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Friday, January 25, 2019


The Event Horizon Telescope and Global mm-VLBI Array on the Earth.jpg
We attended a lecture this week by Dr Feryat Ozel, astrophysicist here at University of Arizona. She described the aims and tentative outcomes of a project she's been working on since she outlined it in her PhD dissertation some 20 years ago: the "Event Horizon Telescope."

What's an "event horizon" you wonder? It's the name of the imagined turbulence at the edge of a "black hole"--Google that for yourself--just before the light-and-mass forces drawn toward its massive gravitational field are pulled in and disappear. This "event" is predictable but not visible, except to radio telescopes tuned to a very short wavelength--1 meter--and focused on a source: the black hole imagined to be at the center of our galaxy called "Sagittarius A" (because it seems to be in that ancient Greek constellation).

Ozel remarked that the energy of this galactic black hole--if its radiation were visible--would be many times brighter than our own sun, even though it's 27,000 light years away from earth.

To detect the energy from the "event" at the edge of this black hole would require a radio telescope the SIZE of the earth! Ozel's solution: an array of telescopes distributed over the planet and precisely coordinated so that their recordings could be correlated for evidence of the event horizon 27,000 LY away.

After years of planning, construction, and coordination, the array of instruments--from the Arctic to the Antarctic, Arizona to Australia, Spain to Hawaii, Africa to South America--began to record data for 5 days in April 2017. Wow.

The weather was ideal all over the world! Now there's an event. The result was 3.5 PETABYTES of data! A "byte," you'll recall, is an 8-place binary set. A "petabyte" is one-thousand-billion bytes! The loads of hard drives filled hundreds of trucks and they all had to be transported here to Tucson. More wow.

When the analysis is complete, Ozel said, we'll know at least two things: that there really are black holes, and that we may have to revise our theory of gravity! Stay tuned...

Thursday, January 10, 2019


I regard Daniel Kahneman's discovery of "loss aversion" to be one of the great insights of the 20th century. Some thirty years ago he and his fellow psychologist did the experiments that showed people prefer not to lose more than they wish to gain! That is, we will refuse to give up a dollar we have when told we will later be paid $5! Evidently the need or desire to retain something we now have is greater than the prospect of trading that possession for something more later.

This insight and others that were developed from it were instrumental in the creation of "behavioral economics." Indeed, Kahneman was eventually awarded the Nobel in Economics. The old model of "rational choice" has been superseded almost entirely by the "behavioral" model, in which economic choices are governed by my feelings, fears, wishes, and so on: all the "irrational" forces that characterize our temperaments and social situations.

I'm convinced loss aversion--in a variety of subtle forms--characterizes most of our decisions, especially the ones we find trapping us and others in limiting or destructive behaviors and forms of life. Like me you've likely noticed friends clinging to what they have rather than risking change. Because "risk" is the obverse of loss. When I got divorced some 40yrs ago I discovered that the obstacle to change is my having to admit that, if I change now, and the change is for the better, then I've "lost" all the time devoted to my earlier state. So we resist change because we have to face this imagined loss: all the time we've devoted to the condition we're in now.

That's why it so often requires a crisis to bring about any change, both personally and socially. The existing situation has to break down--as with a divorce or other disaster--so that we're forced to change. Of course, we can still regret it. Most of the time people cling to the remembered--or imagined--past rather than facing forward.

There's a really remarkable form of loss aversion that's been documented in a number of recent studies, and this one has even more significant political implications. It's been found that, when people have suffered for some time from inequality--discrimination, job loss, income disparity--they become less willing to support redistribution. It's as if, being a victim of policies or circumstances, I desire that others continue to suffer like me. Apparently we're averse even to losing our status as victims!

This is really something to think about...

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


I learned to run in my mid-40s, at the urging of my tennis partner. Besides being my initiation into the life-changing experience of becoming an age group athlete, it proved life-saving as well. Through the period of my divorce in 1982 I increased my running to deal with feelings of despair.  Eventually I suffered a stress injury. I also I discovered that you can’t cry and run at the same time.

It was while rehabbing the injury, during the summer of 1983, that learned about a still-new sport. In July of that year I raced in my first triathlon. 

