Wednesday, April 28, 2010

I Read a Romance Novel

I owe all of what follows below to one person, and one person alone: Matt Simon. The story really begins about a year ago, at a used bookstore/coffeeshop located on the ground floor of an old woman's house in the ghost town of Louisberg, NC. Matt was buying a stack of used books, and was looking for one more so that he could qualify for some special buy 3 get 2 free deal, or something. I looked at a shelf of old paperbacks and grabbed the one with the most garish spine. It turned out that it was a book called "Sweety Baby Cookie Honey." I didn't then, nor do I now know what it is really about. All I know is that I opened it up to a random page and was greeted by a particularly explicit sex scene. Naturally, I told Matt that he had to buy this book, and not only that, he was going to read it.

That book is an entirely different story though. Months later, when he and I decided to form a two-man book club in which each person would select a book for the other every other month, I was dreading what I knew was inevitable. When Matt said he had sent my book, I was not in the least bit anxious to find out what he had drudged up from the abyss. I knew only that it would probably leave my brain shriveled and me curled up in the laundry room dry-heaving. An illustrated guide to horse breeding? A kama sutra from the seventies?

I should have been so lucky. My book was called "Santa, Honey," and was a short anthology of three Christmas-themed romance stories. I've read a lot of things, but none of those things have ever been a romance novel. My life is full of metaphorical potholes, but never has it occurred to me that a fictionalized love story would be just the thing to fill any of them. Needless to say, I put off reading it for as long as I could. This week marked the final week before the next selections in our book club would be exchanged, so there was no beating around the bush. I had to read the book, and I had to get it done fast. To become motivated, I freebased more caffiene than I'd ever consumed in my life (seriously - it was a truly massive amount), sat down on my couch, and began to read.

All three stories followed the same basic format: a frigid woman with no interest in a relationship (either because of having been previously burned by her boyfriend or because she's too devoted to her job, or some other selfless humanitarian cause, such as an orphanage, etc.) meets the sexiest man in the universe. They're forced together due to circumstances beyond their control, usually for a matter of days. In this book, a blizzard was used twice, and in the other story the guy had to work as a mall santa as community service to avoid a parking ticket, which is in steep competition for the most implausible thing to have ever been written. Take some sexual tension, multiply it by a factor of a thousand, and end with a poorly written sex scene that did nothing but made me question the author's choice of metaphors.

If this wasn't bad enough, add in every possible Christmas-innuendo you can think of. It's all here, as shameless as can be: peppermint sticks, jingle bells, "decking the halls", a partridge full of pear trees. If it was Christmas-themed, it happened. Ho, ho, ho, indeed.

One thought that I was unable to expunge from my mind as I read these three stories was that of the identities of the authors. Having no picture in the back cover to refer to, I was forced to use my imagination coupled with inferences from what I read. Several things were apparent to me from the stories - the women who wrote them had never been in a real relationship, or if they had, they were willfully ignoring realism in favor of giving the reader exactly what she presumably wanted without any burden of thought. Also, these women must have had an extremely optimistic view of men, as even the most reprehensible guys in these stories turned out to be massive charmers.

The scariest thing about these stories to me was the fact that the biggest fantasy focused not on the sex scenes or the seduction or the romance, but the personalities of the male characters. No man on earth has ever acted or ever will act like these characters did. I'd be lying if I said they were completely selfless or without ulterior motivations - one character starts out as sort of a slimeball focused on nothing but sex, but even he quickly turns into a selfless drone with only his mistress's needs in mind. Not only that, but he's good with kids, rich, holds a job that has acquainted him with celebrities, and is willing to be completely and utterly devoted to this woman for life. Nobody on earth could ever be this guy.

It's worth noting that at the end of this story, the guy calls up all his celebrity friends and has them visit the orphange where the protagonist works. I'm not kidding. In the book's most absurd twist, Janet Jackson (who must have been a celebrity in 1996) shows up and has Christmas dinner with the orphans. Then they all sing and dance. This coincided with the peak of my caffiene high and nearly sent me over the edge.

