steuard: (lake)
Sunday, December 28th, 2014 05:24 pm
During our travel to and from Nebraska this Christmas, I finally read Robin McKinley's latest novel, Shadows. It's an (urban) fantasy story set in a small city in "Newworld", which seems to be a fairly close copy of modern America (to the extent that highschoolers still read books like "Anna Karenina", which of course must have been written somewhere in the Slavic parts of "Oldworld"). The setting is intriguing: two or three generations earlier, the government of Newworld banned everything to do with magic, and required all children with magical ability to have the gene for it medically removed. Now, when dangerous "cohesion breaks" appear (due to intrusions of other worlds), instead of magicians handling the problem the Newworld military rushes in to contain and close them using scientific equipment. That's the setting; the story itself is about a high school senior who can't stand her new stepfather and the unsettling way that the shadows around him seem much more alive and threatening than they have any right to be.

I'm not quite sure what to say about the book. I liked the setting, both the parts that were spelled out in detail and the parts that were just hinted at: it felt similar in some ways to the setting of Sunshine, though with more of an "oppressive government" vibe rather than Sunshine's "post-war recovery" feel. I liked the characters, too: the high school kids seemed realistically done (though I was sad that the lead character was was so down on math), and the adults were a fine supporting cast (as seen through high school eyes). Even the general shape of the story was good.

But overall, I think that the pacing just felt a bit off. That became clear to me when the action was just on the verge of taking off and I realized that I was already 2/3 of the way through the book. In terms of the ebb and flow of the story, this whole book feels a lot like Sunshine might if that book ended just after Rae woke up at home the morning after her escape (the end of "Part 1": its first third). The slow initial pace may have also contributed to a bit too much telegraphing of some "mysteries" that are revealed midway through the story. I can't begrudge the attention that McKinley gives to establishing the characters and their relationships, which she does quite well, but I really wish we had an Act 2 and Act 3 to realize a bit of the potential that's hastily suggested in the final few pages of the novel. (I might feel more content to accept that unfinished business if McKinley ever wrote sequels.)

So what's my take-home review? If you enjoy McKinley's writing, Shadows is worth reading. I'd place it happily in the second tier of her work, below the Damar books and Sunshine but clearly above, say, Chalice. It's fun, but I wish it had been just a little bit more than that.

[spoiler aside] )
steuard: (physics)
Tuesday, November 25th, 2014 07:42 pm
Backstory: In my classes, I put my email address on the syllabus and tell students that I'll write back as soon as I can (sometimes even at crazy hours, if I happen to be up). Kim is even nicer: she even gives her students her home phone number (with strict instructions not to call past bedtime).

Fast forward to last night: Just as we were starting to clean up from dinner, the phone rang. Kim answered, and then said, "So you're having trouble with quantum mechanics? Sure, I'll get him." She handed the phone to me, and in response to my inquiring look she explained, "It's A---."

It turns out that A--- has the dubious fortune of taking classes from both Kim and me this semester, so when her study group got stuck on stuff for my class, she knew how to reach me. After a couple minutes of attempting to help over the phone, one of the folks in their group said, "We've got lots of questions on this stuff: can we just come talk to you in person?"

I paused for a moment as several thoughts flashed through my head: "Are you kidding? We've got to clean up and start moving toward bedtime." "This would be delightfully random." "Studies show high retention rates for students who make strong connections with faculty in their first semester of college." So I responded, "Sure! Here's our address." And a few minutes later, three students showed up at our door.

They stuck around for half and hour or so, maybe a bit more, and it went really well: with some extra hints and nudging from me, I think all three of them really solidified their understanding of the topic.[1] They also looked like they were having fun, and none of them could quite believe that it was real. (After ten or fifteen minutes, one of them randomly exclaimed, "Hey, remember that time in freshman year when we went to a professor's house at night for help on our homework?") It was fun, and I like to think that it had a positive impact, too.

[1]Namely, how to calculate probabilities when measuring the spin of an electron in a specified superposition state. Maybe I should have looked for some visually simpler way to represent superposition states than Dirac's ket notation, but I don't really know of a better alternative.
steuard: (lake)
Wednesday, September 4th, 2013 10:12 pm
I've been sharing links to this all over social media since I heard about it earlier today. "Robot Turtles" is a board game project on Kickstarter by Dan Shapiro (a fellow Mudder). From the looks of it, it's a fun game that's designed to teach kids (3-8 years old, he says) some basic programming concepts along the way (and that gives the kids the chance to be in charge of the adult playing with them: always fun). It sounds like there are multiple layers of complexity, depending on what a given kid is ready to handle.

Have a look! It's rocketed past its funding goal in the day or two that it's been out, and it sounds like the game design and logistics for production are pretty much set.

