The Blog Roll


Modern blog formats allow me to make posts of diverse topics as I work on them, yet organize them according to subjects/categories.  The “blog roll” is the reverse chronological sequence of my postings, which may seem semi-random or disorganized to some– select a category to find the coherent themes. If you find them of interest, I invite you to “subscribe” and get an email note when I make a post. Don’t worry, I am not very prolific in this art, so there is no danger of flooding your inbox.

The Roving Photons (warning: nerd humor)

The Roving Photons on the steps of the Physics Building (now the Tate Laboratory of Physics) ca 1975.
Standing, left to right: Kevin Loeffler, Richard Dorshow, Thor Olson, Jeffrey Harvey, John Bowers, Kevin Thompson.  Squatting: Greg Hull, Curt Weyrauch.

I first attended the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1971.  I was accepted to the Institute of Technology, IT (now College of Science and Engineering, CSE) but faced the difficulty of narrowing my interests which ranged from science to art, from mathematics to theater.  My initial major, architecture, was inspired by a desire to combine art and science, romanticized by the Ayn Rand novel “The Fountainhead”.  That idealistic goal was punctured by the first lecture of Architecture 101, where in retrospect, I recognize that the professor portrayed the profession in its worst possible light in order to weed out students who were not fully and utterly devoted, focused, and dedicated to the field. 

It worked.  I changed majors the next day. 

But I was still registered for all the courses required for training in architecture, including math and physics, important for structural analyses to guarantee the strength and safety of buildings.  I continued these courses, and even while shifting my major to Fine Arts, I still wanted to learn “the secrets of the universe”.  Eventually, I found the reliability of science to be more aligned with my internal quest than the apparent arbitrariness of the art world.  Don’t get me wrong, I admire artists and consider them to be explorers, and the reports from their journeys inspire and motivate me.  But I realized that I did not have the qualifications to lead or undertake those journeys.

Instead, I focused on how Nature works; this is the domain of physics.  And I found myself in a small group of classmates that were similarly enthused.  Somehow (I don’t remember the details), we became members of an informal club, “The Roving Photons,” whose motto was “A roving photon gathers no mass”.  We attended the same classes; were confronted with the same contradictory anomalies of quantum physics and we all struggled to make sense of it.

I like to brag about the classmates I studied with.  One of them, John Bowers, went on to become a leader in the field of photonics (appreciate your fiber optic internet connection) .  Another, Kevin Thompson, contributed to the corrective optics for the Hubble Telescope.

My freshman dormitory colleague Craig Holt, discovered an important physics-mathematical relationship, now named after him, as is an endowment for a scholarship at the University of Minnesota.  My roommate during our junior and senior year, Jeff Harvey, went on to become a physics professor and contributor to string theory.  Others became teachers and engineers, extending our knowledge of the universe and demonstrating how to utilize it, to the next generations.  It all started in our undergraduate classes at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s.

Here is the recollection of one of my classmates and Roving Photon member Richard Dorshow (who later contributed to the development of medical devices and pharmaceuticals), as reported in 2010 by the newsletter of the School of Physics and Astronomy.

…One of my favorite memories was from my sophomore year.  A small group of us formed an undergraduate physics club, The Roving Photons.  I was elected Executive Director, mainly because I wrote the rules for election and eliminated the competition.  It was a very friendly group of comrades (Greg, two Kevins, Jeff, John and Thor).  We were given a small, narrow room in the sub-basement of the Physics building. 

“There was an exit sign in the hallway outside the door.  Thor, who was also an art major, somehow put the club name on two pieces of glass and we replaced the exit sign with the glass such that we had a lighted club sign.  I think the sign lasted less than one night as it apparently violated the fire safety code.  We had a refrigerator in the club room and arranged a delivery of pop every so often. 

“Our main impact was a faculty lecture we sponsored and arranged.  We would take the faculty speaker out to lunch on the day of the presentation.  I remember we used to go to Sammy D’s.  I think our first speaker was Professor Gasiorowicz.  [He was] a favorite, whose explanations of probability usually involved some sort of food analogy: a tablespoon of peanut butter spread over a cracker, many crackers, and then the entire universe to explain probabilities.  I still have an autographed copy of his book written and completed during my time at the university. 

