Sunday, August 21, 2016

State of the Farm, August, 2016

(Picture from here.)

Ah, beautiful rain.

We woke up this morning and the ground was wet. Thoroughly wet. Under the trees and the car. On the sidewalk and the grass. In the garden and on the fruit trees. I didn’t have a chance to crack the surface in the garden to see if it went more than skin deep, but I have hopes.

Let me back track.

This year has been pretty rough on Walking Rocks Farm.

Let’s start with the spring.

We had a relatively mild winter and then a warm patch. All of the stone fruits (Nectarines, peaches, apricots, almonds.) began swelling buds. Then: Bam! Twelve below zero. Every blasted bud: dead. Absolutely nothing on any of the stone fruit. At all.

The trees themselves were fine although there were a few casualties that were in pots outside. Nothing that can be managed but the stone fruit crop was a complete fail.

(Picture from here.) 

But we had hopes for the apples and cherries. That was before we had the Caterpillar Infest From Hell.

We don’t like to do much in the way of spraying poison. Instead we use Surround and oils. But this really only works after the caterpillar eats a piece and gets sick. It doesn’t work for blossoms since by the time the Surround works the blossom is already digested. So this year we saw what was coming and sprayed before and after the blossoms.

We didn’t spray enough. My own fault, really. I don’t like spraying poison.

Anyway, to make a long story short: no pears, plums or apples. The grapes and Cornelian Cherries were all right. The CCs blossom before the caterpillars and the grapes after. The chestnuts were hit pretty hard but they are strong and I think we’ll have a fair harvest.

We planned out the garden with black plastic this year, a mix of porous and non-porous materials. The non-porous was for the melons and the porous was for most of the remainder. The corn was mulched—a mix of Bloody Butcher and sweet corn. We mounded up the potatoes and planted the beans and the carrots. That was the end of May. Then, the drought struck.

Remember rain? I have trouble.

Go here to see the Massachusetts drought map. See that big red section? We’re in that. But it’s even worse than that.

Microclimate is everything and we are in what we like to call the Hoppy Pocket.

It works like this: weather tends to comes in from the west. So we’re always seeing popup storms on the maps and getting our hopes up. Northeast of us is a hill a couple of hundred feet higher than we are. Southwest of us is another hill. Consequently, anything coming at us that’s the least bit vulnerable has to barrel directly in from due west.

Unfortunately, that rarely happens. Usually it comes from the northwest or the southwest. Occasionally, it rolls in from the northeast—what in New England we call a Northeaster. But that’s usually reserved for tropical storms or nasty winter storms. None of that applies here.

So we’ve been watching other places in the Red Zone get a little water here and there when we get passed by,

Soil has this interesting quality when it gets really dry. It starts to repel water. You’ll water a section of the garden only to see it bead up as if the water had fallen on wax paper. You have to pool the water a let it stand a bit to overcome this. Once overcome, the water will slip easily into the soil. Mulch helps with this. I’ve been digging little trenches everywhere to catch the water and hold it long enough.

It’s been hot, too. This hasn’t just been a dry summer. It’s been a hot one, too. We don’t water our lawn and a lot of it is dead. Only those trees that have deep roots are doing well. Up and down our street, some fairly established trees turned out to be in marginal spots and have died or given up. We won’t know until next year. Microclimate is everything.

The carrots didn’t make it. The first direct seeding of beans didn’t make it. The squash, melons and corn have been doing all right. The tomatoes weren’t doing well until we realized the extent of the problem and watered every day. In other years, even drought years, every other day or every third day has been sufficient. Not this year.

We’re starting to see odd things, too. For example, we tend to water in the evening. Turns out some of the squash varieties don’t like this and have a white fungus on them. The basil has been all right but there’s some yellowing I don’t like. The kohlrabi is content to just hang there, not growing but not dying, either. The potatoes did all right for a while but finally said they’d had enough and we harvested early.

The musk melon varieties are doing great. The watermelons are growing but haven’t set as much as I expected. They like the heat but I don’t think they got enough water.

