Saturday, November 29, 2008


Blogs can be analyzed to recognize traces of personality. The Typealyzer does that job. The type of the n-th dream is "INTP - The Thinkers", which I think is a fair one-word description of this little blog.

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

The analysis shows what parts of the brain that were dominant during writing:

But I must say that it's not true that I'm not good at understanding the needs of other people!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Scary truth

I find unbelievable that some people have no thinking capacity at all. People with an IQ below some minimum should not be allowed to vote! :)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Why do we blog? is the question I've been wondering recently. Is it that we have something to say or is it vanity? Is it to inform or to show off? Is it to help or to be helped? I guess it is because all of them and even more. It took me a while to answer that question to myself. Many bloggers agree almost tacitly that they start their blog hopping to be read. Otherwise, just keep your notes in your hard disk. So where does this hope of being heard come from? Do we not have enough friends with whom to talk? Is it not enough the time to share ideas and experiences? Probably not. Just think about it. If you are terribly passionate about the architectonic style of Duisburg during the 17th century, but none of your friends is... you don't have with whom to talk about it. It can also happen that you are able to meet with some friends more frequent than with others, for whatever reason. Then you communicate less, you tell and are told less stories, less anecdotes, less of the everyday stuff that just happens and forms the basis of the chitchat that you can have with a neighbor, classmate, coworker or relative.

But lucky us, this is the 21st century. Internet is up an running. What and interesting thing blogs are. A blog becomes a public partition of our thoughts, or our feelings, or our imagination, our any combination of them. Something that can be accessed by everyone, even without us knowing. What we write in a blog is something that we would tell to a friend had the chance is given. How many times after a get together we find ourselves saying: "oh! I forgot the tell them about that guy running naked in the park!" It could also be the opposite. Someone could write about something that he or she would never tell in person. A few paragraphs for the oceans of anonymous avid readers out there in the world.

It is amazing. It's almost like thinking out loud. Like a virtual conversation where you push the play button at the beginning of each post and hit the pause button at the end. Everyone is listened and everyone can talk. It is a new level in the way people communicate. Good things about it are that you only write it once, but can be read infinitely many times. There is a kept record, so that one or ten years from the moment you write you can say: "Gee! how could I be thinking such things?!" People that don't know you could get a fair idea of what's inside your head without even talking with you. People that do know you can get to know more. Old friends can catch up with your life and know what have you been doing all this time. I guess there are also disadvantages. The only one coming to my head right now is that you could be embarrassed of yourself in the future :) Could there also be unintended consequences? Most likely. But let's be optimistic and hope for the best. Besides, one of these days you are going to wake up from this dream called life and nothing will matter anymore. In exactly the same manner that we wake up in the morning, partially remembering a dream. We give it a couple of minutes (maybe) to remember. If we are lucky we put it in the bookshelf of the memory just to fade away with time. If we don't get a coherent recollection, it goes forgotten for good. That's the feebleness of life.

Now let's go in another direction and try to imagine the future, whether we'll be in it or not. I'll make a little prediction. Things are going to get more efficient for reading and writing blogs. We won't be sitting in the computer reading from the screen. The posts will start getting to our cellphone, where some software will read it for us. Far more ahead into the future, the information will get to our brain in some other faster way, neither light or sound will be necessary. Maybe our thoughts will also be able to get out of our brains and stored in a big server to be shared among the people. Each person processing not only his or her own thoughts but also sending and receiving thoughts in a global way. Each person would be a like a macroscopic version of a neuron and the whole world would be a macroscopic version of a brain! Would there emerge another kind of consciousness just like the one that is housed in our own brain?

Leaving my little science fiction tale aside, blogging is a phenomenon that is just beginning and that will be the basis of what will come next. In the early 90's, when the internet was being born to the public, who would have thought that people would be blogging today?

The future is always exciting. It makes me recall the words of Cicero:
Omnium rerum principia parva sunt.

The beginnings of all things are small.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

More and better

Once upon a time, in the small town of Succinides, there was a fellow named Patroclo. Patroclo was an average boy. As everybody else in Succinides, his dream was to find his perfect pomum tree. A pomum tree was a small bush with a fruit similar to an apple. The greatest source of happiness for the people of Succinides was to find a beautiful pomum tree and harvest its fruit. But getting a pomum true was not an easy task. Although all pomum trees were similar, there were no two alike. In the markets, hundreds of trees were in exhibit everyday, waiting to be bought and carried home. But the refined, exquisite and developed sense of pomum tree aesthetics that the people of Succinides had acquired, made the decision a hard one. Some people found their perfect pomum tree right away. For others, it was a lengthy process. Examining tree by tree until they found the one they were satisfied with. Patroclo was in this second group of people. Finding his pomum tree had proven to be a tough endeavor.

One day, Patroclo found his pomum tree. It was a really cute bush. Deep inside, he knew it was not the most beautiful one, but he was tired of looking for it. So, armed with courage he got that pomum tree. A most happy day in his life. He took it home and planted it in the garden. He was very happy indeed. As time passed, he collected the beautiful pomum fruit and enjoyed it very much. When more time passed, Patroclo realized that although his pomum tree was actually a beautiful one, there were other trees that he judged as even more exquisite than the one he had. Walking by the streets and observing the gardens of his neighbors, he started to desire his pomum tree were as beautiful as the ones he had seen around. His desire grew stronger. And thus, the day came in which he got rid of his tree and started to look for another one. This time he was not going to settle for less than the most beautiful pomum tree he could find.