My oldest son surprised me by arriving that morning at the race venue. In the photo he took at mile 3 on the run I look like I might not survive the event. Many years later my mother was watching me race Ironman California, but left halfway through the marathon, saying to Jane, “I just can’t watch any more of this suffering.” And that was the race in which I won my age group!

Age groups are five-year periods: I started out in 45-49. By the time I entered 50-54—the exciting experience of “aging up,” in which you become among the youngest competitors—I had become competitive enough to imagine qualifying for Ironman.

Competition fostered confidence to address what I thought were my limitations. It’s irresistibly tempting in a crisis to cast yourself as a victim. So I had begun by telling friends, women in couples we’d known for years, that my wife had left. I stopped after the first two gave me essentially the same reply: “Good for her. I wish I’d done it years ago.”

So, in the crisis created by the end of my marriage, I began rethinking my life. I realized that we are not born with a self. 
We each have a number of stable traits, but we assemble a self from features and details in the lives around us. Many of these elements are inconsistent with one another, partly because the process is unconscious and partly because human behavior—like speech—is inherently ambiguous. 
The job of constructing a self—my picture of who I am—takes around 20 years, which is why we all find, no matter how long we live, that the years of college and after remain the most vivid of our lives.
My point, however, is that all the formative decisions, like marriage, are fit into that picture I’ve drawn; it becomes a template. Not only that: it serves as a model. Indeed, we both live out the picture and exempify it in unintentional ways.
It’s this unintentional teaching Philip Larkin satirizes in his poem This Be the Verse:
They fuck you up, your Mom and Dad.
They don’t mean to, but they do.
They give you all the faults they had,
Then add some extra just for you…

Man hands on misery to man.
It builds up like a coastal shelf.
So get out as quickly as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.


I was out raking my yard one day in May 1984. By this time my divorce was old news, and I’d been away that year teaching in London. I looked up at the approach of a friend and colleague walking home from the university. He stopped and said, “Hi John. Want to meet a woman?” “Sure,” I said.

So I went to his house on the weekend of Mother’s Day and was introduced to Jane. Walking up the drive I’d noticed a bumper sticker on her car for a congressional candidate in Georgia. Well, I thought, we’re politically compatible anyway. 

She herself had more than political appeal, with a brilliant smile and a PhD in counseling psychology from University of Georgia. These were only enhanced by my discovery, playing singles tennis on our first date, that she had a killer forehand.

Having both of us learned already that marriage causes divorce, we agreed never to repeat that mistake. We still celebrate that weekend in May as our anniversary.

It was when we decided to move in together that we began the work of establishing a partnership. We’ve since written the book on healthy relationships: Loving Well [available on Amazon].

Among our discoveries: we choose partners for qualities that we ourselves lack; but there’s an impulse to moralize differences; such moralizing interferes with affection; and loss of affection destroys intimacy.

“Moralizing” happens when I describe others’ behavior as “bad” or “wrong.” One of the things Jane found attractive in me is that my sense of time is quite elastic: I’m not inclined to be punctual, in sharp contrast to her preference always to be at least 15 minutes early. I score well to the left on the Myers-Briggs “P” scale.

But what begins as charming flexibility is likely later to be labeled “careless,” “insensitive,” or “never on time.” Resentment builds. Affection is lost. Children, of course, are acutely aware of these qualities in their parents and in their lives.

Reversing the consequences of moralizing is not easy, but the method is a simple one. Certainly, as Jane once observed, the simplest things are often the most difficult, Yet few things more worthwhile than restoring affection and increasing intimacy.


When I taught triathlon training, I used to show my students a gel—a 1oz. foil packet containing 100cal of carbohydrate—to illustrate one of the ways you can provide for your nutrition during prolonged exercise. I ate a lot of these in the course of endurance races like Ironman, which take anywhere from eight to sixteen hours. At that level of effort you use up around 400-600 calories per hour, in addition to fluids and electrolytes.

So learning to eat is both an important technique and part of the fun of endurance racing. You can’t finish an Ironman until you learn to manage your nutrition.

But there’s an ingredient in this task that applies to daily life: your resting metabolic rate. RMR is a ratio of weight, height, and age. Metabolism—the rate at which I process my calorie intake—declines with age, as we all know. So it’s important to determine your RMR.

