Sunday, September 30, 2012

Nobel Bets 2012

It is that time of year again when the brightest of the brightest lie awake at night wondering whether they will get that elusive call from Stockholm.  For the rest of us, it is that time of year when we place our bets and take our chances.

Official betting odds have the Higgs boson as the heavy favorite.  See the official odds here.  The odds stand at roughly 1 in 3 that the prize will be somehow related to the Higgs.  Although at least seven people have some possibility of being included in this prize, the favorite combination appears to be Higgs and Englert. 

That said, betting odds are not everything.   The betting odds for Bob Dylan winning the literature prize are now almost 1 in 10.   However, these odds have apparently been artificially pushed up by many people who like the idea of putting their money on the rebellious bard.   (Still, Murukami remains the odds-on favorite for literature).

So do I think Higgs will win the prize?  Yawn.  Yes, I think that is probably the best bet for this year.     (The atlantic monthly says it is a sure thing). 

Reuters, however,  is betting against the Higgs.  They have listed three alternatives here.

1. Photoluminescence in Porous Silicon, Leigh T.  Canham.   Yawn.   Yes, this started a big field, and has been cited many times.  I just don’t think it is interesting enough.  

2. Slow Light, Steven Harris and Lena Hau.  Yeah, this was pretty cool.  And it would be very nice to have another woman physics Nobel Laureate.   But again, I somehow don’t think this is a likely one.

3. Quantum Teleportation, Charles H. Bennett, Gilles Brassard, and William K. Wootters.  This one is interesting, and potentially possible.  But I think it is slightly the wrong combination.  The teleportation paper was 1993 --- and it had seven authors.  I would instead choose Quantum Cryptography (which came first by many years) and award the prize to Bennet and Brassard (for their 1984 paper) along with Stephen Wiesner, for work in the early 1970s which had some of the key ideas in it.  In some ways the ideas that these guys were working on in the 70's and 80's really launched the quantum information field.   (Also Wiesner is an interesting character --- a bit of a hermit genius.)   

I still have my money on Higgs, but the quantum option an interesting one.

And who else should be on the list?   

For a number of years I've been saying Michael Berry for the famous "Berry Phase".  Yes, I know there were several previous discoveries of Berry Phase before Berry, but no one really nailed the issue  the same way that Berry did.    A possible combination (and one I'd really like to see) with Berry would be David Thouless.   I used to think Yakir Aharonov would be a good combination with Berry until I found out about this paper by Ehrenberg and Siday which was ten years before Aharonov-Bohm and has basically the same result.

Another one that no one besides me seems to think is likely is the discovery of neutrino mass by the Super-K collaboration.  I guess the problem there is that it is not clear which person (or people) would get the prize.  It is certainly deserving though.

Anyone else have opinions?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Shrunken Heads and Other Fun Things

When the British Empire spanned the globe, one thing they liked to do was to collect things from the outer reaches of the known world.   Lieutenant-General (pronounced "Left-tennant" here)  Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers  was particularly good at collecting things wherever he traveled.    His collection of, well, what his mother must have thought was complete junk, formed the basis of what became Oxford's Pitt River's (and natural history) museum.

While there are many many strange things in this museum, probably the most bizarre is the collection of shrunken heads or tsantas.     Here is one of the best looking of the collection   In case you can't read it, the sign behind it says "Scalp of an enemy painted red on the inside.  The holes round the edges indicate it has been stretched on a hoop --- N. American Indian"

They make these by removing the skin from the skull and then steaming the skin until it shrinks down to a tiny size.   Yuck.

Here is a photo of some more shrunken heads, this time with my hand in the photo so you get a size of how small they are.  The small guy on the bottom reminds me a bit of my brother when he is making his "vulture face".   It is hard to believe (and it is rather disgusting to think) that these were once people!

The museum is just filled with crazy stuff from all over the world.     If you've read the recent best-seller "Remarkable Creatures" by the author of "Girl with a Pearl Earring", you will be excited to know that many of the things collected by Mary Anning are in this museum as well. 