His search yielded its result. He had come across the most exquisite and beautiful pomum tree he had never seen before. Patroclo could not believe his luck. He cried from happiness while planting the tree in this garden; and as before, the time came for him to collect the pomum fruit. So much happiness was unbelievable. He had found what every citizen in Succinides was looking for: the pomum tree that was perfect for him.

Sadly enough though, the Patroclo's story doesn't end here. He realized that once again, he had a desire for other pomum trees. He had got bored of eating pomum fruit from his tree. He wanted to taste other pomum fruit from other pomum trees. But that was the highest of the crimes in Succinides. The only pomum fruit a citizen could ever eat was that of his own pomum tree.

Patroclo was lost. He could not understand why he felt like that. He knew very well that his pomum tree was among the most beautiful ones in all Succinides and yet, he was not happy with it. Why? --- he wondered --- Why am I not happy? My pomum tree is so delightful, so beautiful. Why do I feel the need of eating the pomum fruit from other pomum trees? He wondered if he was the only one who felt like that. He saw that everyone was so happy. Why could he not be as happy as everybody else? Could it be that it is just a matter of keeping the appearance of being happy? Endless questions assaulted Patroclo's mind. He was becoming insane.

Patroclo learned that he was not the only one with the desire for other pomum trees. For centuries, the scholars of Succinides knew that some individuals just could not be happy with their own pomum tree. No matter how beautiful and how tasty the pomum fruit was. Patroclo felt he would never be happy again. The desire for other pomum trees was killing him from inside. But he was observant of the law and never did he try to satisfy his curiosity, nor his desire. He tried to forget about it and be happy with his pomum tree. But deep inside, he knew what he was craving for.

Tired of living in that hell of a situation, Patroclo decided to put an end to it. He found out that there was a way, a cure, for his condition. Having failed at convincing himself to forget about other pomum trees, he took the decision to end the root of all evil. The cure consisted in removing a portion, a tiny portion of the frontal brain lobe and killing a few neurons of the primary visual cortex. The first part of the treatment aimed to inhibit his emotional desire and the second was to block the visual stimuli associated with the perception of images of pomum trees. This sort of treatment was rarely attempted and it was not always succesful. But Patroclo took his chances. He was ready to give away a tiny bit of his essence.

Patroclo survived the difficult surgery. He stayed some time at the hospital and eventually went home. When looking at the pomum trees on the streets he saw pomum trees, but not pomum trees. When he arrived at his home, and looked at his beautiful pomum tree he saw a beautiful pomum tree, but not a beautiful pomum tree. He knew what he had to do. He cared for his tree and collected its pomum fruit.

Patroclo never desired anything any more until the day of his death. People saw him living happy with his pomum tree.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The routine

Not all routines are necessarily bad. I'm still saying goodbye to the one I had until a week ago. So it happened that I moved from Ithaca to College Park, after six months of being a visitor at Cornell University. I don't know if there is another place like Ithaca. It's true that the town is small, but it is the one I have liked the most, out of the places I have lived in the US. There is so much nature all around and within walking distance. There were hills, forests, lots of rivers and waterfalls, lakes... and who knows what else. After being there for some time, I can truly say that the town really makes honor to the phrase: "Ithaca, ten square miles surrounded by reality".

So the routine was more or less like this: Wake up around 11 am. Going to campus at 1 pm. Leave the office and head to the library coffee shop at 6 pm. Then go to eat at Collegetown Bagels or nearby place at 8 pm. Stay there to have coffee or go to Starbucks until 10 pm. Back home and work until 4 am. Not all days were the same, but that was more or less it.

It is the first time I'm drawn so badly to work at coffee shops. I didn't use to do that in Baton Rouge. Maybe because it was not so easy to get to one or because there was not one on the way home. Even if there was one, the atmosphere of integration was missing. At Ithaca there were no individual places. It was everything as a whole. Every place added its tiny bit to the scene. I hope I can go back if only to visit. I'm missing it already.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Way way tenango

Guatemalan coffee
Originally uploaded by enrique

I found this advertisement at a grocery shop in Ithaca NY. The fair trade brand is quite popular here. This is the second time I find a place selling coffee from Huehuetenango. The first time was in Pennsylvania. The taste is good, although it is milder than my favorite, the french roast. The price of the small cup of coffee is about $1.60 (on average). I never paid that much for a coffee in Guatemala! But that's another story.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Things happening for a reason?

Ferox: Spectus, have you wondered what is your purpose in life?

Spectus: Yes.

Ferox: And? What is it?

Spectus: It's simple. There is no purpose.

Ferox: No purpose! I cannot believe that. There must be a purpose behind the things that happen everyday. I think that everything happens for a reason.

Spectus looks at Ferox for a moment, as if trying to peer into his soul to understand why is he saying such things.

Spectus: Very well, here is what I think. First of all, you said "things happen for a reason". What does reason mean to you?

Ferox: Reason is the cause, the purpose for which something is happening.

Spectus: So you say that in order for something to happen there must be a reason. Otherwise, that event never occurs. Is that what you mean?

Ferox: Essentially, yes. That's what I mean.

Spectus: Well then, suppose that an average good guy has a car accident and that he dies as a consequence of it. Now I ask you, what was the purpose of the accident?

Ferox: Well, I don't know. But that doesn't mean that there isn't one.

Spectus: So, say that the guy had a wife and a son. Do you think that they would find a purpose in the death of that man?

Ferox: I know what you are at! You want to show me that there is no purpose in his death. However I would say that there is no immediate purpose, at least none that we can see. It could be that as a consequence of his death some other things will happen for other people.

Spectus: Of course! Many things will occur as a consequence that man's death. But that is just causality.

Ferox: What do you mean?