“The school used to get audited by the American Physics Society and a group of distinguished physicists came to do the audit.   This included William Fowler, then president or president-elect of the APS, and also the famous physicist Herman Feshbach.  Because there was an undergraduate physics club, the distinguished group talked to us too.  Here we were with this group of esteemed physicists and we were telling them about the lunches at Sammy D’s, and the soda pop delivery.  In hindsight, this seems a very surreal event.” 

Rick’s description captures only a small portion of our experience as students during the 1970s, a turbulent but productive time in physics.  A “zoo” of new subatomic particles were being discovered, all of which would be clues leading to the now famous “Standard Model” of quantum mechanics.  We were in the middle of it all but didn’t really know.  To me, it made little sense.

And it is still challenging.  Although I was distracted from my study of physics by the exploding field of electronics brought on by miniaturized transistors (and because just about any physics experiment requires electronic instrumentation), I continued to follow the developments in physics throughout my career.  Reading their Wikipedia entries, the inspiration from my superstar classmates of 1975 is part of why I am still curious enough to engage in online courses for learning how to program a quantum computer. 

The quantum “measurement problem” has not yet been resolved to my satisfaction, but Schroedinger’s cat is being cornered.  The recent measurements of gravitational waves, the unexpected acceleration of the universe, dark matter, dark energy and other fascinating observations may be today’s equivalent of those confusing 1970 particle zoo clues, pointing us to a “New Standard Model”.  I hope someday to learn about it!

Trivia du Annuel

A sample question at a New Year’s party trivia station

In an earlier life I hosted an annual New Year’s Eve party.  It had the usual party elements: holiday decorations, elaborate food, and refreshing beverages.  It also featured a trivia game, something that started as a simple mixer to help our eclectic set of friends from the different avenues of our life to meet and engage, with the intent of adding to the good will and good cheer of the evening.

We created a series of “stations” throughout the house, each with a set of questions.  Our guests were organized in teams of two and they would do their best to answer them.  The questions were selected and designed to fall in the category of “common knowledge” and “things everyone should know”. It was surprising how many we don’t, and the newly formed duos would try their best to compete for the “fabulous prizes” (usually a trophy coffee mug) presented to the team that got the most right.

The annual trivia game was often described as a frustrating or humbling experience, but as embarrassing as it might have been to our guests when they could not answer our simple questions, they kept coming back each year.  Perhaps they thought that next year they would be partnered with someone who would actually know the figures featured on each bill of US currency, or the numbering convention behind the interstate highway system, or the counties that make up the metropolitan mosquito control district.  I eventually learned that everyone wanted to partner with my friend Rich, who may not be up on the latest trends, but seemed to know the other questions on topics we all learned in grade school but somehow forgot.

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Notes for Ninety

I was a teenager when asked to help stage this photo for my grandparent’s 1967 Christmas card.

I recently ran across some speaker notes that I used almost 30 years ago on the occasion of my grandfather’s 90th birthday (1994). I recall that a large white party tent had been set up on a backyard lawn and was filled with four generations of my grandparents’ descendants and their remaining lifelong friends. Here are my comments for that day.

I’ve been blessed by not only knowing, but sharing in my grandparents’ lives for many years (I am over 40!)  Many of my friends and colleagues do not even remember their grandparents.

They told me I would be speaking at this gathering, but did not tell me what to talk about, so I just picked something that appealed to me.  I’m going to tell you a little about an activity that my grandfather undertakes each and every year and we are all the beneficiaries of—their annual Christmas greeting card.

He’s been making photographic Christmas cards for over… well, I don’t know how many years.  I was planning to make copies of some of the great ones over the years as a slide show, but then I found out that this party would be in the afternoon, outside! 

So instead, I made some posters, and if my assistants will help hold them up I will describe them… 

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The Rock with Wings

Blending all the frames of the time lapse reveals the star trails above Shiprock (click for full size)

Many of my photographic ventures are purely serendipitous.  Yes, it is important to be at the right place, or the right time, and sometimes both, but there are so many things that can go wrong and prevent the shot that you were planning.  But there are also many things that can happen that are unexpectedly magnificent.  If you have a camera ready and waiting – even for something else—you can capture the unexpected event.

