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Cancer Blog

Wednesday, December 31, 2003


what I got for Christmas: two pints of A+ with a side of platelets

A week ago Monday I started to come down with what I thought was the flu. Last Tuesday my temperature was as high as 102.2. Christmas Eve was no better. By midday on Christmas my fever was 103.5. I packed a small bag and had my father take me to the emergency room at Vanderbilt. They drew blood and found that my blood counts were low: the platelets were 19,000, and the white blood cells were low enough for me to be designated "neutropenic". I was admitted into the hospital Christmas evening.

They started me on antibiotics. That first night was the worst. My fever peaked at 103.8. On Friday morning my platelets were "not detectable". The doctors continued with the antibiotics and also gave me a ton of potassium and other electrolytes, which were low. I had severe diarrhea. On Saturday they went ahead with a blood transfusion: two bags of blood and a bag of platelets. I felt much better after that. My fever subsided for good on Monday and I was finally able to return home today. I apparently 'hit the wall' as far as the chemo is concerned. My bone marrow reached the point where it could no longer produce an adequate amount of blood. My doctor in Philadelphia will probably lower the chemo dosage for the next cycle, which I will most definitely not be starting on Tuesday, January 6.

I have to sort some issues out. I'm on the fence about whether or not to return to school. There are a couple of tumors, namely those in the groin and neck, which seem to have increased slightly in size over the past couple of weeks. With a reduced chemo dosage, one would expect more tumor growth in the upcoming months. On the other hand, I'll probably go insane if I go on living with my parents like this. I'm not sure what to do.


Sunday, December 21, 2003


the best (and richest!) university you've never heard of

I learned from the NY Times today that Washington University in St. Louis--the school where, in good times, I study economics--has moved up to number 9 (gasp!) in the U.S. News & World Report 2004 rankings. We are now tied with Dartmouth. As a disclaimer, I should say that the ranking of the economics department is not commensurate with that of the overall university. That's why I was accepted into the program.

WashU (as we like to call it) suffers from severe anonymity. This is caused by many different factors. First of all, there's the bloody name. And then there's the fact that we have come out of nowhere. As the Times article--which I'm about to discuss, just be patient--says, in 1995 we were ranked #20, and now we're #9. Now that's a dizzying climb. But we don't have a rich tradition of academic excellence and the reputation that goes along with it. What we do have, however, is a great big pile of money, and--what is equally important--the wherewithal to use it effectively. That counts for a lot these days. And of course, I must give the usual disclaimer about how such rankings are inevitably flawed, etc., etc. But like them or not, it is undeniable that they have a real impact on the school with time. Here's the article. I'm tempted to post it in full, because, as it's from the Times , it's ephemeral, but I won't:
Less than 30 years ago, Washington University was so obscure that the trustees decided to stick "in St. Louis" at the end of its name, exasperated by the perennial question "So, where are you guys anyway? Seattle or D.C.?"

Today, Washington University in St. Louis has 15 times as many applicants as it can accept. Beyond that, the former "streetcar college," as it once called itself, pierced the top 10 circle of U.S. News & World Report rankings this year, humbling several Ivy League institutions along the way, including Brown, Cornell and Columbia.

Such an ascent is what almost every university strives for, but none have come close to matching Washington's success.

Exactly how this happened, however, is a mystery to most here. Maybe it is the stately campus, the very model of American collegiate Gothic. Some cite the teaching; the research; no, the medical school. It could just be that warm Midwestern charm. Yet underneath the ascent and the debated theories behind it is a remarkably consistent theme, a sort of elephant in the Quad.

"We've raised a lot of money," said Mark S. Wrighton, 54, the university's chancellor.

To put it mildly. In a clear showing of how integral money can be to the educational equation, Wash U.'s rise in the rankings has come alongside a wildly successful capital campaign, the second of two in which the university has raised roughly twice as much as it originally sought.

Not only has the money raised the university's standing -- one of the main factors in the U.S. News rankings is financial resources -- but it has also provided Wash U. the wherewithal to advance its footing in another category the magazine weighs: caliber of the student body.

With one of the most liberal uses of financial incentives for academic achievers among the top 20 universities, Wash U. is open about its reliance on what is typically called merit aid to compete with the elite schools in the recruitment wars.

"It's something that helps people pay attention to us, and not just think of us as something in flyover land between Pittsburgh and Denver," said Benjamin S. Sandler, who oversees Washington's financial aid.

But could the university fare as well without merit aid, a strategy that neither the Ivy League, Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology nor several other elite universities employ?

"Is it possible? Yes," Mr. Sandler said. "Could we achieve the same success and maintain it? I'm not sure. It would be a lot harder."

Indeed, the two U.S. News categories in which Washington University has made its most significant gains, financial resources and student selectivity, seem inextricably linked to its fund-raising prowess and $3.5 billion endowment, the 11th largest in the nation. As if to underscore the point, Wash U. is the highest-rated university by Charity Navigator, which measures nonprofit organizations for the strength of fund-raising, the growth of revenues, efficiency and, in a phrase, programmatic bang for the buck.

Washington University is hardly the only highly ranked university to give merit aid to top students who may not need help to pay for school -- Vanderbilt, Rice and Emory all devote a greater share of their financial aid budgets to the same end -- but the issue has become a volatile one among elite institutions.

Many of them scorn merit aid as a not-so-subtle means of buying a better class, sometimes at the expense of lower-income students who need financial assistance.

