Two Almost Physicists With Almost Something To Say

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Paul & Babe & Us

It’s the holiday season, so Merry Christmas, Chappy Chanukkah, Happy New Year, and so on!

People are pretty down on 2016, with good reason. Personally though, it was a pretty good year for me, and hopefully for many others. I got married (was my co-blogger a groomsman? of course he was!), and many people I care for got engaged, married, had children, and/or any other variety of personal milestones–which is great!

Among the fun things was visiting my wife’s home of Minnesota (a state you are only allowed to enter following marriage to a current or former resident). I wrote about visiting Prince already but when we were up in the northern part of that state we got a photo op with a local hero (inspired by my new brother-in-law & his fiance), and it is one of my favorite photos. I only wish that I had known to wear blue pants! So I’m going to post it as a way of bragging that I had a pretty good 2016.


Happy 2017!

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What We Leave Behind


Pictures of David & Ryan, within hours of their defenses. The psychological toll is evident. Photo credit (left to right): Ryan, Dave. (Posted without Dave’s permission.)

As I bragged about in the post I wrote two days after my doctoral defense, one of the things that I was proudest of was slipping a bunch of jokes past my thesis committee. Sure, it was gratifying to receive the acclimation of accomplished physicists on the culmination of 5 years of research and over a decade of scientific training. But sometimes, at a moment like that, what matters the most is getting some solid goofs preserved in perpetuity upon a dusty shelf in the corner of the esteemed library of my and Dave’s elite Rhode-Island-based university that Aitchbar refuses to mention by name for some reason.

Despite this, my dissertation, with the catchy name Quality-Selected Lensing Analysis of Galaxy Clusters in Subaru Telescope Fields hasn’t gotten the kind of internet heat I would have expected. So I felt like I ought to come up with a primer to point interested parties to the comedy gold. You, dear reader, can be assured that these things are funny, because they have been approved of by astrophysicists in terms of their scientific content. As much humor writing is.

So here’s a rundown for someone who might want to skip all the way more interesting astrophysics parts. This is the link to that dusty library’s online pdf. Here’s the rundown:

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We Went to Paisley Park

We spent Thanksgiving in my wife’s home state of Minnesota this year. It was a really fun trip, between visiting her family in the snowy far north, photo-ops with giant Midwestern statues, and taking in some culture in the Twin Cities. The highlight of that culture part was definitely visiting the home of one of Minnesota’s brightest lights, the late Prince Rogers Nelson.

Paisley Park, his recording studio, base of operations, and home, opened to the public less than a month before we visited, on October 28th. It was only announced that it would become a public museum in August. It wasn’t clear how much preparation for turning it into a museum was done prior to his untimely death this April, but my wife observed that he was already basically living his life as a public performance, and there were already probably plenty of glass cases holding memorabilia around beforehand anyway, so it’s hard to know.

We went in the early evening on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Currently, they give tours most days going until 11 pm or so. When we got there, a guard stopped us at the gate to ask whether we had tickets. We didn’t, and he informed us that they can only be bought online, so we were turned away, and proceeded to buy them on a phone while idling in a nearby CVS parking lot. We idly pondered whether Prince had ever stopped there to buy Vitamin Water.

Tickets acquired, we were ushered through the gates and parked in front of this blurry purple wall.

Purple wall, purple wall

Purple wall, purple wall

Phones were not allowed on the tour, so I snapped the only other picture I was able to take:

Purple wife, purple wife

Purple wife, purple wife

Ironically, although they are extremely paranoid about phones, the only way to get in was to show them the QR code for your ticket…on your phone. After you do, they put your phone in a little “locked” pouch that they unlock at the end of the tour. I strongly suspect that they were already in use back in the days when he would throw massive parties here as well. I entertained the thought that Madonna had once been forced to use my pouch to lock up her phone when she came to an impromptu party/performance in one of the party/concert events he held for celebrities and cool people.

To start with, in case you’re not familiar, Paisley Park looks more like an office complex than a house. It’s a big white boxy structure on the corner of a ordinary street in the suburbs outside Minneapolis, in a pretty sparsely populated sort of place with occasional strip malls and empty lots. Here’s a picture I found on the internet.


Unlike a normal house, it had the kind of glass double doors, HVAC, and other stuff that you usually see in commercial buildings. Which makes sense, I suppose, since lots of people work(ed) there in a professional sense, but it is still a little crazy that someone extremely famous lived here for nearly 30 years. Also, because there were multiple displays which looked like they were created for a museum, and yet, other things which we were told had been there for years but looked carefully presented, we frequently wondered how much had been changed for the public tours. Our assumption was “less than you would expect.”

