Thursday, January 30

A visit to M.C. Escher Park: The Relativity of Dogs, Cats, and Bunnies

"Wait, you have a 3m leash fitting under a 1.3m bridge? What is this, M.C. Escher Park?"  – Emmy the Dog (Loc 1291)

The point of the example confusing Emmy the dog (and me on the first read-through, if I'm being perfectly honest) is that "When trying to understand the effects of relativity, it's critical to keep track of which observers make which measurements at which times." One of the things I adore about How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog is the choice of examples, often from Emmy's point of view (or Nero the cat's -- but, as Emmy says, "'...cats aren't to be trusted. Particularly not cats named after insane Romans.'") that Orzel uses to explain various aspects of Einstein's principles of Relativity; from defining motion to the initial realization that maybe the universe didn't work quite as expected to the 1905 publication of Einstein's special and general theories of relativity, "Time Slows When you're Chasing Bunnies" (time dilation), "Honey, I shrank the Bunnies" (length contraction, including the paradoxes caused by misapprehension of who is perceiving what when) and on to spacetime and through the search for a Unified Theory of Everything. Orzel takes a conversational tone both with the reader and in his asides with Emmy, and if his teaching style is anything like his writing style I'd love to take one of his classes one day.

There are also charts and graphs (often representing the aforementioned Emmy and Nero, as well as a handful of other canine, feline, and inanimate friends), and Emmy is forever trying to use relativistic physics in her neverending quest to get her teeth on the tasty bunnies and squirrels who are forever out of her reach. Emmy, brilliant as she is, cannot under her own propulsion get up to near-light speeds.

"It'd be way more fun to measure a relativistic bunny than to do boring logical inference from experiments with atomic clocks."  – Emmy
"I'll keep that in mind in case I ever end up with the billions of dollars it would take to build a bunny accelerator."
  – Orzel (Loc 1349)

I picked up both How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog and How to Teach Physics to your Dog after the latter was the subject of a "The Big Idea" post on John Scalzi's Whatever blog. And while I suppose it might seem insulting: Dogs, after all, are not on the same level of comprehension as people for most things. But the conceit amused me far more than "The Idiot's Guide To..." or "...for Dummies", and then the writing style engaged me, and before I quite knew what hit me I was more than halfway through the book and -- though I wouldn't say my understanding is remotely complete -- found myself more than halfway through the book and reluctant to put it down to go to work.

"'It's all freaky and makes my head hurt. All the stuff I thought was fixed and unchanging is all different.'" (Loc 1394)

In his "Big Idea" piece, Orzel sums up what he wants the text to do thusly: "To a dog, the world is an endless source of surprise and wonder. [...] If you can put aside human preconceptions about what ought to happen, and work through the consequences[...], you can better appreciate the power and beauty of the theory." Keeping that in mind, I consider his work a success, and absolutely recommend both How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog and How to Teach Physics to your Dog as primers for anyone interested in physics or relativity – and anyone who understands the underlying concepts. Emmy's humorous stabs at using misunderstood portions of the concepts are the icing on the proverbial cake.

(Side note; links to from this blog will also raise money for ACS, just like the main Cannonball Read blog. Links from Whatever will not.)

Wednesday, January 29

Clans and Cats and Murder, Oh My.

Boris the Deputy Cat gave Crazy that little extra edge of insanity it didn't really need. (pp. 174-175)

To be perfectly honest, I picked Crazy, VA up because it was free at the time. And because not that long ago I was talking to a friend whose comfort go-to is Romance Novels. And I realized mine are mysteries.

Crazy is a small town in Virginia, divided by a river and by family ties that go back generations. Right back to the founding of the town, as the reader learns in the first chapter of the novel. Sheriff Lil Eller straddles the divide not only in her role in the town but as the only child of both Littlepage and Eller clans. Although her parents were disinherited, she as a grandchild was not; she comes into money and promptly turns it back into an animal shelter. She's got no deputy other than the feral cat -- Boris -- who adopts her in one of the early chapters.