For those who have not read the book --- don't worry there is a movie being made.   If you can't wait for the movie,  Mary Anning was a fossil hunter in the 1800's who discovered some of the very first dinosaurs.  And although she was working class,  a spinster (a woman, for that matter), and not very well educated, she overturned the scientific establishment and became the world expert on fossils.  On the left are some of her smaller finds (The tag above says "Teeth of Large Marine Reptiles")

Among the other things they have in this museum is a huge collection of minerals.   I tried to get some good photos for my upcoming solid state physics book (very very close to done now!) but it turns out to be very hard to get nice photos of a rock.

The museum has a grand central hall filled with large dinosaur skeletons, large animal skeletons, stuffed animals, a stuffed (now extinct) dodo bird and countless other strange beasts.

On the particular day I visited the museum, two other animals were on display:


These are my parents.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Playing Tourist Part I

Last week my parents came to visit.  It was great to see them and it was really fun to do all the London and Oxford touristy things that one never does if one lives here.

For some of the visit my parents stayed in Oxford at my house (which, as mentioned here and here, I actually cleaned.)   For some of their visit, however, they stayed in London -- at a rather appropriate place  --- see the picture on the right --- I've always said that my family is a bit nutty!

One morning last week we went to the Imperial War Museum, which is a terrific collection of the history of  the UK during war.    They have a great (albeit depressing, as expected) exhibition on the holocaust.   They also have a terrific (and more upbeat) exhibition on MI5 and MI6 (James Bond stuff), and lots of interesting stories about soldiers.    Perhaps most interesting though is the huge collection of artifacts from the wars.

On the left here is a V2 rocket.  These things landed on London during WWII carrying thousands of pounds of explosives.   In some respects the Brits managed to outfox the Nazi's at every turn during the war -- but the V2 was one case where Hitler really had the upper hand --- there was just no defense against this thing.  It came in fast and silently and caused tons of damage.

 During the final years of the war, thousands of these things landed in England -- and thousands of people were killed by them.   Made by slave labor, interestingly enough, roughly one person was killed in the production of these devices for each person who was killed by them exploding on their targets.

Technologically, however, these things were a marvel.  Built by the young and brilliant Wernher von Braun, the V2 was the direct predecessor of almost every rocket ever built thereafter.  After the war, von Braun's Nazi history was secretly expunged and with false papers he was recruited to work for the US defense and space program.  His greatest achievement was the Saturn V rocket that put men on the moon.  He may be the only person who was both a hero to Nazi Germany and then many years later a hero to the US.

On the lighter side, here is a photo of a Sopwith Camel -- a combat airplane from the first world war.  Although I'm sure there were many bloody dogfights with this type of early aircraft, the Sopwith Camel is perhaps most famous now as being the airplane that Snoopy supposedly flew in combat against the Red Baron.

Here he is in action

Er... ok, maybe there is some similarity.... 

More on playing tourist later...

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Some geek info

I'm posting this info because both of these computer things cost me hours of grief and I'm hoping by posting them and having them google searchable, others will not suffer.

(1)  Upgrading to mac-osx lion, I found that the x2go client would not properly detect the mac keyboard.  Go to settings, keyboard, and type in pc104 where it is default pc105.   This fixes the problem (at least for me it did).

I still have a few problems with x2go.  But logging into my linux box from my mac, I find that kde4 and LXDE run fine.  The other window managers still give me trouble and crashed frequently.

(2) Writing a program in gfortran or g77  in ubuntu 12.04:

I had trouble running the program if the program requires over 2Gb of RAM.  The computer has 6GB so this should not cause trouble.   This caused me half a day of grief.  The solution was first, to include the compile flag (this is expected)


But even then, when the program wanted more than 2Gb, the program would compile but not link.   I then installed binutils-gold which swaps out the linker for a newer (and faster) version, and it works.