(While I'm at it, what are some other good board games for the preschool set? Bonus points if they're sneakily educational like this one.)
steuard: (physics)
Monday, September 2nd, 2013 10:02 pm
You've probably heard at some point that tides on Earth are mostly caused by the moon, along with some smaller but still noticeable effects from the sun. In other words, the two objects' tidal forces are comparably strong (rather than being many orders of magnitude different: Uranus doesn't appreciably affect our tides!). You've probably also heard (or seen, during an eclipse) that the moon and the sun appear to be about the same size in the sky, even though the sun is vastly larger (but farther away). Remarkably, it turns out that these two facts are directly related.

Here's the idea. Let's say that the distance from Earth to some distant object is D, the radius of that distant object is R, and its density is p (I won't bother typing the usual "rho"). Ignoring constant numerical factors that would be the same for every (spherical) object, the mass of that distant object is proportional to p R3. The gravitational acceleration due to that distant object is proportional to M/D2 = (p R3)/D2, but if you're experienced in the math of Netwon's gravity it's fairly straightforward to show that tidal forces are instead proportional to M/D3 = (p R3)/D3. (Tidal forces refer to the difference in gravitational force on opposite sides of the earth, and that extra power of 1/D essentially comes from a linear approximation of the changing force that's proportional to REarth/D.) Factoring that a little differently, that means that tidal forces are proportional to p (R/D)3. But using a little trig, R/D is just the tangent of (half of) the angular size of the object in the sky, and for small angles that equals the angular size.

In other words, the tidal force exerted on the Earth by a distant object is proportional to the density times the cube of its angular size. Since the moon and the sun have about the same angular size, it's only the sun's lower density that makes its effects on our tides less significant. And as expected, planets like Uranus have a much less significant effect, since their angular size is tiny by comparison (and their density is in the same ballpark).

Neat, huh?
steuard: (lake)
Saturday, July 27th, 2013 10:36 pm
Wow: the xkcd webcomic had an entry called "Time" a while back that was notable because the image updated every hour(?), gradually telling some sort of story. Some dedicated people have been following it carefully, and it just reached "The End" in the past day or so (3099 frames total!). The story starts out pretty slow, but it builds to a strong conclusion, and it's awesome.

Here's a site where you can let all of the frames play back automatically at high speed (with brief pauses for frames with dialog or noteworthy events). It's worth watching!

Incidentally, there's clearly a lot of backstory that is never fully revealed along the way. Evidently there's a whole community trying to piece some of it together. Just as one thing to watch for, near the end you'll get to see two maps. Pay attention to the second one (and maybe tilt your head a little). Evidently even the details of the stars are important.
steuard: (lake)
Saturday, April 6th, 2013 10:33 am
Every time I start teaching quantum mechanics in intro physics, I wind up feeling a little disappointed. To most students it's just another set of equations to memorize; they don't understand how much of a radical departure it is from everything we knew before. I suppose that's inevitable to some degree, since modern kids are raised on a diet of atoms and electrons and what seemed radical a century ago is familiar today. But I'd still like them to understand that this is something New, and Important.

So I spent entirely too much of the past week writing something akin to a live-action role playing game. In class on Friday (and continuing into at least part of this coming Monday), the students became world class scientists trying to figure out the "newly discovered" photoelectric effect. They're each a supporter of one of two competing theories of how light (classical electromagnetic waves) interacts with a metal surface to eject electrons and cause current to flow. On Friday, I welcomed them to the conference in the role of the physics department chair at the host institution:

[I stole this picture from a student's public Facebook post, by the way: thanks David T!] In their two big groups and then in six smaller lab groups, the students assembled a set of graphs illustrating their competing predictions, and then the leader of each main group presented their results to the conference.

And after that, the experimental data came in ("from the experimental conference down the hall"). Both groups got some things right, but fundamentally, everyone was wrong! So on Monday we reconvene to see if we can puzzle out the true story. I have absolutely no idea how that's going to go. I've tried to seed elements of the real (quantum!) explanation among them, and if anyone is particular clever or eager to get it right they might think to actually read the textbook. (On their own!) We'll find out! If nothing else, it was clear that they had a lot of fun with the activity, and they really were thinking hard about what their predictions should look like. I feel good about it.

In case you're curious, I'm including a glimpse of one character sheet here. I'll stick it behind a cut: The first page of Prof. Parma's character sheet. )
steuard: (Tolkien)
Thursday, December 27th, 2012 02:48 pm
I saw The Hobbit a few days ago, and I enjoyed it. I started to write up some brief comments on the movie to post here, but they got a bit out of hand, so I've posted them on my Tolkien website instead. For those who are interested, have a look at my full review; comments are welcome!
steuard: (Default)
Friday, October 19th, 2012 11:41 am
[Steuard is finally catching up on old stuff he's been meaning to post here.]

A while back, a friend of mine linked to one of the comics below, and I eventually tracked down the whole series. I don't know what I would have thought of them five years ago, but given where my life is today I find them all tremendously sweet. When you have a look, it may help to remember that Francis Bacon was a philosopher, too.

