Friday, April 28, 2006


The National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages had a convention here in Madison this week, so the University language teachers had their students perform short plays for the group. Middle Daughter performed in a small sketch about Yoruba family life, with scenes set at home, at the Zo's (is that the right word for the Nigerian equivalent?)(EDIT: Nope. Babalawo. -Middle Daughter) home, and in the spirit world--all in Yoruba with English translations displayed on a screen nearby. (Spoiler alert) The old ways are the best--stay out of the rain!

The sound system needed some work--feedback several times--but the students had fun and so did the audience, some of whom actually spoke the language. I'm told that recordings of this will go to Nigeria and be shown at conferences there too. (EDIT: Well, I don't know FOR SURE if they'll send this one. They used the one from last semester at several conferences there, and I'm fairly certain they'll use this one too. Apparently, we're big stuff for being second semester speakers...)

I have never been in a conference like this before. Physics conferences are largely male, though religious ones have been more mixed. This one was largely female, and I've never seen so many children at a conference. They ranged in age from about 6 months to 13 or 14, and must have been at least a tenth of the total number present. (Most of the people with children were from our Universtity, and came to watch their students performing)

No, I didn't stick around for all the presentations. I should find out if there's DVD's of them.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


I took Youngest Daughter to see Eldest Daughter's choir concert last night. Youngest Daughter's Community Concert was Sunday at St. Alberts, and quite fun: All Things Bright and Beautiful to the Hallelujah Chorus. The college choir had beautiful voices, lively tunes sung precisely, and startlingly few in the audience. I've no idea why; I've never seen so few present. Still, we had fun, from Je n'ose dire to the song about the demon.

The binder of music looked heavy--some of the singers seemed almost overbalanced as they held their binder at chin level before them and leaned forward to project.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Sorry about that

The triple posting wasn't really my fault, but I should have checked more carefully.

To try and make up for it, let me bring you up to speed on Butler.

You know Butler: he and his girlfriend Rose wrote the definitive book on cooking with fresh green herbs. They're not married yet because he's so superstitious: his horoscope said that the only time to tie the knot is between 1:23 and 1:41 in the morning. That's the parsely sage Rose-marrying time.

Radiation environments

The BBC report on the Chernobyl disaster's effects on wildlife has some interesting features. A lot of species not seen for decades are multiplying. As you might expect, animals can't sense radiation and nest anywhere. Initially things died in the hotspots: trees, horses, mice. But the Red Forest, where all the pines died, is growing back "albeit with stunted and misshapen trees."

"We marked animals then recaptured them again much later," he says. "And we found they lived as long as animals in relatively clean areas." The next step was to take these other mice and put them in an enclosure in the Red Forest. "They felt not very well," Sergey says. "The distinction between the local and newcomer animals was very evident." Mutation In all his research, Sergey has only found one mouse with cancer-like symptoms. He has found ample evidence of DNA mutations, but nothing that affected the animals' physiology or reproductive ability.

Grant that seriously defective critters won't survive long enough to be caught by the researchers. Nevertheless, apparently the survivors live as long as comparable mice not in a radiation environment. At the same time, imported mice don't do well in the radiation area.

To understand why this is interesting, remember that most radiation damage isnot done to the nucleus, but to the rest of the cell. Mutations aren't what kill you, its the damaged proteins that don't work anymore, membranes that leak, and so on.

What this seems to suggest is that one can breed for radiation tolerance. Not radiation immunity--that's no more possible than immunity to fire. Tolerance means that the cell can stand a somewhat larger than usual amount of damage without failure. You might be able to get this by duplication: making extra copies of proteins, for example. This would obviously mean that the mouse would need more food, so this feature would ordinarily be selected against.

It shouldn't be too hard to test: do mice found in the radiation environment have babies that require more food than mice found elsewhere? Grow more slowly on the same diet?

If they were different, then it would be interesting to create a mouse breeding pen with controlled levels of radioactivity. Technically it wouldn't be much of a challenge, though the PR might be a mess.

Update: The researchers did not respond to my inquiries

Monday, April 17, 2006

Unfortunately, changing names appears to be a side effect of teaching one's daughters how to post on your site. Blogger has an obnoxious little thing where one cannot change the name for one post, it changes them for all...

Friday, April 14, 2006

And now it changed back again.

And I didn't change any settings.


The nickname has changed from James to Sandra. I'm not sure why.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


I never drive off down the road to Fermilab or set off for the airport without wondering if I will ever return. There are so many things that can go wrong; so many ways to say “Game’s over.” And then to never see the family again; and so much is left undone! Things I meant to say or do; one more kiss—not possible any more. (Truth to tell, you could more easily count the things I finished than those I started.)