"It's very frightening," said Heather McDonnell, director of financial aid at Sarah Lawrence College, referring to those few top institutions, like Wash U., that spend at least 15 percent of their financial aid budgets on merit aid. "If we were at a meeting together, I'd be growling at them." [...]
Trust me, it's not the warm midwestern charm. WashU people, and others who have an interest in academia, will no doubt want to read the whole thing. Yes, WashU is flush. When walking around certain parts of the campus, one is struck by the impressive new buildings. Even more are on the way up. Again, the one anomaly here is the econ department, but I won't get into that... I applaud WashU's use of merit aid. It makes sense to me. After all, as a former professor of mine put it, "you don't go to Harvard to learn from the professors; you go to Harvard to learn from the students." Thanks in part to merit aid, this is increasingly becoming true for WashU. Positions like that of Ms. McDonnell strike me as economically naive. Incentives work. By putting money towards incentives that attract high-quality students, universities are just using their resources efficiently. We're not talking about a zero-sum game where money that goes to a smart rich kid is taken away from a not-quite-so-smart poorer kid, the end. Raising the level of the student body improves the university, boosts fundraising, and, in the long run, makes more and more money available for even the not-so-smart poor kids. And the value of the education they, and everyone else, receives will be higher. Now, if the WashU administration could just set its mind to improving the econ department, then we'd be in business...


Saturday, December 20, 2003


may even apply to social "scientists"

I really like Stephen Weinberg. Here, in a short piece in Nature, he gives four golden rules for the scientist (via Michael Nielson). A sample:
[...] Another lesson to be learned, to continue using my oceanographic metaphor, is that while you are swimming and not sinking you should aim for rough water. When I was teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1960s, a student told me that he wanted to go into general relativity rather than the area I was working on, elementary particle physics, because the principles of the former were well known, while the latter seemed like a mess to him. It struck me that he had just given a perfectly good reason for doing the opposite. Particle physics was an area where creative work could still be done. It really was a mess in the 1960s, but since that time the work of many theoretical and experimental physicists has been able to sort it out, and put everything (well, almost everything) together in a beautiful theory known as the standard model. My advice is to go for the messes — that's where the action is.

My third piece of advice is probably the hardest to take. It is to forgive yourself for wasting time. Students are only asked to solve problems that their professors (unless unusually cruel) know to be solvable. In addition, it doesn't matter if the problems are scientifically important — they have to be solved to pass the course. But in the real world, it's very hard to know which problems are important, and you never know whether at a given moment in history a problem is solvable. At the beginning of the twentieth century, several leading physicists, including Lorentz and Abraham, were trying to work out a theory of the electron. This was partly in order to understand why all attempts to detect effects of Earth's motion through the ether had failed. We now know that they were working on the wrong problem. At that time, no one could have developed a successful theory of the electron, because quantum mechanics had not yet been discovered. It took the genius of Albert Einstein in 1905 to realize that the right problem on which to work was the effect of motion on measurements of space and time. This led him to the special theory of relativity. As you will never be sure which are the right problems to work on, most of the time that you spend in the laboratory or at your desk will be wasted. If you want to be creative, then you will have to get used to spending most of your time not being creative, to being becalmed on the ocean of scientific knowledge. [...]
A couple of years ago, Weinberg came to WashU to give a nontechnical talk entitled: "Science and/or Religion". During the talk, he rejected "science and religion" in favor of "science or religion". Then he rejected something else...


Friday, December 19, 2003


Feynman 1.15: The Special Theory of Relativity

I've read and half-understood several popularizations of relativity over the years, but here's a secret: the equations make it easier. At least Feynman's use of equations certainly does. This chapter sparked a mini-existential crisis in my blogging life. Why exactly am I doing these posts on Feynman's lectures? Do I really think I can communicate something of value to anyone who reads this? Is this purely for my own benefit, and if so, what is the best way to structure them? Should I broadly summarize? Should I tick off the main points, or just--in a more literary way--record my emotional and intellectual responses to each lecture, as if they were paintings or great poetry? Alas, these are questions that I would rather not face. And so these posts will remain inconsistent, mostly incoherent, and addressed towards both myself and anyone else who also has too much time on their hands. Now, to the lecture.

Certain lectures leap out from the others, and this one leaps the highest so far. It is the third chapter in Feynman's smaller book Six Not-So-Easy Pieces which is just a selection of six of the Feynman Lectures that deal with relativity. I would recommend that book to anyone who wants to get a taste for Feynman without biting off too much. I'm happy to report that I understood this lecture perfectly. This is a credit to Feynman, not to me. His thought is crystal clear. Nevertheless, I had to read this chapter three times carefully (so far, I have been reading each chapter twice) and I'm certain that when I read it again, something else will click that didn't before.

I will discuss only Feynman's historical account of how the contradiction in Newton's laws was identified and how Einstein's discovery came about. As we saw in previous lectures, to use Newton's words, "The motions of bodies included in a given space are the same among themselves, whether that space is at rest or moves uniformly forward in a straight line." The question is whether all of the laws of physics, not just Newton's, obey this principle of relativity. When Maxwell developed his equations of the electromagnetic field, it was observed that they did not satisfy this principle. In particular, the speed of light was the same whether it was emitted from a moving object or a stationary one. So if both Maxwell's and Newton's equations are correct, this has some interesting implications, such as: if the speed of light is always the same, then if you are traveling in a car at speed v and light is emitted from behind, then, as it passes you, the speed of light, c, should appear to you, the passenger in the car, as c-v. In this way you could determine the speed of the car, or any other moving object. Analogously, if we set up an experiment in the proper way, we should be able to determine the speed at which the earth is moving through space, the "ether wind". Experiments were done, the most famous of which was the Michelson-Morley experiment, and the surprising result was: the earth has no velocity. But we know that the earth revolves around the sun at around 15 miles/second. This illustrates the contradiction between Maxwell's equations and Newtonian dynamics. Where was the problem? At first the scientists thought Maxwell's equations, being young and unproven, had to be in error. But after much fiddling and experimentation, they emerged unscathed. Lorentz made an interesting discovery: under a certain transformation, later named the Lorentz transformation, Maxwell's equations satisfy the principle of relativity. These equations are really the crux; Feynman spends most of the lecture succeeding in making sense of them. Among Einstein's contributions was to observe that what should be done is to modify Newton's laws in such a way that they also satisfy the principle of relativity under a Lorentz transformation. He did this, and the only modification required was to make the mass of an object depend on it's velocity: m = m,o / [1 - (v^2/c^2)]^(1/2). In words, the mass of an object is equal to the mass at rest, m,o, multiplied by a scale factor which is very close to 1 for everyday speeds, but as the speed approaches that of light, c, blows up to infinity. Once you have this modification, the rest follows. Well, not exactly... Now you have to reimagine the universe.

