Saturday, December 29, 2007

Holiday Fun

What are people in our household doing for fun this holiday season? Well, since you asked...

Christmas Eve found a crew of elves making gingerbread houses and gingerbread men. Starting at 7 o'clock and moving clockwise: Allison Duchacek, Emily*, Margaret Lund, Camila Sanchez, Jessica Savage, Laura, Congcong Li. (*Can't see Emily, but can see her gingerbread house.)

Thursday the 27th found more elves working on a yellow ducky in our front yard. Left to right: Tiffany Cochran, Regan Duffy, Brian. Laura also helped (she's not in the picture because she took it). The yellow coloring is from food coloring. The black eyes are two pieces from a Go game that Brian got for Christmas (from Silk Street in Beijing).

Note the new color of the house next door. Our long-time neighbor, Shirley Winslow, died last February. Her granddaughter Priscilla Winslow and husband Phillip bought the house. They painted it just before Halloween.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas 2007

Marion, we have a white Christmas this year!

Here's our back yard at about 8:05 AM this morning:

About 12" (30 cm) of snow on the ground, overcast, 33F (0C).

We had more snow earlier in the season. After the second big storm on Dec. 16, we had 20" (50 cm) on the ground, but it rained on Dec. 23 and we lost some snow.

Merry Christmas to everyone!

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Lie Group E8

Advances in mathematics sometimes lead to advances in science and technology. (Because significant parts of our world can be described mathematically--see previous post "What is reality?")

There was an interesting advance in mathematics in 2007. I admit that I don't understand the math here. It's way over my head. I understand just enough to see that this might be significant.

There is a branch of mathematics called Lie Groups which deals with symmetry. Symmetry is an important concept in physics. "It is only slightly overstating the case to say that physics is the study of symmetry." (source)

One of the most complex Lie Groups is called E8. In 2007 a team of mathematicians succeeded in mapping E8. See this web site, which provides a good explanation of the achievement. (Brian, note that this project was at the cutting edge of both mathematics and computer science.)

It did not take long before a physicist connected the mapping of E8 to basic theories of the universe. See this interesting article. (Paper here.)

UPDATE 12/05/09: The physicist mentioned in the previous paragraph is Garrett Lisi. To see Garrett Lisi talk about his "exceptionally simple theory of everything" based on E8, see his talk on TED. Highly recommended.

What is reality?

I am intrigued by the question: What is reality? This is an old question, of course, going back at least to the Allegory of the Cave in Plato's Republic.

One interesting aspect of this question is that while reality is not created by humans, much of reality can be accurately described by mathematics—which is created by humans. An example is quantum mechanics, without which we wouldn't have such things as blogs (because we wouldn't have computers or fiber optic communications lines or much else of modern technology).

There isn't any a priori reason to expect mathematics to describe any portion of reality. And yet it does. It is a beautiful and wonderful feature of our world. Einstein said: "Equations are more important to me [than politics], because politics is for the present, but an equation is something for eternity."

There are some who take this idea further, and postulate that our entire world is a computer simulation. Click here for links to one recent discussion of this idea. Jaron Lanier comments here.

Whenever I think about reality, I remember a science fiction book, now out of print, that I read as a teenager: Simulacron-3, by Daniel Galouye. This book was published in 1964, before the age of digital computers, and so the computers in this book are analog instead of digital, but the concept is the same.

If part or all of reality is mathematical or computational, does that take the fun out of it? Does it make our world deterministic and predictable? Not at all! Only in recent decades have we begun to understand this. The mathematics of nonlinear dynamical systems, popularly called chaos theory, shows that unpredictable random behavior can result from extremely simple mathematical systems. An excellent book on this topic is "Chaos," by James Gleick.

This post provides a brief introduction and some background. In the next post, I will comment on something new that recently caught my eye.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Elf Yourself

What are kids doing at college these days??!


Maybe the more significant question is what is their mother doing at home these days?!! (I submit this as evidence in support of my comment to the previous post.)

Saturday, December 1, 2007


I could not sleep last night and so I uncharacteristically turned on the TV. I found myself watching an episode of NUMB3RS.

Much to my surprise, there were numerous references to Richard Feynman. One of the suspects had been a student of Feynman's. There was discussion of whether Feynman would or would not have agreed with certain philosophical positions. Mysterious references to "RF59" were explained at the end of the show as shorthand for a famous paper that Feynman wrote in 1959.