My weight is still 71kilos (155lbs), for example, but I’ve now shrunk to 1.75M (5’9”), and I’m 82, which equals a resting metabolic rate of approximately 1350cal. That’s how much it takes to stay comfortably alive each day. If I eat more than that minimum, the excess will be stored as fat—unless I use those extra calories in activity. Just waking up and walking or sitting around uses a few—very few.

Exercise uses more. My average 30m per day of cycling, which takes some two hours and change, consumes between 800 to 1600 calories. My club rides in Tucson all end at some coffee shop, where I can assure you I refuel. A popular slogan has it that a bicycle is a vehicle that “runs on apples and bananas.” To that list I’d add scones and cinnamon buns…

Nowadays it’s easy to track calories-used. My bike computer does it. So does my Apple watch. The whole matter of weight-gain does not deserve the attention lavished upon it. Once again, it’s a simple matter of eating no more calories than you use each day.

Emphasis upon “each day.” I no longer take any days off—except when dictated by travel—for I can no longer improve. Rest days once helped prepare for competition, for it’s only in competition that you have a full sense of the quality of your training.

So exercise has many benefits, but the biggest one is pleasure. I do it every day because I love it.

But it’s worth recalling Charles Schulz’ answer to the question why he made Charley Brown such a loser. “Well,” he said, winning is great, but it’s not funny.”

I still race, of course, but—while there are thousands in my age group in the state, there are only two of us now in Arizona still competing. Franz is two years younger though, so I’m looking forward to aging up…


“I always go to sea as a sailor,” Melville (1819-1892) has his character Ishmael say, as his ship Pequod sets out toward its fatal encounter with Moby Dick. Melville uses this line to set up a joke about how men aboard ship do not observe the sixth rule of Pythagoras: “Abstain from beans.”

I want to use it, however, to compare sailing and teaching. Melville was 21 when he signed aboard the whaler Acushnet, about the same age as Thoreau (1817-1862) when he asked permission to use a small parcel of Emerson’s and on the shore of Walden Pond to build himself a cottage. The men were both of an age, that is, close to that of my college students—and to ourselves at the time we have gathered here recollect—young and just setting out on their lives.

I use the verb deliberately: It’s not by chance that “course” describes both a plotted route and a study plan. Each day—each class or course—is open to possibility and invention, however much I’ve prepared, planned, and practiced…

I chanced one day to see an ad in the Stanford Magazine: a letter inquiring whether any alum might be interested serving as crew aboard a 45foot ketch, to sail from Toulon to Kotor. I wrote to the address, and a few months later stepped off the TGV from Paris to meet Alan Logan. The other crew member was a French psychiatrist named Phillipe.

Sailing depends upon the wind. The best wind runs before storms. So sailing affords intense moments, like trying alongside Phillipe to maintain my footing on the cabin sole at night, in a 30knot gale, halfway across the Gulf of Taranto, struggling to reef sections of mainsail, the wind tearing at the canvas, slippery with driving rain.

Sounds a lot more dramatic than opening the door to my classroom in the morning, but that’s only because the actions are different. The risks are the same.

They’re also the ones we ourselves faced as 20-year-olds undertaking to navigate lives and careers. There are few experiences more demanding—requiring both courage and preparation—than addressing an audience at that age, at least some of their minds open and inquisitive.

There’s a cynical description of college teaching as “the act of casting artificial pearls before real swine.” I reject that.

Consider the fact that Thoreau built himself a tiny house just a few miles from his hometown of Concord. Then he wrote about the adventures in thought he undertook each day, as full of incident as any Melville reported from his ocean voyage. For after all what we have from each of them is a story, undertaken finally in imagination rather than in fact. If any part of my life has been worthwhile, it will have been those thoughts I offered to my students…


Consciousness confers on us the unusual powers of memory and imagination. These allow our minds to create the illusion of past and future. Unlike most of the concepts consciousness introduces into experience and implants in language, the illusion of past and future is easy to expose.

On the last leg of a six-day cycling race in France, I fell in with a young guy from Boston who, unlike most people, was enthusiastic after he asked about my work and I said I’d been a philosophy professor. As we rode along, he asked for an example of the sort of things I think about.

I told him about once seeing a sign in front of a tavern when we’d been hiking around Zermatt. It said: FREE BEER TOMORROW.

