The factors that make up 2012

Soon after the clock struck midnight, I said to Laura how pleased I was that 2012 is an even number.  Something about its factorability made me irrationally optimistic about the new year.

This morning, during the light of day, being curious about what prime factors make up 2012 — and being properly lazy on a new year’s day — I turned to Wolfram Alpha for the answer:

2^2×503  (3 prime factors, 2 distinct)

1  |  2  |  4  |  503  |  1006  |  2012   (6 divisors)

Hmmm….503….what does that mean?

What’s that name again?

I’ve started noticing how poor my memory has become.  I spend hours watching a television series like Big Love and can hardly remember the names of characters I’ve seen dozens of times.  I have to look up function names for Python I’ve used many times before.  Granted, if I ever want to meditate on the fine points Bill Henrickson‘s ancestry or figure out how to calculate an MD5 hash in Python, I can look those things up.   Does relying on an outsourced brain (butlered by Google) steadily erode my capacity to remember?  I can’t say with any rigor though I have my suspicions. Just don’t make me give up my notebook computer, the internet, and my phone!

Nonetheless, I’m tired of going to an Episcopal church for many weeks without having the Nicene Creed or prayer of confession (which we repeat every single week) memorized and internalized by now.  What to do?  I don’t have a simple answer to this question, though I’ve started to exhort myself to start by paying attention, being present, working to remember, and giving gratitude. I’ve spent too much of my life living in my head that I don’t pay sufficient attention to what’s right around me, every day.  Yesterday, as I swept our dining room, I couldn’t help thinking that “hey, this seemingly trivial act is the important stuff of life — pay attention because you’ll want to remember this moment one day.”  Last week, at a funeral, I was reminded once more about what people remember of a loved one’s life:  how much they were cared for and loved by the deceased person. It turns out that all those birthday parties, kind words, consistent shepherding do matter — more than a lot of the stuff I worry about. There are many times I long to be doing big, important things, when living my life in its mundane texture is the important work I need to be doing.  And I can do that job better by being present in it, fully present.

It’s funny that I should expect myself to effortlessly remember details from Big Love, given that I had to work diligently to learn facts as a student. Somehow I’ve forgotten that remembering takes work and it takes discipline.  There are no silver bullets though I never stop hoping for one.  Wasn’t Supermemo, which I read about in Wired several years ago going to make the work of learning melt away?   (I’m still hoping and plan to try a similar tool, AnyMemo for Android.)  I’m motivated to spend lots of  time writing because I’m convinced that there are few better ways for me than writing to learn and to remember; don’t forget: remembering usually takes hard work.

I surprise myself by adding “giving gratitude” to my list of methods for better memory.  It’s not a mistake.  Thinking about our past is not just about dispassionately reviewing what happened but noticing the many, many things for which we have reason to be grateful — and then actually being grateful in response to that noticing.  Laura and I pray every night before we go to bed.  When I was single, I didn’t pray that often in the evening.  But I am so grateful that we do pray because it gives me a chance to remember the people and events of the day and to be thankful.  Praying for people day in and day out has strengthened my connection to those people even when I’ve not talked to them for a long time.

Reflecting on those lonely days

Many years ago, I came across a famous quote of Albert Einstein’s that has since stuck in my mind:

My passionate sense of social justice and social responsibility has always contrasted oddly with my pronounced lack of need for direct contact with other human beings and human communities. I am truly a “lone traveler” and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart; in the face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for solitude.

From my earliest days to well into my thirties, I often felt achingly lonely, an oddball.  Einstein was my childhood idol.  It was his life story that inspired me to start down the road of becoming a physicist.  His self-description as a “lone traveler” was  solace for me.  I used to hope that one day I’d grow up to be as special and singular a figure as Einstein.  (No lack of ambition there, eh?)

Part of growing up for me is to accept that I am no Einstein (nor even a journeyman physicist for that matter).  A side effect of  self-acceptance:  I no longer feel so lonely.   I am really like the people around me. I’m also so blessed to have the love of family and friends who accept me for who I am, in spite of  my unrealized ambitions.

Words of encouragement to freelancers from Ben Stein

As someone not currently collecting a long-term salary from any employer, I resonate with Ben Stein’s words in Everybody’s Business – Deep in Debt, and Now Deep in Worry – NYTimes.com:

MY work as a freelance writer in Hollywood some time ago prepared me for extreme uncertainty. This is the most insecure existence imaginable. It mandates saving, ingenuity and nonstop work and creativity. Freelancers never have a day off. Never. They know that they can go months without a check. They absolutely have to save. They have to have five different levels of fall-back plans and financial escape hatches.

Working for the future of the children we love

In the shower this morning, I was thinking about how difficult it is to plan, let alone work, for the long-term. It helps profoundly to have children in mind, children we love and for whom we fiercely desire a wonderful future. I was specifically thinking about how life will be like for my nephew when he has reached 41 years old, my own age. Since he is currently 5 years old, I’m imagining his life in the year 2044. Thirty-six years in the future may seem remote – I myself will be 77 years old, if God willing, I live that long. But it’s not hard to imagine my nephew in his prime, living in a world that I hope will be many times more grand and promising as the world is today. That optimistic scenario depends on the work we do today, and tomorrow, and a year from now, and 10 years from now to meet the big challenges facing us today today – that of climate change, the collapsing economy, and the need to transform our global society into a sustainable enterprise.

Of course, the future isn’t just about what life will be like for my nephew — but it sure makes a difference for me to have individual children in mind.

Learning from the everyday

I’ve not thought seriously about physics since I finished my Ph.D. in biophysics in 1997. But now I think often about how to get back into studying physics. Not the physics of graduate school requirements, but the physics of everyday life. Doesn’t it make sense to get students to tie their learning to what they encounter in their own worlds? Of course, the world is much bigger than what’s in our faces and immediately under our feet. But it’s in the way buildings stand, water freezes and boils, and how insects fly that are the hints to the deepest stuff we know. Like Lex Luthor quipped: “Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.”

To find out whether there’s been much work put into designing curriculum based on everyday life, I will look at references such as:

Merry Christmas!

I find Christmas Day to be an appropriate time to reflect on life.  In between the various feasts of a meal, I relish the food-induced slowdown that brings quiet to a house.  A chilly but sunny day helps with inducing this altered state of consciousness:  awareness, stillness, and repose.  I know such a moment does not last very long.  It’s not that I don’t have a choice either about when to slow down.   Savor it while it lasts, I say.

The importance of narrative — and redemption

This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It) – New York Times:

    By contrast, so-called generative adults — those who score highly on tests measuring civic-mindedness, and who are likely to be energetic and involved — tend to see many of the events in their life in the reverse order, as linked by themes of redemption [emphasis mine]. They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made honor roll in seventh. They were laid low by divorce, only to meet a wonderful new partner. Often, too, they say they felt singled out from very early in life — protected, even as others nearby suffered.

The work redemption caught my eye since it very much fits with the way I have seen my own past.

A very happy class open house!

I’m feeling very satisfied with the way the “Mixing and Remixing Information” (Spring 2007 edition!) ended yesterday with the Class Open House. My students did great, as they handled with poise the many questions of the interested crowds! Thanks to the members of the ISchool and campus community at large for coming to the Open House. Thanks especially to Laura for making signs for the students, arranging the food, and encouraging my students!

Now on to a deep focus on the book….