31 July 2009

Compromising situations

I was reading a website for my grad school class on the use of technology in the classroom when I came across this excerpt, discussing the legality of fanfiction:

"Fan fiction authors can be seen as talking back to the dominant culture. They often show loyalty to a particular program such as Star Trek, but they also diverge from the television studio's plot. They sometimes celebrate minor characters who were not given prominent attention on the shows. For example, Lt. Uhura, the African-American woman who received little attention on the original Star Trek, is lavished with fan attention. For example, a subgenre of fan fiction called "slash" describes homosexual relationships between characters. Some copyright holders may not want their characters portrayed in compromising situations."

Homosexual relationships are...compromising? I can see how slash fiction isn't the most ideal use of original characters, but...compromising? Maybe I'm just reading it wrong. But it's a dangerous statement, I think.

18 June 2008

happy summer reading

I've been doing a lot of vegging lately, trying to savor the last days of unemployment and lack of responsibility. There's nothing better than re-reading old fantasy books I used to love as a kid, and lately I've been making several embarrassing forays into the "YA" (young adult, i.e. I have to crouch down to be level with the bookshelves full of colorful covered, Newbery-medal-winning, thin spined books) section of the public library. A list of the books I've read so far, most of them in one sitting:

The Hero and the Crown - Robin McKinley (all of her books are about sword-wielding heroines, which I pretty much worshipped as a kid)
The Blue Sword - Robin McKinley
Spindle's End - Robin McKinley
The Tombs of Atuan - Ursula K. Le Guin (I just discovered her sci-fi, and it's good--less violence, more solemn tales)
Tales From Earthsea - Ursula K. Le Guin
The Other Wind - Ursula K. Le Guin

And some serious reading too:

The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen (wry and depressing)
The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell
Blink - Malcolm Gladwell (a reference to some awesome psychological studies)
Who Will Teach For America? - Michael Shapiro

If you, like me, enjoy retracing your favorite childhood stories every time you come home, you might also try watching all of Hayao Miyazaki's films. Or anything that Studio Ghibli produces. They make you feel like a starry eyed kid again, a feeling I'm trying to recapture before I head off into the work world prematurely.

02 June 2008

Science is a way of life

A great Op-Ed column from the NYTimes yesterday summed up exactly why I love learning and teaching science. Below are a few excerpts, but the whole article is really worth reading.

"Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.

...

But science is so much more than its technical details. And with careful attention to presentation, cutting-edge insights and discoveries can be clearly and faithfully communicated to students independent of those details; in fact, those insights and discoveries are precisely the ones that can drive a young student to want to learn the details. We rob science education of life when we focus solely on results and seek to train students to solve problems and recite facts without a commensurate emphasis on transporting them out beyond the stars."

28 May 2008

I miss school already

The worst part about graduating is leaving a beautiful campus and its people behind. The second worst thing is losing journal access. The other day I was doing a random Google search, and a JSTOR paper came up. I clicked. I couldn't read it. And it made me sad.

Don't ask me why I was searching for journal articles when I've been out of school for two weeks. Sometimes you just want to read journals.

04 May 2008

Today I fell 14,000 feet

Against all rational thought, I went skydiving today. And it was surreal. Strangely enough, I wasn't as afraid as I thought I would be, probably because I was dissociating myself from the fear I knew I would experience if I let myself fully realize what I was doing. I expected my heart to be beating out of my chest, but instead I was relatively calm as I stepped out of the plane with my instructor strapped in tandem behind me. I'm vaguely aware that I did a back flip out of the plane, and from there it felt like I was floating. Painfully floating, because my ears were popping with the pressure difference, and my face was being torn by the air rushing by at 120 mph. It doesn't feel at all like the swooping sensation you get when you fall with a roller coaster--instead, the air resistance makes it feel as if you're hovering in place.

It all went by far too quickly. They say we free-fell for 60 seconds, but it felt like half that much time had passed when my instructor pulled the rip cord. Although I didn't quite see the curvature of the Earth that I've heard other skydivers have seen, I saw a faint line on the horizon indicating the temperature inversion. Gliding down in the parachute was peaceful but a bit awkward, and the landing was smooth.
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The entire experience surprised me in so many ways. Why wasn't my genetically wired sense of survival preventing me from taking the plunge when my toes were on the edge of the plane door? Why is my sense of mortality so nonexistent? I did some reading on why I thrill seek, and came up with this, from Psychology Today:

"...Research has also revealed the darker side of risk taking. High-risk takers are easily bored and may suffer low job satisfaction. Their craving for stimulation can make them more likely to abuse drugs, gamble, commit crimes, and be promiscuous....

