Tuesday, November 25, 2008


When I was in first grade, my class divided into three clubs during recess. The most elite of these clubs was the Cool Club, which, as near as I can tell, was dedicated to swaggering and avoiding anyone not cool enough to be in the Cool Club. Then, there was the Cootie Club, which was dedicated to avoiding anyone with cooties. The least prestigious organization was the Bat Club, which was dedicated to hanging upside down on the jungle gym.

I was in the Bat Club, until I got kicked out when it was discovered that I had cooties.

For the rest of the school year, I would wander around the schoolyard alone, gathering crabapples. That is, I was alone until Sarah joined our class--she, also, evidently, was infected. We sat under a tree and talked about how baleen is made out of keratin.

Last fall, I went to the reception for new Ph.D. candidates, of whom I was one. We were each given a mini-diploma, proving our candidacy. Provost Arthur T. Johnston made us promise to go to a quiet place and think about our accomplishments. We all said, "I promise." Some guy near me asked, "Can my quiet place be a bar?"

As I was packing to travel to the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics conference, I wasn't sure whether I could take my Silly Putty on the plane. I realized that, since it deforms continually under shear stress, it is a fluid, so I put it in the one quart zip-loc bag with my toothpaste and mouthwash. Then I realized that fluid dynamicists could be quite cruel to TSA workers by attempting to transport aerogels, shear-thickening fluids, viscoelastic polymers, and Jell-o. 

So far, this trip, I have seen two children on monkey leashes.

Only certain fruits can be eaten defiantly. For example, if a banana were to be eaten defiantly, it would result in choking. There are free green apples given out in the lobby of the La Quinta Inn where I'm staying. A man with a beard just grabbed an apple off of the tray in front of me and took a very defiant bite out of it.

As soon as I got to the conference center, I knew that I was in the company of real scientists because of how everyone is dressed. I can't quite explain it, but everyone looks just a little off. It's not as if there is anyone dressed like they're going to a sock hop, or wearing a jacket with leather patches on the elbows. Dad's theory is that most scientists only own one suit, and the old ones are still wearing the suits they got when they were grad students.

I have defined The Szatmary Interval to be the amount of time it takes for me to decide that a given talk is less comprehensible than French absurdism, and resume reading Voltaire.

I'm not sure why we need nametags. The people here aren't friendly enough to have a real conversation with a stranger. Not only that, but it's clear to everyone else in San Antonio that we're participating in a scientific conference, and not only because of how we're dressed.

I've been to Otakon, an anime convention. (I have since repented.) The people there talked about anime less than the people here talk about science.

Included in our swag bags were laser pointers. I immediately pulled mine out and flashed it around; I blinded a security camera. Then, I noticed that I was the only person in the lobby playing with a laser pointer.

Is it okay to email the people who don't show up to give their presentations, and let them know that I was offended that they didn't let anyone know they couldn't make it?

Yesterday, I saw something amazing. During the question time of one guy's talk, he was asked a question that he, evidently, didn't want to answer. He made eye contact with the one asking the question, waited a beat, and then looked away. Another person raised his hand, and asked another question, which the speaker answered. 

This was notable because only I and another person noticed that the speaker had just refused to answer a question. Everyone else was hypnotized.

Who would buy an APS t-shirt? I have only counted two people here wearing t-shirts, besides myself.

In the bathroom this morning, I saw the man at the sink next to me rinse his hands but not use soap. Fluid dynamicists, of all people, ought to know the effects of surfactants on surface tension!

I have started grading the presentations that I watch, docking points for staring at the screen, mumbling, using six colors on a single slide, having complete sentences on slides, and reading them aloud. Also, please, never end a presentation with a slide just saying "Questions?" or "Thank you."

I know that no one is going to go home and do their work any differently after having seen my presentation; I've not seen any presentation on something related enough to my work for it to affect what I do, either. All that we can do is convey a rough sense of the sort of problems we're looking at.

In the hotel, there are three elevators. If there are others waiting for an elevator with me, I ask people to guess which elevator will come first. Whoever picks the right elevator wins!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Jane the Prezel Lady

A couple of weeks ago, I got a voicemail from my friend, Jane. Well, Jane's more of an acquaintance. I've not sat down and had tea with her or anything. The point is, she wasn't sure I would know who she was when she called me, so she said, "Hi, Alex, this is Jane the Pretzel Lady," and then gave me the information on the upcoming community association meeting. (This meeting wound up being both boring and tense. I was glad I went.)

I go to Jane's church. Jane sits in the front row, on the left-hand side of the sanctuary. I walk past her house a fair amount, visiting friends or going to church meetings. She always says hi to me.

At the annual church retreat on Labor Day weekend, I was trying to find a good place to read, so I was poking about in the lodge after ten at night. I found Jane in the rec room, reading her Bible. I walked into an adjoining storage room, the one where the folding chairs are kept, and read in there. Later, Jane told me she saw me go into a room, but didn't realize, until after I had left, that it was a closet. I think this made her feel a little bad for me. I told her I didn't mind at all. We know each other as the other person looking for a quiet place.

