Tuesday, October 31, 2006

We are at slashdot!

Remember in the previous post where I mentioned that I was sleeping from 8-9am and lost the first talk of the conference? Well, the presentation on that hour made it at slashdot!

"Pictures of the fastest waves ever photographed, traveling at 99.997% of the speed of light, were presented today at the APS Division of Plasma Physics meeting in Philadelphia. The waves were formed in the wake of an intense laser pulse passing through a plasma of electrons and ionized atoms. The waves create enormous electric fields (over 100 billion electron volts/meter), which can be used to rapidly accelerate charged particles to high energies in the span of a few meters. The pictures will help scientists better understand wakefield interactions — an important factor in their quest to replace machines that accelerate particles over the course of miles with compact, tabletop versions. High energy particle accelerators are vital for cutting edge physics and many types of medical therapy, and miniaturizing them would be a boon for both basic physics research and medicine."

Actually, these pictures were presented at the AAC conference that I also attended last July. It was in fact my most favorite talk at the time. Downer is the name of the guy (from Texas).

Conference Impressions

Second day here at the APS. A guy is talking right now on MHD (MagnetoHydroDynamic) Turbulence. It is nice that they have wireless in every room, although it is quite choppy.

Yesterday although we tried to wake up early, we arrived at the conference at 9am (this is 6am in LA time...). We missed the review talk but we went by the poster section. I asked about and learned about Stellarators with weird coils (it is a device that people hope will achieve fusion one day), and also about MRI (not Magnetic Resonance Imagining, here in plasma people it means Magnetic Reconnection Instability). Magnetic reconnection happens when two magnetic field lines merge into a single one. It offers an explanation on the way that sun creates its solar wind from what I read in an earlier Scientific American article. It also affects the rotation of accretion discs which is right now a very popular topic in physics (unexplained fully). So MRI happens when a magnetic field seperates a fluid elemement (it can be anything from water to stars) radially, and once that happens each element moves at a different speed and they seperate even more. This is one explanation of the formation of the rotation in these discs. (Note that the out element moves faster and the inner element moves slower as is the case with every rotating item).

Today we saw an exciting talk on AntiHydrogen. A guy named Gabrielse, excellent speaker started by showing us how Dan Brown's Angels and Deamons tremendously affected negatively his field (as The Da VInci Code screwed up the catholic church). In the book some guy goes an steals antimatter from the heart of CERN and decides to use it to blow up the Vatican (antimatter explodes when in contact with normal matter). However Brown failed to mention that all the antimatter produced in all history can barely boil a cup of tea...

So Gabrielse explained how they have created antiprorons and positrons (generated at CERN),
and then they have to cool them down and merge them together to produce cold (slow moving)
antihydrogen. They could create "warm" (fast-moving) antihydrogen but then it's not very easy to use it for something. Anyway they are at a point now where they can create several cold atoms but only at excited states, i.e. the positron is not orbiting the anti-nucleus at the lower (closer to the antiproton) state. Eventually we will be able to create antimolecules. Now they just want to compare properties of the normal atom and the anti-atom to verify (or disprove) the Standard Model of physics. It is a very exciting field I believe.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

High Definition Future, on the plane

Sunday, October 29, 2006 ad.


We are onboard Southwest flight 110 from Los
to Philadelphia, the former US
capital.. Me, Reza and Erdem travel together from our group and we will all
visit the conference on Plasma Physics.


I brought many magazines with me for this transcontinental
flight. Wired, Scientific American, PC Magazine, Discover, Time, and Physics Today.
Plus a gameboy (it’s also for the way back).


Southwest is a slightly different airline. There are huge
lines because a lot of people travel with them since they are very cheap. My
biggest surprise is that they do not have assigned seating… you just get a
boarding pass with the name and the flight number. Once you get there at the
gate you have to get in the line early in order to get in first(!). Once
inside, instead of walking past us with the tray of drinks and asking what
would we like to drink, they instead have a restaurant-style service system
where the waitress (sorry, stewardess) comes by with a pen and paper and asks
what you want to have, and after they go through all the passengers they bring
everyone what they ask for. Interesting approach.