“Why don’t they ever have to give away any beer?” I asked. He hesitated. “Because it’s never tomorrow?” he said. “Just so,” I said. “So that means,” he said, “there’s always only today.”

I agreed with him again. “Yesterday” and “tomorrow” don’t name locations. They are projections of memory and imagination. Time, in other words, is a function of human consciousness. There is indeed a flow of events and processes, but it is we who divide it into periods, in the same way that we impose things like longitude and latitude upon the world and section the planet into time zones.

So the world and time don’t have qualities apart from our interests. Similarly, the world and our lives in it have no meaning. No meaning, that is, other than what we designate as meaningful. In this way meaning is like our feelings: it originates in us just feelings are not caused by things but assigned to them by me.

So the world has neither qualities or meaning, until we interpret it.

It would be no surprise if you found this assertion threatening. For it does threaten our desire to have the world answer to our needs; to have our lives fulfilled in some way by history. But the universe has no purpose, just as it’s expansion has no direction.

Of course an important ingredient in this desire of ours to have the world answer to our needs is our awareness—also uniquely human—that we will die. I have at some point to give up my life, though other lives, and the course of the world, will continue. It’s a frightening thing to know. So much so that we are anxious to avoid directly addressing death.

We want our lives to go on, and have, over all the millenia since consciousness arose, invented schemes and stories to tell ourselves we can live forever. Such beliefs are fantasies. Yet in every language and culture there have been those who have questioned beliefs of this sort. Questions are the path to wisdom…


Philosophy arose in 6th century BCE Athens and, in Greek, means “love of wisdom.” It’s a popular misconception that wisdom means having answers. That’s false. The quality of wisdom depends upon questions. “Questions are the essence of freedom, because they can always be asked, whereas answers can only be enforced.”

There were two great philosophers in the 20th century, one Austrian—Ludwig Wittgenstein—and one German—Martin Heidegger. Their parallel but linked interpretations produced a fundamental divide between “Continental” philosophy and the “Anglo-American” school, Wittgenstein’s guiding question was “what is language?” Heidegger’s: “What is Being?”

Philosophy at Stanford in the 50s was “linquistic analysis,” as the practice deriving from Wittgenstein had come to be called. I became interested in “phenomenology”—the method originating in German thought. There were only two U.S. university departments supporting such studies; one of them was Penn State, which is where I wrote my PhD dissertation under John Anderson.

Heidegger’s question “what is Being?” revives the oldest inquiry in the history of philosophy. The first thing we discover in asking the question is that consciousness a uniquely human ability: we are capable simultaneously of doing something and of being aware we are doing it.

That is, consciousness—or mind—always has a dual quality. This experience of duality misleads us into picturing the world—like we ourselves—to have two aspects: one in the foreground, the other in the background. “Appearance” and “reality” exemplify this mistake, as do “mind” and “body,” “subject” and “object,” and many more.

The word “phenomenon” means “appearance.” So the first insight of phenomenology is that there are only appearances. The second is that things appear only to us. In other words, only humans have the power to attend to the world—or the environment—as a whole process. All modern knowledge, especially the sciences, depends upon this power.

“To exist” means to “stand out.” It follows that only humans exist: only human being—that is human consciousness—can both occupy a position and bring the world into relation to that position. This is a brief version of one of Heidegger’s early insights.

One way to grasp the significance of this insight is to realize it is the basis of our knowledge of death. Memory and imagination enable us to extend our awareness, recalling a past and projecting a future. So I am able to imagine a time at which I’ve ceased to exist, a world in I am no longer present. This is the source of our deepest hatred and fear…

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

What's a vacation?

 Can you "vacation" when you're already retired? The word was coined to mean temporarily leaving your job behind, to clear your mind and revive your spirits. We--Jane and me--are stretching the limits of the word, along with many 1000s of Americans and others: people with enough money to travel, as well as the time throughout the year. It's arguably the case that "vacation" travelers--tourists--have become a primary source of income for many states and countries.

We were discussing this just last night with the couple sharing a rented house with us here on the South Carolina coast. They've recently returned from traveling in South Africa--both the country and the region--and admit to having questions about the morality of living amongst native populations who individually and collectively have low incomes and even lower employment, such that their livelihoods depend upon the money travelers like us spend locally. 