So, has Hollywood developed an appreciation of Richard Feynman? Not likely. Although I had never watched NUMB3RS before, I had read about it on the Wolfram Blog. The four employees of Wolfram Research who provide the math consulting for NUMB3RS are undoubtedly familiar with Richard Feynman, especially since their boss, Stephen Wolfram, was a student of Feynman's.

This post on the Wolfram Blog provides more background about the math consulting that Wolfram Research provides for NUMB3RS. It is a fascinating read, and contains several links to even more interesting information.

You can read "RF59" here. It was actually a lecture that Feynman gave at a meeting of the American Physical Society at Caltech. The subject of "RF59" is miniaturization, down to the level of direct manipulation of individual atoms. We now call this field nanotechnology, and Feynman is considered by some to be the father of nanotechnology.

Feynman subsequently gave his "RF59" talk to other audiences, including high school physics students. It is entirely readable by general audiences. I have just now reread it and it is still fresh and interesting, even though it is almost 50 years old. Brian, you will of course not be surprised that Feynman discusses computer technology in this talk. But Emily, you may be surprised at what Feynman has to say about biology in "RF59."

UPDATE: I referenced "RF59" in this post on my work blog.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Camila has moved to the Lunds

Camila moved to her next host family, the Lunds in Waterville, on Nov. 25.

Camila, we greatly enjoyed having you stay with us! We hope we will continue to see you often during the rest of your year in Vermont, and we look forward to meeting your family when they visit.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Rubens' Tube

Brian made a Rubens' Tube at Colby and brought it home for Thanksgiving. He set it up in the garage:

Laura made a video of it dancing to the tune of "In the Hall of the Mountain King":

If this video doesn't work for you, try the one at Brian's web site:

In any event, please see Brian's web site at the above link for discussion of the construction and physics of the tube.

Friday, November 23, 2007


We celebrated Thanksgiving at home. Brian, Emily and Laura were all home, and we also had Camila and two of Emily's friends from Middlebury: Chalene from Singapore and Congcong from China. We had a traditional Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday and an "International Thanksgiving" dinner on Friday, with dishes prepared by Camila, Chalene and Congcong (with help from Emily and Laura). We also did this last year with Marion, Chalene and Ayumi--Emily's roommate last year from Japan.

Camila, Chalene and Emily cooking in the kitchen:

Chalene, Camila and Congcong with their handiwork:

Dishes starting to the left of the rice and moving clockwise around it: potatoes, dumplings, empanadas, seafood noodles:

Dishes starting at 8 o'clock relative to the lower rice bowl and moving clockwise around it: Coca-Cola chicken, omelette with shrimp, tofu and beef (spicy):

Dinner was delicious!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

San Francisco

Nancy and I traveled to San Francisco Nov. 14-18. I had a 2-day business meeting and we stayed for a couple of extra days. My meeting was in Half Moon Bay. This is a sunset from outside our room, looking over the ocean:

While I was in meetings, Nancy did some sightseeing. This is the famous Mavericks surfing beach, a short drive north of our hotel:

After my meeting we toured San Francisco together. This is the Dragon Gate entrance to Chinatown:

And this is the famous Lombard Street:

A week earlier, on Nov. 7, an oil tanker hit the Bay Bridge and spilled 58,000 gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay. (Click here for details.) Many beaches were closed, and cleanup efforts were underway. This is the beach adjacent to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park:

However, the sea lions at nearby Pier 39 did not seem to be stressed:

We had dinner within sight of the sea lions, in Neptune's Palace on Pier 39.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Laura's 17th Birthday

Somehow I forgot to post an entry about Laura's birthday. Since corrected. See below or click here.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Comet Holmes #2

Here's a picture, taken a few minutes ago. The first picture is straight from the camera. Comet Holmes is the fuzzy ball a little above center:

The following picture is the same as above except that I used PowerPoint to add a couple of arrows. The upper arrow points to Comet Holmes. The lower arrow points to the Pleiades.

Click on the pictures to enlarge them. The first picture is higher quality, and both Comet Holmes and the Pleiades are easily visible once you know where to look for them (after you click on the picture to enlarge it). The second picture shows you where to look, but the objects themselves are harder to see because the picture is lower quality.

