Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A song lyrics

I found on youtube Tom Petty's video Into the Great Wide Open. I remember how much I liked this song, back in 1991. It was really awesome for me to see Johnny Depp in the video because I was a fan of the tv show 21 Jump Street, translated into Spanish as Comando Especial. That show was broadcast in Guatemala by the beginning of the 90's, every Friday at 7 pm by Canal 3; right before MacGyver, that was at 8 pm. I was so delighted by the song that I wanted to understand its lyrics but all I could do was to meaninglessly mumble the words I heard. My "ear" to understand spoken English was not yet very well trained and there was no internet to fetch the lyrics in a few keyboard strokes with a nowadays-so-taken-for-granted Google search. So I had to find solace in a word-by-word translation of the song title using a paper-based English-Spanish dictionary and realizing that the translation didn't make too much sense... those were other times.

What made me happy this time around that I listened to it, was that I realized that I could understand the lyrics effortlessly! It was like having the key to unlock and old chest and peeking inside with total freedom.

That's how my little forgotten wishes become a reality.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

No more exams!

As of fall 2007, I will no longer have any exam until the end of my PhD. I finally have reached that point of joy in which I only have to think about my research project! Why am I thinking about this? Because everybody around is studying for finals and I'm working on my research project. All these years, since I started primary school, going through high school, college and grad school; I've had a break from school of two years! I certainly can't complain, the ride has been very exiting. However, I believe that you reach a point --- at least in my case --- in which you want to learn and study just for the sake of it, without anybody meddling in between trying to assess your level of knowledge. I feel happy and relieved of having left behind those grueling days of preparation for final exams and having ahead lots of time for doing science and learning more.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

When I used to play video games

The period between 2000 and 2002 was the time after my undergraduate studies and before graduate school. I was no longer a teaching assistant. I was a full professor in the mathematics department*. It is true that preparing lectures for three courses is time consuming, but I managed my time so that I was pretty much free after 4 or 5 pm. So, from that time until bedtime, I was free to do whatever I wanted. In most cases I spend the evening helping out to create the linux-based computer lab in the physics department, or learning C++ and numerical methods or playing video games.

I used to go home and turn the computer on after having dinner. Video games were very addictive, specially at the beginning. Later on, it was more of a routinely activity of entertainment. My favorites were Age of Empires, versions I and II, Tomb Raider 4, and my favorite of all time... Caesar III. Hours and hours of enjoyment. At some point---I have to admit---I started to feel guilty, because I realized that I was getting good at something that would not get me anything other than entertainment. Well, at least I was putting my brain to work at solving puzzles. That's what I like of strategy games.

Then I went to study abroad and although I packed my video games cd's, leisure time is a precious luxury in graduate school. I like to see it as a trade, as a change of entertainment activities. After all, doing research in physics amounts to solve other sorts of puzzles. I still find myself buying strategy games every once in a while, specially those about medieval warfare, but I've never got to far into the game. I'm more driven nowadays to try to solve physics puzzles than video games ones. Probably because I can earn a living doing it while having fun!

*I know this sounds weird. How come that I was a professor if I had only a bachelor's degree? For the time being, I will just say that it happens in Guatemala... unfortunately. I will address this question elsewhere.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Science of the future

The trend of physics research has started to shift from what it used to be. By the end of the 20th century, physicists were already proposing candidates for a theory of everything. The unification of gravity with quantum mechanics was the greatest achievement of the 21st century. It laid down the foundations for the first theory of everything, the so-called grand unification, discovered in the 22nd century. This was a major accomplishment for the human mind. Nevertheless, physicists didn't stop there. The other two candidate theories, multidimensional intersections and holistic emergence also ended up being theories of everything. Thus, we have three very different explanations of how everything works at the fundamental level. Although different in their foundations, they all account for all the phenomena we observe. Now that we have three theories of everything it seems that there is no unique model of our universe.

Nowadays people believe that the human brain is capable of explaining the universe it inhabits in many different ways and that the essence of it is a form of subjective objectivism. The claim is that the mind can't grasp the substrate of the things, but rather its manifestation via the interactions that generate the perception of reality. They big questions of who we are and what is our place in the universe are still unanswered. The human adventure goes on.

