Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Pizarro vs Atahuallpa

I will elaborate here a little bit about the previous post regarding the battle between the Spanish Pizarro and the Inca leader Atahuallpa. The question is why guns, germs and steel were in favor of Pizarro's side and ultimately led him to destroy the Inca civilization.

Why did Pizarro come to America rather than Atahuallpa try to conquer Spain? Pizarro had better technology (ships+guns) and also the necessary political organization of Spain that helped finance and build the ships. Atahuallpa was a godlike leader; by capturing and killing him the whole of Inca empire shattered. Had the King of Spain been killed, it would have been replaced since the government does not rely so much on a monarch.

As Diamond says, this is the easy part of the answer. The hard part is to figure out why it came to be in such a way. His answer is: food production.

Farmer-based societies were advantaged as opposed to nomadic hunters. Initially all people were hunters, moving from place to place wherever food and animals was available. At some point all tribes (at different times) switched to food production which allowed them to stick to a place, store food and develop people other than farmers (e.g. soldiers, craftsmen, politicians). Also, staying because of the crops there favors population expansion. Just imagine a nomadic mother that has to carry her child around until it can walk on its own. She won't make another child for an average of another 4 years. There is no such issue in settled-down tribes.

Therefore a cause for Pizarro's conquest was the fact that his civilization developed earlier and more efficiently food production, which then led to all the other advantages that ultimately led him to win. Of course now we have to go deeper and ask: why was food production developed better in Eurasia and not in the Americas or Africa?

Books and stuff

I was never really fond of books. I thought they were too boring to read, it takes too much of my time, and they are not so exciting. However in the past few weeks I've come to realize that books are like any other form of entertainment for our species: movies, music, computer games etc. You need to find the ones you most like, the certain types that suit your profile better.

From all the movies in the world, any single person probably watches 1% of them (say, the Hollywood blockbusters). From all the music in the world, each person probably ignores 99% of it and chooses to listen the 1% that seems more interesting to him/her. From all the computer games around, I probably like 1% of them (say, adventure games with strong plot and riddles rather than graphics). From all the professions in the world, I tend to like more Electrical Engineering and not enjoy the rest 99% of jobs around.

The same thing apparently holds true for books. You just need to find books that you like and seem interesting to your character and interests. The books that I am reading lately I found out that they are quite exciting and fun and I was never bored - I probably made a few good choices. So why people don't read books as much as they watch movies?

I believe that in books it is harder to discover the ones you tend to love, exactly because it takes so much time to actually read one. You can watch a movie in 2 hours and instantly decide whether you like this type or this director. You can switch between tv shows in a matter of seconds and decide which one you enjoy more. You can listen to many different songs very fast (especially in our digital age).

None of these facts hold true for books though. Depending on the writing, it may take 20h to read a 400 page book. That is 3 orders of magnitude more time than other forms of entertainment. And this means that it may require 3 orders of magnitude more time to decide on what type of books you like. But when this happens, and it will happen, it is so much more rewarding...

Friday, May 27, 2005

Guns, Germs and Steel

This guy is just amazing in his work. I've never seen such a prolific amount of explanatory power. Essentially his book is about the history of the world, but he's looking at the reasons behind the facts. For example, individual battles and wars are just natural outcomes of other, inner causes and they do not change history on the large scale. It is well known that guns (better and strongest weapons), germs (the defenders had developed no resistance to new diseases) and steel (better equipment & technology) are real the factors that determine the outcome of history. Jared Diamond is trying to explain why some civilizations had these advantages in the first place, which is the true reason beneath all.

The most dramatic encounter in history: the capture of the last independent Inca emperor, Atahuallpa, in the presence of his whole army, by Francisco Pizarro and his tiny band of conquistadores, at the Peruvian city of Cajamarca.

We can identify the chain of proximate factors that enabled Pizarro to capture Atahuallpa, and that operated in European conquests of other Native American societies as well. Those factors included Spanish germs, horses, literacy, political organization, and technology (especially ships and weapons).

That analysis of proximate causes is the easy part of this book; the hard part is to identify the ultimate causes leading to them and to the actual outcome, rather than to the opposite possible outcome of Atahuallpa's coming to Madrid and capturing King Charles I of Spain.

The first thing he discards is the argument that the different outcomes are due to biological reasons (e.g. the Europeans are smarter than Africans or Native Americans). He sets the starting point at 11,000BC, when all continents were just populated without though any apparent differences, strengths or weaknesses of one group of colonists as opposed to another. At that point of history powerful civilizations could potentially develop in all 5 continents. Yet this did not happen, and it did not happen for some reasons, which are coming up in my reading of this book. So exciting!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Why Greeks are Greeks

This is just an example. On the way back from London to Athens, I flew with the Greek airline Olympic. During the flight the soccer championship final took place in Greece.