This describes my attitude when setting up a camera for a long nighttime shoot.  Lately, I have been exploring timelapse photography, making exposures every few seconds and then creating a motion picture (mp4 video) from them.  When traveling alone with no fixed plans, I like to head to photogenic landscapes where the skies are clear.  But a joint road trip itinerary with lodging reservations does not permit this flexibility, and I often encounter overcast skies.  I accept this as just one of those challenges to the practitioners of this arcane hobby.

And so, when our homeward-bound trip from a Thanksgiving in Los Angeles took us through New Mexico, and the day’s route ended near Shiprock, a city named for the nearby geologic feature that the Navaho call the “Rock with Wings”, our plans shifted to take advantage of the unexpectedly clear skies.  Although exhausted from a long day on the road, I left the comfort of a cozy Airbnb apartment to go set up cameras in the desert and wait in the cold for hours, hoping to capture something interesting.

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16mm Home Movies from Mid-20th Century

As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, I inherited a collection of 16mm movies made by my two grandfathers, each an enthusiastic amateur and early adopter of photo technology.  I have been struggling with their fate, as they consume a not-inconsiderable amount of space in my archives.  Space that could be used to store other useless artifacts.

They have now been (mostly) digitized. And one can find them summarized at this page.

I have great difficulty getting rid of things.  As someone who respects the historical path that brought us to our current time, place, and relations, it is hard to discard mementos, especially (for me) photographs that captured moments along that path.  As a scientist, I am loathe to delete “data”, that might someday be valuable.

I have to acknowledge the slim likelihood of such artifacts becoming valuable.  I hold no conceit that some biographer will ever be looking for scraps and clues identifying the influences on my own childhood.  I like to think that my contributions to society have been positive, but probably not worth much more than an oblique reference in an obituary (“he was a curious man”).  But maybe there were things in those movies that would be of interest to someone else. I didn’t know how to find that audience.

So the movies, spooled on metal reels of various sizes, lay dormant for years.  When I wondered about their ultimate fate, I realized that eventually, they would have NO meaning to anyone, even if it were possible to view them.  If there was any value to be extracted, it would have to be now, by me. 

I described that initial effort in the previous post on this topic.  Here is what has happened since.

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Late Life Love

Ten years ago, after a year of renovation kicked off by a housewarming “Before Party”, we hosted an “After Party”, which became the “(Happily Ever) After Party”.  We pledged our devotion to each other and were declared, by virtue of superpowers claimed by the MC, to be “well and truly united”.    

In the ten years since, we have recognized how well-matched we truly are: emotionally, intellectually, physically.  We have had marvelous adventures, and we have nurtured and watched our families grow while sharing in the losses of our elders.  We recognize in each other the love of our life.

I once encountered a story about a 90-year-old man who filed for divorce from his life-long spouse.  The clerk at the courthouse asked, “why after all these years would you file for divorce NOW?”  His answer:  “I don’t want to die married to that awful woman!” 

And I suddenly realized that I did not want to die NOT married to this wonderful woman!

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LEGOs for Life

Grace and Hoan, with mom Poldi, after presenting me with this terrific gift.

I recently received a most unexpected gift, an extravagant thank-you gesture from newlyweds for being part of their marriage (as driver and other small supporting roles).  Somehow, they found something that would appeal to me on many levels, something I would never consider for myself:  a LEGO set!  And not just any LEGO set, a large and elaborate architectural depiction of an A-frame cabin, with thousands of parts.

It had been inspired by a LEGO enthusiast from Italy, who enjoyed creating Lego models of houses in his spare time.  Evidently, there is a large community of LEGO fans, large enough that there is a program for them to submit ideas and models for the pleasure and approval of other fans.  Those with the highest votes are selected to become an actual LEGO product.  How brilliant!  Let fans come up with cool ideas, and then manufacture the most popular, knowing that it has already passed the “will they like it?” test!  The A-Frame Cabin was the most recent of such crowd-sourced concepts, released just days earlier.

