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)
Saturday, May 31st, 2014 08:41 pm
I saw this comic recently.

Somewhere in the house is a box containing the plans I drew up around age 12 for pretty much exactly this. (Without the Oculus Rift part, but instead with a complicated multiple controller setup for large-scale team play.) As I recall, my drawings were heavy on the concepts and light on engineering details. :)

My childhood vision began as "Battlestar Galactica fleet vs. Cylon Basestar fleet in the sky", but I gradually expanded it to include at least two additional very distinct teams. I don't think I quite recognized at the time just how far out of reach my ideas were for the technology of the day, but it's awesome to think that someone could conceivably do it for real right now.
steuard: (lake)
Saturday, May 25th, 2013 11:48 pm
I've recently read two science fiction stories that proved to be more closely related than I expected, given that they were recommended by entirely different sources in (as far as I recall) entirely different contexts. Some of that may just be a matter of who I am right now and what I've been thinking about lately (apart from physics teaching and research), but I thought I'd share them. Both are worth reading, though the second has had a firmer grip on the back of my mind in the time since I read it. I may say more about my thoughts on these later, but I'd rather give anyone who's interested the chance to read them first, so for now I'll just give the titles and links:

The Women Men Don't See, by James Tiptree, Jr. Much of the point of this story lies in the choice of narrator. And yes, trust me, it's sci-fi, though it's fair to say that the overt sci-fi isn't itself the point of the story.

Bloodchild, by Octavia E. Butler. This is one that sticks with you, which may be why it won a Hugo and a Nebula. [Edit note: This deserves a trigger warning for pregnancy complications. My apologies to anyone who was caught off guard.]

Edit: Since I've commented on awards for "Bloodchild", it may be worth mentioning that well-known anthology editor Gardner Dozois said of the 1974 Hugos that, "The award in novelette should have gone to a story that wasn't even on the ballot, Tiptree's 'The Women Men Don't See'."
steuard: (lake)
Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013 04:17 pm
It is cold in Alma today. When I walked in this morning, the temperature was right around 0 degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind chill was something like -8F (though the wind chill forecast had been for -17F; maybe we lucked out).

I bundled all up before leaving the house: long underwear, jeans, a warm coat, gloves sealed in at my wrists, a hat, and a ski mask covering the bottom half of my face. So I had no exposed skin: just my glasses peeking out in front. I plunged out into the cold, and started to walk the 3/4 mile or so to work.

It actually wasn't that bad, though the chill did immediately start trying to seep through the chinks in my armor. But as I headed west toward campus, an SUV slowed down next to me. I nodded politely, but kept walking: walking fast enough to generate some warmth was important. The driver rolled the window down and asked, "Do you want a ride to campus?" I said, "No thanks!" as I kept going, and my cheerful tone wasn't really even forced: I do enjoy braving the elements from time to time. But she said, "Are you sure? It's awfully cold." And I looked over and thought, "Oh, it's Sandy, the photography professor who got us our cats! Why the heck am I saying no?" So I said, "Thanks!" and jumped into the passenger seat.

Once I was belted in, I pulled down my mask so I could breathe a little better, and I smiled and went to thank her again. And we looked at each other. "Oh! You're not who I thought you were!" she said. I laughed, because neither was she! So we introduced ourselves, and she still gave me a lift to campus. I would have been fine, but I was grateful anyway. I don't think I would have been quite so careless in Chicago, though.

So that was my weather-related excitement for the day. Walking home should be fun, too, though it's supposed to be much warmer: +8F (though the forecast says it'll feel like -8F).

[In other news, I'm wearing my winter coat at my desk. (Not zipped up, though.) What brilliant architect decided that *metal* window frames were a reasonable choice in Michigan? Or anywhere? Metal is one of the best heat conductors out there: that's why we cook in metal pans!]
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Thursday, August 2nd, 2012 08:21 pm
[Phone rings. I pick it up.]

Me: Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood speaking![*]
Caller: Is this... Dr. Jensen?
Me: Yes! This is Dr. Jensen.
Caller: I'm with the University of Chicago Alumni Relations, and we just wanted to talk for a few minutes and update your contact information. Uh... are you at work, sir?
Me: No, just at home.
Caller: Oh, okay. Is this a good time?


[* Because it's fun, that's why.]
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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)
Sunday, March 20th, 2011 10:26 pm
I went to the store today to get a new box of (generic) Sudafed. As usual, I had to jump through hoops to buy it since pseudoephedrine can be used to make meth. After I showed my driver's license, the pharmacist asked me to sign a statement about not misrepresenting my identity or using it for anything illegal. All standard stuff these days.

Now, one of my "endearing quirks" is that I do my best to at least skim everything before I sign my name to it. To add some humor to something that probably looks awfully pedantic, I often mutter "...agree to sell my immortal soul..." as I read. To my delight, the pharmacist today replied, "Oh, you saw that? I thought we had it in a small enough font that nobody would notice!"

