Friday, July 30, 2010

picking out parts of Christ

Many people, maybe even most, are hesitant to fully embrace every literal recommendation of any particular religion. That's fine and dandy; I think religions represent millennia of accumulated wisdom about how best to live in our world, much of which is very valuable, but the process of enforcing these views through the generations turns good advice into crazy cultish, or at best meaninglessly antiquated, nonsense. Viewing the multitude of religious philosophies through a lens of modernity and common sense and picking the best parts to take to heart is a good way to go about it.

As far as Christianity goes, this often turns into a rhetoric of "Well I don't know if Jesus was God incarnate, but he was certainly an admirable person in history, so I will follow his teachings as I would any wise and good person's."

To these people I would like to share this quote-in-a-quote. Christopher Hitchens quoting C.S. Lewis, that famous and beloved Christian theologist and apologist. If even he can say these things, you have to admit it's worth consideration.

[C.S. Lewis comments the claim of Jesus to take sins on himself:] Now, unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offenses against himself. You tread on my toes and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden-on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men's toes and stealing other men's money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offenses. This makes sense only if he really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.

[Christopher Hitchens continues:] It will be noticed that Lewis assumes on no firm evidence whatever that Jesus actually was a "character in history," but let that pass. He deserves some credit for accepting the logic and morality of what he has just stated. To those who argue that Jesus may have been a great moral teacher without being divine (of whom the deist Thomas Jefferson incidentally claimed to be one), Lewis has this stinging riposte:

That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman and something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

And with that I will disappear for three weeks of nonstop studying and praying to the disinterested universe that I pass my field exams. Although I have such a backlog of blog posts maybe I can clear a few out in the meantime.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

sundry sun-dried delights

The best things about summer:
  1. Fresh watermelon, sweet corn on the cob, just-picked tomatos, Rainier cherries, asparagus, banana peppers... etc
  2. Motorcycling in short sleeves
  3. Warm, late-darkening evenings with fireflies (well, not in Berkeley...)
  4. The inner Milky Way high in the sky (and sleeping under it)
  5. The smells of cut grass, harvested hay, and sun-baked pine needles
  6. Packed parks and playgrounds (and people-watching there)
  7. Popsicles and sno-cones
  8. Concerts in the park (with a picnic of course)
  9. Warm torrential thunderstorms (again, not in Berkeley...)
  10. Baby animals everywhere (marmots! I recently discovered)

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage: Stories, by Alice Munro: Not bad, but just a mediocre, (annoyingly, at times)-feminine, and more romantically fanciful echo of John Updike. Don't bother. The hype about Munro being one of the greatest living writers is a misplaced desperate attempt to presciently identify a timeless artistic genius.

The Stargazing Year: A Backyard Astronomer's Journey Through the Seasons of the Night Sky by Charles Laird Calia - Very pleasant lyrical and personal story about returning to amateur astronomy in middle age, building a backyard observatory, and of course the mythology and beauty of the skies. I expect it's best appreciated by those who already are familiar with the skies and hobby, but would certainly inspire many people to look through some binoculars for the first time, too. I'm very ignorant about the mythology of the sky, so that was nice to have incorporated in the story.

Peace is Every Step, by Thich Naht Hanh - This guy is fantastic. Everything else related to Zen/Buddhism that I've read has been downright infuriatingly wrong, but I absolutely loved this one. It rejects the suffering-oriented approach to Zen, and the Buddhist rejection of the mental realm doesn't come up in the extreme way that it does in other Zen books, so it avoided the main sources of provocation. Instead he spoke of how to approach life to maximize peace and joy: instead of saying over and over "take a breath", he says "breathe and smile." It makes all the difference.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Zen Buddhism

Zen has two fundamental problems, as I (admittedly fairly ignorantly) see it.

First, it is obsessed with suffering, how to deal with and accept suffering, the source and inevitability of suffering, etc. Just read the "Four Noble Truths" - every one is about suffering. I can't stand that. Life is beautiful; every minute is an opportunity for joy. If you detach yourself from everything in the world in order to avoid being hurt by it, you are also limiting your joy, turning yourself into nothing more than a passive stone, eroded by fate's whimsy. I don't buy it. The best life philosophies should be focused on joy and peace, not tolerating pain.

Zen meditation is often taught as a process of labeling thoughts for what they are, and then setting them aside. You think "I feel pain. I acknowledge that I feel pain. Now I'm going to set that pain aside." In this way we are supposed to learn how to exist in each moment acknowledging the truth of that moment, good or bad, without unnecessary attachments to our emotions or thoughts that artificially cause suffering. BS! Focusing on your breathing may certainly allow you to avoid getting caught up in all the stress in life every minute of the day, but the purpose of that is to enable yourself to enjoy the minutes of your life, not to detach yourself from your emotions by labeling them so that eventually you exist only as an observer of the world, unattached, unsuffering, but present.

