Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday cat blogging, snuggle time

The cats have been pretty snuggly this week. Last night they were all asleep on our bed with us, keeping close and warm. Here is a photo I shot a couple of weeks ago of Okra and Tony being cuddle buddies. Hodag is still being a bit aloof from us and the other cats, but we are slowly forcing him to be social.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Back from the Dead

Part of the reason we were so quiet In November and December is that I was studying for (and passing, apparently) my qualifying exams. I had meant to say something about this just after I had taken them, but didn't finish the post, and eventually forgot about it with all the other craziness going on at the time. I'm glad to finally be done with the exams, as this means I can actually get some useful work done at home and on research. On the other hand, it's sort of a weird feeling no longer having any major deadlines looming over my head for a few years.

Qualifying exams are odd beasts. For us, there are two exams, "Classical" and "Modern," each 5 hours long. I have to pass them separately, so if I pass one and fail the other, I only have to retake the one I failed. I get one more attempt, if necessary, in the spring. What is most odd about the exams is the split. "Classical" normally means "not quantum"; in this context it means "pre 1900." And even then, the split is not perfect.

Our classical exam has mechanics (ie, analytical/Newtonian), electrodynamics, and statistical mechanics. Stat mech contains thermodynamics, which I suppose is why it gets put under classical, but it also contains quantum statistical mechanics, which should definitely go under modern. What you end up with is that a single problem could be split between the two exams, with the stat mech part giving you a result and having you carry out further derivations from that point, and the quantum part deriving the result the stat mech part took as given.

Our modern exam has quantum, special relativity, and math methods. The math that physicists use all predates 1900, but a lot of the higher-level stuff gets used primarily in quantum, so that's why it's on the modern exam. Special relativity really ought to be under electrodynamics, but the grad-level discussion of it does start to pull in some of the more difficult math, so some (I emphasize "some") relativity problems aren't too out of place on the modern exam.

What was weirdest for me was the actual set of problems that showed up on my exams: the difficulties I had in the problems seemed very low-level. On the classical exam, only two problems gave me any real trouble. One was a thermodynamics problem involving a derivation I hadn't seen since second year of undergrad. The other was a statistical mechanics problem that really amounted to a series of increasingly complicated infinite series. The major difficulty was keeping track of all the terms (though to be fair to the problem, I think there is a MUCH simpler way of doing it if you remember some stat mech cleverness, which apparently I don't). And since we only had to do seven problems, I didn't really have to worry about them. As it turns out, I didn't quite finish two of the other problems, because I made similar stupid mistakes at the end of both of them, and forgot that the last part of each problem was really as easy as it apeared. Two of the modern problems were trivial math problems, which was a little disconcerting. All the other problems on that exam were good, but I was a little surprised at the lack of problems requiring matrices and state vectors. One of the relativity problems used the electromagnetic field tensor, but nearly all of the quantum problems were written so as to favor solving partial differential equations. I guess in sum, the quantum was more Schroedinger and less Heisenberg than I anticipated. Which is a little weird because usually the Scroedinger approach is taught earlier, and the Heisenburg (and Dirac) approach is only taught on the student's second or third pass through Quantum Mechanics.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mardi Gras? More like LOMBARDI GRAS!!!

Nora mentioned last week that the Saints were playing in the Super Bowl. [SPOILER ALERT] The Saints won, 31-17.

Needless to say, the city has gone insane. The team had already planned a win-or-lose victory parade through the CBD to celebrate the season and their first Super Bowl birth. Okay, and because it's New Orleans, and we barely need an excuse to have a party. After the victory, the parade was quickly re-named the Lombardi Gras parade. Estimates of attendence range from 200,000-300,000 (from NOPD) to over 800,000 (from Barry Kern, of Blaine Kern Studios, quoting WWL). (Sorry, I can't find a quote for the NOPD figure, but I swear I saw it in the paper this morning.) For comparison, the city population is about 350,000, and the metro population is about 1.1 million.

