Sunday, July 01, 2012

Summer adventures in Indiana (from two years ago)

Note:  This post was written two years ago; all I had left to do was finish the last several paragraphs.  I’m not sure why I didn’t just do it then.  I’m posting it now for your reading pleasure, complete with all of the idiosyncrasies and the no-longer-timely references of two years ago (it’s almost like meeting a 2-years younger version of myself, but posting it as my current self!)

July 2009

Following the lead of Katrina’s clever, picture-filled, and [most importantly] timely blog post about our recent adventures in Europe (ah, the irony of the word “timely”), I thought that I too might dig out my old figurative quill and give this blog-writing thing a shot.  It’s been a while.  I find myself re-reading and re-reading my sentence, as if the paragraph will magically auto-complete for me, if only I stare at it long enough.  Oh, eloquence, where art thou?  Oh muses, have you left me for good?  Oh, wit and conciseness, will I never see you again?  (wait, that’s not even right – I’ve never so much as met either!)  Oh, to heck with this intro.  Tales of a More-Rambling-Than-Usual Rover, here goes.

A week and a half ago, we had Matt – a long-time friend from Alaska, who’ll soon (e.g., then) be starting a Theoretical Physics masters’ program in Canada – visit us for a few days.  Though his stay was short, we undertook  a good many adventures while he was here.  The weather – which the week before he came, and the week thereafter, was in the middle-to-high-90s – magically turned to pleasant 75-degree sunshine for the exact duration of Matt’s stay (theoretical physics?  sure seems like practical physics to me!).  What follows, then, is our adventures of hiking, river-walking, and kayaking in and around Bloomington, Indiana – with Matt, and, of course, our new golden-doodle pup Hazel.

Actually, before I move on to those:  look at this garden!  Part of Matt’s stay – (thankfully, not Hazel’s) – involved tasting our home-grown produce.  The raspberries – a most delicious and golden, albeit sparse, variety – are in a different part of our yard, but the garden shown here includes strawberries, basil, thyme, spinach, green onions, corn, zucchini, cucumbers, several varieties of tomatoes, and a watermelon(!).  So there you have it:  even if I can no longer write to save my life, at least I have learned how to grow my own veggies, which just might be an overall more life-saving skill!

Oh, and one more thing.  The first day that Matt was visiting us, we were eating dinner outside when two of our neighbor-kids (ages 9 and 11) appeared in our yard.  We had just purchased a pretty outdoor table and two mosquito-repelling torches (don’t know how effective they are, but they sure look cool!), so I can see why the youngsters were attracted to the exciting sight.  I had a box of 250 matches on the table, so I took one, stuck it in the torch, and showed the kids the cool fizzling of the match as it ignited from an already-lit flame.  Thus we went through a good 20 matches, until the older kid, Elijah, had an even better idea:  he stuck a dozen matches side by side up an incline, then lit one, and caused a “domino effect” of fire.  Cool!  For the next half an hour, Torin and Elijah entertained themselves – and us – with ever-grander structures of intricate detail and ingenuity.  Pound for pound, that box of 250 matches (R.I.P) is probably the best investment I’ve ever seen in fostering creative thinking, the unfortunate side-effect of our burnt workshop not withstanding (just kidding!)  Yeah, I know:  lousy joke from a lousy role-model, what can I do?!

Cedar Bluffs Nature Preserve & McCormick State Park
Within some 7 miles of our house is a beautiful Cedar Bluffs nature preserve.  It is a serene place, with a small creek winding through it, lined with tall bluffs on the north bank, and lush trees on either side.  Katrina and I have gone there a good half-dozen times since we had discovered it last year, but we had never walked in – or swam in – the pleasant gurgling creek till Matt’s arrival.

