Thursday, September 27, 2012

Summer recap continued: Bridges 2012

Way back in July, my pottery-, parenthood-, and standing-in-line-friend Dr. J (Duke PhD in Mathematics, 2009) and I traveled to Towson University to attend the Bridges Conference. According to the Bridges website, the conference is the largest mathematics and art interdisciplinary conference in the world, so you can see why J was the perfect travel companion.

I had some ceramic pieces in both the conference exhibit and an associated month-long exhibit in the Towson University art gallery. I knew I was in clay-geek heaven when, as I unpacked my nested spheroids for display, a mathematartist came over for a peek and, hearing the pieces were handmade, said, "you mean you didn't make those with a 3D printer? What did you say those are made of??" Yep, I make my nested spheroids the old fashioned way: by hand, from clay, on a potter's wheel, just as generations of my ancestors would have done before me, had they had the opportunity, the years of training, and the sense that it was actually necessary.

"You mean you didn't make those with a 3D printer?"--Renowned Mathematartist at Bridges 2012

J and I attended numerous talks, browsed assorted displays of math-related art, books, and toys, perused the art exhibits, explored small downtown Towson, conversed with enthusiastic math-art folk, went on an "Excursion Day" tour of Baltimore, and overall had a swell time.

There's a nice video summary of the art exhibits here: . (If you want proof that J and I were really there, pay attention at 1:09.)

With multiple concurrent sessions, it was impossible to get to all of the talks. Of the ones I attended, those that stood out enhanced my understanding of both math and art. These included a sort of six-degrees-of-separation networks talk by Brian Evans; a talk by Greg Frederickson on polygon dissections, with beautiful animated videos illustrating not only that any polygon, properly dissected, can be reassembled into another polygon of equal area (think of Tanagrams), but also highlighting the different ways to transform the pieces (reflections, rotations, etc.); a delightful lecture-demonstration by mathematician and former professional clown Mike Naylor on using math to predict, describe, and invent juggling patterns; and an amusingly touchy-feely group workshop, led by Luke Wolcott, on imagining negative-dimensional space (-1D, -2D, etc.) that had us dancing in circles by the end.

One of my conference highlights was meeting the inventor of Space Chips, Dick Esterle. He had a large-scale collaborative Space-Chips vision that he wanted to realize at the conference, so he brought a few thousand bright orange 5-slit chips with him to make it happen. (There were, in fact, multiple artists with large-scale visions for collaborative art in assorted different media. It would not be inaccurate--litotes!--to say there was a competitive undercurrent between folks who wanted their visions realized. Largest, tallest, mostest, firstest, pointiest, originalest, elaboratest-Greek-prefix-before-"hedron," etc.) The Space Chips project started a few days into the conference; J and I wandered into the construction extravaganza around 4pm, when we couldn't handle attending yet another talk. Little did we know we'd get sucked in for eight straight hours. We tried to escape for dinner, but our ringleader looked so disappointed, we ended up turning back and suggesting we order out for pizza instead. A major downpour deterred our second attempt to escape at 11pm, so we stuck it out until the last component was put in place, and the vision--a giant orange Space Chips megalohedron--was realized. It turns out that this was a vision that kept on giving: if you spend 8 hours assembling 3,200 bright orange Space Chips into a giant ball, what you dream about all night long is bright orange space chips.

Below are two other projects that required group efforts to realize. J and I learned how to fold and assemble the playing-cards mock-up in the foreground of the photo below, but bailed before visionary George Hart moved the party on to the larger cardboard creation.

Late Thursday night, while we were inside working on the orange megalohedron, another group was tempting fate outside by building this tall pointy thing in a brewing thunderstorm. Sorry, I remember the names of neither the visionary nor the components.

