Saturday, February 24, 2007

"We came with the faces of innocents
And we left with the bodies of men."

Yesterday was the Undergraduate Research Symposium, in which everyone who had done summer or fall research in 2006 and wanted to present their findings did so, either of their own volition or the volition of their advisor (or in my case, a little bit of both).

As most of you know by now, I like to say that my research means little-to-nothing to me (even though it's not quite true). It's about the magnetic response of iron/zinc compounds at low temperatures--4 K or so--and has absolutely nothing to do with what I want to do with the rest of my life--as far as I know, the only magnetic property wine has is the ability to pull in pretentious people like moths before a flame.

However, it is my research and my name is right there on the abstract (which I'm planning on swiping, maybe so I can have it framed), so I have *some* attachment to it. I did have a fantasy going on in my head that afternoon, wondering if I could get away with jaded cynicism, and if so how far I could take it:

Person asking me about my research: "So what real-world applications does this have?"
Me: "Nothing! Absolutely nothing! The people doing this kind of research are Dr. DeFotis and two groups in Japan, and they are the literally the only people in the world who give one tinker's damn about the magnetic ordering temperature of iron(III)-bisdiselenocarbamate systems. *taking a swig of scotch from the bottle I have with me* Research self-perpuating for no good reason at all! Ain't academia great?"

Alas--or fortunately, take your pick--that didn't come to pass. Instead I just told people about what I did as best I could remember because, hey, it's been almost four months since I even thought about this stuff, let alone cared about what all the lines on the pretty graphs I made represent.

It was still a fun time, though. I got to talk with a bunch of professors from the department who were there, including my fellow Sinfonian Dr. Poutsma. He and Tyler (my research partner with Dr. DeFotis' group) told me two stories--somewhat at variance--about Tyler's defense of his thesis last semester. It seems Dr. Poutsma had taken umbrage with Dr. DeFotis' swaggering, superior attitude about the quality of his work (as well as his derisive comments about other professors' research), and had asked Tyler pointed questions about the nature of DeFotis' work--i.e., the fact mentioned above that no one cares about it except him and a few groups from Japan. The comedy of the situation drew from the fact that DeFotis had to sit there in the same room and seethe silently while Tyler admitted that no, in fact, our research had no practical applications and no, no one else in the world was interested in magnetic susceptibility. (Dr. Poutsma had been kind enough to warn Tyler beforehand that he was going to ask such questions, and was doing it not to put Tyler on the spot but rather to take DeFotis down a few pegs--a task richly worth doing, I might add.) Dr. Rice, the department chair and one of my personal heroes, added that the other reason behind the whole thesis song-and-dance was that they knew DeFotis was going to attempt to answer Tyler's questions and they all take extreme pleasure in getting to "shush" him.

It gave me a nice feeling, like I had been vindicated--perhaps avenged--by the entire department.

I'm still flying.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Will Hit The Atmosphere

"Every time it rains I just feel a lot better..."

Me and my lovely date Em.

Tex and I reunited once more.

Em and I at the very end of the Ball.

(I am not only still flying--but soaring.)

Thursday, February 08, 2007

This Quantum Existence

Today in my Archaeological Methods class we talked about various research questions and the various ways in which they approach the investigation of a site. Perhaps this roots me in the "has beens" section, but the processual questions appeal to me best. The piece I wrote about this time last year apparently belongs to the processual school of thought (I didn't know it when I wrote it, but I'll identify with a school of thought if it helps categorize my ideas). The processualists are the ones that account for systems--living systems, and especially the idea of feedback loops. Professor Gallivan asked me to explain a feedback loop, and I found myself at a loss. How can I describe something so innate to our existence? Everything we do--everything we ARE--is a feedback loop, from the way we approach the world and let it influence our perceptions to the metabolic pathways that continue serenely as they always have for countless millenia.

The best I could do was "a feedback loop is a way of describing life as a non-static system." Professor Gallivan agreed, but said that hadn't exactly defined a feedback loop. It's the idea that something can reinforce itself--lift itself up by its bootstraps, if you will. How this happens is a miracle of sorts--the concept that an event or object can not only continue but increase its influence or dominance over a sphere of existence by doing just that--existing. Considering a living system without considering feedback loops is like one of those physics problems that discounts air resistance and friction. It makes everything neat and tidy, but sadly it doesn't apply to any real context. A zero-point energy equation may make your P-Chem homework easier, but the only reason we use it is because it makes our math look better--not because it has any bearing on what molecular energy levels really look like.

