Phil Rambles

Phil Rambles, Phil Price blog.

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    Sun, 21 Dec 2003

    Hey, did I mention...?
    I was just selected to be a Fellow of the American Physical Society (that's "physical" in the sense of "being about physics", not in the sense of "being a super-stud." It's quite an honor. Objectively speaking, it's very hard to see how I deserve it---in any single year, only 0.5% of APS members can become Fellows. But at least I had enough going for me that it wasn't a laughable suggestion, so I'm pleased about that. The fellowship citation mentions (1) my work on quantitatively describing the spatial and statistical distribution of radon in the USA, (2) developing new tomography techniques for mapping air pollution, and (3) compiling and publicizing advice for responding to chemical or biological attacks in buildings. As you can see, none of it is "physics" in the traditional sense, although item (2) at least has a strong analytical connection. Anyway, it's big news for me, even though it's a bit baffling.

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    Fri, 07 Nov 2003

    Parks & Rec Commission
    Hmm, somehow I seem to have failed to mention on this site that a few months ago I was appointed to the Berkeley Parks and Recreation Commission. I was appointed to a vacant seat by City Councilperson Dona Spring.

    It's been interesting so far. There are so many different constituencies with interest in the city parks ("stakeholders", as they're called in the lingo): dog walkers, environmentalists, youth sports promoters, adult sports promoters, swimmers, picnic-ers, parents with playground-age kids, park neighbors, and on and on. Each group can (and sometimes, fortunately rarely, does) mobilize its troops to come out to a Parks & Rec committee meeting and argue for or against something or other.

    Each group sees its desires as paramount: parents will tell us that if their kids don't get to use this particular facility in this particular way, then the kids will become depressed drug addicts and we will be to blame. Dog walkers will argue that 99% of dog walkers are law-abiding, responsible citizens who would never dream of (pick 1: letting their dog off-leash inappropriately; showing up at a dog park before opening time; allowing their dog to harass wildlife; failing to clean up after their dog; allowing their dog to dig in an inappropriate place). And so on, for every group I mentioned.

    As with the citizenry, the commissioners are a diverse group and the arguments resonate differently with each of us. Some of us tend to be more sympathetic to the kids, some to the environmentalists, and so on. We just sort of muddle along---there's no agree-upon vision for what the park usage profile is supposed to look like.

    Over the next year, I plan on visiting every Berkeley park at least once. I'm familiar with most of them, and know some of them quite well, but there are a few that I've never been to and others that I only vaguely recall.

    The commission only meets once a month, for about three hours. There are about three hours of prep work for each meeting, and there are also infrequent subcommittee meetings on various topics. Overall it's probably an eight- to twelve-hour per month job, depending on how much effort I want to put into it. Not onerous, really.

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    Tue, 07 Oct 2003

    I can tell red wine from white wine!
    About a year ago, Calvin Trillin wrote a nice article in the New Yorker about wine tasting. Here's what the UC Davis Magazine had to say about it:

    [The August 19, 2002] New Yorker food issue contains an article by humorist Calvin Trillin, who set out to investigate the so-called “Davis Test”—a purported blind tasting of red and white wines that supposedly proved even experts can’t always tell the difference between the two. Trillin came to the source: UC Davis’ Ann Noble, professor of viticulture and enology and expert on sensory science, whose wine aroma wheel has helped scores of novices differentiate between a Pinot Noir and a Zinfandel. Noble’s verdict: The “Davis Test” is an urban myth. The test she gives her students asks them to identify the varietal by use of smell alone. “The minute you put it in your mouth,” she told Trillin, “it’s game over.” To prove her point, Noble offered Trillin two black glasses, one filled with red wine, the other with white, for him to taste. He got it wrong.

    I discussed this article last year with my friend Scott, who is in his second year in the UC Davis oenology program, and he said "hey, that's great, we'll have a party and give it a try." Last weekend he and his girlfriend, Jo, hosted a party at Jo's place in San Francisco where we tried this test and more. It turned out great, and if you want to host a party this is a great way to do it.

    Upon arrival, guests were led to a darkened corner by the kitchen, where six black wine glasses (a special item) were waiting, arranged in three pairs. In each pair, one glass contained white wine and the other had red wine, both at room temperature. Goal number 1: Identify the red wine in each pair through smell alone. Goal number 2: Use taste if necessary. Goal 3: Identify the variety of wine.