I laughed and signed my name, and she rang up my purchase. "Five seventy-three," she said. And then, "Souls sure have gotten cheap these days."

"Yeah, soul-inflation has really been brutal lately," I said. We smiled, I thanked her, and I headed home.

It's rare for someone to play along, especially that much. Good stuff!
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Friday, January 28th, 2011 09:34 pm
[livejournal.com profile] donaithnen just pointed me to this amazingly awesome kids toy. It's entirely possible that I would have fit inside one when I first became a Dr. Who fan, but more importantly, it may well still exist when our coming little one gets big enough to be interested. (Would I really spend £200 on it? It does seem like considerably more than I'd imagined paying for a single toy, but, wow it would be awesome.)

After a snow, I've always liked "blazing uncharted territory" as my footprints record my explorations. More often, though, I end up looking at other peoples' footprints and contemplating their footwear and where they're going. That's why when I do have the chance to leave the first footprints on the path these days, I sometimes turn around and walk backward for a while (or even hop for a few yards), just in case the next person happens to be paying attention.
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 [livejournal.com 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: (physics)
Wednesday, June 30th, 2010 10:46 pm
While I was digging through boxes of old papers I found a short story that I wrote near the end of high school. It was a weird experience: I'd just learned about a piece of science that sounded cool (Lagrangian mechanics), and I suddenly saw a sci-fi story in it and had to write it down. (Maybe some lucky professional writers have those moments all the time.)

I typed a copy mostly to preserve the story for myself, but I figure it can't hurt to share. I think it holds up pretty well, though it's easy for me to focus on the zillion things I'd change if I rewrote it today. I've resisted that urge.
steuard: (Default)
Monday, June 14th, 2010 08:25 pm
When we moved into our house, Kim and I knew that an early maintenance priority would be replacing the roof of the garage. The damage was easy to see; in this picture from last year, it's especially obvious along the left edge:

Earlier this spring we arranged for someone to do it once the weather was good enough, but we hadn't heard back about their schedule yet.

Flash forward to yesterday (Sunday) afternoon. We were excited that Aaron Lamb was going to stop by for the night on his way to go hiking in northern Michigan, since we hadn't seen him since college. In the middle of the afternoon, we got a call from the roofer: assuming it wasn't going to rain, would Monday morning be good? Eager to get the job done, we said that sounded good.

Aaron showed up as planned, and we had a great time catching up and kept talking well past midnight. We set our alarms for 8am, to make sure we'd be up when the roofers got here. Turns out, I hadn't thought to ask when to expect them in the morning. At 6:30 AM, I woke up to voices behind the house: the roofers were already setting up scaffolding beside the garage. We watched them stripping old shingles and starting to lay new ones over breakfast (mmm, yeast waffles), and Aaron headed out by mid-morning. Somewhere around 1 PM, the noises outside ended and the new roof was done:

So while we didn't get enough sleep, we're thoroughly impressed that we went from "how does tomorrow sound?" to "new roof complete" in less than 24 hours.
steuard: (Default)
Sunday, February 22nd, 2009 01:45 pm
When following a recipe for fried rice that calls for "frozen peas, thawed", it's a good idea to ensure that your peas are in fact entirely thaw: this ensures that they don't still have any little bits of ice trapped inside their skins. Furthermore, although your recipe may not state this explicitly, it's a good idea to pat the thaw peas dry before using them in the recipe.

This has been a public service announcement.

Meanwhile, two fun facts for the day:

1. Have you ever wanted to coat a wide range of surfaces with a uniform thin coat of oil? Just heat the oil and then sprinkle small drops of water into it. The sudden boiling of the water will spray oil in all directions. Handy hint: It's also effective to drop in lots of small damp objects.

2. Peas can act like popcorn! Take some incompletely thawed peas and heat them in oil: after a few seconds, the ice crystals inside will turn to steam, explosively bursting their shells and launching the peas across the room.
steuard: (me)
Saturday, January 10th, 2009 09:02 pm
While I was visiting family in Nebraska this winter, I found a couple of pictures of myself as a kid, both involving music in one way or another. They had a lot of sentimental value, so I took the opportunity to scan copies for myself. Since I happen to think they're kinda cute I thought I'd share them here, but out of consideration for others I'll put them behind cuts. (Is it more or less obnoxious to subject unwilling people to baby pictures of yourself?)

Newspaper clipping of me (age two) 'conducting' a band. )

Me after a choir concert, not pleased to share the spotlight with my sister. )
steuard: (Default)
Sunday, September 23rd, 2007 03:21 pm
I think (I hope?) that I have finally seen the end of a long struggle with United Airlines. For the impatient, the moral of the story is to never, ever try to book airline tickets for more than one person together if one of them is redeeming any sort of credit or voucher.