Camera settings for my Canon A520: Put the lens on wide angle. (This is to obtain the maximum aperture. If you use the telephoto, it reduces the maximum aperture available.) Put the camera on manual, and set it for the maximum aperture (F2.6) and slowest shutter speed (15 seconds). Set the camera for the highest ISO speed available (ISO 400). Turn off the flash. And, of course, use a tripod.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Comet Holmes

Obviously I haven't been posting much here recently. But I've been posting a lot over at my work blog about my trip to China Oct. 9-20. Feel free to check it out.

If you can see the constellation Perseus in your night sky, be sure to look for Comet Holmes. It is easily visible with the naked eye. I tried to take a photo to put on the blog, but it just comes out black. I don't yet have a digital camera (or maybe the skills) capable of taking astro photos as good as the ones I used to take with my 35mm camera.

Comet Holmes is a known comet with a period of 6.9 years that is not normally visible to the naked eye. But in late October it unexpectedly became about a million times brighter than usual. You can easily see it with the naked eye, even with considerable light pollution, if you know where to look.

Comet Holmes doesn't have a tail at present. It's just a fuzzy blob. Obviously not a star. Here are some links to online information with pictures and charts to help you find it in the night sky, regardless of where you are in the world.

Sky and Telescope magazine article #1
Sky and Telescope magazine article #2
Wikipedia entry

It's cool! Be sure to check it out.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Laura's 17th Birthday

Laura's 17th birthday was on October 18. I wasn't home then, but I wished her a happy birthday from China! And I called her from the Great Wall on her birthday. (Well, it was the morning of the 19th in China, but still the evening of the 18th in Massachusetts, which is where Laura was then.) We celebrated Laura's birthday at home on October 21.

Nancy didn't have quite the right candles, but she made do (15+2).

Emily was home, too. Let's see: digital camera, necklace and book from Chile, bathrobe from China, French course on CD, art supplies. Worth waiting for, maybe!

Monday, October 8, 2007

More Cambridge History

More pictures from "Cambridge History Days" at Bill's sugarhouse on Oct. 6-7.

These pictures were taken on Sunday, Oct. 7.

(The pictures in the previous post were taken on Sat., Oct. 6.)

left: Clark Dodge

Above, Bill is feeding oats into a threshing machine, powered by an old tractor. Below, the oats are coming out!

Below is an old "horse power." This is a treadmill for a horse, used to power machinery. Both the threshing machine and the horse power came from the barn on the Brewster farm in Pleasant Valley. The threshing machine was originally powered by the horse power, before tractors came along. Here, Bill is turning the wheel to show that the horse power still works smoothly. Also on display was a "sheep power" (no picture).

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Cambridge History Days

"Cambridge History Days" are being held at Bill's sugarhouse today and tomorrow. This event is sponsored by the Cambridge Historical Society and used to be held every fall at the Clark Dodge farm on the Smugglers Notch Road.

There were old cars, old tractors, old threshing machines, weaving demonstrations, old railroad pictures, talks on covered bridges, and lots more. Lots of good food, too!

One of the many interesting displays was a model of an old-time sugarhouse. Note the team of oxen pulling a sap tub. In Bill's sugarbush, sap is collected by pipeline.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

O'Briens in China

Susan and Paul O'Brien visited China this summer on a trip for teachers. You can read about their trip here. Their comments and observations were most helpful to me as I prepare for my trip.

BTW, Susan's birthday is today and I think it is a big one. Of course I'd never mention her age on a public blog, but she was born on the day that Sputnik was launched. Happy birthday, Susan!

China Trip

If you are reading this, most likely you know about my upcoming trip to China, Oct. 9-20. Since that is a company trip, I will be posting about it on my new company blog - the Yankee ACA Blog. "George's Home Blog" is so much fun that I started a company blog! Feel free to check it out. I hope to post pictures to the Yankee ACA Blog while I am in China.

Brian's Boat

Brian reports that he and his friends at Colby won the Johnson Pond Regatta with their homemade boat. Congratulations, Brian! Brian has posted pictures on Flickr, which you can reach from his home page.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Middlebury Rugby

Here is Emily playing rugby at Middlebury yesterday:

Emily is in the center, getting ready to assist a teammate in tackling a girl from Smith.