I, for one, can't imagine a more accessible, yet rigorous, exposition of the special theory of relativity. If you are at all interested in this stuff, you should give it a try.



progress made in the war on my ignorance

One pleasant byproduct of my recent rereading of Nineteen Eighty-Four (see December 9, below) is that I now understand more of DeLong's post titles. For example: Oceania Has Always Been at War with Eurasia, Part CII. For more Orwellian commentary, see this Mark Kleiman post (also via DeLong).


Thursday, December 18, 2003


Bush's secret weapon

Idiot...
Ralph Nader, accused by some Democrats of helping elect President Bush by seeking the presidency as a Green Party candidate three years ago, said on Thursday he wants to make another White House bid in 2004 and will announce a decision next month...
It is a fact, Nader did help Bush win the election. And apparently he wants to do it again. Woe is me, woe is me...


Tuesday, December 16, 2003


Nashville, architectural mecca

From the department of "I'm so ashamed, so ashamed..." Again, from Crooked Timber, Kieran Healey links to an "Eyesore of the Month" site which is run by a particularly cantankerous critic by the name of James Kunstler. Then comes this:
Incidentally, I had no idea that the Dark Tower of Barad-Dur--eye of Sauron and all--is now located in Nashville.
Since I'm not a Tolkienhead, I didn't get the joke. But clicking the link gave me the gist. Yes, there it is, the jewel of the Nashville skyline: the batman building. To be honest, although I never particularly liked the design, I had always thought it wasn't that bad. The thing is, in the context of the Nashville skyline, it isn't that bad; far uglier buildings surround it. So it is, in a sense, the right design choice given the location. A better-looking building would not have fit in. In almost every other city in the world, this design wouldn't have made it past the drawing board, but here in Music City, by Gawd, we like our buildings gaudy.

By the way, this Kunstler guy must be really miserable. There are literally millions of architectural eyesores in Tennessee alone. Horrific, cheap building is one of the costs of a dynamic, fast-growing economic landscape. We Americans seem to prefer convenience over beauty. I don't, but most of us do.



Saddam stumps for Bush

Here's a very good article about some of the implications of Saddam's capture for American politics. First of all, I'm glad that he was captured alive, it really was the best of all possible resolutions. But still, I can't believe that he didn't shoot himself or go down in a hail of bullets. What a coward; he must have been wanting to postpone some kind of eternal damnation or something. If nothing else, the fact that he was taken alive is incontrovertible proof that he's insane. But more to the point, although Saddam's capture is undoubtedly good for everyone involved (excepting the Evil One himself, of course), it is especially good for Bush. And anything that is especially good for Bush is probably not so good for those trying to defeat Bush in next year's election. Really deep analysis, I know. The question is: "How will the Bush administration try to maximize the political benefit of Saddam's capture?" Don't forget, we're not constrained by facts or integrity here. From the Boston Globe:
The coming trial of Saddam Hussein will blanket world media with the daily evocation of decades of atrocities, potentially recasting the Iraq war from a campaign rationalized by the still-unproven threat of weapons of mass destruction to a moral undertaking justified by ending his regime's massive human rights abuses.

Had Hussein been killed by US soldiers, his final chapter would have made headlines for only a few days. But the improbable fact that he allowed himself to be taken alive offers President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain the opportunity to watch their critics squirm under a sustained flow of headlines that will emphasize the humanitarian argument for their war -- even if it was not the one they most often articulated before the fighting.

While the president yesterday offered only a pledge that the trial will be public and "stand international scrutiny," war supporters envision a televised tribunal, replete with the surviving victims and relatives of the dead offering riveting testimony of torture, massacre, and other personal encounters with horror -- thus obliging opponents to reconsider their assertions that it was a mistake to invade Iraq.

"Without ever appearing to be partisan, but merely by cataloging Saddam's numerous heinous crimes . . . it will become implicit in a lot of people's minds that this was a terrible person and that toppling and catching him was undoubtedly a moral and practical good," said John Hulsman of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "That undermines the moralism at the base of left-wing opposition to the president's Iraq policy. It hits them where they live." [...]
But watch out Bushters, you don't want 'em to dig too deep. Saddam's not the only one with blood on his hands...
There is the chance, however, the trial will not play smoothly for supporters of US policy. Depending on how far back the charges go and how much opportunity Hussein is given to defend himself, he could try to implicate the United States in his crimes, said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of the antiwar protest coalition United for Peace and Justice.

"If all that comes out during the trial is the crimes that Saddam committed -- and I'm not saying those shouldn't come out -- then I think it could serve to buttress the Bush administration," she said. "But if it also comes out about the role of the US in setting up that regime, then I think there will be even greater questioning about why this war happened and why this occupation is going on and what the real interests of the US are at this point."