A surprising amount of the stories were written from the perspective of the men. Reading these parts of the stories provided a strange experience: viewing the mind of a man as it is imagined by a woman. As an example of how incorrect the authors got things, I'll draw upon a particular example from the orphanage story. When the guy meets the girl, the first thought that goes through his head is something along the lines of "Wow, is she beautiful!" The second thought is: "I need to ask her to marry me - how can I persuade her?" Then, finally, "I would like to have wild sex with her." While I hate to burst this particular bubble, I'm willing to bet that in reality, said slimeball wouldn't have thought of marriage second, nor third, nor fourth, ad infinitum.

The whole issue of fiction as wish-fulfillment is tricky. I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy novels, and while sci-fi at least has the excuse that it's provoking thought on the future and such, fantasy doesn't always. Some things I read are purely escapist, and I'm okay with that. Everyone projects themselves onto the protagonist of a novel to some extent when they read; that's what makes reading fun - experiencing things you wouldn't otherwise through the lens of someone else is great. I think there's a line an author crosses that takes them into the realm of indulgent wish-fulfillment though. Would I like to slay a dragon? Hell yes. Let's say, for the sake of argument that this is something I deeply desire. There are two ways an author can work this into a story for me. 1) I can read a book where a hero slays a dragon and then has to grapple with the larger implications of the slaying: why was the dragon there? Why did he slay it? Did he feel sorry about it afterward? Is he scorned for his actions, or treated as a hero? This gets me, as a reader, thinking about what the actual consequences of dragon-slaying might be, if, of course, dragons existed. 2) I can read a book where there's this huge dragon - like, the biggest most monstrous dragon ever. This thing doesn't mess around. Enter the awesome flawless most valiant hero in the history of the world (clearly meant to represent me). He tries so hard to kill the dragon, and it's not easy, but eventually he does. He completely and utterly slays it and is rewarded with fortune, fame, and acolytes. Happily ever after, etc. Can you guess which formula romance novels follow?

Harmless, right? Except that in these stories, it's not dragons or swordsmen or other clearly imaginary things that are being focused on, it's people in relationships. The way I imagine dragons can't be distorted beyond reality because it's not real to begin with. But when a book plants unrealistic notions about interactions with other human beings in your mind, then what happens? Like violence in video games, it's probably harmless 99.9% of the time. People in general are pretty good about separating fantasy from reality. I just found nothing else even remotely redeeming about this book, and it made the strangeness and distortion of reality stand out that much more.

To say that reading this book left me with no insights would be a lie. Rather, I think I've plunged into depths to which I had no intent of ever delving. It makes me somewhat frightened that this fictionalized notion of romance (which is very different than fiction containing romance as a plot device) is being sold in such vast quantities. However, I now know for a fact that I will never have to read a romance novel again.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Work Update #2

Last week:

  • I got sidelined by our final quantum mechanics homework set, which ended up consuming several days. We're in the last chapter of Sakurai's Modern Quantum Mechanics, which deals with scattering (in three dimensions, where it's unsurprisingly more complicated than one). The derivations are particularly obtuse, which is likely a side effect of the book being completed and assembled by a colleague after the author's death. I'm not sure if anyone knows exactly how much he actually wrote before he died, but the book falls apart slowly the deeper you get into it, and it just trainwrecks by the last chapter.

  • Worked with a scaled-down version of the hydrodynamics code to run a few test simulations:
    1. The Sod shock tube - a 1-D "tube" of fluid split into two regions: high pressure and density on one side, low on the other. The evolution shows a shock wave and rarefaction wave travelling in opposite directions from the initial boundary.
    2. The Sedov blast wave - a problem initially solved to estimate the amount of energy produced by a nuclear bomb. Sedov apparently solved it pretty accurately using only pictures of the blast. The setup is pretty simple - assume radial symmetry and put a lot of energy in the center of a stationary fluid. The pressure/density waves radiate outward with time just like you expect they would.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Work Update #1

This week:

  • I submitted an appication for a fellowship in computational science that would fully fund me through next year.

