Sunday, May 20, 2007

Compares favourably with a Welsh claret

The culmination of the year's academic activities and completion of all administrative obligations connected therewith had left me in a somewhat festive and celebratory mood, so I ventured over to Binny's to pluck from their hands some Chateauneuf du Pape that was being offered at a very attractive price. The old cellar, or should I say wardrobe, was a little lacking in that vinous region. Assuming it had not just fallen off the back of a lorry, or was not the product of some fake wine label operation on the south side it was an almost can't lose situation. Nonetheless, I sought the advice of CellarTracker prior to completing the deal. Fully fledged winos are probably familiar with this web-based cellar management software already since it boasts some thirty thousand members. Developed by some ex-Microsoft guy with way too much time on his hands (or so it seems), it represents a giant data-base which interconnects every bottle (some five million or more) and its attendant data by name. Every member can be his own Robert Parker and declaim loudly on the virtues (or not) of a wine to those who care to listen. The site now boasts upward of 300,000 tasting notes (TNs in the business). Dulcie and Aylwin confess to having contributed their share to this superfluity of information. I find they provide the benefit of being a largely independent and honest (if not necessarily educated) opinion of a wine. I am moved to give these notes more weight, their poor spelling and lack of style or grammar not withstanding, than their more illustrious "professional" counterparts. Jancis Robinson (trying hard here to suppress the envy) for all her flair cannot be everywhere all the time; and in any case who pronounced her palate to have some divine right? Wine stores like to post the Parker ratings or their equivalents (whenever favourable of course) as an inducement to purchase. The following is not atypical, "Nevertheless, it is an enormously endowed effort revealing notes of licorice, blackberry and cherry fruit, melted asphalt, tapenade, truffles, and smoke." (This in regard to a Chateau Beaucastel 1999) I guess it needs a lot of that to be worth $265 a bottle; but can we really believe it, and what does it all really mean when it comes down to it? Does the melted asphalt distinguish it from the also-rans? What if I, the humble peasant, cannot find the asphalt? What do I do about not having the faintest notion what tapenade smells or tastes like? Dulcie questioned whether this was a review of a wine or a mulch.

Some of the CT-ers like to out-Parker Parker with their run-on lists of adjectives and similes and, in a way, provide their own entertainment for those with ample time on their hands - like me at this moment. This one in regard to a Hermitage is representative, "The nose has all the typical N Rhône notes of meat, grouse blood, wet earth, pepper, dark fruit. The palate is fruity - perhaps there is also a touch of unfortunate sur maturité also..." Grouse blood? I can imagine the scene at a wine-tasting class where various fouls are slaughtered and the smells of the freshly run blood compared. Well it would be grouse of course to evoke game, wealth and prestige. Sparrow or crow would not do at all. Dulcie observed that similar exotic smells could be had from the laundry basket, though it is possible the descriptions may be a little too gamey or intimate for some. Modesty forbids me to pursue that line of creative thought further. And the little foray into French - "sur maturité" - adds that "Je ne sais quois"

We are thinking of adding to our TNs Gerald Samperesque food recommendations in the style of Cooking with Fernet Branca which just arrived from Amazon - a perfect match for otter chunks for example.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Lowering the curtain

Thursday evening and it was all over - the final exam of the final class of the semester. The last student hands over his paper and, with a quiet muttered exchange of thank yous, vanishes into the night. There I am left with my little pile of Scantrons (okay I take the easy way out sometimes) and a few memories.

Sidenote: as I am writing this, the FA cup final is approaching its end. My aggravation at the fact that the game is not on television, already worsened by the discriminatory disclaimer on Radio Five Live that commentary is available only to UK listeners (some nonsense about copyright I suppose), is further compounded by the BBC website malevolently and unpredictably failing to update in a timely fashion. Curses, the thing has just updated twenty five minutes in the last refresh betraying the result that Chelsea won. Some comfort can then be had from the whole experience to know that the Cup has eluded the vile Man U. I often marvel at the depth of purple hue on Alex Ferguson's nose. I'm given to thinking he must like his dram as much as his football; but nothing is ever intimated about that aspect of his life, which appears to be beyond reproach. Unlike that Swede and his indiscretions all over the front page; but then he didn't win the World Cup, nor ever looked like doing so. I suppose you cannot argue with the results.

