Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Neoteny is the greatest state of mind (Part 2: Star Trek - Into Darkness)

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First of all, I randomly ran into one of my friends whom I haven't talked to in many months. This was out of pure serendipity. I was looking for the medical school library, which was really hard to find as there were no signs I could locate... and I somehow wandered into a genetics lab building, peeked into one of the doors, and saw my friend M furiously scribbling. So I did the logical thing and pushed the (unlocked) door and knocked at the same time. And she was like OMG hellooooo!

So we chatted about life and lamented about work. Not that anything was going particularly badly, just the nature of research. I mentioned that I wanted to see the newest Star Trek movie. M expressed the same sentiment and that she would ping me about it later. Eventually I remembered that I needed to go to the medical library which she directed me to and it happened to be right downstairs. Oops.

That same Saturday at approximately 9:10pm, M emailed me about going to a late showing of Star Trek at 11:35pm. I already showered and was about to make dinner. I quickly whipped up a random pasta stew and slurped it down and met up with her and and her boyfriend K who was driving a new manual car. The amount of (sober) spontaneity was unprecedented. (I did not realize I would top myself a day later.)

We got bubble teas. M and K sneaked in theirs in M's bag. I got the warm barley tea and it wasn't sealed completely, so I left it in the car but that's okay. Maybe I should have specified completely no sugar instead of half. Anyway... Fast forward past the drone of previews. I was getting sleepy.

I was really looking forward to Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto's reprise as Kirk and Spock. And especially anticipating Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of the mysterious villain John Harrison. He nailed it! I totally enjoyed all three characters' chemistry with one another, as I interpret Harrison to represent a dark and impulsive side of Kirk, which the cool and rational Spock is an antithesis of. The action scenes are quite exciting, but I particularly dig the nuanced performance Cumberbatch brings in his dramatic deliveries.

Scotty is a timely (comic) relief at all the right times. The hot blonde of a weapons specialist with a physics Ph.D. is an ambivalent but admirable attempt at bucking stereotypes. I would have liked to see more of Sulu, but Cumberbatch stole the show :-P

Kudos to the CG artists and set designers as well. I liked the futuristic skyline of San Francisco - where the Star Fleet is based! I assume people would have learned to control earthquakes by that point :-P

The next day I ran into another friend in my lab building and he didn't like the movie and called BC's character "freakazoid". I think he doesn't like the "excessive pandering" to "fangirls". Perhaps he can stick to watching hip-hop music videos.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Neoteny is the greatest state of mind (Part 1: Exploratorium)

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Photos galore now. I found myself pondering about how the scientific concepts are communicated and brought to life, rather than the concepts themselves. There are lots of exhibits about light, colors, acoustics, and meteorology, perhaps because the fundamental tenets can be experienced more easily by the layperson?

Just outside the Exploratorium

Bay Bridge and some sailboats

This reminds me of cross-sections of plant stems. Or views under an optical microscope. 

This I did not know! I did remember that thicker rods have higher spring constants and therefore wiggle faster. I pride myself on knowing most of the science behind these exhibits, but I'm always happy to learn new things :-)

Kaleidoscope your face!

Mirror mirror on the wall...

I did not want to use my camera flash as a courtesy to the other visitors :-P

Whoever thought of this has a slightly macabre and edgy sense of humor.

Clock tower. It has a neo-steampunk feel :-)

This made me nostalgic of my AP Physics C class activity of racing soup cans.  To my surprise, the chunky noodle soup beat the creamy peanut butter... I wonder if it's because all the chicken nuggets clumped in the middle?!

Nice glass display of the donors. Reminiscent of whimsical bubbles! More fun than the ol' engraved metal slabs.

Mmm the classic optical illusion.

Funny jokes. And puns.

More jokes.

I love these.

This is a curious exhibit on linguistics and psychology... sort of.

Another whimsical twist on the obvious.

I like this design.

This is one of the landmark exhibits that made the Exploratorium what it is today. Dr. Frank Oppenheimer is a fascinating character!

Cute note and worms.

Bubbly algae.

The columns represent the heights of SF Bay tide every hour.