Yesterday, Iran said that it is preparing a criminal complaint over Hussein's war crimes from the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, in which about 300,000 Iranians were killed -- including many who died in chemical weapons attacks by the Iraqi Army. Iraq was supported by the United States -- and many other nations -- when Hussein invaded Iran the year after its radical Islamic revolution. According to the Arab-language television network Al-Jazeera, an Iranian spokesman said yesterday that after the Iraqis try their former dictator, an international court "should determine who equipped this dictator to disrupt our region." [...]
Read the whole thing, etc. Never forget: "The human rights justification 'was really a third and distant reason for entering into this war,' after purported weapons of mass destruction and links to the Al Qaeda terror network[.]"



Feynman 1.14: Work and Potential Energy (conclusion)

One chapter was not sufficient for our introduction to work and potential energy, but first some wisdom:
In learning any subject of a technical nature where mathematics plays a role, one is confronted with the task of understanding and storing away in the memory a huge body of facts and ideas, held together by certain relationships which can be "proved" or "shown" to exist between them. It is easy to confuse the proof itself with the relationship which it establishes. Clearly, the important thing to learn and to remember is the relationship, not the proof. In any particular circumstance we can either say "it can be shown that" such and such is true, or we can show it. In almost all cases, the particular proof that is used is concocted, first of all, in such form that it can be written quickly and easily on the chalkboard or on paper, and so that it will be as smooth-looking as possible. Consequently, the proof may look deceptively simple, when in fact, the author might have worked for hours trying different ways of calculating the same thing until he has found the neatest way, so as to be able to show that it can be shown in the shortest amount of time! The thing to be remembered, when seeing a proof, is not the proof itself, but rather that it can be shown that such and such is true. Of course, if the proof involves some mathematical procedures or "tricks" that one has not seen before, attention should be given not to the trick exactly, but to the mathematical idea involved.
This reminds me of a professor I once had in a grad-level math class. He asked us if we knew such-and-such a theorem. Somebody said yes (it sure as hell wasn't me). Then he asked that somebody to prove it. The somebody then mumbled a few sentences of incoherence. The professor declared: "From now on, when we say we know something, we mean we know how to prove it." I said to myself: I know very little mathematics.

Most of this lecture is a deepening of the ideas that were presented in the last lecture, so I won't spend much space on it. All forces are conservative, that much we should know. And when a force acts on an object, work only occurs when the force is applied in the direction of motion; no work is done if a force is at right angles to the motion. I also need to learn (Relearn? I passed calc 3 way back when) line integrals. When we're computing the work done by a force, integrating force over a path, we're talking line integrals.


Monday, December 15, 2003


gem of a post

One of my favorite bloggers, Daniel Davies, has an excellent post up on Crooked Timber. The subject is a familiar one to economist types, like myself: the use of math in economics. The first year (years... decade?) of grad school in econ is often spent wrestling with math at many different levels: at one level we have to learn the math to get by, but on a deeper level we have to philosophically accept it--we have to either buy into the idea, or not, that most of the math in good economics is not merely a sadistic, obfuscating appendage, but actually central to what makes modern economics so powerful. But there are plenty of economists, not all of them savory, who do practice les maths pour les maths. Davies, sensibly, is not gung ho one way or the other. Here's the main point:
The level of mathematics used in most printed academic journal articles is, I have come to conclude, about right. The point is this; economics is, as Deirdre McCloskey points out regularly, a form of rhetoric. At its heart, it is and has always been about the construction of a certain kind of argument, which is meant to be persuasive over human action. I state this without argument, in the knowledge that many people at work in the field believe that they are involved in a project of genuine scientific enquiry. I feel no argument of mine is ever going to carry the day on this issue, so if anyone wants to make the case for economics as a science, I’ll simply respond thus: “Sir, I gracefully concede that you yourself and your department are engaged in a value-neutral quest for scientific facts about the allocation of resources under conditions of scarcity. I apologise for having suggested otherwise. But would you at least grant me that the description ‘A form of rhetoric … the construction of arguments aimed to be persuasive over human action’ is a decent description of what all those other bastards are up to?”

And the point I’m trying to make is this; in the construction of arguments of this kind, there are certain kinds of mistake which it is fearfully easy to make. It’s easy to spot particular benefits and miss the fact that their counterparts are costs elsewhere in the system. To come up with arguments which, if true, would imply that people systematically allowed others to impoverish them without changing their behaviour. To miss the fact that your model requires the build-up of debts forever that never get repaid. Etc, etc. The bestiary of really bad economic commentary is full of all sorts of logical howlers. And the good thing about building mathematical models is that, in general, it acts as a form of double-entry book-keeping, to make sure that, if you’ve followed the rules of the game, your economic argument will not have any of these most common and most egregious flaws. It doesn’t mean that it won’t be bad or misleading for other reasons, of course, but it does mean that you’ll at least be saying something that makes sense, if only to other experts.
It could be worth your while to read the whole thing. Davies' writing alone is worth the read. For those of you who give a damn about economics and have the time, check out Davies' links to the Krugman stuff. Krugman boils the debate down to a fundamental conflict between the literati and the nerds. (Keynesians versus neo-classicals?) Can it be that I'm a nerd? I've had to fight this label almost all my life. Why else would I suffer through the hell that is high school football? The South ain't no place to be a nerd, that's why we so forward thinkin' and all. Ok, I'm tumbling off topic, time to go to bed...


Sunday, December 14, 2003


Feynman 1.13: Work and Potential Energy (A)

Time to write... Let's see how many schizophrenic typos I can avoid... Oh, by the way, happy Saddamday, everyone; I hope yours was better than mine. The fatigue from the chemo is especially bad this cycle.