Spectus: I meant that the man's death will be the cause of many things, for sure. But to claim that it had a purpose is a very subjective issue.

Ferox: It's not subjective. It could be that the guy was the president of some company. Now that he is dead, someone else is going to get promoted to that position.

Spectus: But it is subjective, because you try to see a positive purpose. You try to see in the man's death that good things follow from it. What about the bad things? What about the sadness and sorrow of his wife? What about the life of the kid without his father? Would you say that the purpose of that man's death was to deprive a family from their happiness?

Ferox: Well...

Spectus: If your answer is "yes", the immediate reaction is to ask why? Why depriving a family from happiness? What kind of purpose is that? It's nonsense! Then we move on to ask who? Who is behind this tragedy? If there was a human being behind all of it, we would like to see him in jail, for planning such atrocity. But if no one is guilty, then what do we do? Who is there to blame? How to conciliate the fact that everything happens for a reason with the fact that that reason is to bring sadness and misery? On the contrary, if your answer is "no", that the man's death was not to deprive a family from its happiness, then what is the purpose? How far into the future you need to go to see something good coming from a death? What if there is nothing good as a consequence of it?

Ferox: Well, you can't warranty that there is nothing good coming from his death.

Spectus: Exactly. By the same token, you can not warranty that there is something good coming out of it. In other words, you can not see purpose for everything that happens. And if you do, you have to accept that there are also negative purposes. Things that happen in detriment of people. But you can't accept that, can you? And I'll tell you why. It's because the idea of purpose implies that there is a plan. And a plan suggests that there is someone behind the scene. What I think is that you try to see purpose in the things because it makes you feel better. Because you are afraid to live in a world in which things just happen with no purpose at all. You want to believe that each person existence has a reason, because otherwise, what are we doing here? In a sentence: you want an answer for your question, and you fabricate one.

Ferox: I'm free to choose my perception of life or even make up my own one.

Spectus: It's certainly true. The problem is that your fabrication has unintended ramifications that you can not conciliate. You want to see purpose, but only good purpose. You want to believe that there is a plan and don't understand why there are apparently bad things in that plan. And when you are stuck with the things you don't understand you just simply abandon the problem to the will of some supreme being. Thy will be done! Thus, at the end of the day you have nothing. You have traded the question of what is your purpose in life for the existence of a supreme being whose will you don't know but you accept! That doesn't solve anything at all.

Ferox: At least it gives me something to hold on. Something to believe in.

Spectus: It's fine. If that makes you feel better, it's fine. But bear in mind at all times that you chose to believe that and that you run into problems when you try to push the limits of your believes, because you just change the focus of asking about your existence to asking about some supreme being who is outside your mental reach.

Ferox: Ok, ok. Fine... So if there is no purpose, what do you believe in?

Spectus: Nothing. I don't think there is purpose for anything. Things just happen. Things occurs without you watching them or taking care of them. I think that I am alive and that I have no particular purpose in life. All that happens follows a very specific order. An order that can be studied, analyzed and expressed in mathematical terms. This is my way of looking for answers. I use my brain with all its capacity to try to understand the world around me.

Ferox: Of course, you are one of those people with an intellectual vanity. But there are things that science doesn't explain.

Spectus: True. But science doesn't make up answers neither tells nice stories to fill in the gap. There are things without explanation, it's true. But science it's not static. It's the continuous endeavor to understand more and more and try to close the gap of the unknown.

Ferox: And what good does it make for you? Why is it better than my belief?

Spectus: I really think that it is more honest. For me it is better to accept my limitations as a human being and realize that there are things that I simply don't know. Whatever explanation I try to find, I make it consistent with what I am and what I know. I don't look for someone to blame when things go wrong or someone to thank when things are favorable. I rather accept that there are millions of things happening that I don't know and don't control. That the good or bad events that occur to me or to other people are as natural as a river flowing, or the sun shining, or my computer playing a movie or a dog barking. They all are events occurring according to the laws of nature. No more and no less.

Ferox: That's too simple, there has to be something more!

Spectus: You have said it all! It is as simple as that. Why do you want to make it complicated?

Ferox: I can't accept living in a world like that.

Spectus: Well, my friend, it is all in your head. Nature doesn't have any conflict. The conflict is all in our heads. It is in our nature to inquire, but it's not in our reach to answer.

Ferox: Gosh...! Why we always end up empty handed?

Spectus: You are not. We have gained a lot.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The falling dominoes

Originally uploaded by enrique

The other day I went to the Ithaca Festival parade in downtown. It was a Friday evening with a bit of rain that could not spoil the event. They were giving free dessert and free drinks. There were lots of people. Some were by themselves, some were with their significant others, some with their full family. Old people, children, high school students, college students, the age spectrum was covered.

As I was there, standing, watching people parading and also those enjoying the parade, a question came to my mind: Why are we all here? And this was like pushing the first piece of domino that started a chain reaction of a long line of dominoes falling inevitably one after the other. The different dominoes looked like this: Why people have to do a parade? What do they expect out of it? Are they trying to show something? Maybe the pride or satisfaction of belonging to some association or group. Why do they need to do that? For other people the acknowledge the existence of their group? And why did the spectators go to see the parade? They were looking for some amusement? Where they looking to see something or someone? to run into a friend or the meet someone new? So many different people with different lives, different ideas and different thoughts but sharing one thing in common: being there seeing the parade. And while being at that we are not only doing that. People were taking care of their dogs, talking with their children, hiding from the rain, looking for a better spot, taking pictures, eating something, drinking something, feeling cold, laughing, cheering the parading, greeting a friend, scolding a kid, kissing, showing off their hair style... and I cold go on and on and on... Then I thought, it's so human... Is this what it is to be human? What would be to be not human? I don't know and probably will never know. After all, we are a just humans.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Panoramic of Tikal

Tikal panoramic
Originally uploaded by enrique

Thanks to puzz for the comment about the autostitch tutorial. I tried it out and the result was truly impressive, it does everything automatic! Best of all is that it also stitches in the vertical direction which Pandora can not do, I believe.

