Monday, March 28, 2005

rain and the rest home

It's raining today. I like rainy days a lot more since I got my hot pink wellies. The sky may be grey, but my feet are colourful, darn it.


This morning I found myself thinking about the nursing home. When I was a candy striper I spent a lot of time in the extended care wing of the hospital, and I was struck by how undignified senility is and how the parts of our personalities that persist are random ones that we wouldn't necessarily have chosen...there was the woman who whistled, for example, and the woman who kept talking about how she had to go feed the chickens. Now, I do a pretty good impression of Cartman, Gollum, and a few other tv/movie characters with strikingly weird voices. What if, once all higher cognitive capacity has gone, that's what remains?

Nurse: Well, and how are we doing today? Time for your pills. Let me adjust your bib for you.
Me: *ululates like an orc falling off a bridge in Moria*

The more I think about it, the narrower the window seems in which we're able-bodied, in control of our own destinies, and at least able to choose whether to behave in a dignified manner or not.

Friday, March 25, 2005

no secondhand hives

So I'm looking into mailing a bunch of my stuff to Canada, and I was checking out the USPS's rates and restrictions. Some of this stuff is...curious.

Among the things that cannot be mailed at all:
  • Commercial tags of metal.
  • Altered or renovated butter. (you know, honey, I'm feeling antsy. I think it's time to renovate our butter.)
  • Perishable infectious biological substances.
  • Perishable noninfectious biological substances. (well, that about covers it.)
  • Radioactive materials.
  • Shipments bearing caution labels indicating the contents are flammable. (flammable materials are okay as long as they don't have labels)
  • Used or secondhand hives or bee supplies. (there goes my idea for BeeBay, your transborder source for secondhand hives)

Banknotes valued at $100 or more must be put up in a compact package and securely tied with strong twine before wrapping. The wrapper must be linen or other strong, woven material, linen lined paper, or two thicknesses of strong kraft paper. After wrapping, the package must be again securely tied or stitched and sealed at the points of closing. (they fail to mention that the package must be decorated with origami cranes)

The following must not be accepted for insurance:
Bees, postage stamps (canceled and uncanceled) and albums in which they are mounted, and parcel post packages addressed to CFPOs. (bees can't be insured? But think of the children! they have larvae to support!)

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

cue hysterical laughter

So I thought I'd go back and check a calculation I did a few months ago--I'd use the same procedure, and just confirm that the results made sense.

Before: 25% of the 27Si created decayed to the ground state of 26Al, and 25% to the first excited state. A total of 50% of the 27Si was accounted for; 50% was missing and I wasn't sure whether it was an efficiency problem or just something weird I was doing in the analysis.

After: 75% of the 27Si created decayed to the ground state of 26Al, and 75% to the first excited state, for a total of 150%.

Not, perhaps, the subtle change I was hoping for.

Excuse me for a minute. I think there's a wall that needs me to bash my head against it.

(Edit: just after I finished writing this, someone came home with a whole bouquet of free-range flowers for me. All better.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


My Inner Nag was having an energetic day today. The only way to keep her in line was to use what I call the STFU technique, as follows:

You should be writing right now.
Shut the fuck up.
No really, you should at least be doing that figure that you've been putting off for a month now--how big a deal can it be? You should have finished it ages ago.
Shut. the fuck. up.
Okay then, you should be worrying about this relationship, or that other one, or hey, how about that one over there. If they're not what you think they should be, that means you're a bad person.
Wow, you're looking dowdy today.
Fuck you.
This all shouldn't be this hard. If you're finding it difficult to finish this dissertation, that means you're stupid and incompetent and clearly have no future in the only field in which you're qualified, and of course you have no qualifications to do anything else.
Did I mention "Fuck you"?

It's days like this when I want to invoke Palden Lhamo. She vowed to establish Buddhism in Sri Lanka, where she was the queen. When her husband wouldn't change his pagan/cannibalistic ways, she killed their son, ate his flesh, and took the king's best horse and rode to Siberia. Not a woman to be messed with. Today that's the level of fierceness I need just to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Friday, March 11, 2005

My Star

All that I know
Of a certain star
Is, it can throw
(Like the angled spar)
Now a dart of red,
Now a dart of blue;
Till my friends have said
They would fain see, too,
My star that dartles the red and the blue!
Then it stops like a bird; like a flower hangs furled:
They must solace themselves with the Saturn above it.
What matter to me if their star is a world?
Mine has opened its soul to me, therefore I love it.