When I travel it is brutally clear that I’m completely in God’s hands. No skill of mine means anything at all to a pilot, and even when I drive I know how close to the edge I am. A sneeze at the wrong time, or an inattentive truck driver, and time’s up.

Of course we’re always in God’s hands; we just let the daily routines take on the role of fortress walls. Outside those walls I have to pay more attention to God. Sad but true, that even prayer times turn into routines. Of course, they’re good routines to have, and God can use every opening.

Maybe I should travel more. Maybe I should travel more at home?

Baseball and chess

My wife is a Cubs fan. As we drove up through Illinois yesterday, listening to the Cubs win a game against the rather sloppy Reds, it struck me that the game is like chess in some ways. In both games you often try to psych-out your opponent. In both games the kibitzers are always smarter than the players. In both games a player may take a long time before making his move. Both have exhibition matches. Both games involve sacrifices. Baseball has night games and chess has knight’s games. Baseball has checked swings and chess has checked kings. Chess has rooks and baseball has rookies. Similar, no?


There’s a book out that I haven’t read yet with a title like Nature Deficit Disorder. I gather that the thesis is generally something along the lines of: we were made to interact with nature, and a purely artificial environment deprives us of certain kinds of training. Even tame outdoors environments invite the eyes to shift between the big picture and minute details, with every scale in between. As I sit here I see a painted wall. It has some grain to it, but no real details like those of the hairs on a leaf.

Even a tame outdoors environment is multi-sensory and varied. Just the presence of a few bushes or trees for shelter lets children create their own imaginative worlds of play, and it takes very little “wildness” to offer boys (and some girls) the chance to swing and climb and explore.

No doubt the author makes a better case, and offers examples. But I think I understand the principle.

We already know that green environments can be soothing, and CDs of rippling water or wind in the leaves or bird song and night noises are quite popular. I think it worthwhile to study the matter. Perhaps these sorts of things can help lower stress and maybe blood pressure. It would be fun to have a doctor prescribe a day in the desert, or a week by the pond, or a topical rain forest.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


I gather from the plethora of stories about Katie Couric that to the reporters' fraternity no story is as interesting as a story about one of their own. And therefore no other story is quite as newsworthy.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


In Meyrin I saw small billboards showing a picture of part of the moon with crosshairs zoomed in on the rim of one crater. The legend: "This is a 100% racism-free zone. Let's make our neighborhood one too." (Free paraphrasing by yours truly) If life in Switzerland is like life in the US, when you see ads like that you know that race hatred is a notable problem in the area. And in every single case of my observation these past 20 years, the hatred has been blacks hating whitey, or Arabs hating whites, or Hispanics hating blacks. I'm told that white racist groups are a big deal in prisons, but I don't hear much from them outside. And yes, you hear a lot of things if you ride the bus regularly and listen. And yet all the anti-racism campaign materials I saw or heard were directed at the white audience.

And so I suspect that the Meyrin racism campaign is another case of looking for your missing watch under the street light because it is brighter there. It's easier to talk to people like yourself than to try to figure out how to talk to the guy from the other culture and get him to cooperate.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Day by day

Trimmed from letters home:

Of course the day isn't over for you yet, but I'm pretty beat. I dragged myself out of bed at 8 (=1am) to find that the room was quite cold. It is a top floor corner room, so I guess that's not a surprise.

Oleg and I went to a Carrefour in France. I found out the hard way that you have to have somebody in the back weigh and sticker your produce. You know how long the cheese section is at Sentry. Carrefour's is something like 4 times that size, and consists mostly of varieties I've never heard of; and apparently mostly soft cheeses. There were $20/pound varieties next to $5/pound: grab carefully! The whole facility smells of fish--and there were some pretty big fish sitting out for inspection--one must have been at least 20 pounds. Whole. Good bread, though. And yes, you can buy DVD players and blankets there too. Yes, I got some chocolate. And no, it wasn't the Nestle's. The meat isle had skinned rabbits--don't tell number 3 daughter.

I spent most of the day debugging, and finally figuring out that the serial port on this laptop no worketh. Once I got that out of the way, it was only 15 minutes to get the terminal server reconfigured. It is painful to try to run programs from Madison...

Tomorrow I have to get a washing machine access card from housing--Oleg says they don't use coins anymore. And I suppose more debugging is in my future. And somewhere around here is the kitchen and fridges, suitable for storing some clementine juice and cheese.

Oh yes, the lunch menu said something about turkey, but the cook said cheval. Tasted good, though I like your potatoes better. Nice view of the stubble in a farm and vinyard from the dining area of Restaurant #2. No birdses today, though.