This was the most difficult lecture for me so far. We already know, from the principle of the conservation of energy, that the kinetic energy of an object plus that object's potential energy should be constant. Yes, but can we show this directly from Newton's second law, f = ma? Of course... Kinetic energy = 1/2 mv^2. Potential energy = (say we have an object some distance h off the ground) mgh. Differentiate these two terms and notice that for the time rate of change of kinetic energy we get mv(dv/dt). Now, apply the appropriate case of Newton's second law, namely F = ma = m(dv/dt) = -mg. Plug in that mother and we see that the time rate of change of kinetic energy is equal to -mgv. When we differentiate the potential energy term, mgh, we simply get mg(dh/dt), or mgv. Add them together, and voila, 0.

The above is the first, and easiest, example that Feynman considers. Some terminology: What is power? Power is the rate of change of kinetic energy. This is equal to the force acting on an object times (dot product) the velocity of an object. What is work? Work is power x time. Or, equivalently, power is work done per second. We measure energy in joules (really newton-meters), we measure power in joules per second (watts), and work is measured in watts x time (kilowatt-hours, for example). Fine.

Suppose we have an object that orbits around a sun. How much work is done when the planet orbits the sun? None. In fact, the orbit doesn't even have to be a nice ellipse for this to be true. Suppose we have a crazy orbit with many different steps each of which is either a move along an arc (equal radius) around the sun or a move radially, directly towards the sun, and all the steps together make up any pattern whatsoever so long as we end up where we started. In the first step suppose we go directly towards the sun. Clearly, some work is done here. Now suppose we shift over along an arc. Here no work is done at all. Why? Because the only force, gravity, is acting perpendicular to the motion: potential energy has not changed, we are still at the same distance from the sun. So we go along like this, and if we integrate all of the little radial steps towards and away from the sun, then we find that, if we end up where we started, that the total work done is zero. We can extend this to any smooth orbit, since any smooth orbit can be approximated however closely we desire by nice little triangles that use the above logic.

Now the good stuff. Suppose, instead of just particles, we want to know how the kinetic energy of an object changes when we have some sheet of matter of uniform density. Suppose, for simplicity, it extends out infinitely in each direction. Well, it can be shown that the gravitational force acting on some object P some distance a away from the sheet of material is independent of the distance a. How is this? It makes sense that if we're closer to something then gravity acts stronger. But consider the angles, my friend. When we're very close to the sheet of material, only the matter directly in front of us attracts forcefully. Most of the matter is off at an oblique angle, and thus does not attract as strongly. As we back away from the sheet, the attraction from the matter that lies generally straight ahead diminishes in exact proportion to the strength gained by the more favorable angles of the matter off to the sides. There is a cone within which the matter attracts us, and outside of which it doesn't really attract us. The further we are away, the more matter lies within the cone, but the less that matter attracts, and vice versa. Feynman uses this idea to prove a very interesting result. Throughout this book so far we have implicitly assumed that we can idealize the earth as a point of mass rather than some big ball. We have assumed that, in terms of forces, they are equivalent. Are they really? Yes. Using the same logic, and a few mathematical tricks, he shows that the potential energy of a particle a certain distance away from the center of a thin shell (sphere) of mass m is the same as the potential energy of the same particle at the same distance away from a point with mass m. Of course, the earth can be characterized as thin shells within thin shells all the way down. As far as the physics goes, It might as well be a point.



recently read: Orwell

Finished up a wonderful Orwell novel this morning, Burmese Days. Unlike Down and Out in Paris and London, this is a proper novel, not a nonfiction travel account. Highly recommended.


Saturday, December 13, 2003


from the department of borrowed eloquence...

Last month, Will Baude at Crescat Sententia posted this excerpt from Steven Landsburg's book, Fair Play:
Protectionism is wrong because it robs individuals of a basic human right: the freedom to choose one's trading partners. The freedom, for example, to buy any car, at any price, from any willing seller.

But protectionism is wrong for another reason. It's a reason that my daughter understands and Pat Buchanan doesn't, and it sits at the core of what it means to be a decent human being. My daughter knows that all people are created equal, and that nobody's right to prosper should be altered by being born on the wrong side of an imaginary national boundary line. It would never occur to her to care more about an autoworker in Detroit than about an autoworker in Tokyo or Mexico City.

Forget all that stuff about how much it costs American consumers to save the job of an American worker. Suppose Buchanan were right; suppose he did have some miracle formula that could save American jobs at zero cost to consumers. His views would still be repugnant, because they start from the presumption that an American worker is more worthy of protection than a foreign worker. What moral foundation could support such an ugly division of humanity?

Buchanan has frequently been accused of racism, and I happen to think he's suffered a lot of bum raps on that score. But there is poetic justice in those bum raps, because his simplistic nationalism is every bit as ugly as racism, and in exactly the same way. Encouraging people to "buy American" is no different in principle from encouraging people to "buy white".

We need to care about others. We need to care about those who are close to us, and we need to care about strangers. But to care more about strangers who happen to be American than about strangers who happen to be Japanese or Mexican is an expression of the basest and most wrong-headed instincts that a person can have. Thank God my nine-year-old knows better.
Take that you righteously indignant non-free tradin' protectionist hypocritical xenophobic leftist non-Adam Smith understandin' Michael Mooronomical America firstin' onward Christian soldier marchin' right-wing Anne Coulterin' burn-me-at-the-stake-traitor-that-I-am scared witless nationalist bastards.