Weather observatory.

This is a nice display of the water cycle that we don't usually think about.

Hilde Hein's book about the Exploratorium gives fascinating insights into how the museum came about, its founding philosophies, and how it has developed over the years. Perhaps this is the sort of thing I would enjoy doing for life... combining science and art and (helping to) inspire people about it?

Neoteny is the greatest state of mind (Prelude)

... especially when one can project a dark chocolate exterior of sophistication and gravitas to contain the lively maverick of fruity caramel inside. Maybe a little rum and vodka too, to aid with neoteny.

I let my inner child out to romp and my inhibition loose in the Pacific wind this weekend. Friday featured an Exploratorium meandering, Saturday (late night) the newest Star Trek movie, and Monday Fanime-Con (something I would not imagine myself doing five or ten years ago).

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Dr. Chu goes to Washington...

... and ends up hungover, waking up next to a solar panel. In a clever combination of the politician's non-denial denial of the affair and his characteristic dry wit while more or less staying true to what he believes in:

“I just want everyone to know that my decision not to serve a second term as Energy Secretary has absolutely nothing to do with the allegations made in this week’s edition of the Onion. While I’m not going to confirm or deny the charges specifically, I will say that clean, renewable solar power is a growing source of US jobs and is becoming more and more affordable, so it’s no surprise that lots of Americans are falling in love with solar.”

His wife purportedly expressed skepticism: "Is that really you? You don't have hair on your chest."

In a sense, Prof. Steve Chu's stint in Washington D.C. does indeed feel like the Frank Capra's movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He even showed an excerpt of it (2m16s until about 2m37s). The naïve and nerdy physicist who's an ardent advocate for renewable energy and had to be forced to talk about the oil and gas industries as SoE.

He talked about many many examples of how a technology was initially derided and dismissed even by subject experts until it found an agent of dissemination who made it economically feasible and popular. And then it becomes as obvious to anyone. Like James Watt to the steam engine and Henry Ford to the automobile. A log-log-linear learning curve, if you will.

"[Refrigerator size] is not plateauing because of the size of the American appetite. It's plateauing because of the size of the kitchen door."

He clearly enjoyed his time at Bell Labs. Of the "flat structure where everyone argued about ideas but respected one another as people." I wish I could always find such places to do my work in... If there are more articulate scientists with social conscience, perhaps the Earth would not be totally destroyed after all...

"We Do Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors; We Borrow It from Our Children."

At the end of the talk, he quoted Apollo 8 astronauts and showed the entirety of Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot.

Two members of the audience asked him questions along the line of "how do you encourage scientists/ students/ student-scientists to be involved in policy? Any advice?" I don't remember what he said exactly, but it had the gist of Dory the blue tang's "just keep swimming just keep swimming just keep swimming swimming swimming"

Mwahaha sorry about the earworm. And if anyone can comment on the feasibility of fusion as an energy source, it would be the veteran laser guru.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

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I almost couldn't get tickets for this Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet concert... The tickets sell out frustratingly early. All the retirees in the area buying up season tickets months in advance!

It was amusing to see the only gal in the group (may or may not be the youngest?) holding the biggest stick (i.e. bassoon). Their program was refreshing, spring-like, and most of all whimsical. Only musicians of their caliber can pull this off! I had a lot of fun visualizing dramatic scenarios during the pieces...

W. A. Mozart (1756-1791), Fantasy in F Minor for a Mechanical Organ, KV 608 (Arr. by Michael Hasel): Mozart being the timeless classic he is, I had no salient mental imagery other than the abstract notion of spring and joy. This seemed to be their warm-up piece, as I felt they were tweaking some intonation along the way. I know this because once the air inside the instrument gets cold, it takes a few minutes to warm it up and get the pitches right again! Mmm wave physics.

Kalevi Aho (b.1949), Kvintetto (2006): Wild safaris with cave spelunking, scuba diving, jungle trekking, and desert traversing. Along the way, the travelers encountered a pair of elephants lumbering in heat, a mixed chorus of howler monkeys and macaws, a near-death experience of almost crashing into a cliff in a propeller plane, and an explosive symphony of color-shifting corals, tropical fishes, and octopi. The last movement starts with the flute, oboe, and clarinet playing offstage, and then they come back. And then the French and bassoon leave and play offstage until the end. Curious stage effect.

