Skip to content

Theoretical Physics

Saturday, 28 May 2016, 18:03 UTC

1. Son of a Theoretical Physicist

Books line the back wall of my study.

Morse and Feshbach; Poincaré; Jackson; Goldstein; Misner, Thorne and Wheeler; Courant and Hilbert; Margenau and Murphy; Abraham and Marsden. And others.

I am my father’s son. Many of those books were his. And more than a bit of my father’s theoretical physical nature runs in my veins. 

2. Fallen Branch 

We’ve known for some time that the neighbors’ Walnut tree was going to be a problem.

Many years ago, they cut back the branches overhanging their house and their power line, leaving the those hanging this way (although truth be told, at the time they probably did so out of deference to the then-owners of this house who might have enjoyed the tree).

Then a few years ago, twigs and small branches began dying and dropping into our yard and onto our roof — mostly small stuff. We had our tree guy cut back some dead branches when he was here.

Finally, the first sizable branch fell a few days ago. And wouldn’t you know it, it got hung up on our power line. The taut line seemed to be growning under the load but didn’t seem in jeopardy.

= ma, as the saying goes. A little bit of dynamics. A little bit of statics. Theoretical physics of a sort — visible just outside our kitchen window.

3. Applied Physics at Work

Our tree guy had told us, “Once the branches start dying, the tree goes fast.”

So we talked to the neighbors about it. But that was a while ago. And now they were out of town. And that branch was on our power line. So I gathered my loppers and my saws and and went into the back yard.

I had a plan — a strategy based on my estimation of the relevant physics, my general expectations for the branch’s trajectory after I lightened its load. It was a good plan, because the branch would fall away from me. Which it did.

I know you expected me to say that the branch fell top of me. I am happy to report that it didn’t. It followed the trajectory I expected and fell away from the ladder, away from me. But here’s the thing of it.

When the branch hit the ground, it twisted. And when it twisted, a small sub-branch of it swung around. And when that sub-branch swung around, it clomped me on the shoulder. Hard. And I’m lucky it didn’t break my collar bone.

So you see, the problem here is this… I am indeed my father’s son. I have a theoretical approach to things. I understand Newton’s laws. I can work with Lagrangians and Hamiltonians. I can derive the Planetary Equations. I can tell you about the mathematics of the Earth’s gravity field. Hand-wavy, general principles, big-picture physics. 

It’s the nitty gritty that gets me. And that, my friends, is why I shun power tools. Because sadly, theoretical physics.

He’s A Farmer

Thursday, 26 May 2016, 22:55 UTC

“Underneath it all, I’m a farmer,” he said.

We were drinking coffee. It was still early enough in the morning that our conversation was a bit wacky. And when he said the word farmer, he dragged out the ‘a’ — I’m a faaaaarmer.

He’s got lots of cucumbers. We got five before the rain turned off the blossoms. He’s got lots of heirloom tomatoes. The birds are getting ours. He doesn’t have apples, but then neither do we, since the squirrels claimed all but three before any of them really ripened.

But — and I wish I had thought to say this at the time — we’ve got worms!

Soon we were back at our desks, he with his Scala, me with my PilotFish, both of us with our hot coffee and our subconscious thoughts of dirt under our fingernails.


Tuesday, 24 May 2016, 20:29 UTC

1. What’s the purpose?

“What’s the purpose?” I sometimes hear that guy in my head ask. “Why post those doggerel-worthy drawings of yours?”

Aside from the fact that the question makes me feel ashamed, he does have a point. Just what is their purpose — especially since some of them are so lousy?

Here’s how I look at it: these are just sketches about which I make no claims other they the fact that I sketched them, and I often spent shockingly (and obviously) little time at it.

I tell the guy, “A man can doodle; skip ‘em if you don’t like ‘em.”

2. Pushing me aside

Yet, often my sketches do have a purpose.

I remember a time when I was new on a development team and I walked up to one of the old hands and asked him a question. He didn’t quite understand and muttered something about needing to draw it out, at which point I (almost in glee) dashed back to my desk to retrieve my notebook with a sketch. 

When I sat back down, he seemed to be ignoring me, which was confusing.