Our turtles (the walking rocks of Walking Rocks Farm) have spent a lot of time buried in the soil. Recently, we’re seeing wildlife responding. I’ve been seeing little diggings in the garden. At first we thought it was the turtles. This is one of the times they like to lay their eggs. But there were too many spots and they were too small. I’m thinking skunks desperately looking for grubs. We brought the turtles into the greenhouse until we can figure what’s going on.

There’s also been nibblings on the onions and rhododendrons—desperate deer I expect. And our cat has decimated the local rabbit population. I think they are desperate and Ripley is right there and eager to help.

Still, we had gazpacho last week. Over the weekend Wendy made an excellent savory cornbread with onions, sweet corn and peppers. All about as locally grown as you can get. The grapes are stressed but I think we’re going to have a nice harvest on the Concords and the Marechal fochs. The sweet grapes, not so much. One new grape vine withered and died but another seems to be holding its own. The kiwi had a rough patch but seem to have recovered.

And today it rained. Lovely, blessed rain.

Likely we’ll still have to keep watering. The drought shows no sign of breaking just yet—one rain isn’t enough for that. But the well is strong. The trees and vines will survive the summer. As meager a harvest as this might be, it’s still a harvest and we’ll celebrate it.

We’re already thinking how to learn from this for next year.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Considerations of Works Past: It Happened One Night

(Picture from here.)

First a little background.

I was born and raised in Southern California until I was eleven, after which we moved to Alabama—but that’s not relevant here.

At the time the television shows didn’t have as much filler as they do now. So they played old movies when they needed to fill air time. I watched a lot of old movies. (Okay. I watched a lot of television when I was a kid.)

Anyway, I always linked together three films: It Happened One Night (1934), The Thin Man  (1934), and His Girl Friday (1940.) I cannot say what brought these films together in my mind but they were inseparable.

Fast forward to this year and Wendy and I watch The Thin Man. It’s terrific and I realized why I had liked it so much years ago. At the very heart of the film is the relationship between Nick and Nora Charles. There is enormous affection and love there. There were a couple of queasy bits where one woman or another says something difficult and Nick raises a hand as if to slap her. He doesn’t but I noticed it.

Being the person I am I had to attribute it to something—it was a character  behavior at odds with my impression of the character. I reasoned the Nick Charles had lived a violent life—evidenced by his companions—and still had some residual traits that he worked to eradicate.

It’s also the single greatest hymn of praise to alcoholism I’ve ever seen. But what of that.

That was fun so Wendy and I watched His Girl Friday. This is an absolutely stellar film. Again, at the core of it is the relationship between Walter Burns (Cary Grant) and Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russel). This was not a romantic relationship—though the two characters had been married at one point in their back story—but clearly one of equals. Both were intelligent, verbal, articulate and erudite and neither gave the other any quarter. There was absolutely no hint of violence between them.

So, I said, let’s try It Happened One Night.

What a disappointment.

It wasn’t just the ham fisted acting of Clark Gable or the false drama of Claudette Colbert, it was, again, the relationship at the core. Ellen Andrews (Colbert) is a spoiled rich daughter of Alexander Andrews. She runs away to elope with the Unsuitable Man—a pilot and supposed gold digger King Westley. Daddy doesn’t approve. Peter Warne (Gable) ends up on the same bus and recognizes her. He makes a deal with her that he will make sure she gets to New York—and Westley—if she’ll give him the exclusive story. If not, he’ll turn her in to her father. So right off the bat, Peter is forcing her to comply.

Then, they have several comparatively uninteresting adventures where Peter shows himself to be a boor and Ellen’s disdain turns to love. (One could consider the film a comedic treatment of Stockholm Syndrome. That is, if it were funny.) A couple of turns later they’re together with the approval of the father, they are married and live happy ever after. (Westley gets bought off.)

We found it an altogether unpleasant film. The relationship between Peter and Ellen vacillates between difficult and abusive. It’s fairly clear she’s substituting one domineering man (her father) for another. The only character worth a damn in the film is Westley and that’s only because he never actually shows himself to be mean. Peter has one basic emotion: anger. The moments where he shows affection, he masks it. Ellen goes from shrill brat to compliant and submissive. It’s essentially a bad retelling of The Taming of the Shrew.