Unfortunately, Middlebury lost both the A side and B side games to Smith, but both games were well played. This is the B side game.

And it was a beautiful day! It doesn't show in this picture, but the fall foliage colors are starting to turn. Still not at peak, though.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Another Montreal pic

Here's another picture from our Montreal trip on Sept. 16 - Camila and Laura trying on coonskin caps in a gift shop. Cool, eh?

Sunday, September 23, 2007


Today we visited two farmstands in New York. We drove in two cars across the Grand Isle ferry to Plattsburgh and visited the Everett Orchards farmstand. We had lunch there, and then Nancy and Laura left us and went to St. Lawrence University for an overnight visit. Laura is considering applying there.

Camila, Alvaro and I continued on to Peru.

Of course, that's Peru—the town in New York, not Peru—the country in South America. We drove by several apple orchards and a large dairy farm in Peru.

Then we visited the Rulfs Orchard farmstand, where we rode on a tractor-drawn wagon down to the pumpkin fields and Camila picked out a pumpkin. The tractor driver was the owner of the farm, Bob Rulfs.

Mr. Rulfs was pleased to have us visit his farm, and he gave us a half dozen cider doughnuts for the trip home. We went home on the Port Kent–Burlington ferry. We had good views of the Green Mountains. Here is the range from Mt. Mansfield to Camels Hump, with Burlington in the middle. At the left is another ferry going the other way.

LUHS Homecoming

Sept. 22 was Homecoming at Lamoille Union High School. There were the usual home soccer games – boys and girls, varsity and junior varsity, against Peoples Academy. Laura played in the girls varsity game, which, alas, Peoples won. But the interesting part of the day for me was a small ceremony celebrating the fact that it was 40 years ago this fall when LUHS opened. In the fall of 1967, when Lamoille opened its doors for the first time, Bill went there as a senior and I went there as a 7th grader. Bill was in the first class to graduate from Lamoille, and I was in the first class to go all the way through, all six years.

Dr. Roger Mann and Clark Dodge, Sr. both spoke at the ceremony yesterday. Both were on the school boards that formed LUHS. They talked about the decisions that were made at that time – whether or not to combine the existing town high schools in Cambridge, Johnson and Hyde Park into a new union school, and where to site the new school. Then Bill Baker spoke. He has been a math teacher at LUHS almost since its inception. He talked about various events in the life of the school since 1967, and I was delighted that he mentioned the rifle team in the 1970s. Mr. Baker and Mr. Leonard Reed (also a math teacher, no longer at Lamoille) were the faculty advisers. We practiced at the Morrisville Armory. I helped organize the rifle team in my junior year. I think it lasted maybe a year after I graduated in 1973.

Interesting trivia: Clark Dodge, Sr. has a granddaughter (Megan Dodge) who is at Colby College with Brian and Dr. Mann has a granddaugher (Alison Wells) who is at Middlebury College with Emily.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Mt. Mansfield

Yesterday was the 3rd Yankee Farm Credit Loan Committee hike. We hiked Mt. Mansfield. It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny. Here is a photo on the ridge.

The goal was to hike as many of the interesting little side trails around the summit as possible. We did quite a few! Four of us hiked up the Haselton Trail and then hiked the Lakeview Trail. The other four of us rode up the gondola when it opened at 10 AM and hiked up the Cliff Trail to the ridge. We met on top – and found someone to take the above picture. After that, we hiked the Subway, Canyon North Extension and the Canyon North Trail. Then we went to the summit, and finally down the Cliff Trail. All of us rode the gondola down.

The two previous Loan Committee hikes, both when Dean Moreau was president, were in New Hampshire: Lafayette and Lincoln (2004) and Eisenhower (2005). There was no Loan Committee hike in 2006.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Trip to Montreal

Yesterday Camila, Laura, Nancy and I went to Montreal. Here is Camila at the Canadian border.

We visited the Olympic Park, site of the 1976 Summer Olympics. Check out these winners!

The famous inclined tower is rising over the Olympic Stadium with its retractable roof. (Both the tower and the roof were not completed until a decade after the Games.) We went up the tower and enjoyed the views, but did not tour the Stadium.