“Here, I’ve got it drawn here,” I said, but he turned away from me, continuing to try to sketch on his own.

He didn’t want to see my circles and arrows. I felt invisible.

3. Fancy pipes

There was another time, when I shared a diagram to different effect.

A friend, with whom I hadn’t worked for a while came to my cubicle and asked if we could talk. We had a mini design meeting in which, among other things, I stood up at a pad of paper on an easel that just happened to be next to us and drew a diagram. There were boxes and arrows and little file-shaped shapes and my rendering of a sitting person stick figure. 

“I miss your diagrams,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, “you should see my new way of drawing pipes!” And I showed him.

He laughed. 

Nourishing Darkness

Sunday, 22 May 2016, 15:55 UTC

From a commencement address from Ursula K. LeGuin to the women of Mills College a lifetime ago (1983):

…I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing — instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.

(It’s that time of year.)

A Fine Thing

Saturday, 21 May 2016, 22:36 UTC

Was that a picture of graduation day you sent? I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume so. What a fine thing.

Congratulations to the grad. And to the parents, too! What a fine thing.

Ney Day

Saturday, 21 May 2016, 21:48 UTC

The sun came out briefly, today.

There was art in the park and music on the stage. There were toddlers twirling and clear water flowing in the creek. And there were wildflowers blooming and a flycatcher watching in the meadow.

Ney Day at the Elizabeth Ney Museum, Austin Texas

Does He Tell You These Things?

Monday, 16 May 2016, 21:02 UTC

Miss Izzy and I went out tonite to walk under the clear night sky. The sickle of the Big Dipper hung over us, and a waxing gibbous moon meeting up with Jupiter. And there was a Nighthawk sweeping thru the air high above the parking lot lights.

She and I slowly made our way to the soccer fields, around the gravel elementary school track and around the middle school track that they resurfaced last fall and is so spongey to walk on. Izzy found many excuses to take many detours.

Miss Izzy, does Mr. Guinness tell you about his running days, when he and I would go out to the lake? Does he tell you these things as he raises his head from his slumber when you get back from a long walk like this? Does he whisper his stories into your ears when he greets you?

He was a fine running buddy. Although perpetually distracted by everything at walking speed, when we would start running, his ears would lie back against his head, and he would run faithfully beside me, barely flinching at the other dogs and runners we passed. Does he tell you that? Does he tell you about how he would go for five miles with me and how one time he ran the seven mile loop?

Oh, those were the days, Miss Izzy, when he and I would go out there for a run around the lake and make this long walk of ours look like the child’s play that it is. I think we could do better than this, Miss Izzy — for Mr. Guinness’s sake. Ask him; see what he thinks.

Screaming Wrens

Monday, 16 May 2016, 19:40 UTC

You might have heard a Wren complain, chattering and scolding, shouting at you to get away. They do that sometimes when we get too close to their house in the backyard. There’s no mistaking their instructions.

Go, go, go away! Go away, you! Get out! Get out! Get out!

Yesterday afternoon, there was a disturbance of some kind in our front yard. A great noise was coming from the Monterey Oak, and the racket was deafening. It was Wrens — perhaps a dozen of them chattering and scolding and hopping angrily from branch to branch.

I stood there looking up, trying to find the source of their concern, expecting to find a cat slinking through the Salvias and Sunflowers, but there was no cat to be seen.

“Where’s the snake?” Trudy asked as she walked up behind me, having herself heard the ruckus from inside the house.

We walked closer to the tree, expecting to find a rat snake slithering in the branches, but there was no snake to be seen, either.

And then I saw it — the cause of the commotion. Sitting motionless on a branch about fifteen feet off the ground was an Eastern Screech Owl. It blended (almost) perfectly with the gray-brown of the oak tree’s trunk, staring toward the neighbors’ Live Oaks, evidently unfazed by the Wren racket around it.

We sat on the bench. The Wrens began to quiet down. And then they started screaming again.

I stood up. The Owl was gone. Except the Wrens were still up there as loud as ever. So I looked harder.