--Robert Browning

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

-- Louis MacNeice


INTEGRAL is a gamma-ray telescope operated by the European Space Agency. The "Orbit view" sidebar starts a Java applet that lets you look at the telescope in orbit around the earth.
I'm sitting at my computer wrapped in an afghan made for me by my dear late great-aunt Margaret, wearing a sweater made by my grandmother, socks made for me by my mother, a shirt that was a gift from T-Regina, a skirt that used to belong to Elisa, and underwear that...uh, let's not go there.

In the most simplistic and literal-minded way possible, I am enveloped from head to toe in love.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Hans Bethe dies


A sad day. Bethe was one of the giants of 20th-century physics.

Myself, I'm still endlessly delighted by a paper he co-wrote that I sometimes get to cite: authors Alpher, Bethe, and Gamow. In that order. *sigh* It's the simple pleasures, really.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

life koans

I've been finding myself thinking of my last experience at the IMS recently--mostly just because I'm dying to go back. (I'm trying to figure out whether I can take a week or two in May or June.) During group meetings with the teachers, we go around the circle and talk about what we've experienced in the past couple of days. Since this is only real talking that the retreatants do there, these sessions can make a big impression. One meeting in particular stuck with me. The teacher was talking about questions that come up during meditation, and how they're not always easy to answer, and not necessarily supposed to even have answers. Instead, they're questions that we carry with us, taking them out to look at and turn over in our minds, using our responses to them to inform our actions in the present moment. Life koans, she called them.

We all latched onto the concept immediately. As we went around the circle, people started phrasing their experiences in terms of questions--the woman who'd been dealing with the fear of aging associated with physical pain asked, "Can I be happy without a healthy body?", the woman who realized that she was a retreat junkie, hopping from one to the next with no sense of commitment or stability, asked, "Can I grow by picking something and sticking with it?", the man who realized how actively he'd been seeking out distractions in his daily life asked, "Can I survive this sense of emptiness?"

It was like Buddhist Jeopardy.

My own questions were "Can I be happy without following the precepts?"--to which the teacher responded by quite involuntarily laughing out loud and saying "No!"--and "Is it possible to be in a romantic relationship without deceit and without the attachment that leads to suffering?"

(She didn't try to answer the second one for me.)


The last one seemed to go over well, so here's another random childhood thing.

When I was (again) sixish, I learned from somewhere or other (possibly my friend Elizabeth who not only had a teenaged sister and brother but also went to a Catholic school) about strippers--people who get paid to take their clothes off. This idea seemed a bit odd to me, a little like someone getting paid to brush their teeth, but I took it in stride. After all, my parents had explained that, although grownups called children silly for doing silly childish things, grownups themselves frequently did things that were just as silly but in a grownup way. So I figured that this was just another example of grownup silliness.

Upon further reflection, though, another thing was clear: If there were people who were paid to take their clothes off, then by analogy there must be other people who were paid to put their clothes on.

For quite some time after I made this deduction, I would announce to Mommy, when she came up to help me get ready for bed, "I'm going to do a strip show now," and then methodically take off my clothes--and then say "And now I'll do an unstrip show," and put on my nightgown. (There may have been prancing about and ABBA music involved--I don't recall--but if there was it was certainly of the "I'm a fairy princess" variety.)

Eventually I lost interest in unstrip shows, but I never really questioned my certainty that there were unstrippers. To this day I find myself speculating that this idea could be a gold mine of career possibilities.

Saturday, March 05, 2005


One day, when I was about six, I heard something on the radio news about someone being assassinated. I asked my mommy what it meant. She explained that it was what they called it when someone famous was murdered.

I was enraptured. To be so important that your death has its own separate category--and such a gorgeously sibilant one at that--...that seemed to me to be something worth striving for.

And thus it was that I shocked an avuncular friend of the family when, to his friendly question, "Well, and what do you want to be when you grow up?" I calmly replied, "Assassinated."

Friday, March 04, 2005

Vulva Puppets

Oh my god. I have to have one of these. In my head I'm already writing scripts for puppet shows.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Death, be not proud, tho some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for thou art not soe.
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poore Death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.

From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure--then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.

Thou'rt slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sickness dwell,
And poppie or charmes can make us sleepe as well
And better than thy stroake. Why swell'st thou then?

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die!

--John Donne
I talked with my supervisor today about my dissertation. I don't think he realizes it, and he'd probably laugh if I pointed this out to him, but he's a Buddhist. Everything he said to me can be summed up as the Three Characteristics:

unsatisfactoriness: There is no way to make this document perfect.

impermanence: No matter how good my measurement, how precise and elaborate my conclusions, someone else--probably, in my case, very soon--will do a better experiment.

non-self: It's not me my committee will be evaluating: it's just this document.

This last Characteristic is in a lot of ways the hardest to get one's head around--but it's liberating. The work I do is not self. The judgements other people pass are not self. The heart that grieves is not self. The body that dies is not self.