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I had a course in my master's program that was titled Modern Physics, eg, special relativity and quantum mechanics. The quantum mechanics part wasn't too big a deal, since I had taken it as an undergraduate and have been teaching the very basics of it for years (atomic structure, specifically). Relativity, on the other hand, was a little harder to wrap my head around. It was no less so because the professor chose to teach it with matrices rather than differentials. I literally hadn't done anything with matrices since the Bush administration. The first one.

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In the last few days I've had to introduce the vector cross product in my mechanics class, and only 2 of the 40-minus students in that class have had any linear algebra.  This makes the conventional 3-by-3 determinant form for computing the cross product ... problematical.

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  • 2 weeks later...

The site where the following was originally "published" is now gone.  It's just about twenty years exactly since that posting, and it seems like time to hang this out there again.


For reference, "DDR" = "Deutsche Demokratische Republik", what the old East German government called itself.



Sometime in probably 1963 or 1964, not that long after the Berlin Wall
went up, there inevitably came a time when the DDR started letting people
out, people who were of no real value to the state.  But the DDR might
possibly gain some propaganda points if they released them to the West
for at least a while, and more still if they could be got off the public
dole.  If the story related to me is accurate, the first was a little
girl.  She had been orphaned, and was being released to go live with
her grandparents in the West.


The details of the release were somewhat delicate.  An unmarked civilian
car was to be driven by an American civilian through Checkpoint Charlie
to a specific place inside the Soviet Sector.  The girl was to be let
in the car, and the car was to drive back through.  Sounds simple enough,
but since this was the first time this kind of thing was to happen, there
was substantial doubt about the mission.  Even if the driver was
completely  above board -- that is, completely without attachments to the US
Government,  including all its intelligence operations -- it could not be
guaranteed that he wouldn't be seized as a spy and imprisoned on trumped-up
charges. That kind of thing supposedly had happened before, depending on whose
side  of the Cold War propaganda you believed.  If the driver was imprisoned,
execution was considered very unlikely, but it couldn't be ruled out,


So, the driver had to be a civilian.  He had to be completely without
ties to US federal agencies in any capacity (because the Soviet and East
German intelligence agencies were pretty good, and it had to be assumed
that any cover, no matter how good, would be penetrated).  And for safety
(state safety, not his personal safety, of course) he had to be someone
who really wasn't at all important to the strategic situation.  In short,
he couldn't know anything, and as far as the US was concerned, well, if
he was seized and tortured, it would be too bad but it wouldn't really
matter.  The word is "expendable".  


The man selected was on the bottom rung of the American Red Cross office
in Berlin.  His only government papers were his passport and his
discharge from the US Army Air Force about a dozen years previous.  (He'd
been drafted, like most young men of his age, and had been lucky enough to
serve his duty during that narrow interval between the end of World War II
and the beginning of the Korean War.)  He'd been with the Red Cross for four
or five years, and  in Berlin since August 1962.


As it happened, the release went off without a hitch.  Approach the
gate at the scheduled time, present papers, get waved through, drive
in, stop, girl gets in, turn around, approach the checkpoint, get waved
through again, back out to the American Sector and safety.  Just a
little extra wear and tear on the nerves leading up to the event, both
for him and his wife; he wasn't a stupid man, and it's easy to draw
conclusions about what your government and your office boss think about
your value when you draw that assignment.  He never did tell his children
about it, since at the time (the oldest of them was seven or eight) there
was nothing they could do but worry, and by the time they were able to
understand he had other things to talk about.  His sons didn't learn
about it for nearly forty years, and even then it was from his widow.


Goodbye, Dad.


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OTOH, around midday we went to lunch at the waterfront, and watched otters saunter down the dock between the boats.  If we read the signs right, the otters' den is under, or at least adjacent to, the building in which we ate.


Also saw deer, a raccoon in the back yard, and an eagle in a tree not far from Point Wilson.

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Aaaaaand ...


Lost last weekend as father-in-law fell and broke his femur on Thursday morning, resulting in a hospital trip, compounded by a mishandling when they had to catheterize him, resulting in blood clots somewhere that make peeing much more of an adventure than it should be.  He's still in the hospital.  Hopefully will go home late today.


Then ... I arrive on campus this morning about 0800 my time and there is much noise and chaos.  Seems there was a (mistaken?) fire alarm and water got into all the Physics Department offices and labs.  Damage is still being assessed, and they have all the windows and doors open to aid the drying-out process, so it is butt cold in there.  I had office hours starting at 9, so I left a sign on my office door and set up in the library (where I've had half a dozen customers).  I'll head down in half an hour or so and see what's happened to my stuff.


I realized that there is a gaming application to all these experiences.  I have come to the conclusion that the usual interpretation of buying multiple levels of Unluck is incorrect.  Much of the time nothing happens, and it looks like free points.  However, at intervals you have episodes where multiple independent misfortunes strike nearly simultaneously, so you must contend with a collection of bad stuff all at the same time.  In my younger days my expression of this was the succinct "Badness comes in waves," because yes, it does.  That this could be translated in a game mechanic is a novel thought, brought on by thinking about how I'm going to be kept out of gaming lunch this week.

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