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962), Trois Piecès Brèves (1930): A lovely garden in the height of spring with serene fountains, butterflies dancing among the flowers, birds chirping amidst the arboreal foliage, and squirrels darting around the branches and tree trunks in their vibrant acrobatics.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), La cheminée du roi René (1939): Young Franciscan monks hiking in an ancient and pristine forest, seeking enlightenment. Magical spirits visit them every once in a while to commune with the monks and make fun of how little they know about the wisdom of the forest.

Jean Françaix (1912-1997), Quintet No. 1 (1948): The Marauders (may or may not include Lily Evans) pulling a Ferris Bueller by ditching their Hogwarts classes for a day, solemnly swearing they're up to no good. They must be constantly looking out for people who might recognize them, but that doesn't stop them from going to a bar and drinking a bit more than they can handle. James and Lily (or Sirius and Remus or some combination thereof) danced around in awkward and silly moves, before Remus reminds everyone they must head back pronto or they would really be in trouble. The next day, while passing time during a boring class hungover, they're planning their next adventure.

The quintet did an encore of a folk song medley that included "Oh Susana" and "Yankee Doodle" among other tunes I couldn't immediately recall :-P I wonder if they have an encore book of folk tune arrangements from every country they've performed in?

I wanted to ask them if any of them can circular breathe, but sneaking backstage seemed to be tricky. Too bad!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Visitations: Theotokia and The War Reporter

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One of my recent conversations discussed the following proposition: when attending an avant-garde opera, instead of dressing up in the usual evening formal attire, one could don the hipster gear of thick-rimmed glasses, hoodie, brightly-colored pants, converse sneakers, and mismatched socks. I'm really milking my grad student status for all it's worth.

As quoted from the concert program:
Visitations presents a pair of tender and powerful dramas about individuals haunted by inner voices. The first, Theotokia, takes the audience inside the consciousness of a man who, beset by hallucinatory voices, is taunted and seduced by the mother of God. The work illuminates the experience of Leon, a schizophrenic who is possessed by ritualistic and religious hallucinatory delusions and suffers from obsessive, ritualistic behavior.  
The second opera of the set, The War Reporter, depicts the true story of the inner struggle of Paul Watson, a war reporter who believes he is being haunted by the spirit of the desecrated American soldier he photographed in the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 (a photograph that won Watson the Pulitzer Prize shortly thereafter). Although the libretto's narrative traverses six geographical locations, the actual drama is set entirely in the psyche of the reporter as he struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. 
I was totally mesmerized by the juxtaposition of Gregorian chant (parallel fifths and octaves) with augmented/diminished fourth/fifths, major/minor seconds reminiscent of the soundtrack from North by Northwest and Inception. The St. Lawrence String Quartet really pulled out all the chords and shook them in pizzicatos. The texturing of various percussion instruments and the alto flute was particularly effective. Kudos to the composer and the entire "pit" orchestra! (There's no real pit on stage in this concert hall.)

The New York Polyphony gave a fantastic rendition of all the angst and nuances. The countertenor (who played Leon and one of Paul's inner voices) sang with the delicate tension of stretched pizza dough, constantly stringing my ears along with the anticipation of delicious harmonies and suspension chords. It was amazing how high his range can get! The baritone (as Paul) swept me away with all the power of crashing waves on a stormy shore. The soprano's singing (Theotokia: Mother Anne, Leon's mother, Yeti Mother; The War Reporter: Paul's boss, Paul's inner voice) soared like an albatross surfing in the mountain wind.

The set design once again evoked an abstract sense of unsettling, as per Rinde Eckert's signature in his works. The visualization in Theotokia reminded me of fertilized cells dividing...

... and ferrofluids morphing...

