From Oregon

Volume 8: Winter 2003

Here I am in Corvallis, Oregon.

Time to summarize a year's worth of life again. I keep telling people it's been a quiet year, so it must have been. Here are the highlights.


What's the use of having a university next door if you don't use it?

So that's what I decided to do last January. Since I wasn't working, why not sit in on a class? Ever since high school I'd wanted to understand tensor algebra, which is a prerequisite for my true goal, general relativity. The GR course wasn't being taught that semester, but there was a course on differential geometry. I talked to the professor teaching it, and he allowed me to sit in. Yea! Nothing like being a student again.

What I didn't know when I started the course was that it was the first of a three-semester sequence. I've been studying differential geometry for a year now. It's been an interesting ride, both mathematically and socially. The first semester class had about twenty-five students, which quickly segregated themselves into three rough groups: the serious math students, who sat in front; the middling students, who sat in the middle rows; and the peanut gallery, who sat in the back. (They got the name from their constant inane comments.) The peanut gallery disappeared between semesters, leaving about a dozen students. I started getting to know the other students' names. After the summer break, the third semester opened with just seven students. Six of us stuck it out to the end. We made it through seven of the textbook's eight chapters; if we'd finished the book in another semester, would we have had more than three students?

The professor was good. At times my head spun, but I got most of the major concepts. For the first two semesters I took the tests and sweated over the homework. The professor was devilishly good at finding my every weakness. For example, one of the earliest homeworks had a solution that involved not only abstract manipulation, but also ugly constants such as square root of 7.29 or cos(54°). The mixture of abstract and concrete terms looked wrong, and made me unsure about my solution. That was the pattern: every assumption I made was eventually proved incorrect. Particularly fiendish were the multipart problems which ended with the question "What did you observe?". This indicated that the problem demonstrated some invariant or correspondence between its parts. If you didn't find it, back to work!

The subject itself was interesting, although not quite what I'd expected. Differential geometry is indeed one pathway to general relativity, but it's a different formalism than tensor algebra. It's kind of like travelling from the north pole to the south pole; you can go through Great Britain or through China, but you'll still arrive at the same destination. I've learned a lot about tangent spaces, curvature, and n-forms, but nothing about tensors. This isn't a bad thing, as the university's GR course is taught using differential geometry. If I can, I'll sit in on it when it's next offered. That would be the spring semester, at the earliest.

Following a year of math, I'd hoped to sit in on a survey course in architecture, but I found to my chagrin that OSU doesn't teach any. So now I have to find an alternative, which will probably be another high-level math course. I might even take another one from the same professor.

If nothing else, the course got me to start exploring LaTeX and POV-Ray. It also taught me that if you're going to teach a course that's mostly abstract, cover something concrete and neat in the last week. (Anyone want to discuss homeomorphisms of genus three surfaces? The shape operator of the torus? Chapter 8 of O'Neill's Elementary Differential Geometry?)

[knotted genus three surface] [unknotted genus three surface] [unknotted genus three surface]

Which of these surfaces can be smoothly transformed into each other?


[Goat, post-shower]

Goat in a candid moment

This year's visitors included Goat and my parents, neither of whom I'd seen in several years. It was good spending time with both, although I regret being under the weather for part of Goat's visit. Fortunately, I was in fine fettle when my parents were here, although my mother was sporting a freshly-broken leg. (As breaks go, it wasn't bad, and didn't end their 10,000+ mile trip around Canada and the U.S.A.) We didn't get to everything we wanted to see, but we did most.

Beth and Eric visited in the beginning of the year, and their visit was remarkably free of medical problems. I'll particularly remember the comfortable evening we spent hanging out with Randi & Charlie and their theater friends.

Stones of the Northwest

For a years now, Glacier's been hankering to show me the majestic mountains of Montana, Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, and Idaho's Craters of the Moon lava beds. This summer, we took that trip, or at least tried to. It didn't work out quite as we expected.

Once we'd decided to go, we prepared. One potential problem was that the national parks are over a mile in elevation, and my lungs aren't what they used to be. To test whether I could handle such heights, we went to the highest peak in Oregon's Coast range. Fortunately, it's not far from here, so we could do it as an afternoon's picnic. I handled it well, although it was disquieting to catch my friends watching to see if I was going to pass out. I felt like a canary in a coal mine, or someone's science project.

[Mark holding obsidian chunk]

All the rocks behind me
are obsidian too

Glacier and I got underway the next week. It had been brutally hot, so we delayed leaving for a day. It was still hot as we traveled east across the state; we stayed just within the tail end of the high pressure. The car's air conditioner got a workout.

