Friday, June 29, 2007

There might be a lesson or two in here somewhere ...

The plan was for me to come back from South Carolina on Wednesday and do my oral exam on Thursday. Roughly speaking, that's what happened, but like many stories, there's a nice "travelling sucks" story stuck in the middle.

So Wednesday morning, my mom drove me up to Charlotte and it was no problem at all getting to Detroit (I was flying Northwest). As we were landing, a nice thunderstorm broke out, and so we got to sit on the tarmack for about an hour before someone would come out and bring out the jetbridge so we could get off. I grabbed a sandwich and talked on the phone for a bit (long layover) and worked on my presentation some. I was working enough that I didn't even notice my flight back to Columbus had been delayed a bit, but I didn't care since I didn't have a tight schedule. When they finally let us onto the plane, the two people ahead of me in line got all huffy with the boarding ticket lady because they didn't realize that they couldn't bring their big suitcase onto the plane and had to check it planeside. Oh, and they were rather drunk. Finally get on the plane and one of them is sitting across the aisle from me and smells like a nice ashtray—quite unpleasant. Eventually someone comes onto the plane and asks to "talk" to them "for a minute." They go; I get two seats to myself. We then sit at the gate for another twenty minutes for security to deal with the drunk people (why they needed the plane there to do that is beyond me). We then go sit on the runway for about an hour before the pilot tells us that we don't have enough fuel to get to Columbus because we're being rerouted, so they take us back to the gate before letting us know the flight has been cancelled. By this time it's after 8pm, and I was supposed to be back in Columbus before 6:30. Needless to say, Northwest was fully uninterested in getting me back to Ohio that night; they said they "might" be able to get me back "tomorrow." Tomorrow? Might? I have an exam at 2:30 that I'm—oh yeah—unprepared for! In the meantime, I had made friends with some ladies in the back of the plane (apparently watching smelly drunk people get kicked off a plane is a bit of a bonding experience). One of them was able and willing to rent a car on her company credit card and drive the four of us back to Columbus. (Thanks, Robin!) By the way, this is another example of why to never check luggage; I was the only one in the car with all of the stuff I had been hoping to leave with. I pretty much never spend time around "real" people, so I was pleasantly surprised when the conversation was lively and interesting the whole way back—and it definitely made for an upbeat ending to a rather shit-tastic birthday. I was dropped off at the airport, where I picked up my car and finally made it home sometime after 1 a.m.

Thursday, I was fairly dead to the world. I was reeeeeally hoping that some combination of caffeine, adrenaline, and maybe even anxiety would suffice for waking me up, but not so much. The hour before the presentation I spent trying (unsuccessfully) to nap on my desk. The talk itself went okay; somewhere in my academic past I have learned to give a half-decent presentation on auto-drive. The more than an hour of questioning afterwards, however ... let's just say it was a rather embarassing experience I'd rather not reminisce over and leave it at that. I passed of course, and I went out for wings afterwards (BW3s has finally re-opened near campus), but I am forced to wonder how it would have gone if I had actually been cogent and lucid, and actually, you know, prepared for the ordeal instead of taking a five day joy trip to a place that has the power of giving me a really thick accent.

Monday, June 25, 2007

A Brief Visit "Back Home"

In an unexpected turn of events, I'm in South Carolina visiting my family this weekend. It's not very often that I get on a flight booked less than 48 hours earlier. Nothing bad, but I don't really know yet why I agreed to come... more on that later.

Now, as I've not lived here for many years, and I only visit two or three times a year, I have gotten used to the house being slightly different on each return: new refrigerator, new truck, new camper, my dad's new motorcycle, the upstairs area where my mother used to tutor now set up as a "home fitness" area, my old desk moved downstairs to be my parent's computer workstation, pictures on the walls changed, all of the beds re-arranged for a complicated set of reasons only my mother can be hoped to understand, and so on. This visit certainly has the biggest change yet, but at least I was warned about it—my dad even called and asked my permission before doing the Severe Rearrangement.