Midway in the flight (somewhere above Corfu) the speakers go on. "This is your captain speaking", the voice says. I was thinking there would be some delay at the airport or maybe the weather conditions changed because we were landing in about 1 hour. To my surprise, he said: "Since some people have been asking, Olympiakos-Iraklis 1-0. Olympiakos wins the championship".

While almost half the people onboard started cheering and applauding, I couldn't hold my laughter. I wondered if they announce the outcome of the Superbowl final in their flights in the US. This just proved to me why Greeks will always be Greeks and why it's fun to live in a small country.

Angels & Demons

Overseas flights are great for reading books. Despite Virgin's awesome entertainment system, I manage to finish the last 2/3 of Dan Brown's prequel to The Da Vinci Code. The comparisons are unavoidable.

They start off the same: A ritualistic murder in a facility (CERN vs The Louvre). Hints and mystery and clues in the bodies. Then art leads the way to uncover secret conspiracies that will take over the world. Both books deal with religious matters, and although Dan Brown states that his intentions are not anti-religious and he is based only on facts, that is clearly not the mood at the end. The problem (and his greatest strength probably) is that he does not distinguish clearly between fact and fiction. For example, He goes on to discuss the Bing Bang and elementary particles and CERN and all that, and at the end there is antimatter trapped with magnetic fields ready to meet matter and explode and the CERN director has this super-duper aircraft that flies from NY to Switzerland in 1 hour. The unaided reader will either accept all those statements or disprove them both - something that is clearly not the case.

Da Vinci is more mature and well written than Angels & Demons, the latter being far from a bad book. In A&D the final sequences before the bomb timer is running out are magnificent. The transitions between chapters are excellently put there, which just makes you want to read more. Da Vinci has the same characteristics even better well crafted. I'm sure that after the movie version of Da Vinci becomes a hit (which it will) they will go back and film Angels & Demons also.

My next book on the list is Diamond Jared's Guns, Germs and Steel, which discusses the rise and fall of human societies. They guy has some amazingly condensed writing without being tough to read. And then I'll go back to Feynman. From a mere 56Kbit/s connection, over and out.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


Virgin is light years ahead of any other airline I've ever been with (and |I've travelled with several thus far). I'll skip some advantages (such as the bar at the entrance of the plane or the toothbrush+toothpaste combo they include)just to focus on their entertainment system that simply dwarfs anything else for economy class. Every passenger has a big personal lcd screen in front of his, plus a gamepad-like controller that adjusts channels, audio, video, games etc. the back of the controller has a phone and a credit card swiping slot for making phonecalls at any time.

They offer 50 movies and 50 tv shows on demand; I could choose to watch any movie I liked and any show I liked at any moment, independent of the others, plus I had complete control and I could, pause, stop, rewind or fast forward at any point. I watched 10 episodes from season 10 of Friends, plus I played Pong for a long long time. It's the first time I didn't need to have a book with me on the plane (still, Angels & Demons was a handy reading in the long lines in and out of the plane). The whole thing runs on Linux.

European airlines are overall better than the American ones, but they still need to improve on the organization issues. Nothing beats the US in that (aka time is money).

Next to me on the plane were two beautiful girls, the first was french and the other one apparently greek and she was going to London for business. She lives next to the Grove, and we promised we'll keep contact when we return.

From an under construction rainy Heathrow airport, over and out.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Final thoughts

Moments before I leave for Greece, I look back and try to evaluate last semester here in LA. Now that I come to think about it, this was the year that I embraced TV Show Watching. This is different that watching TV (partly because you don't need a tv - Bittorent works even better), because when most people watch tv they try to fill up their free time, or prepare to go to sleep, or have lunch, or watch the news, and they aimlessly navigate through the channels without trying to watch anything specific - just find anything interesting.

TV Show Watching is a different story: it is a connection between you and the creators, the writers and the characters. You watch every week (likely) to keep up with the plot. You discuss with other friends and people. You post your comments on the internet. You do your research behind the science or the facts that take place. It is a process much greater that plain TV watching that gives a fulfilling feeling. It's more like a ritual that takes place every week.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Paparizou at last

I knew it! More than 5 years ago, when I first saw her in a videoclip I knew she was the hottest female singer ever. Now, at 23, she won the Eurovision song contest for Greece. At last people have seen her true quality (boobs, lips, legs, etc)


Sith, Jedi and more

Episode III is by far the best out of the 3 newest installments, and as a popcorn movie probably the best of all 6 episodes. I now realize that none of the Star Wars movies are really good. As individual movies (the story & environment aside) they have nothing that original to offer. It's the whole myth that makes the movies so successful, rather than their quality as cinema.

