It was a teenage wedding, and the old folks wished them well...

I suppose visiting a foreign country like Moldova is rather like getting into a really cold pool. There are, by my reckoning, three ways to go about this: slowly, quickly, and involuntarily. For the purposes of this discussion, we shall focus on the last - being thrown in head first.

It was only my second day in Moldova - and I was to attend a wedding. In America, this means church pews, organ music, tears, and a general sense of solemnity. In Moldova, this means a ten hour dance party, punctuated by feasting, drinking, feasting, dancing, drinking, and feasting. And if you didn't think you could punctuate dancing with dancing, you are sorely mistaken. Me - I was just sore.

What kind of dancing? The Hora. Over and over and over again. Every ten minutes, the trumpet player would stand up, and the Hora music would start (imagine playing "Flight of the Bumblebee" for ten hours - I still don't know how he did it.) Twenty to thirty people would then circle up and start Hora-ing thier hearts out. If my wedding is half this fun...

The truly amazing part of the wedding came when the basket was passed around. Every family in attendance gave the newlywed couple around 100 US dollars. That's a month's earnings for the average household in Moldova. There were over a hundred people in attenance - which means that a wedding brings in enough money for a couple to start a real life together.

The groom is a student at the University of Alabama. He will be returning there for the next two years to finish his degree - which means that the couple will have precious little time together before he leaves. Why not take her with him? Because it is almost impossible for Moldovans to get visas to other countries. If you are an American, you are used to traveling freely from nation to nation. For someone from a poor country like Moldova, this is completely impossible - "we" simply don't want "them" in our country. Think about that, next time you cross a border by flashing your coveted blue passport.



Heading East

I'm packing my bags and heading east - to the land of Moldova. When I get some time (and a working internet connection) here's what you can look forward to
  • The CERN chronicles, volumes I-III
  • Geohashing - yes, I did it!
  • What not to do while clubbing in Munich (hint - gravity will play a role)
  • Tips for traveling across Eastern Europe by train (just as soon as I discover some)
  • The state of science in Moldova
  • Comics!
Random thoughts/quotations/advice:
  • Just once, I want a cropcircle to disappear overnight. Then, I would be impressed.
  • Never put anything in your ear larger than a pirate
  • Always know where your towel is
  • Do ants cry compound tears from compound eyes?


CERN, Prologue

I woke up at 7:00AM for a 2:00 tour of CERN. Clearly, I had some time to kill. If I were a smart world traveler, I would have read about all the attractions, parks, museums, and activities that were available in a city like Geneva. If I were a smart traveler, I would have these listed on a piece of paper, perhaps with a map attached. If I were a smart world traveler, I would have brought an umbrella.

I am not a smart world traveler. However, I have a hat, a towel and a cheerful disposition - so I set off walking.

The first thing I discovered during my wandering was a small science museum, situated in a lovely park by the lake. When I reached the front door, I discovered something else - the people of Geneva really don't like to do anything before ten in the morning. So, I kept walking.

I wound up on the lakeside, when I caught sight of something in the distance. It was a familiar band of color, set against the rainy, muted greys of Geneva. The streak of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet drew me like a Siren's call. I've heard of tourist traps, but this was like a geek-trap - I think I know how flies feel as they streak toward a bug-zapper. Luckily, I was neither electrocuted nor captured by an evil madman and forced to build a superweapon (or was I?)

I was, instead, amazed.

It turned out to be a special public exhibition: CERN through the lens of Peter Ginter. Put simply, the exhibition consists of fifty large photograps, each with a caption and explanation, mounted to poles along the quay. But the simple explanation does not do this project justice. It is much more than a photo album of a science experiment. In just a few pictures, this display manages to communicate not only the astonishing scale and minute precision of the LHC, but it conveys something of it's spirit, as well.

Proud eyes look out from the weathered faces of Russian factory workers who sit atop hundreds of brass shell casings left over from the Soviet military. 800 tonnes of these casings will be melted down as part of a program to recycle old Russian weapons into peaceful purposes.

In another image, three violinists from CERN play in the foreground as one of the massive magnets of the LHS is hoisted on a crane behind them. Other images show the incredible size and beauty of the LHC itself. One shows the massive underground chamber that houses the CMS detector before it was installed. The hauntinly empty space is cathedral-like. In another, a physist is barely visible behind the stacks of papers on his desk.

Perhaps my favorite image is of a physicist in black robes, meditating peacefully before a component of the accelerator. The unison of science and spirituality in this image is so different from what we are used to in America. It seemed to convey the idea that we are all searching - within ourselves or within the spectacular collisions of atoms - for understanding.

After walking slowly amongst the images and descriptions, I was more eager than ever to see CERN for myself. For me, this trip was about the science - but I was beginning to understand that this place was about more than science: CERN is a human endeavor. Scientists from around the world find themselves working together, sometimes from the unlikeliest of places. Physicists from Palestine and Israel, Pakistan and India, and many others are united in this one place - all working toward a common goal.

All this, and I wasn't even at CERN yet... This was shaping up to be a great trip.


P.S. - Apologies for the late post, for some reason this was incredibly hard to write...


Watch this Space

Apologies, my CERN report is long overdue. The first volume will be up tonight - my word as a Spaniard.