Our first destination was Glass Butte, an isolated place not far off the road in central Oregon. Glacier'd heard it was full of obsidian, which I'd never seen in the wild. Within a few hundred feet of leaving the road, we noticed that the rutted trail was flecked with black dots. We stopped and looked down. Yes, they were obsidian. We continued and soon were seeing obsidian everywhere. Hunks of it sat calmly under the hot sky. There were veritable tailings of the stuff from earlier visitors who'd practiced their flint-napping.

One other thing about Glass Butte: although we were a mile off the road, it was absolutely silent. It was one of the few places I've been where the only sound was nature, and there wasn't much of that.

[Glacier's roadside lunch]

Actual roadside geology of Idaho
(and Glacier's actual roadside lunch)

We continued on through eastern Oregon. Along the way, I read aloud from Glacier's copy of Roadside Geology of Oregon. (We'd brought Roadside Geology books for all the states we planned to visit.) I was surprised to find myself stumbling over the word "batholith"; its double diphthong triggered a minor speech impediment that I hadn't thought of since grade school. It's nice to be able to laugh about it.

By the second morning, we were traveling north along the western edge of Idaho. The area was new to me, but Glacier wondered aloud whether he'd been there before. After a few hours of travel, he saw something that triggered a vivid memory: the old Whitebird Pass highway. It's a narrow, undivided road which switchbacks eighteen times during its descent. We were riding on the new highway, but Glacier had been on the old one as a child. It was still open, so we drove down a little of it. Yeesh! It's not for the acrophobic, or those who worry about negotiating sharp, partly blind turns on narrow roads.

That evening we made it to Missoula, where we began to reassess our plans. Forest fires had closed Glacier National Park, so that left Yellowstone. The problem was that I wasn't doing particularly well at Missoula's elevation, which was 3,200 feet. My blood oxygen level was 90%, which was just at the lower end of the acceptable range. Yellowstone is 7,700+, so we were concerned whether I could handle it.

In the end, the question was academic. While in Missoula, Glacier's left knee went out on him. He was limping and in pain, but wanted to continue. By Monday morning he saw reason, and we headed for home. We traveled through Washington and along the north side of the Columbia river for a change. In the late afternoon we stopped at the full-size replica of Stonehenge.

The trip wasn't a total washout. Even though we didn't get to our destinations, we got to see Linda & family in Missoula. Glacier finally saw the Rocky & Bullwinkle episode "Pottsylvania Creeper", which he's been searching for for years. (I was amazed at how similar it was to Little Shop of Horrors. Which came first, the Moose & Squirrel version, or Roger Corman's?)

The other notable event was that I got a taste of what omniscience must be like. The Roadside Geology books made me wonder: what would it be like to know an area's geology so well that you could look at a cliff face and be able to read its full geologic history, from millions of years ago to the present? Now imagine looking at any stone and knowing what it was, how it formed, and what forces brought it to its present location. I'm not a spiritual guy, but that must be what it is like to be a god.

If nothing else, that one glimpse made the trip worth it.

The Needle Habit

I admit it: I was weak. I gave in to peer pressure. Everyone around me was doing it, and they were enjoying it. If I didn't want to be an outcast in the group, I'd have to do it too. So I did.

I learned to knit.

There's not a whole lot more to it than that. The group was some ex-co-worker friends who get together once a week to knit and chat. I stopped by once to catch up, and Elaine had an article on learning to knit. JC had some extra yarn and needles, so I picked them up and gave it a go. It wasn't hard.

I've worked on two projects. The first was an afghan for my father, who'd mentioned having cold legs. When I was in college my mother had knit afghans for each of her children, each in the child's college colors. Taking that as my model, I tracked down my dad's school colors: green and yellow. Knitting the afghan took several months, but it wasn't hard. It was big, but not complex. The only challenge came at the end, when I had to learn to crochet to do the border. (Okay, there was one other challenge: answering the constant questions about the colors. My dad went to college on a different coast, but the colors just happened to be the same as those of this town's big football rival.)

I hadn't told my family that I'd learned to knit, so the afghan was a surprise to them. Yea!

I've considered making a similar afghan for my mom, but she and I went to the same university. Does our family need two purple and yellow afghans? What would be the surprise in that?

Right now I'm working on a scarf for a friend. Not very exciting, but useful. I should have chosen a better pattern. Or rather, I should have chosen a pattern; I'm making this one up as I go along, and it turned out to be rather boring.

Maybe next year I'll knit some minimal surfaces.

Rejected knitting store names:

  • The Needle Works
  • The Needle Exchange
  • The Clean Needle

This Year's Recipe

Each year adds a new dish to my culinary repertoire. A few years ago it was pancakes; last year, blanched & steamed oatmeal. I'm currently enjoying my latest victory over the kitchen, chicken and dumplings. For once I didn't follow a recipe, and synthesized my own. After making it half a dozen times, it's coming out consistently well.