The story follows... )

So the agent on the phone stated the price of the tickets, adding, "Plus a $15 telephone ticketing fee." I asked what exactly that fee was for, and he said, "Oh, sorry, my mistake; that fee is waived." Kim and I then proceeded to go to the airport to turn in the voucher. Everything went perfectly smoothly until the very end, when I was told "And of course we're adding a $20 airport ticketing fee, since your wife's ticket could have been handled online."

I'm not terribly happy with United just now. But at least this whole credit/voucher headache is finally behind us.
steuard: (me)
Sunday, June 17th, 2007 12:53 pm
Yesterday, Kim and I went to her grandfather's 90th birthday party, which was in fact something of a family reunion filled (as usual) with people squinting at each other thinking, "Do I know her?" Not long after getting there, I was chatting with a sixteen year old cousin when we were interrupted by a middle aged relative. She said a few words to him, and then looked at me and asked, "So, is this one of your friends?"

I've gotten surprisingly much of that recently. A week or two ago, I was carded when buying wine at the grocery store. And when I saw Professor Su at a Harvey Mudd event not long ago he exclaimed that I looked younger than I had when I was in his class. I'm torn as to what to think of it. On the one hand, it's pleasant to know that I haven't lost that youthful glow. But on the other, there's always a part of me that thinks, "Hey now! I've got a doctorate in string theory and I'm a professor of physics. Don't I get a little respect?" I guess I'm a bit more attached to that whole "social status" thing than I like to admit. (I was also bit too pleased when I saw the New York Times survey listing the highest status occupations: 1. Doctor, 2. Lawyer, 3. Physicist/Astronomer. I seem to be a little vain after all.)

One of the most interesting aspects of the experience yesterday, though, is the way in which that older relative broke into our conversation. She broke in right in the middle of a sentence, as if her desire to say hello was obviously more important than anything two sixteen-year-olds might be talking about. I don't recall being particularly aware of that behavior when I was younger, but I'm willing to believe that it's common. And that bugs me. I've always felt that as much as possible, kids should be treated just like any other person. As it was, I felt distinctly like I was being treated as an inferior. (The interrupting relative seemed a bit contrite when I introduced myself, but for me that just underscored how little she had respected our conversation before she knew I was an adult.)

On the other hand, there are situations where a clear difference in age and experience is pretty important. My youthful look leaves me uncertain that my students will automatically take me seriously, for example. I'm still working on how to strike the right balance there.
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Sunday, June 25th, 2006 07:20 pm
I just went with some friends to the King Tut exhibit at Chicago's Field Museum today. It was pretty cool, but unfortunately I can't tell you anything about it: the small print on the back of my ticket says:
the holder is not allowed to transmit or aid in transmitting any information about the Event, including, but not limited to, any account, description, picture, video, audio, reproduction or other information concerning the Event (including pre and post Event activities).
I guess since it forbids sharing information about pre and post event activities, I shouldn't tell you about the Evolving Planet exhibit that we went to first. It was cool. (Oops! Forget I said that.)

But there's clearly something dangerous going on here; I think there may be some sort of mummy's curse associated with the exhibit. Read more... )

(Ok, so maybe this wasn't actually entertaining enough to merit a long blog post. Sure beats thesis writing, though.)
steuard: (Default)
Wednesday, December 8th, 2004 09:05 am
I may have finally figured out a good use for this blog thing: a platform for my habit of sharing random funny or interesting stories. (The best part is that this way, you don't get to complain about them! Well, really, the best part for you is probably that you won't have to listen to me tell them twice.) Not that I plan to post regularly, mind you, but it gives me another outlet for such things.

At any rate, this particular story took place Monday night. I was at a potluck dinner hosted by the ARCS Foundation, a charitable organization that's been giving me a scholarship for the past several years. It was a pleasant evening: the people there were very interested in what I'm doing, and we had good conversations (some of which weren't even about string theory).

I had brought a dish of my own to the dinner even though they insisted I was just a guest: cooking has been a bit of a hobby of mine, and I welcome the chance to show off my specialties. In this case, I'd brought some pork tenderloin cooked according to one of my favorite homemade recipes. The amount turned out to be just about perfect: it lasted through the whole evening, but even as people were getting ready to leave they were stopping by the table to eat the last few pieces.

Naturally, I appreciated the implicit compliment in that, so when I saw one woman in particular taking a third piece, I said, "I'm glad you like it!" She replied, "Oh, yes, it's wonderful! What is it?" I explained, "It's pork tenderloin baked with garlic slivers in it and a bit of balsamic vinegar on top, and the sauce is a sort of molasses barbecue sauce that I came up with myself." At that, she got a rather odd look on her face, something between surprise and embarrassment. Still perfectly friendly, she said, "Oh! It's very good... ...I'm not supposed to eat it. I'm Jewish."

I knew I should have included a little sign that said: "Warning! Not kosher! Pork!" (I really did consider it, though I convinced myself that doing so would just be silly.) She didn't seem too upset (certainly not with me, and not particularly with herself, either), but I still can't shake the unsettling feeling that Yahweh is terribly cross with me. : )