Friday, May 17, 2013

Friday Five

1. It's Sir-Laughs-a-Lots' birthday tomorrow. (Happy birthday!) We're going to do silly celebratory student things. No, not that kind. The kind where you realise you have the reading comprehension of a grad student and a pile of children's books and what are you waiting for? Yay.

2. Today I wrote my last test of semester, and our lectures are finished. Exams are looming only in a manageable couple of weeks, so tomorrow we're going to do silly celebratory student things . . .

3. The test I wrote today may be the last maths test I ever write. (I take all my courses from the physics department next semester, and if I'm lucky that could be the end of coursework.) It's kinda weird.

4. Do I sound like Hermione Granger if I say I want an analysis textbook for bedtime reading? We've touched on functional analysis in this PDE course and while I don't feel much need to do the proofs myself (though it would be fuuuuuun), but I think it's be interesting, useful and, relevantly, doable to get a sense of the terminology and what the results actually are. Maybe I could find an analysis for physicists book. Hmm.

5. Although while I don't want a full-of-detailed-proofs book, I kind of want a rigourous one. We can pretend that makes sense, right? It's like, I was talking to one of my lecturers about an applied physics course and he said "Well, for a pure mathematician like yourself [. . .]" Now, I'm certainly not much of a pure mathematician if I haven't even read much analysis (I do know a very little), but I guess I'm pickier than most about maths being done properly. As it should be.

And there's today's allocation of nerdery. If you know of a readable introductory source on analysis, I'd love to know, though I don't promise I'll actually get to reading it.

Savo 'lass a lalaith.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Book Logs: Children's Fantasy

I finished two children's fantasy classic-y things recently, and thought I'd write about them together, although it probably won't turn out to be dreadfully matchy.

The Magician's Nephew by C. S. Lewis

Sir Laughs-a-lot and I have been working our way through the Narnia books together, although the order has got a little muddled (we did at least start with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). His childhood, unlike mine, was not filled with rereading the Narnia books over and over and over (they're short - I could get through a couple in an afternoon) which meant we came at it from quite different perspectives. He wanted to know what would happen next and was surprised by the surprising bits. I was bundled up in a sort of anticipation that's almost worse than suspense. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy it - but I think reading aloud and reading together made it more obvious how much my mind was other places in the story than what we were actually reading. It takes a bit more effort to relax into the moment than otherwise, perhaps. Having said that, if I haven't read a book, I spend a fair bit of brainpower on second guessing what'll happen next, so maybe that's just me.

I think I have read the book too many times to write a brief impression post without being either dreadfully specific or taking more time away from my mathematics than is quite wise. I think it may be my favourite of the Narnia books, though we'll see as we read further!

Redwall by Brian Jacques

This is also a book that I first read as a kid, but I can't say I'm nearly as nostalgic about it. I read it because I needed a light read and it was on my Kindle app from months ago when Amazon had been offering it free. I enjoyed reading it and was drawn into the story, but I remain a little bemused as to why people get so very emotional over the series.

The setting - an abbey of mice sheltering various woodlan creatures, attacked by a horde of evil rats - is admittedly quite awesome. In "On Fairy Tales" (I think!) Tolkien draws a distinction between fantasies involving talking animals and "beast tales", which are essentially stories about everyday life, acted out by animals. (He points out that this allows for rather harsher points against some animals than wemight be comfortable with against actual people.) Redwall certainly has elements of that. But it has ancient prophecies and legendary sword and visions in dreams too, which seem to make it fantasy anyway. The combination works well. I will freely admit to spending chunks of time reading Redwall cookbooks and otherwise revelling in the setting.

I think what bothers me about the book is what I'm tempted to call Heaviside character development. In maths, a Heaviside function is zero up to a certain point, and one everywhere after that. It's not continuous. A lot of character development in Redwall feels to me - I think, maybe - like a series of Heaviside functions. Matthias is a bumbling Redwall novice. Oh no, Cluny the Scourge is coming! Level him up to inexperienced warrior, quick! It's not implausible that the change would happen - the change is a big part of a good story, for me - but I'd have liked to see a bit more of the internal turmoil and growth and not just a Heaviside archetype function. The plot felt a little like that too - different elements didn't always seem like consequences of what had gone before. They just kinda happened.

That said, I definitely enjoyed reading the book. I would certainly be less nitpicky if I didn't know other people adored the series. I liked the book (and the rest of the series), but I think it gets a bit too Heaviside-ish (and perhaps formulaic) for my liking.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

End of Semester

I sat down to study today. I cleared my desk properly for once, and finally actually handwashed the tie-dye shirt that's been sitting there (now it can go into the laundry with everything else). I gave my hopefully-not-dead-yet pot plants some attention that they probably needed quite a while ago, and got mud all over my notes and the carpet. So while I was cleaning that up I gave the rest of my room a quick going over too.

It's almost procrastination, but the tidy, organised environment did seem more conducive to sitting down for two hours and making maths notes. Besides, it all needed to be done, right? It's nice to revel in the straight lines and neat corners that come with exam season before it really gets going.

Once exams are actually upon me I know those corners will seem poky, but a (relatively) clear schedule and a clear desk look quite inviting right now. There's space to breathe.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Not-Friday Five

1. We cooked spaghetti and meatballs for supper Friday night and it turned into a fancier meal than I expected. I'm not sure if it was because making meatballs is a little more effort than I usually go to or just Friday night fanciness or some happy serendipity, but it reminded me that cooking can actually be fun. I need to find more time and energy for that on a regular basis.