I was happy to see the Anakin/Darth Vader character. I think he was by far the most convincing and properly placed actor of the new trilogy (not in the first two movies though). The looks, the face, the moves, the capes, it all blended very well. On the other hand, a grad school enegineering student could have written better dialogues that these.

Episode III is artistically flawless: this is the best you can get out of sound and visual effects in the year 2005. The visuals are stunning and the detail is incredible. However this over-embellishment does not let the mind to register critical information: In episodes IV-V-VI the art was simple but key figures became symbols: The Death Star, C-3PO, Luke's plane, Yoda, etc etc. We all know how they look. Episodes I-II-III failed to create timeless figures like that. None of the new characters/sites/items stick to the memory long after the viewing.

I struggled to find a place at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood to watch the film over the weekend, the people were going crazy about it. The Dome is the best theater I've been so far: the building has the shape of a geodesic dome, the screen inside is curved 126 degrees and is really huge for non-IMAX (2700 sq. ft) . The theater fits 800 people surrounded by 44 JBL speakers (!) creating an awesome feeling. And I have to admit that the picture was crystal-clear despite the size, I couldn't tell any imperfection at any point (The Kinoton projector weighs 250Kg!).

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The 6th sense

The 6th graduation in my life took place 10 days ago. USC holds great ceremonies : Neil Armrstrong, Robert Zemeckis, John Williams gave some short speeches. I got the Master's and sicen I looked so bad (note the shoes and the missing hood) I struggled to find two girls (the only ones in EE :-) ) to stand by me in a desperate attempt to make a pretty picture.

Michelle (left) will be staying in my room for the first half of the summer, while I'm gone in Greece (3 weeks) and Cornell (2 weeks). There will be an overlap of 2 weeks where we will have to share the bed and everything, but that's OK since I have faith in AJ.

Magic Mountain

One of the things I was glad to come to LA for is the Magic Mountain theme park, home of some of the best roller coasters in the world. Here's my ranking:

1. X
2. Goliath
3. Batman

The rest are more or less the same. X is the ultimate experience: the whole thing was designed and simulated beforehand. Every turn, acceleration, rotation of the seat, all the ups and downs, was planned ahead to create a great ride. The result is amazing. Even though there is still a 2-3 hour wait even at the not so popular days, it is totally worth it. For me the first fall of any roller coaster is its fingeprint signature, and X has so far the best one.

Goliath is not that intense but it has the longest fall which creates a great free-fall effect. The scary thing is that it has almost no protection apart from the normal seating you see even in the old classic wooden ones. Therefore it has the best fun over protection ratio.

The cool thing about Batman is that you are suspended from above and its floorless. Many times during the ride you think you are falling into thin air. The exact ride lies also at the Warner Bros park outside Madrid, Spain, although its name is Superman.

The Lost Sea

A very impressive spectacle: A huge cave deep inside the mountains, unlike anything I have seen before. The caves have been used by Cherokee Indians and during the Civil War as storage for weapons.

Lower down the caves lies the Lost Sea: The largest underground lake in the US and the 2nd largest in the world. The feeling was amazing and horrifying ta the same time. A 13 year old kid first discovered in in the early 1900's when he sneaked through a tiny hole during a summer when the water level was low. The tunnel led him to the above hidden cave. When he went back to tell the story, none believed him because it seemed insane and he was fond of telling lies in real life. Therefore the sea was lost for about 50 years until future expeditions rediscovered it.

There is also and underwater tunnel that leads to a separate room, which is filled with water until the very top. When divers went there the air bubbles they released had no room to escape, increased the pressure in the chamber and the ceiling fell!

The most interesting thing in the cave for me though was the weird experience of absolute darkness. There are only 2 places in the world where absolute darkness can be experienced: in the bottom of deep oceans and inside deep caves. When the tour boy suddenly turned off the lights, I was shocked. I could not see a single thing. It takes about 6 photons to activate one cell in the back of the retina, and at no time did this happen. It was 100% absolute black.

In fact, if you spend 2 weeks in this place of absolute darkness then you become blind because of your eyes failing to acquire light. As I was moving my hands in front of my face trying to see them, I thought I saw something that seemed like the shape of my fingers. I now realized it is our brain that did that: it thinks that since the hand is there the eyes are supposed to see something and nevertheless some relic image is projected although there is no real input. I have tried this thing with specialized pictures online and in fact it works well, but this was the real thing.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Who cares about the Sith?