The photo shows the Mayan ruins at Tikal National Park in Guatemala. The panoramic is the result of 17 single shots. I took these photos back in 2005 and gave up trying to compose the panoramic by hand. This time around I finally got what I wanted!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Panoramic of Galati

Galati panoramic
Originally uploaded by enrique

I found a very good tool to make a single panoramic photo out of several single shots. It's called Pandora and it is a plugin for Gimp (a free image editor) and it all works on linux! Pandora aligns the separate shots and tries to blend them smoothly. You still have to tweak a bit to achieve optimal results. The great advantage is that it saves the work of making a set of different layers for each photo and then adding a transparency to it in order to do the blending.

While joining the photos is real easy, there is a subtle effect that needs to be taken care: the vignettation. The vignette is the effect produced by the camera lens consisting in having the center of the image brighter than the borders. This can also be solved in Gimp by fixing each individual shot first. A quick fix is to mix the original picture with a radial gradient of transparency and white, from the center out, and playing with the opacity of the gradient until the vignette is minimized.

The picture above is the result of my first attempt at making a panoramic. This was taken in Galati, Romania. It shows the Danube in the upstream direction (left) and downstream one (right). The shape of the river is distorted due to the wide field of view.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Para relajarse y estudiar

En Guatemala, la expresión "parecés de pueblo" es dicha a una persona cuando se asombra por cosas que se consideran normales dentro de un determinado contexto. Como cuando alguien ve con asombro los altos edificios de una ciudad por primera vez.

Pues bien, con el riesgo de parecer que vengo de un pueblo, les muestro este video

¿Qué tal un lugar así para ir estudiar o leer un libro? Esta fue la escena de la que fui testigo el otro día en el student union (algo así como la asociación de estudiantes) en Cornell University. El tipo tocando el piano, estuvo allí unos diez minutos y luego se fue. Es un deleite estar en un lugar de estos. Las construcciones antiguas parecen castillos medievales. Los edificios no sólo son funcionales sino también elegantes, con muchos detalles arquitectónicos, tanto por dentro como por fuera. Pero bueno, la cosa no es gratis. Cornell es una universidad privada, los estudiantes de pregrado pagan alrededor de $50,000 al año de colegiatura.

¿Cuándo tendremos en Guatemala algo similar? Seguramente cuando paguemos algo similar.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Along with several Guatemalan scientists, we have started a new blog called GuateCiencia. We will talk about science and related topics, hoping that we will be able to bring science closer to our people.

In our society, science is considered a luxury. However, it is through scientific research that developed countries have reached the status they have.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Hofstadter's "I Am a Strange Loop"

I finally finished reading the wonderful book I am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter. It took me longer than usual because this is my kind of thought provoking reading. It was impossible to read continuously without stopping to analyze and delve into my own ideas.

Hofstadter retakes the ideas he put forward in Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which I read a few years ago. He makes several interesting points about the nature of consciousness and the elusive and illusory concept of "I".

At the core is the idea of self-reference. He explains the Godel's incompleteness theorem, which in essence says that withing formal systems, there are true statements whose proof can not be demonstrated by the rules of that formal system. A statement of this sort happens to be one that makes reference to itself on two different levels. I know my musing doesn't make justice (or sense) to the full length dissertation in the book. But the idea, I believe, is to realize that in their simplicity, natural numbers have the representational richness to talk about themselves. It was Godel himself that constructed a way to enumerate arithmetical statements about natural numbers. In short, every statement about natural numbers is a number itself!

The idea of consciousness is addressed from the point of view of the vast richness of our brain to fabricate and handle symbols. Symbols that live in the neuronal substrate of our brain. There are symbols for all concepts, even symbols for symbols. Our brain activity is the firing and reception of millions of electric impulses. At a more high level of description, that neural activity provides the substrate for "pushing" and "pulling" symbols all around. In that jungle of symbols there is also a symbol for the "I" concept. A very powerful and useful concept housed in our brain that is nothing more than an illusion. These structures whose object of observation is the structure itself form a self-referential loop, what the author calls a strange loop.

The book also raises the idea that to some extend, our "I" symbol is also contained or housed in other people's brain. The degree of this happening is closely related to the degree of knowledge, proximity and intimacy we have with other people. Our "I" symbol can live in other people's brain as a low resolution copy of the "I" symbol that is housed in our own brain. The more we know about someone, the more of his/her "I" is copied in our brain. Personally, although I never thought about the idea before, it stroke me as being true from the beginning. He illustrates his point by sharing his personal experience of the lose of his wife and some hypothetical scenarios considered by other authors.

I enjoyed this book from cover to cover. I definitely think that the physics and math background of the author gives him a unique perspective when confronting the problem of explaining consciousness without invoking the idea of dualism or the existence of a special substance inhabiting every person such as a soul.

I consider this book an account of an honest effort to understand one of the problems that has been around ever since we humans became aware of our own existence.

Hofstadter's scientific approach and methods are so appealing to me that I already got another of his books: Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies: Computer Models Of The Fundamental Mechanisms Of Thought.