As you probably can see from a couple of the pictures, the area around the main user's center is paved with flat rocks. They rock, it turns out, and squirt water on you from below. Which could be kind of fun if you found several and tried jumping from one to another. rock rock rock? (Or if a mythical bird did it, would it be a roc rock rock rock?)

The sun is shining brightly in the window--brighter than earlier days, and I got up earlier than ever. The clouds in the distance look ominious, though, and the forecast isn't so hot for visiting Geneva (which I was planning to do after the laundry gets done). The slats on the window only cover about 80% of the view, so this isn't the room you want if you have a night shift. The view is intermittently beautiful, though. I got to wondering: pinhole cameras have wonderful depth of field. What would it be like to use a couple side by side for stereo, and use the resulting pictures in a steropticon or viewmaster?

Here we go round the prickly pear
the prickly pear, the prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At 5 oclock in the morning.

Mount Blanc looms over Geneva in the distance, and I finally got my clothes through the laundry. Pants are still a bit damp, though. Well, so are a lot of things. Turns out "R" means refund, not "Return card." Live and learn. Also it turns out you put the powder in the left-hand bin and the fabric softener in the middle. Oopsies.

Time to head out for lunch, and then we'll see about Geneva. This is a much later start than I anticipated...

I took the bus to Geneva. You know that Wisconsin has winter and road construction? It seems similar in Geneva. A huge amount of a couple of important city streets were torn up. I decided to take the bus across the river, then wander a few blocks there, go up the west side of the lake, come back and catch the bus back. Oh the things that you see... Every sort of travel agency imaginable, the Arab Swiss bank, a store selling Bandes Dessigne (and Manga). Swans all over the place in the river, likewise ducks and geese and some odd dark duck with a white bill and top of the head (and odd quack. Saw more than one of these). Also pigeons.

In the old town, every other block had a street musician or duet. Pretty much everything was a store, too. Ancient alleyways were turned into high priced strip malls. The days when all the public art was in the likeness of something in the heavens above or the earth below or the waters under the earth is gone.

Faces from every land imaginable--though fewer Japanese than I'd have expected. Most were either silent or talking in French, of course. Mostly rather thinner than in the US. Lots of Africans--I was surprised how many.

Some Duke of Brunswick died in Geneva, and left his money to the city on the understanding that they would build him a mausoleum in the style of ???. Whee! 4 large statues of knights: well, 3 in classic armor and one in an 18th century suit coat. Lions everywhere around the spires and alcoves and even one lying across the statue of the dead man on a bier. one picture Or another for his equestrian statue viwed from the yet another. The lake is beautiful with the fountain going and the ridges in the background (they're maybe 3x the height of the Devil's Lake ridges, and so steep there's no development on them at all. Foothills of the mountain showed from time to time. The original building of the League of Nations used to be somebody's mansion. It'd have wonderful sledding if it were in Wisconsin.

Pick a restaurant: Thai, Japanese, Moroccan, French; there's plenty. I notice that they don't post prices on the outdoor menus in most of them--"If you have to ask, you can't afford it."

I stopped off at a shopping mall on the way back. I had no idea books were so expensive here: $35 for something available equivalently for $20 in the US. And not much selection, either. A dozen different movies; and the Pink Panther looked as uninteresting in French as it did in English. Huge crowds.

I was surprised to see as much grafitti in Geneva as I did. Not in the ritzy tourist areas of course. But it was nice to see apartment buildings designed to be colorful and different from the one next door: the architecture is slightly different and one has all bright blue shutters, the next all bright pink, the next yellow--and with different shapes of windows and arches.

I did not buy any DVD's of course--different zones, so they wouldn't play.

I've slightly sore feet, but it held off raining until I got back. After supper I'm going over to the ISR again to try to get some information, and then I'll try reading the DCOPS again.

Sunday: The skies are clear and the mountains are dark in the distance. There's still a haze obscuring the slopes, and caps of clouds over the peaks, but I can see the peaks near the north of the lake. There are small birds so fast I can't get a look at them, something that looks like a jay, and those huge pigeons. (They've got a larger head and back of the neck, and their coo is more like an owl's) There are also some crows/rooks(?) and the thin pigeons, some sparrows that look just like the ones in Wisconsin.

I didn't try to get to the English church in Geneva, so I read through Isaiah instead.

I'm waking up earlier. That'll make it easier to catch my plane, but harder to readjust back home.