No conference talks were scheduled on Friday because it was Excursion Day. J and I and 148 or so other conference attendees headed to Baltimore. The first stop was the Walters Museum of Art, where we were treated to a fascinating lecture by Will Noel on the Archimedes Palimpsest. In the 13th century, a monk harvested the parchment out of Archimedes' Codex C (presumed to have been copied from original scrolls in the 10th c.) and a bunch of other outdated books to create a new prayer book; the pages of the codex were cut up and refolded, mixed up with pieces of parchment from other books, the original texts wiped off, and new text written on the primed pages. Noel and the Walters Museum led a 12-year multinational project that, using assorted imaging techniques, deciphered the original texts. You can find assorted videos on YouTube on the palimpsest-decoding project, including Noel's TED talk. After the talk, we had some time to peruse the museum.

We saw Gilbert Stuart's iconic 1825 rendering of George Washington, plus lots of other stuff I didn't take photos of.

Our next stop was the Baltimore Museum of Art. J and I were feeling a little art-museumed out, so we skipped out of the guided tours and had lunch a few blocks away. To get back, we had to cross over to the far side.

The Baltimore Museum of Art is a good place for thinkers.

From there, it was on to Fort McHenry. During the War of 1812, on September 13, 1814 (1812 was a long year), the British fleet bombarded the fort. An American lawyer was on one of the British ships, negotiating a prisoner exchange when the Battle of Baltimore started; when he saw, through the dawn's early light, that a star-spangled banner yet waved o'er the fort (are you getting patriotic goosebumps yet? The Visitors Center video was very good at inducing patriotic goosebumps), he penned a four-stanza poem entitled "Defense of Fort McHenry." His brother-in-law set the words to a popular tune ("The Anacreontic Song") that is so hard to sing, we can be grateful our national anthem only uses the first verse of Frances Scott Key's poem. (Personally, I think we'd be better off both in music and sentiment with "America the Beautiful," but oh well.) Incidentally, Key spent much of his later legal career prosecuting anti-slavery activists for supposed rabble rousing, which puts an interesting spin on the line "the land of the free."

J and I ditched the group tour at the Visitors Center and went off to explore the fort on our own. There, I learned that when the flag was raised daily over Fort McHenry, it was often to the tune Yankee Doodle. Of course I immediately set to learning to finger the tune on the handy chicklet ocarina I was wearing around my neck. During the rest of the conference, this new-found facility served to entertain primarily me, but also the occasional inquiring mathematician.

After visiting Fort McHenry, everyone piled wearily back into the buses, and we headed to Baltimore's Inner Harbor, where we were sent off to entertain ourselves until the evening. As it was a hot, hot day, J took a carefree barefoot gallivant through a fountain (too swift to completely capture on camera).

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the invitingly cool, soothing National Aquarium. No pix, as the lights were dim and the fish were fast.

The conference continued until Sunday evening, but alas, work beckoned, so J and I left on Saturday afternoon. Consequently--can you believe this?--my chicklet and I missed the Bridges 2012 Informal Music Night! Dang! I'll have to plan better next time. And there will be a next time, if not in one year, then in 2, or 3, or 5, or 8, or 13, or...

Update 9/28: J reminded me via a comment about Henry Segerman's talk on 3D-printed representations of regular 4D polytopes, the analogues of the 3-dimensional regular polyhedra; which reminded me that I also failed to mention Carlo Sequin's talk on Klein Knottles; which sent me perusing the gallery again, reminding me of Bjarne Jespersen's amazing wood knots (he's written a book showing how he makes them) as well as David Chappell's mesmerizing prints (which showed, in a gallery full of vibrant colors and multi-dimensional representations, how immensely satisfying grey 2D can be).

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Journey to the FLOTUS

This past Monday morning, I stood in a very long line for a very long time with my friends M and J, with whom I have a history of hanging out in long lines. Two hours and fifteen minutes later, we each held the coveted prize--a golden ticket (well, blue, actually, but there was a Willy Wonka golden aura about it) to see the FLOTUS, Michelle Obama, speak at the McLendon McDougald Gymnasium at NC Central U on Wednesday.