I Stand Corrected

In an earlier post, I described some of the "classic" examples that are used in physics classes. I was surprised when, in a lecture on transformers, the teacher didn't mention the role that transformers played in power transmission.

Turns out, I needed to be more patient. Yesterday, the teacher not only described, but actually demonstrated how transformers are used to deliver electricity over long distances. He set up a voltage supply to represent a power station, and a pair of lamps to represent different cities. First, he connected a lamp to the voltage supply, to show that it could light up. Then, he ran wires from the lamp to a pair of 1 kOhm resistors. He explained that if you want to run power over long distances, the resistance of wires becomes a problem. Between the resistors, he wired another lamp - which didn't light up. He increased the voltage so high that the first lamp blew out - to demonstrate that you can't just "up the voltage" and expect things to work out well for everyone. "Oh Noes!" Thought the class, "how will the people of second-lamp-ville get power?" Never fear, for SCIENCE is here!

Wolfi (our fearless teacher) then used transformers to step-up the voltage through the resistors, and then to step-down the voltage to the second lamp. Huzzah! Sweet, delicious electricity flows to the lamp, and they all lived happily ever after. The best part about all this is that the resistors were mounted on stands, so that the wires actually looked like power lines. Wolfi even told me there were covers for the lamps that made them look like houses.

It may not excite anyone else, but I think taking that extra step to make the power lines look like power lines made the demonstration really effective.



The Days to Come

Traveling aplenty await your fearless hero over the next week.

I travel to CERN on Wednesday for my tour Thursday afternoon then back to Waging for a 4th of July party and finally up to Munich Satruday morning for my return to the Deutsches Museum.There will pe pictures aplenty from CERN and the museum - as well as detailed accounts of my travels.

But while we're on the subject of traveling, adventure, and towels - who here has heard of Geohashing? Hands down if you think I'm talking about geocashing, though it is similar in many ways.

Geohashing is a way of generating a random set of GPS coordinates every day, all of which will fall in the rectangular "graticule" between the whole-numbered latitude and longitude lines containing your house. In English - it's a daily adventure generator. You can play with it here, just pick a location, enter the date, and boom! adventure generated. The idea is that you take your GPS unit, and run/bike/swim/drive/hike/take a derigible to the coordinates. There, you may find geeks - lots of geeks.

This was all started by Randall Munroe, author of xkcd and generally cool guy. The way it words is pretty nifty, too - your coordinates and the day's date are combined with the most recent closing price of the DOW. These are then run through a computerized meat grinder and out pop some GPS coordinates! Because it uses the DJIA, there is no way to predict the coordinates (unless you can predict/influence the stock market to a frightening degree). It also means that, because trading is suspended over the weekend, the coordinates for Satruday, Sunday and Monday are set on Friday afternoon. So, every week, the official xkcd meetup happens at 16:00 Saturday in every graticule.

There are lots of interesting things to use this for - I'm planning on using it to generate random bike rides next semester. You could use it for adventuring, for getting to know the more hidden/remote locations around your town, and for meeting fellow geeks tromping around the woods with GPS recievers in their hands.

I haven't been to a geohash yet - and I missed some prime opportunities. There were two within walking distance of the house in Waging. However, I'm going to keep an eye on it, and maybe be able to visit coordinates in Germany, Moldova, and Italy. If I do, I'll be sure to post my achievements on the blog.


Bloglet - So Close...

Well, Germany has lost the final round of the Euro Cup. In a furous game against Spain, Germany was the first team to make a mistake. The early goal by Spain stood unchallenged for the entire game, and carried Spain to a 1-0 victory over Germany.


Bloglet - The Soundtrack

I have been literally inundated with requests to know what music I'm listening to while I'm here in Germany.

Actually, that's not true. But just in case you were wondering, deep down in that dusty corner of your brain reserved for remembering the digits of pi and the combination to your safety deposit box full of My Little Ponies (assuming those are different...) here is a sampling.

The Weakerthans - a great Canadian band with some wonderful lyrics. Highlights include Elegy For Gump Worsley, Civil Twilight, Tournament of Hearts, Pamphleteer, Sun in an Empty Room, and Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault In Paris, 1961)

Chuck Ragan - A great voice, rooted folk music, and eloquent lyrics. What more can I ask for? For Broken Ears and Do You Pray are personal favorites.

Johnny Cash - I've been telling myself to buy the American albums for a few years now. I saw the music video for "Hurt" in a hotel room full of boys from the Parkview debate team - every one of us was moved to tears. The bits and pieces of other songs that I've heard over the years have been consistently amazing. That man's voice was like a fine wine - only getting better and better with time. I hope that, wherever he is now, they are enjoying his incredible songs.

(interesting note - I'm related to June Carter Cash)



With Apologies to the Internet

The internet can be a lonely, crowded place sometimes. It's easy to fall into the trap that a) things you say are somehow "private" and b) your voice does not count. This blog is over two years old, and is only now developing into something because I think I've finally figured out how to deal with these issues. To the first, I it's important to remember that your audience is only potentially massive - write for the audience you want to write for, and welcome the rest. To the second, well, remember that your audience is potentially massive - that your words have the potential to reach billions. But on most days it doesn't, so thank your lucky stars that someone is taking the time to read. I appreciate each and every one of you for taking the time out to read my words, and even add a few of your own.