These photos are from our cycling trip on the east coast of Italy last year, where we were housed in a bike hotel owned by friends and guided by young people hired to ride with people like us. Tourism is already largest portion of the budgets of many countries like Italy.

So travel and tourism may not be a moral question at all. Or if it is, it might be argued that it's the moral duty of the citizens of countries with thriving production- and export-economies to go to the Mediterranean and Caribbean, Africa and South America, and so on to spread the wealth. In fact there's a "travel industry" that most prominently features the production and flight of aircraft. This means that, while we're spreading the wealth, we're also distributing carbon and other forms of pollution.

But then, being human is clearly synonymous with pollution: we can only live by inflicting very high levels of predation and consumption on the land around us. And there are already too many of us. Think about that when you're traveling...

Monday, October 16, 2017



At 08:42 EST on 17 August 2017 the European LIGO--Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory--near Pisa detected a gravitational wave emanating from the direction (it would turn out) of a constellation called "thGC 4993," which is 130 million light years distant 
from the Earth.

Think about it: 130 million years ago our planet was still 6 million years away from the Chixtulub Impact. (That's the name of the  estimated 6km wide meteor-collision that--in approximately two seconds--eliminated earth's atmosphere, formed the Gulf of Mexico, caused planetary volcanic eruptions, and ended the Jurassic epoch, along with the dominant life-form at the time: dinosaurs.)

In that moment a pair of neutron stars--dense remnants of collapsed stars--which had been circling one another at increasing velocity exploded in a merger called a "kilonova." Astrophysicists knew of kilonovas because our standard theory predicts their existence, but none had ever been detected before last month.

August marked almost exactly the second anniversary of the first gravitational waves ever detected. The existence of these waves also follow from the General Theory of relativity, but the LIGO instruments were only completed and tested in 2015. That September they proved themselves. Thus a new dimension was added to our physics. Until two years ago the only sensory evidence we had of the universe was light: the radiation-spectrum from x-rays through visible light to infrared. The LIGO detectors added a soundtrack, as it were, to our movie.

Since then astronomers and physicists around the world have been working to coordinate the LIGO instruments with light-gathering instruments, both earth-based and in orbit. In August the system worked.

22 milliseconds--twenty-two thousands of a second--after the Virgo detector in Italy registered the gravitational wave generated by the collision of those neutron stars, the U.S. LIGO observatory in Louisiana recorded it; 3 milliseconds later the one in Hanford WA registered the same impulse. So now we had a planetary triangulation of the arrival of a gravitational wave, set off--remember--when most of the animals on earth were dinosaurs.

But where in the universe did that gravitational wave originate?

Answering this question is the next neat part of this new system. Minutes after that 08:42 hit astronomers were alerted to search a few degrees of the sky for a new object. At this level, however, "few degrees" means billions of radiation-sources across millions of light years. The search began with the NASA "Swift" satellite began scanning some 750 points and soon reported massive ultra-violent radiation from the direction of our NGC 4993 galaxy. With this clue--after having to wait until the day-horizon allowed contact with the enormous telescope-installations in Chile--astronomers began searching the accumulated data for a "transient." That is, a new object in the sky.

In the 9th image, Charlie Kilpatrick found it: a new star next to NGC 4933:

When Kilpatrick sent the images above to Ryan Foley, professor of astronomy at UC Santa Cruz, Foley marveled: " the first human to have seen optical photons from a gravitational event."

So there you have it: the first event in "multimessenger astrophysics:" the field that has been created by this conjunction of physical and optical evidence. This advance is just one consequence of the coordination of science and government: "your tax dollars at work" in the finest sense.

Not only does this news dwarf the pettiness and stupidity of current 
American--not to mention world--politics, it illustrates the highest form of human activity: asking questions rather than seeking "answers" to the trivial problems we create around and for ourselves.

Keep this in mind when you vote...

Thursday, June 29, 2017


Alex Honnold summiting El Capitan - June 2017

It must have been the summer of 1974, because I recall this scene taking place in my oldest son Jon’s basement bedroom, in the house we moved into in 1972. We’d just come to the end of bedtime singing or storytelling—a lifelong ritual with each of my children—and were talking in the dark when he said, “Dad, If I died tomorrow, would you feel like you’d wasted your time with me?”