I watched another great movie last Friday. The Last King of
Scotland, it is about Uganda’s
President/Dictator during the 1970’s, Amin, who eventually killed over 300,000
people during his 9 year reign. Forest Whittaker is perfect as Amin, he looks
and talks exactly like him. He gave the performance of his career and it is the
best male performance I have seen this year. He will be nominated for an Oscar
for sure and he may as well win since he just stands out.

The movie itself is very strong. It is a story of a
fictional Scottish doctor that goes to Uganda and serves as the personal
doctor of Amin. At the beginning he looks nice and funny and welcoming. But as
the movie progresses, the doctor (and us as the audience) begins to discover
the real face of Amin. The movie’s climax is brutal and gruesome, it had me
shaking as I was leaving the theater. It was not for kids, but I felt cleansed
and shocked afterwards. It was good.


(Reza says we are flying over the Grand
right now. This place and Hawaii
are the two places I have to visit before I leave the US).


But non of this is the main item I wanted to talk about
today. The main thing I wanted to talk about is the war on the next high
definition picture format, between Blue-ray discs and HD-DVD discs. It is
connected with the war between Sony’s PS3 (due to come out in US stores on Nov
17 this year) and X-Box 360. It is also connected with Amazon’s and Apple’s new
movie download services, and also with DVD-renting giant Netflix, which may
well make a move that will win them all at the end. I have to combine facts and
arguments from all this fields at the same time in order to present a picture of
what’s coming up. 2007 will be the year that winners and losers on these war
fronts will be decided. We had a lot of discussions with my housemate Andrew
and the guys at the office regarding these matters, and also I read a lot on
the web and on various blogs.

But let’s start with the high-def wars. As you might have
known, TV is getting a boost, similar to the boost that it got a few decades
ago when wee switched from black-and-white TV to color TV. Now every TV display
is in color. What is happening now is that people will eventually switch to
high-definition picture – it’s TV units and TV signals that have at least twice
the resolution of the current normal TV stations. They allow for better,
clearer picture and larger screens.


There are two aspects that have to change.  First, new TV displays have to be introduced
that support high-def resolutions. That is easier for some reason, since even
this year flat screen sales surpassed CRT screen sales. And these TVs are
mostly capable for the high-def picture. But the most important aspect is the
medium and the signal that has to convert in high-def. There are two main
options here: TV signals can be transmitted in high-def (HD), or HD can be
stored in discs. Most main TV stations in the US
and Japan
are already transmitting HD. Europe is kind if lagging behind but they’ll get
there soon enough.


We have HD in my home in the US. It is a vast difference over
normal TV. It has 16:9 cinematic aspect ratio, 5.1 digital sound, and clear,
vibrant colors. We get the signal from TV stations, were most shows are now
filmed in HD. But the real war is happening in the home movies, where two
different formats are fighting to be the successors of the DVD. They are the
Blue-Ray disc and the HD-DVD discs. Blue-Ray is supported by Sony, Dell and
some other big guys. That means that apart from standalone players, Blue-Ray
discs can/will be found in Sony’s Playstation 3 and Dell’s laptops. HD-DVD is
supported by Toshiba, Microsoft, and several other big film studios. Almost
every other non-dell/sony laptop will have an HD-DVD, as well as Microsoft’s
Xbox 360 (as an add-on – PS3 has it built in).


Right now different movies come out in different types of
formats! Either Blue-Ray or HD-DVD. Also, there are two different types of players,
with the cheapest Blue-Ray costing $1,000 and the cheapest HD-DVD costing only
$400. The question is, who is going to survive? Is this format war good for the
people? Definitely not. People now are confused and the sales of the HD media
are nor very strong. Personally I prefer the new media for the storage space
they offer, up to 50GB for the Blue-Ray. I think I will buy for my computer the
first HD recorder that will be below $300-$500. Of course, I don’t think that’s
happening for a while, so what about now, and what about next year?