December 7, 3989.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

More guatemalan coffee

A couple of weeks ago, while visiting Cornell University at the beautiful town of Ithaca NY, I came across one of many places heavily frequented by students. It was Collegetown Bagels. I was surprised that the usual punch-card of "buy N and get 1 free" that I got when I purchased a cup of coffee had images resembling Mayan hieroglyphics. After closer examination once I was at a table, I realized that they were indeed Mayan hieroglyphics! (I wish I knew their meaning)

Digging a bit the mystery, I found out that the owner of the place actually buys coffee from Guatemala. He gives an account of his trip to a place in the vicinity of Volcán Tajumulco! His depiction of the poor people working in the fields is very accurate. I've seen it myself.

It's commonly known that the people that work in the coffee plantations get a small fraction of the profits in the worldwide coffee market. However it seems that these guys are buying coffee beans at a much higher price, it's what they call 100% fair trade. It's the first time I hear something like this. I am no expert in the topic nor I know any details, yet I really hope this kind of things become an improvement in the quality of life for the people of the mountains living in Guatemala.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Wifi, laptop and a bar

What happens when you go with your laptop computer to a bar with wireless network? Out of all the things that could have been, this one actually happened...

I got in and had a beer. The place is almost empty. In one corner there is a group of people playing some awesome Celtic tunes. A drum, a banjo, a guitar and a violin. Four guys in a table, playing their music and having some beer, like anybody else in the place. After a couple of tunes a girl joins with her violin. They play together another tune. At the end of it, the four guys introduce each other to the new member of the band! Few minutes later a new guitarist joins the group of musicians. The melodies are beautiful. The music transported my imagination to an old english tavern full of pirates!

I was not able to resist the desire to share what I was witnessing. So, I took my laptop out of my backpack and connected to the local wireless network. I knew that my girlfriend was online in the chat. I told her to open Skype and to just listen. I explained to her via chat where I was and what was going on. Now we both were chatting and listening the same music, being more than a thousand miles apart! To preserve the moment, I grabbed my digital camera and recorded a small video clip of the superb performance. And then... why not! I can use the computer to record a few tunes! And so I did. For the mono input of a laptop microphone, the quality was not bad. It is enough to recall my the memories of that night (no commercial use is intended!).

After about half and hour of electronic sharing, each of us continued with our own local activities. And while I kept listening to the music and drinking my beer, I thought about the ways in which technology helps to keep people in touch...

What a glimpse... we are living amazing times!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Guatemalan coffee

Few days ago, I went to Penn State University located at College State, Pennsylvania. While we were coming back from lunch, we stopped for some coffee at one of these local, small stores. My surprise was that among the different kinds of coffee offered there was Guatemalan coffee, from Huehuetenango! They misspelled the name of the place (click image to enlarge it). Probably nobody noticed that. But I wonder how many (if any) actually did...

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The social network prophecy

When we look back at the past, into the history of humanity, we see how people used to live under harsh environments of all sorts. If we could roll backwards in time and eliminate one after another all technological advances, life quality quickly degrades. Leisure time decreases. Hard physical work becomes a dominant activity and the ability of global and fast communication is reduced to local mouth-to-mouth story telling. "How hard life must have been in those times!", we say. Gratefully---and automatically---acknowledging that we live in such advanced society. Nevertheless, we are the primitive people for those that will be here a thousand years from now. Were are lucky enough to have lived at the beginning of the computer era. We are witnesses of how communication has been made available to everybody by the simple stroke of the keyboard. We can chat, talk and see people that are oceans apart in real time and express our ideas in our blogs and social networks... and that is what my glimpse into the future is about.

In the not-so-far-future, when a child is born, he/she will be added to the huge electronic database of citizens of a given country. When the kid has grown enough he will start meeting people, first his parents then little fellows at school. In those times everybody will have a digital camera as now everybody wears a wristwatch. Everybody will be in a social network like hi5 or facebook or whatever---not by choice---but by law. Your choice, though, will be on what you are willing to share with the world. Then our fellow will be accumulating pictures and videos about his life, adding more and more friends as time passes. People will realized that peeking into their friends comments and pictures from time to time, they will never be out of contact. Once you know someone, the social network will keep people in the "sight" for as long as you wish. And that is the social network prophecy! Just imagine, for any event in your life, you just send a invitation message to everybody. No more wondering what happened with those kinder garden friends that you had, the guys from the boy scouts, the people you met at a conference or even those relatives that you haven't seen in years. But not everything is happiness... the social network would also tell us when the life of our friends has ended. Our friends' profiles will be a record of their passage in life, future generations will have a faithful journal of their great-great-grandfather! And for the people of that future day, the idea of losing contact with your primary school classmates will be one of those hard things that people had to bear in the long-gone days of the past.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Old calculations