Which brings me to my next point - words might not be all that appears here. I think I might actually draw some comics!

Every time I've thought about what I want this blog to be, the idea of posting some funny comics has always been in the back of my mind. The problem, of course, is that I can't draw people worth a flip. Somehow, I skipped straight to spaceships and landscapes. The other problem, of course, it that comics aren't really funny without people.

Then, a few years ago, I came across xkcd and realized that maybe, if you are funny enough, detailed pictures aren't necessary. Now my problem is coming up with something that
isn't xkcd - which is a problem, because I consider it to be funnier than a big bag full of funny.

But, while I was doodling today, I think I might have hit on something. I still have to figure out how to do all this, and get over the "maybe this isn't funny" hurdle, but I think this could be fun. Stay tuned...

In other news: I am a terrible boyfriend. I have completely failed to mention that Lauren is currently working in Conway at the Arkansas Shakespeare Theater. Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and The Sound of Music* are all running for the next couple of days, I think. If you're anywhere in Central Arkansas, you should go.

Lauren is the assistant stage manager for both Romeo and Juluet and The Sound of Music. She's also running the front of house for Tempest, so you can actually say hello!

*Confused? So was I - but it makes sense. Skakespeare theaters will almost always include a big musical to draw a crowd and pay the bills, and hope the audience comes back for the Bard.

Today, my towel came in handy as: a wristpad for my mouse.




Germany over Turkey 3-2!

What a game. I haven't gotten that worked up about a sporting event since I left my beloved baseball State-side. This means that we advance to the finals, where we will face either Russia or Spain. That'll have to be all for now - I haven't been sleeping enough this week.

Today, my towel came in handy for: Cheering on Deutschland!



Towel: The Triumphant Return

Several of my cherished readers have noticed the distinct lack of towel-blogging in the last few weeks. There is a very good reason for this... somehow.

So, glossing over that point, and moving right ahead - Munich! I got to spend the day in Bavaria's largest city. Andi and some students from his French class were taking a trip there to see a lecture by Azouz Begag - and he thought I might like to tag along.

So, tag along I did - but not to see a lecture - my destination was the Deutsches Museum.

If you love science, you have to spend a weekend at the Deutsches Museum. Not an hour, not a day - but a whole weekend. I'm going back as soon as I can, and I'm not leaving for at least two days. They can lock me in - I'll sleep in the observatory!

A detailed post about the museum will have to wait until I visit it again - even though I spent the whole day there, I want to see more before I five a full report.

However, I did go to the museum's planetarium - which was interesting. I've been to quite a few really nice planetariums thanks to Johnson and his Astronomy Club trips. We have visited large digital domes and small mechanical domes - as well as a few in-between. However, none of them have been quite like the one in the Deutsches Museum.

The first thing that surpised me was how little room there was to wait on a show. The planetarium is at the top of a 5-story spiral staircase, and the area to wait on the next show is basically just the small landing at the top of that staircase. So, thirty people all crammed into that small landing - and me having to stand next to the railing above a 60 foot drop. Have I mentioned I don't like heights?

When I enterend the planetarium itself, I was also suprsied. I had expected some state-of-the-art techno extravaganza - but what I found was a simple flat-floored room with a large dome overhead. In the middle was a beautiful Zeiss planetarium with some accompanying slide projectors - very simple.

When the cove lights went down and the show started, a very accurate image of Munich at night was projection around the base of the dome. The whole show was pre-narrated in German, and consisted of a basic tour of the night sky and the planets. A few slides were thrown in for good measure - and it looked as though they were being projected straight up at the zenith - maybe the projector was integrated into the planetarium. In all, the show lasted about 20 minutes.

At the time, I was underwhelmed. It wasn't the planetarium - that was probably the best mechanical system I've ever seen - it was more the simplicity of the show. I was expecting something more than a tour of the sky, but that's all that's currently being shown.

It wasn't until I left the museum and got back to Waging, that I learned the Deutsches Museum was the site of the first planetarium in the world. I am assuming that the planetarium I was sitting in was not the original - almost all of the Deutsches Museum was destroyed by Allied bombs in World War II - as was just about everything in Munich, for that matter.

Now I understand better. It would be a shame to install some high-tech digital projector in this place. What I saw on the dome today was little changed from what people in 1923 saw for the first time. The planetarium is truly as much a museum piece as anything else I saw today.

Today, my towel came in handy as: A makeshift pillow on the train ride back to Waging.



Making Rainbows, Shooting Monkeys, and Crossing Running Rivers.

(10 geek points if you already know what this post is going to be about)

There are certain things that you take for granted as a physics student in America. The first three that came to my mind are rainbows, monkeys, and rivers.

(5 geek points if you now know what this post is going to be about)

These three examples are staples of the American physics classroom. When you learn about optics, you learn about how rainbows are made. When you learn about projectile motion, you "shoot the monkey," and when you learn about vector addition, you paddle across a running river. Every general physics book I have laid my hands on has covered these three examples in some form*.