I was the first in the water, wading knee-deep upstream from where Kat, Matt, and Hazel were all sitting.  While it was only me in the water, Hazel preferred the companionship of the other two to the dubious occupation of his mildly deranged owner, but when they too had deserted him, Hazel bravely plunged forth.  For a second or two, the momentum of his jump carried him towards me; then the current began to take its toll, and Hazel, still paddling furiously but looking rather dejected, began to drift away.  Katrina was standing downstream from him in the water, so once his hope of reaching me turned futile, he doggy-paddled even more furiously in her direction, determined to cling on to her rather than drift into the big wide Monroe Lake some miles ahead.  He looked even more relieved when Katrina picked him up and carried him in her arms!

Both at Cedar Bluffs, and, the following day, at the McCormick State Park, we humans continued to walk knee- to waist-deep in the water (more precisely, that was for Katrina and I; the water hardly seemed to reach past Matt’s ankles!), while Hazel alternated between running along the shore, bravely dashing into the water after us, and/or whimpering on the shore and waiting for Katrina to ferry him across.  He looked remarkably cute when he swam after us, and absolutely hysterical when getting into the water: the hair on his back and head would remain dry and fluffy for a moment, while his legs and butt would seem to shrink from all the wet fur, so that he looked like a manicured lion. 

Despite the high-70s weather, Hazel actually got cold fairly quickly, so he did spend a lot of time in our arms, or running around on the shore.  Holding the dripping-wet puppy, I actually got a little cold too; so when it came time to cross the creek for the Nth time, I decided to avoid the water altogether (poor Hazel had to swim):

 We finally turned around when the small creek that we had been following flowed into the so-called White River – which, coincidentally, was THE most brown-colored river that I had ever seen.  For that matter, the following day we went kayaking on the so-called Blue River, which, even from a liberal-minded standpoint, could barely qualify as murky green.  I’m ok with admitting that Computer Scientists see the world in only 16 distinct colors – but at least our colors are well-defined!

Marengo Caves and Kayaking the Blue River

Our last adventure with Matt was visiting Marengo Caves and kayaking the Blue River, both some two hours south of Bloomington.  One memorably – though entirely irrelevant – event along the way was our discussion of the nature of randomness.  I am [randomly] including it here simply because the topic intrigues me on philosophical grounds.  Matt (or quantum physics, or both) was claiming that at the fundamental level, particles are unpredictable – if you could somehow create a snapshot of the universe, run it a few timesteps, and then compare the position of all the atoms or fundamental particles against a different run – that the two universes would not match!  This befuddles me.  I am perfectly content with the idea that my little brain cannot comprehend the cause of certain events, and hence ascribes them as “random”.  But I can’t come to terms with the idea that EVEN IF IT WERE POSSIBLE TO KNOW EVERYTHING that there is to know about a certain atom and its sub-particles, that it STILL wouldn’t be possible to predict their location in the future!  Maybe I’m coming at it from the wrong computer-modeling angle, but I feel like if there is something that’s telling the particle “move right” now, then that “something” is described by the configuration of the system, and the knowledge of the state would necessarily mean an ability to predict the upcoming associated action. 

Actually, this reminds me of a joke – practically the only thing I remember from my 10th grade Chemistry class (and, coincidentally, the only joke told by our teacher in that class!)
Heisenberg is driving along a road, his mind dwelling in the realm of quantum physics and quite detached from the speedometer on his dashboard, when he is finally stopped by a police officer.  “Do you know how fast you were going?!” demands the outraged cop.  “No,” Heisenberg replies mildly.  “But I know exactly where I am”!

Oh, and another ponderance:  even if, at the fundamental level, particles do turn out to be unpredictable, does the unpredictability necessarily percolate upwards?  It is hard for me to imagine how randomness, if it were to exist at a fundamental level, would not infiltrate all levels of reality, but then again, maybe it’s not so unlikely.  For example, human lives seem to continuously exhibit random-like events – meeting new people, being stuck in traffic jams, having damn deadlines appear out of nowhere, etc (listed in no particular order).  Yet society, when viewed as a whole, operates in a surprisingly smooth fashion:  goods get delivered and services provided, and while you can’t count on the actions of any particular individual, you can bet that at dinner time your favorite restaurant will be packed.  Perhaps this too happens with randomness at a fundamental particle level – fluctuations that appear so large at the sub-nano-level get smoothed over and essentially eliminated when the particles come together to form ever-more-complex structures.