One year from now one of the most succesful and controversial books ever published comes to the big screen. It is by far the best fiction book I've ever read, and while I was reading I was thinking that they can make this book a film without any adaptation, whithout changing even one word. Low and behold, a few weeks later the movie was announced.

The first trailer is available at the apple trailers website.

Friday, May 20, 2005


Τι να πω? Το κινεζάκι που έχουμε στο γκουπ είναι εκατό τισ εκατό παπάρας και δε μπορώ να το κρύψω, γι'αυτο θα τον καταθάψω εδώ αλλά στα ελληνικά. Και για τα υπερσιγουρέψω ότι δε πρόκειται να κάνει τρασλάτε το κείμενο σε κανά βαβελό-ψαρο πρέπει να γράψω σλανγκ και να κάνω και μερικά ωρθογραφικά λάθει.
Πάνω που νόμιζα ότι οι κιτρινιάρηδες είναι εντάξει άτομα αυτός ο τύπος είναι απίστευτα επιθετικός για κινέζος και μου σπάει τους νευρώνες. Ου να μου χαθείς.

Χαχαχα να τι μετλαφραση έβγαλε το βαβελό-ψαρο:

What I say? The kjneza'kj that we have in the gkoyp are hundred hundred papa'ras and I can him hide, gj'ayto him kataca'bw here but in the Greek. And for ypersjgoyre'bw that it is to make trasla'te the text in kana' vavelo'-baro it should I write slangk and I make also certain wrcografjka' la'cej. Above that I believed that the kjtrjnja'rides they are all right individuals this press is incredibly aggressive for Chinese and my it breaks the neurons. Oy my lost.

Conference thoughts 2 and 3

I initially thought that having a conference at Tennessee would be a bad move regarding the location. In fact, having conferences at not-so-famous places I thought it was bad. But now I realize that's not the case. Would it be better if I had my conferences at New York or Florida or San Francisco or Chicago? No! The reason is this: all this "famous" places I will visit them anyways, I don't need a conference to do so. For example, I've been to New York, I've been to SF and I almost certainly go to Miami on my own at some point. But having a conference at a "remote" location is great since I am visiting places that I would never visit otherwise... Tennessee? I would have never visited Tennessee on my own and yet here I am, enjoying a culture that I may have never got in touch with otherwise. The next conference is in Wisconsin. Sucks, you say? I think not...

The birth of ILC. The International Linear Collider will be the greatest machine ever built. It will be the most complicated and sophisticated structure on the planet when it's done in about 10 years. 3 groups, one from the US, one from Europe, one from Japan, they will form to discuss the building of the accelerator. The great thing was that the guy who is responsible for coordinating the process gave a talk - and I got a glimpse on how these multi-national multi-billion dollar projects come into being. Right now they are at a point where they have pinpointed the major decisions but not the details (like location, design details, funding etc). So how do you coordinate something like that? Who's the boss? Who is paying? Who designs and who decides? Everything that has to do from abstract ideas up until the blueprints. I see all the other accelerator projects (CERN, SLAC, KEK etc) and I take them for granted as if they existed forever. Now I had a chance to witness the birth of such a project - both for me and for the people that are involved in ILC, the experience from on who to decide all the pre-build procedures may be more important than the project itself.

Conference thoughts 1

I suck at research. If you want to be just above average you cannot afford to have an average life. I now realize now that if I don't do the extra step and devote myself to what I am doing I'll spend these 5 years in vain and then I'll look back years from now and I may regret for my choice of doing a PhD here in LA... And I think that even if I have the most fun in the world, even if I get to make the best friends ever, even if I visit all the cool places, at the end I won't be satisfied unless this is accompanied by good research.

They say a similar thing about marriage: Everything starts from the bed. Even if you have money and have a great time and lovely family, if the sex doesn't go well then everything else is shadowed. In the same way if my research isn't more than average then it will shadow all the other activities no matter how fun they are.

I know it because I now look back at my first 2 years here, and I realize that I've been to places and I've done things that most people back in Greece would be really jealous of... Things I had I made a different choice I would have never lived. However my feeling of happiness does not seem to be proportional to these activities; and the reason is because this happiness feeling is multiplied by the research factor.

Now that I've been to this conference I know where are most people standing, I know what I need to do to stand out. Therefore I now make the decision to sacrifice some of my personal life for studying - I'll have less short-term fun but at the end I will have more long-term satisfaction; and this is more important to me: to look back and be happy overall. The outcome has to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Smokies

The banquet of the conference... the group is celebrating. The 3 hours jazz and dinner session ended with physics jokes. Hm....