Security was omnipresent. They were both gruff and jocular and I strongly suspected that they were mostly people who had already been working there and were now getting used to dealing with the public on a daily basis.

About half of the tour group was wearing at least some purple, and the makeup of us tourists was diverse in every sense—reflecting the fact that Prince was a rare artist who appealed to people from every background and walk of life. He really united people in a cool way.

While waiting for our guide, we were allowed to peruse the wall of gold and platinum records hanging up around the entryway. My brother-in-law noticed that a quote/drawing beside the doorway was clearly from a blown-up image, and you could see the sloppy pixelation (he asked about it later, it had been there for many years).  My wife was especially happy to find the platinum record (with accompanying platinum tape cassette) for ‘Batdance’. Across from these in a small frame was a condolence letter from the President that he and Michelle had signed in purple ink. I can’t find an image from it online, and I wish I remembered it better, but it probably included something like “‘A strong spirit transcends rules,’ Prince once said — and nobody’s spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative” which is from a quote Obama made publicly at the time. It was characteristically eloquent.

Our tour guide eventually arrived, wearing, as all the guides did, a loose Prince-ish, purple shirt with long loose sleeves. I noticed that he had a Prince symbol tattooed on his forearm and wondered whether the folks leading the tours were chosen from local super-fans. (This article seems to confirm that they were.)

He ushered us into a large room with a kitchen on one side and doors going in every direction. The second level ringed most of it, and on the upper level there was a birdcage holding two of Prince’s doves. We did not witness them crying.

Via this site the room was much like this, but the doors with Prince paintings have been replaced with memorabilia displays and a pedistal with a Paisley Park model and his remains now sits in the center of the photo.

Via this site the room was much like this, but the doors with Prince paintings have been replaced with memorabilia displays and a pedestal with a Paisley Park model and his remains now sits in the center of the photo.

We were told that this is where Prince spent a lot of his time, and it was where he had given a famous interview to Oprah in the 90s. The kitchen was frequently used when the musicians were in long recording sessions, and also held a couch and TV where he spent nights watching the Timberwolves. In recognition of that, the TV was playing a recording of an old game. Despite the seeming incongruousness of it, he was an avid supporter of Minnesota sports, as people in the area can attest.
On the opposite wall (where the photo above faces), there were several inlaid displays with guitars and hand-written lyrics (in place of those pictures of him), and several small rooms with the same kind of thing, and some of his bonkers outfits (these were in most displays and they were always quite small). Another room held his relatively normal-looking office. The phone on his desk was purple.

A small replica of the Paisley Park building sat in the middle of the large room (around the end point of the arrow on his symbol, as seen above), and contained a small black box holding his remains. (My brother-in-law, a funeral director, mentioned that the box would have been far too small to hold the entirety of a cremation, so the rest of His Purpleness must be somewhere else.)

We were led into a large wood-paneled recording studio. Prince had been recording a new collaboration jazz album there less than a month before his death in April. The guitar he was playing was still there, as was the lyric sheet in his own handwriting. The guide played an unmixed section of one of these tracks. It was extremely funky. In the mixing room, the original drum machine used on Purple Rain could be seen. The guide also egged someone on into asking about a little door about 10 feet off the ground…only to reveal that it was just for storage. We were baffled why he was so intent on telling us this.

We then passed through a room with memorabilia from and screens showing Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge. It had previously held promotion offices and been set up for the museum. Half of the room was monochromatic in a nod to Cherry Moon, a black-and-white movie. Graffiti Bridge, apparently a spiritual sequel to Purple Rain, was mostly filmed in this building, something he asked us to keep in mind, as the scale of the production, from the film clips playing, was clearly made in a very large studio space. Where could this space be?

This led to a long hallway (I might be mis-remembering the sequence) with his various awards over the years in inset cases in the wall. We noticed that the Grammy award trophies apparently got larger at some point in the early 90’s and got to see an MTV moonman statue up close. It was a long hallway, and, unsurprisingly, there were many awards.

Next we saw another less ornate recording space where they had created a display which included one of his outfits, a motorcycle (seen on the covers of the “Purple Rain” and “Let’s Go Crazy” singles), and his Oscar from Purple Rain. Then an antechamber for a large concert space, where a strange piano sat among strange organic sculptures. They mentioned that it was one of only a dozen or so examples of this unusual pianos ever made, but not knowing the name for this unique instrument, I could only find this single photo online. From my angle, it was reminiscent of black sea creature.