But there are so many differenced between the German and the American physics system. Do these children, bright as they are, know about rainbows? Do they know about shooting the monkey? I'm making it my mission to find out.

What spurred this? I was sitting at home with Andi earlier today - outside the front window, the sun was setting behind a light rain. Because I've taken physics from Terry Johnson, and I've played in my fair share of lawn sprinklers, I knew that if the sun was setting in front of the house, and it was raining, there must be a rainbow out back. I didn't have to look first - I just knew. I wonder if this kind of thing gets taught in the German classroom.

For example, today was the third or fourth time I've sat in on the "here's how a transformer works" demonstration. I've heard it from three different teachers for two different grades, and not a one of them has (as far as I have heard) mentioned all the transformer steps between a power station and your house. Transformers allow us to move electrical power through miles and miles of electrical lines, with very little loss. It may not sound like life-changing information, but to me, it's like not getting to hear the end of a favorite song.

This is not to say that the teachers didn't have great demonstrations of the usefulness of transformers - all of them showed off the step-up transformer hooked to a Jacob's Ladder, and one of them even melted wax with a step-down transformer and a ring-shaped wax holder.

I just worry that the students, bright as they are, aren't getting the whole picture. Physics isn't just whizz-bang neat-o demonstrations in a classroom, or a set of beautiful equations - it's the most accurate explanation of the inner workings of the universe known to humans.

Maybe the magic is getting lost in translation.

*the one exception being my university physics book. Apparently, to be more sensitive to... monkeys, I guess... the example involved shooting a coconut. A coconut. Who shoots at a coconut? What possible reason is there to shoot a coconut? I swear...



Fake it, 'till You Make It

Sorry about that, folks - I guess I finally fot the chance to get some rack-time and took it.

I've spoken more German in the last day that I can shake a stick at. Unfortunately, I don't know how to say "stick" "shake" and I'm not sure which of the prepositions mean "at" (oh, wait, they all do.)

Most of the German that I have been hearing during my trip is in a physics or math classroom. It's pretty easy for me to understand what's going on, because I know what the teacher should be saying. Conversational German is something completely different - like those terrifying moments after class when the teacher asks me what I thought, or where I'm from, or what the hell I've been doing in the back of thier classroom all this time (I can't really be sure.)

So, imagine my terror when Andi tells me that I'll be spending the day in Salzburg with a colleague of his, rather than in the Gymnasium - and that Helga doesn't speak very much English. At all. Oh well, sometimes you gotta run before you can walk, or some such nonsense.

The good news is: I ran. Well, I jogged. Power walked might be the better term - the point is that I made it, and managed to talk to Helga about quite a few things (not just the "Wo ist der Bahnhof?" that language guides assume every conversations consists of.) We talked a lot about the city of Salzburg - famous for Mozart and, well, salt. The money from the salt mines allowed the town to build magnificent castles and cathedrals. I also learned that Salzburg is the birthplace of Christian Doppler - know what he was famous for? I'll give you a hint... nnnnnnneeeeeEEEEOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWwwwwwwwww

While Helga and I were looking in on a theater scene shop, where carpenters were crawling all over a half-completed set, I told her about all the amazing things that Lauren has learned while in theater - welding, carpentry, mime, disaster management, kung fu and the like. About that time, we were swamped by American touists, snapping pictures and listening to the tour guide over a bullhorn. "Entschuldigung!" means "excuse me" in German. After saying it a few times as I squeezed through the crowd, I stopped and said "I suppose I could just say 'excuse me'" to anyone in earshot. I realized that these were Americans, I could just say "excuse me," but my brain's first reaction was to use German. Someone replied "Very good!" - for some reason, that meant a lot to me. It meant that, to that person, at least, I had them fooled. I wasn't a tourist.

...but I did buy some Mozartkugeln



A Teacher, Four Walls and a Roof.

In my notebook, I'm trying to keep a running log of everything that's going on in the class - the teacher, the students, the lesson... the works. Scattered generously in the margins are phonetically spelled German words I need to work out the meaning of.

Over the last few days, though, something else has caught my eye - the building itself.

I commented in an earlier post that this place was a palace. But I didn't understand that it's also an amazingly clever piece of architecture. There are windows, windows everywhere. With the weather we've been having, they've been open for most of the week. The fresh air and the natural light mean that the building is amazingly comfortable, and the fluorescent lights are hardly ever turned on.

This is light-years removed from my high school, where the windows were plexiglass arrow-slits that didn't open. The multi-million dollar Mathematics and Computer Science building at UCA has no windows at all in the classrooms - only in the professor's offices. The three sides of the building that aren't dolled-up with windows and concrete facade (read: the sides that aren't facing the road) are three stories of flat, uniform brick and mortar. You could call it a canvas, but that would be illegal - go figure.

Of course, this leads to some challenges. I was in a physics class, where the teacher was lecturing on double-slit interference. Just as I was writing in my notebook how the natural light made it hard to see the overhead-projected diagram, there was a click, and the sound of electric motors.

Sun shades were being lowered over the windows, at the touch of a button.

I don't have "gorsh, that's mighty fancy!" Arkansas country boy moments very often - but this one floored me. I stared open-mouthed as the shades came down in front of the windows. I think the teacher was the only one who saw my reaction...