We visited the Biodome, the Botanical Garden, Notre Dame and Old Montreal. We did not by any means see all of the Botanical Garden, but we did see the "Magic of the Lanterns" display in the Chinese Garden (Sept. 7 - Oct. 31, 2007). Here are Laura and Camila in the Chinese Garden:

And here is a more direct view of the display behind the girls:

There was a sign explaining that this display told the story of the following legend:

Between Heaven and Earth
Chang E flies up to the Moon

This legend dating back over 2,000 years tells of the love between Yi, the celestial archer, and Chang E, a young mortal orphan girl. Yi, a skilled bowman, was ordered by the celestial Emperor to come to the assistance of Yao, the terrestrial Emperor, and shoot down nine of the ten suns that were scorching the Earth. He spared one sun, for the benefit of humans, animals and plants. He became a hero to the people and decided to remain on Earth. There Yi fell in love with Chang E, and refused to leave her to return to Heaven.

In order for him to live for ever with his wife, the valiant Yi accomplished 1,000 feats and was granted an extremely rare pill of immortality by the Queen Mother of the West, who lived in the Kunlun Mountains. She told him that he and his beloved must share it – but one day, by mistake, Shang E swallowed the whole pill herself. Whoever took the entire magic tablet would be drawn up to Heaven forever, with no hope of returning. So it was that Chang E floated up to the Moon all alone. Since then the Moon has shone especially bright and, because of Chang E, it is rounder and whiter than ever on the fifteenth of each lunar month.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Camila's 18th birthday

Sept. 12 was Camila's 18th birthday.

Here's Camila, in a Lamoille Union "Lancers" sweatshirt, with her first Vermont moose!

Brian's 22nd birthday

Sept. 11 was Brian's 22nd birthday. I don't have any pictures, because Brian was away at college. Brian, hope you had a great day!

Pager's 93rd birthday

Sept. 8, 2007 was Pager's 93rd birthday. We had a family gathering and dessert at our house. There are four generations (via Donna's family) in the photo below. Pager is sitting on his birthday present—a wooden bench to go in his lilac garden, behind his house.

Standing, left to right:
Carrie Lafountain
David Lafountain
Jerry Cole
Bill Putnam
Jason Putnam
Donna Putnam
Beth Cole

Sitting on bench:
Devin Lafountain
Yvonne Bartlett (Donna's mother)

Sitting on deck:
Shyanne Lafountain

Not in the picture (because she took it!): Camila

Rotary Orientation

On Sept. 8, Camila, Laura, Nancy and I went to the Rotary orientation meeting for inbound exchange students and their host families. This was for all inbound exchange students in the local Rotary district. There are six this year: Camila; a boy—Alvaro—from Spain (living with the Hogans); a boy from Germany; and girls from Switzerland, Peru and Brazil. A nice group. Last year this meeting (with Marion) was in Morrisville—close to home. This year it was in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, about 2 hours away. So, with travel, it took most of the day. But it was a fun time for all. Mom did a great job in her skit—acting as a high school girl trying to hit on Alvaro ("Alvie"). I wish I had a movie of it! :-)

The only bad part of the day was that while driving home (in the Honda) I hit and killed a dog in Stowe. It was one of two beautiful golden retrievers. Their owner, an older woman, had taken them out for a walk. She had taken off their leashes, and the dogs got away from her. One of them ran right in front of me, with no time to react. The dog's owner was upset, and I was sad. This was the first time I've hit a dog while driving.

Bienvenida, Camila

Camila is presently living with us as a Rotary exchange student from Chile.

Camila, welcome! We are pleased to have you as part of our family.

Camila is keeping a blog of her year in Vermont here.

Au revoir, Marion

Marion lived with us (and the Girouxs) last year as a Rotary exchange student from France.

Marion, it was a great year, and we miss you! You can check in here to see what's happening with the Putnam family since you left.

Marion kept a blog of her year in Vermont here.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Welcome to this blog

Welcome to George's Home Blog!

Not quite sure where this is going. It will be an adventure! :-)

Who's who in the family:

Parents: George and Nancy
Children away at college: Brian and Emily
And now Marion! (see post #2)
Children at home: Laura
And now Camila! (see post #3)

Pager (rhymes with "logger") is the family nickname for my father, Harold Putnam.