2. Quantum physics is weird. Niels Bohr (one of the founders of the subject) once (somewhat) famously said that "Anyone who is not confused by quantum mechanics has not understood it." This makes for some really cool stuff, but also makes it tricky to tell whether there's a typo in your notes or things really are just that weird.

3. I spent quite a while persuding the campus bookstore to source books from the suppliers for me. The online people would do it happily, but they couldn't process the gift card I'm using to finance the purchases. However, I now have a couple of books I've been wanting to read - that weren't even on special - on the way. This is exciting!

4. My siblings have all attended schools that presented book vouchers with academic awards, but I never did. I feel like part of the club now that university's doing it too.

5. Wednesday was a public holiday. It was wonderful to have a day off from classes, and while chunks of it were filled with homework, other chunks were filled with a tie-dye project It was fun! I could get addicted to this stuff.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Work and Play

I downloaded photographs for the first time in ages, and these seemed to more-or-less cover the spectrum of stuff I've been doing.

First year labs - taken during a lull in the questions. Using a torsion balance to determine relative densities. Demonstrating is actually a pretty cool job; and it makes for more interesting pictures than most of my "real" work (the stuff I'll hopefully get a degree for). You can just picture me moving between the computer and my notebook for that.

Afternoon tea - just off from the middle-of-town traffic is a lovely Victorian garden with hedges and archways and benches and grottos, which I was too busy exploring to photograph - maybe another time! After that it was time for tea. We try to do something exciting most weekends, although that sometimes means making tea and drinking it without doing work at the same time. Those times are slightly less photogenic, but they're good too!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Book Log: Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

("Good night" seems like two words to me, but it's one on the cover. Oh well.)

One of my criticisms against 'Skull in Shadows Lane' was that it read like a children's book (which it was, so it's not a terrible thing). Goodnight Mister Tom, which is also about children in wartime England, did not read like a children's book. I think this is a good thing (certainly, I enjoyed it), although part of me wonders if it really is a children's book.

William is evacuated from his meagre home in London to a surprisingly pleasant place in the country, where he stays with a crusty, but kind childless old widower: Mister Tom. Will blossoms in the wholesome new environment and it's a delight to watch his character unfold. Part of the delight, certainly, is being able to see things coming when he can't. I'm not sure how much that would change between an adult and a child's perspective.

It's a little odd to realise that I just don't know. As I write now, looking for an example that's more adult-oriented than kid-oriented, I can't think of a specific example. It's rich - I found some of the Heidi parallels rather fun, especially when somebody mentions the novel in a different context, but I don't imagine every reader would notice/appreciate that. The division probably doesn't have much to do with age, though. Some of the topics it deals with are horrible, but it does handle them well. I guess I wouldn't read it to small children, but that doesn't mean it's not a children's book at all.

I think I'll take it as this novel correcting the fault I found with 'Skull in Shadows Lane'. It has as much depth and colour as I could ask for, without particularly moving out of the realm of children. There's lots going on, but it's understandable. And if it takes more than one read to get all the goodness out of it - well, that's a sign of a good book, isn't it?

'Goodnight Mister Tom' is a coming-of-age novel that looks at some relevant topics of varying difficulty (abuse; discrimination; "gifted" education; interactions of family and state) rather well. The author loses herself very well, so that I'm not thinking about gender equality in education, but only wondering whether or not Connie will be able to go to high school. Which may lead me to the same topic, but lets me think about it in my own way. And I think these topics deserve some thought.

I enjoyed this. I'd like to read it again at some point.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Book Logs

I've finished a handful of books in the last couple of weeks (mostly the last week, which was a holiday from lectures, if not university work) and since it seemed unlikely I'd write posts for all of them, I'm going to put a snippet about each here.

The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien

I am always impressed by the immensity and grandness of this story by the time I finish it. It starts out merely cheerful and exciting - by the end it makes me wonder if I could ever do anything so worthwhile. Then I remember Frodo telling Gandalf that he wished he needn't have lived in such a time, and Gandalf's response about having to live through the time we are born into (although I've a feeling he phrases it more eloquently). I can thus convince myself that I don't need to be a Frodo or a Samwise or an Aragorn or an Eowyn.

It's harder to justify why I shouldn't strive to create as magnificently as Tolkien did. Exactly what that means is a little fuzzy, but I come away feeling inspired; like it's no good if all the book does is make me sad and happy and incredulous and awestruck. One needs to do something, whether it's a trip to Mount Doom, making sure Gaffer Gamgee has enough to eat, creating something to reflect the glory of our world, devouring knowledge like it's gong out of fashion or - just something. It doesn't seem enough to let life happen to one, after that account. One must do something.

OpenIntro Statistics

It's been a while since I read a textbook from cover to cover. It's nice having work that's focussed enough to make it worth the investment. This was very accessible, but covered a fair amount of ground (at least it felt that way to me - I don't have much to compare). It was, at least, enough to springboard me from high schoolish level into a more specialised textbook with a fair degree of confidence. (I'm currently reading Christopher Chatfield's The Analysis of Time Series: An Introduction)

The Four Loves
C. S. Lewis

I read this and thought "Hmm, that's interesting, but there's nothing particularly mindblowing about it." But since then I've been remembering this quote or that idea in a bunch of different contexts. I'm not sure there's an exciting core message that the whole book works to convey - although it's all thematically consistent - but there are fascinating insights scattered throughout. I was a little disappointed that so much of the book seemed to address men only. I see Lewis's point that he doesn't have any other experience, but I still didn't like it. Nonetheless, this was an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

