typical KC Cole moment” back when he was her employer Click to continue reading this post

Mingus and Ella

Well, it’s the morning after. I did not wake up with that sort of cringing feeling that you get when the night before had an event you’d rather forget such as that time you said something incredibly stupid at a dinner party, or some other such thing. No, I woke up at 6:00 am feeling fine, even though I went to sleep at 2:00. The evening before was in fact rather enjoyable. Earlier I participated in the “Uncertainty” event, about which I’ll tell you shortly. I was up that late partly because I was trying to recover the data from the hard drive of my ailing powerbook, Mingus. It was a success! I was able to get it to start up from the recovery disc (by holding down the “C” key as I started), so that (after a partially successful attempt to get it to repair the main disc) I could restart it again with my finger on the “T” key. The latter operation meant that when it came on, Mingus would make itself available as an external hard drive to my imac (connected to it by a firewire cable), which is called Ella, by the way. I was then able to go to Ella’s screen and (lo and behold!) see all of my precious data that’s on Mingus. Dragging and dropping copied over 10-15 GB of stuff from Mingus over to Ella’s hard drive. So easy. I love macs. Especially when they have souls of great musicians. I can now try to arrange to send Mingus off to the doctor for surgery, some TLC, and some rest and recuperation. Time for Ella to do the hard work.

I’d better tell you about the event last night. Next post.


Reminder of Uncertainty

This is a reminder of today’s event here at the USC campus. I’ve no idea what is going to happen. Uncertain, I suppose I should say. That’s the fun of it…. we’ll just see what serendipity brings.

To kick off the events, I’m going to show that lovely clip from one of my favourite Coen brothers movies, “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, where the fancy lawyer from out of town, Freddie Riedenschneider, (played wonderfully by Tony Shalhoub) all of a sudden does this long speech about the Uncertainty Principle. I couldn’t believe it when I first saw it…. – it is rather overstated by the end of the scene, but as a piece of drama, it is excellent. Have you seen it? If not, get it. It’s an excellent movie all around.

Anyway, for more information on the event, see earlier post here. See poster below (large pdf here). Come back here for more discussion, or just give your impressions of the event!

uncertainty at USC poster


California Steps Forward, Again

You’ve probably heard the news wherever on the planet you are. California’s legislature is commiting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels (so, by 25%) by the year 2020. I’ve got a class to prepare, and so can’t spend a huge amount of time writing a long cheerleader-type post about this, but I am so delighted. (Stories in the BBC, LA Times and New York Times, for example.)

This is so important for so many reasons. Besides the obvious one of us just getting on with the task of doing this sort of thing, there is the symbolism. This flies in the face of the Bush administration’s lack of leadership on the whole issue, and will help nullify that lack of leadership, since the other states will be able to look to California’s lead on this as a powerful example. The world takes notice too, since California is -as an economic force in its own right- the number 8 economy in the world. None of this will happen if the economics are not done correctly.

The point is that it can make economic sense (despite fears that possible resulting Click to continue reading this post

When Stars Go Bang

supernova CAS-A

This is the lovely composite Hubble space telescope picture that is going around, showing the debris of a supernova – a star’s explosion. This is Cassiopeia A, and the explosion happened in 1680 AD, our time. See HST’s website for more on this , and discussion on the Bad Astronomy Blog

In other supernova news, there’s a lot of news today (Wed) about a new supernova explosion, recorded this year (2006). This particular event is highly significant since astronomers were able to watch most of the entire event in real time. The thing that signalled that something was about to happen was a (relatively mild) gamma ray burst (GRB060218 – it was seen in Feb. 18th) picked up by the Swift telescope. After the burst (really it was an X-ray flash… a GRB’s younger sibling, as it were) faded, the star exploded -essentially on camera.

Quote from an AFP (via Yahoo News) article:

“Usually these events are not detected until after the supernova has brightened substantially in the optical wavelength, many days after the initial explosion,” said Keith Mason, chief executive of Britain’s Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), which operates an ultra-violet/optical telescope aboard Swift.

“But on this occasion we were able to study the remarkable event in all its glory, from the very beginning.”

Other articles at the BBC (with images of the event – an article is due to appear in Nature tomorrow), and Reuters (via Yahoo).


Keeping the Flame Alive

[Updated, see below.]

hubble space telescope image of Pluto and CharonYou’ll recall the news I reported about a number of members of the astronomy and planetary science community asking people to sign a petition to get the IAU to reconsider their Prague decision to accept the planetary definition that resulted in the “Pluto demotion”. See this link where you can find the precise language of their objection. (HST image of Pluto and Charon on right. Click for larger.) The short statement at the header of the petition itself is:

We, as planetary scientists and astronomers, do not agree with the IAU’s definition of a planet, nor will we use it. A better definition is needed.