At the retreat, I was in charge of registration and keeping track of who ate at which meals and so on, for billing purposes, so I had to learn the names of everyone who came. This was good for me, because, until that point, I only really knew the names of the other young adults, the people in my care group, and the people who lead a lot of things. Even though I've been at this church for almost five years, there were still a lot of people that I didn't know. It was just an hour before reading in the closet that I'd properly met Jane.

One time, I was talking with Harold after church, as he packed up the sound board, when, suddenly, a little kid ran up, gave him two pretzel sticks, and ran away. Harold explained that every Sunday, Jane brings a passel of pretzel sticks to meeting, to give to children for good behavior. After giving out one pretzel to each kid, Jane would give two pretzels to Harold, saying, "And two for the pastor."

I don't think that Harold has been the pastor for the last ten years, but Jane still makes sure he gets two pretzel sticks after meeting every Sunday. I suppose Harold somewhat resented that Jane still treated him like a pastor. Also, I can't imagine Harold welcoming special treatment for being the pastor. I don't think he minds the attention too much, though.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Church Tradition Story 4: Projector Trees Clap

When I was four years old, we had a party at church for a stranger. My four-year old self could figure out that he was important. I didn't know why everyone liked him so much. I was afraid of him, because I thought his name was Mr Witch, and I knew witches are spooky.

It turned out his name was Mr Rich, as in Richard. He was the new youth pastor.

The church was a traditional Presbyterian church, with wooden pews and a pipe organ and choir loft. We were told not to run in church, because it's God's house. People dressed up, Dad would wear a sport coat and Mom would wear a dress. We sang out of hymnals.

Mr Rich brought special music to the church. On the one Sunday out of the month that we would sing this special music with Mr Rich, (in addition to the hymns), he would bring out a portable screen and an overhead projector. Because we could see the words on the screen, and didn't need hymnals, we could clap along with Mr Rich's songs! My favorite song had a line,

The trees of the fields will clap their hands X X

The X's indicated when we were supposed to clap.

I liked Mr Rich. He was fun, and had a big, hearty laugh. He knew how to play the trumpet. Mr Rich invited us to camp, where he led us in playing crazy games, like bowling with a ball that was bigger than me. Of all the grown-ups, his lessons on Christianity were the funniest.

A few years later, Mr Rich got fired--there was some sort of personality conflict among the leadership, and I think that he was fired for unfair reasons. As he packed up the overhead screen for the last time, one of the old church ladies said, "Good. I could never worship with that thing up there."

The last I heard, Mr Rich had become a truck driver.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Beards in Space

Astronauts have to be cleanshaven. Although I had worn a full, thick beard for the past few years, I shaved it off to enter the Federation Space Program. Beards would keep our helmets from sealing properly with our spacesuits. Facial hair in space has killed many astronauts. Now, I am in a space pod with my fellow crewmen, McGursky and Savillo. We left earth several months ago, and are on our way to Mars, to join the colony.

"McGursky, did you ever try growing a beard?" I ask.
"I was more a mustache person. I had a pencil mustache, like John Waters, from back in the 21st century. I shaved it, because I looked like a pedophile, even though I could have kept it while in the FSP."
"I had a pudding ring," says Savillo.
"Ah, the McBeard," I say.
Looking out the porthole, McGursky exclaims "What's that?"
I look, and see a metal ring, miles in diameter, straight ahead of us. In the center is a blue energy field. "I hate blue energy fields. Buckle up, boys!"


I hate the inside of my mouth in the morning. I was always bothered by people who brush their teeth before breakfast--I tried it once, but the toothpaste made my orange juice taste untoward. I fail to comprehend how others can find brushing their teeth right before breakfast to be a pleasurable experience. I can't trust these people.

Instead, I drink very dark coffee to overwhelm the bad morning taste in my mouth--it's so acidic and bitter that it turns my stomach, but feeling queasy in the morning is better than having to taste that bad taste in my mouth.

I smack my lips, I am very thirsty. I try to get up to make coffee, and fall back down. My legs are crushed under a collapsed bulkhead. I groan.


I wake up again; all I can see are bright fluorescent lights. McGursky helps me sit up. I am in the sickbay. McGursky tells me that my legs had to be amputated, but I have been fitted with prosthetic robot legs. They're pretty kickin'.


We don our spacesuits, and step out of the space pod. We have crash landed on a planet covered in thick vegetation. We trudge through the vines and fronds; that is, McGursky and Savillo trudge, I more tromp. I'm surprised at how agile my new robot legs are.

Our sensors indicate that the atmosphere is safe for us to breathe. It's rather hot and muggy. We take off our helmets.

Climbing to the top of a hill, we find a large stone structure--perhaps it is some alien temple? A bit rashly, Savillo runs up to the entrance. McGursky and I try to stop him--he could be rushing into a trap. Instead, as we grab Savillo by his shoulders, we are now close enough to peer inside the building, and, sensing no obvious danger, we continue in.

The great hall feels cozy, it is lit by orange paper lanterns. The room is full of tables and chairs. On top of the tables are napkin dispensers and unfamiliar condiments. The wall opposite the entrance is covered in what look to be hundreds of windows, arranged in a neat grid. Drawing closer, we see that this is an automat. In one window, I see a goatee, in another, a handlebar moustache. I see a pencil mustache. And then, I gasp, as I see a beard that looks identical to the one I had before entering the FSP.

The machines take quarters, but all I have is cash.