A Skull in Shadows Lane
Robert Swindells

From the title, the back cover blurb, and what I've previously read from Swindells, I was expecting this to be a light-hearted five-find-outers-style mystery story. Instead it was a rather thoughtful look at post-WWII life through the eyes of eleven year old Jinty Linton, her brother Josh and their cohort, in a little English village where "nothing ever happens". I think Swindells exploits that ordinariness very well - this connected with me in a way that war stories generally don't. It felt like a children's book (which it is), but I still enjoyed it and have found a new way of seeing that time period.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Monday Miscellany

1. I posted recentlyish about knowing "nothing", largely prompted by the fact that some of the papers I'm reading for my honours project go way over my head. I also ended up emailing my supervisor to say "Wah! I don't know any stats!" (But in more grown up language, 'cause I'm boring like that.) He helpfully sent me an open source stats textbook. After reading about half of it, I was thinking "No, I know all of this. I meant the other stats." Oops. The second half of the book has been more helpful/new, but I suspect I'll need yet another book after that. So many things to know!

2. Easter was awesome. Easter is awesome. Something like that. And Easter hymns are amazing. Something in the music and the physicalness of really singing it out captures the wonder and excitement that is so hard to maintain through the year, but so much what Easter is about. He is risen! We are forgiven! He is risen!

3. In the sermon on Good Friday, our minister pointed out that Jesus was hated - and crucified - for showing love. I'm not sure how often I want to be liked more than I want to show love (and act on that). More often than I should. But at the same time it's definitely not right to alienate people. It's a tricksy topic, but one worth thinking about, I think.

4. I discovered that Google Reader was shutting down from my sister, who actually spends enough time on a computer (with internet) to use it regularly. I also discovered from her that there's a Feedly mobile app which works quite well. And now I have a feedreader on my phone (which, in fact, I really like). I haven't been so informed in months.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Theme Thursday: Celebration

For the first time ever, I have actually found a photograph that sorta-maybe-of course it does fits the theme for Theme Thursday at Clan Donaldson. Taken with the great technical knowledge required to operate my cellphone camera, here is Sir Laughs-a-lot being all celebratory about big trees. Or bored of me taking five trillion and two pictures. But it looks happy, right? So, huzzah! Also, those trees are really big. It's awesome.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

So Very Little

I have been very busy lately, with the masses of stuff I'm trying to cram into my head. Formalisms quantum mechanics and principles of thermodynamics and methods of solution of partial differential equations are all buzzing around, needing to be learned before I write tests and just because they're useful.

Then I move to reading for my project and there are all sorts of more specialised things I need to know - everything buzzing around my head is not very much at all.

Marking first year undergrad work reminds me of how much I do know, though. More than the owners of the scripts now covered in red ink (at least when it comes to physics - there are other spheres of knowledge, I know). But the difference between what we know is so very very much less than the masses of things we don't (even just in the realm of physics). None of us know very much at all.

There's a continual tension between ignorance and opportunity. We would never have the joy and excitement of discovery if we knew everything - but there's enough we don't know to go on discovering as long as we care. On the other hand, ignorance in its own right doesn't seem awfully lovely. Somehow, though, I need to love my ignorance at least inasmuch as it gives me the opportunity to abolish it. It's an odd kind of not-quite-dichotomy.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sunday Seven

I was going to write a Friday Five post, but I went to bed instead. Then I thought I'd replace it with Saturday Six, but, yeah, well, uh . . . Maybe I can get Sunday Seven to work.

1. My Wordless Wednesday post was all done on Wednesday, I promise. My phone just didn't feel like publishing it till this morning. I think I'll just call today an honourary Wednesday. That works, right?

2. Tomorrow I'm getting on a plane and flying to Grahamstown, where I'm going to sleep for a week. Except for the sleeping part, alas. I'm actually going to FameLab for a week, which is nearly as exciting a prospect.

3. The name "FameLab" makes me think of Harry Potter's first potions lesson, where Professor Snape tells his first years that he can teach them to "brew fame and bottle glory". Do you think I'd be allowed just a tiny sip of the Felix Felicitis potion before the final?

4. Yesterday Sir Laughs-a-Lot and I went to The Last Night of the (Maritzburg) Proms concert with the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra under Richard Cock. It was really awesome. Now I want to go to the opera. And learn to understand all - or at least more - of the technical musical stuff.

5. The concert was in the city hall, and while one might admire the clock tower as one drives down Commercial Road, that has nothing on the sense of being inside a work of art. Inside it! With a pipe organ the size of a small house! And ornamented everything! Oh my!

6. One of the topics I've been covering for my honours project is neural networks - a system that can be implemented on a computer and mimics the brain in learning to make accurate predictions. Neural networks are not awfully like human brains, really, but the way the technique was inspired, as well as the technique itself, is fascinating.

7. Neural networks are one of the topics I'm playing around with using in the FameLab finals. If I don't do that (or maybe even if I do), perhaps I should write up a similar kind of description to put on here. Because I won't, you know, be trying to frantically catch up with my lectures before the slew of pre-Easter break tests. It would be fun, though.

Savo 'lass a lalaith.

Wordless Wednesday: Two for One (Playing Catch Up?)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Book Log: The Two Towers

Okay, confession: I get confused by this title. The two towers that spring to mind are Minas Ithil and Minas Anor, towers of the moon and sun. The latter doesn't really feature though. The former is probably sufficiently featured to earn a place in the title, although not in its capacity as one of Gondor's pair, but as Minas Morgul of the ringwraiths. The second tower is presumably Orthanc, which features noticeably, if sometimes indirectly, pretty much right through Book III. So the two eponymous towers are only related by, well, being eponymous. And in the book, I suppose.