For other bachelors out there who need a change of pace, here's the recipe.

Chicken and Dumplings


  • 2 boneless breasts of chicken, thawed
  • 1 can chicken broth
  • 2 or 3 carrots, chopped
  • 2 stalks of celery, chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 cup Bisquick or equivalent
  • 1/3 cup milk


Split chicken breasts in two butterfly-fashion and place in large skillet. Cover with broth & one can water. Add carrots, celery and onion. Add seasonings to taste; I use a few dashes of pepper, salt, and whatever leafy herbs are in the cabinet (tarragon, basil, etc). Loosely cover and simmer over medium-low heat for an hour or so. Go do some chores.

When your chores are over, heat oven to 300°. Prepare dumpling batter using approximately one cup of Bisquick and 1/3 cup whole milk. Remove chicken & vegetables from skillet and place in 1.5 quart casserole dish, leaving broth. Drop spoonfuls of dumpling batter into hot broth and cook until dumplings are puffy and broth has thickened (~10 min). Gently remove and add to casserole, including broth. Cook covered in oven for half an hour.

Serves 2.

Dreams Series Update

One thing that hasn't been quiet is my dream life. A bit more than a year ago I started keeping a dream journal, and the results have been surprising. The Dream Performance Series & Dream Celebrity Series of several years ago have returned with a vengeance. In dreams I've talked with governors and presidents, visited alien worlds, been a marriage counselor, interviewed David Bowie, practiced telekinesis, and snorkeled in tropical waters with Idi Amin. Here's a list of famous folks who have appeared in my dreams in the last few years:

Idi Amin · Laurie Anderson · Joe Don Baker · The Beatles · Ben Folds Five · Sandra Bernhard · Humphrey Bogart · David Bowie · Stewart Brand · Carol Burnett · George W. Bush · Kate Bush · David Byrne · Cheap Trick · Tom Clancy · Bill Clinton · Glenn Close · Sean Connery · The Cranberries · Mario Cuomo · Willem Dafoe · Ray Davies · Miles Davis · Danny DeVito · DEVO · Ani DiFranco · Robert Downey, Jr. · George Duke · Faye Dunaway · Brian Eno · Carrie Fisher · Phil & Kaja Foglio · James Garner · Bill Gates · Sarah Michelle Gellar · Richard Gere · Philip Glass · Spalding Gray · The Grateful Dead · Jimi Hendrix · Bill Hicks · Douglas R. Hofstadter · Moe Howard & another Stooge · Matt Howarth · Joe Jackson · Michael Jackson · Mick Jagger · Bob Keeshan a.k.a. Captain Kangaroo · DeForest Kelley · King Crimson · Kiss · Josh Kornbluth · Swoosie Kurtz · Angela Lansbury · Paul Lynde · Madonna · Aimee Mann · Scott McCloud · Dennis Miller · Michael Moore · Paul Newman · Leonard Nimoy · Gary Numan · Dolly Parton · Andy Partridge · Penn & Teller · Prince · Queen Elizabeth II · The Ramones · James Randi · Godfrey Reggio · Christopher Reeve · The Residents · The Reverend Horton Heat · Burt Reynolds · Kurt Russell · Arnold Schwarzenegger · Martin Short · Jane Siberry · Robert Silverberg · Patti Smith · Britney Spears · Martha Stewart · John Stossel · Patrick Swayze · Scott Thompson · John Travolta · U2 · Sigourney Weaver · Boris Yeltsin · Frank Zappa

Several have appeared more than once, particularly Joe Jackson, Penn & Teller, the Residents, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Frank Zappa. (Don't ask me about Arnold; I can't explain why he keeps showing up.) An odd development has been actors appearing not as themselves, but instead playing characters in the dream. For example, in one dream Willem Dafoe played the leader of a gang of space bandits.

There have also been some fictional characters, mostly from comic books:

Friedlander Bey · Buffy Summers · Cthulu · Giles · Buck Godot · Savage Henry · Agatha Heterodyne · Hiroshima · Krosp · Leonard & Larry · Ron Post · Harry Potter · Ellen Ripley · Mister Spook · the Star Trek: the Next Generation crew · Voldemort · Baron Wulfenbach · Gilgamesh Wulfenbach

I'm currently awaiting the appearance of three people in particular: Morpheus, from Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Dale de Vere, and Pants. I wouldn't be upset if Carl Friedrich Gauss or Leonhard Euler visited, either.

This issue of From Oregon is dedicated to Elaine, for her food, friendship, and help.

Last updated 3 September 2004
All contents ©2003 Mark L. Irons

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