Thursday, June 30, 2005

Exam Time

For the last day we just have to do the takehome final exam, whicch will be done in the same way with all the people around the table. We have beers, Casasa (brazilian drink), pepsis, water, pink lemonade, plus a huge amount of food and snacks. It's 19:16 right now, and we will be done for sure by 8 o' clock. I just don't know the time zone that this will be yet...

Sunday, June 26, 2005

I have no words... Goodnight.

Once upon a time in Ithaca

(I can predict this is going to be my longest post ever).

First of all, I need to explain my symplectic comments by introducing the notion of symplectic. Simplectic is essentially a matrix; a mathematical tranformation that satisfies some specific properties. The cool thing is its physical meaning: like rotation is a transformation that preserves the length of a vector, simplectic is a transformation that preserves the area. We love the word because it sounds so simple and complicated at the same time - we have a lot of fun asking whether some things are simplectic or not, e.g. is malaka simplectic?

Let's focus now.

Cornell university (which is about as big as Ithaca) has a strong tradition in physics and space sciences, a lot of NASA projects go through their hands. At the city downtown there is the incredibly smart Solar System Walk: Starting with the sun, there is a 1 mile walk with stones representing each planet at the exact distances from teh sun and having their exact sizes as planets. I was sad to realize how empty the solar system is.

The day: Class

I love this picture: it encompasses one of the most essential concepts in the world, teaching. A teacher, a student, and a blackboard. The classes take place from 9-5 every day, it's intense and exhausting which has led me to move to the back of the room to take short naps. We also do simulations and visit the Cornell campus from time to time.

In the evenings a different a war begins. 100 students spread around 20 tables try to tackle the problems of Mr Waldo and his minions. We usually have in our group 7-8 people and try all sorts of things to get through. We shout eachother, stand up, run, go online, compute, derive, drink, eat, slap, one after the other at an ultra-fast pace from 7-midnight+ every night! I'll never forget the night where we were debating for hours the direction of the coils. Or at the final day (Thursday), the stupid emmittance calculation! There must have been 12 people above our head at 11pm as I was telling Matt which numbers to plug into the calculator, and everyone was started cheering and shouting and jumping around when the right answer just showed up thus proving a long trail of evaluations.

But when all this was over, there came Friday...

Inside this bar at the time the picture was taken, and unprecedented event took place, something that has probably never happenened before. Half the bar was occupied with Pirates, and the other half with particle physicists... Aparently there is this group of half-naked crazy people that rotate between bars and end up at their ship in the nearby lake where they have orgies till the morning. Then the other half are geeks trying desperately to blend with the pirates (some of them did very well oddly enough!)

From left to right:
Mike: Ex-army guy, now it Maryland trying to simulate their particle accelerator. Lots of fun, with the heart of a 18 years old.
Diktys: Ex-boyfriend of a very good friend of mine in greece, I immediately knew who he was once he told me his name. Maryland is too small to make im stay there.
Karen: The beautiful Brazilian of our company is so interesting - completely different world.
Rodrigo: Columbian guy, great kid with awesome sense of humor and always happy to make jokes.
Themos: Great piece of malaka.
Jeff: Born and raised in Indiana, this is a type of person you don't see in big cities. So simple and joyful at the same time.
Matt: The King of Malaka. This guy is one of a kind.

Karen is my personal favorite. She doesn't speak much english, yet she struggles so hard to make sense, and we struggle so much to understand. She creates an interesting chemistry with people, loves Metallica, and she is from the same county as Gisele! This girl is so much fun to talk with. Plus she was a critical link at the emmittance battle last Thursday.

Matt... This guy is my personal favorite. He dropped his MBA to become a high school teacher, after he realized that people in the industry are just so lame and stupid that piss him off. Hence he got married, and returned to academia pursuing a master's in applied physics and now he is attending particle physics school! If you are looking for the soul of the party, this is your man. I don't remember when I had so much fun around one single person.

Waldo McKay: This person above is a researcher at a goverment lab and he is teaching us particle accelerators! He is a very nice and honest guy, that maybe enjoys drinking a little bit too much. We all like him though.

A few moments ago me Diktys and Matt were sitting on the bar enjoying some beer while trying to figure out what is the difference between cyclotrons, betatrons and synchrotrons. The quest was interrupted by Karen's impressions of her trip to the Niagara Falls, my Speaker-in-a-Nutshell JBL experience (both betatrons and speakers use induction!), Dikty's request of even more beer and one of Matt's inumerable stories.

My experiences from last week are too strong be out into words. Sometimes you have a great time because you are with great people, even if the place sucks. Sometimes you have a great time because the place is great even though the people suck. And sometimes both the place is great and the people are great, and then... wow.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

It's a simplectic world

The last few days here in Ithaca have been just too overwelming for me to handle. It has been one of the most complete weeks of my life. I''ll try to blog more tomorrow if I find at last some time, for now I will only post a comment from the Buffalo radio station that had me laughing out of nowhere and a great picture added to my Hall of Fame, from the great Niagara Falls.