Back to the business in hand. It's a slightly sad event the end of the class. There we are, sixteen weeks in each other's company, thirty-two weeks in some cases, and it's suddenly all over. I wonder to what extent differences are really made. For many, it's a question of ticking the box, another step on a road to some desired degree or qualification. Often I suspect the enthusiasm and politeness to be masks worn to gain favour in pursuit of a creditable grade. A few for sure evidence genuine interest. Some take the trouble to compose nice notes of gratitude. They can often be quite moving: one woman confessed that she had avoided chemistry for ten years such was her fear of it, compromising her achievement of her desired goals in the process (she easily got an "A"); another did not want to sell back her book so she loved it so much (I didn't think the book was that great, but that's hardly the point). One or two, not more thankfully, express a version of reality that differs from mine when it comes to assessing the final grade. Attempts to negotiate upward adjustments can be the cause of some uncomfortable moments, leaving me feeling somehow responsible for unmet objectives. Careers in tatters as a consequence of a tenth of a point, self esteem destroyed by the appearance of a single "C" on the transcript and so on. Do we not worry too much about such minutiae? A select few will grasp the bigger picture and develop an appreciation for the beauty of the subject. All of a sudden they are off on their own, probing for greater understanding and discovering other questions, which often are forwarded to me for answers. I know then it has not been in vain.

Friday was the big graduation night. I had attended for the first time last year, the whole gay fandango and ceremony just being a little off putting. There is a great speech in Henry V centered on ceremony though I remember not a word of it now - thrice gorgeous ceremony or something. Out of a growing sense of duty I made the effort last year and endured the palaver of getting the gown and stuff. I was a little skeptical about the authenticity of the rented "Oxford" colours. This year I privately looked forward to seeing the students in their borrowed robes march proudly across the temporary stage in the noisy PE center. What is perhaps tiresome for us world-weary academics is for some a once-in-a-lifetime event. Why be churlish about that? I would note how many of them I knew. I had a front row seat on the end and the line would file right past me. None of them saw me and each time I was immobilized by indecision as to whether to acknowledge them, an unwelcome intrusion of their moment perhaps, or not. I chose not, with a note of regret. Afterwards, a rapid retreat beaten from the "cookies and punch" reception (why do these sorts of things have to separate us from real universities?) to Houlihan's - appetizers provided by the Faculty Senate (but not drinks of course!). Il Presidente graced us with his presence for an extended period and even bought a round guaranteeing by that transaction my eternal loyalty. How cheaply I can be had.

A few more days and then the new rounds begin. One week to explore other interests in the interim.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

In search of the "Hicks" or is that "Higgs" boson

Doubtless like most people, my first instinct when thinking about particle physics is to reach for The New Yorker. It so happens that there is an article in the latest issue about the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) located in Switzerland. It just so happens that one of my former students, who worked with me last summer at Argonne on an internship, is spending a few weeks there this summer on another internship. Not bad for a girl from Woodridge who hasn't even got to a real university yet.

I am no particle physicist, that much is clear. In fact I live in blissful ignorance about much, if not all, of what has transpired over the last few decades. Question is, how much worse off am I as a result? Shortly after beginning my tenure at COD, I attended a lecture, of sorts, given by a self-proclaimed philosopher allegedly about some issue of science. It was perhaps one of the most disgraceful displays of intellectual fraud and nonsense I have ever witnessed, containing as it did a collection of half-baked, vague, un-connected, cobbled-together notions about matter. The worst bit was that people just sat there taking it in with an almost reverential air. In that moment I knew the difference between a community college and a place of true scholarship. To emblemize his true ignorance of the subject the speaker insisted on referring to the "Hicks" boson in some terribly significant way, when of course he was intending the "Higgs" boson. At least I knew that much, not that I had any real clue as to what the Higgs boson is or is meant to be. I guess it has not yet been found, so it might not be anything at all.

One of the goals of the LHC is to identify the existence of this super particle which may (or may not) hold the key to the universe. It leaves me thinking I am glad to be a simple chemist. For me and my ilk, it is completely satisfactory to consider only three particles - electron, proton and neutron. Almost, we could get away with just electrons if we treat the nucleus as a positive blob. Chemistry is all about electrons and the electromagnetic force, more or less. I suppose if we worry about isotope effects we do need to acknowledge the neutron. We don't need to concern ourselves with what they are made of though. Isn't there a wonderful simplicity about that, a handful of particles and a force (or two)?