My step-son and his new wife did not know of my past LEGO history.  They did not know that I had been a member of the LEGO Builder’s Club with my son in the 1990s.  Or that his LEGO model of the Eiffel Tower had been featured in their newsletter.  They did not know that I had authored a software program, LegoShop, to create models on a computer screen in a time before computer graphics, video games and virtual reality had been fully invented.  They were unaware of how much time I had spent with a micrometer, reverse-engineering the basic LEGO brick and many other parts to make my virtual models.  They did not know, using that program, I had created a Christmas card featuring a LEGO ice castle with Santa and a reindeer.  They did not know that I had insisted on visiting LEGO Land during a visit to Malasia.  They knew none of this personal LEGO history.

Yet they somehow knew that I would fully appreciate this gift. I’m impressed.  

The LEGO Builder’s Club featured my son’s Eiffel Tower as a Member Masterpiece, circa 1992

LegoShop, an application that allowed the creation of LEGO models from a library of virtual parts.  Some older readers may recognize the window format of early Apple computers.

Our 1990 Christmas card, highlighted by virtual LEGOs

In LEGO-Land Malaysia, 2015

I have been a dormant LEGO builder for many years and have not kept up with the latest sets and themes.  But the skills to assemble LEGOs don’t go away, and even if they did, the remarkable instructions provided with the kits can be followed in any language, even by builders who, like some of my grandchildren, cannot yet read (but you DO need to know your numbers).

In the case of an enormous set like this one, the instructions run to 333 steps, requiring two books to contain all of the illustrations.  The thousands of parts are partitioned into 16 bags, opened one at a time while following the next series of steps to assemble them.  The process is much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, finding the next target pieces, and mating them in correct position with the previous ones.  Eventually, the parts that tumble out of the bag are all in place, and I can take a moment to appreciate the growing model.

A view of the partially built cabin. The front door opens into an area with bookshelves, a guitar, and an umbrella stand. The owner appreciates rocks; a geode is prominently displayed next to the record player.

What a pleasure to receive a gift like this.  Something created by a LEGO fan and endorsed by a global LEGO community of enthusiasts!  I am savoring the construction steps as I go through them, but have recruited the assistance of other LEGO experts.  I plan to post photos of the completed project!

Grandsons Arthur and Teddy, reenacting the extinguishing of a dangerous fire with a LEGO firetruck.

Confronting Challenges

Cover art for “Vietnam 1970-71, Confronting Challenges” (click to enlarge)

I helped my uncle complete a memoir in his last weeks of fighting multiple myeloma. It is a collection of stories, told in his inimitable style, of the year he spent in Vietnam in 1970-71. My foreword for the book is below.

The book was self-published through my Blurb account for the benefit of close friends and family. There have been others that have expressed an interest in having a copy of the book. There are a few options. If you want a physical memento that you can hold and read and cherish, you can order one from its Blurb book page.

The listed price is the actual cost (there is no markup). Custom printed books are expensive, but you get a real hard-cover book! To reduce the expense slightly, there are a few discounts available. If you can pool orders with others, there are quantity discounts: 10% for ten, 20% for twenty (somebody would have to coordinate and distribute the bulk order). I also know that Blurb makes promotions from time to time with discount coupons. You can Google “Blurb coupons” to find them. I once encountered and used a 40% coupon.

If you do not need the artifact of a physical book, the content is available here in a (50MB) PDF file for free. Download and enjoy it. Maybe you will decide you need it in a form not requiring a machine to read. If so, go ahead and order the book.

Here is my introduction to Bob’s memoir:


The author of this volume is Dr. Robert Olson, whom I know as my Uncle Bob. Over the years I heard him tell stories of when, fresh out of medical school, he served as a Navy doctor in Vietnam.  Now, over the last 12 years, he has worked at putting words to paper to capture the remarkable experiences of that life-changing year, and he has collected photographs of that time, taken by himself and others. 

It has been my privilege and honor to assist Uncle Bob in assembling this book. While he is a master storyteller, he is not a master of the modern tools of writers.  But as you will see as a recurring theme in so many of the stories that follow, he took on that challenge in his signature manner—head on, picking up what he needed, as he needed it, to accomplish the task.  Microsoft Word, hardly an intuitive editing tool, was Bob’s choice to render his material and turn it into text. 

Which he did. 

The modern tools of writing allow for easy revisions.  And he made many of them, carefully crafting each story for impact and detail, augmenting them with photographs to illustrate the locations, people and world context of the times.