Prince at his cetacean piano, via this site

This was the entryway into an enormous concert-space/airplane hanger. In about half of the room, outfits and instruments from various tours were arranged on platforms, as were some giant chairs. A concert video played on the distant movie-theater screen. This was where he threw private concerts. It was incredibly large, with a very high ceiling—it felt like they could have fit a space shuttle in here, and if Prince had wanted to, they probably would have. It was staggering to suddenly emerge into a gigantic mostly-empty room.

Our penultimate room was full of couches and large screens. Our guide told us that Prince would sit up on an upper-level walkway looking down over his parties from a chair–which was still present. The area below was full of intimate couch-tables that would belong in a small jazz club, and psychedelic patterns played on the walls.

Near the exit, a neglected wall held some of the offerings left by fans after his death. They seemingly scooped up what was left outside (signs, drawings, tickets) and arranged it in a tapestry of raw grief, with names and addresses still visible on printed-out tickets scrawled with messages of what he meant to them.  The flowers, cast about loosely on the floor, though dry, were not yet completely withered.

In this final area, a large flat-screen TV played his virtuoso Superbowl performance. In 2007, the Superbowl in Miami was played under heavy rain. As halftime approached, the organizers, worried if the weather would effect the show, asked him if there was anything they could do to help. His response:

“Can you make it rain harder?”

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In Which I Pretend to be a Theater Critic

Providence actors Derek Smith and Victoria Ezikovich explore space hallucinations in The Final Voyage of X Minus One. Photo by Bert Silverberg.

Providence actors Derek Smith and Victoria Ezikovich explore space hallucinations in The Final Voyage of X Minus One. Photo by Bert Silverberg.

My wife* has a pretty cool gig writing theater reviews for the website Broadway World. For doing this, she gets all sorts of free tickets to various productions around town and yours truly comes along to a good fraction of the performances. She’s gotten pretty good at it, and recently even joined the American Theater Critics Association and got to travel to New York to participate in their yearly event where she moderated a lunch talk with Susan from Friends, her new best friend!

Last weekend we went to The Final Voyage of X Minus One by Counter-Productions Theatre Company at AS220 in Providence and my lovely wife asked me to pinch-hit on the review, since the show was a sci-fi anthology and I’m a huge dork. It was easy to write since the play was really excellent and fun. It’s not a new Aitchbar post, per se, but it’s a thing I wrote on the internet, so check it out! (And if you’re in the area, go see it!)

BWW Review: THE FINAL VOYAGE OF X MINUS ONE at Counter-Productions Theatre Company

(*): Oh, by the way, since I last posted here, I got married. Hooray!

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I Wrote A Book

I can pour liquids

I can pour liquids

Like my co-blogger, I recently, finally, finished my physics thesis. Mine took 1.333(…) years more than his because: (a) I started with my research group in my 3rd year of grad school (instead of the summer before our 1st, like he did), (b)  I did all sorts of distracting/fulfilling outreach activities for funding over the course of my years at [Semi-Prestigious East Coast University You Can Find by Googling My Name Or Looking at My Mini-Bio and Remembering Which Famous Colleges Are in Rhode Island] which diverted my attention a bit, (c) Because I am a perfectionist who also realizes that he is lazy, and therefore made every bit of code I wrote idiot-proof for the idiot I knew I would be several months after I wrote it (which turned out to be time-consuming but useful, because I was right about that idiot thing), (d) My project ended up being nearly as large as things accomplished by groups composed of dozens of astronomers—but with just me working on it, (e) Dave is smarter than me.

This picture is me pouring champagne after the confirmation (which is always obvious to everyone other than the person presenting their PhD) that it’s all good, and you’re now a Doctor. I am, conveniently, standing in front of a case displaying former department heads. Other than the guy with the cool chemistry setup on the bottom, I’m the only one who got to know that the universe is much larger than the Milky Way and that the Big Bang happened. I mean, it wasn’t a thing I discovered myself, but it’s still weird.

With one day of distance from this experience I have two major observations. The first is that the passage of time has expanded drastically since the day, weeks ago, when I submitted my dissertation. My perception of time was strongly affected by how much I’d added to my thesis, and when I spent a few days getting something to work, but didn’t contribute pages to it, I felt like I was stuck in a moment and I couldn’t get out of it. Now that I’m done, time is again like it was when I was 8 and each new day was a new world of beautiful experiences to be savored. This whole PhD thing happened yesterday and it feels like years.