Let's see where this path leads to.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Of Physics, computers and Linux

As any other occupation, computational physics has its tools. It's commonly said that doing theoretical physics research doesn't require a big budget, you just need a pen a lots of paper sheets! Well, you actually also need access to books, journals and --- in these times --- you do the messy algebra in a computer.

For me, it's been a lot of fun doing computational physics. In a way, it is a subare of theoretical physics. What you do amounts to solve physics problems by implementing numerical algorithms in the computer. The kind of problems that you solve involve very complicated equations for which no general analytic solution is known. These problems range from solving quantum mechanical equations for molecular structures to protein folding simulations to fluid dynamics, global climate, galaxy formation and many, many more.

My particular area of action is numerical relativity. We solve Einstein's general relativity equations to find out the behavior of the immensely strong gravitational fields produced in the collision of stellar objects such as black holes and neutron stars. General relativity predicts that in such collision events, huge amounts of energy are radiated away in the form of gravitational waves. Simulating such scenarios has proved to be an enormous challenge in computational physics.

So what are the tools that computational scientists around the world use in their cutting edge research? The answer is very simple. They use a few applications that come with any standard distribution of Linux. Yes, Linux user, in your laptop or desktop you have the same basic tools as any other computational scientist.

Based on my own experience in the numerical relativity field, I've compiled a list of the applications I use in my everyday research. They come with your favorite Linux distro [1] and if they don't, they available for free on the web. Let's start.

  • Linux terminal A little window where you type all sorts of commands. Some that I find myself typing all the time are:

  • ssh It allows you to connect the a remote computer and work (in a terminal) as if you were physically in front of it.

  • rsync The best way of copying large amounts of data between two computers. It encrypts the data and copies only what is different. Ideal for making periodic backups.

  • cvs, svn, darcs, git These are all versioning systems. If you develop your own code it keeps track of all the changes, making possible to go back to a previous version if you screw it up. It happens!

  • latex. The best way of preparing documents and presentations. You can write equations and tables without touching the mouse. It numerates chapters, sections, subsections, figures, tables, lists and equations automatically. If you have to insert a figure or table it corrects all the numbering sequence and also the references to them. It handles the bibliography in the same way and generates the index automatically too! What else could you possibly ask?

  • gnuplot Excellent for doing curve fitting, 2D and 3D plots. It's command-based and you can also make scripts with it, automatizing the generation of new graphs when you have new data. This substitutes the spread-sheet sort of graphs.

You also need some coding tools:

  • Text editor The most used are emacs and vi. Personally, I stick to emacs.

  • GNU compiler For your C, C++ or fortran code.

  • Parallel computing libraries OpenMP to make your code run in all the cores of your machine. MPI to make your code run in different computers at the same time. This is how high performance computing is done.

  • Perl or shell scripting To handle small repetitive tasks.

I think this covers most of it. Give or take depending on specific problems and specific people :) [2]

I could also include the chat application. It's very useful for asking small questions or some advice. You can always go to the chat logs if you forget a little detail.

Summarizing, any person with the inclination for science or engineering has all the needed tools to transform his/her computer from a fancy typewriter to a full fleshed computational work-station.

Needless to say, this is another nice trait of the Linux operative system.


[1] Some people also use Macs.
[2] Packages like Mathematica and Matlab are also very useful but they are not free.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Feynman's drumming and stories

Almost a year ago some friends showed me a peculiar cd that they got. It was the Safecraker suite: Drumming and storytelling. The cd was a collection of Richard Feynman's stories about how he managed to open the safes while he was at Los Alamos working in the nuclear bomb project. The stories alternate with drumming sessions featuring Feynman playing the bongos. To my surprise, track 3 contains a tune called Interaction by Three Quarks (Guatemala, Bongo Bash). It mimics the rhythm and acoustics of the native folkloric Guatemalan dances. It's really awesome!

Now I found this little video of him playing the bongos. Such a cool guy!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Spectus and Ferox

Spectus: Sometimes I feel nostalgic when I ponder about all those things that I will not be able to live.

Ferox: Life is finite and so is the amount of things you can do in that interval of time.

Spectus: That is not what I mean. I mean that sometimes I think of the many other things I could have done in my life, but I will not do because certain decisions in life will exclude others of being possible.

Ferox: Why do you worry about that? They are things that will never be.

Spectus: But they could be... if I so choose.

Ferox: Ah... and what is the point?

Spectus: The point is that out of many instances of my life, I can just live one. I can't help thinking about how would my life be if my choices and actions were different.

Ferox: I see. Well, I don't know what to say... I don't think it's important to consider such matters. There's nothing you can do about it, they are out of our reach.

Spectus: I know. Yet I wonder, why is it like that?

Ferox: You are going nowhere. This is the way things are. That is how nature works.

Spectus: But still, those questions wander in my mind. They pop up involuntarily, to put it in some way. I don't control that. It's like my brain is wired in such a way that it happens like that. I guess you could say the same about that phenomenon, that that is the way in which nature works.

Ferox: Yes, I would say that.

After a short silence Spectus looks perturbed.

Spectus: But then, Ferox, forgive me to go on with this, I know you are a more practical thinker; but don't you feel that there is something missing here? like we are missing the point?

Ferox: What point?

Spectus: Let me explain. You said that I can only live one life based on my choices and decisions, it does not matter whatsoever that I have thoughts about the many other possibilities. In nature, only one choice is realized. I am part of
nature, those thoughts live in my brain. So, is it not like those thoughts are some sort of realization of the other choices? As if those possibilities that will never be had some level of existence in my brain when I think about them.

Ferox: Hmm, thoughts don't seem to have a life of their own. They don't exist if you don't exist. As opposed to the real world that exists independently of yourself.