In the dozen years I've lived in Durham, I haven't spent much time around NCCU, and I've always gotten there by car. On Wednesday morning, I learned the NCCU gym is a mere 2.5 miles from my house, so I decided to walk there, both to avoid parking and to see the sights more purposefully than I could by car.

As I walked south on Mangum St., I thought about all the photo ops I was missing because I was too lazy to pull out my camera. Had I had my camera at the ready, I could have photographed the license plate of the idiot in the big white truck who almost mowed me down in a downtown crosswalk because he was too busy using his cell phone to actually look at the road. I hope that you, dear reader(s), are not reading this blog post on an iPhone while driving, because that would be really irresponsible of you.

As I headed south out of downtown, pondering the impressive number of times I have survived near misses and wondering what the likelihood is that I'll eventually be done in by a cell-phone addicted driver, I was finally inspired to take my first picture. I had never seen the medallion for the Seaboard Air Line Railway before, since it hangs on the north side of a bridge on a one-way street running northward, and I had never been through the underpass heading south on foot.

Further on, having dodged on-ramp and off-ramp freeway traffic, I turned onto Lakewood Ave. and paused to appreciate the large mural that honors the historic Hayti district and the history of Black Wall Street.

After short jaunt down Fayetteville St., I arrived at the end of a very long line at NCCU at 10:45am; the gymnasium doors were to open at 11:30. Friends N, J, and M eventually joined me in line. Here they are at 12:03pm, still another hour and 36 minutes from the door:

While we waited, my friends modelled the proper way to use e-devices. (Note they are neither driving nor mowing down pedestrians in right-of-ways.)

I have several more photos of people standing in line, but none of them effectively capture the length of the line nor the length of the wait. We finally made it to the gymnasium doors at 1:39pm, whereupon we went through security. We had been warned en route multiple times by multiple volunteers, starting about an hour out, to HAVE ALL ELECTRONIC DEVICES ON! (The volunteers had to shout because they were communicating with a mile-long, noisily convivial line.) Thus, as we entered the gym, I had my cell phone and camera ON and OUT of my tote bag (HAVE YOUR BAGS OPEN!). The security guy hurriedly told me to put all of my metal on the table, so I laid the phone and camera before him, as they both contained metal and they were both ON. Did I mention that they were ON? I'm good at following rules. I wanted the security guy to acknowledge their ONness, but he didn't really care, and my friends suggested I should control myself or I might get us in trouble. Anyway, just so you know, they were ON. Finally, we headed into the arena.

This picture shows N and J watching one of the many FLOTUS pre-speakers speak.

Congressman David Price was one of the pre-speakers. He said some inspirational things about voting, education, and the POTUS, etc. etc., but, well, N had to be someplace else by 3:10pm and it was already well after the FLOTUS was supposed to have started speaking at 1:40, so we were glad he kept his remarks brief.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell was another pre-speaker. A few previous pre-speakers had already led us in the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem, and there were another couple of pre-speakers beyond that, one of whom spoke twice. We suspected the delays were so that the security folks could clear another few hundred ticket holders.

To pass time between pre-speakers, the crowd did the wave a few times--really well, too, the best I've ever seen it. I tried getting an antiphonal "Fired Up"/"Ready to Go" chant going in our seating area, but while the "Ready to Go" folks next to us were doing great, I was the only person working the "Fired Up" end, and it fizzled shortly after it started (not that I'm pointing fingers, N, J, and M). Other folks in the crowd entertained themselves by coordinating a section-wide "NC ❤ OBAMA" display. (Can you make it out in the photo?)

The secret service and EMT density increased around 2:25pm, when, at long last...another pre-speaker spoke.

The final pre-speaker introduced the articulate and elegant FLOTUS, who said engaging and inspirational things about family, hard work, character, education, community, equality, reproductive rights, volunteering, and voting.