The titles of the three parts are kind of curious that way, actually. The Fellowship of the Ring is only half about the fellowship proper and The Return of the King is not in my mind the most exciting part of the third volume - although it is a kind of culmination. I'm not entirely sure how much should be read into those titles anyway. Hmm.

Last time I blogged about The Lord of the Rings I wrote a fair bit about the loyalties of the fellowship. Boromir's loyalty to Gondor seems to be somehow twisted into a desire for the ring. Certainly the ring uses that loyalty. But having met Faramir in the second part of the story, we encounter a much purer loyalty. Early in the fifth book Gandalf comments to Pippin that the blood of the Numenoreans runs truer in Faramir than in his brother. Faramir, unlike his brother, resists the temptation of the ring. I think his loyalty to Gondor and her ideals helps him; it's the other side of the coin, perhaps.

At the end of the fourth book, outside Shelob's lair, Sam's struggles with his loyalty to Frodo and the need to see the task through; to make sure right is done. In the end he berates himself for trying to go on with the task and acting out of something other than his loyalty to his master. But it seems to me that his loyalty would be misplaced if it didn't have some sense of the greater purpose and good it serves. I think the very title of the final chapter of Book IV "The Choices of Master Samwise" reflects this dilemma. Tolkien seemed to like the phrase too, judging by its inclusion later in the text.

Faramir and Eomer both aid the Fellowship, thereby disobeying at least the letter of the law issued by their "masters"; Sam would have abandoned his master to complete the quest too, but realises that this is the wrong choice - although with the information he had, it certainly seemed like the best decision.

Sam's status as an obedient follower almost seems inferior to those who thought for themselves and made decisions contrary to instructions, but he gains a peculiarly high position from the fact that he doesn't seem particularly affected by the ring. Only Bombadil comes to mind as being notably less so. Nobility of heart is not, of course, the same thing as holding a noble title or being admired among men, but Sam is a peculiarly concrete example of it. I admire Sam, but I suspect I understand him less than Aragorn, for all his apparent simplicity. Hmm. This probably says as much about me as it does about him!

There's certainly plenty to ponder in this book! I intended to consider a handful of other characters, but this post seems to have grown long and rambly enough already. I think I'll end it here. (Pretend it's not abrupt, okay?)

Savo 'lass a lalaith.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


I missed my Wordless Wednesday post this week and then I missed my Friday Five too. And I've started reading The Return of the King without blogging about The Two Towers. I could probably blame my honours quantum mechanics course or my insistence on making the wraps we had for dinner from scratch, but I'm going to pin it on FameLab instead.

FameLab is an international event/competition that promotes young scientists "Talking Science" with the general public. Conversely, it promotes people hearing - and hopefully learning - about science, which is a Good Thing in my book. It's all done through the form of three minute presentations where PowerPoint slides and more props than you can carry are banned. This works really, really well, despite its simplicity.

For one thing, "Death by PowerPoint" and related maladies were almost entirely banished. For another, three minutes is barely long enough to get bored. The time limit was strictly enforced by vuvuzela (I assume other countries have equivalents) - although just the threat seemed enough for the people I watched. Regional heats were open to any (practising or studying) scientist in the 21-35 age range, which seems to have ensured that everyone had something worth saying - and not enough time to make it boring.

There was feedback from the judges after each presentation - I was impressed at how much this stayed positive, helpful and interesting to the audience. Presenting and being scrutinised was a little scary - the cameramen and microphones and masking tape squares on the floor didn't help - but an awesome experience.

A handful of us were invited back to regional finals - another three minute presentation a couple of hours later, taking into account the judges' feedback. The fact that it had to be a different presentation seems like a rather effective test of breadth. It felt like a test of improv skills too when we were suddenly called for on-camera interviews! It's surprisingly tricky to do that sit-sideways-and-smile-at-the-camera drill, never mind actually answering questions! Not that I'm complaining: it was all part of the excitement.

The regional finals were awesome. While some of the first round presentation were a bit rough, these were all fascinating. The kind of thing that would make for a great school field trip or the like, I thought. The scientific basis for the zombie apocalypse; a eulogy for coal; forensics and DNA testing. (You can see something of the impressive breadth the presentations covered there too.)

My nails probably owe their continued existence to all the interesting people I had to talk to while the judges deliberated, between the scientists and the competition staff. The compere seemed less friendly when she started stalling the results, though . . .

Three of us went through to the national finals. One of them was me! Um, what? I entered this thing just for kicks - the first round really is an experience in itself (next year I'll be telling everyone else to do it too). I'm just this girl who likes showing people how things work, not some kind of professional anything.

But apparently I'm going SciFest Africa in Grahamstown. I think. If I were dreaming I would've woken up by now, right? And it wouldn't have left me so ridiculously tired.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Game Mechanics

In a roleplaying game that I'm currently running/playing/somethinging, there's a mechanic built around an attribute called will. Roughly speaking, fighting monsters and making arduous journeys depletes will. Sleeping or relaxing in a safe place replenishes it. Will is also regained after achieving success in some way, which is a more complicated/interesting mechanic.

I think it has interesting consequences for how much attention one pays in lectures. See suppose the characters in the game had to sit through a quantum mechanics lecture (if you're playing the game: ooh, foreshadowing). One character pays attention, takes complete notes and asks questions. She loses a will point for all the effort, but regains it when, at the end of the lecture, she understands operator methods better and can consider her time well spent. Another character disagrees with the lecturer's interpretation of quantum mechanics, but thinks better of starting a philosophical debate in class. Rather than spending a will point stewing over it, she starts doodling in the margins between taking down the most salient points of the lecture. Her understanding of operator methods improves, but she's not satisfied enough to gain a will point. Nonetheless, between taking some notes and worrying about philosophy and doodling, she's lost a will point. She'll be more tired than the character who paid attention. (The character who bunked the lecture is also doing better, but only until exam time.)