This wasn't the end of the techno-wonderment, though. There are also semi-transparent sun shades outside the windows, that seem to be controlled centrally - they raise and lower with changing light conditions, and seem to do so differently on different sides of the building. There are manual overrides in each classroom, in case the teacher needs them. I talked to Andi about it - he loves the natural light in the rooms. He says it keeps everyone awake and alert, and generally makes the classroom a more pleasant place to be.

All the classrooms still use chalkboards. The math/science classrooms have a set of large-scale drafting tools hanging by the board to make drawing diagrams a snap - rulers, protractors, compasses. There's a subtle pattern laid into the boards, themselves - little tic marks that make up a grid across the board. It's very useful, but unobtrusive - you don't notice it at first glace, unlike the bright grid lines i've seen on some chalkboards here. They also move up and down the wall on rails, so teachers don't have to do the awkward "keep writing while trying not to stick your butt out" dance toward the bottom of the boards. The constant dust that has largely done away with chalkboards in the American classroom is solved very simply - with a wet sponge.

The best thing about it all was the sense that it was done to last. The doors, the chalkboards, the window shades, they all move with a certain... purposefulness that you need to open the door of a Volkswagen to really appreciate. It's all very solid.

But, in the end - does all this gadgetry make a difference? Is the same teacher going to teach better in a "better" classroom? I'm not so sure, but it's something I'm going to be thinking a lot about over the following months - especially when I go to Moldova, where the infrastructure is decidedly more... Soviet.



The Weather...

No, this is not going to be a post about the weather, for lack of anything better to talk about. Rather, this is a post about the way people in Germany (and Europe in general, I suppose) relate to the weather.

I was born and raised in Little Rock - never lived anywhere else. I've seen thunderstorms, tornadoes, ice storms... the works - and every single time there was reason to listen, someone was giving me a weather report - whether on television, the internet, or radio.

Here in Germany, things work much, much differently. There are no weather radars - I mean, I assume that air traffic control manages a few, but I can't even find a public weather radar on the internet - at least, nothing like we're used to in the States.

I guess that comes from never having to know if that super-cell is bearing down on your house, or exactly when the line of thunderstorms is going to hit your town. I understand that these just aren't concerns over here, but I'm spoiled on live Doppler radar that can project weather three or four days out.

So, my new method? The tried-and-true GOLU - go outside and look up!



Waging Am See

The big news of the day - Deutschland defeats Poland 2-0 in the first round of the EuroCup Championship.

So, some observations about my new-found sport:

1) It lasts for 90 minutes... sort of. After the game is over, one must of course make relativistic correction for the proper time experienced by the players. Then, you play until the referees get tired of chasing after you. All in all, about 3 minutes.

2) Behold, the sheer pointlessness of a 0-0 tie! That was the score when you woke up this morning. That would have been the score if neither team showed up to the stadium. That would have been the score if both teams dropped dead on the field.

3) It's really, really, fun to watch. I may bash it, but I love watching soccer. The emotion of a goal is incredible! The second goal that Germany scored against Poland was a thing of beauty - it was so well coordinated, so well timed, and so well executed - it could not have happened any other way.

4)Hanging out of Andi's front window and yelling Gooooooooooooooooooal! Is really fun. We might have had a bit too much Spanish wine...

The town that I am living in is Waging am See. It's a beautiful place - just big enough to have the the shops that you need, and small enough to be truly rural. Here is the Google Maps link.

I took a bike tour of the area today with Helmut, Andi's father-in-law. This place is breathtakingly beautiful. The rolling hills are covered in small farms and dairies, all set in front of the beautiful mountains, one of which has come to be called the "sleeping witch." Despite the fact that mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut, and Helmut's english ist nicht so gut, we got by. It was great fun to get outside and see the place close up - something I'm probably going to do every day, from here on.

That's all for now. I do have one more link to share - it's a "remix" of a new Radiohead song called "nude" - but it's done with obsolete computer hardware. My favorite bits are the hard drive speakers... ingenious.


Die Seidler III

I think I may have found one of the better RTS games ever made - and it was all in German. Die Siedler III (US: The Settlers III) is a complicated, rich game where success depends on how well you can manage the various resources at your disposal.

Now, let me begin by saying you're probably better off buying the english version of the game. The learning curve isn't that steep - by the end of my first game I had a good understanding of how to succeed. The "goal" I suppose is to destroy your enemies. However, it takes a long time to raise an army. It's not like other wildly popular RTS games, where the inexplicable combination of minerals and gas fuels your war machine. It's easy to get caught up in a game like StarCraft, until you realize that you can't train any more troops because you "Need more minerals." It's only then you realize that all it took to turn a human into a steroid-crazed one man killing machine were some glowing blue crystals.

No, Die Siedler takes a more... logical approach. Soldiers are the pinnacle of technological achievement in the game, and as in real life, it takes a lot to make a soldier. Working backwards, from most to least complicated - he needs a weapon. You have to forge weapons out of iron ingots, which takes a coal-fueled fire. You can get charcoal from burning wood, or you can mine coal. You need to mine the iron ore, and then refine it into ingots.