The Great Smoky Mountains are probable one of the few things that east tennessee is proud of. Here anything older than 100 years is history: imagine that the most significant place to go is John Oliver's cabin, an empty house with 4 wooden walls built at the 1800's. For the people here it has the same value as the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China.

The national park was quite interesting - the greenest place I've seen in the US so far with the road going side by side with the river. Excellent drive, and fresh water.

Late night sessions

Having associated Friends with my work at Brookhaven and New York, Desperate Housewives are definitely associated with the PAC conference. It's 4:18am, and the alarm just went off because the maid somehow messed it up and it's 4 hours later in time (8:18am). Erdem woke from his sleep twice to make it shut up - so funny! And we are supposed to wake up early and get a car and pick up Suzhi and Bing and visit the great Smoky Mountains; why don't I see this very likely to happen?

Meanwhile being ready to watch my 5th episode of Desperate Housewives for today, I realize how well crafted this show really is. Unlike Lost where things happen almost random and out of nowhere here the is a very reasonable sequence of events throughout the year; I definitely not feel being cheated and having things unexplained - whatever happened to the polar bears, the numbers, the sudden rainfalls, the island making wishes happen, the strange guy who they just killed after playing around with us Mr. Lost writers? In the Housewives the things get complicated but everything falls into place and has a logical explanation - the kid burning his father's raft? And the wife to poison her friend? And on the next episode, it's like they all got their brains rebooted and nothing ever happened. pfff....

Kingdom of Heaven

Assuming you 've seen the Gladiator, this movie is very similar. However it has the most perfect battle scenes I have ever seen in a film. Riddley Scott is a true master in staging these battles, and now he seems so much more matured that his Gladiator attempt. The final sequence where the Arabs try to break Jerusalem's walls and they fight for 5 days over it is a masterpiece - it makes Lord of the Rings look like a fairy tale.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Sequoia means forever green. California is the only place in the world that hosts these huge trees each of which lives thousands of years. The park has 800miles of registered trails - it takes forever to explore the whole thing.

This guy is general Sherman and he is the biggest living thing in the world. It's not the tallest tree nor has the biggest diameter, but consists of 6,000 tons of wood! It's just ridiculus.

The park has some points located quite high 8,000-9,000 feet maybe. This is a nice view as the clouds move over the forest, and I had to climb 400 feet on huge rock to get there - I've never felt more height-scared-to-death before in my life.


That is the population of Knoxville, TN. A rather quiet part of the world you would say. As the star wars maniacs are already gathered outside the movie theaters since Revenge of the Sith is opening at midnight, there was another great day at the conference as it was dedicated to Einstein and a lot of very important people talked.

I woke up at 1pm after a good 10 hour sleep. I am trying to catch up with the whole season of desperate housewives so that I can make it in time for the season finale this Sunday. The first talk was by Michael Turner. I didn't know the name, but the guy is one of the best lecturers I have ever seen. He spoke about cosmology and general relativity and dark matter - a really amazing talk. "If the universe keeps expanding at an accelerating rate then in 100 billion years the galaxies will be moving away from us so fast (faster than the speed of light) that light won't be able to reach us and therefore the sky will be totally black. And this is what I tell in the Congress in order to persuade them to fund astronomy".

Talk #2 was really bad - one of my worst ever. I even left for a few minutes. The guy was huge: Kobayashi, he proposed the 6 quark model and he is the current director of KEK, one of the world's leading accelerator facilities (along with CERN and SLAC). Yet I didn't register 1 single bit of information - apart from the fact that japanese presenters are the worse; a fact that was confirmed by the next presenter.

Talk #3 was a guy named Suzuki, who has worked in many neutrino experiments. Neutrino is a particle that the Standard Model of physics assumes it has no mass, but experiments say otherwise. I did a presentation on that matter 3-4 years ago, and I was happy to see that the guy's slides were almost identical to mine - even the same pictures! Which tells me I did a nice presentation back then. A few minutes before he finishes though, I see dozens of people entering the room steadily. Soon enough the room filled with people, and I was sure that the next presenter should be an important one.

Talk #4: I wasn't wrong. Carlo Rubbio won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1983 for discovering experimentally the W and Z particles (that confirmed the nature of the weak force interaction). He was also director of CERN, the biggest machine in the world for 5 years that accelerates particles over a 30km circular beamline. He was quite goof, although i wasn't impressed. Too political and very serious. I haven't been to a lecture from a Nobel laureate before, and it seems to me it research skills and presentation skills are two independent variables.

At the end of the day I know 2 things. The universe is 13.7 billion years old, and we only know well .5% of all things that happen in there. It's such a great time to be a scientist!

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Sweet home Alabama

Oh man, what a day! Just incredible. The day started with the poster session where almost all of out students had something to present. 4 hours long, it was quite tough but at least I met a few new people in the field.