I also enjoyed how the vocalists took over the role of the stage crew, rearranging props while doing choreographed interpretive dance moves that illuminated plot elements. This aspect of the performance was implicit and understated, letting the audience make the conceptual leaps, a fresh contrast to the special effects overkill in contemporary cinema. :-P

At some point, I wondered about the anachronistic superstition that upon taking a shot, the camera would extract the subject's soul... or perhaps the photographer's?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Double, double, toil and trouble;

... Fire burn, and pseudopotentials bubble. That about sums up my research these days.

Fiddling with the mysterious inner workings of how to best represent atomic orbitals so they appear to behave just like in experimental observations...

It's like the simmering of a secret sauce where each ingredient must be mixed in the right amount and added at the right time. Otherwise dramatic explosions break out in the form of error messages like "Jacobian has collapsed", "5s is unbound", "x1 must be monotonically increasing", or "failed to bracket eigenvalues". 

Now I know why Snape the potion master is perennially frustrated. At least my research group appreciated the Shakespeare reference and the clip-art of a bubbly cauldron.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Some observations of children's art (under 16)

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On my third trip to San Francisco (third trip without any specific destination or purpose, that is), I spent a good amount of time in the Children's Creativity Museum at the Yerba Buena Gardens, specifically the spiral gallery that has been featuring artworks from the International Museum of Children's Art. Perhaps I wanted to get reacquainted with my childhood? i.e. drawing with total abandon and not caring whether it looks "right"?

I did not take any photos because I deliberately chose not to bring my camera so I could be more attuned to my surroundings. I did make the following observations:

(1) The artworks were generally very colorful, with bright hues and sometimes pretty clashing combinations -- lime green next to vermilion next to copper sulfate blue next to chromium yellow, for example. However, a group of paintings and sketches (mainly from the Eastern Europe region) reminded me of Picasso's Blue Period... because they used only blue shades. The subject matters were not particularly depressing, although they were somewhat abstract renditions of faces and people.

(2) Some of them were rather "well-done", meaning that the human anatomical structures, spatial perspectives, and shading techniques were quite mature and sophisticated. Two examples stood out the most to me -- 1. (Done by a 14-year-old Latvian) A watercolor of a winter night in a forest, with a wooden cabin at the center background, a moon on one side of the sky, human footprints going from the foreground to the cabin, and a lone rabbit sitting in the snow at the foreground. The moon's halo and the clouds were blended nicely; all the trees' shadows, reflected light spots in the footprints and on the rabbit were positioned properly. Totally publishable in a children's book :-P only because adults' books usually don't have pictures... 2. (Done by a 13-year-old Uzbek) A traveling bard of prophet sits in a contemplative posture reminiscent of Rodin. His facial expression, light beard, clothing folds, and shading were all meticulously delineated. Back when I was around that age... I might have been able to paint like that on a good day. (My charcoal sketches were the bomb, however.)

(3) Many artworks featured local cultures and history. Especially the colorful traditional South/Southeast Asian garbs. There were lots of farming-related artworks (Central and South Asia) as well as paintings of indoor daily life (Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong). The Austrian kids drew choir singers and the Mozart family. A German kid drew a witch cruising over a coniferous forest. Almost all the people in the artworks had big smiles! Except for the ones doing lots of manual labor that is. I particularly liked the horses, camels, and bulls in the Mongolian drawing of a mystical mountain man. They were tiny but the horses looked like horses and not dogs or pigs :-P

(4) There's an undercurrent of... global pop-culture. In a drawing by a 9-year-old Slovak featuring a three-headed dragon attacking a castle (with the requisite princess trapped inside), the dragon's stomach contents were X-rayed out in full view: packaged MacD food such as fries, burgers, and milkshakes. A Vietnamese (girl -_-) drew some farmers with wide pink hats. Many of the Singaporean and Indonesian family/friends portraits (along with an Argentinian drawing of fairies) displayed a visible influence from Japanese anime, i.e., large and detailed eyes, colorful and textured hair, etc.

(5) Some countries were not represented in this collection. Notably China (government censorship and propaganda?), Japan, Korea (too much time spent in cram schools?) Only ones from South America were one from Argentina and one from Peru. On the African continent... Egypt, Ghana, and Sudan. Lots of Eastern European (Soviet bloc :-P), South, Southeast, and Central Asian representation, especially the *stans. The only artwork in this collection done by an American was called "Two Families", featuring a sailboat with people and some whales big and small.