Here are the first, second, third, and fourth entries in the series; I think that's the complete list.
steuard: (Default)
Wednesday, June 20th, 2012 10:01 pm
When our college president sent out his monthly campus update, I was pleasantly surprised to see my picture: he was happy about the very successful public viewing event that another professor and I arranged for the transit of Venus on June 5. (I'm up for tenure this fall, so the recognition is good!) We got an article on the front page of the local paper that morning, and between that and a campus email we wound up sharing the event with something like 150-200 people over the course of the evening.

It was a lot of fun. We gave people three ways to view the transit. They could stand in line to look through our good telescope (with its solar filter). (That's what's pictured above, though this was just my attempt at a hasty, imperfectly-focused shot right before I had to leave. You can barely even make out the cool sunspots in my picture.) They could look at a fairly large image projected on the wall (pictured below), which wasn't as clear but allowed lots of people to look at once. And finally, they could use my Harvey Mudd solar viewing glasses (thanks, HMC!): it was just possible to make out the round black disk of Venus blocking the sun without magnification, but that was one of the coolest parts of the experience for me.

I won't clutter up everyone's friends pages with pictures... )

That last picture shows an impromptu scale model of the inner solar system that I set up on the football field (right next to the telescopes). I put a picture of the Sun on the 25 yard line, with the right scale to match Earth right on the goal line. Venus then wound up on the 7 yard line. If you click to zoom in on this photo, you might just be able to spot the tiny picture of Earth printed there (which is also to scale, along with the Moon and the distance between them). The solar system is big, and it's something of a miracle that these tiny little planets with their differently-tilted orbits ever manage to line up enough for transits at all. In fact, I got rather excited talking about all this to the crowd: a friend took a video of me giving my last "welcome chatter" of the night, after the crowd had thinned out a lot. (The college made its own video of the event, too. But it doesn't look like anyone thought to take pictures of the long line that we had for the first hour or so.)

Finally, the fun of the event and of tracking down pictures of the sun and planets for my scale model got me interested in making a poster of the planets to put up outside our planetarium. I spent a block of time hunting around NASA websites for big chunks of a weekend and a few evenings, and assembled this:

The full-resolution PDF will print 4'x3' with a resolution of at least 120dpi (and considerably more for many objects); I'll eventually be sharing it under a Creative Commons license. I'm pretty proud of it: you can't read them on this little picture, but each planet and moon comes with some interesting fact about the object. (There are very few posters like this based on real images, and too many of those obsess over dull numerical data instead of remarkable things like Mars's seasonal dry ice caps or Triton's probable geysers of liquid nitrogen.)
steuard: (physics)
Sunday, May 20th, 2012 10:54 pm
When we realized that our trip to see family in Los Angeles was going to line up with the (partial) solar eclipse, Kim and I made sure to bring a pair of the solar viewing glasses that Harvey Mudd sent out to alumni a few weeks ago. We were on our way to dinner when it started (after showing off the baby to a bunch of thrilled relatives all afternoon), and Kim's mom and I got to watch it begin from the car. (We politely declined to pass the glasses to Kim in the driver's seat when she asked for a turn.)

When we got to dinner, it was about halfway to maximum, and we all popped outside in turns occasionally to have a look. I was just about done with dinner when it reached maximum coverage (about 85% here), so I went outside to look. It was great, and when some people nearby looked at me curiously I got all excited and showed them, too. That drew more attention, and more and more people were drawn in by all the ooohs and ahhhs. (There were even a bunch of servers and staff from the restaurant.)

All in all, I probably shared the event with two or three dozen people. It was a fantastic science outreach experience, and I think Kim and her mom mostly forgave me for abandoning them in the restaurant with the baby for 15 minutes or so. (My only disappointment was that with the sun so low in the sky, there wasn't a good view of the crescent shadows under the tree leaves: that's one of the most awesome sights during an eclipse.) I hope Alma's public viewing of the transit of Venus in a few weeks goes as well!
steuard: (Default)
Saturday, February 11th, 2012 04:04 pm
My "Physics of Video Games" talk at AlmaCon went beautifully. (The con as a whole seems to be going really well, too. Thank goodness!) Many thanks to those of you who suggested ideas: some of those confirmed the value of thoughts I'd already had and others filled exactly the gaps that I had been worried about finding good examples for. My turnout was surprisingly good. I got nods of familiarity and/or understanding for lots of my "good physics" examples, loads of laughter for some of my "bad physics" examples, and some great questions and discussion when talking about using games to teach the scientific method.

In case you're curious, here's a list of videos that I used (though I often showed only a relevant clip from each). I kinda wish that I'd videotaped it!