There was nothing bratty, compliant or submissive about Nora Charles or Hildy Johnson.

It made me wonder. What did I ever like about this film? Did I just not notice the nastiness? Have I changed in the fifty-mumble years since I saw it?

It’s true that the world is different from 1934. It’s also true that the “Hays Code” was not rigorously enforced on either The Thin Man or It Happened One Night. His Girl Friday operated under the Hays Code. Possibly, the code forced certain limitations on the film causing the writers to raise their game. It Happened One Night was directed by Frank Capra who also did Mister Smith Goes to Washington in 1939 and Arsenic and Old Lace in 1944. His Girl Friday was directed by Howard Hawks who also directed To Have and Have Not and Monkey Business. Capra had chops as good as Hawks.

I went through a similar thing with re-reading Heinlein. After a while I couldn’t do it without carefully editing myself as I read, skipping whole sections where his women suddenly dropped thirty points of IQ. It must be
me—the works haven’t changed.

Now I’m nervous. I want to re-watch The Philadelphia Story but I’m scared.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Schrödinger Sessions: Day 3

(Picture from here.)

The Schrödinger Sessions are a collection of lectures and demonstrations of quantum physics for science fiction writers. (See here.) They are a joint production between the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland and the National Science Foundation. The three organizers are Chad Orzel, Emily Edwards and Steve Rolston. Three of the most terrific people I've ever met.

JQI is what they call low energy quantum mechanics. This involves quantum computation, low temperatures, superconductivity-- all of those sorts of things we can do in a relatively small lab. High energy quantum mechanics and physics, those things done at the Large Hadron Collider and supernovas, aren't done at JQI. That didn't prevent us from asking about it.

I found out about it when I checked out the launchpad astronomy workshop. I went down. I did the seminar. This is my little diary. It's a week late in that I wanted a chance to clean it up before I published it.

Day 3
We had only a ½ day before the end. This involved three things: a quick discussion of quantum applications, a free for all with questions and a discussion with Nobel Prize Winner Bill Phillips on quantum interpretations.

The quantum applications went quickly. MRIs, GPS and, essentially, all of chemistry. We also had a quick discussion of the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which I mentioned before. It's worth repeating.

In a nut shell, this says that two particles cannot occupy the same state. For example, if two electrons are in the first orbital of a hydrogen they must be of differing spins. In the next orbital, more electrons are allowed but the addition of the orbital number, plus spin, insures there are no more than can be accounted for by the differing states. And so on.

The PEP is what keeps electrons in discrete orbitals of the atom, giving the differing atoms their different chemical properties. Turns out there is something analogous to orbitals in the nucleus, too, which makes neutrons necessary in larger atoms.

During the free-for-all we got a little more understanding on how to look at measurement. For example, if you put an atom into a superposition state, close the door and leave the room. Go home to your spouse, have a pizza and watch TV. The next morning you come in and open up the trap and lo! The atom is no longer in superposition. Now under these conditions, at NO time was there an intentional measurement of the superposition. The loss of superposition was because of thermal noise or a stray atom or something else—which acted the same as if  human being was doing the measurement.

Consequently, the whole term “measurement” is a bad English. In Steve Rolston’s terminology, isolation was compromised, thus collapsing the experimental setup.

I pushed on this from what Dr. Phillips said. He pointed out that a superposition collapsing went from a quantum probability state (determined by something called phase) to a normal quantum state. I pointed out that this suggested that superposition was a non-random state. And, of course it isn’t. If you examine the double slit experiment the statistical pattern is, in fact, non-random. Each point on the interference is random but the statistical population as a whole is non-random.

Contrast this, then, with the “interference pattern” when the quantum state was lost. It was truly random with no interference pattern at all.  The loss of the experimental quantum state is called “decoherence.”

This whole discussion has been pushing me in the direction of those who are in the “shut up and calculate” school of quantum interpretation. If you move away from words “observer” and “measurement” and replace them with “loss of isolation” and “decoherence”, the sense of mystery goes away. There is still enough odd behavior, such non-locality or “spooky action at a distance”, to go around.