But I couldn't imagine how perfect the evening would be. We went to Calhoun's, a great restaurant/bar/grill right by the river of Knoxville. The view was awesome, looking at the bridges and the buildings on the other side. The people were fun, with the southern accent almost forcing me to burst into laughs. The music was unique, where a local band performed and sang live classic southern songs. We just sat down outside right next to the river and I had the most unique feeling I could ever have; I didn't want to leave at all (we spent 4 hours there after all). The food was exciting, Calhoun's being voted one of the best grills in Tennessee.

Once upon a time, there was a great physicist called John Dawson, who invented plasma accelerators. His knowledge covered all of physics, being able to get numbers for almost any given problem possible. He had two great students, Warren Mori and Thomas Katsouleas. These 2 students became close friends from the first time they met and now they have a long lasting relationship ranging anywhere from research problems till low level gossip. The students became professors and then created their own groups, and their own students now hang out together and have a great time.

Tom and Warren are a great pair. In every conference we always have one day where both groups join forces for dinner and go out together. 15 people were present today and we got excellent pictures and videos.

To top it all, there is nothing better than eating baby back pork ribs while discussing science issues. I had the most interesting time discussing with Tom & Warren about physics and science and geniuses in general. At some point Warren mentioned a graduate EM class he was taught from Schwinger ( he was one of the inventors of QED, the quantum version of electromagnetics, who won the Nobel prize along with Feynman and Tomonaga). The guy had no books or notes (how can you trust someone else!) and Warren said he was his best class ever. No wife, no kids, he was a living computational machine and the expert on Bessel functions. When asked from a student how the hell did he do this "Integration by staring" (instead of integration by parts) he said "I worked many hours on trying to find a simple way to explain this easily but I couldn't find one, so it's better to do it yourself". Tom was proud because one time Schwinger came to him to consult him - but that's another story!

San Diego

First stop was la Jollia (The Jewel), a tip of land north of San Diego that is quite expensive and luxurious (as with all the places that oversee the Pacific Ocean). The place offers spectacular views around as there are 3 faces of sea and only 1 face of land.

Right opposite from downtown San Diego is the Coronado island, seperated from the mainland through a small strip of water. Not many cities offer their skyline in front of the sea.

That is the tallest bridge I have ever seen; it connects the mainland with the Coronado island. They actually built the bridge longer that necessary and curved because if it was shorter and staright it would be cheaper and they wouldn't get federal funding! The height is justified by thinking that San Diego is the naval US army capital of the states: some of the hugest ships of the world have to fit under it. In fact the northern half of the Coronado Island is a naval base.

No comments on this one (if you believe that's me).

Conference thoughts

Conferences for me have turned out to be a turning point of self-realization. A test as to what I've done, where I am, and what am I going to do next. Finishing the second day here in lonely Knoxville here are my impressions for people in scientific conferences:

- 90% of the speakers don't have a clue on how to correctly present their work. How do they expect us to read dozens of sentences in a single slide while they talk? Keeping it simple is my #1 rule in presenting. It's not that their work is not great. But as the wise prof. Tanguay said, the impact of your talk is the importance of your work times the effective presentation, and not the sum.

- I start to see my competition. The people that work in similar things with me, I meet them again and again now plus I come across their names more and more often.

- You can really tell immediately the good researchers from the average ones. It only takes a few minutes of talking.

- I suck really bad in my research. I may know what am I doing, but when it comes to other people's work I don't have a clue on what's going on (with minor exceptions). There is no hope I can beat these guys.

- Coffee is like oxygen. You can get Parkinson just from the coffee in one week of conference. Not to mention wines and beers. Thank god I don't drink alcohol.

The presenter right now got the Master's from Russia, Ph.D. in physics from MIT and is currently working at the Los Alamos National Lab. The presentation is about photonic band gap structures for accelerating particles(in fact, they are the first guys ever to achieve that). Everything normal until now. But the picture doesn't match quite well: The person standing there is a hot blond girl with long hair and striking blue eyes. Huh?

Monday, May 16, 2005

Palos Verdes

That's one of the most expensive areas to live anywhere in the United States: Luxurious houses right by the pacific ocean over steep cliffs surrounded by lots and lots of green. It's hard to believe that this place is in LA. Some houses are truly beautiful: built near the cliff, they include acres of grass, pools, palm trees right until the very edge - the view is spectacular. It's like a city isolated from the rest of the world.