The situation is complicated from the Next-Generation
consoles that Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony are selling this year. Xbox 360 came
out last year and it is doing fairly well. The games support HD resolutions,
and Microsoft just announced an extra HD-DVD drive that can be added on. The
console sells at $400 and the extra player at $300 (or $200?).  Now, Sony PS3 will be released in 3 weeks,
and it will have a build-in Blue-ray drive. The total price is $600, and if you
remember that the cheapest Blue-Ray drive sells for $1,000, it simply means
that Sony will be losing money every time they sell a PS3. They are hoping to
win them back from game and movie sales. Right now analysts are unsure whether
the PS3 may bring Sony’s death (they announced 95% drop in sales this year) or
resurrection. Sony is obviously counting on the fact that people will buy the
console just for the drive only, but will it become true?


Since the drive will be used for HD movies, what about other
movie options out there? Apart from the classic video-store rentals, Netflix
has surfaced as a giant that they ship over 1,000,000 DVDs a day (!!!) to home
as a mail-in rental company. Also, about the same time Amazon unveiled Unbox
and Apple unveiled iTunes movie store, which are the biggest players in renting
and downloading movies online. You just pay the fee and you get TV episodes and
movie downloads right onto your hard drive for watching. They do not offer HD
yet, but rather DVD quality movies. However sooner or later they will add HD


So as you realize there is an initiative to bring more
content easier into the homes, and this content will eventually be all HD. Who
will win?


Another alternative that one has to consider is the rumors
about Netflix’s set-top box. This is just a box with internet-in and
video/audio-out, that sits on the living room and downloads movies over the net
overnight. Instead of mailing in envelopes or going to the video store, you
just order from your couch the movie you wish to watch! Of course, cable and
satellite TV offer this option on demand right now, but they charge per movie
viewing (pay-per-view) for something you will watch once and never use again.
Netflix charges a flat fee and you have unlimited movies (only a certain number
at t time though). People seem to prefer the flat fee plan better.


Now, what if Netflix releases this set-top box in a cheap
price that can also download HD movies? Essentially they are saying: why bother
with media and format wars? Screw Playstation and HD-DVD. Just get our box and
for a flat fee you can download HD movies without bothering to buy either a
player or a disc! In that way people won’t be confused with making a choice
since only a single option will be presented. This will also allows the
download of movies everywhere on the world, not limited to the US or
whichever region.


What is the final remark here? It is that eventually people
will get everything over the net. ABC and NBC TV shows are now available online
for free in excellent quality just a few hours after the premier. I think in a
few years, we will need nothing other than the net. Give me a strong internet
connection and I will give you phone, TV, movies, music, everything. This kind
of makes sense: a single provider through a single medium will sell all these
services, rather than today’s model where everyone is on a different channel.
Since almost everyone (and the TV at last!) is now digital, all these data can
be transmitted over the internet.


The bottom line is, media may become obsolete in the next
5-10 years. All we will ever need again is a good internet connection. The rest
is just software.




That’s enough for now. I will switch to reading my magazines
and get back from Philadelphia.












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Saturday, October 28, 2006


New conference coming up this next week... it's in Philadelphia. American Physical Society Division of Plasma Physics. I have to prepare a poster now, it is the first time that I haven't prepared anything in advance, but that;s because we were still taking data until yesterday with Jessica.

Finally I will try the original Phillie Cheese Steak!

Philly skyline

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Are you watching closely?

Are you watching closely?

An unusual thing has happened this year... we have many surprisingly good movies. Now, two more are added. And I am still eager for Aronofsky's (π, Requiem for a dream) The Fountain.