  • I was forced to develop the skeleton of a research project in a matter of days as part of the fellowship application. The idea (which is subject to change and evolve once research actually starts) is to model the accretion of a gas onto a black hole using a three-dimensional hydrodynamics code. Foglizzo and Tagger have done this in a general case with a Newtonian potential and found instabilities in the system that would presumably appear in the luminosity. Black holes don't follow the rules of Newtonian gravity though, so making things relativistic could cause further instabilities.

  • I kept on reading Thompson's Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics

Film Thoughts - 3/10

Forgot that I had written these:

A Prophet - This brutal French prison drama follows a young delinquent named Malik through six years of incarceration. Initially he's focused on simply surviving, but is quickly offered protection by the Corsican mafia, with one requirement - he has to kill an inmate belonging to one of the rival Arab gangs. This act doesn't come easy for Malik, and it follows him throughout the rest of his sentence as he becomes more involved in the world of organized crime. While the film is brutal by its nature, it, like Malik, never loses its humanity. He enters as prison as a naive kid, and leaves a trained criminal guilty of innumerable crimes. Even so, we get the sense that he's done his best to get by any way he can, and hasn't lost his dignity. This is a gritty film most of the time, but it isn't afraid to give us a few moments of beauty and introspection.

A Serious Man - A really great Coen brothers film that meditates on the bad things that happen to people who try (and fail) to do good things.

The Broken - A pretty mediocre doppleganger horror film. After getting in a car crash, a young woman gets the feeling that everything in her life is not right and that people she was previously close to have been replaced by evil identical clones. Is she just suffering from brain damage, or is there something seriously evil going on? It's slow, and not that surprising in the end.

The Core - How many times have I seen this wretched movie? About five, which is four too many. I used to show this in my Earth Science class as an example of bad movie science. Recently, the physics grad student society chose it as their film for "bad movie night." What do you do when the core of the Earth stops spinning? Drive a huge drill down below and blow up some nuclear bombs to kick-start it again. The dialogue is terrible, the jokes are lame, and the science is heinous.

Gamer - This film riffs on the "video games as reality" theme that's been around since "Wargames" and probably reached its peak with "eXistenZ." The premise here is that felons are offered a get-out-of-jail free card if they can survive running a violent combat-zone gauntlet for a certain number of matches (a la "Death Race 2000" or "The Running Man"). The catch is that they're remotely controlled by players who manipulate them much like avatars in a game. While it sounds like ground that's been covered many times before, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor as directors (as well as an awesome performance by Michael C. Hall) make it worth a look. Gamer sports the same sort of frenetic You-Tube style editing and gratuitous violence and sex that elevated the duo's Crank films above the realm of typical action films. Unfortunately, it's not always enough to make up for the sloppy battle scenes and lack of originality.

Gomorrah - I caught this at the "Legacies of Neorealism" series on campus. I'm not exactly sure what neo-realism is, but this crime drama definitely seems realistic. It focuses on the lives of several people in Italy who come into contact with the Comorra (the other Italian mafia, not the Sicilians). Some stories are more interesting than others, but they average out to being pretty good.

The Hurt Locker - I thought this was a good movie, but definitely not the best of the year, especially when pitted against Inglourious Basterds, District 9, and A Serious Man. A renegade soldier defuses bombs. That's about it.

Road Games - Jamie Lee Curtis got her start in a series of slasher films (most notably Halloween and Prom Night), and this one seems to have disappeared from the collective consciousness. I caught this at Cinema Overdrive, and it's fun enough for what it is. A truck driver in Austrailia notices a suspicious van and begins to believe that a serial killer is abducting and murdering hitchhikers. Not by any means great, but still enjoyable.

Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Season 3 - Watching this show is like lying on the couch at 3 am staring at local-access television while suffering from insomnia-induced hallucinations. This is probably the best season thus far, quality-wise. Previous seasons have been hit and miss as far as the consistency of the sketches, but Tim and Eric seem to have learned how to balance out all of their ingredients. This is humor that's willing to disgust and disturb you on the off-chance that you'll laugh out of embarassment.