I'm still hunting down some bugs, but for some reason when my program takes more than 2Gb of memory, I'm still getting errors when I compile using gfortran.  But it works fine under g77, so maybe I'll just stick with that.   If anyone cares to debug, here is my info:

$ gfortran -v
Using built-in specs.
Target: x86_64-linux-gnu
Configured with: ../src/configure -v --with-pkgversion='Ubuntu/Linaro 4.6.3-1ubuntu5' --with-bugurl=file:///usr/share/doc/gcc-4.6/README.Bugs --enable-languages=c,c++,fortran,objc,obj-c++ --prefix=/usr --program-suffix=-4.6 --enable-shared --enable-linker-build-id --with-system-zlib --libexecdir=/usr/lib --without-included-gettext --enable-threads=posix --with-gxx-include-dir=/usr/include/c++/4.6 --libdir=/usr/lib --enable-nls --with-sysroot=/ --enable-clocale=gnu --enable-libstdcxx-debug --enable-libstdcxx-time=yes --enable-gnu-unique-object --enable-plugin --enable-objc-gc --disable-werror --with-arch-32=i686 --with-tune=generic --enable-checking=release --build=x86_64-linux-gnu --host=x86_64-linux-gnu --target=x86_64-linux-gnu
Thread model: posix
gcc version 4.6.3 (Ubuntu/Linaro 4.6.3-1ubuntu5)

$ g77 -v
Reading specs from /usr/lib/gcc/x86_64-linux-gnu/3.4.6/specs
Configured with: ../src/configure -v --enable-languages=c,c++,f77,pascal --prefix=/usr --libexecdir=/usr/lib --with-gxx-include-dir=/usr/include/c++/3.4 --enable-shared --with-system-zlib --enable-nls --without-included-gettext --program-suffix=-3.4 --enable-__cxa_atexit --enable-clocale=gnu --enable-libstdcxx-debug x86_64-linux-gnu
Thread model: posix
gcc version 3.4.6 (Ubuntu 3.4.6-6ubuntu5)

(the old linker) 
$ld.bfd -v
GNU ld (GNU Binutils for Ubuntu) 2.22

(the new linker) 
$ ld -v
GNU gold (GNU Binutils for Ubuntu 2.22) 1.11

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cleanliness is next to...

I'll be honest.  I'm a slob.   I've always been a slob.   My house usually looks like a disaster area.    Sometimes (like in this post) this causes problems.   

However, this week, my parents are coming to visit --- all the way from the U. S. of A --- and I promised them a clean place to stay.   So, although it took a lot out of me --- I vacuumed, I dusted, I organized (gasp) I cleaned!  (... as if this were something to report to the media).

On the left is a view of the sofa in the living room.  It is a nice piece of furniture when it is not covered in the usual mess.   Now I can actually sit on it without causing a landslide (this makes me the sofa king?)  Notice that you can actually see the floor through the glass coffee table.  For me, this is unusual.

I suppose I don't have to post pictures of every single room in the house, but it suffices to say that all of them have been made similarly tidy.  Even the garden has been ... well... improved at least.

For any of my friends who want to come visit, now would be a very good time to do so.  Presumably, the house will decay slowly back to its natural state of being a complete dump.   So if you want to come and stay in anything other than a dump, I recommend you do so now.

Having a clean apartment has resulted in some unexpected benefits.  On the right is a picture of my "office" (also known as "the other side of the living room").    Notice that you can actually see the surface of the desk.  That makes the desk functional.  Once I got everything functional again I decided it might be kind of cool to try working there instead of at the university -- and actually I kind of like it.  I wake up in the morning, I can go right to work, and I can stop to take a nap when I feel like it. In the last few days, I've been working here a lot, and actually I've been pretty efficient.

Maybe I'll turn over a new leaf and become a cleaner person.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Calling all Linux Geeks

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my excitement over installing Linux 12.04.1.    (Non linuxers need read no further).

Since then, as luck would have it, for work I've been writing some code.  Although this is not something I do a lot of, I do need to do it occasionally.   This code, based on a program I wrote a few years ago, is about 10,000 lines --- not huge perhaps, but still enough to be a project.  Anyway, this gave me an opportunity to stress test 12.04.1 and see how much I like it when I have dozens of windows open at the same time:  editors, debuggers, octave, data analysis, as well as the usual assortment of browsers, skype, and you-tube videos of skateboarding dogs.