T'was a grey and rainy day. You can dimly see the ridges and the Juras. The birds were quieter than usual this morning. I didn't hear Mr. ChirChirChirChirChirrrrp (and I've no idea what he looks like, either).

As you can tell from the log, I'm getting some new directions here. Next I've got to start fiddling with databases, and I'm sitting here trying to figure a good way of defining one for our DCOPS data. Whatever I do looks wasteful. (Among other things, wasteful means slow.)

Turns out they just had daylight savings time. I wondered why people seemed to be up so early...

I've been passing up desert, and I haven't touched any of the candy bars I bought and put in the wardrobe. I haven't tried to get in the wardrobe myself, which I suppose is just as well since I left my parka in Sun Prairie.

Later: I'm sitting at a desk the clean room next to building A4 in the ISR (Intersecting Storage Rings), which is a bit below ground. I'm surrounded by relay racks with high voltage equipment and computers in them, boxes and spools of cables, and tables with boxes and the odd tool on them. The clean room was made of 20-foot high white plastic fixed to a metal frame. Our house could almost fit in it, though the roof might peek out the top. On the wall before me is taped a calendar from 2004 and an enigmatic notice: A1 "Attention 2.5 bar Argon." That's taped to a steel box beam with a capped-off copper pipe above the sign, so I suppose it is warning you not to unscrew the cap or Argon will come out. Though I don't think the pipe is hooked up anymore. There's big round ventillation duct work here and there, and the inevitable fluorescent lighting. There are two Valeri's, a Vladimir, and an Oleg. The default language of the room is Russian. (Zoltan [upstairs] is Hungarian, and so is his student (help meet?) Noemi.

I finally figured out why the main cafeteria was so depressing. The population is almost entirely men, almost all wearing dark sweaters, almost all young to middle-aged Italians and Spanish and French--which means dark hair. Dark clothes, dark hair, dark tables and chairs--it gave the place a funereal air.

One pleasant innovation since I was here 20 years ago is that the menus in the cafeterias are in both French and English. Of course you still have to ask for the side orders in French or in pointing, but English is a help.

Every detector needs cables, every cable needs to be made to the right length and tested, every system that needs high voltage needs to have a spigot somewhere that provides it, likewise low voltages. Every extra sensor (temperature, humidity, whatever) also needs a cable, and to be tested, and to have a specific place to plug in. None of this is exciting or even interesting work, but there's a lot of it to be done and the detector won't work without it. That's what's happening in the building. So is chamber testing, which is much more fun; though even that palls after a while. So is testing alignment equipment and trying to calibrate it. So is programming in support of this.

On a desk 15 feet away is a stack of 3 metal crates stuffed with electronic cards with lots of blinking lights on the front. That has to do with the laser controls, and testing of some other sensors. To my right is a defunct PC, to my left the monitor for a computer imbedded in a high voltage control system in a relay rack.

The door for the clean room is lockable with an old-style key, which is always kept in the lock so it doesn't get lost. Yes, we lock up at the end of the day. Don't ask why.

When I walk to and from the ISR I take the stairs instead of the road--it is shorter. There's moss to each side of a clean spot on the steps, worn looking rails on each side, and some clipped bits of leaves to show that the trimmers came by recently to dispose of excess undergrowth. I feel rather like Frodo on the straight stairs, though it isn't really such a long trip: 4 or 5 stories worth. At the top there's a building and a fenced-off area with what looks like a giant can on a yellow pole--about 9 stories tall, with windows around the top. I'm not sure what it is or was--I need to ask. (A water tower with windows around the top!!!)

One thing never changes in labs: somebody can't find a tool they need and rummages around everywhere looking for one. Sometimes they even put it back when they're done.

In a relay rack about 25 feet away there are several front sections with wire mesh screwed to the frame. The spacing leaves openings about an inch square. Attached to this are some pieces of cardboard with the design of an electronics module printed on the front. Bundles of inch-thick cables come in the sides of the relay rack, swoop down inside and come up the front, where some are punched through the cardboard at the positions where connector pictures were printed on the front. And why, you ask? So that the cable makers can determine the exact cable routes and almost exact cable lengths, before trying to cut the the cables and put on the connectors.

This hasn't been as dramatically successful a trip as I hoped, although I did get a few things accomplished: various minor milestones, and I got the ball rolling on determining exactly what our alignment readout system is going to look like: 3 PC's, 2 running windows, 1 running linux, and 9 different programs running. etc.

Wednesday: Its been a rainy day again. I just paid my bill at the hostel. Unfortunately the timing is such that I can't do my laundry, so I've got some dirty clothes bagged up and squashed as flat as I can manage.

