Archive for: November, 2009

A short housekeeping note (again)

Nov 30 2009 Published by under Personal

If things have seemed rather quiet around here again, it's because I'm making a final big push to finish my math methods textbook by the end of December -- the brainpower required to sort through the headaches of Bessel functions and Legendre polynomials has left little room for insightful physics posts!

This week, I'm hoping to have a more-or-less complete version of all chapters save one plus appendices, which should give me some breathing room.  Provided that works out as planned, I should get back to some more detailed posts next week.

Once I'm back on track, I've got some nice and amusing history of science involving Lord Kelvin, my long-delayed post about the fiber optics Nobel prize research, and some more "optics basics" and "relativity" posts.

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: End of the world edition!

Nov 30 2009 Published by under General science, Science news

I figured that the week of Thanksgiving would be quiet for research blogging -- not true!  Lots of folks stepped away from the turkey and stepped up to give us some research highlights.

The entries that caught my eye this week were (mostly) about past or hypothetical catastrophic events.  So let this be the end of the world edition of my editor's selections!

With all this gloom and doom, let's end with some beauty: Bruceleeowe of Bruceleeowe's Blog (again) reports on the recent lovely images of the northern lights of Saturn.

Check back next Monday for more miscellaneous highlights!

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Video games as art: My favorite games that are more than just 'point and shoot'

Nov 25 2009 Published by under Entertainment, role-playing games

The other night, I stayed up way past my bedtime playing the finale of the video game DragonAge: Origins, the recently released fantasy role-playing game (RPG) by BioWare.  Though the game had a lot of technical limitations that drove me nuts, and the fantasy setting was definitely stereotypical (Zero Punctuation had a great review of the game), in the end the characters and the development of the story won me over.  The game is designed to force you to make very hard decisions, most of which possess no right answer.  Though I made the choices that I felt were right in the game, I was genuinely saddened at the end of the game because of the consequences of those choices.  It may seem odd, but it is a game that will probably stick with me for some time.

This reminded me of a topic I've thinking of blogging about for some time: are video games artistic?  Of course, modern video games have armies of artists producing the graphics and the music, and there are other sites that consider video games as art in a more abstract sense, but I'm really thinking more about the stories that are told and the way they are told.

Roger Ebert has, in years past, caught a lot of flak for expressing his opinion that video games cannot be art comparable to great literature and movies:

...I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

Roger Ebert has given this a lot of thought (and gotten into arguments with Clive Barker over it), and he makes a very reasoned case.  If I understand it correctly, he argues that good movies and literature require the author to tell a story the way he or she wants to tell it -- the more one gives the player control over the outcome of the story, the more one is sacrificing their story and artistic vision.

I used to think more or less the same thing as Ebert, but these days I respectfully disagree with him.  Firstly, interactivity doesn't necessarily ruin the story the author wants to tell -- it can place the gamer into the story in a way that gets them more involved than a passive reading can do.   Furthermore, it is possible to use the very act of interactivity to tell a sort of 'meta-story' -- showing the gamer how their actions have consequences and showing how those consequences can ripple further along the line in the tale.

Of course, most games don't do this at all, and I can't blame Ebert for not being familiar with some of the gems of the genre.  Heck, most movies that are produced fall very, very short of being 'high art', and someone who casually follows the summer blockbusters would certainly get the impression that movies are shallow and vapid.

With this in mind, I thought I'd share my list of video games that aspire to something more than shallow entertainment.  Whether or not they reach the level of 'art' I leave it to the reader to decide.  Certainly this isn't intended to be the final word or even a convincing argument in favor; the internet is filled with commentary on the subject.
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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: wayward galaxy clusters, air batteries, and the Toucan's bill

Nov 23 2009 Published by under General science, Science news

  • hey, where are those galaxy clusters going? Greg Fish at weird things describes "dark flow", a mysterious unexplained pull that some clusters of galaxies are experiencing.
  • Recharge your batteries. calvinus at Post Tenebras Lux tells us about an intriguing new type of battery material that has an energy storage capacity rivaling gasoline and uses air as one of it chemical ingredients.
  • Why do Toucans have large bill. If you've always thought that the Toucan's bill looks cumbersome and inconvenient, check out this post!  Arunn at Unruled Notebook explains research showing that the bill plays a remarkable role in regulating the Toucan's temperature.

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Another kitty in da house!

Nov 22 2009 Published by under Animals

And this time it's a real kitten, only six months old.  We're fostering her for a while until we can find her a good home.  Her name is Sophie, and she's a very sweet kitty.  Here's a picture of her sleeping on her adopted mother's legs:

I tried to get a picture of her asleep, but her little kitten ears picked up my approach!

So far, she seems to be getting along fine with our current 4 antisocial cats.  I think they more or less realize that she's not here to take over and just wants to play.  She actually is of a similar size and coloration to our most antisocial cat, Zoe:

We're holding out a little hope that Zoe and Sophie will decide to get along, though knowing Zoe it's a bit of a distant hope!

Update: In a fascinating development, our cat Sabrina is actually learning from Sophie!  Sophie has been playing a lot with toy balls, batting them around and carrying them in her mouth.  Tonight, Sabrina started doing exactly the same thing, even though she's never done it before.