Good physics examples:
Angry Birds (as well as some graphs of bird motion).
World of Goo (another physics puzzle game)
Dwarf Fortress (fluid flow & melting points)
Myth: The Fallen Lords (an early example of a really complete physics environment)
Skyrim (lots of cheese) (this got a laugh, but illustrated the quality of modern physics engines)

Bad (or rather, unrealistic) physics examples, that might be either good or bad for game play:
Skyrim bug with a sabertooth tiger (this had them laughing louder and louder for about a minute straight)
Resonance (flash game where jumps have no momentum)
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (decent laugh here; I just had a short little clip on loop)
Grand Theft Auto IV (big laugh, but as I pointed out, in many cases this behavior probably makes the game more fun)
Portal (a fictional element in an otherwise realistic game)
Portal infinite fall (what happened to conservation of energy?)
Mario 3D Land (steering during a jump)
Mario 64 (kicks in midair push you higher)

Video games teaching the scientific method (with excerpts from the full paper)
steuard: (Default)
Wednesday, April 6th, 2011 12:39 pm
Man, I love teaching about electromagnetic waves. Today in intro physics I explained Faraday's law, which says that a changing magnetic field will create an electric field, which may cause current to flow around a loop. I then talked about Maxwell's realization that the opposite should also be true: a changing electric field must create a magnetic field. (It's an algebra-based intro class, so I leave out essentially all the details.) Putting those together, you realize (or at least, Maxwell did) that if the two fields can create each other then they can just travel through space on their own as a wave.

And that's where I found myself starting to literally jump up and down in excitement in class. (Well, only a little.) (Ok, I'll be honest, only a little at first.) Waves were the first topic we covered this semester, so we've come full circle. But then I showed them the speed that Maxwell derived for the waves, written in terms of the force constants for electricity and magnetism (which they've all used and measured in lab). I had students with calculators work out the resulting speed: 3.0 * 10^8 m/s. And wonderfully, in both sections, some student spoke up without any prompting and said, "Isn't that the speed of light?"

That's when I really started jumping up and down and talking rather loud. (Not just a little.) Optics was another big topic earlier this semester, and suddenly we've discovered (following Maxwell) that it's all just electromagnetism! Everything we've done really was all one topic after all! Not only do we know some methods for dealing with light, but we know why light works the way it does. I even had each class come out into the hall, form a line, and act out the part of an electromagnetic wave as they ran past a charged particle (me) and made it oscillate up and down.

It's a good class day, and I always forget how cool the topic is until I'm actually in the process of talking about it.

[And now I wonder: have I posted about this in previous years? 'Cause I totally could have. Ah well... it's cool enough to be worth saying again.]
steuard: (Default)
Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011 11:25 pm
Like about half the country, I had a snow day today (which is apparently something like a once-a-decade event at Alma College). The tradeoff, of course, was that I had to get rid of a foot or more of snow along all my sidewalks and the driveway.

But it turns out, it was a joy! There was no rush, and last fall Kim and I splurged on a two-stage snow thrower, which with a little coaxing was able to handle the snow quite well. (The biggest challenge was hacking away the high walls of compressed snow that the city plows left behind, blocking our driveways and sidewalks from the street. But I was eventually able to grind through those after several passes.) In fact, inspired by a neighbor who often cleared part of our sidewalk for us with his snow thrower last year, I went ahead and cleared the sidewalk all the way down our block. (One tiny way to give back a little to the neighborhood.) I felt wonderfully altruistic... and it was cool to see the deep cut that I created through the drifts.

The other real delight of the day was watching our neighbors' young daughters romp through their yard in the morning. They were absolutely thrilled by the snow (some drifts and piles were as tall as they were!), and it took me back to glorious times like that when I was a kid. It's going to be a lot of fun to share that with my own kid(s) someday. Life is beautiful.
steuard: (Default)
Monday, January 17th, 2011 10:26 pm
[Sorry this one's a bit long, but there was a lot of great stuff on that final day.]

Friday, January 7:
Our final day at sea began with Peter Sagal leading a quiz show featuring the various entertainers. It was listed on the schedule as "Hey Hey... I'm Clever!", but after one of his comments about a pet peeve at Monday's Q&A session it was renamed "Hey Hey... I'm An Asshole!" Much like the Q&A session, this was a great chance to see a bunch of the performers a bit less formally and just cracking jokes with each other: those were some of my favorite parts of the cruise. This also may have been the only time all week that we saw David Rees's deadpan nonchalance break down into laughter. (If folks eventually get video of this online, I'll try to post the appropriate clip.)

After lunch, I ventured to the game room once again and entered the Pirate Fluxx tournament, competing for the chance to win a copy of the not-yet-released game. Sadly, Fluxx is always very random and we didn't have nearly enough time (or speed) to do lots of rounds to even that out... or at least, that's my excuse. :) While waiting for one particularly long round to finish at another table, my table played a game of "Once Upon a Time": it's a fascinating game about collaborative storytelling, but I got the sense that it could easily be prone to rules arguments and misunderstandings between players. I'd like to try it again now that I've got the gist of it. Once I was eventually bumped out of the Fluxx tournament, I played "Apples to Apples" for a while before it was time for the show.