The next photo shows Michelle Obama (center), my friend Renee (at least I think that's Renee--bottom left), and about 100 other happy, attentive people.

After basking in the glow of the eloquent, articulate, responsible grown-upness of the FLOTUS, we filed out of the gym, and I headed home. Near the Stanford L. Warren library branch, I learned about the Bull City Blues.

Heading north into downtown, I saw another medallion on the south side of the bridge, this one for the Southern Railway. Wikipedia says the Southern Railway and Seaboard Air Line Railway were competitors; maybe they shared the track on the bridge.

Thus end my photographs and my first ever FLOTUS journey. (I vaguely remember shaking Joan Mondale's hand at a diner in Urbana, IL, in 1984, but that doesn't really count.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fish fry

I wrote recently that I had a very busy summer, so here's the first installment in my attempt to catch up a bit. I'm starting easy with an animal report, since this blog has sorta degenerated into Pots'n'Pets. But wait--don't hang up yet!--this is going to be a good one: it's about FISH.

When I last wrote about our fish, we were down to two courageous survivors of the Great 2010 Fish Tank Catastrophe. Leo, the lonely stressed-out harlequin rasbora, and Beamer, the studly voracious angel fish, eventually moved across the street to a friend's house, and we dismantled the hospital tank in the kitchen to make room for a cherry-red Kitchen-Aid mixer.

As is our way with things, we let our 45-gallon tank sit empty in the living room for another year and a half, until we cautiously decided to move it to the basement. (We're slow and measured decision-makers.) The realization that we would need to clear space in the basement became motivation to resurrect the tank instead. Thus, two weeks and a flurry of eBay plant and gravel orders later, in January our tank was back in business.

We populated the tank with colorful fish we hadn't realized we'd been missing: radiant red and blue cardinal tetras, a Chinese algae eater who isn't living up to its name, a reclusive pair of black-and-white polka-dotted corydoras, a half dozen beautiful bleeding-heart tetras, a dinosaur-like plecostomus who kicked the bucket early on, and a youthful black-striped angel fish.

In the spring, we got a phone call from our friend across the street. She had made a deal with her parents and was trading in the fish for a hamster. A hamster! So Leo and Beamer moved back in with us, along with a few odds'n'ends scrappy companions with whom they had cohabited during the previous year. It was just like old times.

Our nameless youthful angelfish was not to be outdone by the much older and distinguished Beamer. Within a few weeks, he grew to match her size, and soon, instead of nipping on one another's fins like our previous angel fish did (R.I.P.), they became an inseparable pair. In the heat of midsummer, they publicly demonstrated their commitment to one another by laying and fertilizing a couple hundred eggs on the filter pipe. Unsatisfied with the locale, they ate all of them.

Then they tried laying eggs on a leaf. Angel fish eggs gestate for about 60 hours. The second clutch hatched and survived into fry-hood, and their doting parents tended them aggressively, vigilantly keeping all the other fish in the tank at bay. They kept the herd together, catching strays in their mouths and spitting them back into the fold. The other fish did not seem particularly interested in chowing down on angel fish fry, but Beamer and Youthful Angel Fish didn't let that stand in their way. S and I thought we would give the parents a break by putting a barrier in the tank between the perceived predators and the young family. Beamer and Youthful Angel Fish responded by eating every single one of their babies.

They have since laid about five or six clutches, which means they have enjoyed about five or six really tasty high-protein meals. A friend who used to have a 96-gallon tank with angel fish warned us it would be so, but we hold out hope that someday a wee baby angel fish will charm its way past egghood through fryhood and into adulthood. Until then, we have home movies to watch to remember the good ol' days when the family was still intact...

Monday, September 10, 2012

Salt garden update

By day 5, our salt garden had started sending satellite crystals across the kitchen counter.

We could see evidence of the green, blue, and yellow food coloring, but no red.