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Reversing optical "shockwaves" using metamaterials (updated)

Nov 20 2009 Published by under Optics

ResearchBlogging.orgIn a recent issue of Physical Review Letters was an article with the intriguing (to me) title of "Experimental verification of reversed Cherenkov radiation in left-handed metamaterial," by a collaboration from Zhejiang University in China and MIT.  The paper is an experimental verification of an effect predicted for metamaterials way back in 1968 by the originator of metamaterials research, Victor Vesalago, in his original paper, "The electrodynamics of substances with simultaneously negative values of ε and μ."

Čerenkov radiation (I prefer this spelling) is an effect analogous to the sonic boom created by projectiles moving faster than the speed of sound.  Čerenkov radiation is emitted by ultra-high speed charged particles moving in matter.  In ordinary matter, this radiation travels along the direction of motion of the particle; in a negative refractive index material, Vesalago predicted that Čerenkov radiation will travel in a direction opposite of the direction of the particle. Now, we have some preliminary experimental evidence supporting this prediction.

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Benjamin Franklin's words on the Constitution

Nov 18 2009 Published by under [Politics]

On Tuesday night, almost on the eve of a historic Senate vote on expanding health care coverage for Americans, hundreds of people congregated outside of Joe Lieberman's Connecticut house in a candlelight vigil to advocate for healthcare reform. The vigil, organized by the Interfaith Fellowship for Universal Healthcare, included rabbis who appealed to Lieberman's conscience to make him to the right thing and support reform.  From the Danbury News Times,

STAMFORD -- Quietly holding candles, hundreds of clergymen, congregants and reform advocates lined the sidewalks outside Independent U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman's Stamford home Sunday night in a show of support for universal health care.

"When we heard not only would he vote against it, but he'd use his power, his position as a swing vote ... to block it from coming to a vote, we had to send a message so he knows people who vote overwhelmingly favor the public option," said Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford.
The vigil began at Stamford High School, Lieberman's alma mater, and ended at the senator's home, the Hayes House, across the street.

"In some sense, it's poetic," said Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy, who attended the vigil. "The place where Sen. Joseph Lieberman received his high school education, the place he visited upon his announcement to seek the vice presidency, a place where his run for the presidency began -- and it just so happens, a place across the street from where he lives."

Lieberman is going so far as to say that he'll filibuster health care because he doesn't believe that a public option will work.  He is, in essence, saying that his knowledge and "understanding" is much deeper than health care experts, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the evidence of every other industrialized nation's government health care systems and, quite frankly, a majority of the American people.

Putting aside the question whether Lieberman is sincerely critical of the idea of a public option or just continuing the disingenuous douchebaggery he's been known for ever since losing his Democratic primary, I thought this was a good time to remind folks of another man who had doubts about a big piece of legislation.  He was a big enough man, however, to realize that he was not the wisest person on earth.  (This realization, however, ironically meant that he probably was.)

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The Giant's Shoulders #17 -- Darwin Sesquicentennial Edition -- is up!

Nov 17 2009 Published by under General science, Science news

The seventeenth edition of The Giant’s Shoulders is up at The Primate Diaries!  Eric Michael Johnson put together an excellent Darwin Sesquicentennial Edition!

The deadline for the next edition is December 15th, and it will be held at Just a mon.  Entries can be submitted through or directly to the host blog, as usual!

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ResearchBlogging editor's selections: water on the sun, nanotubes in the garden, mysterious magnetic field reversals, and ancient Chinese roads

Nov 16 2009 Published by under General science, Science news

  • Water on the Sun. If you thought finding water on the moon was surprising, let Invader Xan at Supernova Condensate explain how water has now been found on the surface of the Sun!
  • Sprucing up your garden with carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes have been hyped for applications as diverse as paper batteries and space elevators.  Now, Michael Long at Phased describes a very unusual application of the exotic material: helping your tomato plants grow!
  • The amazing disappearing asymmetric magnetic reversals. On a geological timescale, the Earth's magnetic field occasionally 'flips' direction; the study of such paleomagnetism gives interesting insight into the Earth's geological history.  But Chris Rowan at Highly Allochthonous discusses research that suggests that the behavior of the magnetic field has been even more complicated than previously appreciated.  Or has it?
  • Road Redux. Road construction can have a huge negative impact on the ecosystems they are carved through.  Instead of using new techniques to reduce this impact in mountain regions, others are considering a technique that dates back to the Qin dynasty in China!  Roberta Kwok of Journal Watch Online discusses the research.

Check back next Monday for more “miscellaneous” highlights!

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It's confirmed; my cats are trying to kill me

Nov 14 2009 Published by under Animals, Silliness

I never believed it when people told me that their cats are trying to kill them.  Well, I never believed it until last night.  The wife and I were watching television, and I got up to make some popcorn.  While I was returning with two small bowls for us, our kitty Sabrina thought that it would be a good time to pounce at my foot!

She didn't actually grab me, but she managed to get her paw under my foot as I was putting it down.  To avoid stepping on her, I stumbled  forward -- and completely hyperextended my big toe in the process.  It is now completely swollen and painful, and I've spent most of Saturday off my feet playing videogames.  (Though it is arguable that I would have done that anyway.)

Sabrina has acted remorseful all day, coming up to me and rubbing her head up against me, something she typically doesn't do.  I'm not fooled, though; this was a dry run before my eventual elimination.  The wife claims that it wasn't intentional, and that she acted alone, but I have my doubts.  Would you trust a face like this?


Or this?


Or this?


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