Tuesday, June 24, 2008

June Update

Well, it's been a long time (once again)... I guess I'd better get out and do some INTERESTING THINGS so that I'll have something to write about!

Well, actually I've got a few things...

Did I happen to mention that I'm writing a (short) story? It's lots of fun, and creative writing is a new experience for me! And to top it off, the story had a good moral: we must stop global warming! But it takes its own sweet time to get to that message....

Here's a little excerpt from the beginning you might find amusing... i

To set the stage: "Mr. Z" or "Zarathustra" and his friends live far away; in fact, they live in a 9-dimensional world outside our universe. Not only that, they actually created our universe! Now they didn't make every thing there is in our universe, they just set the physical parameters and then started the "Big Bang". They generally sit back and watch after that, without further intervention.

Mr. Z and colleagues all work at the "Institute for Universe Studies" and they created our universe in the "Big Bang Machine" (so named by the custodian due to the awful clatter it made) that they had at the Institute. The machine requires you to insert a coin (no free lunch!), set the parameters (e.g. the fine structure constant, the cosmological constant, etc.) and press the button to start. If all goes well, a nice display bottle emerges containing your new universe, suitable for display in your living room or office.

For most choices of parameters, the resulting universe is incompatible with life. The spacetime either never unfurles, or it expands quickly to a cold gas, and never reverses course. Both are quite boring. It is only when the physical parameters satisfy certain relations among themselves that the resulting universes seem capable of supporting any type of life.

Our universe turned out particularly well, and is one of the few they created that actually produced some semi-intelligent creatures (e.g. on the little planet "Earth"). For this reason, watching the development of Earth from a molten fireball to a place with good restaurants has been of great interest to them. So much so, in fact, that they have a "reality" TV series in their world far away, that is called "Watching Little Earth." This show is very popular with the general public in their world, and consists of transmissions of earthling-produced documentaries. For example, there is the one detailing the activities on a certail "Wisteria Drive"; other episodes have shown harrowing escapes from various tropical islands. The have learned through these transmissions from earth, that we play violent games where two teams face off and throw or shoot things at each other. This is not nice! Some people seem to get very seriously hurt in these games. At first, they just threw rocks at each other, but now they have these flying vehicles that they use to drop fireworks of some type on the other team. That hurts! Well, it is all very entertaining, but really they should find more peaceful games to play!

Recently, they noticed that little planet earth seemed to be getting hotter, and it seemed to be due to activities of the homo sapiens species. So they have come to visit with a message. Their goal is to get on Oprah or Larry King to tell all of earth: fix this global warming NOW or ELSE! It seems their Institute budget largely derives from revenue from the "Watching Little Earth" series. If we now mess up the planet so that their public is no longer interested in tuning in, then their Institute will lose so much funding they will be unable to continue their work. They can't allow this to happen. So they are giving us one last change. If we fail, they will sweep our entire galaxy into the nearest blackhold, and recycle the energy and matter into some more useful form. So if we want to avoid being "blackhold food" we'd better get our act together...

And of course, along the way, much hilarity will ensue...

Mr. Z Goes to Earth with a Important Message

A Short Story by
Dave Goodwin
June, 2008

An Early Morning Encounter

I first met “Zarathustra” or “Mr. Z.,” as we affectionately call him now, early one morning last Winter Term. For those of you who don’t live your lives according to the academic calendar, as I (and most people I know) do, “Winter Term” translates roughly to “January to mid-March.” Also, just to dispel any confusion before we begin, Mr. Z is no relation to the Zarathustra of history (6th century BC). He just chose to take his name. But more about that later. Now let’s get back to how this all began…
I remember distinctly that it was very early in the morning on that winter day --- probably about 5 or 6 am --- when I first saw him. In any case, it was still too dark to see much of anything --- trees, buildings, cars, and people were all just black silhouettes against the dark gray overcast sky.
I was taking my usual short cut through the park next to the University where I work, when I ran into Mr. Z. When I say “ran into,” I mean it quite literally, not like

“Oh Honey --- guess who I ran into this morning? Shirley! Remember her? I think you two met once. I think you’d actually like her if you just gave her a chance. Oh, Honey, that was a long time ago. I hadn’t thought of her in years until I ran into her today! ”

No, I literally collided with Zarathustra in the darkness of the park. Now you might think from his rail-thin body that he would come out the worse for a collision with me. But you would be wrong – he really packs a punch! He has abs like steel --- or, considering what we would soon learn, maybe I should just say “he has steel abs.” In any case, the result of our collision was that I found myself splayed out on the path, looking up at Mr. Z standing over me. Now if he were like some of the “tough guys” you sometimes see hanging out in parks like this one, he could have finished me off with a few quick, powerful kicks. But of course we know now that Mr. Z is not like that at all --- he is, above all else, a very decent fellow.
So he smiled and helped me to my feet. He apologized for standing precisely where I was planning to walk. I accepted his apology, and within seconds, I came to see him as the true “gentleman” we all now know him to be, and not as some local thug trying to mug me.
Soon, his entire group surrounded me, and they were all trying to shake my hand at the same, while looking me in the eyes with “sincere” expressions, and saying things like
“Good Morning, Ladies and Gentlemen!”
“Room for cream?”
“Fries with that?”

As it turned out, they were not really expecting answers from me – they were just practicing their English. Zarathustra explained to me that they were only visiting for a little while, and they live somewhere “very far away.” Judging from their strongly-accented attempts at English, I realized how true this must be. I couldn’t quite place their accent, however. Was it French? If it was, it was some obscure dialect that I had never heard before.
But their clothing suggested they could be French – very avant gard, and very colorful! Each one of them wore a single color – one guy was all “hot pink” and another wore electric blue. Not at all like the “practical” clothes we Engineering Professors wear at the university. On days I’m teaching (MWF), I usually wear a white or beige button-up shirt (but no tie!), tan or dark slacks, a very professorial old tweed sportcoat, and my old, comfortable athletic shoes. On other days (TuThSatSun) I usually just pull on my favorite old brown sweater over a T shirt and a pair of jeans.
But enough about how I dress. Their clothes were much more interesting. Remember those polyester “leisure suits” from the 70’s? Well, their outfits were similar, although the fabric did not seem to be polyester. Instead, it seemed to be something programmable – by turning a few small dials sewn into the side, they could change the color of the fabric, and even its texture and transparency. It was possible to dial in a look of metal mesh, or a very finely woven mirror-like gold or silver, or a fabric woven from brightly tinted plastic polyester-like fibers. But unlike the polyester we know, these fibers seemed to act as optical waveguides! Using tiny fiber couplers in the seams, they could capture light from any external source and use it to illuminate the garment. So if you were outdoors, sitting in the shade, then the outfit would turn bright blue! Now if you stepped out of the shade into direct sunlight, the color would quickly change to brilliant yellow! Of course, all of this is user-configurable using the dials. If you want, for example, to wear a bright red leisure suit that doesn’t change color, all you need to do is to turn off the external coupler, and instead use one of the little diode laser light sources sewn into the seams.
As an engineer,I must say I found this extremely cool. These people may not call themselves “engineers” but they sure do make some incredible stuff! I resolved at that moment that I would try to spend as much time as I could with Mr.~Z and crew, so that I could learn how to build as many cool gadgets as possible before they have to go back home (wherever that may be).