Nobel prize politics

The conference started off really strongly today. 2005 is the world year of physics because it has been 100 years since Einstein published his 3 groundbreaking papers on relativity theory, the photoelectric effect and Brownian motion. As such there are several events worldwide that honor him, and one of them is this year's PAC. I liked all the opening talks: after the chair and the Governor of Tennessee spoke, it was Ms Cecilia Jarlskog. She is actually inside the Nobel Prize committee, and mentioned a couple of interesting things.

First, she had the most weird slides I have ever seen ever. Handwritten, with flowers and shapes and cute colorful letters everywhere and simple concepts. She said that it takes at least 50 years before the nominations of a Nobel prize are revealed. The way this works is that various people send secret letters to the committee explaining who they think deserves the prize and why. However the winner is determined by the committee and not by the most votes - Henry Poincare got dozens of nominations but Van der Waals won having only 1... Keep in mind that there are positive votes as well as negative.

With regard to Einstein , we saw documents that he was first nominated in 1909 with only one vote for relativity theory - but of course back then the committee couldn't award a prize to a clerk in a patent office! In the next years he kept being nominated each year again and again by more and more people, especially after the proof of his general theory of relativity in 1919. In 1922 he finally won when he got about 20+ nominations and only one guy voted negatively, the winner of the very first Nobel Prize, Mr X-Ray, Conrad Roentgen.

The middle-aged Tennessee lady and the Monty Hall problem

You need to read first the previous post for the adventures of the middle-aged Tennessee lady for this post to make more sense.

In the season finale on Numb3rs last week there was a great example of the skill required to make tough concepts understood to a layman. Charlie is supposed to teach the Monty Hall problem in class "math for non mathematicians", where the students are people that have nothing to do with science (in fact, the lesson did not target them; it targeted the tv audience really). It is quite simple to state the problem: there are 3 closed curtains, behind of which there are 2 goats and 1 car. You select a curtain trying to win the car, and after you do that the all mighty host opens one of the other curtains to reveal a goat. Then he asks, do you want to switch you choice (select the 3rd curtain)?. Or, more importantly, does it matter?

The answer to this problem is not of interest here. What matters is seeing from the point of view of the writer of the TV show Numb3rs: he/she has only 30sec (TV time is expensive) to explain to 20,000,000 people watching the show why the answer is the way it is. It took me a while to understand the answer to this problem myself a few months ago, and in 2 different ways, none of which was simple enough (either draw a chart with all possibilities or use probability theory). However in that show, they managed to explain the mechanics of the answer in just 30seconds indeed, giving very carefully crafted arguments in just 3 sentences. It was the simplest explanation of the Monty Hall I have ever seen. This is the type of explanations we should have in any aspect of science (followed by the exact math details of course) - not the complicated O'Brien type of arguments we usually hear. Watch it if you have time - it's a really good piece of the show.

Explain it to the middle aged Tennessee lady

Feynman said that you have really understood something only when you can bring it down to a freshman level - explain it with the simplest possible previous knowledge. However, what happens when you need to explain your research to your grandma?

As I was chatting in this flight with the middle-aged Tennessee couple, they asked me what I was doing exactly. I said "I am working with plasmas, like plasma TVs. However we use plasma for a different purpose". The response was "Oh, what are you doing specifically then?"

I don't know why a 50 year old lady wanted to know how is plasma used outside lights and TVs. But I know for sure that I faced the following situation: This person wasn't even remotely close to a freshman level. She probably didn't have any kind of college knowledge: she was just a housewife from a small town in a southern state. How could I explain to here what a multibunched plasma wakefield accelerator is?

I think that I could do it alright if we had a sufficient amount of time and the ability to make some notes. Then I have the strong belief that I could explain it - step by step, start from the very basics and up to the highest concepts. Just the main idea, not the whole thing of course. But, I didn't have that either. She didn't want a long debate, she needed a short answer, maybe in a couple of sentences that explained what was I doing... And here comes one of the toughest things I have ever faced: how the hell am I supposed to do that? It requires great skill to be able to get a concept from a vague complicated research level down to 1 sentence, a sentence that has to be so accurate, so concise, so clear, so exact and at the same time so simple and well understood that a 50 year old lady from a small town of Tennessee that has never even remotely heard of these things can grasp.

There are some questions that people ask me very often. For example, "How is LA compared to NY?" or "Do you think the people in CA are friendly?" or "What are you going to do after you graduate?". These are questions that require considerable discussions and it's tough to answer them simply. However over the years that I've been here I have answered these questions so many times that now I have narrowed down the answers to 2-3 sentences each - a concise set of arguments that makes sense (although dense in content) and makes people happy as an answer.

Well, eventually I will do the same thing with my research.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The South

Some people say that the South United States suck. They consider them people of the countryside (as opposed to the CA-NY city guys). And they would be right.