    I smelled all of the wines. In two of the pairs, it was very easy to tell which was white and which was red, but in the other I had a hunch but wasn't positive. I took a guess, but decided I had better taste them all to make sure. And on tasting them...well, I still wasn't sure about that one pair! Amazing! It really can be hard to tell red from white. I was fairly sure that my answer from bouquet alone was correct, but not positive. (I was, indeed correct). Turns out the red was a very low-tannin Beaujolais; I forget what the white was. Anyway, it was harder than I thought. I think most of the guests got it right, but a few did miss on that pair of wines. I no longer ridicule the idea, though I do think it takes a special wine to cause problems.

    Also at the party was one of Scott's two collections of scent essences: little vials filled with alcohol and essential oils (or whatever the term is) of distinctive smells. People sat around the living room passing these around, trying to identify them. It was very frustrating. Typically, you would hold one under your nose, take a whiff, and immediately "recognize" the scent, completely unmistakable...but also impossible to identify! "It's floral, oh, I know, it's, wait, it's, rose...." Maddening.

    And finally, more wine tasting. This time, a list of twelve varieties was posted, and six wines were poured. The goal: by smell alone, select the variety for each of the six wines. One wine was easy: an oaky chardonnay. Two others, I had a fair idea: one of them I thought was either a gewurtztraminer or a riesling (it was a gewurtz), and the other I thought was a gewurtz but it was a riesling (very similar). Scott said I should give myself half credit for those. So, 1 + 1/2 + 1/2. I didn't have as much luck with the reds, getting none of them right...but at least I correctly identified which three were reds and which were white. Some other guests did even better---at least one person got four of them right!

    Scott says people in his class would expect to get about four or five out of the six, although you can make it harder (or easier) by using particular wines.

    So...I'm not sure what the conclusion is. I guess one thing is, I may not be able to tell great wines from good wines from decent wines, but at least I can tell red wines from white wines! Hey, it wasn't a given.

    It was also a great party. Plenty of stuff for people to do and to talk about, and of course the free-flowing wine kept people in a good mood. Thanks, Jo and Scott, for a great evening!

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    Mon, 26 May 2003

    Diary: Point Reyes Estero trail
    Today Juliet and I went for a hike on the "Estero" trail in Point Reyes: a three-hour out-and-back walk along an estuary (Drake's Estero), out to the ocean. It's a great hike, and will become one of our regular trips, because it has so much to offer: lots of wildflowers; finches, swallows, and hawks; waterbirds including egrets, cormorants, and terns; seals (on the mud flats off in the distance) and at least 20 "bat rays" (like manta rays, only smaller) swimming around in the water; and nice views.

    We would also like to do a kayak trip in the estero, but that's not allowed this time of year because the seals are "pupping" (having their babies) and are easily disturbed.

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    Sat, 10 May 2003

    Diary: Molecular Foundry meeting
    On Thursday night, I went to a public meeting about Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's (LBNL) proposed "Molecular Foundry" nanotechnology research building. (I should note that I work at the Lab). This very six-story, 94000 square foot building would be wedged between two smaller existing buildings in a mostly undeveloped canyon. Neighbors have a variety of concerns and complaints. Some of the concerns (and some of the neighbors) are frankly wacko, but some of them (the concerns, and the neighbors) are perfectly legitimate and reasonable.

    Unfortunately the Lab representatives seemed determined to treat the citizens shabbily: seating was provided only for LBNL reps, the LBNL organizers attempted to limit people to questions and not allow comments, some Lab employees made comments that were way out of line, stonewalling on some legitimate questions, and so on. To be fair, some of the citizens were extremely childish and irritating, but the Lab's people made no distinction between the good and the bad, treating everyone with the same disdain. As a Lab employee, I'm embarrassed that the Lab would treat people this way. Some journalists were in the crowd, and I fear upcoming articles in the local newspaper will

    I'm hoping to work within the Lab hierarchy, to encourage the community relations people to handle things better in the future.

    For what it's worth, I think LBNL should definitely be a major player in nanotechnology, and should have a dedicated facility for the purpose. I do have some concerns about the specific building design and placement. But mostly, the Lab needs to be much more respectful of our neighbors.

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