Thursday, December 29, 2005

Erdös-Bacon Numbers

I learned from Julian of a wacky ego game: Erdös-Bacon Numbers. Your Bacon Number is how far you are from actor Kevin Bacon, in terms of co-starring chains. Your Erdös Number is how far you are from mathematician Paul Erdös in terms of co-authoring chains. Add the two together, and you get your super-elite Erdös-Bacon Number.

My one publication gives me a legitimate Erdös number of 4 (E. Veach, P. Agarwal, N. Alon, P. Erdös). If film crew could claim Bacon Numbers (doubtful), my Bacon Number would be 2. (Me and Tom Hanks in Toy Story 2, he and Kevin Bacon in Apollo 13).

Hence, a dubious Erdös-Bacon number of 6! The current record holders are at 5, so I rule! Or I would, if my Bacon Number weren't actually infinity.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Why do airplanes have more than one engine?

I am now, more than ever, a big fan of redundancy on aircraft.

On November 22 my wife and kids and I flew for a family thanksgiving in Pennsylvania. Nonstop from San Francisco to Newark on a Continental 757.

Somewhere in the middle, at 35,000 feet, I heard a strange revving of the engines, but I did my best to ignore it. Flying for me is a constant process of rationalization to deal with the thinly masked undercurrent of fear. I'm not a big fan of flying.

But moments later, the LCD screens on the ceiling folded up. Everyone glanced around, confused, because this had interrupted the inflight movie, and it was not accompanied by an explanation.

Then the seatbelt light came on, and somebody said over the loudspeaker, "Fasten your seatbelts." Not, in itself, unusual, but it was barked more tersely than usual.

A flight attendant walked by my aisle and whispered, blank-faced, to another: "Were you listening?" The second shook her head, and they walked silently to back of the plane together. This caused some concern among those of us within earshot.

Finally, the captain came on: "Ladies and gentlemen, we've lost all of the oil in our left engine, forcing us to shut it off. We've been flying for five minutes on the remaining engine. We're forty miles from Denver, so we're being diverted there."

Now, I know perfectly well that aircraft can fly with some engines off. I know that it's something that pilots train for. But that doesn't make it a good thing. Luckily for me--"luckily" in a strange sense--my whole family was with me, so I tried to act brave and reassuring. If I had been on my own, I probably would have whimpered and passed out.
The crew proceeded with a safety procedure briefing, which is interesting to experience midflight. They spoke even more simply and patronizingly than usual, as if they were speaking to children, or possibly to two hundred very nervous adults. They even re-explained how one buckles a seatbelt, in case anybody had forgotten.
On our approach, we were flanked by fire trucks ("Fire Rescue and Recovery", or something similarly sinister) every thousand feet along the runway. We landed without incident, and as we came to a stop there was a round of applause. (Unusual to hear nowadays--when I flew in Europe as a kid, every flight ended with a round of applause. I guess we take things for granted. But not on this trip.)
I was relieved to hear that they weren't going to ask us to to get back on that plane ("We jiggled some cables and it seems to be working again..."), but then we heard that the only spare 757 was in Newark--our destination in the first place, and an airport then experiencing weather delays.
Six hours later, the replacement plane arrived. There's nothing like six mind-numbing hours in a random airport with fidgety kids to make you want to get back on a plane after an emergency landing.
So a seven hour travel day turned into fourteen hours, and by the end of it I was overtaken by a cold that must have been brewing before, and which was brought about by stress and exhaustion. Thus I spent Thanksgiving vacation sick and a week later I still can't shake the dang cough.
Still, I can't help but feel that things turned out better than they could have. And for once, aircraft engine redundancy was specifically mentioned as something to be thankful for at Thanksgiving dinner.

Posting again!

I like the symbolism--heck, it's not symbolism, it's just cause and effect--of my last post, about Lucy being born, followed by most of a year without a single post.

Having kids is hard. But I think I'll start posting again, for what it's worth.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Lucy James Lokovic

Sorry I'm posting this so late--things have been busy.

On Wednesday, March 2, our second daughter Lucy was born. It was a scheduled cesarian section, out of concern for the baby's size (in combination with other factors). When she came out, she measured in at 9lb 13oz, thus justifying the concern and astounding everybody present. Lucy is healthy and wonderful.

The operation went very well, and Melissa is recovering nicely. She claims that the most pain she's felt so far was from laughter as I got Lucy's arm and head stuck in a shirt during a particuarly amateurish diaper change. It's taken a few days for me to get re-used to the newborn form factor, but I'm getting there.

Lucy's big sister Emma has handled this better than we could have hoped. She's eager to help with everything, and is constantly hugging, kissing, and asking to hold the baby. Her main issue is a disrupted sleep schedule--a problem that she shares with her parents.

My mother Linda (shown in the third picture) has been in town to help out, and she's been a godsend. When she leaves Saturday, Melissa's mother Carol will show up to take over for a couple weeks.

I'll post more images, and probably some movies, when time permits.

By the way, if you're wondering: Lucy's middle name "James" is my father's first name.

Friday, January 14, 2005

The Lament of Astrophysical Insignificance

I used to bemoan my cosmic insignificance.
What effect did I have on the planets, the nebulae,
on the vastness of space, on the nature of being?
What distant gods had even heard my name?
Where was my place in the fate of galaxies?

I felt small.

Somehow, over time,
my lament has become more specific.
I don't wonder at the fate of the stars, or of
moons, or of comets or even of
interplanetary driftrock.

Let alone their fate--I don't even matter to their orbits!
I am astrophysically insignificant.

Insead of small, I now feel massless.
So I worked it out.
I affect the moon's trajectory in its 27th decimal place.
In meters. Well, meters per second.
All day. Every day. As long as I'm around.
So I wrote to the guys at NASA.
They refuse to update their trajectory theories.
Something about significant digits
and the precision of their instruments.
I asked if my math was right, at least.
They laughed. "Does it matter?"
It matters to me.
Though not, I suppose, to the moon.

Make love, not war.

This is just the stupidest article ever. Among ideas for non-lethal chemical weapons rejected by the Pentagon is a "sex bomb" that

...would make enemy soldiers sexually irresistible to each other. Provoking widespread homosexual behaviour among troops would cause a "distasteful but completely non-lethal" blow to morale, the proposal says.

I struggle to find something to say. Now I struggle, wondering why I even dignified the article by posting it here. I guess I'm amused that some think-tank wacko was self-conscious enough about his "sex bomb" idea to qualify the description with the word "distasteful". Wouldn't want to lose status among his other confidently heterosexual think-tank friends.

Monday, January 3, 2005

Truer words were never said.

Every once in a while, one utters a phrase which one can be reasonably sure has never been uttered before, by any human, ever. This weekend I came to say

Never buy Dr. Peppy from a hooker in a diaper.

It made complete sense in context. You just have to know the following things about Emma, who is just over 2 years old.

  • She likes to walk around with a pad of paper and a pen, asking people what they'd like to order. She does this in imitation of waiters and waitresses that she's seen in restraurants.

  • She usually asks about drinks, including "Coke" and "Dr. Pepper", which the other day she mispronounced as "Dr. Peppy."

  • For Christmas she got some sparkly plastic high-heeled shoes, which she loves. They make her look like a hooker, but I don't say so in her presence, since she absorbs and repeats everything we say.

  • As a two year old, she is legally obligated to remove clothing at random times of day, so it's not unusual to see her walking around with, say, just a shirt and a diaper.

  • A two year old wearing high-heels and a diaper is a disturbing sight indeed.

Anyway, all of these things occured at once, leading to the truism "Never buy Dr. Peppy from a hooker in a diaper."

See? Makes sense.