All this mining takes miners, who (when last I checked) require food. Tasty fish come from lakes and streams, but it takes a fisherman's hut to get at them (well, I suppose it's technically the fisherman who catches the fish, but he needs somewhere to sit and write poetry in the cold winter darkness.) If you want to feed them bread - then you have some work to do. First, you need farms to grow the wheat. Then, you need windmills to grind the grain. Then, you need water and a baker to bake the bread.

Of course, you can't build any of these structures without the wood and stone that form the basis of the supply chain. And even when all the buildings are done, you need people to run them. That's what I really love about this game - when you make a loaf of bread, someone has to carry it to the mines. When you build a structure, dozens of little settlers transport wood and stone to the site.

I appreciate this game, I really do. It takes a little bit of ingenuity to win - You can't just start training soldiers because you have a barracks and a large stockpile of silicon - it takes a long, complicated sequence of interactions, and the production from basic materials of more and more complicated goods.

Unfortunately, I hear than subsequent Settlers games got "dumbed down" more and more. I guess 1998-1999 really was the pinnacle of RTS achievement. For a more in-depth discussion of that issue, head over to Snook's post on an upcoming space RTS.



Die Fälle

Hey, kids - remember your old buddy grammar? You used to play together in grade school, but then something changed - you started hanging out with literature, and one thing led to another... Now you and grammar don't talk much.

Well, grammar and I have just bumped into one another in Germany, and boy was that awkward! At first, I didn't even recognize her, and then when I finally did, I couldn't remember any of her names ("Participle," I never would have guessed that! Must be Dutch.)

So anyway - you should really call her...

This message brought to you by people-who-get-pummeled-by-grammar-when-studying-a-foreign-language for America.

The good news is this: German seems a lot more logical than English - at least the baby words I'm playing with right now. Things fit together in really logical patterns, and most of the "gender" and conjugation is pretty easy to figure out. All the names of the various bits and pieces of grammar are slowly coming back to me, which helps a lot. I remember when verbs came in present, past and future - I guess I blocked out all the pluperfect and past participle melarkey.

Dammit, Jim! - I'm a scientist, not a linguist!

We're heading into the weekend, so that means a steady diet of hot tea and German. I need to be able to understand at least a little of what's going on when I jump into the belly of the beast on Monday. It's just improbable enough to work!

Today, my towel came in handy for: drying my thermos.



Die Beweungsgleichungen

Todays lesson about German - why have several words when one really long one will do? "Die Beweungsgleichhungen" means "the equations of motion." Isn't that interesting...? I knew you would.

I spent the day at the Gymnasium in Berchtesgaten. Let me begin by saying that this place is a palace - think Rogers High School, only cooler. There's something really attractive about the way things are built over here. I got my first taste of this when Andi and I went over the Big Dam Bridge in Little Rock last fall. He saw some new house construction, and asked what I thought was a really odd question: "You build your houses out of wood?" "Yes," I replied, "what else would we build them out of?" "Stone, of course! No wonder your houses get blown up by tornados!" We'll let his gross underestimation of mother nature slide on account of the fact he's never been through a twister.

There is a difference, though - things seem much more permanent here. The walls of my bedroom at Andi's house are nearly a foot thick. Because of this, doors and doorframes are mounted more against the wall than in it. There are disadvantages - you can't just drop in an electrical outlet wherever you want one. Wiring has to be run through pre-drilled "tunnels" in the walls. The windows are really cool, too - they can either open on hinges like a door, or they can pivot about the bottom edge, letting in some fresh air - think one of those fancy tailgates than can open normally, or swing open like a door. Must be those magic hinges. Outside there are big wooden shutters, which make the houses look all... European - now why don't we have
those in Tornado Alley?

But I digress. While at the Gymnasium, I met with all the physics teachers, so they could get to know me before I go barging into their classrooms for the next two months. I also have armfulls of physics and math textbooks, which should be invaluable in learning the classroom lingo.

Tomorrow is going to be a "day off" - I'm staying home and learning German all day.

Today, my towel came in handy for: fending off a mosquito hawk



Of Planes and Rain and Atomic Alerts

After a whirlwind adventure around the globe, I am finally ready to go to sleep in Waging. I don't really know how long it's been since I slept... maybe a day or so. I'm still functional and everything - actually a little more than I would be had I spent the entire night studying.

Here are a few observations from my travels:
1) Whit was right! At least, I think it was Whit. I remember someone describing mysterious vehicles at Dulles airport. The conversation went something like this:

"So, it's a tram?"
"No, not a tram - there's no track."
"Ah, we call that a bus."
"No, it's way bigger than a bus - the cabin is like 20ft off the ground"
"so, it's the body of an AT-AT with huge wheels instead of legs?"
"basically, yes"

Here's a pic of the beastie - ripped from Google Image search:

2) You are now asked to pre-board a plane. I know this sounds like a George Carlin routine (it might be, actually) but what the hell is pre-boarding? You're either in the plane or you're not - there really isn't an appreciable quantum flux between the two. If they mean "line up" then the French have already come up with a brilliant word for that - "queue."