"Changing the station is like changing the flag, it just isn't right."

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Life is nice in the small village of Ithaca...

Cornell has a beautiful campus, probably the best I've been (and I've been to several ones). Excellent blend between the enviroment and the buildings. I mean, how many schools have canyons and waterfalls inside? :-)

Other than that, the real pain starts. We have astrict, almost military schedule:

while (day!=weekend) & (day !=July 1st) do
7am-8am: Breakfast
8am: Bus leaves for school
9am-5pm: Classes
5pm: Bus leaves for hotel
6pm-7pm: Dinner
7pm-Midnight+ : endless homeworks due the next day
Midnight+ - 7am: sleep

We have great fun though doing the problems. It's intense, rough, argumentative and joyful at the same time. The collaboration capabilities of such diverse groups never ceases to amaze me...

Friday, June 17, 2005

Anybody who's anybody

One of the best lines I show in a movie lately (credit to Woody Allen):

- Honey, we should get a place in the Hamptons. Anybody who's anybody has one.
- Yes, but if you are somebody who's nobody it's no fun to be around anybody who's everybody.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


For people that need a break from my not-so-light-hearted posts.


After finishing reading Guns, Germs and Steel, two thoughts have strongly registered into my mind.

First: The outcome of human history could not have been different on a large scale and it is independent of the individuals. This is not to say that the great minds of human civilizations, from Alexander the Great to Einstein, didn't change history. However their effect could not alter the evolution of our species in the big things (for example, the conquest of the Americas from the Europeans) which is tied strongly to the environment into which each civilization has risen.

Second: Up until reading this book, I thought that any scientific work (thesis, paper, book) could sum up their important contributions into equations (for theory), into graphs (for experimental works) and into a piece of code (for computer science people). However it is clear to me now that this is not enough. Although Diamond's book has some graphs, his scientific arguments exist only as ideas and concepts - they cannot be put down to equations or graphs or code. This is a great disappointment for me since it is very easy to distinguish a useful equation or graph or code that you need to use, rather than an idea which is put into words and it is blended along with not-so-useful information. Diamond's writing is simply superb even just to admire the way of excellent presenting scientifically such ideas and not have the reader wondering around.

My next task/book is Godel, Escher, Bach: It is the most math-related book that ever won the Pulitzer prize, and deals with consciousness. Specifically, the author presents examples from music, painting and math, and tries to show how the realization of "I" - the fact that we realize that we exist as beings - can arise as a result of non-alive materials. His arguments so far are along the concept of words, e.g. the meaningless symbols 'o', 'g', 'd', when put together they can form 'dog', which acquires a meaning greater than the sum of its parts, just by having the arrangement right.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Beam Detector

Here's a problem posed to an interviewed canditate to a NY financial firm. I have rephrased the problem because the initial statement is terrible:

Given a circle of radius 1 and a line that intersects the circle, find the minimum length of any curve (or set of curves) that guarantees that these curves will intersect the line.

For example, a curve that consists of the circumference of the circle will intersect the line for sure, but it will have a length of 2π. The best solution using one curve is π+2=5.14, and the proved lower limit is π.

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Star Wars thing

After seeing all Star wars movies altogether (plus making of and other facts) it is clear to me now how this phenomenon evolved. Episode IV, in 1977, was made according to older regimes. A hero who saves a princess from a bad guy, with a sci-fi context. The movie is naive, funny and not-so-well-done. Lucas himself admitted that it was a miracle putting this movie together. The major issue was the lack of money, since Lucas wanted to make the movie independent of Hollywood (and he did; all 6 of them). Part of the reason to success was the dynamic at which space was presented; imagine that the best sci-fi movie up to that position was 2001, a completely static and dull depiction of space.

When Episode IV turned out to be a huge success, Episode V had twice as much budget, better production, a lot better special effects, a solid story and the best direction of all 6 episodes (not by Lucas!). The designer of Yoda said he created the face according to his facial characteristics, but then Yoda didn't look much wise. So he took a picture of Einstein and added his cheeks to Yoda to make him look wiser :-)

Return of the Jedi (originally titled Revenge of the Jedi) was a bad movie. Apart from the encounter between the Skywalkers and the emperor, the rest of the stuff is just put together clumsy.

Episodes I and II don't really add anything to the story, although they are artistically orders of magnitude superior to the older trilogy. However the look and feel of the originals is lost: now people are too serious and they are trying to talk big words and they never stop to joke or have fun. The hero-saves-princess theme died with the last Indiana Jones movie.

When all 6 movies are placed equal (their chronological context aside) Episode III is more complete and enjoyable as a movie, followed by Episodes V and IV. If we consider that Episodes IV-V-VI are 20 years older, then Empire Strikes Back is the best film of the series in terms of completeness and coherency in storytelling. Also, watching Episode IV right after Episode III makes so much sense; it's hard to tell that the movies came out so far apart in time.

The most critical character of the whole series is Obi-Wan Kenobi. He is the one who raises and trains Anakin. He is the one who forces him to become Darth Vader by humiliating him. He is the one that Leia seeks in the most desperate of times. He is the one that trains Luke, that finally strikes evil down.