After some getting used to, I decided that the Unity interface is ok.  I installed the Gnome classic menu and then never touched the HUD or Dash or whatever they call that thing.  I suppose if I'm not using the Dash, I'm probably missing the whole point.

However, there was a major problem with Unity.  As I mentioned in my earlier posting, the killer-app for me was NXFree -- the world's best virtual desktop.  Wherever I took my laptop, I could access my home computer with ease -- even on a slow connection. Unfortunately, once I made the upgrade, NXFree broke.   Even with a fair amount of work, I failed to make NXFree function properly.    Fortunately, there is an alternate program, x2go which is based on the same nxlibraries and works just as well, and it did seem to still work correctly -- but not for the Unity interface.  As a result, I started trying different window managers to see which one I could learn to love -- so that I would get used to the same environment whether I was at work or at home.

Here is the list of the environments I tried so far (in alphabetical order).

  Cairo-Dock (Gnome + Effects)
  Cairo-Dock (Gnome No effects)
  Cairo-Dock (with Unity Panel)
  GNOME Classic
  GNOME Classic (No effects)
  KDE Plasma Workspace
  Razor Desktop
  Razor Desktop (kwin)
  Razor Desktop (metacity)
  Razor Desktop (openbox)
  Ubuntu 2D (Unity 2D)
  Ubuntu (Unity)

Of these, my favorites (all which seem to work really well over x2go) are


Does anyone have any other favorites I should try out?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Some Appreciation...

Probably the very best moment of the year for any teaching faculty member is the moment when the last lecture is over and the class applauds.  You are happy to just be done with another exhausting term;  but moreover, it is  really wonderful when students show their appreciation for your hard work, and for the subject.   

I should say at this point, that Oxford students are extremely good about showing appreciation of faculty.  (I suppose this should not have surprised me, but when I arrived here I was not expecting it).  The students always say "thank you" at the end of every tutorial.  Most of them really do seem to understand how much work teaching is -- and most of them do realize that they are very lucky to have so much personal attention from faculty members. 

One gets positive feedback in other ways too.  Of course there are the official student evaluations.  Mine are usually good ---  I work hard to make sure of it.   I take it very hard when even a single evaluation is negative.  Maybe I shouldn't care so much, but I do.

There can be occasional awards as well.   Last spring I was thrilled to be nominated as a finalist for a teaching award from the Oxford Student Union.  (Look here for details).    

And there are some random other ways students show gratitude.   This year, the graduating Somerville students got me a plant -- a bromeliad (wisely chosen because it is fairly hard to kill --- and so far it is still alive!).

... and then there are occasional creative types of appreciation:  After my last lecture last spring I found in my "pidge" (i.e., mailbox)  the picture shown above by an anonymous student.   The topic of the lecture was self-consistent mean field theory in magnetism.   (Note the magnet in the upper left hand corner, and the words "self-consistency" featured prominently.   Not sure what the flower is doing there though).   It is not a bad likeness of me, no?   It certainly made me smile.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Dark and Evil Forest -- Redux

Keeping the plants in my backyard under control is a sisyphean task.  No matter how many weeds I remove, they seem to come back bigger and stronger.   Two years ago I wrote this blog post about my attempts to remove the overgrown nettles.   Despite hours of work, you will notice that the "before" and "after" pictures don't look all that different.

The following summer, I was even more defeated by the task.    Not only do the giant spiders hate me, but even the plants themselves hate me.   When my yard began to look like the amazon jungle, and the risk of wild animals roosting became too great, the college (who owns my house) kindly sent their gardeners over to clean up the mess.   On the one hand, I was very appreciative of help.  On the other hand, I felt very bad giving the college gardeners extra work  --- they do a wonderful job with the college grounds, and they really don't need an extra yard to deal with.

So this summer, after all my travels were done, I decided that I would take serious aim at the backyard.  I learned a few lessons from my previous attempts.

Lesson 1.  Get thicker gloves.
Lesson 2.  Always keep the giant spiders where you can see them.

So prepared, I spent the last few afternoons filling about 20 large trash bags with weeds.   Here are the before and after photos. 

Can you tell the difference this time? 

PS: broken link is now fixed. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

This week in awesome