I wonder how much did these young artists receive prompts re: their subject matter and choice of medium? As a hopelessly analytical adult who has a taste toward postmodern surrealism / magical realism, I want to parse out the elements that originated purely from the children from those that were prompted by adults. I'm sure in some cases the boundary gets blurred. I'm also curious whether the selection in Oslo is much different from the SF cohort. Perhaps it would indicate more complicated (and adult) layers of national and cultural sensibility?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A lack of dérivatory excursions can trigger...

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... a recurring bout of suburbanitis, and the only known relief (no known cure) is the application of a transcendiary experience. The torching of perma-numbness. Not just simply ordering a different burger combo or smoothie flavor at thereby unnamed campus eateries.

As I sampled my inner space groups with a denser grid of k-points under the waterfall simulacrum, I wondered if I'm merely rotating within the same dimension, without awareness of high-order fields.

Perhaps I am succumbing to the all-permeating Postmodern Surrealism, whatever that entails.

Meanwhile, I'll keep on keeping on... keep on believin'... Believe in the future.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Of sublime numbers and experiences (Part 1 of 2, Journey the PS3 game)

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So passed an eventful year that left me no respite to blog contemplatively. Plenty exciting at the time, like jumping out of a plane and then having the parachute snagging on the tallest baobab tree ever and then getting spun around in a circle and then landing in a lake and then bobbing up and down in sensory overload.

Earlier today I somehow revisited the problem of the infinite 2D mesh of resistors, and came across this bonanza of a math site. Through some random link-hopping from there, I stumbled upon sublime numbers. I posted the link in my Google chat status which prompted a brief discussion with a friend about the phenomena of mathematical curiosities with no apparently real-life applications (other than to entertain the mathematicians). I find it vaguely coincidental and ironic that 12 is the only sublime number of manageable size. Oh sublime.

Speaking of sublime experiences, I had a most surreal gaming experience last month in the form of Thatgamecompany's Journey. A lot of props for the small indie studio for this magnum opus.

It conjures up the grandeur of ancient empires with motifs inspired by a smorgasbord of cultures (Asia Minor, East Asia, South America) with a dash of Gerhard Richter's abstract-minimalist flair. The journey-character is delightfully ambiguous in gender and cultural identifiers, while being simultaneously elegant yet cute. And we can only speculate that the character is really human, in fact. (Took the designers many many iterations! According to the artbook...)

The game is designed to make players experience positive emotions, i.e. state of flow. The (mostly) exhilarating gameplay fulfills all the needs for roaming, alpine skiing, and flying with elegant cape/scarf.

The meditative moments...

Psychologically gripping moments... (monster with glowing red eye!)

The grand test of blizzard mountain...

... after which the players find out in their own way what the journey is all about.

The beauty of Journey is that it can represent what each player makes of it. In my case, I liken it to the process of grad school research... possibly even more directionless and with more monsters chopping you. Other than the majestic landscapes and architecture, the game is full of (initially) mysterious elements whose significance gradually becomes apparent as the player progresses.

I found the (optional) cooperative play with an anonymous player online to be unexpectedly emotional. I was spellbound and speechless the entire time (2 hours? 3? No idea.) No wonder some people actually watch the gameplay Youtube videos like a movie! This game has turned a non-gamer like me into a raving fan. :-P

And the soundtrack is beyond description. Evokes transcendence of time and space... The cello and bass flute worked so well because they just resonate with the human voice and condition in a fundamental sense. I could not get enough of certain segments because they are positively loopable. Even the travelers' chirps took forever to get it right (bravo and total respect) Big kudos for Austin Wintory, sound engineers, and all the performers!

(1)  Flower is another great game along a similar vein,
(2) The creative director Jenova Chen's masters thesis describes some fascinating ideas. However, if GRE scores don't have a cap, it'd no longer be a "standardized" test because there would be no basis for comparison now huh.