The final evening of the cruise featured an all-request show by JoCo (we'd been turning in request cards all week), though it opened with the cruise director telling us how much he and the staff loved us. My ex-students Liana and Phil wound up sitting next to us, and as we discussed the week during intermission Liana commented that the last thing she'd expected from the trip was to find herself sitting next to her physics professor with both of us singing all the words to "I Feel Fantastic". JoCo sang lots of great songs, many of them more obscure (and many of those with more than a few stumbles along the way), and it was wonderful. There was a Fancy Pants Parade (and competition). We got a fun explanation of the underlying story for "Under the Pines", and generally lots of other great songs (including a cover of "Birdhouse In Your Soul"). Our one disappointment was that JoCo started to lead into my request ("You Ruined Everything", a favorite that Kim and I have been thinking of a lot lately), but held off because he hoped his daughter would come back from getting pizza first, and then he never got back to it. But to counterbalance that, JoCo's own request for the night was a song by John Roderick (with JoCo, Paul, and Storm as backup) called "The Commander Thinks Aloud" that was just amazing. I'll embed it below; Peter Sagal called it "[his] fav[orit]e cruise moment (among many)" (many indeed... but this is the one he tweeted about three times). All in all, this was a great final show for the week.

After that was dinner (a fancy dinner show by the staff); toward the end, one table and then more and more spontaneously got up, faced JoCo's table, and started singing "This was a triumph. I'm making a note here: HUGE SUCCESS." I helped Kim pack and fill out our comment cards, and then I went up to spend a bit of time at the farewell party on the back deck of the ship. I said goodbye to a number of people I'd met during the week, and I chatted with some famous people. I told Wil Wheaton that a friend of mine remembered meeting him when Will appeared at his dorm room to visit his roommate Dean, and Wil filled in a detail: Wil knew Dean because Dean was trying to steal away Wil's girlfriend at the time, a project in which he eventually succeeded. (Who knew?) I also expressed my admiration for Peter Sagal, and found that he did indeed remember [ profile] ukulele from his show ("How could I forget a name like that?" he asked). After some final goodbyes and a brief attempt at stargazing, I headed off to bed.

The next morning was simple: just a final breakfast and then a wait until our turn to disembark. It was a little sad seeing all of our cruise partners scatter away, but hey, we may all get to do this again someday. (Another cruise is almost certainly in the works.)

Video evidence: I haven't seen any significant footage of the quiz show up yet: people seem to be uploading mostly in order. However, it looks like at least one person has uploaded the full request show: here's the first part (which is actually entirely Paul and Storm doing administrative stuff), but it should lead directly into later bits with actual music.

Finally, John Roderick singing "The Commander Thinks Aloud", a tribute to the astronauts who died when the space shuttle Columbia broke up on reentry. I'm tempted to embed the relevant segment of the full concert recording, since it's a bit higher quality and includes John Roderick's introduction to the song, but for now I'll stick with the music:
steuard: (Default)
Sunday, January 16th, 2011 09:01 pm
Thursday, Jan. 6:
This was our day in George Town, the capital of the Cayman Islands. Kim and I took a semi-submersible boat tour (like a glass-bottomed boat, but a bit spiffier) of the coral reefs and shipwrecks in the harbor, which included some nifty facts (did you know that something like 70% of the lovely white sand on Caribbean beaches comes from parrotfish ingesting bits of coral rock and then, um, excreting them?).

While waiting with some other JoCo folks for our shuttle bus to take us back to the port, a woman a bit older than us commented that she liked my "Aperture Laboratories" shirt. We chatted a bit, and at some point I mentioned that we taught at Alma College. That prompted a startled "What?!!!" from a younger girl and guy also waiting with us. Another awesome coincidence: it turns out that they're from Ithica, MI, which is just fifteen minutes from us, and that half of her family had gone to Alma. Further conversation also revealed that her grandmother was from my home town of Lincoln, NE. Small world! Eventually, we all got tired of waiting for our bus and just walked back to the port (it really wasn't far). After lunch, Kim took a nap while I went up to the top deck and read a book in the sea air for a while.

The JoCo show for the night was a really wide range of people and styles. David Rees did a terrible job of spoiling movies as "The SPOILER". Peter Sagal read some neat personal stories. Stephen "Stepto" Toulouse talked about working as the Xbox "banhammer" at Microsoft. Peter Sagal reappeared and did his great "Dr. A's Henchman" sketch. And finally, John Roderick of The Long Winters played a fantastic set of sad but funny/geeky songs. (Check him out!) Sadly, with all that going on, the show went way over time and Roderick had to leave the stage before he finished his set. We had dinner with some very cool people (including Famous Tracy from Monday's Q&A session). After that, Kim headed to bed and I went down to watch some JoKaraoke again before joining her. All in all, another great day.