Spectus: Is that so?

Ferox: Of course it is! Why? Are you challenging even that?

Spectus: I don't know. It seems to me that when we are so used to something we take it as an incontrovertible fact. What if the reality that we experience is just some particular way of seeing things? It's like staring at a static object always from the same position. We always see the same. But as soon as we change the point of view---literally---other features of the object become visible.

Ferox: Hmm...

Spectus: What I'm saying is that we perceive an external world through our senses. And that, my friend, it's the only possible way for us to know about that external world. The images, sounds, flavors, colors, etc. all the attributes you can think of an object and that are stored in your memory, rely on the complex structure of your nervous system; from the perception, analysis and storage in memory. All human beings possess those capabilities. Now, the questions is, could we experience reality in a different way if our nervous system, for instance, had a different design? Is it even possible to have a different design? and if it's possible, how would that reality be? Would the laws of physics be the same but written in terms of other "observable" quantities?

Ferox: You blow my mind... I have absolutely no idea. Do you think there are answers to such questions?

Spectus: I don't know. Maybe the answers lie ahead, in the future. When we gather more knowledge and more experience.

A small pause...

We have gained an enormous amount of knowledge about how nature works, to the point that physics has managed to reduce all phenomena in nature to a few fundamental interactions. But those interactions and the theories made to account for them, are made based in our own perception of the reality. I think that in the future, the theories of physics will be regarded as the way of explaining nature according to human perception. I've started to think that we can not consider a fundamental law as universal. I would say that it is universal to account for the phenomena that we experience. Thus, we can not consider a physical theory as independent of its creator. The next step in the path of fundamental theories will be a set of knowledge that relates the outer world and how it is conceived in the mind of the observer. In other words, it would be a theory of the external world and the conscious processes of its creation. A theory about the creation of theories! Would this give us a theory of consciousness? I don't know. But I feel that it points in that direction.

Ferox: I admit I don't delve very often into these issues, but I can't deny that they are very interesting. It makes me wonder where does it end, if it ends. Are we going to quest answers forever?

Spectus: I don't know... Let's get back to reality for now.
What's the tally?

Ferox: Oh, we are just starting.

Friday, March 28, 2008

If you like to learn about words...

How often do you think about the origin of the words? Probably people don't dedicate too much time to such a task. However, somebody might be encouraged towards it if they had the right teacher. Say, someone like this:

Want to learn more? You can check her website or her youtube channel. Happy learning!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

You can do it in Linux [1]

Who doesn't have a digital camera these days? If you don't, go and get one! It's so easy, fun, fast and cheap to take pictures of everything and everyone. You go on a trip and take lots of photos. Or get together with your friends and take lots of pictures, and of course you would like to share them with everybody else. So, you post them on flick, picasa, facebook, hi5 or your own website, even send them by email. Awesome!, isn't it? Well, sometimes is not that awesome. What do you do if you have 50 high resolution photos about 4 MB each and you want to uploaded them to the network? Are you going to send a 200 MB email? or wait an eternity to upload them in full quality when people will actually see them in a size 10 times smaller? It looks like a size reduction would be convenient. You launch your favorite image editor, open the photo, click the menus to get to the resizing option, select the new size, and save the photo with a new name. Are you going to repeat the process another 49 times? That's insane! but people have done it. Maybe you are lucky and you got some fancy software or website that do it for you... or maybe not. And what if you have your own web page and you want to display thumbnails of all your pictures, organize them in a table with four columns and link each thumbnail to a larger size version but not as large as the original one? Maybe you are still lucky and you got a package to do that... or maybe not... Thus you imagine yourself doing that boring task one by one during the next few hours, you bitterly face your reality and start the process... If only there was some clever thing to do... Well, there is. Too bad you have Windows in your computer. Had you been using Linux, things would have been different.

Many people know about Linux, but many more don't know about it. Linux is simply other operative system, far superior to Windows. Although people prefer Windows because it works, I changed to Linux long ago because it lets me work [2]. I'm not going to mention the pros and cons of each one because you can find them all over the Internet. What I'm going to say is that the problem of the pictures occurred to me and is easily solved with Linux. What is the solution? Just write a shell script.

In Linux you don't need graphical interfaces to do something. You can do a lot more working with the text-based terminal. The terminal is like the Windows DOS, where you type commands to do stuff. Linux has a huge collection of commands. There are even image manipulation commands, like those provided by ImageMagick. Resizing one image takes a single command. Resizing several images can be done in seconds with a single line script like this:

for i in *jpg; do convert $i -resize 320x240 th-$i; done

And that's it. We are done. We created a series of thumbnails of all the pictures in that directory. With more patience you can write a script that makes the thumbnails, writes the html code to organize them in a table and links them to a bigger size photo. It will take you some time to learn the basics of shell scripting and to make your own script, but it's worth the effort. Next time you have a bunch of photos you will simply run your script and create your gallery in the blink of an eye. If you don't like the thumbnails because they are too big... just change two numbers in your script and generate all of them again!

Additional side effects include: (1) Getting smarter because you put your brain to work. (2) Acquisition of a new skill that you can apply in other situations.

There is no down side in investing some time to learn something useful.

Needless to say, people do well in life without knowing about Linux, shell scripts and a bunch of other things. Nobody can use the knowledge that they don't possess.

[1] To be fair, you can also do it with a Mac.
[2] I'm well aware of the limitations of Linux. I rather deal with them than with the arbitrary nuisance and inefficiency of Windows.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Early Christmas

I wanted to write this post in December, when Christmas songs are streamed one after the other on the radio. Nevertheless, here it is.