Not to seem tangential, but last week in Advanced Inorganic Chemistry we dicussed how atoms can form molecules. If electrons repulse each other, how can atoms get sufficiently close to form bonds? The answer is that electrons, unlike other subatomic particles, differ in their quantum number--in essence, the level or essence of their "being." Therefore, electrons with different quantum numbers are literally unaware of each others' existence. However, the protons in respective atomic nuclei are acutely aware of the existence of electrons in other atoms' orbitals, and are subsequently drawn to them.

How is that related? Perhaps it is an allegory for how our lives proceed. How many times have we had a feeling, an intuition, a gut reaction to something without knowing why? How many times have humans being posited the idea of a world beyond the veil--a different "quantum number" of existence? As we live, we are pulled by things beyond our control and shape the things within our control. At the same time we change the shape the things that pull us and are shaped by the things we have control over--so the column of "Outside" and "Within" our control is constantly in flux, the truly existential feedback loop.

By the time I arrived at the age I am now, my feedback loop was already firmly set in motion. And yet I can change the things I do, shape the way I am, for better or for worse. No system is ever without its flux, no feedback loop ever without the shifts in the amounts of its subsequent parts. And, as within living systems, we have mechanisms set up to deal with the shortages and overdoses of the joys and vicissitudes our lives have to offer. The only time a true balance is met is when the Quantum Train leaves the station and drives beyond that Veil, the land where states of being no longer matter and we find our place of Holy Origin.

I'm still flying.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Each Day Is A Blessing

Sometimes, in the course of my free time, I will browse through this blog. Sometimes there is a post about an event that I remember fondly (the snow that covered the campus in January 2004 springs to mind), but oftentimes I just want to see how my writing has changed and hopefully progressed since I started writing almost four years ago.

Well, I noticed in reading my recent (and sporadic) posts that while my writing style has changed, but not really progressed. Indeed, in some cases I may have regressed--the lack of description, the hasty manner (which for some reason is the way I write, as though deadlines are imminent) in which it's delivered, and just the general, well, non-interest of the subjects I write on.

And then I look back on the posts from 2005 and some of 2006. Some of the longer, more philosophical quotes actually got COMMENTS, and I covered a broad range of topics--politics, love, friendship, and what's it like to live as a college student and feel "in-between."

Well, perhaps my lack of inspiration of late has been a factor of feeling less in-between than usual--you know, that impending graduation tends to settle things in your mind--but I want to apologize. To myself, and to my readership, invisible as it may be (though I know some of you are out there, what with people knowing more about me than they could just by reading my AIM away messages): I apologize for holding back. Usually, with me, that would be considered a virtue; I spare people the brunt of my angst or nostalgia or whatever the neurosis of the day is. However, on here, holding back limits creativity, and ironically angst, nostalgia, anger, and despair seem to fuel creativity to a certain extent. I hold back for two reasons: "No one wants to hear this" and "I don't want to write it."

Well, at least one of those has changed. I do want to write things. I have always loved writing things, ever since I sat down at age ten and wrote a long epic about a young chipping sparrow and his adventures. I shall promise only to hold back when I think the negativity of my feelings would detract from what I am writing. Furthermore, I promise to tackle more interesting subjects, of which there are many in my life, and indeed in every life.

And besides, if this website still exists thirty years from now, I'll want to look back and see more than just my class schedule for the semester.

(I'm still flying.)

Friday, February 02, 2007

A Code Broken, Crucifix Uncrossed

Last night was the debate between Dr. David Holmes of the W & M Religion Dept. and the renowned and esteemed Dinesh D'Souza, Professional Conqueror of Academic Pseudointellectuals. The debate was over the Wren Cross controversy. Unfortunately, I missed the debate; by the time I got to the Wren Building, both the Great Hall and the Chapel were full to the brim with people. I did, however, go to Christiana Campbell's Tavern for the reception afterwards, and got to meet the man himself:

I look a bit overjoyed, no? It was a hell of a lot of fun. There were some folks from the ISI there selling his new book (which I promised to plug), The Enemy At Home, as well as the staff of the W & M paper The Virginia Informer. A few people from UVa had come out, and during the reception they assured me that there was quite a conservative population on their campus, which gives me hope. It makes me happy to think that there's a bastion of right-wing thought in the middle of Berkley East--I mean, Charlottesville.

THIS is the kind of thing I wanted to happen during my college experience, the kind of thing I read about in D'Souza's very own "Letters To A Young Conservative." Apparently we young conservatives (and libertarians) needed something like the Wren Cross kerfuffle to rouse them from their torpor and actually fight back for once. Fight we have, and fight we will continue to do; people like Mr. D'Souza coming to our support only adds fuel to our resolve.

I'm still flying.