By day 7, there was as much crystal growth outside the bowl as in it. The blooms were turning dingy grey and starting to crumble, so we rinsed out the sponges and called it a wash (ba-da-bum).

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Marital strife

Driving to work this morning, I heard on the radio that money is the number one topic couples argue about. A quick Google search yields assorted articles on the internets that confirm this claim, including some that say fights about money are a decent predictor for divorce. Sitting in my car, I thought: S and I are not a typical couple.

We rarely fight about money. In fact, neither of us can think of a time in the 24 years we've been in love that we've fought about money. We didn't fight about money when we were freshly-married graduate students relatively strapped for funds, nor when we had real grown-up jobs and started making major life-altering decisions about expensive things like raising a baby and buying a house. We've been lucky: our parents and jobs got us through our undergrad degrees, and jobs and assistantships got us through grad school. We've been lucky never to have had to make tough choices about whether to eat or pay bills.

We're also lucky that after 24 years together, we still make each other laugh, we still share fundamental values and goals, and he's still ravishingly gorgeous (his crows feet still make me swoon, and his delicately greying sideburn tips are ooh la la). We've negotiated a reasonably healthy balance between work, family, and household chores. He works a regular 24/7 academic job; I have a flexible mix of part-time and freelance gigs. He covers kidcare when I'm at work evenings and weekends; I cover kidcare during the week. He loads the dishwasher; I unload it. He tunes up my bike once a year and inflates the tires as needed; I organize every aspect of our socials lives. He loves his family by making snazzy breakfasts; I love my family by making snazzy dinners and angel food cake. He takes out the trash; I generate it. He dances with the vacuum cleaner; I take the cats to the vet. We're a Myers-Briggs match made in heaven.

Nonetheless, we do fight. Early on, we had relationship-threatening difficulties with time. Given our backgrounds, that came as a surprise to both of us. He's German, yet he defies all stereotypes about German punctuality. (He might explain that punctuality is a Prussian virtue, and he's not Prussian, he's Bavarian.) I'm U.S. American and grew up with a mathematician dad who back-calculated, based on traffic density and wind speed, precisely when we needed to leave the house in order to reach our destinations on time. My inherited obsession with punctuality and S's lack thereof almost broke us up on multiple occasions, until I realized he was operating on European Metric Time (100 seconds per minute, 100 minutes per hour) and I was operating on American Standard Time (60 seconds per minute, 60 minutes per hour). I put together a conversion table and made copies for both of us, and it's been mostly smooth sailing since then.

Our challenges are different now, so many more years into our lives together. The most frequent cause of our most turbulent arguments these days? Antecedentless pronouns.

S is a wonderful man who comes from a long line of wonderful men who are genetically predisposed to have conversations inside their heads while thinking outsiders can follow along. He knows exactly what he means when he talks about it, them, and that, while I'm usually clueless. I realize I sound like I'm blaming S for our strife, but I have evidence that it's us, not him: our son carries on the patrilineal tradition, and he and S can have five-word conversations consisting almost entirely of antecedentless pronouns, conversations of which I understand virtually nothing, while they clearly understand everything and take action accordingly.

Consequently, S and I often fight about that. Literally, that. Not whatever that refers to, since that as often as not has no clear antecedent, but that itself. Presented with an antecedentless pronoun, I'll bristle and ask, chillingly, "What's that supposed to mean?" And S hears not "beloved, to what antecedent did you intend the pronoun that to refer, and did you perhaps forget to state that word out loud?" but rather "how could you possibly say such a thing?" We're usually well into a heated argument before the lightbulbs go on and we realize we're yet again fighting about a missing antecedent, at which point I usually say something rude like "[S.I.G.H.] If you're going to f*ing use pronouns, you need to give them f*ing antecedents."

To my knowledge, no studies have been conducted that indicate arguments about antecedentless pronouns are predictors for divorce, so I think our relationship will probably survive this (as well as this).