It all began when this radio station started to play the songs of the season all day long right after Halloween. Admittedly, I didn't listen the radio for the Christmas music itself but for the John Tesh radio show. An awesome radio program that collects all sorts of tips from magazines and books to improve your everyday life in a variety of aspects. In between the pieces of intelligence for your life (as they call them) you listen some music, which is soft rock from the 80's until now. Personally, I found it very enjoyable, except in November and December; when Christmas music was played all day long.

Among these holiday season tunes, there were some interpreted by Elvis Presley, like Blue Christmas and Here Comes Santa Claus. Those songs always take me back to my childhood years. That period of time when I used to play with our old audio system. I used to enjoy seeing the needle placing itself so smoothly on a vinyl record and wondering what kind of trick was needed to store sound in a plastic surface. It was fun to play a 33 1/3 revolutions per minute record at 45 or even 78 revolutions per minute, and vice versa. Another amusing activity was watching the cassettes being rewinded back and forth. These two devices are still sold in some stores. However, what I never saw again was an 8-track cartridge player! I bet that most of the people born in the 80's have never seen one! We had only one of those cartridges at home, and it was nothing else than a 70's version of 1957 Elvis' Christmas Album. Unlike a normal compact cassette, this was a mysterious gadget. You just plugged it in and it started playing. You couldn't see its internal mechanism and --- of course --- you were able to jump from one track to another. When one track was over the next started automatically, meaning that if you didn't intervene, it kept playing forever! Our family audio player looked similar to this one. I guess it was the most typical design of that time.

Those were the early years, playing with the aparato de sonido as we used to call it, which literally means "sound apparatus", listening to a guy called Elvis. Sometimes I regret that my parents sold the apparatus. It would be a nice collectible item nowadays.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Esto debe terminar


"La cultura es el conjunto de todas las formas de vida y expresiones de una sociedad determinada. Como tal incluye costumbres, prácticas, códigos, normas y reglas de la manera de ser, vestirse, religión, rituales, normas de comportamiento y sistemas de creencias".

En google videos se puede encontrar el siguiente documental:

Tiene como tema la cultura en Guatemala. Asumiendo que todo lo que se muestra en el video es real, el mensaje se transmite de una manera cruda, directa y sin escrúpulos. Es una exposición de la cultura real que tristemente poseen la mayoría de los guatemaltecos. Esa idiosincrasia que no deja que la sociedad avance, la cultura de la mediocridad, conformismo y la falta de respeto. No hablo aquí de todas las personas que fueron entrevistadas, pues es comprensible que no se tenga una respuesta inmediata a la pregunta ¿Qué es la cultura en Guatemala? Hablo mas bien de las escenas que muestran a una sociedad que ha perdido la cordura y la confianza en sí misma.

Por otra parte, es muy interesante el contraste que se muestra entre la vida artística y personal del pintor que protagoniza este documental. La buena opinión que la gente tiene de su obra es opacada por los relatos contados en primera persona. Esto seguramente sería motivo de repudio para muchas personas que consideran que la gente que logra destacar el campo artístico poseen una intachable reputación y hasta son puestos como ejemplo a seguir. Sin embargo el video muestra a un hombre, que como muchos otros, es parte y víctima de la cultura de supervivencia en donde la necesidad se satisface aprovechándose del débil.

Este es un retrato vívido de la realidad cultural de la gente pobre de Guatemala. ¿Somos pobres porque somos ignorantes o somos ignorantes porque somos pobres?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Souvenirs from the Middle Ages

Last November I discovered one of the nicest series of events organized in the US, they are the Renaissance festivals! For someone like me, a confessed fan of the Middle Ages, this is a really awesome event. The festival aims to recreate the costumes and some activities of the epoch. You can witness sword combats, magicians, jugglers, on stage plays, lots of shops with peculiar items like metal armors, chain mail, all sorts of metal weapons, medieval costumes, exotic jewelry and art. They also feature exhibits of torture devices and reenactment of carpenters, blacksmiths and other crafts in those times. A better description is found in wikipedia.

As a souvenir I got a "Wizard's Ale" bottle from the village brewery!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Mensajes e intenciones

Como guatemalteco que vive en el extranjero, trato de mantener contacto con mi país a través de los diarios en internet y los blogs. Uno los blogs que visito regularmente es Por lo general los posts hacen un buen trabajo trayéndome a la mente recuerdos y características únicas de la tierra donde nací.

Hace algún tiempo encontré esta nota. Debo confesar que no compartí la alegría, felicidad o inspiración que muchos de los lectores reportaron en los comentarios. En mi comentario critiqué la música de la canción y dije que la letra era lo único rescatable. Sin embargo me quedó la sensación de que algo no estaba del todo bien. Luego de escuchar la canción varias veces, caí en la cuenta de que la letra de la canción no es de lo más apropiado.