And then Lisa Littlepage, her cousin, is murdered.

Obviously, Sheriff Eller's life gets a whole bunch more interesting. The investigation, Boris, the county police Chief dragging his heels over the investigation, the building of the animal shelter, another cousin demanding she take the investigation back and hiring a (human) deputy she desperately needs and doesn't like, Boris, drunks, animal abusers, adults getting stuck in almost frozen natural water slides, a hurricane, Halloween...

Scared people make stupid mistakes, and there'd already been enough of those by the look of things. (p. 197)

And the murder hanging over her head the whole time.

Hill's writing style is bright and easy to read, and she does an excellent job of bringing not only Lil Eller and Boris but also the supporting characters to life. First person can be complicated to bring off satisfactorily, but Lil's resilience, stubbornness, and generally no-nonsense manner carry through consistently (even if she does ascribe perhaps more intelligence and intent to Boris' actions than are strictly plausible. Hey, I'm a pet person, I ascribe intelligence and intent to my guinea pigs and they're not half as smart as your average cat).

There's a quote toward the end of the book that sums up my feelings about the whole thing pretty well: "Business as usual. Funny, how comforting that can be." (p. 219) I didn't pick up Crazy, VA for a challenging read or because I wanted to wear my literary criticism glasses. I picked it up because I wanted a murder mystery to comfort myself with, a little literary bon bon. I'll be picking up the rest of Hill's novels eventually, because crazily enough this book just hit the spot.

(Side note; links to from this blog will also raise money for ACS, just like the main Cannonball Read blog. I'm not sure how that works with the book's built-in 25% going to animal charities, but hey.)

Thursday, January 3

A True Story for the New Year

This really happened; ignore the lack of specific dates.

Many many moons ago, when the Coyote was still a young pup (read: in high school), she was invited to help put petals, leaves, seeds, and whole flowers on a Rose Parade Float. Specifically, the float we worked on had a boy reading and a dragon reading over his shoulder (This, by the by, was long before Harry Potter).

After a little visit with my friend Google, I managed to find a picture: it was Cal Poly Pomona's 1988 entry Imagine That.

Putting together a Rose Parade float is done on December 31 in a warehouse somewhere in Pasadena, CA. At the time I did it, this involved lots of space heaters -- it doesn't often get below freezing in Southern California, but it does get damn cold -- coats, hands covered with glue and, in my case, being athletic enough to be threaded through to stand on the wing hydraulics to put the aforementioned seeds on the dragon's wings.

I was a lot more fearless then than I am now, and cheerfully stood up there and wiped glue on followed by handsful of grayish seeds. Even though my perch meant I could feel every time anyone so much as pressed too hard on the lower parts of the float; I could also listen to the conversation between the engineers who would be operating the hydraulics I was using as a working platform.

And all of this was fine, pleasant, enjoyable even -- until I heard from below me:

"Do you think we should test the hydraulics*?"

The experience became a little nerve-wracking. But worthwhile. Oh, so worthwhile.

After all, how many people can say they rode on the back of a dragon?

* Needless to say, they did not test the hydraulics until I was back on terra firma.

Monday, December 6

This is who I am, but who am I?

So as you all will see by reviewing this blog, I didn't make it all the way through Holidailies last year. I probably won't make it all the way through this year.

As to who I am -- I suppose that depends on who you ask, or when you ask me. Right now, I'm an employee of a research institute with a boss who is...challenging to say the least. I'm fat. I'm -- just as I was last year at this time -- undergoing a series of tests to determine if I've got tumors going throughout my endocrine system, or if there's something else that's causing one of my natural-born steroids to be overproduced (and, therefore, I'm a patient). I'm a daughter, I'm a cousin, I'm a niece. I'm a best friend, a more general friend, an acquaintance, some lunatic on the internet, a total stranger.

I'm an erstwhile student who would love to be formally studying again. I'm an active student learning things every day. I'm wholly atheistic at the same time I'm completely spiritual and fundamentally agnostic.