Now, if only real life could be modelled by such simple mechanics. Quantisation of willpower, at least, sounds like a viable physical mechanism.

(This picture is mostly just because I like it. It has to do with lectures (phase space representations, not operator methods) and end-of-long-day/weekness. That's all.)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Friday Five

1. It's the weekend. Yay! Given the amount of time I've spent drawing isometric projections of spiral stairways in the margins of my lecture notes, you might not expect me to be tired. But I do keep track of what's going on in class too.

2. We were going to play Catan tonight, but due to aforementioned tiredness it ended up abandoned. Instead, one who shall henceforth be called the Velociraptor-with-a-pea (kinda like Anne-with-an-e?) postulated that a goose is just a kind of iceberg with a periscope. We discussed other similarly profound topics too.

3. We made homemade potato chips (fries?) which were awesome and not as hard as I'd have thought. Chop up taters. Boil in microwave. Put in pan, drizzle lightly with oil, toss. Roast at 200ish C for twentyish minutes, tossing at intervals when you remember. Eat.

4. People seemed a little concerned by how thoroughly I executed the last step. Going to the bank burns many calories, okay? Or, uh, something. I do not regret it.

5. I got distracted by marking, so I could make this into the Saturday Six now. Oops! I think I'll go to bed instead, though.

Savo 'lass a lalaith.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

These Are a Few of My Favourite Things

Or at any rate, things that have made me happy recently, even if they aren't absolute all time top favourites.

Pausing to stand under a cascade of pink blossoms spilling over a fence on the way back from the supermarket.

Finding that an example I made to help some students has osmosed into nearly every workbook in the group.

Eating a perfectly ripe plum after a long afternoon.

Having my own keys to [parts of] the Physics department.

Lying on my bed with a supersized mug of milky tea.

Working out a proof until it suddenly blossoms into understanding of the general case.

Finding a skirt that hits at the ankle even if you're tall and high-waisted, marked down from the markdown price.

Watching and helping a student 'get' a new concept.

Scheming to make homemade hamburgers and chips on Friday night.

Drawing Koch snowflakes until the iterations get smaller than my pen strokes.

There are moments on the other end of the scale too, of course, but life is good.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Things they said

Discussing Lent at Sunday School, we mentioned doing things like giving up chocolate or taking up reading your bible. So one little girl asked "Can I eat chocolate every day for Lent?" Uh, not quite.

Also at Sunday School, one seven-year-old didn't like the way a game was being played. So she marched over to her own game and announced "I'm going to play this in the third person."

In my other natural habitat, the physics department, from a grad student who's competent in such mathematical topics as multivariate calculus and tensor analysis: "Why do minus signs have to be so confusing?"

And on the blackboard after a lecture involving the emission of UV light: "the ultra-violent catastrophe". Guess Max Planck was more of a hero than I thought!

Savo 'lass a lalaith.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


Today while I was talking to Sir Laughs-a-lot, because this is apparently what grad students do, we formulated an algorithm for research. I, uh, decided the world would be a better place for my putting on the internet. So here goes.

1. Get confused. (We totally have this one nailed. But as Sir L says, it can be fun.)

2. Get unconfused. (Easy, right?)

3. Write a paper. "Look! I'm unconfused, look at me! You can be unconfused too."

4. Win Nobel prize; become rich and famous (optional).

We were doing step two for a thermodynamics problem which has technically already been solved, but only by other people and we ended up with a (hypothetical) balloon that filled the whole universe. This is why I'm studying physics.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Friday Five

1. Lectures started this week! It's a bit odd only having nine hours of class time in a week, but there still seems to be plenty to do. I wonder how many of us are realistically putting in the other 3+ hours a week on project work.

2. Most of my project time this week has gone to watching video lectures on machine learning (via Coursera). One of the neatest techniques is an algorithm called gradient descent. For each iteration it considers each parameter A and a function J to minimise. Then it sets A to be A - c(dJ/dA) for a learning rate constant c. This means that at the top of a hollow, you move down the steep sides rapidly. As things shallow out towards the minimum, the steps get increasingly smaller. Awesome. (If you think of a derivative as the slope at a point, you can see this, as well as why the algorithm always moves towards the lowest point.)

3. Next week is going to be a toss up between machine learning videos and reading papers on things like Kalman filtering. Both are interesting and a little zombie-ish in that they tend to steal my brains.

4. I think students might be anti-zombies, since Statistical Physics, Quantum Mechanics and Partial Differential equations somehow have similar effects. Considering how many things are like that, it must be me, right? They can't all be zombie subjects.

5. Despite a bit of grumbling, this is totally what I signed up for and it's really great. Now I just need to get my brain into gear so I can stop confusing scalar products with scalar multiplication, which, despite the names, are not the same thing at all. Oops! I blame the zombies.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Book Log: The Lord of the Rings Part 1

We all know that Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is one novel and not a trilogy, right? It was only published in three volumes because of paper costs and such. So I can just write about the three parts as I read them without ranting about how the first two parts do not have proper endings because they're actually middles and it's a pity so many recentish novels seem to think they can end as incompletely? Awesome.