An analogy to the particulate nature of matter (when explaining atoms) is the appearance of a sandy beach as a function of magnification. From a distance it is smooth and uniform, but when we approach we see grains of sand are evident. So, in matter, the crystal may appear smooth, but up close we see the atoms. That is the Dalton scale of particulateness. Experiments soon revealed the deficiency of that view by revealing the particulate nature of atoms themselves: the discovery of electrons and nuclei, and later of course protons and neutrons. Now we are forced to accept the particulate nature of some of those subatomic particles and the existence of a whole slew of different bits and bobs. It is all quite bewildering. And I have to bite my tongue to suppress the thought, "so what?"

The original argument of Democritus (if indeed it was him - there may have been others too) in coining the term atom was that there was a point at which apparently smooth matter was indivisible (a-tomos). The nineteenth century appeared to fix that point at the atomic level. The twentieth century and beyond has moved that point to a finer scale. One wonders if it will ever stop moving.

I did find one point of contact between myself the humble chemist and the mighty string theorist. Nima Arkani-Hamed (with a name like that you cannot do chemistry) of Harvard, a mere stripling of thirty-five, consumes, apparently, vast quantities of espresso while working out the consequences of "split supersymmetry." I am sure he must have a Nespresso, with which I could not be without to work out the consequences of sodium reacting with chlorine.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Nominative determinism

The SSCP is feeling a little contrite that his contributions to the global discourse appear to be limited to the weekends and, worse, the subject matter rather self-centeredly has concerned his own physical well-being. His adoring fans - thanks for the avalanche of sympathy notes - will be pleased to learn that pharmacy is not just a public relations exercise and that the troublesome back has been largely repaired by a few capsules of Ibuprofen. Some halting steps were taken by means of constitutional this week, without undue stress upon the offending component, although the fall of in fitness level in just a few days is quite maddening.

Now to the topic of my subject line. The connection between a person's name and their profession and/or character has been neatly encapsulated in the phrase nominative determinism. I came across it recently in "Amazing Disgrace" by James Hamilton-Paterson. This is the sequel to the successful "Cooking with Fernet Branca" and is one of those rare laugh-out-loud books - witty and cleverly written and just outrageously funny. Dulcie had unearthed it at the Glen Ellyn Library, but the bounders do not own the first book. I have had to resort to Amazon to track down a modestly priced used edition. I read much of it on my flight to San Francisco, prompting my neighbour to enquire as to the nature of the piece since I was so evidently enjoying it. He, meanwhile, was deeply engrossed in some Cisco manual about wireless networking. He sighed that he had not read a novel in years. Anyway, I digress; but in the book the term nominative determinism is introduced in regard to the name of the fictitious yachtswoman that the hero, Gerald Samper, is ghosting a biography about. If you are wondering what the heck am I talking about, nominative determinism would be used when a person's name suits their vocation: as in Mr. Bun the baker.

The odd thing is, a few days later, I heard the same term applied by New Scientist in a podcast. It made reference to a pair of urologists called Splat and Weedon, and also made other hilarious references to similar improbable examples. Wikipedia credits New Scientist with coining the phrase, the Splat and Weedon reference being a crucial early finding, but the online encyclopedia also notes that no less of an authority than Carl Jung ponders the issue in his work on synchronicity, although he did not go beyond posing the question.

Recently I was given pause to apply the theory once again when listening to a scientist by the name of McNutt discussing plans for an interstellar voyage which would explore the outer reaches of the galaxy. There are a great many things I am woefully ignorant about. About some of them that is perhaps a good thing.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Ail win

Age appears to be catching up with your SSCP as an obstructive component of the lower back is currently inhibiting his mobility. The daily constitutional has been missed four days in a row. Pharmaceuticals have been brought to bear upon the issue; the intervention of a medical practitioner is even being considered. Nonetheless, the stooped gait and hunched appearance did not dissuade the callow youth at the check-out of Trader Joe's from demanding to see my I.D. as I attempted to purchase an alcoholic beverage - much to Dulcie's annoyance. I could not discern entirely if he was joking. Apparently he was not. And the preposterously patronizing "wine guy" in residence there persists in hailing me as "young man."