Indeed, this peculiar form of dissatisfaction could help explain the explosion of high-risk sports in America and other postindustrial Western nations. In unstable cultures, such as those at war or suffering poverty, people rarely seek out additional thrills. But in a rich and safety-obsessed country like America, land of guardrails, seat belts, and personal-injury lawsuits, everyday life may have become too safe, predictable, and boring for those programmed for risk-taking."

And a more psychological theory:

"Larsen calls high-sensation seekers "reducers": Their brains automatically dampen the level of incoming stimuli, leaving them with a kind of excitement deficit. (Low-sensation seekers, by contrast, tend to "augment" stimuli, and thus desire less excitement.) Why are some brains wired for excitement? Since 1974, researchers have known that the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO) plays a central role in regulating arousal, inhibition, and pleasure. They also found that low levels of MAO correlate with high levels of certain behaviors, including criminality, social activity, and drug abuse. When Zuckerman began testing HSS individuals, they, too, showed unusually low MAO levels.

The enzyme's precise role isn't deal It regulates levels of at least three important neurotransmitters: norepinephrine, which arouses the brain in response to stimuli; dopamine, which is involved with the sensation of pleasure in response to arousal; and serotonin, which acts as a brake on norepinephrine and inhibits arousal.... Such individuals may turn to drugs, like cocaine, which mimic dopamine's pleasure reaction."

29 April 2008

Why I'm a Lostie

All the recent controversy about whether or not progress on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN should be continued has found its way into my favorite television show, Lost. In case you aren't familiar with the story, there is some concern that experiments with the collider might produce the conditions for a black hole. On Earth. Though if we really had the power to create a black hole, then I wouldn't exactly mind being sucked up into it just to find out if I still exist on the other side--it's not like we'd know what hit us, anyway, since it would be painless.

I've always been a fan of shows that aren't just spoon fed to you, but leave room for a whole mythology and cater to those with an obsession for detail. I guess that is a roundabout way of saying that I'm a science fiction nerd. Anyway, the best part about Lost is that it has all of the conspiracy theory, but its writers try to ground it in real science. In a recent interview between the writers behind Lost and the magazine Popular Mechanics:

But the creators did let slip that the rest of this season will revolve around some very real—and very big—physics: the Large Hadron Collider, the much delayed European particle accelerator that could reveal information about the Higgs boson and dark energy. Some physicists believe the LHC will produce mini black holes, which might actually be able to open a one-way portal to another universe—a gateway that can only be kept open by a force of energy as strong as Jupiter ... or an electromagnet inside a desert island.

Michio Kaku, author of Physics of the Impossible, thinks the Lost creators are using cutting-edge science to lay the groundwork for a transversible wormhole to another point in space and time—a trip foreshadowed in an off-season video about the so-called Orchid station, which Lindelhof and Cuse promised would be a key to the next few episodes. "They're amping up the energy to the point where space and time begin to tear, and the fabric begins to rip," Kaku tells PM. "When the fabric of space and time begin to rip, things that we consider impossible become possible again."
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Now I'm even more excited to see how the writers handle the rest of the season. I think everyone has a fetish with physics-they-don't-understand. It's so unfathomable, but such a fascinating idea that we could be capable of creating the conditions for a microscopic black hole. It's one of the (very few) reasons why I almost enjoyed learning quantum mechanics. Oh and just in case you are suddenly worried about the Collider, here's some reassuring news:

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Microscopic black holes will not eat you...

Massive black holes are created in the Universe by the collapse of massive stars, which contain enormous amounts of gravitational energy that pulls in surrounding matter. The gravitational pull of a black hole is related to the amount of matter or energy it contains – the less there is, the weaker the pull. Some physicists suggest that microscopic black holes could be produced in the collisions at the LHC. However, these would only be created with the energies of the colliding particles (equivalent to the energies of mosquitoes), so no microscopic black holes produced inside the LHC could generate a strong enough gravitational force to pull in surrounding matter.

17 April 2008

Also

Also, I just finished the last exam of my college career. Well, two of them to be exact. It reminds me (reference credit goes to my friend) of the T. S. Eliot poem:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.