Friday, December 12, 2003


recently read: Orwell

Yesterday, while relaxing with my Taxol in the cancer clinic, I finished Orwell's "travel account", Down and Out in Paris and London. A young Orwell describes his experiences living among the destitute in, yes, Paris and London. The title really says it all. There were several passages that I would like to quote, but I will choose just two (p. 120-121):
Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear. It is based on the idea that there is some mysterious, fundamental difference between rich and poor, as though they were two different races, like negroes and white men. But in reality there is no such difference. The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit. Change places, and handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well. But the trouble is that intelligent, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor. For what do the majority of educated people know about poverty? [...] From this ignorance a superstitious fear of the mob results quite naturally. The educated man pictures a horde of submen, wanting only a day's liberty to loot his house, burn his books and set him to work minding a machine or sweeping out a lavatory. "Anything," he thinks, "any injustice, sooner than let that mob loose." He does not see that since there is no difference between the mass of rich and poor, there is no question of setting the mob loose. The mob is in fact loose now, and--in the shape of rich men--is using its power to set up enormous treadmills of boredom, such as "smart" hotels.
And further on, a related point (p. 174):
Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised?--for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except "Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it"? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars, fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a business man, getting his living, like other business men, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.
Lots of good stuff in this book. It's funny, too. I recommend it.



Feynman 1.12: Characteristics of Force

This was probably the most difficult chapter for me so far. What does Feynman mean by characteristics of force? Take Newton's second law, for example. Is F = ma just a tautology?
The real content of Newton's laws is this: that the force is supposed to have some independent properties, in addition to the law F = ma; but the specific independent properties that the force has were not completely described by Newton or by anybody else, and therefore the physical law F = ma is an incomplete law. It implies that if we study the mass times the acceleration and call the product the force, i.e., if we study the characteristics of force as a program of interest, then we shall find that forces have some simplicity; the law is a good program for analyzing nature, it is a suggestion that the forces will be simple.
One property of a force that we've already seen is gravitation. This chapter, by discussing the different kinds of forces, is a "kind of completion of Newton's laws." First we learn about friction. Here's an interesting point:
Formerly the mechanism of...friction was thought to be very simple, that the surfaces were merely full of irregularities and the friction originated in lifting the slider over the bumps; but this cannot be, for there is no loss of energy in that process, whereas power is in fact consumed. The mechanism of power loss is that as the slider snaps over the bumps, the bumps deform and then generate waves and atomic motions and, after a while, heat, in the two bodies.
What was new to me, and at first a little confusing, is Feynman's discussion of fields. At first this seems like a needless complication. Rather than just talking about a force acting between objects, we separate the force into two parts: one object creates a "condition" at the particular point in space where the other object is located, this is the field, and the force is some number associated with the second object multiplied by the number associated with the field. For example, the electrical force between two objects would be the field E (bold face indicates vectors) multiplied by the electrical charge associated with the second object. Or, with gravitation, the first object creates a gravitational field at the location of the second object and the resulting force is the mass of the second object times this field, which Feynman labels C. This separation becomes useful when we have many different forces acting on an object. As in the example of planets in a solar system, gravitational fields and electrical fields may be summed together. We then simply multiply the mass or charge of the object in question by the sum of the fields. Feynman closes the section on fields with a 'take it on faith' discussion of magnetism. Very curious and very incomplete; I won't reproduce it here.

The most interesting part of this lecture is at the very end, pseudo forces. In the previous chapter, we learned about symmetry in physics: Newton's laws are invariant under rotations and translation. In fact, even if we have a coordinate system that is moving at a constant speed with respect to another, where it is known that Newton's laws are valid, then the laws are valid for the moving coordinate system (Galilean relativity). But what if the second coordinate system is accelerating with respect to the valid system? Now we have pseudo forces. In order for Newton's laws to work in the accelerating coordinate system, one must take into account the accleration of the coordinate system itself. Think of centrifugal forces. If we are spinning around in a centrifuge, then there is something funny going on that does not occur when we are standing still. These pseudo forces are always proportional to mass. Just like gravity. Einstein noticed that it is impossible, at a given point, to distinguish between pseudo forces and gravity. Is it possible that gravitation is just a pseudo force? Maybe, but to think about things in this way, we need to abandon Euclidian geometry. The true geometry of the world is not Euclidian geometry. As an example of thinking about changing the geometry, imagine someone who believes they live on a two dimensional plane, but they actually live on the surface of a sphere. If they shoot out an object along the ground (assume no forces are acting on the object) then this object appears to travel in a straight line, but it actually curves around the sphere. If they shoot out another object in a similar manner, but in a different direction, then this object also appears to travel in a straight line. Given their apparent geometry, the observer expects the two objects to continue to diverge forever. But if they measure properly, what they find is that, with time, the two objects actually become closer together. It appears that they attract each other. But in fact, they are not attracting each other at all, "there is just something 'weird' about this geometry. This particular illustration does not describe corrrectly the way in which Euclid's geometry is 'weird', but it illustrates that if we distort the geometry sufficiently it is possible that all gravitation is related in some ways to pseudo forces; that is the general idea of the Einsteinian theory of gravitation." Lots more to come on these topics, I'm sure.


Thursday, December 11, 2003


real world, here I come

Well not quite, it's only grad school after all. Back in Nashville now, all chemoed up, as I like to say. My doctor agreed with my interpretation of the scan results, and thought that it would be a good idea for me to return to school in January. Ochenh horrorshow. Of course this means responsibilities, and work. This cancer deal isn't all bad... I've been on vacation for about nine months now. Granted there were extended periods of pain and suffering during this vacation, but at least I didn't have to do any work. The worst situation to be in is to know that you're going off a cliff and yet you still have to grade fifty problem sets by the next morning. Returning in January is a risk. I started the fall '02 semester and had to pull out after a month. I started the spring '03 semester and had to pull out after a month and a half. The difference this time is that my doctor believes it's quite likely that I can look forward to at least six more months of stability or better. Before the previous semesters there was far more uncertainty.