Video evidence: David Rees as The Spoiler was odd. Peter Sagal did lots of stuff; here's his first segment. Stepto's stuff is online (right after Peter's final remarks), too. EDIT: Here's a recording of Peter Sagal's "I, Henchman". And several of John Roderick's songs are up, starting with "Stupid", then "Scared Straight", "Seven", "Gimme all your lovin'", "Ultimatum", and "Not Moving to Portland" (this one's for you, [ profile] 175560 :-) ). I quite liked Honest, too.
steuard: (Default)
Saturday, January 15th, 2011 09:38 pm
[For some particularly good photos of everything, the official photographer has uploaded a lot of his best.]

Wednesday, Jan. 5:
The ship visited the town of Ocho Rios, Jamaica, but Kim and I mostly sat it out. Few of the things to do sounded worth the money to us, and the one that was most tempting (walking up a pretty series of waterfalls) sounded potentially unwise for her uterus and my knee. We had a relaxing morning, and after lunch we walked out maybe a quarter mile onto the island just to say we'd been there. (And it sounds like we didn't miss much: most people seemed to agree that it was the least interesting port of call.)

The JoCo show for the day started with Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett from RiffTrax doing their MST3K treatment of a couple of short instructional films: Shake Hands with Danger (construction site safety) and Drawing for Beginners: The Rectangle. (They were joined by Peter Sagal, who got some good lines.) After that, Molly Lewis played a good set of songs with her ukulele. After that, Mike Phirman came out and did some music and some standup comedy (much of it simultaneous) that was a lot of fun. He ended right on time at 7:30... and then suddenly the RiffTrax guys came out along with John Hodgman to do one last short (about making crafts with grasses), followed by a big group singalong of a generic national anthem, "Our Nation's Better Than Yours". In other words, we ran way over time, but it was fun.

We had another pleasant dinner with some neat people (new ones again: I liked that), and then Kim and I both went to the game room for a bit. I played a game of "Back to the Future", a substantially simplified variant of Chrononauts based on the movie trilogy (simpler to play, but still fun and probably much easier to learn). It was fun chatting about the design of the game with the founder of Looney Labs, too; she's pretty cool. After that, Kim headed to bed; I stayed up to watch folks play Rock Band for a little bit, but I joined her pretty soon.

Video evidence: Bits and pieces from the show: Molly Lewis singing "Road Trip" (it's the only video of her show that I've found so far; not my very favorite of her songs, but still fun), Mike Phirman's show (with bonus excitement when the camera falls from the balcony, happily failing to hit anyone), or perhaps better, Phirman's standup bits and his music, and My Country's Better Than Yours. (Also, I just added a video of Molly Lewis singing at JoKaraoke to the previous day's video list.)
steuard: (Default)
Saturday, January 15th, 2011 12:01 am
Tuesday, Jan. 4:
I wore my awesome Large Torso Collider T-shirt for this day at sea. That turned out to be handy, because when I headed to breakfast on my own (Kim ate early) I randomly ended up on an elevator with a woman about my age who'd been a code monkey at CERN; we had a fun conversation over breakfast together.

That morning was a big Q&A session with JoCo and practically all the other featured guests. It was a really neat chance to hear them all respond to a range of questions about creative work and pet peeves and a bit about "What's it like to be famous?" One of the last questions was asked by another woman about my age named Tracy, who commented that she found it easier to talk to famous people if she silently told herself, "I'm famous, too." A bit later, one of the panelists commented at some point that, "Of course, I'm not as famous as Tracy; she should really be on stage with us." Without missing a beat, Tracy got up from her seat, walked to the stairs, and got up on stage. Someone handed her a chair on the way up, and "Dammit Liz" (stage manager and organizer supreme) even handed Tracy her own bottle of water like the others when she joined them. It was awesome.

After the Q&A came a big group photo at the front of the ship. (We'd had to file through a narrow hallway to the small-ish door, and after a while it started to feel like watching a clown car as nerd after nerd kept appearing through it.) After that was lunch, and then Kim took a nap while I went to a swing dancing lesson. Turns out it was a somewhat different style of swing than what I'd learned in Social Dance at Mudd, but I was glad of that (since I've recognized for a while that what I knew didn't seem to be universal). That was really a lot of fun, and another good chance to get to know some some people. (Despite much improvement over time I'm still shy about barging up and introducing myself to strangers, so I benefit from events like dance lessons and open seating dinner that make the "approach" step automatic for everyone.)

The evening's show was the first actual JoCo concert, followed by John Hodgman doing various funny stuff. JoCo played a fair number of familiar songs (and some less so), and several of them were together with Paul and Storm or with Molly Lewis with her ukulele. After that, Hodgman came out and presented a bunch of facts about the ship and other topics, some of which might have even been true. He then acted as judge to settle two relationship disputes: one about when it's proper to play seasonal/Christmas music, and one about whether it's acceptable to eat brown gravy (instead of white) with a fried chicken dinner. (That last featured Adrienne and Francis, whom I'd hung out with a couple of times the first night.) After a brief intermission, JoCo played some songs from his new album and a number of more familiar ones. (Near the end, folks backstage announced that they'd found a lost camera in the game room, and when the owner claimed it they told him he had to post all the backstage pictures they'd just taken on Flickr, including a sort of mini-play.)