You see, my old bedroom, the one I lived in from the summer I turned 5 until the summer I turned 17, is now a massage parlor. This is because my father is in the process of becoming a licensed massage therapist, and for a complicated set of reasons only my father can be hoped to understand, my bedroom is the only room in the house suitable for being transformed into a massage parlor. So I now sleep in the guest bedroom when I visit, which is strange as it is a room I know fairly well, but (until a few nights ago) had never slept in.

I spent some time today cleaning out my old beside table, as my dad now wants to use it as a place to stash massage equipment. This was an entertaining exercise as the bottom drawer of this particular piece of furniture seems to be where I stashed every single note I passed (or was passed) in middle or high school, along with pretty much every letter I received during the same time period. Meanwhile, my mother and my brother have been unpacking all of his stuff from his two years as a graduate student, and preparing him for starting basic training (and then officer candidate school [OCS]) tomorrow morning. The army has sent him nice little informational booklets about both of these ventures. For example, the future soldier handbook is quite explicit that future soldiers should not show up with a thong in their posession. Just in case you were wondering.

It is really difficult to get work done here. You know, real work. I was supposed to give the oral portion of my general exam tomorrow, but well, as my mother wanted me here instead, I was able to get it moved to Thursday. After less than 48 hours of preparation. So, I've been trying in vain to actually prepare for it while here, but the only place in the house even remotely acceptable for working happens to be right outside of my brother's room ... and therefore directly in the floodpath for all of the ruckus that is my mother and brother trying to "get organized." It's been a good visit so far and we've had a lot of fun together, but I'm still rather, ah, antsy about Thursday ...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Galaxies!! Part Two

Waaaaay back in June—as in, last June—I wrote a long post explaining the background, mostly about galaxies, needed to understand the work I've done on the connection between how strongly barred a galaxy is and what kind of structure its circumnuclear dust takes on. (If you want to understand the results below, I recommend reading the background post first. Also, the poster for the conference I presented this at last year can be found here.) The paper was published on December 1, and it is this paper that I will be presenting next week for the oral portion of my general exam, so I figure it's about time I get around to explaining to y'all some of the actual, you know, results.

The first step in preparing next week's talk was to re-read this paper I haven't touched in nearly a year. This has been fun, not only for the "wow! galaxies are cool!" aspect, but also because I can think things like, " 'Employ'? We employ this technique? Didn't we really just use it??" Also, all of those figures I thought were gorgeous a year ago? Turns out the font is too small on most of them, and at least one of them has a typo (as well as one table).

Our first main result was that tightly wound nuclear dust spirals are primarily found in galaxies lacking bars. This isn't all that surprising due to boundary conditions: for the dust in a circumnuclear spiral to connect to the (radial) dust lanes in a bar, the spiral must unwind somewhat, and tightly wound spirals are not somewhat unwound.

So what kinds of circumnuclear morphologies do strongly barred galaxies take on? One common feature is what we term "large grand design" (LGD) spiral structure. A LGD spiral has two prominent symmetric spiral arms which, in 90% of our LGD galaxies, distintegrate before reaching the galaxy nucleus. One frequent end for these spiral arms is at a circumnuclear starburst ring. A circumnuclear starburst ring is just what it sounds like: a ring of intense star formation and thick dust surrounding the galaxy nucleus, like the example to the right. Here, the LGD structure are the dark dust lanes on the top left and bottom right of the image, which connect onto the ring itself. Inside the ring, we see a loosely wound nuclear spiral which is distinct from the ring itself, and is likely to be "native" dust; that is, the bar is probably ineffective at funneling material to the very center of this galaxy. In our most strongly barred galaxies, those lacking LGD spirals simply have very chaotic centers (at best, a chaotic spiral), potentially with a lot of ongoing star formation.

Monday, June 18, 2007


I've been in the greater Boston area this weekend (Boston-Cambridge-Sommerville-Allston) for a wedding. As my significant other was one of the groomsmen, we were involved in all of the wedding-y things: the pre-wedding dim sum Friday night, the square dancing Saturday afternoon, the rehersal dinner Saturday evening, the pre-wedding setup and endless picture taking Sunday morning/afternoon, the actual wedding Sunday afternoon with partying extending to late Sunday night, and the post-wedding brunch this morning. I've never been square dancing before, but it was a lot of fun (aside from the occasional big fat sweaty man who I really didn't want to be anywhere near); it's something I might want to try again.