To be sure, I agree that it is important to learn to identify the things you can't control and learn to accept them. But I also think it's important to exercise control over what you can, and even to overestimate your powers of control. Life is what we make it. I even think there is a great deal of joy to be had by artificially creating attachment. What else is rooting for a sports team, or a feeling of triumph at a completed construction project or a scientific discovery? Or love? It's all joy from intentional attachment. Without choosing to be happy, and choosing things to pursue to make us happy, there's hardly anything in life left beyond infancy.

I also agree that it's not worthwhile to mentally perseverate on negative feelings and things that are in the past that you can no longer go back and undo. Much of the Zen rhetoric is against this kind of relentless rehashing, and that's fine. But it's not fine to deny that pain is real or that it shouldn't be painful or that it only exists in your head and therefore doesn't exist at all. Pain has a purpose and we have free will to avoid and learn from that pain. We control a huge portion of our destinies. I refuse to be a rock in the stream of the world.

Secondly, it denies the value of the mental world (this was already unavoidably tied up in the bit about suffering, actually.) I fully agree that we should appreciate as much of the joy in our immediate surroundings and in our minute-by-minute activities as possible. But my mental world is part of that. Zen tells me clear my thoughts and focus on my breathing in order to practice being in the moment. But when a Zen master tells me to focus on a dandelion in order that I truly appreciate its beauty, I will necessarily neglect to appreciate the joy in the clover behind me. Likewise, when I immerse myself in the immediate joyful presence of the stimuli of each of my five senses, I am necessarily neglecting the joy of thought. What's the difference? When I walk down the street utterly oblivious to my surroundings, not even recognizing people I know who walk past, I am not so caught up in nothingness that I'm forgetting to enjoy myself, the anti-Buddha. I'm enjoying myself in the best way possible in that moment: toying with logical structures or inventing a fantasy world or dreaming of other wonderful possibilities in life. Why does Buddhism frown on such a pure source of joy?

Anyway, I just read a great book about Zen that ignores all of that crap about suffering. And as for denying the reality that lives in our minds, it doesn't come up frequently or in depth enough to be infuriating. So I loved it. And before I mention the book in a later post, I had to write down my specific complaints about Zen, for clear context. That was really a very disorganized description, but hopefully the point comes across.

Monday, July 19, 2010


are happy people. From Jeff Yeager, author of "The Cheapskate Next Door" and probably my soulmate, some statistics about people he interviewed around the country who are living beneath their means. (Yes beneath, not within. Within isn't really within if there's any uncertainty in your life at all.) Didn't surprise me one bit. Emphases mine.
[O]nly about 10% have a written household budget ("we live our budget -- it's second nature -- we don't waste time writing about it," one cheapskate said); while they have savings in the bank, less than 15% have a formal "emergency fund" ("an emergency fund is for people who don't have their financial house in order otherwise," another cheapskate said); and more than nine out of ten say that they think, worry, and stress-out about money less -- not more -- than their non-cheapskate peers. They are 100+ times more likely to have a dog or cat adopted from a shelter than one purchased from a pet store; far more likely to own a crock-pot (or several) than an iPod or flat-screen TV; and they divorce at less than half the national average. These aren't your miserable, Scrooge-like cheapskates. These are folks who know what's important in life, and they skip the rest.
This economic downturn is great for two things: reminding people that money does not equal happiness, and that they can get by with a whole lot less money than they think. (And a third thing if you're on a fixed guaranteed salary: deflation =) I'm tired of hearing people with 6 digit household incomes whining about their finances and begging the government to do something to start the next bubble when they send their kids to private school and multi-thousand-dollar summer camps and buy new cars every five years and don't even blink before eating out or paying $20 to go a movie with the wife that they could rent for $1. We're the richest country in the world, GDP falling or not. We have it pretty darn good. We just have to remember how insanely high our standards have gotten, and readjust.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Behavioral limitations

So glad to see this in as prominent and popularly accessible a place as the New York Times. Very worthwhile reminder about the complementary, not supplantive, nature of behavioral economics. It's also definitely necessary to call out politicians who use behavioral nudges as yet another cop-out from making the hard long-term choices that our political system isn't equipped to handle.

Friday, July 16, 2010

rural America

I was built for rural America. Within minutes of getting into the hay-and-tractor-oil scented farmland under the wide open sky and beating sun, my soul sighs with relief. Muscles in my skull and shoulders that I’ve forgotten I have relax for the first time since the last time. It’s so powerful I have to wonder whether this affinity for the earth and space and solitude and serenity of the open farm country is genetically ingrained. I’m only one generation removed, after all: my dad (to my simultaneous relief and dismay) abandoned the Washington dairy farms to become a gol’darn liberal academic.