We wound up sitting with just one other couple at dinner, but we all got along very well (perhaps because the topic strayed to our total of eight cats). Kim headed to bed, and I went down to watch some JoKaraoke (which was being run by JoCo himself: that must have been a bit odd for him). I didn't convince myself to sign up, but it was a tremendously supportive crowd (the weaker singers may well have gotten the most heartfelt applause) and a great atmosphere. The crowd invariably provided backup vocals and harmony parts as needed, too. :) Eventually, though, it was again time for bed.

Video evidence: No video of the Q&A seems to be up yet, but look for it if it's there! One video sequence of JoCo's part of the concert begins with "The Future Soon" (and more) before continuing in three more parts in the linked playlist. The only Hodgman video that I've found so far is a recording of the Gravy Ruling, which was pretty amusing. [Edit:] Also, here's a recording of Molly Lewis singing "Brand New Sucker" at JoKaraoke.
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Thursday, January 13th, 2011 10:56 pm
[Note: I've added links to a few videos at the end of my last post, many of which by some miracle include glimpses of me.]

Monday, Jan. 3:
We woke up early (Kim eats these days on a schedule a hobbit would envy), and I put on my Vinyar Tengwar T-shirt in honor of Tolkien's birthday. The ship had reached "Half Moon Cay", so we took a tender to the island and found a place to settle in a good distance down the beach (as it turned out, Wil Wheaton and his family spent the morning just a stone's throw away). Kim relaxed in the shade of some trees while I went for a swim in the stunningly clear, blue water. I swam along the shore for quite a ways, and despite my lack of glasses I managed to recognize our friends from the hotel and hang out with them in the water for a bit before heading back to Kim. (I found Kim's shady spot on just my second nearly-blind guess. :) ) After I did a bit more of a stroll to the far end of the beach and back, we headed back to the ship for lunch.

In the afternoon, I went to the game room again (I'd decided that was one way to make myself actually socialize a bit). I played a soon-to-be-released game called "Orbit" with its designer (and had a conversation about the Elvish letters on my shirt along the way), and then I moved on to a game of Monty Python Fluxx followed by Munchkin Cthulhu (both of them new variants of games I know well).

Finally, at 4:30 it was time for the very first JoCo group show! When it was time to start, the lights went down and "I'm On A Boat" started playing from the speakers. Moments later, Jonathan Coulton came on stage along with Paul (from Paul and Storm) for "morning announcements" (about schedule changes and upcoming informal events), the crowning of the "Monarch of the Seas" before introducing Wil Wheaton. Wil read three of his narrative stories, with musical accompaniment by Paul and Storm. They were fun and touching and it was all very cool.[1]

After Wil's stories, Paul and Storm played their own set. I hadn't heard them play before, but again, lots of fun. In their patter between songs, they quickly established what became the meme of the cruise: "_____ is my _____ cover band." (One example: after Storm explained his expanded facial hair by saying, "Yes, my beard is in double overtime", Paul jumped in with, "Double-overtime beard is my ZZ Top cover band.")

After the show we changed for dinner. It was open seating, so we joined an eight-person table and had a good conversation with a wide range of other geeky types. There was a mysterious, never-explained delay of half an hour or so between the time we finished soups and salads and the time they finally brought our entrees; we got the impression that there was some sort of problem in the kitchen. But it was all tasty once it got there. After that, we went back to the room to rest a bit (sadly, we skipped the Mustache Formal event, which sounds like it was a lot of fun). Finally, at 11pm we went to the "Drama Club" event where Peter Sagal and Bill Corbett each presented a play.

Video evidence: Videos are only gradually showing up, but here's [updated!] a somewhat complete set from the first night's show in a handy playlist. And here's the beginning of Bill Corbett's play "My Monster"; I won't link to all the separate parts, in part because this camera was apparently out of focus. [Or follow the original links I gave for the main show: Welcome and announcements, Monarch crowning, Wil Wheaton intro, "The Trade (I)", "The Trade (II)", [missing video about Rocky Horror], "The Excellence Incident" (a good, brief example), Paul and Storm: "Opening Band", "Cruel, Cruel Moon", "Nugget Man" (with JoCo), "Nun Fight", "Ten-fingered Johnny", The Frogger Musical, various tribute songs, and finally "The Captain's Wife's Lament" (with Wil Wheton and zillions of "X is my Y cover band" jokes) (two more parts will be uploaded shortly).]
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Wednesday, January 12th, 2011 09:55 pm
When I first mentioned that Kim and I were going on Jonathan Coulton's Caribbean cruise, [ profile] ukelele said "Blog or die, of course." We didn't have internet on the cruise (we were members of the Wifi Temperance Brigade), and work's been insane since we got back. But I think I've caught my breath enough to start posting brief summaries on a 10-day delay. Alas, I'd planned to take lots of pictures, but our digital camera failed the first morning and only worked sporadically later on. (I'm pretty sure these ~3000 Flickr photos are publicly viewable, though.) Despite that, it was a fantastic trip in almost every way. So on to Day 1!