It is 4 in the afternoon here, and I'm tired. There are lots of small details that ought to be fixed here and there, but most aren't very important. For example, I'm in the CMS people directory, but with my old UA1 office that I spent a couple of days in 18 years ago.

In the dorm: Every couple of minutes another jet takes off in this direction from the airport. Somebody is running a chainsaw, somebody else is running an excavator across the street, and the little bitty cars are going back and forth under my window.

Talking with name removed to protect the guilty was kind of depressing this morning. People from member states come to CERN to work on a joint project, but their funding comes from home. They expect services from CERN (to which the member states contribute) but not to be held accountable by the experiment's managers. At Fermilab each subgroup was subjected to annual reviews, or even bi-annual, to make sure they were making progress. If they weren't, they were warned and assigned folks to help them get things back on track. The CMS subsystem that is closest to completion, and closest to being on schedule, is the EndCap Muon (I'm working on alignment for it), which is mostly run by Americans. The Hadron calorimeter isn't on schedule, but they're less bad than most.

When I was here years ago, there were small rooms set aside for smoking and TV watching and reading. The places were usually littered with magazines and newspapers and books that somebody had bought and read and didn't want to carry away. Those rooms are a bit larger (somebody remodeled), and have empty bookcases, no TV (too much damage says the note), and empty chairs. Since everybody has a laptop, I guess they read in their rooms using wireless, or play DVDs for amusement, or, if they've got the money, go out on the town with friends. The kitchen usually has a few people in it, though one Indian fellow always glares at me when I come it. Dunno why; I just eat vegetarian stuff in there. Maybe I look American.

Naturally they have 3 washers and 2 dryers instead of the reverse. I commented on that on the Guest Satisfaction sheet.

And so home:

Since Madison is not an international airport, I'll have to pick up my luggage in Chicago. There's only an hour and a half layover, so this is going to be tight.

My bench-mate in the very back of the plane from Geneva to Brussels is reading something called Mare de Canard or some such. The newspaper's logo/emblem is a duck. I wonder if the editors know what "canard" means in English.

I go find my gate in Brussels and ignore all the opportunities to buy perfumes, cards, chocolates, magazines, electronics, ad nauseum. I get searched twice on the way. Over in the corner of the gate area sits an elderly fellow who needs a shave badly, wrapped in a blanket. A crowd of students from Culver Academy (they'd gone to a NATO educational thingamabob) descend upon us, and the old gentlemen scoots: I guess he lives in the airport. The plane starts boarding and I get paged!?! Turns out the boarding pass they issued in Geneva is only a bookmark. I have to answer a bunch of questions (am I carrying a weapon or something that could be used as a weapon?--actually, yes, but a bunch of keys is only good for close quarters defense) and get new boarding passes issued. Once again, I'm in the back--next to the last bench. Kitty-corner is a father and 9 or 10 year old daughter: at one of those chocolate stores they'd bought gummy worms. 9 hours of flying ensue. I'd wanted to see "Walk the Line" but some of the movie involved soft passages so I gave up. I'd griped about the sitcom acting on the flight from the US. They played an old I Love Lucy on the return trip--the one with her getting plastered on the vitamin supplement she is supposed to be shilling for a commercial. I was right to complain: she could act rings around the folks on Taxi. I timed the shows: modern sitcoms are 20 minutes long. One minute of commercials for every 2 minutes of show!

Chicago! I like the way they try to put some kind of art in the halls. One of the exhibits (hard to look at when you're on the run, but . . .) was Chicago stained glass. The works were good, but the back lighting was terrible: stained glass needs fairly uniform bright illumination.

Immigration didn't take too long; my bag came on the carousel early, and customs didn't take all that long. American had a man detailed to tell passengers which line to deposit their luggage in for transfers to local flights. Nice touch.

I grabbed the train to my terminal and quick-stepped through, and got to the gate with 8 minutes to spare.

This was a little bitty plane, and the gentleman kitty-corner from me found that his #2 carryon would not fit overhead or under seat. The fellow next to me was coming back from meeting with vendors in LA. He had an Econ exam at 6 that night, and was trying to study for it. His only calculator was his cell phone.

Madison airport! But where's my luggage? (and my bench-mate's, and about 7 other people's!--about 1/3 of the passengers lost their luggage!) The airline delivered it at 10pm. I'm going 2 for 2. Both the outgoing and incoming legs of my trip had my luggage searched by Homeland Security. And both times I've flown from Chicago into Madison, American has mislaid my luggage.

I'm going to have to have a little talk with the travel agent about how long layovers should be.

But I'm here, nothing permanently lost, and glad to be home. Now if I can just get my internal clock working again...