[This, in the depths of philosophical musings, is where I left off two years ago.  Of course, were it the writing of a real philosopher, you, dear reader, would still find yourself in the depths of philosophical musings, except many many many pages later.  But, older and wiser now, I will abstain from following that treacherous path.]
Marengo Caves was formed by a river millions of years ago.   When the river dropped down one level, and then another level, and finally to the foot of the hill, it left natural tunnels that form the basis of the caves.  Deposits of minerals, seeping in through the rocks with rainwater, then formed the stalagmites and stalactites that so prominently grace the cave.  The gentle parentage of Mother Nature, combined with the strategic positioning of modern electric lighting, made the caves a sight to behold!  (Particularly impressive was a pool at the end of the tour, whose perfectly-still water looked fathom-deep, and as reflective as a mirror; as it turned out, though, the depth was an optical illusion – it had barely a foot of water in it!)

From Marengo Caves, we went for a float down the Blue River – coincidentally, the same river that had once run through Marengo Caves (though we were some 30 miles from where it once entered the caves).  It was a nice relaxing float down the deep-green river, and the sit-on-top kayaks turned out to be excellent for “stand-on-top” as well.  Standing not only added a bit of adrenaline and challenge to the otherwise gentle river, but also held a Captain-Jack-Sparrow or maybe an Italian-gondola allure.

Trying to get Matt and I to both stand on the same kayak (see series of images below) added “swimming” to the list of activities we did that day.

Math problem:  if the probability of Michael and Matt each standing up individually on their respective kayaks is 35%, what is the “best case” probability of both of them standing on the same kayak?  (Hint:  At the “best case”, the events are completely independent).

Follow-up problem:  Given that each attempt lasts 20 seconds to a minute (depending on how early the first failure strikes), a camera’s charge lasts 3 hours or 200 photos (whichever comes first), and Katrina’s enthusiasm for snapping pictures drops off at a reverse-quadratic rate (starting off at 10/minute and quickly dropping to near-0).  If the camera’s battery drained 37% before we got the “success” shot, just how independent were the two events?

[Math class over, back to actual blog post]

Right as we were nearing the take-out point, we came across a spectacular rope swing:  spectacular in the sense that it was spectacular to watch the local teens jump off of it into the river.  Matt bravely joined in the fun, and looked pretty epic; I hesitantly followed suit, and looked like a terrified Russian.  It was remarkably how unwilling my body was to follow my mind’s instructions:  I let go off the rope at the last possible moment, when it was already starting its backwards swing (and, hence, ironically, at the tallest point), and landed in the water with my legs stubbornly stretched out in protest, despite knowing that I should bend my knees.  I don’t know how Matt and the rest were able to maintain their composure – and even smile at the camera, for Heaven’s sake!  Still, I’m glad I did it:  now I know that if my programming career ever fizzles out, skydiving instructor will not be in my future!  Better focus on that gardening hobby…

On this fine note – and with the last sentence circling back all the way to my flamboyant intro from two years ago, I declare this post complete.

PS:  Actually, I suppose an epilogue would be in order.  Matt flew out the following morning, and – some time later – successfully completed his Master’s program.  His Theoretical Physics skills now span the realm of being an excellent Frisbee handler.  Katrina and I spent the remainder of the summer working on home improvements, and saw little of the light of day.  Hazel the golden-pup grew up to be an energetic, squirrel chasing, 70+ pound beast.  And my programming career is going strong – starting in March 2012, I’ve been working as a Program Manager at Microsoft.

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