La gente que ve el video, califica positivamente que un grupo de artistas se reúna para cantarle a Guatemala. Pero ése es precisamente el único mensaje y es lo que la mayoría de la gente interpreta. Algunos incluso dicen que es una buena combinación de los versos del himno nacional con la realidad de Guatemala. Yo encuentro esto contradictorio e ilógico. La canción empieza así:

Porque yo los dejo en paz
los tiranos escupen tu faz

porque yo no me involucro
siempre profana el verdugo

por temor a la cordura
caminamos con ciega locura

por temor a no gritar
vuela mas alto el águila real

nuestro padres lucharon un día
y nuestros hijos dejaron de luchar

y forjaron un pueblo sangriento
y un quetzal que ya no puede volar


Porque vivimos con temor
la espada no salva el honor

por temerle al futuro
hay esclavos que lamen el yugo

yo traiciono mi bandera
si tolero invasión extranjera

yo nací en un suelo sagrado
que a vencer o a morir llamara

pues tus hijos valientes y altivos
de mojados se van a trabajar *

nunca esquiva la ruda pelea
con remesas defienden su hogar

El verdadero mensaje es que vivimos en un país donde hay tiranía, profanidad, desequilibro mental, dominación extranjera, gente conformista, un quetzal inválido, gente que vive con miedo y que le teme al futuro. Pero el remate es la afirmación sobre la migración ilegal seguido por el grito: "arriba Guate!". La canción nos pone de frente con todos los males del país y lo que decimos es "arriba Guate!"... ¿? No lo entiendo. Finalmente, el coro de la canción son dos lineas del Popol-Vuh seguidas por el mensaje ambiguo

La eterna primavera
si yo cambio, cambiará

Entiendo que el mensaje que se quiere transmitir es que si cada uno de nosotros cambiamos, Guatemala cambiará. Sin embargo, hay cabida para pensar que la letra establece la intención de cambiar la "eterna primavera"... no lo sé, es ambiguo. Y si así fuera, ¿Cuál eterna primavera?, ¿la que describe el resto de la canción?

Definitivamente estamos muy lejos del país que queremos. El hecho de que los guatemaltecos estamos sedientos de hechos esperanzadores y de una promesa de un futuro mejor se manifiesta en la conversión subconsciente de una canción contradictoria en uno de esos mensajes de esperanza.

En la superficie, el ver a un grupo de gente componiéndole una canción a su país produce admiración. Pero al profundizar un poco y dejar por un lado el conformismo de la frase "la intención es lo que cuenta", se dejan ver deficiencias que disminuyen el mérito del esfuerzo.

Para aquellos que dicen que si uno critica que entonces haga uno algo mejor... Es una forma positiva de pensar, pero lamentablemente, las cosas no funcionan así. Cada quién es libre de opinar. Así como los críticos de cine no saltan repentinamente a rehacer de mejor manera las películas sobre las cuales opinan, no es solución el pretender que cada persona mejore el trabajo de aquellos que están entrenados para hacerlo. De la misma manera, si a todo un país no le parece las decisiones de su presidente, ¿es a caso la solución que cada quién se vuelva presidente para poder hacer algo mejor?

Resumiendo, no estoy en contra de ningún tipo de expresión artística. La idea es positiva, pero me parece que necesita ser pulida un poco más. Mi principal punto de desacuerdo no es con los artistas, sino con las personas que no ven más allá de la superficie de los hechos.

* La parte que dice "pues tus hijos valientes y altivos, de mojados se van a trabajar", hace que me pregunte si la letra la escribió un estudiante de secundaria. "Mojado" es el término coloquial que denota la condición ilegal del inmigrante y no el nombre del trabajo o actividad que desempeñan.

Feb 8, 2008. Tal como lo esperaba, mi comentario fue borrado de youtube. Se ve cómo es que ya estamos empezando a cambiar Guatemala... censurando a todo el que piensa diferente!

Monday, January 21, 2008

La Somalia de América Latina

Así es comparada Guatemala con el resto de paises de Latinoamérica, de acuerdo al diario español El País.

Esta es la situación a la que hemos llegado... que vergüenza!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I am a process, not an object

Life is a process. It is not a quality owed by the living creatures. When something dies, this process is stopped. A consequence of this idea is that we, human beings, and all living entities are just the substrate by which the process of life takes place. Under this point of view there is not difference between the life of a mosquito or a person, they are both alive. But a person is a far more complex organism than a mosquito, hence capable of more complex procedures that characterize life and even more, intelligent life.

You get a similar idea when you consider a more simple case: a piece of music. Say that you listen to a recording of Rossini's "William Tell". And while you listen, ask yourself "where is the music that I'm listening?" and you can say that it is in the cd that is being played or the mp3 file in your computer or in the grooves of a vinyl record. But that is not true. Those are the substrate in which the music is stored. The music is listened and comes to existence when the process of reading the information in the substrate is translated into sound waves in the air or when a orchestra is playing live. Then that piece of music exists for a interval of time, while the process is taking place. It doesn't matter if is a recording or it is a live concert, you will grasp its existence in either way.

Of course life is more complex that listening to music. The bottom line is that life is not something that we have. We are highly complex organisms, made out of the same matter that everything else is made of. The difference between a being alive and being dead is that the processes that happen in the body when we are alive are not happening anymore when we are dead. Those processes are interconnected among them so delicately that an alteration of one of them can have consequences in other. At end of the day were are no more than the harmonious orchestration of thousands of processes, perceived as the feature of being alive and conscious.

I personally don't believe in things like a soul or reincarnation. My life is the collection of all the processes that take place in my body. If the same processes could me mimicked exactly by any other substrate (theoretically speaking), then I would be alive. Like a piece of music that becomes alive every time is it reproduced by any means!

How narrow our views still are... Let's empty our minds of all the little preconceived ideas and prejudices, and we will have room for greater realizations of our existence.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Stop motion test

Did you see Tim Burton's Corpse Bride? Inspired by that, I wanted to know how difficult it could be to make a stop motion animation. And so, I did it. The clip below is a 9 second animation made out of 75 still pictures put together in a sequence. Needless to say, it's very poor quality... though I like the effect of the laptop closing itself!

Conclusion: it is difficult to make soft bodies remain still and it is also a very lengthy process. Taking one picture after another, moving the objects just fractions of a centimeter, easily deprives of the sense of the real speed of the motion. It was nevertheless fun.