That's a very weak segue into a discussion of the writing talents of Alvin (or is it Allen?) Lee, the Buffalo Grove student who has now been permitted to return to school. Is sanity beginning to prevail there? What seemed to preoccupy correspondents to the Tribune was the putrid spelling in the piece written by a supposedly "straight A" student. Incorrect spelling of common words is so common these days as to be scarcely noteworthy. The readers should consider themselves lucky it wasn't written in text message speak. Apologists argue that it's all about the creative process. Some even question the need for punctuation. What should really concern those that care is really the utter bankruptcy of creativity in the work. Too often free expression is taken to mean anything that shocks and involves violence and/or sexual references. The student needs a suspension or psychological evaluation less than he needs to read a few real books. If I had been the recipient of that drivel, undoubtedly I would have been deeply offended, undoubtedly I would have torn it up and tossed it in the bin. I don't think I would have enlisted the help of the police in making that decision however.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Change not a sacrifice. Hmmm

A scientist contributing to the latest report (One of 2,000 scientists apparently; how many scientists does it take to write a report?) on GW opines that accommodation of climate change will not actually entail sacrifice but only change in lifestyle. Since one of the changes encouraged will be to live close to public transportation I suggest that for most of us, particularly those populating the vast reaches of the western suburbs/exurbs, meeting this requirement would mean a whole lot more than a simple change. Trading in the TXS for a Prius wouldn’t be a sacrifice per se (but why did Toyota make it look so weird?); although, to be honest, I think the impact of hybrids on emissions would be a lot smaller than wholesale adoption of Smartcar-sized conventional cars. Living near public transportation though represents a challenge of almost impossible proportion.

Where to find it for one thing? Growth in the Chicago hinterland is currently following the anti-model for combating GW. Worse, I do not see how anything is going to alter the current pattern for years to come. Folks will still demand their American Dream and it is all very well for some chap who has already attained it to tell others to ditch theirs for the sake of the planet. Does dear Al travel by public transport you suppose? Trouble is, these days the Dream seems to involve new construction (as proof it’s just theirs I suppose), echoing volumes of useless empty space sold under the guise of “cathedral” ceilings, set in some recently ploughed field out near Plainfield, Yorkville or points west in order for it to be affordable. Public transportation is perhaps the lowest point on the totem pole of priorities for governments and individuals alike. Most new communities have absolutely none at all, thus enslaving their denizens to tiresomely long drives.

Nationally, the current occupant does not deem Amtrak worthy of a single cent for its operations. Locally, even the gay little blue 714 Pace bus, launched with such fanfare a few months to serve better the college population, is running on fumes. What chance any other public transport initiative if a college population of some 30,000, presumably in the lower echelons of the income bracket unless I underestimate the ergonomics of the student body, cannot support a bus in its busiest corridor?

The public and governmental antipathy towards public transportation is more ingrained than a few worries about curbing carbon dioxide are going to alter. Why is it that I can alight in a country like Germany, scarcely knowing enough of the lingo to satiate my needs for public lavatories, and find my way on a variety of trains and buses to obtain my destination in the middle of the night, while I am unable to summon up sufficient courage to board a CTA bus and attempt to purchase a ticket? I harbour a secret desire that Daley’s bloated egomaniacal fantasy of hosting the Olympics is realized just so the rest of the world can appreciate the full horror of a CTA journey.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Postscript on the Dark Lord

Dulcie complains that I am obsessing on the Dark Lord experience, known popularly as DLD. I think it has something to do with repeated references to "growlers," the large brown bottles that were a strong feature of the event. You cannot be a beer fanatic without owning a growler it seems. Being by nature a researcher I felt obliged to join the cyber underground network through which all these beer "lovers" communicate. Not surprisingly there was extensive discourse on the DLD experience. What it lacks in erudition it makes up for in monosyllabic misspelled passion - dude. I recognized the fanatic from Cincinnati with whom we chatted and was thrilled to find ourselves referenced. Indeed Dulcie and Aylwin are now anonymous footnotes in the history of DLD. Our friend described meeting

"one couple well after they were sold out that had read about it in the paper and showed up just to see what it was about. They were clueless and not really gaga over craft or high intensity beers, but they thought it was a cool scene regardless. I offered to sell one of my DLs but they weren't really seeking it."

I would have purchased but for the lack of the ready money. Silly me didn't think this would be a cash-only event. Indiana, what would one expect. I think I should take the appellation "clueless" as a compliment.