I've read The Lord of the Rings too many times to want to write a proper reviewy thing as I read it. I get a bit too excited about details like when exactly the reforging of Narsil is first mentioned and will forget to say anything about the obvious and crucial aspects. So I thought instead I'd sort of pick out the theme of fellowship from The Fellowship of the Ring and talk a little bit about loyalties and motivations. (I shan't try to avoid spoilery things, since if you haven't read the book you've probably seen the movie.)

The most obvious at the end of the first part is perhaps Borimir's loyalty to Minas Tirith. I don't think it's just loyalty that makes him so desire the ring, but certainly the loyalty nearly gave the ring a path to being used as it wished. It's interesting to contrast Boromir with Aragorn, who shares a strong loyalty to the city, but tempers it with the counsel of the Wise, a better sense of scale and somethin akin to greater maturity (not that Boromir's immature by any ordinary standard). It's also interesting to compare Sam to Boromir, since he's loyal to Frodo in a way that strikes me as similar to Boromir's loyalty to Gondor. Sam's big tests of character are much further on, though, so there may be more to say later.

Legolas and Gimli are fiercely loyal to the elves and the dwarves respectively; but in Lothlorien and Moria both have to face up to certain shortcomings of their own races and merits of the other's. Ultimately their loyalties don't seem to lessen so much as to mellow into something wherein they can appreciate other civilisations along with their own. They grow, perhaps. I'll try to remember to revisit this thought at Helm's Deep.

Merry and Pippin follow Frodo, although Gondor and Rohan will, I think, claim their loyalty later. Gandalf is rather mysterious; I am inclined to think that he answers to Illuvatar. Gandalf the White may shed some light on that when I get there.

Frodo goes through an interesting change that pretty much frames the first part of the novel. Early on Bilbo says that Frodo still loves the Shiore too much to leave it. Although Frodo thinks of following Bilbo, he never does. It is eventually the threat to the Shire, through the ring, that motivates Frodo. But by the time Frodo sits upon Amon Hen, he is wrestling with fear and his knowledge of what he must do. The Shire isn't particularly a player in his decisions any longer. His new loyalties are perhaps to Middle Earth a a whole; I'm tempted to say to what's right, but I think there are right and wrong ways to express loyalty, which may be the difference between Boromir and Sam.

Frodo is beginning to gain some of the perspective that tempers Aragorn's actions and which Boromir never found. But "the finest hobbit in the Shire" is made of sturdier stuff than Boromir from the start, I think. Even Gandalf and Galadriel are sorely tempted by the offer of the ring; Boromir would take it by force; Bilbo only gives it up with much assistance from Gandalf. Frodo, even after bearing the ring and after the Morgul wound freely offers to give it away. And that, I suppose, is why he must be the ringbearer.

Friday Five

1. I made substantial progress in sorting out the direction of my honours project this week. It's really nice to have something worthwhile to direct my energy at, instead of worritting about admin. And the admin is slowly diminishing. Hurrah!

2. We played Settlers of Catan for the first time (except for one of the group) tonight. It was pretty awesome. I suspect some of the appeal is just in the newness of the system, but there's quite a bit of scope. I really enjoyed playing a strategy game that doesn't require attacking people. (Although the cutting off of other people's roads can get surprisingly intense.)

3. I think board games like Catan can be considered kind of nerdy, but do you know what would be even nerdier? Getting really frustrated that nine gets rolled more often than seven, which is not what the maths says should happen. Not that anyone I know did this. And it certainly didn't cause more upset than pretty much anything else in the whole game. Because we're not that nerdy. Oh, no!

4. My lectures start on Monday, except they don't, which is confusing. Depending on electives, we can end up with whole days free for project work (if you're disciplined) and other things (probably regardless). I don't have a timetable for my elective yet, so my actual first lecture is currently set for Wednesday. I'm finding that kind of weird.

5. The varsity notices today included a FameLab flyer. Now I'm wondering if coming up with a three minute talky thing about physics for the general public (and videoing it or driving a fair bit to actually speak in front of people) constitutes unnecessary stress. I think it's probably worth a shot, because it seems like there should be more fun than complicated, if there's some of both.

Savo 'lass a lalaith.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Book Log: Griffin's Castle by Jenny Nimmo

I first read Griffin's Castle in primary school for the Battle of the Books competition. It was an awesome source of good new titles and I read loads of books from those reading lists for years after I was eligible to enter. When I found my only slightly battered copy in a second hand bookshop for less than the price of a chocolate bar, I -- well, I would've jumped at the opportunity, but by the time I left that shop I was carrying too many books to make that wise.

Griffin's Castle is a bleaker story than I remembered. Dinah Jones is a tall, serious eleven-year-old who is very nearly both unloved and unwanted. Her young, single mother hopes she isn't a genius or something similarly horrid. Things might've been looking up when Dinah and her mother move into a proper house for the first time ever. But the house is falling apart and the landlord, Dinah's stepfather-to-be, perhaps, can't stand the strange girl, so unlike her mother, who hangs a handmade "Griffin's Castle" sign on the gate after finding a stone griffin in the garden and wants to visit his elderly mother.

That's what's so awfully attractive about Dinah. One could understand if she were sullen and sorry for herself, but instead she's fiercely independent. She papers her dingy attic room with cut out pictures and poetry. If she refuses to be friends with the children at school, she pushes them into friendship with each other. And then there's a little bit of magic that makes Dinah's independence scarily concrete. I think her not-quite-a-friend Jacob puts it best. [Fair warning: this might be very mildly spoilerish.]