I biked to Lee Circle to watch the parade. When I got there, the crowd was solidly packed for about 50 feet back. It loosened up a bit when the parade got to us: people with ladders climbed up them, and people with kids lifted them up on their shoulders. That opened up a little bit of room for me to move up.

The atmosphere reminded me of some photos of we saw of Louis Armstrong as king of Zulu; the parade threaded down the street, while masses of humanity stood by to great the returning heroes. Several Mardi Gras Krewes donated floats: the kickers rode on the Muses shoe float, the recievers rode on a float with outstreached arms (can't remember from which Krewe), and the other groups of players rode together on their own similarly cleverly-designated floats.

Speaking of which, this is right in the middle of Mardi Gras. All of last Sunday's parades were moved to earlier in the day or canceled because of the game. Thursday night should have been Muses, Chaos, and Babylon. It wasn't because it was raining (and snowing on the north shore): Muses moved to last night, Babylon tomorrow morning, and Chaos was canceled. That's okay, because we were able to spend Thursday night cleaning, and see Muses and Krew d'Etat last night. We have to clean because we are hosting a University of Chicago alumni party Monday. It's a little awkwardly timed, because we have to balance the fact that not everyone gets Lundi Gras off, and some people might get trapped on the wrong side of the parades. So it's early enough that people can come and then get home around parades, and late enough that people can come after work and stay until after parades. We're really looking forward to it, and it sound like a lot of interesting people are coming

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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Black and Gold Victory Brownies

So, you may have noticed that the New Orleans Saints are going to be in the Superbowl for the very first time in their 43 year history. To say that New Orleanians are excited about this is an enormous understatement. It has been said that New Orleans has two religions, Catholicism and Football, and I think they may be overstating the catholic part. People here took to the streets, cried, hugged strangers, and shot fireworks when the Saints won the national football league conference championship game.

For most of this fall complete strangers would decide to have football related conversations with me in unlikely locations. For example, once I was greeted with an enthusiastic "Who Dat!" at the gas pump. Another time a man and I had an in depth discussion of passing tactics in the deli line at Wall-mart. I am not exactly sure why, but for some reason it was clear to the true locals that I was following the football season closely. Colin were I listening to every game on WWL "the Saints radio network", hosted by Bobby Hebert (pronounced Ea-Bear) the "Cajun Cannon" and Hokie Gajan, both former Saints players. We really enjoyed listening to the games, but we missed being able to see the plays being discussed due to our lack of a functioning tv. For the NFC championship game we went to a friend's house and were able to actually see the game. I made brownies to celebrate this, and thus the Black and Gold Victory Brownie was born. Basically these are Nigella Lawson's super delicious brownies with peanut butter and Reece's peanut butter cups added. I have included the recipe below, but I warn you that they are not for the faint of heart.

Side view of Victory Brownies, showing their height and composition.

Top view, showing decoration using peanut butter cups

Black and Gold Victory Brownies
  • 13 ounces best quality bittersweet chocolate
  • 1 2/3 cups softened butter
  • 6 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 medium sized bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups
  • 2 cups natural ground peanut butter

1. Preheat oven to 350° and grease a 9 x 13" pan.

2. In a double-boiler, or a small pan melt the butter and chocolate.

3. Whisk until well blended and let cool.

4. While chocolate is melting, whisk together the eggs, sugar and vanilla until frothy and slightly lighter in color.

5. Gently fold the cooled chocolate mixture into the eggs, and whisk until well blended.

6. Fold in the flour and salt and mix well.

7. Add 1 cup of the peanut butter to the batter and mix well.

8. Cut up about half of the Reece’s peanut butter cups into fourths.

9. Gently stir in the quartered Reece’s peanut butter cups.

10. Pour into the baking dish and cook until a crust forms on top.

11. When cool, frost with remaining peanut butter and dot with remaining peanut butter cups.