Well, this is an update to let you know that they have gathered all the signatures that they wanted, from members of the scientific community. The petition is now closed. I don’t know if I’m allowed to point to the website where you can see the list of signatures (I hope someone will let me know), but I can report that there are 300 signatures (after a quick count), from a truly international group, from every continent, and from pretty much every astronomy department (or other institution) that I’ve heard of. [Update: I’ve got permission from Mark Sykes, one of the proposers of this petition, to make public the website. It is here, and has the list of signatories. There is now a press release there. If you’re a member of the press, I imagine it might form the basis for an interesting story.]

Also on the website is the following:

Click to continue reading this post


I don’t know about you but I melt each of the (very few these days) times I receive a real letter, by post, that contains… stuff we used to put in letters. Not the endless formal letters from business, nor the fake personal ones from businesses (like the amazing fancily embossed wedding invitation I got a while back that turned out to be from HBO… it was an ad for the new TV series on polygamy, “Big Love”… did anyone else get that? Must have cost them a huge amount…. I’ve been to a few fancy weddings, and that invitation was in fact comparable in quality to some of those…)

It is all so rare to get real personal mail the old fashioned way these days. So many things done by email. Hundreds of emails. Too many sometimes. Fast. Too fast sometimes. Or is it just me?

I love the look and feel of a nicely addressed (airmail especially) envelope, with firm, flowing writing by an actual human being… I really miss that. I loved getting this one so much, loved the look of the exterior so very much, that it took me a while to actually (carefully) tear it open to get at the contents.

the letter

In fact, at the beginning of this Summer in a fit of good intentions, I bought some airmail envelopes and a pad of writing paper, with lots of mutterings about starting to actually write real hand-written letters again. It has not happened yet. Sigh….



Lovely yellow folding bike, spotted on campus outside my building. Soooo cuuuuuute!

cute folding bike

Two comments:

(1) I wish they’d raise the seat on this bike, give it a bit of self respect so that it does not look like a children’s toy. (Assuming it is not… I am not familiar with this model. [Update: It is a “Zport” folding bike.]) Granted, I guess that it could be a small person riding it…. but most bikes are so often mal-adjusted to suit the rider, so I’m betting the person is taller than it would appear.

(2) Love the yellow. Obnoxious on a Hummer… cute on minis, beetles, and folding bikes.

(3) Ok, three comments. Poor thing, left outside on its own. Sad thing to do to a folder. Very sad. Should always be picked up and taken inside.

On point (1), since people can’t get past the small wheel prejudice….. you can have a properly adjusted seat post, and -on well designed models like the Brompton and others- have enough spread to allow as comfortable ride as on any bike regardless of size…. actually, sometimes more comfortable.

Here they are (the bike and my B) in conversation, in their respective park modes:

two cute folding bikes

My student, Tameem, almost got an injury from laughing at this picture. I’ve no idea why. He said, over IM (which I’ve cut and paste here with permission):

it almost looks like a bike bully trying to get money from the smaller bike….

wow, my head hurts from laughing so hard….

My response was to be “So how’s that calculation coming?” But he might have thought I had a sense of humour failure….. and actually, it is sort of funny.


Mama Never Said There’d Be Two Contiguous Days Like This

So yesterday continued the stretch of unfortunate events. I decided to hide and work on the paper to make up for the lost time from the day before. Got a good start, and then after a couple of hours, the computer started its weird behaviour. Slow….. applications hanging up for a long time… etc. Then I realized that it was super hot, perhaps more than it ever has been before. Perhaps brought on by it being a really hot day. Then I realized that I can’t recall the last time I have heard the fan on the computer. In fact, I’m not sure I ever have. A check via IM with one of my students confirmed that it is really obvious when the fan is on with this computer. So I formulated a theory that somehow the computer is not able to cool itself down in these extreme conditions. The fan needs repairing, the system is overheating and it is producing problems. I put it to sleep and into the freezer for a little while. A few minutes later, nice and crisp and cool (like a KitKat straight out of the fridge -delicious!) I started it up again. Runs perfectly. Aha!

So I went like this for a couple of cycles… Computer overheats, I cool it down, I get another hour of work or so done. But I’ve begun to worry that I’m about to lose my hard drive. This is a particular horror for me, since I’ve not backed up this computer for a long, long time, because….. The LaCie d2 250gb external hard drive I bought for the purpose mysteriously started to remain in stealth mode, i.e., not allow itself to be recognised by any of my computers.