From Scorcese's masterpieces I have only seen Taxi Driver. Not Raging Bull, not Goodfellas. I've seen Casino and Gangs of New York and the Aviator. I was impressed from the last two, and I was amazed from The Departed. The movie is fast paced, it makes sense, and it has the most interesting character develepment I've seen recently. The performances are simply top notch, I would be surprised if not at least two people get nominated for Oscar here. The movie also has my favorite song at this time of the year, Shipping up to Boston, which is now officially the startup sound for my windows. Plus, finally Jack Nicolson stopped being stupid with all these weird comedies he acted in and delivers a performance that only he can deliver. You just can't get enough from him.
The most important item is the ending though. After they catch the bad guy, which is were most normal movies would end, the story keeps going for another half an hour improving on the details and finalizing in a brutal, spectacular, amazing Scorcese finale. Make sure you watch it in a room full of people - they'll be screaming at the final shots.

Are you watching closely?

And now let's move on to my favorite movie foe this year, Cristopher Nolan's The Prestige.
By the way his first movie, Memento, is probably MY favorite movie ever. His next two films, Insomnia and Batman Begins are alright but nothing extraordinary. Until you get to his 4th movie, The Prestige.

I cannot even begin to describe how something that begins with a view of magician hats and the words "Are you watching closely?" and looks like a simple story evolves through a maze of twists and turns into an extraordinary finale that when you think back about it is so amazing to grasp. The film jumps back and forth in time and in space all time, and yet you never lose track of what's going on. All the mysteries of the movie are encapsulated perfectly in the first 3 minutes of the movie, where Michael cane explains to us how a magic trick consists of 3 parts while he is performing a magic trick were he vanishes a bird and its cage. If you watch closely, these 3 minutes, the whole movie, is just a magic trick. As he says, we are fooled because we want to be fooled.

The magic tricks performed are pure pleasure to watch on screen. Plus, Nolan provides us insight on how some of them are done (they credit David Copperfield in the credits), which makes it even more enjoyable. At the end though, the movie leaves you with a weird feeling. You won't feel amazed. You will feel maybe scrathicg your head wondering why is it any good. But that is because you have learned how the trick is done, what lies behind the mystery. In the same way, as they promptly mention in the film, a magic trick is amazing only when you don't know how it's done. Once you figure it out, it becomes banal and trivial. In hte same way, the movie at the end becomes null. But it is because the whole movie is a big trick, and the Prestige has to be revealed at the end. I came to realize that as the days were passing, and so day by day the movie ranks higher and higher in my mind. Unlike its predecessor, The Illusionist, were the plot evolves mostly linerly, here all kinds of things happen. Nolan has enough material to provide 3 movies, not just one.

This will be a much discussed movie, because some things remain unclear at the end or doesn't seem initially to have a good explanation. The forums are on fire with people discussing the open ends of the movie, and this is part of the fun. I don't remember discussing a movie so much since The Sixth Sense, or The Matrix, or Mullholand Drive.

Are you watching closely?

Friday, October 20, 2006

One of the most amazing things happenend today... I saw a plasma for the first time with my own eyes! I had to take about 30 snapshots with my camera before I can have one succesful picture perfectly in focus (it is very hard to focus on a tiny item under low light conditions). Here is how it looks like:

I need to explain a few things. The smallerr diameter glass tube is about 5mm wide. It has an inner hollow diameter of 0.6mm, which is filled with hydrogen. Then along the cylindrical electrodes on either side we apply about 50,000 volts of voltage. This creates a huge electric field that breaks down (ionizes) the hydrogen atoms. This means that the field causes the electron that was until then orbiting the nucleus as if nothing was going on to be kicked out of its orbit and become free. Hence there is now a negative charge (electron) and also a positive charge left behind (proton). When this happens for most of the 10^19 hydrogen atoms per cubic centimeter, we have a plasma!

Now, this plasma glows. Many electrons are not fully freed but they just jump to a higher orbit, so they will return to their initial orbit after some (short) time. During that transition, they have to release back the energy they initially got from the 50,000 volts, and they will release it in the form of a photon, which is light. This is most of the light seen in this picture: it is electrons going up and down in their orbits when kicked out from the high voltage. Here is a more cool picture, without external lights:

All this luminus volume is filled with hydrogen plasma and it lights up. It also shows essentially the current that flows between the two electrodes of high voltage.