On the flight from LA to Memphis, TN (Now, TN is one of the weirdest words of mankind: Tennessee. It has 3 double letters. Gee.). I sat next to a middle-aged couple from Chattanooga, TN (only 2 double letters here). Don't ask me why all the places here have weird names guy was a pilot who is also collecting stones (old stones; like 3e8 years old). We had an interesting conversation, out of which I discovered there is actually something to see here in Knoxville. 2 hours south of here lies the biggest underground lake in the US, the Lost Sea. It's inside a cave inside a huge mountain where the first settlers and the Indians used to live when they first came here.

In Memphis you can tell right away that it's the birthplace of Elvis: musical notes on the floors, Elvis CDs, Elvis shirts, Elvis posters, Elvis everything. Seems like an interesting place right next to the Mississippi river (again 3 double letters - what's wrong with TN people?).

On the flight from Memphis to Knoxville, I sat next to a math teacher. She was grading some homeworks for her class, and she seemed quite happy with it. The stewardess observed that I was reading Angels & Demons, and made a couple of comments. She was a very bright girl: she is 21, works 6 days a week as a stewardess and the rest 25 as a waitress, while attending college. Well done.

I don't know exactly why Knoxville looks like a rich place to me. Maybe it's the series of indoor fountains (along with stones and plants) they have at their airport. Maybe it's how clean and neat the streets are. Maybe it's the lack of cars (after LA and NY anything looks empty). Maybe it's the excellent building and planning and feeling of the roads. Maybe it's the luxurious Convention Center where we are going to have the conference tomorrow (PAC). Or maybe it's just me living in South Central LA for too long...

The PAC is what I call a big conference. People waiting for us at the airport, with instructions on how to get to the hotels. The hotel people greeted us warmly and help us very nicely. The restaurant is open later and has extra meals for the conference people. Plus we stay at Holiday Inn, in a huge room with a huge bed, wireless internet and room service with Rib Eye steaks, enjoying a great view of Knoxville by night.

Pack for PAC

It's that time of the year again. The classes end, the summer starts, and so do the conferences. The Particle Accelerator Conference is held at Knoxville, Tennessee, and will be the largest one I've ever been yet. I'm flying it 12 hours, so I should better start packing then.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


The forecast for next week is that there will be a strong storm of blogs... unlike anything before. Be prepared for the ultimate blog experience!

Tuesday, May 10, 2005


I apologize for my poor blogging the pastr couple of weeks, but I've been quite... say... hm... busy. But there is a conference next week and since 90% of the talks will suck (as in most conferences) I will have nothing better to do that blog (hopefully they'll have wireless internet in the rooms). Tennessee, here we come!

Friday, May 06, 2005

Dichelostemma capitatum

The popular name for this flower is actually Blue Dicks. I am not kidding! Check any website you want. It grows in Death Valley around this time of the year. It has an even more funnier meaning in greek (too hard to explain). Have people run out of names or what?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


This year's Easter was an event to remember. Saturday night in the church, Sakis Ruvas, Kwnstadinos Markoulakis (some of the most famous greek singer and actor respectively) and also to my surprise Tom Hanks gathered in Agia Sofia, the biggest orthodox church in the LA metropolitan area. I mean, we are not talking about seeing some average actor; Tom Hanks is top notch in Hollywood. Aparently his wife is greek and they came together. Sakis was in LA because he is planning(?) to star in a movie, and he chatted with Tom Hanks after the ceremony so there is definately something going on there.

Other "famous" people I have heppened to see around here: Will Smith, William H. Macy, Charles Barkley at the Tonight Show (Jay Leno); Forrest Whittaker at the Hundigton Park; and Shaquille O'Neal in Century City Cinemas watching the Last Samurai. Είμαστε πολύ LAινοί τελικά...

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Time traveler's convention

When: May 7, 2005, 10:00pm EDT (08 May 2005 02:00:00 UTC)
East Campus Courtyard at MIT. 42:21:36.025N, 71:05:16.332W (42.360007,-071.087870 in decimal degrees)

What is it:
The idea is very simple. We set a time and place where people from the future that have invented time machines should come back and visit us. We make this as publicly known as possible, so that people from the near or distant future have access to that information. Then, when they invent the time machine, the will come back and visit us. What should happen ideally is that many different people from different ages will show up at that time and place. If no one shows up, 2 things can have happened: 1) A time machine will never be invented 2) The convention was never known well enough so that the guys who have built it knew when to come back. So do whatever possible to get the message through. I put it in my blog with the hope that the internet (as said) will survive, and also my blog, so that future time-machinists will be able with a simple google(?) search to find the information when to come back. Good luck!