Secondly is the fact that my reviewers were fine with the several snide remarks and jokes that I sneaked in there. This, in itself, is ~50% as gratifying as the whole doctorate thing itself. I quoted Donald Rumsfeld and Stephen Colbert. I wrote snide footnotes about Albert Einstein and The Dress. And it will all be on a shelf on the [Semi-Prestigious East-Coast University] Library in perpetuity. That is the sweetest victory of all.

And yes, that is a tie with constellations on it. Because I’m a fucking astrophysicist.

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Naming Conventions

I work with a dude who has, on occasion, gone ham on a Diablo III character, and maximized its largess in, like, an hour and a half. I take inspiration from others accomplishing great things, and I have fond memories of playing D2 back when CDs weren’t yet regarded in the same way that one regards those bicycles with the giant front wheel. So I dove into III, and immediately discovered that it is much closer to work than play, compared to how I remembered its predecessor. I actually had to use two hands, in what is historically a one-handed game. The right hand saves humanity, and the other hand is used mostly for propping one’s head up after eight eye-rending hours of sprite-on-sprite homicide. The rule is similar to that of a car: if you have to use two hands, you suck at it.

They also turned the volume down on the procedurally-generated names of the monsters, or at least what I assumed was a procedurally-generated list. That was one of my favorite parts of D2. I can’t swear to remembering the names precisely, but they went something like:

  • Bludgeonskull the Bludgeoner
  • Zeke the Terror-Barber
  • Snot Rocket the Anti-Semite
  • Gary Kasparov the Chessmaster
  • Samwise the Brave
  • Ludacris
  • Rakanishu

The list in III is less inspirational, and most items seem to involve bones in some capacity, to which I say eh. As a shrug, not as a Canadian hiccup. It does give one pause when considering why any parent would name their child in this way; they virtually guarantee their life path by doing so. In the same way that naming a child Jeeves is essentially foregoing the expense of a college education.

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Something About Wall Art and a Ficus

I wrote a physics PhD dissertation. I am attempting to describe the experience in any number of words, but I am failing, like a cat attempting to long-jump from a slippery surface. If the Reader is familiar with the process of long practical writing, or with feline acrobatics, then the Reader hears me. If not, then I am unsure as to what common ground there is to go from. At that point I would doff my cap, shove my hands deep in my pockets, and turn away.

The act of generating a 300-page technical document left my creative homunculus “roont,” to borrow a word that Stephen King has left seared in my head. My tale since I last rapped poetic has been not unlike that of Moses, or the guy from Dune, except without suffering or followers or purpose. I moved, and I moved well, to a place where laundry does not require human sacrifice, and the fridge grows only the mold that I explicitly tell it to grow. I purchased a couch with a giant comfortable tumor, or “chaise,” which is French for couch-tumor. I purchased a dry bar, by which I mean I bought a cheap small bookcase and my girlfriend attached a wine rack to it and loaded it up with liqueurs both fantastic and gross. Fireball and Grand Marnier live side by side, which I believe was prophesized in Revelations somewhere. I don’t know where. 5:3? That might have been the ratio of Kahlua to vodka for something which was not Bible-related.

I have Wall Art, a phrase which GS once told me made his skin crawl. I agree, vaguely, with somewhat small magnitude on my agreement vector. Something called “Wall Art” seems like a filler where something more purposeful ought to be. I have a shit-tonne of it. It accumulated when my creative rage-font ran dry, and long swaths of bare paint began to disturb my sleep. There is nothing about Wall Art that is going to trick the homunculus into spending effort on the creative writing process again. The homunculus gives me the finger when it lays its beady eyes on my four framed pictures of the Moon above a small ficus which I can only at this point describe as undead. “Nope,” says it, for we used to party when I had precisely no weird shit like that. Expunging the solid buildup that accumulated in the word-faucet is now purely an exercise in bearing down and grunting.

I also wrangled me up a Costco membership. I have mostly purchased a year’s worth of field study on barely-contained rage. It seems to pervade the store. I am not sure where this comes from, though I posit the XXL shopping carts play a role. This is the opposite of what I expected for a place constructed out of discounts and volume, two things which drive us as a people. But haters can hate; my new membership came with a free rotisserie chicken and apple pie, which makes me one of the Devoted.