Winter Hazards III

After the third blizzard there were 2 dead days while the city scrambled.  School was closed and public transit suspended.  Unusual winter hazards began cropping up all over.  Here, the roof of a warehouse collapsed.  There, an old man is run over by a plow truck.  Snow has short-circuited the subway tracks.  A car is crushed by a falling icicle.

There was talk of melting the snow, talk of dumping trucks full of it into the ocean.  My mom called and messaged daily with genuine concern in her voice.  Meanwhile, in our snow cave, we sat, we drank wine, we tele-conferenced, we cooked elaborate meals and played games of DOTA.

Winter Hazards II

My mom asked me on the phone if I was feeling a bit pent up. I said I was feeling definitely a little stuck. Then she said it was almost 60 degrees the other day in Maryland and I asked her to please stop telling me about the wonderful weather she is having.

Larisa sent me today a poem about a solid, quiet love.  It makes me feel simultaneously empowered, and also weak and ashamed.


Take Love for Granted
by Jack Ridl

Assume it’s in the kitchen,
under the couch, high
in the pine tree out back,
behind the paint cans
in the garage. Don’t try
proving your love
is bigger than the Grand
Canyon, the Milky Way,
the urban sprawl of L.A.
Take it for granted. Take it
out with the garbage. Bring
it in with the takeout. Take
it for a walk with the dog.
Wake it every day, say,
“Good morning.” Then
make the coffee. Warm
the cups. Don’t expect much
of the day. Be glad when
you make it back to bed.
Be glad he threw out that
box of old hats. Be glad
she leaves her shoes
in the hall. Snow will
come. Spring will show up.
Summer will be humid.
The leaves will fall
in the fall. That’s more
than you need. We can
love anybody, even
everybody. But you
can love the silence,
sighing and saying to
yourself, “That’ s her.”
“That’s him.” Then to
each other, “I know!
Let’s go out for breakfast!”

Winter Hazards I

Today on my way from the busstop to work I walked by the physics building.  There was yellow caution tape around both front entrances and a taped note saying “STOP! ICICLES”.  Looking up I saw a curtain of ice ringing the roof ledge of the building.  Its tassles as long as I am tall.  A steady stream of people came in and out of the side entrance of the building.

Water and Wind

For 10 euros at a paint mill outside Amsterdam we bought a wood windmill construction kit as a souvenir to build back home. Tonight we cracked open the box, unpacked the pieces on our rug, found ourselves faced with a more complex construction project than we imagined and no instructions for assembly.

la foto

We found two pieces of advice on the back of the box. One: that we should mark each wood piece with numbers at the positions shown on the included chart. Two: that we should use the picture of the windmill on the front of the package as a guide. We turned over the box and stared at the photograph of a real windmill with grazing sheep in the foreground.

There was such complexity and attention to detail to make us wonder if this was a to-scale model of an actual windmill. There, too, were mistakes in the numbered chart, the only piece of instructional material we were provided. Somehow those two things together made the experience feel very Dutch to me.

la foto 1

Our second night in Amsterdam, we were talking to some young Dutch guys at a local bar. They had just graduated college. I asked them what their plan was, when Global Warming came, and the sea level rose. The tall one, the one in the middle, replied, “Easy, build more dams.” The Dutch, I learned, were the best at building dams.

amsterdam 085

Among all the little details–the joints, windows, structural beams inside the roof dome, turning vanes, a counterweight–my favorite has to be that the blades were cut and mounted at such an angle as to make it very believable that, were it windy in my apartment, this wooden model windmill might be able to do some work.

Somehow, building this little windmill brought it all back to me. The animal smells. The bracing wind. The country roads that rose out of the water. The rush of standing next to the giant turning blades of the paint mill, craning my neck to look up.

amsterdam 112

An Optimization Problem

John sent me an amazing website called Embroidery Troubleshooting Guide.

It has a hilarious, potentially unintentional(?), html bug which causes all the text blocks, because of missing closing tags, to be nested inside one another, each 17% larger than its parent. By the bottom of the page, the text is much too large to fit on a screen, and all you see is contrasting blocks of color, sharp peaks and broad curves. It was, in a way, awe-inspiring– a tiny world worth exploring.


John has been long interested in this idea of semi-randomly generated design elements. In the past he has played with circles with radius R and center (x,y) determined by some weighted random algorithm. It looked alright, but the experience didn’t vary too much from iteration to iteration.

He also had some bands of color on the side of a page whose widths and hues were determined randomly. That also looked pleasant, but indistinct. It’s a much more difficult problem to vary the topology of your design.

Recently, a researcher in the CS department came to our group to talk about a method he developed for the optimization of geometry. These kinds of problems are often encountered when one has a specific function for a component to perform, such as a bracket to support as much load as possible, but there are constraints to work within, such as total amount of available material. If the geometry is simplified (say, it is approximated as a ring), the computation and optimization is simple. But what about an arbitrary geometry?

How do we choose our variables to smoothly vary? Specifically, how would our algorithm test for topological changes? The opening of a new hole, for instance, or the merging of a hole with a boundary, is not smoothly reachable by simply varying the lengths of existing arcs and the areas of existing embedded shapes.

He solved this problem by embedding the 2D geometry in a 3D space. A 3-dimensional function is stored, whose cross-sections represent the desired 2D geometrical object. The function’s parameters can be smoothly varied, which, along with the placement of the cross-section, will determine the 2D structure’s shape and topology.


I bring up this example, because, looking at this zoomed-in text as a geometrical object, it’s amazing how many different shapes can be got from looking at different parts of the letter “e” for instance. In a way, John’s problem is an optimization problem just without the optimization bit. You want to explore as much of the configuration space as possible, but in a tractable way. And still, the most elegant way of invoking topological changes is to excerpt from some larger, well-defined function.


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