I'm mentally ill, but this statement and the previous statement have nothing to do with each other. I've got another couple of so-called "invisible" illnesses, but I haven't had them long enough to add them to my self-definition. Also, their fundamental nature may prove to be part of a different health problem, so while I say I have them, they aren't yet a permanent part of my life.

That said, I am not my illness.

I'm a terrible gardener, a passable knitter, a writer, a poet, a severely out-of-practice pianist, the possessor of an inquisitive mind and could be the poster-child for the other face of depression.

I identify as asexual, and I have no pets, though I have previously been owned by rats. There is a neighborhood cat who desperately wants me to be hers, but I don't want a cat.

I'm a terrible housekeeper, an excellent baker, a semi-competent cook.

So that's who I am. Who are you?

Sunday, December 13

Holidailies: Artificial Christmas Trees, Death, and I don't know

First of all, anyone who says that artificial Christmas Trees don't shed their needles has never met the artificial Christmas Tree currently down in my living room.

As I was putting together said tree, I was thinking about my father. Because, you see, we have always had an artificial tree. Always. In fact, we had the same artificial tree for almost thirty-five years. And in some ways, we needed it, too: after a certain point in my family's life, we literally had enough ornaments for three six-foot Christmas trees, and the only reason we could squeeze them all on our little artificial tree was that its branches were pancake-flat. Possibly flatter.

But that wasn't what I was going to talk about.

So we've always had an artificial Christmas tree. For a while, we had an artificial fireplace, too, and since my current abode does not have a fireplace I'm wondering now if I can find one of those somewhere locally. Hm.

But again, I digress.

Because we've always had an artificial tree, putting the tree together doesn't bother me. But the fact that I was the one putting the tree together was bothering me a little, because putting the tree together has always been my father's job. My sister and I would sort the branches by size (a task that got more and more entertaining over the years, as the paint that told us what size a particular branch was slowly wore off until we were manually matching them up to be sure), and we would hand my father the branches in order, smallest to largest, and he would put them in the trunk until we had a tree-like object.

I sounded like my father, tonight, under the tree; breathing just a little heavily, cursing branches that wouldn't go in straight (or at all) as I lay on my back or stomach. And I realized that some day, he isn't going to put the tree together. Someday, my sister or I will be the main hosts for Christmas (they're coming to my place for Christmas this year, but only because my sister wants a white one. We put the tree up at Mom & Dad's, too, even though they won't be home). Some day, my parents will be gone.

And I realized that unless my sister and I have developed some sort of Christmas tradition of our own by then, I probably won't be putting up a tree after that point. Every year I struggle with the fact that I have precious little "holiday spirit" as it is. Oh, I like seeing the lights on other people's houses, and I like seeing their trees in the windows, but it all seems like too much effort to me for a holiday I'm not even sure I want to celebrate.

Seeing the tree in my living room -- undecorated, because I realized I don't have any lights, and while my family will have to make a number of compromises to have Christmas at my house an unlighted tree is not one of them, and I'd also like to get a tree skirt -- doesn't fill me with any sort of spirit. But it did start me thinking about traditions, and how important they are. And how we handle the changing of the guard; traditions have to shift with the needs of the people for whom they are traditional.

As, for example, me trying to start a new tradition of celebrating the New Year with friends, rather than sitting home alone in the dark.

There are other traditions that are being fouled up by my family coming to me for Christmas. We will still decorate cookies together, but we will not be cutting them together on Christmas Eve before we go out and drive around and look at the lights (and yes, unless it's snowing, I am planning to chauffeur my family through the streets and have picked out a couple of houses already I want to be sure to show them) and then come back to the house for hot chocolate and the unwrapping of Christmas Eve pajamas before bed.

And, as far as the tree goes, I'll be stringing the lights, instead of my mother, and I'll be decorating the damn thing alone.

I'm not even sure I've got enough ornaments for a full-sized tree.