Recently, I came across the chemistry notes of my girlfriend. I immediately recalled my firsts chemistry lessons in high school. In a place where a even a pocket calculator was banned from math and physics courses, the brazen idea of using a scientific calculator in the chemistry class was very exciting. Having keys with cryptic labels like hyp, exp, deg, hex, etc. used to create a halo of intellectual mystery around the gadget, hinting that were mathematics far beyond my current understanding. But the real breathtaking, admired and feared objects were the programmable calculators. Those hybrids between a scientific calculator and a computer, where you could code your own routines using BASIC. I learned the basics of coding in one of them, the Casio FX-880P. I was 15 at that time and I admit that I became a real geek on those grounds. Probably, I read the user's manual almost completely. I coded dozens of small routines from simple math calculations to a baseball game. How nice was to have that little computer in my exams! Chemistry definitely didn't need such amount of computer power. Although I coded a game that asked randomly from the symbols of the elements in the periodic table. That was a fun way of memorizing all of them! However, when it came to my high school statistics course, my little computer was a luxurious advantage that allowed me the cross-check my results. That's nothing amazing. Most pocket calculators can give you the mean and standard deviation. However, what we were asked in the exam was to count the frequency of occurrence of nearly 200 numbers in given intervals. So it seemed that the easiest way was to sort them first. Such a horrible time consuming task! But thanks to my secret weapon and the code that I wrote, I just had to wait until all the results were nicely displayed on the screen. What a glorious moment that was! I think you can call that "cheating". But I have to say, it was elegant and clever cheating. The same kind of deeds that you enjoy when you watch in Ocean's eleven movie!

These days my little computer lies in some drawer. Its moments of glory belong in the past.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

"Disculpe, no está permitido..."

Eso es lo que a uno le dicen ahora en algunos lugares públicos al tratar de tomar una foto. Dos veces me ha pasado que me dispongo a tomar una foto y llega un policía a decirme que no está permitido. La primera vez incluso me dijo: "si tiene permiso entonces sí se puede". Y pregunto yo, ¿permiso de quién?, ¿a quién hay que pedirle permiso para tomarle una foto al puente Belice desde la pasarela de Hyper Paiz? La misma situación fue en un centro comercial. Pero esa vez le pregunte al tipo encargado de a seguridad por qué no era permitido. Su respuesta fue que muchas veces han visto que cuando alguien toma fotos luego sucede un asalto en ese lugar. Desde ese punto de vista es entendible la prohibición. Lo que es absolutamente intolerable es el nivel de paranoia generalizada en el que se vive, debido al alto grado de violencia y delincuencia. Para mí es muy triste que hayamos llegado a esta situación.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Afternoon coffee

Bored of being in my office, I went to a coffee shop. I bought a small 'coffee of the day' and sat down in a couch. I open my laptop an star reading a paper to prepare a ten minutes presentation for Friday. The blondish girl right in front of me, about six meters away looks nice. She's cute. Dressed in the usual way students do, she wears a pink t-shirt, shorts and tennis shoes. She has a cute face. Sun glasses on top of her head. One leg crossed over the other. The sweater covering her thighs to diminish the amount of bare skin exposed. What would she say if I get close to her and ask her for a date? Maybe she says 'yes', or maybe not. Who cares, anyway... What is the different between this and that girl? The shape of their body? The shape of their face? The way they move or speak? The way they look at me or smile? What is in their shape that makes one attractive and not the other? Why do I like one and not the other? To other guy it would be the other way around. It's a subjective choice... Who I like and who I don't. It's not a rational thought, it's something I feel. Like the difference between coffee with salt and coffee with sugar, the first is awful, the second is pleasant. She is ignorant about any thought I'm having. She is not doing anything. She is sitting on her couch without realizing that their skin is reflecting the light that falls on it and that my eyes collect a little portion of that light. That little amount of light is all the information I have about that cute girl, yet it seems like it's enough to imagine her behavior and her reactions. It's like watching the Earth from the Moon, and trying to figure out what's going on in this planet. What happens, anyway, in my brain when that light, coming from her, makes my neurons fire in such a pattern that harmonizes with my 'hard-coded' notions of what I like and what I don't like? I'm not different from the infant that sucks on her mother's breast. I'm not different from the plant that seeks the sun light. I'm not different from that bacteria that develops in warmer temperatures. I'm not different from water that boils at hundred Celsius. I'm not different from the photon that always travels at the same speed. We are all the same, just different parts of one and only nature! (Few minutes later...) That girl in the couch, she looks cute...