I've been taking a break from playing "Mr. Universe" due to pressures from school and real life. Hoping to get back to posting soon.

Third-semester calculus looks like it's going to be fun. The prof is a young guy from Mexico, very articulate, an excellent explainer, and has an enthusiasm for the material that's infectious. He killed us with homework the first week - review problems - but I'm glad he did because there's so much stuff you have to memorize in the first two semesters that it's easy to forget. Derivatives and integrals of circular functions, integration techniques (integration by parts, partial fractions, etc.). Now we're looking at convergent and divergent series; it's more logic-based. I've taken this class before, but I only got about a C, and it was a few years ago. I'm hoping to get more out of it (including better grades) this time around.

"Modern physics" means all the stuff they don't teach you the first year: relativity and quantum theory. Our prof is a bald German guy with coke-bottle glasses and a thick accent. Relativity is pretty straightforward once you get the hang of how to plug in the Lorentz equation. Quantum theory is weirder than relativity; Einstein himself famously refused to accept quantum physics. The late Richard Feynman, in his popular series of lectures delivered in the early 1960s, explained that "things on a very small scale behave like nothing that you have any direct experience with." That is, you have to set aside your whole sense of "how the world works" - which was built up over a lifetime and painstakingly reinforced in first-year physics - and learn a whole new mental vocabulary of wavefunctions and probability amplitudes. I should point out, by the way, that I do not have any particular facility with mathematics or physics, but I'm really excited by the prospect of learning this stuff and mastering the techniques, so I'm determined to challenge myself a little bit and see this program through.

Our English class just finished Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey". It's one of Austen's early works, a spoof on Gothic novels in general and "Mysteries of Udolpho" in particular. A key element of the storyline centers around Catherine's overactive imagination (stimulated by the pulp fiction of her day) and her eagerness to believe the most fantastic and dreadful things about Northanger Abbey and the Tilney family. I think the other plot element - General Tilney's changing attitude toward Catherine - invites us to contrast Catherine's mindset with the General's. In a sense, Catherine and the General find themselves in similar situations: both have made mistaken assumptions about other people, and are found out. But while Catherine experiences an epiphany, the General only becomes more obstinate and defensive.

With "Northanger Abbey", Austen is clearly calling on her contemporaries to provide worthwhile reading and not literary "junk food". Even more important, though, is the broader point about how we interpret the information we get about our environment - and I think there's a direct relevance for us in the modern world, not only in the blogging universe but in our daily lives. Here is Henry's rebuke to Catherine, after he has caught her snooping in the Tilney home and she has blurted out her wild imaginings about the Tilneys:
"... Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you -- Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dear Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?"

Henry appeals to the highest ideals of their society ("we are English, we are Christians") not to suggest that their neighbors are incapable of committing such a horrid crime as Catherine imagines, but to impress upon her the wildly improbable nature of the sorts of conspiracies she has dreamed up.

"What have you been judging from?" This is the question we have to ask ourselves constantly. Where do we get our information, and how well does it mesh with what we know about the real world? Do we prefer the subtlety and complexity of real life, or the feverish excitement of our paranoid fantasies? "Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you."

I'm going to enjoy English class. The discussion among the other students is fascinating and stimulating; it's especially fun to get the input of younger minds. (I don't think the prof likes me, but that seems to be a constant among my humanities professors, so I'll accept my fate. I'm taking the class to learn literature, not to make the prof happy.) I think immersing myself in literature makes my blogging richer, too.

And back on the subject of blogging, we now have a face and a name for the famous Wretchard of The Belmont Club! Pajamas Media identifies him as Richard Fernandez, a native of the Philippines now living in Australia and working as a software developer. He will be serving as the Australian Editor for PJM; go read his full profile at the link.

PS - I will probably be posting more on the subject of blogging and critical thinking in the near future; there's quite a bit more I find I want to say. So keep watching this space.

You can't stop the signal!