And there… there perched on a branch that extended horizontally from the trunk and took a sharp turn vertically upwards… there was the Owl. And that poor Owl, I kid you not, was leaning against that vertical turn of the branch, as if the screaming and scolding of the Wrens had worn it out. A dozen scolding Wrens — who could blame the Owl for needing a little rest?


Sunday, 15 May 2016, 19:32 UTC

When watching me work in the yard a long time ago, one of the three sisties said to me, “It’s a good thing you don’t do this for a living.” She had noticed my slow, inefficient way of doing things and correctly observed that they wouldn’t scale well if I charged for the work. Of course, my time in the garden isn’t a money-making venture. It’s an escape from the daily keyboard and monitor. I am content with the dirt under my fingernails, even if it comes only slowly.

That having been said, there are tasks I dread. And for these, I concede that I need to learn to work efficiently so that I can dilly-dally in the fun stuff. Improving clay soil is one such dreary task.

I can attest that there is no joy in thudding a shovel into clay, in struggling to scrape gunk off the blade, in breaking up sticky clods or in trying to mix good stuff in. Yet the formerly rich topsoil of the garden bed outside our kitchen window has been diluted with big clods of brown and red clay (as the result of the deep holes we dug for the new grounding plates), so the soil there needs improving. I confess, I have no interest in applying my inefficient approach to that task.

However… I have been trying to create a rain garden to capture the (usually rare) rain that runs down our driveway and pours off our roof. And as I have been digging, I have found earthworms by the handful. I spent more than an hour digging today, and as I dug, I collected the worms and dispersed them on the mulch outside the kitchen window. Handsful of them, many handsful. At the end of my otherwise inefficient labor, I must have distributed one hundred worms. And with each toss, I could see that the previous batch had already burrowed down into the mulch, no longer visible on the surface.

Somewhere down there under that mulch, my army of worms is even now at work breaking up the clods and aerating the gunk and pulling organic matter down into the soil — doing the dreary work for me. The paradigm of efficiency. 

The sisties would be proud.

Two Days In A Row

Friday, 13 May 2016, 22:48 UTC

1. Thursday

We had tested the logic. We made some changes and tested again. And when we deployed into production, we tested again, pushing a few small datasets thru the route to make sure that everything worked as expected, which it did.

“Let me give you a complete data dump now,” Vyas said.

And we ran it thru the system.

“The route is processing the input files,” I reported. And then a few moments later, “It’s generating the output files.” And then finally, after a few more moments, “The output files are being picked up by the listener.”

After all the output files were picked up, we waited a moment, and then he confirmed, “I got the data in our system.”

But a few minutes later someone chimed in on one of our Skype channels, “We’re getting a bunch of bogus messages without a time tag. And soon after that, there was a cascade of automated notifications and alarms sent out by email.

Although in our post mortem we weren’t so sure that those alarms were related to our errors, and although the root cause of the problem was the format of the input files, it’s indisputable that it was the execution of my code that unleashed those furies.

“Sorry guys,” I later said.

“Tomorrow,” Vyas said, “we’ll turn the system on.”

2. Friday

The next morning, I Skyped Vyas my plan. “I’ll manually process a few of the oldest files. If they run ok, then we can turn the system on.”

“Awesome,” he said.

Moments later I was again reporting the progress.

“The route processing the input files,” I said. And then, “It’s generating the output files.” And finally, “The output files are being picked up by the listener.” (Sound familiar?)

This time, I could see the results showing up in the output queue. The message count kept rising. I kept watching. The curve kept going up. As the count reached 1200, it was clear that the worker was not pulling anything out of the queue.

“Hmm…” Vyas said. “I’m seeing empty payloads.”

There was again an error of some sort, but worse, this one was blocking all incoming data from any customers.

It was Friday afternoon. The room was dark and mostly empty. Being relatively new to the team, I was woefully unequipped to debug the problem. Fortunately, there were a few generous souls still hanging around.

After about two hours of spelunking, we came up with a workaround. An hour later, sitting alone in the darkness and quiet, I put the final touches on a trouble ticket for the outage. I had also come up with a credible explanation of the root cause which, again, absolved my code of responsibility. 

But absolved or not, the indisputable fact remains: my stuff broke things in production two days in a row.