At that point my brain was full and I was ready to decohere. Besides, I had a non-random airplane to superimpose upon.

It's been a week since the conference and my head is still buzzing. (The whole flight back was a classical world model of quantum decoherence.)  It will be interesting to see how much will stick. How much will get refigured incorrectly as my brain tries to make sense of it.

The quantum physical model of the universe doesn't have a lot of commonality with the classical world. It reminds me of something in A. E. Van Vogt's Rogue Ship. The main character is expounding on physics above and below the speed of light. He considers physics above the speed of light reality and below the speed of light an illusion.

AEVV's grasp of physics was tenuous at best. But he did present an interesting dichotomy between what we think of as normal and what normal actually is. Quantum physics and relativity are the real thing. We happen to live in a region of velocity and energy where the consequences of reality aren't readily apparent. Consequently, we take our provincial point of view and consider it the real thing.

Bill Phillips (and others) suggested that superposition was analogous to a Necker Cube

This illusion of a three dimensional cube can be viewed as projecting outward from the page or inward from the page. Your eye can view it either way but not both. Yet both are present in the illusion. Think of superposition like that.

But I think there's a deeper metaphor here.

The Necker Cube is not a cube. It's a collection of lines in a flat space that represent a cube to our limited perception. The fact that our eyes and brain can make a cube out of it at all shows how we force that limited perception into areas where it does not fit.

I think the physics of the universe is truly wonderful. But the appearance of  strangeness is a product of our limitations.

Our brains evolved out there on the savannah trying to figure the best way to hunt food and attract mates. It's an accident that we turned out to be smart enough to detect a glimmering of the real world.

The universe does what it does. We just have to learn to catch up.


Friday, August 5, 2016

The Schrödinger Sessions: Day 2

(Picture from here.)

The Schrödinger Sessions are a collection of lectures and demonstrations of quantum physics for science fiction writers. (See here.) They are a joint production between the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland and the National Science Foundation. The three organizers are Chad Orzel, Emily Edwards and Steve Rolston. Three of the most terrific people I've ever met.

JQI is what they call low energy quantum mechanics. This involves quantum computation, low temperatures, superconductivity-- all of those sorts of things we can do in a relatively small lab. High energy quantum mechanics and physics, those things done at the Large Hadron Collider and supernovas, aren't done at JQI. That didn't prevent us from asking about it.

I found out about it when I checked out the launchpad astronomy workshop. I went down. I did the seminar. This is my little diary. It's a week late in that I wanted a chance to clean it up before I published it.

Day 2
Most of the morning was occupied with quantum computation. There’s a lot of stuff there involving the union between quantum mechanics and information theory. Christopher Monroe boiled down quantum mechanics to two rules:

Rule #1: Quantum objects are waves and can be in superposition. This can correspond to bits used in computing as long as it is understood the bits are probabilistic descriptions and not deterministic descriptions. So if you have a bit that can be 0 or 1, a superpositioned bit would have a probability of which it is. Say 80% 1 and 20% 0.

Rule #2: Rule #1 holds as long as you don’t look.

“Looking” breaks the isolation and causes a measurement. Without understanding, the output is random. What’s important is the state so the object of the exercise is to preserve state as long as possible.

The advantage of quantum is its tremendous parallelism. For example, if you have a three bit system, there is the possibility of 8 possible states: 000, 001, 010, 011, 100, 101, 110 and 111. A normal computer can hold any one of these states at a time. A quantum computer can hold all of these simultaneously, each one having a probability.

Where this gets interesting is the determination of how to manipulate the starting conditions such that when the system is actually measured you get a meaningful answer.

We had a long talk on which sorts of problems suited a quantum computer. Some problems had only a little advantage while others had significant advantage. Factoring large numbers was one. Advanced simulation of chemical systems was another.

The more I heard of this, the more I was convinced that having a desktop quantum computer by itself was going to be of limited usefulness. I think the real utility is going to be a hybrid. A machine that solves the problem part of the way, then sets up a quantum computer to solve a portion, takes back the result and continues on. In other words, the quantum computer would act as an accelerator or support application rather than be completely useful in and of itself.