"Dinah Jones is different. She's seen things, been in places that are horrible. But she'll never, never tell. They've got right into her, like, right deep into her and she can't get away. And the animals are the same. They can't talk about what it's like to be hunted and chained and to have your claws and teeth pulled out, or to starve very slowly. So she's invited them into her garden, where they'll be safe together. Safety in numbers. But Griffin's Castle is falling down. And supposing all the animals come. Maybe she'll never get out again. [. . .] Perhaps a desperate person, like Dinah, can make things happen. Things that could never normally happen, in real life, I mean. D'you think that's possible?"

At first Dinah welcomes the fantastical animals. She doesn't want to leave Griffin's Castle, which is, she persists in believing, going to be a beautiful family home. But soon she finds she can't escape them - she very nearly dies trying. I don't think words like "depression" or "suicide" ever occured to me when I read the book about ten years ago, but they do now. I think I'm glad; the animals were freaky enough then as it was, but seeing more of the symbolism now makes the book well worth rereading.

Dinah can't escape the animals on her own, but fortunately, in the end, she doesn't have to. And then she cries. Which, oddly enough, might be the happiest moment in the book.

I said at the beginning that the book was bleak, but I didn't find it depressing. It's a story about light in darkness, not about darkness. About a spark that, just as it seems about to be snuffed out, is kindled into flame. I expected to enjoy it and it surpassed my expectations.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Friday Five

1. It turns out that running around varsity trying to perform multitudinous administrative tasks is more tiring than sitting at home doing interesting projects. In consequence I'm going to borrow some things other people have said (as well as I remember them) to make five.

2. While discussing shapes of trees that are good to climb: "a melting candle, which is like a squid."

3. Talking (initially) about time zones:
"I always get my pluses and minuses mixed up."
"Always? What's three minus four?"
"And four minus three?"
"So subtraction commutes! Is addition distributive then?"
"And multiplication."
"Yes, it's normal."
"Wait, the integers aren't a ring then."
"Nope, they're a helix."

4. Trying to work out if I can take PDEs as an elective:
"The lectures aren't timetabled; the students and lecturers will negotiate the times."
"Clashes shouldn't be a problem then."
"Well, that depends on your negotiating skills."

5. "Can I quote you on that?"
"Yes. In or out of context."

Monday, January 28, 2013

Seni Crines

Kinda like this, I think.

Before I start rambling, you might like to check out Cari's awesome Snapshots from a Sunday timeline, now also with a weird photo by yours truly.

Recently - well, recently-ish, anyway - Melanie posted a collection of interesting links, including a story about recreating the seni crines, the hairstyle worn by the ancient Roman Vestal Virgins (and some other people). Which looked kind of cool. And a bunch of people commented saying, amongst other things, that they would've liked to try it, if they could. Which made me think, perhaps belatedly, "Hmm. I could probably do that." Probably a true classics geek would've thought of it earlier, but hey, I got there eventually.

Pictured here is my willing victim, complete with period-appropriate magenta nylon ribbon, er, structural vitta, I mean. Also period-appropriate plastic-coated bobby pins, because her hair was too short to go all the way around her head. (I think it hits more-or-less on her shoulder blades.) I think rolling the hair worked quite nicely (wish I'd got better pictures), although I didn't have enough hair in the end-of-rollings plait to do much so I . . . kinda just ignored it. It seemed to work out okay anyway.

 I was kind of amazed at how so much plaiting disappeared under the smooth part that's pulled over the back. The beginnings of four plaits just disappear. Presto! and they're gone. At that point I was on a bit of a roll, so I thought I'd try it with my hip length hair. The plaits were more than long enough, although thinner than my sister's, I think. This is probably because a bunch of my hair is cut into a straight-across fringe which really didn't want to cooperate with the whole rolling thing. I s'pect that would improve with practice, though. I bobby pinned the front knot in place, because I couldn't figure out how else to make it stay.

 And lo, it was awesome. Apparently those Roman priestesses were tough, though, because both of us enjoyed the fancy hair for a few hours and then took it out because it was getting headachey. A few well-placed bobby pins might help with that, though. And while it wasn't the trickiest plait I've ever done, it's certainly a special occasion kind of style. A fun one, though, about which I've no doubt written more than anyone really wanted to know. Herewith, The End!

Savo 'lass a lalaith.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Friday Five

1. I made a thing! A highly age-appropriate book bag that clearly indicates my new and august status as a postgraduate student of computational space physics. I'm kinda pleased that I managed to do it without an actual pattern and pretty much for free, since I found all the fabric in my mom's scrap box. (I'm totally enjoying this dependency thing while I have it.) And then I took an awkward photo with it.

2. I may or may not have taken a photo in the mirror, seen that the letters on the bag were reversed and panicked for a moment that I'd somehow left everything inside out. Then I flipped the photo and my brain was much happier. The End.

3. I sent my acceptance forms to the university this morning and I'm in the process of sorting out funding admin (and mostly being grateful that I have funding to which all the paperwork applies) and I'm going back to Maritzburg in less than a week and whoa, how did everything start happening again?

4. Part of me wants to squeeze another sewing project into the last few days before I go and part of me thinks I should make sure I remember handy things like Schrรถdinger's equation before starting Quantum Mechanics N (where N is an integer greater than 1, the exact value of which I'm not sure how to determine.) The part of me that wants to take advantage of WiFi and exotic foods like tomato sauce from a bottle while I still have them is probably going to win in the aftermath of the stalemate. Oh well.

5. I have this scheme about not over-committing this year, so that I can do fun projects even during semester. Also this scheme about maybe dropping one of the easier/less critical physics courses so I can pick  up Advanced Differential Equations from the Maths department. And a few other schemes which are probably definitely not all compatible. It's just as well I don't have to do everything, because I can't do everything. Now to remember that.