As for the trip, it was almost ludicrously routine. Interesting events: (1) waiting outside at the BWI Amtrak station yesterday; the weather was cool, damp, and dreary. I was thinking how perverse it was for me to be enjoying it so much; (2) loquacious Philly cab driver spends ten-minute ride ranting about how the city shuts down with the slightest hint of snow. His credibility is shaken when, to back up his claim, he resorts to a 13-year-old anecdote about how kids got out of school for "nuthin! nuthin!" when a blizzard that had been forecast completely missed the city. (3) This trip was the 'just in time' trip. When I arrived at the Nashville airport economy parking lot I had to run to hop on the shuttle; if I had missed it, I would have lost at least 10 precious minutes. After arriving in Baltimore airport, I walk right up to the Amtrak shuttle; I usually have to wait at least 10 minutes. I did have to wait for 30 minutes for the Amtrak train to Philadelphia; not quite optimal. Today, immediately after getting chemo, I walk right on to the subway train to take me to the 30th street station. I then only have to wait 15 minutes for the next train to Baltimore airport. As I arrive in the Baltimore airport Amtrak station, I see the shuttle waiting at the stop. I break into a dead run, thinking for sure that my string of luck would continue. The bus takes off and, sprinting, I parallel it for about 50 yards before falling behind. I have to wait 10 minutes for the next shuttle. After arriving at Baltimore airport I'm able to jump on the 6:00 flight back to Nashville; it's 5:35. After arriving in Nashville this evening, I hustle off the plane and through the airport. I walk right on to the economy parking shuttle, just in time. (4) I'm behind a few guys waiting to get on the shuttle to go from the Amtrak station to Baltimore airport today. We have to wait for a lot of passengers to get off before we get on. From the bus, I hear some guy, who is not carrying that much, saying "Isn't somebody going to help her?" I then notice this very pretty young woman in front of him struggling to carry two heavy bags down the stairs of the bus. The girl finally makes it down off the bus, unaided, followed by the guy. The guy then says in everyone's general direction "geez, one of you guys could have at least helped her out." One of the 'guilty' mumbles back, "fuck you". The guy from the bus pretends not to notice. There then occurs a slight augmentation of my big block of misanthropy.

Well they sure corrected the problem with the Bayer pill. I am now the proud possessor of a 4 1/2-week supply. I'm really a fiend with this stuff, can't live without it. Cycle six (I appear to use the words cycle, course and round interchangeably) is scheduled to begin Tuesday, January 6. This is a little later than usual because of the conflict with New Year's Day. No sweat though, not with all these damn Bayer pills. I should be able to transfer to Vanderbilt at the beginning of cycle seven, which should be in late January. School starts in mid-January. 'Tis all.


Wednesday, December 10, 2003


good news

Platelet count du jour: 108,000! Fantastico. I'm flying up to Philadelphia this afternoon. Hopefully this is a turning point in my treatment. The low platelet counts have slowed me down so far, turning what should have been three-week cycles into four-week cycles. Now, for the first time, my platelets are okay after only three weeks. It was the exercise, I'm sure of it. When I get back from my trip I will continue to push my body and get stronger. If we could continue with three-week cycles from here on out, that would literally shave months off the time required to become disease-free.


Tuesday, December 09, 2003


recently reread: Orwell

Over the weekend I reread Orwell's 1984. The 're-' is actually very faint here, because the first reading took place when I was around twelve years old. For fourteen years after that I fooled myself into believing that I had 'read'--read in the sense of understood--1984. Like hell I did. This is a book that, as Douglas North says, "should be read every four or five years". For me, simple prole that I am, it was long overdue.

If only 1984 had become irrelevant. If only we denizens of the twenty-first century could say that it should only be read for historical reasons. On the contrary, it should be read now more than ever. Instead of "victory" gin, we have "freedom" fries. Instead of "freedom=slavery" we have the Patriot Act. Our government has learned Orwell very well: 2+2 can equal 5, and the policy of continuous war is indeed very useful in consolidating power. It is a shame that many who read 1984 lack the imagination to apply Orwell's warnings to both sides of the political spectrum, not just the left. Perhaps we need an update. The year 1984 has long since passed us by; we need a new prophet to carry on Orwell's crusade against tyranny. I know just the man for the job. Maybe, in the not too distant future, we can look forward to Paul Krugman's new dystopian novel, 2034. The symmetry would be beautiful, and frightening.



armchair radiology

Well, the scan results are in. I would describe them as "pretty good". They are almost exactly what I predicted in the December 5 post below: some disease is stable, some has shrunk, some has increased (though not too much), and there is no new disease. They are far from the best case; in fact they are not definitive enough for me to say right now that I will return to school in January, though I almost surely will. I need to discuss the results with my doctor before going ahead with the decision. But they are even further from the worst case. It is still quite reasonable to say that what disease growth there was occurred because of the two four-week cycles with only three-weeks of the Bayer drug. Since the last scans, October 7, there have been twenty days when I was not on the Bayer drug, while there should have only been six. During these ten-day no-Bayer drug stretches, I felt a part of the tumor on my neck grow. This problem will soon be corrected, and hopefully all of the tumor growth will stop completely. Now the details...