Now, what we need to know is how much plasma we create. We know that we put about 10^19 atoms there, but how many do actually get ionized, lose their electrons and become plasma? Ideally we would like all of them, but we don't know that. In order to figure it out, we measure the light emitted. When we look at the spectrum and the specific frequencies, we see lines. These lines correspond exactly to the orbit transitions of the electrons. You would expect the lines to be extremely narrow (corresponding exactly to the energy difference of the transition), but actually a guy name Stark won the Nobel Prize in the 1920's because he found out that these lines actually have a width! This is because once the plasma is created, you have electrons and protons (charges) flying around and that creates mini electric fields that alter these orbits a little bit. Since these fields are stronger the more electrons are there per unit volume, by measuring the lines' width we can tell how many electrons we have out there!

So far we measured 10^18 electrons per cubic centimeter, which is lower than we expected. We actually need 10^19 in order for our experiment at Brookhaven to work properly. In the next few days we will try to tune the parameters so that we can reach this number...

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Weird Stuff

I saw this picture for the first time about 7-8 years ago. I just couldn't believe it. You look at it, and it seems impossible, like Escher's paintings. How can there be a missing a missing square in the second graph if the geometric shapes that constitute the total triangle are identical?

It took me while to figure it out. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation, it's just hidden very well from the human eye...

Saturday, October 14, 2006

I haven't blogged for a while. Maybe due to the midterm (it went alright I think), maybe due to the writing of the paper. I finished the first draft, and both Patric and Tom liked the way it was presented, but I still have to work on explaining other people's similar work and compare them to ours, pointing out why is it better. I'll prepare the second draft by next Monday or Tuesday.

I haven't put up any pictures recently, so I decided to upload a few pics from the trips we went in the past 5-6 weeks since the semester started. I'll start with our daytrip to Laguna Beach, which is about 1 hour away from here (between LA and San Diego). It was the day I swam for the second time in California.

Here's Panos enjoying the view of the beach:

The lifeguard made us feel safe:

Here we are with Stavros too (σχεδιάζουμε να πάμε Παπαρίζου-Τερζή στις γιορτές. Εγώ για την πρώτη και αυτός για τον δεύτερο), in a beautiful background scenery.

Dora and Melania adn enjoying a huge drink - great picture, and they were both somewhat drunk afterwards!

Laguna Beach feels more like a vacation place compared to other beaches in LA. Less buildings, it felt like a small private town that doesn't care about what happens in the outside world. The people are nice and friendly (as it is the case with most around here), with very few non-whites. The beach was big, the sea was a bit cold, but I loved the huge waves. However it feels too far for me to go there again without a very good reason.

Let's change the subject. This is the design I made for our new plasma source.

(it's actually two different designs next to eachother). Finally we constructed in the glass shop a different but very similar design, which is only made of glass! it is essentially a small tube, 0.6mm in diameter and 1cm long. We are going to fill it with hydrogen, and then apply 100kV of voltage across it. The high voltage will ionize the hydrogen ( the electron will be stripped off the protons) and that should create enough plasma (hopefully 10^19 electrons per cubic centimeter)! We made it completely transparent on purpose, so that we can look at the light emitted when this happens. This is very cool to watch and will also allow us to measure the density.

Another trip we made recently was at the San Diego Zoo. Here are some nice snapshots.

Me and Rania in front of the Zebras:

Here is a Coala sleeping on the tree (amazing posture):

My biggest moment was when I tried to feed a giraffe. They are impressive animals... She just bent forward her looooong neck and reached for my hand. Note that there is a 3-4m gap between us.