When it became apparent that he would not be able to take on the final task of assembling the stories and photographs into a full book and actually publishing it, I offered to help.  I obtained his large “working folder” of the many files he had created over the course of a decade.  Despite failing strength and plummeting hemoglobin levels, he confirmed the titles of his stories, eventually to become chapters in the book, which I then used to locate their most recent versions.

As I performed my new role as copy editor and typesetter, I learned the backstories and more complete details of these events, many of which I had never heard before, and I was struck by a recurring theme.  It is hard to express succinctly, but it has to do with how we respond to events that are not under our control, not what we expect, not what we want, outside our experience or skill, and sometimes even frightening.

This sort of event happens to all of us: life is unpredictable, and stuff happens.  In these stories, we see a response that does not shy away, but rather, meets the challenge head-on.  It is more than just “making lemonade from lemons”; it goes beyond “rolling with the punches”.  It is a full embrace of these unexpected and undesired events; an acceptance and a firm resolve to do the best you can in a difficult situation. 

And in the end, two results obtain:  the outcomes are better, and you are better. 

I am struck, but not surprised, that Bob considers these difficult, challenging moments to be among the highlights of his life.  I hope that after reading this book, you will understand why.

Thor Olson

September 2022

Texas Road Trip: Reconnaissance Resumes

After the eclipse ended, I packed up my equipment again; this time I collapsed the tripod legs—I would need the space to pack up my campsite, which I did the next morning.  I heated the dregs of leftover coffee thinking I would be stopping soon for breakfast on the road, including fresh brewed coffee. 

I made the mistake of not stopping in Fort Davis for that breakfast. I thought it was too soon, it was only ten miles from the campground.  But I should have stopped there anyway, because the next towns were too small, or too run down to support a café.  I went all the way to Del Rio, which was too large to have the local flavor of a small down diner.

I did find one however—a Mexican restaurant operating out of a Victorian style hotel.  The staff spoke Spanish, as did the other guests.  It was now lunchtime and I ordered the Monday special:  chili relleno (stuffed chilis?) which were delicious, and with rice and beans, too much.

I continued on toward Eagle Pass, the next large city, but in between was “Radar Base”, which is an intersection of roads where the 2024 solar eclipse is said to be at or near maximum—4 minutes, 30 seconds.  It is a miserable spot however—hot, dusty, windy, with heavy highway traffic and not much shade.  I’m not sure why it has a town designation—a local airstrip and a radio/cell phone/radar tower?

Radar Base. I’m not sure where the radar is. Click to enlarge.

I had intended to stay in Eagle Pass, but on learning that the room rates were $250+, I continued on to Uvalde, a town larger than I expected, and whose notoriety to the world would be established a week later.  There was some conference/convention going on, so the rates were still high, but I had reached the end of my range and desperately needed a shower, so I sprang for the room.

The shower was great.

More Options
I wasn’t expecting to find an eclipse viewing site as I originally hoped—I was too late, all the prime locations had already been booked—or couldn’t be booked (the State Park reservation system only goes 5 months out).

But I felt obligated to document the candidates that I had looked up, as this was the purpose for traveling here.  I could at least take photos and maybe get contact info in case of cancellations.

I located a few more places along the Rio Frio, and the Lost Maples areas along the eclipse path.  There were various resorts and RV parks along a road east of the river, and I stopped at some and inquired.  Locals would stop and talk with me, just being friendly, and I learned a lot about the area. Here are my notes.

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Texas Road Trip: Lunar Eclipse

My cameras at work!

I started to set up for the lunar eclipse; it would occur tonight (this was not a drill)!  But by the time I had the tripods and mount in place, I realized that I had left a critical piece of equipment behind—my camp chair.  I left the stuff for a 10-minute trip back to the campsite to retrieve it.

On return, I found the other guy who had obtained a pass for the overlook (required if we wanted to stay past 10:00 pm).  He was an interesting person who was ok with my being focused on setting up rather than chatting. 

A few other visitors dropped by, including one who was on foot with some portable camera gear.  After a while he decided he wanted a different viewpoint and so he hiked away, disappearing below the crest. 

I was ready at moonrise.  This time I could see the moon as it appeared on the horizon.  I centered it in the cameras, started the tracking and started taking pictures.  The moon rose in a light orange color, brightening to white and then about one-half hour later, the eclipse began.

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