So I spent several hours in the afternoon trying to figure out how to resurrect the drive Click to continue reading this post

From Dwarf Planets to Hobbit Galaxies

dwarf galaxyI learned from an article in New Scientist by David Shiga that there have been recently found four more small satellite galaxies of our Milky Way galaxy.

The satellites are dwarf galaxies a few hundred to a few thousand light years across. The tiny galaxies are thought to be the building blocks of large galaxies, such as our own Milky Way – which is about 100,000 light years wide.

As you may know, we’ve known for some time that there have been such satellites (the number knwon has gone from 10 to 20 in the last two years, and some models expect as many as 50), but the small ones are very hard to detect. How do you distinguish them from other stars in the way? As part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), the researchers have been looking for….

the particular types of stars expected to lie in dwarf galaxies, then detect the dwarfs as slight “overdensities” in these types of stars – patches of the sky where there are more of the stars than in surrounding areas.

The Cambridge team named them after the constellations in which they were found:

[…] Coma Berenices, Canes Venatici II, Hercules, and Leo IV, all of them lie between roughly 100,000 and 500,000 light years from Earth.

[…]The largest and smallest are Hercules and Coma Berenices, which are about 1000 and 200 light years across, respectively. Like most of the other dwarfs discovered by SDSS, the new finds are much smaller and fainter than the 10 dwarfs that were known previously, [Vasily] Belokurov [the team leader] says. “They should not really be called dwarfs – they are more like hobbits,” he told New Scientist.

Hobbits. Right. Does that make the Milky Way a Cave Troll? Or maybe a Numenorian? (Picture above is one of them. This one’s Farmer Maggot, I think. They’re not as Click to continue reading this post

Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This

Oh Boy. So it started this morning with me making some plans to do things on the bike, starting with a visit to the Hollywood Farmer’s market to get some supplies (especially some more superstring beans, which are delicious!) and meet a friend. Idea would be then to -after excellent tamales for lunch from my favourite stand, of course- visit a couple other places, such as a bike store in West Hollywood to get some equipment for my friend’s bike, and then maybe over to the Sunset Junction street fair (you might remember my blogging about it last year), to par-tay. Then I’d go home and work.

Bad thing number 1:

  • Halfway to the middle of Hollywood on the way to the market: Catastrophic puncture. Flat tyre. Guess what? Puncture repair kit I carry around with me all the time is of course in my other bag, not the one I use for market. Sigh. So after wheeling the bike all the way to the market (I could have folded it up and taken it onto a bus or train, but I was halfway there and already late and did not want to wait for either), fun, shopping, and tamales were had, which was good. Could not do the other bike things, so I then wheeled bike to the subway, folded it and took it on a train to my ‘hood, then wheeled it home at other end, which all took a while. Actually, wheeling with shopping in its bag is a great way to get the shopping home and see what’s going on in the ‘hood, which I like to do from time to time, so not so bad.

    As this is only the second problem I’ve had with this bike in almost 18 months of cycling it around the city, I decided (yeah, I know!) to take a commemorative picture of the sad scene:

    flat brompton tyre

But by then I’d lost a lot of time and I’m supposed to be working on writing a paper today. So I decided to pass on the Sunset junction activities (I can hear them from my place a bit, and I encouraged some of my students to go, so I can sort of live vicariously -even though I know they won’t go) and work on the paper. I want to give a draft to some of those students for them to get up to speed on the idea, and once the week starts, I don’t expect to get much time to work on this sort of thing before next weekend.

So okay, no par-tay-ing this afternoon. But first I’d better get bike back to functionality for work tomorrow.

Bad thing number 2:

Click to continue reading this post

Blue Asymmetry

blue flowers
I’ve temporarily forgotten the name of this beautiful flower. I’ll let you know when I recall it. [Update: Athena worked it out and reminded me….Scaveola, or fan flower] Its blue is more dramatic than the camera has captured. It nods somewhat more to purple than is suggested here. It grows reasonably fast and close to the ground, and is drought tolerant, so I used them as a quick ground cover to repopulate a part of the garden. They’ve done very well since I planted them in the Spring.

blue flower closeupOne thing I love about them is the asymmetry of each individual flower. Look closely (click on left image) and you’ll see that there are five petals on each, but the five are on only half the flower. Very asymmetric on that scale, but on a slightly larger scale, symmetry is restored by arranging a five of these “half-flowers” around a central leaf cluster to make a sort of larger, symmetric super-flower.

Very elegant.