Sunday, Jan. 2:
Kim and I got to Fort Lauderdale, Florida Saturday night. Sunday morning, we recognized some fellow "Sea Monkeys" while checking out of the hotel (easy enough: he had an Aperture Science T-shirt and she was wearing a USB necklace). We took the shuttle to the Holland America port together. We boarded the ms Eurodam and settled into our cabin (with its ocean view... through a lifeboat). At lunch, we played "spot the nerds": our ~380 nerds were hidden among thousands of senior citizens and vacationing families, but some of them surprised us. We registered and got our name badges and bags of goodies while admiring the geeky shirts of the people around us.

There was a Sail Away party on the back deck of the ship, where we saw JoCo and Wil Wheaton and other famous people mingling with the crowd. Once we were underway, we headed up to the opening reception for our group. After a few minutes came the first (and most surprising) Moment of Awesome: from across the room, I heard someone exclaim, "It's our Physics professor!" and suddenly two of my advanced E&M students from Claremont were running up to give me a hug (Liana and Phil, both from Pitzer). We chatted and caught up for a while, and then Kim went to change for dinner. I socialized with various people for a few more minutes and then did the same.

Our 8:00 dinner was perfectly pleasant (we shared a table with a couple more or less our age), and after it ended (around 9:30!) Kim went to bed and I went down to the tabletop gaming room for a bit. I jumped into a game of Telestrations: I'd never heard of it before, but it was a delightful cross between Pictionary and telephone. (This example captures the dynamic as the sketchbooks are passed from player to player quite well.) After that, it was time for a late night movie, which wound up being the RiffTrax version of The Happening (these are the guys who did MST3K, and two of them were on the ship). A terrible, terrible movie... so naturally they made it pretty funny. And at last, somewhere past 1am, I finally went to bed.

(Edited to add:) Video evidence: There are a few videos from the opening reception now online, including the opening comments by Paul (not Storm) and by JoCo. (Some funny bits, but mostly just setting the stage.) A video taken a few minutes later is just a crowd shot, but Kim and I can be seen standing at the bar about 5 seconds in (I'm in a grey shirt and she's wearing green that's dark and shadowed in back). More interesting(?) is a video of David Rees sharpening a pencil (no, really, and he takes it seriously: it's 8 minutes long). I'm actually right behind him in a grey T-shirt for a good bit of the video: I first show up at 2:42, and there's a glimpse of my face around 5:20. (Kim had already left by then.) Finally, here is some video of the game room, and those are my legs (in khaki slacks) and torso (in a green shirt) visible at the 15 second mark at the back left corner of the table playing Telestrations (right behind a girl named Adrienne drawing a fantastic voodoo doll).
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Tuesday, December 28th, 2010 12:29 pm
Kim and I just got back from a very pleasant trip to see my family in Nebraska over Christmas, which means that it's time for me to buckle down and work hard for a few days. I've got my mid-tenure review portfolio due on the first day of class: the results at this point are purely for my information, but doing a good job so I can get the best possible feedback is tremendously important. (I should probably prepare for my new classes and submit this research paper, too.) It's fairly stressful.

I'm confident that I can do a good job on it: the stress factor comes mostly from time pressure. As I think I've mentioned before, Kim and I leave next weekend to go on a cruise with Jonathan Coulton and a bunch of other cool geeky people. That's awesome (and we promise to tell you all about it, except that we've opted not to pay exorbitant rates for internet on the boat so you won't hear a peep out of us until it's over), but it does mean that the odds of me getting much work done after this week are low. (I could finish a few things up on the boat, but I'm pretty sure that would detract from the quality of both the cruise and the work.) But I'm really looking forward to the trip despite the stress.

Finally, in the "wanna-do" category, I've been trying to figure out how to get a bit more physical activity in my life. While in Nebraska, I visited my old Karate instructor Tim Snyder. (If it means anything to you, our style, Koburyu, is part of the Uechi Ryu family.) It was great to catch up with him, and as I watched a bit of a class I kept finding myself twitching with the urge to join in. My years practicing karate were one of the few times that I've managed to get real exercise on a regular basis, and it was also one of the first activities that convinced me that I could have real success in the physical side of my life, too. Frustratingly, my knee issues mean that a lot of the activities there would be a Bad Idea™ for the foreseeable future. So I'd like to find some injured-knee-friendly activity that can capture my interest as much as karate did. (My teacher pointed out that he has knee problems himself, and that there may be ways of modifying our kata and other exercises to work around such issues. I may look into that.)

Ok. With all that babble out of my system, maybe I can buckle down to work now. Right after lunch. :)