3) Stepping into London-Heathrow is like stepping into Hell. First of all, it breaks the cardinal rule of places-I-am-forced-to-sit-for-long-periods-of-time: There's no free wifi. Second of all, things are so bass-ackwards right now that you get off the plane in the middle of, well, a plane parking lot, then you get on a bus that takes you to the airport. Then you go through some sort of Einstein-Rosen bridge into an alternate dimension of helpful signage slapped onto a completely unhelpful building. Once you've been waling for half an hour, you begin to think the signs are just toying with you - like Garrett Steele is in a booth somewhere - in a white lab coat, thoughtfully jotting things down on a clipboard. Finally, because there don't seem to be nearly enough terminals for the number of flights, you have to wait until 20-30 minutes before departure before you figure out just where your plane is. Of course, this leads to what I call the "Heathrow Shuffle" where despairing passengers walk from their seats to the departure screens, then back to the seats, then back to the screens.

4) You can drive really, really fast in Germany. In the rain. With an American passenger who learned quickly to abandon all fear, lest he actually leave a crease in the passenger seat.

5) I am the bringer of water - apparently it hadn't rained a drop in Waging until I arrived. Stay tuned as I wrestle sand-worms and lead a guerrilla uprising.

6) I am the bringer of nuclear accidents - there was a coolant leak at a nuclear power plant in Slovenia. When something like that happens, an alert scrolls across the bottom of the television screen - which is fun, if your German is really bad and all you can parse is "europaweiten Atomalarm" (Europe-wide atomic alarm). Initial reports look like there's nothing to be worried about - but initial reports always look like that

Today, my towel came in handy for: drying my hands



I Know Where My Towel Is.

I have no idea if I'm ready for this, but I'm sitting in the airport terminal, and I'm leaving this country. Saying goodbye to Lauren was hard... especially when she called me after I got through security. She was crying, and that's when it hit me just how long we're going to be apart. I'm going to miss her terribly.

In other news, I'm traveling with the most important piece of equipment in the universe - a towel. No matter what happens on this trip, I'll have my towel by my side:

... any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.


Final Days, Final Meals!

As the final days in America draw to a close, I'm eating, drinking, and packing. Cover your ears, because what follows is an account of food and drink of epic proportions.

On the Menu: last night, we had tacos and nachos. A delightful meal, with diced tomatoes, jalapeños, black olives, and onions. Today was spend cooking chicken enchiladas - but not yo momma's chicken enchiladas. These are a Lusk specialty, with grilled, shredded chicken, and a sauce made of tomatillas, salsa verde, onions, garlic, and plenty of salt and pepper. The dried-out chicken, when added to the sauce and boiled for an hour, soaks up all of the wonderful flavors of the salsa verde, and re-hydrates. This is then thrown into tortillas, with copious amounts of cheese. The remaining sauce and cheese is slathered generously atop the enchiladas, and the whole dish is baked for half an hour. Tomorrow, when Lauren comes and visits for a final meal, we are grilling steaks and having mashed potatoes! I'm determined to give my nation a proper send-off.

While we have been cooking the enchiladas today, I've been packing for Europe, and enjoying some tasty beverages. Here's a recommendation: If you love champagne, but you love Italy more, try Prosecco. It's more delicious, cheaper, and more... Italian than it's pretentious French cousin. If you want to get really creative, take another Italian invention, Lemoncello (lemon liqueur) and mix the two together: A splash of lemonchello in a glass of prosecco (not too much! That stuff is powerfull!) and you are transported to the rolling valleys of Tuscany (I'll post from the motherland to let you know if the valleys are as rolling as they claim to be.)

So, no driving or operating heavy machinery for me. I assume blogging is safe, though, right? In any case, everyone stay safe while I'm gone, and check back often for daily updates on my travels through Europe. Here are some highlights: Germany from June 4 to July 20. CERN (that's right, I got a private tour date!) on July 3-4. Moldova from July 20 - early August. Italy from early August to August 16.



T-minus 5 days...

I leave the country very, very soon.

So, naturally I thought it would be a good time to start learning the German language. I mean, how hard could it be?

As Andi so delicately put it, "You've managed to avoid learning German for 15 years!" Which, I suppose, is true. My mother was a German teacher for a dozen years before giving it up for cooking, and then the Peace Corps. Maybe it runs in the family, this knack for language - after all, she can speak English, German, and now Romanian.

So, am I on a fool's errand? Probably. I know that every waking moment in the next five days is going to be dedicated to a study of German (which is a much prettier language than anyone gives it credit for, by the way.)

On to more sane topics: Travel - I love it. I love the idea of packing light, and moving fast, of catching trains and blending in. I love getting a feel for new places. I love those moments that make you feel like you're on an adventure.

I filled out a form to tour CERN. As much as I'd love to go, and stand in awe of the incredible reach of human curiosity, I don't think it will happen. I misread the form - they would like notification three to four months in advance. I just gave them three or four weeks. Oh well - it's a shot in the dark that may bring great reward. I'd love to know how the largest physics institute in the world interacts with local schools.

So, in five days I rush in where angels fear to tread. Either I'll sink, or I'll swim - either way, you'll be able to read all about it here.



Shadetree Mechanics in a Digital World

Sometimes you need to draw upon years of experience working on cars if you want to fix a computer. Usually, times like these end when you're straddling a ruined iMac with a five pound sledge in your hands. However, I recently brought the worlds of automotive repair and computers together with positive results.