There are "innumerable" small lesions in the liver, but they have not significantly changed since last time. The largest lesion in the liver, however, has increased from 1.7 x 1.3 cm to 2.1 x 1.7 cm: bad. A lesion in my lower back has changed from 2.9 x 1.4 cm to 2.6 x 1.5 cm: okay. Another tumor in my abdomen which had increased dramatically from 1.8 x 3.2 cm to 4.3 x 3.3 cm in between the Aug 1 and the Oct 7 scans, has now decreased to 3.6 x 2.5 cm: bravo! My trophy tumor, the big daddy, measuring 6.6 x 4.4 cm in the Oct 7 scans and located in the colon, has decreased to 5.8 x 3.6 cm: bravo! bravo! (maniacal cheering). The relatively new tumor in my right groin has increased from 2.1 x 1.7 cm to 2.4 x 2.1 cm: *sigh*. And finally, the subcutaneous tumor in my lower back, the one that I can monitor myself, is "essentially" unchanged at 2.8 x 1.9 cm (it has slightly shrunk from 3.0 x 2.1 cm).

Alas, this could be the last time that I review the scans and results on my own. When I switch to Vanderbilt, I won't have any reason to get the disk from the film library; I will just hear the results from the doctor. I don't think I'm going to go out of my way to see the scans and results myself. While the results sound very precise, radiology is an inexact science. There are a lot of discrepancies between the October 7 and the December 5 results. The October 7 radiologist didn't even see the tumor in my right groin. In my opinion, the December 5 radiologist is clearly superior, not only in competency, but also in literary style. But all that really matters to me is whether I'm improving or not, and my doctor can tell me that better than the radiologist's report.

I'm not really feeling any strong emotions right now. The strong emotions come when you get unexpected news; these results were about what I expected. But the news was good, and I am pleased. My time horizon now extends somewhat farther out into the near future than it did before.



passable platelets

The last time I was in Philadelphia we had to adjust the scheduling a bit for cycle five. Today--three weeks after the start of cycle four--should have been the day for chemo and the start of cycle 5--platelet permitting, of course. But my doctor is out of town today, and with the new scan results, I have to see the doctor when I go up. So this Thursday is when I am supposed to get chemo and see the doctor--again, platelet permitting. This morning, my platelets were a surprisingly high 104,000. If they had been really low like last time, I would have just waited until next Monday to try again. But now I will go in tomorrow for another blood test, and if the platelets are still above 100,000, travel to Philadelphia in the afternoon. The exercise over the last few weeks appears to have worked. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to exercise much this past week because of all the travel and bad weather (oh yeah, don't forget laziness), but I will definitely take a nice, long walk this afternoon and tomorrow morning.


Friday, December 05, 2003


scans are done

CT scans were done this morning. I should get the results this coming Tuesday. As I wrote a while back, these scans are very important: they will tell us how well this treatment is working. I would expect--given how I'm feeling and how the tumors that I can monitor look--that some of the disease is stable, and some of the disease has probably shrunk. I wouldn't be surprised if there's also disease that has grown a little bit, but not too much. I wouldn't expect any new tumors. Based on the scan results, I will make a decision about whether or not to return to school in January.


Thursday, December 04, 2003


Feynman 1.11: Vectors

Time to learn about symmetry in physics: "Professor Hermann Weyl has given this definition of symmetry: a thing is symmetrical if one can subject it to a certain operation and it appears exactly the same after the operation." This is more general than normal, everyday symmetry, but it does cover the case when you have a vase which is left-right symmetric: you can subject it to a 180-degree rotation about it's vertical axis and it still appears the same. What we learn in this chapter is that certain physical laws, including Newton's Laws, are symmetric in the sense that they are invariant under translations and rotations. If you build a machine in one location and then build an exact duplicate in a different location then they will function in exactly the same manner. If they don't then you have overlooked something. An interesting implication of this is that there is no mathematical "origin" of the universe. We can't place the origin, (0,0,0) of some x,y,z axes at the exact center of the universe and then measure everything using that frame of reference. Why? Namely because we could never know when we have the axes at the center of the universe; there is no way to distinguish it. In physics, it doesn't matter where the origin is.

Most of this chapter is spent developing some of the math that will be used throughout the rest of the course. Vectors, of course. Since I am quite familiar with vectors already, my post is ending............now!



in Atlanta

I was in Atlanta for the last couple of days visiting my sister and niece, hence the lack of blogging. I lived in Atlanta in '95-'96 so I know the place all too well; don't like it one bit. The city is a big sprawling mess. One of the few good things about Atlanta, lots and lots of trees, actually contributes to a claustrophobic effect: there are very few decent views anywhere in the city. But the bottom line is, I don't like cars so much, and the evolution of Atlanta was driven almost exclusively by the automobile, not the pedestrian. Public transit is worthless. There are alarmingly few sidewalks. Everyone seems to drive either an SUV or a full-sized pick-up. Not my kind of town.

I'm off to St. Louis tomorrow. Next week the platelet melodrama begins anew, so this weekend could be my last chance to visit "home" for a few weeks. I'm feeling good, except for this strange pain and swelling in my left arm. It's probably nothing, but inconvenient nonetheless. It's kind of near where the chemo IV was, so I'm thinking that it's just an adverse effect from the infusion. Hopefully it will go away in a few days. I hope it's not lymphodema, that would be annoying. It is in the arm where I had the two surgeries, but I had thought that lymphodema was most likely to occur soon after surgery, not one year. Besides, my hand isn't swollen or anything, just my upper forearm. Oh well.


Monday, December 01, 2003


scrapping the steel tariffs

In order to avert a trade war (we already have plenty of wars on our hands), Bush will drop most of his dastardly steel tariffs sometime this week. Good... but it's better not to be so stupid as to institute such policies in the first place.


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