We had lunch with one of the researchers who set up the Ice Box Neutrino Detector on the South Pole. Very, very cool. Imaging a cubic kilometer of ice acting as a scientific sensor.

Then, on to superfluids and superconductors.

Superfluids are strange. For one thing, they conduct heat 500 times better than copper. You can make temperature waves that propagate through them like sound waves. They have no viscosity. If you start a superfluid rotating in the beaker it won’t stop. Forever. Until the temperature changes.

What causes superfluids (and superconductors) is the different natures between bosons and fermions. Bosons are those particles (or those things that act like such particles) who have the capacity of symmetry when quantum effects are demonstrated. Fermions are those particles who have anti-symmetry under the same circumstances. An example of this is Helium-4 vs. Helium-3. He-4 “bunches”, that is, when they get to the right point they cluster together since the SE wave functions become identical. He-3 gets to the same point and has a different solution to the wave equation. This makes them Fermions brings them under the Pauli Exclusion Principle. All because He-4 has an even number of particles in the nucleus and He-3 has an odd one.

Go figure.

Turns out the PEP is incredibly important. It's the reason that electrons occupy discrete orbitals in the atom and don't all bunch up in one place. The PEP says that no two identical fermions can occupy the same quantum state-- an electron is a fermion. Think of a hydrogen atom: one proton and two discrete electrons around it. They don't bunch together. Instead they are both available for chemical reactions-- each as a different spin. Spin, here, is defined to represent the angular momentum of the electron. This is not to say the electron is actually spinning like a top-- it turns out that if spin, the quantum state, was produced by spin, the physical act of rotation, the electron would be spinning faster than the speed of light. Instead, the electron acts like it has angular momentum and they call this quantum quality, spin.

As electrons show up in different orbitals of bigger atoms they have to occupy discrete orbitals where each electron has a unique set of quantum numbers associated with them-- of which spin is one. (Turns out there are analogs to orbitals and shells in the nucleus and its why the nucleus gets bigger as you add protons and neutrons-- neutrons are absolutely essential for this. But I digress.)

Superconduction has a similarly weird set of behaviors. MRIs use liquid helium to keep their superconductors cold—which is why we should not be using helium in birthday balloons. It's a precious natural resource. So when Mercury gets below about 4 Kelvin, its resistance goes to zero. Not .1 ohms. Not .5 ohms. Zero.

Another strange thing about superconductivity is current persistence: put a current into a super conducting ring and it stays there. Forever. Also, it excludes magnetic fields. Got to see several demonstrations of this. Imagine little levitating magnets skooching around a track without ever going higher or lower. Here's a video of it I found on youtube. Seeing it in person instead of by video gives you a funny feeling. Like the world is tilted.

A talk on how ultracold works along with a lot of liquid nitrogen demonstrations. Liquid nitrogen is fun.

Then, Raman Sundram talked with us regarding higher energy physics as opposed to the low energy physics we’d been talking about. Just a few things:
  1. Quantum mechanics, relativity and gravity don’t play well together. There are theories that handle pairs of them but nothing that manages all three.
  2. At the point of the Big Bang, all three were at their maximum. Therefore at one point in the history of the universe they were together. We just don’t know how.
  3. We normally proceed through time via space. We navigate space in all directions but not time. However, it turns out (Dirac) that being able to navigate time is also necessary. This is why anti-matter is necessary. It serves as the negative time representation. (I could draw a curve of this but I won’t.)
  4. One issue is why is there essentially no antimatter now? The current theory is the War of Annihilation: there were large amounts but normal matter and antimatter destroyed each other. There was a slight imbalance on the amounts and that’s why we are here now. (One wonders if the WOA happened, could it be the source of inflation?)
  5. The vacuum energy looks to have cause/be responsible for/related to dark energy. Dark energy can be viewed as repulsive gravity. Turns out that gravity can become repulsive if the pressure is great enough. Vacuum energy has a lot of pressure. One wonders what repulsive gravity in the vacuum energy does to the passage of time in the vacuum.
End of Day 2