In honour of rereading The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time, may I sign off in Elvish (Sindarin, to be precise)? Thanks.

Savo 'lass a lalaith.
Have joy and laughter.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Book Log: Shakespeare's The Tempest

We read The Tempest over the Christmas holidays. It was a lot of fun. I've read it before - a couple of times, in fact, since I wrote a high school final on it - but Shakespeare can usually stand a reread. A bunch of the fun, though, was due to that pronoun at the beginning of the post: we read the play as a family, assigning parts as we went along and mostly avoiding having to converse with ourselves. (In fact, the only case where that happened was where we'd tried to assign parts at the beginning rather than on-the-fly.)

Two of us are somewhat inclined towards Shakespeare nerdery, had read the play before, expected to thoroughly enjoy it with the added bonus of fun family times and certainly did. Two of us are somewhat inclined towards general nerdery, don't generally read Shakespeare for fun, while approving of it in principle and enjoyed it enough to be keen to do it again (sadly we ran out of time - maybe next holidays, since it does take several hours to get through). Two of us are somewhat inclined to general nerdery, but seemed slightly surprised at how understandable the bard could actually be and enjoyed it enough to think it'd be nice to read one/some of the other famous plays. I think the first two of us found this somewhat satisfying. In general, a good time was had by all.

This was definitely a case where ereading devices were awesomely useful. Everybody had their own copy of the play, downloaded (for free!) from Project Gutenberg or Many Books or other ebook source of choice. (Some of us paid to get notes at the back, but I'm not sure how much those were used.) This was mostly on Android apps, but also a Kindle and a lone hard copy. It could probably be got to work using laptops too, although mobile devices are really convenient. This was way more effective than times we've tried to share hard copies, although there were a few educational moments when we discovered that different editions of the play may attribute the same lines to different people, so everybody is waiting for someone else to speak! I think it'd be worth trying to get the same edition across the board if we do it again, but the mix-ups were not the end of the world.

The play, of course, was good. The acting was frabjous. The entire exercise was loads of fun, less effort than slogging through reading it oneself and more doable than going to see a live performance in several dimensions (although I still want to do that, one day). I'd certainly like to do it again; and if you can find a handful of people willing to read Shakespeare out loud, I think you should do it too.

Wordless Wednesday: Roses

Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Log: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

So many other people wrote so little about The Night Circus when it was first published, many moons ago, that I'm a little uncertain when it comes to saying much myself. However, the desire of inflicting my opinions upon the world at large seems to have overcome the uncertainty and here we are.

Many descriptions of The Night Circus have been along the lines of "It's otherwordly and wonderful and you have to read it yourself to understand." I would guess that a large chunk of that is because the book is written in present tense. And parts of it are even in second person. It's weird. It definitely gives an immersive effect, but it did feel a bit gimmicky at times. The confusion of time is definitely part of the circus itself, though. That confusion is enhanced by the three interwoven but distinct plot threads which progress at different speeds. It's quite possible to follow, but it does mess with your sense of time - which is the nature of le cirque des reves.

Morgenstern does, in my opinion, a fantastic job of conveying atmosphere. Le cirque des reves is, as the name suggests, whimsical and wondrous. It's as if a dream you didn't want to wake up from has somehow been committed to paper. Despite that, I don't think the novel is about its setting in the way that something like Gulliver's Travels is. The circus is a medium through which various characters can express themselves - particularly Celia Bowen. Celia has a love interest, but the novel isn't a romance. Likewise, she has a life's work, but if the novel were about the circus in itself, it would need a quite different frame. We meet little Miss Bowen very early in the novel and by the end - well, you wouldn't want me to ruin that for you.

The novel follows Celia Bowen's life in a bildungsroman fashion that I tend to associate with Dickens, although it's certainly been used by any number of authors. Celia's growth and the development of her interactions with the world - although it almost seems more apt to say the world's interactions with Celia - form the substance of the book. When one of those interactions is le cirque des reves, that's fairly substantial.

I very much enjoyed The Night Circus. The characters were vivid (or strikingly not so) and fascinating, I found the plot compelling and the themes of atmosphere and illusion thought-provoking as well as beautiful. This is definitely a book I would recommend.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Friday Five

1. We (the family) watched Part I of The Lord of the Rings tonight. For the first time. Not because we live under a rock (though I sometimes wonder about that), but because the movie can't live up to the book, a.k.a. the actual (possibly historical?) events. It was fun nonetheless and may push me into actually rereading the book for the umpteenth time, but the first in several years, for which: hurrah!

2. I miss having a really good public library close to where I live, as when growing up. I think I need to join the okay library in town and figure out some not-too-heavy public domain books to put on my Kindle app to combat this.

3. "But Charlotte," you say, "a soft copy book has no mass, so it can't be heavy." Or perhaps you don't, because you're strange. (That means "not like me," right?) I'm pretty sure there's some kind of literary field, akin to the Higgs, that means books can be heavy even when they aren't massive. That's how it works. Happy now? (Oh, you weren't unhappy to begin with? Strange.)

4. Hmm, I wonder if that field applies to bookbags too. I'm trying to sew one, but having a little trouble with the machine. I'm told I need to adjust the tension, but even when I get really tense, it doesn't work like I expect. Perhaps tomorrow I'll try twiddling the dial on the side of the machine.

5. It's great fun to have time for so many holiday projects. Hopefully a few can linger on into termtime, but even if they don't, hurrah for the chance to have such a thorough break before throwing myself back into the crazy, delightful whirlpool of the new semester.