Lauren's computer was in need of an overhaul, so I offered to re-install Windows and give her an Ubuntu Linux partition to play with. The only problem was getting all of her data off the computer before I wiped it.

Time for good news/bad news - we had an external drive, but my father accidentally threw the AC adapter away with a bunch of old cell phone chargers. None of the adapters we had in the house would match the 12V at 2A needed by the drive, and nothing in the local Radio Shack could do it, either.

So, I started thinking like a shadetree mechanic. "What would happen if I hooked it up to a car battery?"

With some help from Spencer at Radio Shack, I had a rig that should work. From the battery terminals, power went to a cigatette lighter plug. a 12V 2A power supply plugged into that, and ended in the proper plug to go into the hard drive. With some trepidation, I hooked everything up, and hit the button. It worked!


Reflections on being 21!

It's been a good trip around the sun.

I'm madly in love with a wonderful woman, I'm going to a great school where I'm surrounded by caring friends and inspiring professors, and I am lucky to be the son of wonderful parents. I've reached a level of comfort in all my endeavors - like I'm no longer trying to prove myself, but rather trying to improve myself.

That being said, I had a heluva good time yesterday. I went to the Irish pub Cregeen's in North Little Rock with my dad and Jim. The highlight of the night (apart from my first real Guinness) was the Lotus Elise parked on Main street, right outside the pub. What a car - I had to go stand by it and drool for a few minutes before going inside. I've actually had the opportunity to sit in the Elise's tighter, meaner brother, the Exige last summer.

It's been a great year, and I'm looking forward to another. Being a PA has been such great fun, thanks in no small part to Donna and the students. I'm doing research this semester that may have some real impact in our knowledge of the early galaxy, and the way that elements have been formed in the Universe. All around, this semester is looking like it's going to be mad, but rewarding.

I hope that everyone else is having a time this weekend. Enjoy the Super Bowl.



It Ain't Broke #1 - Whiteboards

First in a series of helpful tips to make the tings you own last longer.

I do all my math and physics homework on a whiteboard I've installed in my dorm room. It's hung by 3M command strips, so no holes in the wall! It's been my faithful companion for three years now.

Unfortunately, it was starting to wear out. Ink wasn't erasing like it used to, I found myself having to use the cleaning spray more and more often just to get the marker stains off the board. A friend of mine stopped by yesterday to work on some general relativity homework, and gave me this great tip:


That's right. If your board has lost that "slick" surface, spray some WD-40 on a rag and wipe down the board. Instantly, the board was performing like new. Markers that couldn't mark the "dry" board were now working like new, and the ink erased effortlessly.

I have a sneaking suspicion that WD-40 will be appearing in many of these posts.

Another tip - when your eraser gets nasty with dried ink, just wash it off in the sink. Run it under some water and scrub it with your bare hand. Press it into a towel to dry. This works with the hard plastic erasers and the styrofoam kind. You'll lose it long before it wears out.



Why We Invented the Internet

So, being in a long-distance relationship is not easy, but it isn't exactly the life crushing experience that evening news specials make it out to be. Yes, you miss not being around each other, but you don't spend your days moping around in grayscale.

You do, however, run up massive phone bills.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to the point: Skype rocks! At the end of last semester, some friends and I were sitting in the Forum when Jenny started a video chat with someone on Skype. I know that this technology has been around for a while, but I was jumping around like we'd just been hailed by the Vulcans. I didn't think computers could surprise me any more, but I was sorely mistaken.

Skip forward a month. It's Christmas, and what does my wonderful girlfriend give me but an awesome little webcam from ThinkGeek. Not only is it a webcam / mic combo, but it's all housed in a little poseable robot with light-up eyes! The eyes are hooked up to a photoresistor, so when it's too dark, the eyes actually illuminate you.

Now, instead of racking up tremendous phone bills every month, we call each other on Skype for free. It's amazing what being able to see the other person adds to a conversation - and I think it's going to make living 160 miles apart a helluva lot easier this semester.

The best thing? It runs perfectly well in Linux!



Back from Outer Space

Classes have begun at UCA, and I have a head cold - or, what my uncle would call sphilchys in the ghanectacajoink. Of course, that's what he called a broken finger, cholera, rashes, and mange. We're not exactly a family of physicians - more like Gypsies, really

So, rather than feeling fresh and new, I feel like a Heffalump. But no matter - the show, as they say, must go on. My classes this semester are a bit of a novelty. I only have one math class (Abstract Algebra II) and one physics class (General Relativity). The remainder is World Lit II, Honors seminar (on science in the media) and my PA class for Core II with Donna. It's shaping up to be lots of reading, with a splash of integers and a half-stick of Einstein.

I'm really excited about helping to teach Core II. If teaching is what I want to do for the rest of my life (and it is) then this should be good practice. That being said, I have done exactly nothing to prepare myself for it. However, since I haven't received any frantic e-mails from Donna, I assume that we're on the same page - wing it, and see what happens. This semester is shaping up to be one of two things - a rewarding, educational experience or a Mongolian cluster****. Time will tell.