I’ve returned to this anecdote regularly over the years. Because I realized at the time, and attempted to explain, that I could honestly answer him “no” only if I had lived and played with him without expecting any outcome or harboring some hope for reward. I would have to have been living with him and loving him for it’s own sake.

Anything less would result, on my child’s death, in the kind of regret that signals resignation; Kierkegaard is right, I still think, to insist that clinging—albeit secretly—to outcomes, to hope for the fulfillment of expectations, is the polar opposite of what he calls “faith” and that I call “doing something for its own sake.”

I woke thinking over this scene. There are at least two ways we can do things:

  • addressing the task or enterprise before you both with careful attention to its demands and knowledge of the history—of the work of others—that bears on this job,
  • assessing the purpose of your task, placing it in a framework of ideas, calculating its worth, and so on.

But think of the Wright brothers. The problem was powered flight. It turned on a question that had been asked and answered wrongly for millenia. Both brothers, but especially Wilbur, the eldest, knew the history of speculation and experiment with air-resistance, the imitation of birds, and the force of heated air. When they were not working on the repair and maintenance of the immensely popular new “safety bicycle” in their Ohio shop, they were making parts to test, which required inventing test-equipment as well. This achievement alone is comparable to some unknown wood-worker in a Shaker community not far away there in Ohio, but nearly a century earlier, devising tools to cut the threads that made possible the bench-vise.

Wilbur built a “wind tunnel” consisting of a cube about two feet on a side, open on one end and with a tube at the other through which an electric fan—also a recent invention, along with household electricity—could move the air at reasonably high speed. Through an observation port Wilbur inserted blades of wood with non-parallel sides. We now call them “wings” and what he was testing was the lift produced by the air flowing over the longer upper surface.

Wilbur devoted hundreds of hours and pages to calculating the relationship between surface-area and upward force, exhibiting a devotion akin to the years it took Kepler to arrive at the “ellipse” described by the motion of a planet around the sun.

To build prototypes the men had to invent not only the concept of wing “chord” but propellers and even engine blocks. One of their cleverest achievements was the use of a twisted bicycle chain to power the port propeller, to create counter-rotation from a single engine-pulley.

I take this to be exemplary of the way in which all our best work is done: the brothers focused entirely on their project with the same sort of devotion and skill as their contemporaries van Gogh and Cezanne. Not to mention Einstein. All the best and most lasting human work—including our relationships such as parent and child—is done for its own sake, not to bring about some other thing desired.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

1000s of years of guilt...

Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is a catholic movie. It's a character-study of Lee (Casey Affleck), who ekes out a living in building maintenance around Quincy Massachusetts, having fled his hometown after drunkenly causing a housefire that killed his three children some ten years earlier. Lee returns to Manchester MA on learning of his older brother's death, to deal with that fact and with his nephew, 16-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges). His ex Randi (Michelle Williams) still lives there too, now re-married and with another child. Lonergan's theme is the ways in which we are confined by our beliefs. The pivotal scene, in the center of the film, takes place in the police station after the fire. Lee describes his leaving the fireplace without a screen to go out for beer, walking to the convenience store because he's too drunk to drive, and returning to find his home in flames, his wife rescued but his children burned alive. When he's finished the officers explain that it's not a crime to have made such a mistake. "You mean I can just go?" Lee says. But he can't go. He can and does flee, even if only to Boston. But now he has to punish himself, living meagerly, permanently closed and inarticulate, treasuring photos of his dead children, starting bar fights in order to get beaten up by strangers. A Jesus-figure. I mean, damaged as he is, Lee absorbs the grief and rage and blame that's all around him, that constitutes the lives of his family and former friends and suspicious neighbors. Michelle Williams delivers a wrenching performance in a tearful scene, apologizing to Lee for her blame and rejection after the accident. Lee can't hear it. Lucas Hedges' Patrick amazes Lee: the kid is popular, athletic, and enviably attractive. But Patrick is destined to lead a life as just like those of the adults around him: confined to the round of work, ritual celebration, regular reproduction, gossip, resentment, and blame. Everybody feels guilty most of the time. The only times that feel like fun are when you're all drunk...