The actual ceremony was a Jewish ceremony, and as I had never been to a Jewish wedding (or anything else, for that matter), I found it all quite interesting. Because this was an "interfaith" wedding, the rabbi was kind enough to explain what each part meant as it was happening. Weddings strike me as something in which a little bit of tradition is a good thing (circle of life and all), but too much is just plain hokey and impersonal. This wedding had the katubah (Jewish marriage contract) signing, a wedding canopy, poems and blessings spoken and sung by friends, ring exchange, and some nice glass smashing at the end. I especially liked the canopy (because it can be kept) and the glass smashing (because it'ssimultaneously sweet and destructive), and I think I would have been all choked up and teary throughout the entire ceremony had it not been for the occasional god-reference for comic relief. The more personal bits included friends change ringing on handbells, in part because both members of the couple ring bells, but also because that's how they met. For the uninitiated. change ringing is not the same as "tune" ringing; it is a British form of ringing that's been designed to be able to be done on large bells that take a couple of seconds between the "ding" and the "dong." Some pretty neat mathematical patterns can come out of it, but that's another post for another day.

I've also been able to spend some time this weekend with friends who I do not get to see very often, mostly in food-centric events. It amuses me that I lived here for four years and there are still so many parts of the city I know nothing about; this weekend I have gone further on both the red and green T lines (that's Boston lingo for "subway") than I ever have before. On the other hand, some things stay the same. I've written this blog post on one of the computers in the computer lab where I wrote most of my undergraduate thesis, and there's a lady in the corner over there who was in here most of the time I was writing it two years ago.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Internet Before Blogs

Before blogs (which, for me, means about a year and a half ago when I decided to find out about "some of those blog things"), I spent a lot of time goofing off on the internet every day, just like I had since 1998 or so. (Before then, it was just some time goofing off on the internet.) Nowadays, "goofing off on the internet" is fairly synonymous with "reading blogs" ... so what the hell was it I was doing on the internet before these blog things?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


I forgot to mention that I am now done with classes. Forever. In a rather anticlimatic move, I discovered on Sunday that apparently my final class will not be having a final exam this week. As such, I did my final classwork about two weeks ago, when I actually turned in a problem set late (I had the due date remembered wrong). Apropos, I suppose.

Also, apparently this exam I'm trying to stay awake all day to work on is a "candidacy exam." It seems that I am not yet a PhD candidate, and somehow being a PhD candidate is different from having been admitted into the PhD program. Or something. I get the point of the exams, I do, but the language and the bureaucracy come across as forced and arcane. And buraeucratic.

Monday, June 04, 2007

General Exams Begin

I start my general exams today. I think that's what they're called. I've been informed they are definitely not quals or qualifying exams, but I don't understand the difference in semantics, and seeing as how they're just something I have to do, I don't really care either—thought I might again in a month.

As I explained last time in agonizing detail, our department just changed the policy for the exames-taken-after-classes-are-finished. I, like everyone else, chose to do the "new format," which is to say, I'm going to be learning a whole lot about the Lyman-α forest in the next ten days. (It's supposed to be two weeks, but thanks to extenuating circumstances, well, ten days is kind of like two weeks, right?) Then, a little less than two weeks after I turn in a pile of summary papers to my committee, I have an oral presentation scheduled ... on a completely different topic.

I spent today reading the Rauch (1998) review article of "The Lyman Alpha Forest in the Spectra of Quasistellar Objects." ("Quasistellar object" is a back-in-the-day word for "quasar.") Man, review articles are intense. The first review article (fine, it's actually from a lecture series, but anyhow) I ever read was Narayan & Bartelmann's discussion of graviational lensing. For the two years I worked on gravitational lensing (starting from absolutely no knowledge whatsoever), every time I went back to the article, I discovered some little nugget of information that simply hadn't penetrated my skull previously. Hopefully in the last four years I've learned a little bit about how to learn, as well as gained a tad of astronophysical background ...

Let this also suffice as a warning that blog posts might be somewhat more intermittant than usual for the next couple of weeks.