The most amazing animal we saw (and we did see a lot) was the gorillas. You cannot realize how human they are until you see them moving. Instead of a picture, I'll post a video:

Notable things I discovered about Gorillas:
1) Their feet are exactly like their (and our hands). It is as if they have 4 arms!
2) The kids move too scary like human children...
3) The males move like King Kong
4) They eat their shit!!!
I am not kidding in #4. As soon as the shit came out of his ass, the gorilla grabbed them with his left hand (before them reaching the ground) and ate them. Waves of disgust spread radially outwards in teh audience, but apparently coprophagy is a usual thing in many species.

Later in we headed for downtown San Diego. It is the only downtown I have seen in the US (other than New York's of course that has people 24/7) that is more crowded in the night than in the day. As soon as it gets dark, hundreds of people get out and fill the (slightly upscale) restaurants, the bars, the pubs, the movie theaters... We ate at an excellent persian restaurant, where we paid $40 each but we never thought otherwise. It was THAT good. Here's a photo of a nice happy mall they have built there:

In other news now. On some thursday we reunited the group of the good old days where we were watching movies every thursday. Stavros, Dimitri and CostasZ came, and we ordered some pizza and we watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (now, what the fuck was that?! Awesome movie).

During that meeting we gave Rajay to try some beer. He had never tried beer before in his life, because he has never drank alchohol before (although he is 26 now). The hilarious result is right here:

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Sunday night in the office

The time is 9pm. I am still here writing my first important (journal, Physical Review Letters) paper. Erdem is working on his PhD thesis, and Dora is studying for her midterms. We listen to Brubeck's Take Five, and drink some vanilla coffee in our coffee maker. It is dark outside and the Los Angeles downtown can be seen in the background.

It feels nice...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The time has come...

Procrastinating is about to come to an end. Everyone is back from vacation, schools have started, tv season has launched. And tomorrow at 9pm PST, it is about time for one of the biggest events of the year:

The season 3 premiere of Lost!

edit: Wow.... that must be the best season opener I've ever seen... J.J.Abrams, you did it again...

Monday, October 02, 2006

September Movies

Oscars are in April usually, but only movies that opened within the previous calendar year are eligible. So no great movies usually open between January and April since no one remembers them until the next spring! Then in May the blockbuster season starts, which lasts until August, and in September it is about time fot the good quality movies to come out. So let's see what I watched during this month.

Little Miss Sunshine

This is a funny/drama movie about a girl that goes to this beauty contest. The brother doesn't speak due to a vow, the uncle just got out of the hospital after an attempt to commit suicide, the grandpa does drugs, and they all have to drive in the same van! It is the type of comedy I like, with funny situations and events rather than relying on comedians (like Jack Black's Nacho Libre. brrr....). At the end, I left from a movie that I wanted to watch again.

The Last Kiss

This was a huge surprise for me: the best movie I have seen about relationshiops. It deals with a bunch of friends approaching their 30's and they have to deal with all the serious issues of getting married, dealing with everyday problems with their spouses, cheating etc. It is written by Paul Haggis who won the best picture Oscar for Crash last year, and it has similar flavors: concise dialoges, lots of stories running in parallel, and huge depth into the characters. At some points I couldn't believe how real and raw was the words that the people were saying. As Stavros said, it is one of the few movies tha focuses on the important things of life... This is the best movie of this group.


The infamous hollywood sign was once "Hollywoodland", before they removed the final 4 letters. The movie deals with a real murder a a famous actor of that age trying to figure out how he died. The movie was overall good but with very few risks: it is not anything new or anything that we haven't seen before. It is very well done and has attention to detail, with great casting also. It will be among the oscar considerations for sure.

The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia has a very similar story to Hollywoodland: a girl is murdered and two detectives are trying to figure out why. The direction, style, photography, looks, and colors of this film is superior to anything else this year. However the story is not so well crafted. Towards the end with the big revelations, we get lost as to what happened and who did what. They tried to to a super climax but what they achieved was a super why? It is worth watching but I just don't get he facts straight...

Two seemingly good movies come out in the next two weeks: Scorcese's The Departed with Jack Nicolson in (finally!) a non-comic stupid role, and The Prestige, a magioc movie with great cast. Let's see...