The White Ribbon - A quiet meditation on violence and innocence set in rural pre-WWII Germany. More thoughts forthcoming.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


It occurred to me recently that it might be nice to log what I'm doing in the world of physics from time to time. When I was teaching I had interesting stories from work almost every day but very little time to actually write them down. Now that I'm in grad school, the opposite is true: I have ample time but a dearth of interestingness.

This past year has consisted mostly of me going to class and working problem sets. It's been interesting for me personally, but it doesn't really make for dynamic writing. "Isn't graduate-level physics where all the exciting stuff happens though?" Yes and no. Most of it is so steeped in mathematical formalism that it becomes interesting more as a set of tools than a collection of ideas. There are still interesting ideas out there, but they're rarely the focus of the required reading or problems.

The more I learn about physics, the less I enjoy digging into its implicit philosophical quandaries. Maybe I'm too much of a pragmatist, but as I do more and more physics, I realize exactly what physics is: a set of mathematical approximations describing physical phenomena. The descriptions can be awesome, but in my mind there's a difference the predictions themselves, and the way we obtain them.

What is a Green's function? Does it have physical meaning? Not as far as I can tell, but still it pops up again and again throughout all branches of fundamental physics. It's a really useful mathematical artifact that solves a wide variety of problems, so we use it. When it's useful to assign a physical meaning to something, we do it. When it's too abstract or convoluted, we don't. "Shut up and calculate" is a pretty useful way to view things sometimes.

I like problem solving. I also like big ideas, but I'm happy to put them aside most of the time to get things done. Still, in order for me to stay motivated, I need to know that there's something cool waiting at the end once all the work is done. This is why I'm probably going to end up in astrophysics - even if there's no less grinding than in any other branch of physics, it's to describe something that's (sometimes literally) orders of magnitude bigger and more awesome than, say, surface science or condensed matter.

I'm currently trying to arrange some summer research with a professor who applies large-scale fluid dynamics simulations to various problems in astrophysics. In preparation for a summer job, I've done/am doing a couple of things:

  1. Over spring break I went to a seminar on high-performance (parallel processor) computing. While I've done computational physics in the past, it was all relatively small scale. It's not too hard to re-envision writing code that will run in parallel, but it takes a different kind of thinking. While we didn't really do any useful examples, it was a nice introduction to MPI, the standard interface for parallel computing. Also, writing scripts and working in five linux terminals simultaneously always makes me feel like a hacker.

  2. I've been reading Thompson's An Introduction to Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics to get some of the basic physics down. Fluid dynamics is one of those things that it's possible to never have to do when you're learning physics. I touched upon it only once as an undergrad during a partial differential equations class. It's not part of the "standard" curriculum, and often gets overlooked, but it's fairly common sense stuff a lot of the time, and it seems like vector calculus was made for it. I'm currently working my way through material on accretion and shocks, which isn't intuitive yet, but is becoming so, slowly.

Hopefully as I start doing (as opposed to learning) more physics, I'll have more to report.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Top 10 Out of 10,000

I hit 10,000 songs played on my Zune the other day, and decided to dig out the statistics. Out of the last 10,000 these were the most frequently played. It starts with #1 and then goes in descending order.

I didn't want to have any artists on the playlist with more than one song, so in some cases it's the most frequently played song from an album I listened to a lot. The main exception here is Owl City - I like that song, but pretty much nothing else the guy has done.

1. Little Secrets - Passion Pit
2. Mind, Drips - Neon Indian
3. 10 Dollar - M.I.A.
4. You'll See It - Washed Out
5. Cartoons and Macrame Wounds - Mew
6. Ways to Make it Through the Wall - Los Campesinos!
7. Cave In - Owl City
8. Zodiac Girls (Pony Version) - Black Moth Super Rainbow
9. By Torpedo or Crohn's - Why?
10. Willow Tree - Chad VanGaalen

What's really interesting to me is how long on average it takes me to get familiar with an album. There were lots of other albums that I really enjoy and know really well, but have only listened to six or seven times. Passion Pit definitely hit #1 with about 18 listens, but the rest averaged between 10-15, which sounds kind of small to me. This is the power of data.