In total, Star Wars seems like the story of Darth Vader. If I have to acknowledge Lucas for one thing though, that is the fact that he created for the first time in cinema history a story that as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Pizarro vs Atahuallpa - part 3

Let's finish what we started a few days ago. The ultimate answer on why Pizarro conquered the Incas, on why the Europeans formed the strongest civilizations (rather than the Americans or the Africans) can be clearly seen on any world map. Everyone has noticed it yet it is not easy to relate the picture to human history. It has to do with the continent orientation.

From all continents in the world, Eurasia, America and Africa favored civilizations to grow because the do not require ships - a technology available later in human history. From these 3, Africa and America have a North-South orientation of their axis, while Eurasia in the only one that has a East-West axis orientation. Why does this matter?

Diamond has a very elegant example:

Imagine a Canadian farmer foolish enough to plant a race of corn adapted to growing farther south, in Mexico. The unfortunate corn plant, following its Mexico-adapted genetic program, would prepare to thrust up its shoots in March, only to find itself still buried under 10 feet of snow.

The East-West axis orientation allows for faster and more efficient spread of plants and animals - because all the lands will have the same latitude and more or less the same climate, same rainfall, same year-long cycle of plant growth. How could the Egyptian civilization evolve beyond Sahara, past the tropical forests? How could plants from Eastern US (where they were first domesticated) could ever reach past the Texas deserts into Mexico and meso-america? Yet it's no big deal for Babylonian and Sumerian plants to get to the greeks, the romans and further inside Europe.

In the next step, plant domestication allowed food production: dense populations, complex societies and hence political organization and technology. Animal domestication provided necessary nutrition and goods, plus ensured the growth of germs (all germs come originally from animals) that decimated more than half of the Native American populations (who had no animals apart from the dog -> no germs developed).

Why Europeans and not the Chinese? Because the european terrain is such that encourages small independent tribes to form - which will eventually collide with eachother and that forced them to develop more technology and weapons and be more aggressive. The China terrain on the other hand favors people to be together and hence form a peaceful society. If you need to proof, just wonder why China is one big country while europe consists of several small pieces-countries.

Diamond provides a very detailed history of the continents. From 0, 13,000 years ago, to where we are now. An alien civilization wise enough could have watched our planet at 11,000BC and predict that Eurasian civilizations would have a head start (according to such arguments) and colonize the world - something that eventually happened. The question is now, can we use such arguments to predict the future from where we are now?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

I've seen weird graffiti...

... yet this was the best. All I will say is that this picture is taken inside a subway station in Barcelona.

I suspect that the last few posts may have required more concentration than my average post. So I decided to take a break and offer to my readers something easier to digest - Laetitia's tits.

Pizarro vs Atahuallpa - part 2

Here we go again - to explain the outcome of the battle between the Inca Emperor and the Spanish conqueror. The reasons behind the outcome apply also to almost every battle of the Europeans conquering the New World, and almost to every other civilization contact in history.

We saw that Guns, Germs & Steel were the proximate factors of the outcome. These factors can be traced back and they have been caused from the inequality in food production between Eurasia and the Americas. So, why was there a difference?

There are about 5 places in the world at which food production rose independently. 2 of them are the Fertile crescent (Mesopotamia) and the Eastern US. The Spanish and Inca civilizations are a result of food production arising in these areas. The next step is to see that food production (a shift from hunter-gatherer societies) is a direct result of plant and animal domestication. The conscious treatment of plants in order to produce more food is the first step in ensuring enough food supplies. So, let's go now one step deeper and ask: why was plant domestication more strong in the Fertile crescent than the Eastern US?

First reason: the Fertile crescent (named after the shape of the highly productive area) had Mediterranean climate. The plants that grew (and grow) up there are annual in order to adapt to the short rain season and to the long dry periods. The short term of the plants does not allow them to grow big. Hence they are forced to produce big seeds in order to ensure their survival. These seeds are the ones that humans can eat very easily. Only in the Fertile crescent, 1 Kcal of work produces 50 times more energy in food! Therefore the people there it is very easy to settle down and store food fast (which will eventually allow the rise of a civilization).

Second reason: there is a high diversity in plant species in the Fertile crescent. From the top 56 wild grass species with the biggest seeds, 32 of them can be found in the Fertile crescent! Only 2 of them can be found in the eastern US.

Third reason: The 5 major domesticated mammals that provide meat, milk products, wool, land transport, etc are sheep, goat, cow, pig, horse. Although now spread worldwide, none of these mammals existed initially in the eastern US.

These 3 are the main reasons that I think gave the Eurasian civilizations a head start (Diamond mentions dozens more - the guy is incredible), which allowed them to develop more quickly and then inevitably led to the conquest of Americas from Europe. However Diamond goes even deeper than that! He asks again, why did it come to be this way? Why did the Fertile crescent managed to hold so many species of plants and animals so easy to domesticate as opposed to other places in the world? We'll return on that soon.