Driving down the county roads to the one hardware store within 70 miles, a bald eagle, turkey vultures, swallows, and hundreds of species I can’t identify fly within yards of the car. The speed limit is 65, but 50 feels plenty fast when listening to Greg Brown with the windows of my Chevy down. The single sign between Adin and Bieber says “tractors: next 8 miles”. There is one bar in the next town over, and the lack of competition entitles the bartender to glare and snip at every customer at every opportunity. But in the frosty-and-burger joint, the woman ordering at the counter with her visiting mother could tell the lifestories of the two sisters working the grill as well as their own parents.

Everyone knows everyone, but when there are miles of open fields in any direction and horses to ride freely through them, the friendliness can never get oppressive. Take a deep breath and look up at infinity if ever you feel shackled.

There is one school, one grocery store, one library, one National Forest headquarters, and the one church has half the cars in town parked there on Sunday afternoon. Elementary school kids ride their bikes down the highway, and why not? They’re moving as fast as the tractors and faster than the stray goats.

Every house has a lumber and scrap metal pile in the backyard, scattered cars and trailers on blocks and deprecated sheds. Rusty ‘70s Harleys parked by the tomatos. They don't bother wasting crop water on the brown patch of Bermuda grass in front of the porch. The billboard in the supply store is plastered with work wanted advertisements, skills offered, and notices of fresh eggs for sale. The recession hit these parts harder than the mobile city labor forces, but what’s not wasted isn’t wanted, and money can’t buy happiness. The clich├ęs are true and remembered.

I haven't traveled the world much, but here I wonder why I would ever want to in the first place.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

math fun

Well first non-math fun: try making s'mores with marshmallow peeps. Delicious!! The outer sugar crust caramelizes, doesn't catch fire like normal marshmallows, and leaves a crunchy sugar element. Plus you get to lobotomize dumb pink bunnies. This may be my most exciting invention yet...

And now the math fun. I saw this at the Exploratorium last month and it's incredibly simple, yet surprising at first glance.

Take any random sequence of digits. Choose any number between 1 and 9. Start at that number digit (if you picked 3, point to the 3rd digit). Now whatever that digit is, move that many digits forward, and repeat. Keep going a little way until you get bored.

Now choose a different digit between 1 and 9, and do the same thing. You'll almost certainly end up in the same place as the last time, after just a few steps!

It's surprising because we think of this as doing two independent things with random digits. But once you're on the path you already covered, you're stuck there forever since the sequence of digits is fixed, and in any step you have a 1 in 10 chance of landing on the previous path. Roll a ten sided dice a few times and you'll soon get the right number...

Well, I thought it was cool =)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

astronomy approaches

At the Golden Gate Star Party, I had my telescope set up next to two people from Vancouver. The contrast between our nightly activities illustrated the enormous range of approaches to what we call the same hobby.

I have a dobsonian telescope, the simplest design by far. I find objects without any computer assistance or electronic slewing controls, just by looking at maps in books and atlases, finding a bright nearby target, and starhopping to the object from there. The only electronic devices I use are red flashlights, a red dot zero-magnification finder scope, and a little fan that keeps the primary mirror cool. It really doesn't get lower tech than that. My whole setup, including all the eyepieces, cost about $600. I also log diligently. Conditions, equipment, time, location, detailed description, and a sketch. Done by hand with pencil in a Meade quadrille notebook.

My Canadian neighbors, on the other hand, had two telescopes with full go-to capabilities, fancy equatorially-mounted refractors and I think a Schmidt-Cassegrain, electronic slewing controls and tracking, cameras, tracking error-correcting cameras, and all this gear attached to their laptops that ran custom-written software to control the telescopes and cameras. Altogether they certainly had around $10,000 in equipment. And all this was wired up to a massive battery complex in their van. I never saw either of them look through their scopes visually. They didn't know where constellations were, let alone how to find objects within them. They spent the nights pressing "go", waiting for their photograph to finish, and repeating. They thought I was nuts to sit at my scope for hours tediously drawing faint fuzzies. Why draw, and write down details by hand, when you can take a picture and keep track of details with your massive computer database? And I thought they were nuts to spend so much time sitting around waiting for cameras and not even get to see things with your own eyes. The internet already has all the pretty pictures you could want...

Neither approach is "better"; hobbies are just about obsessively honing something, whether its visual observing skills and a collection of recorded observations, or deep-space photography. Whatever floats your boat. I hope to get into photography eventually as well, for the technical challenge and learning experience, but right now that kind of things is outside my budget.

The important thing is that all of us were motivated by the same things. We love the sky, the vastness of the universe, the beauty of cosmological creation and destruction, the challenge of the pursuit, and yes the multitude of OCD-requiring tasks like polar alignment and cleaning eyepieces. It all goes together in one incredibly fun, rewarding pastime. How many professional astronomers can say that? Most of them can't remember more context than their current half a megapixel of data they had no personal hand in creating.

Friday, July 9, 2010


Robin Hanson says "Among humans, we mourn teen deaths the most, and baby and elderly deaths the least; we know that teen deaths represent the greatest loss of past investment and future gains." I agree with that intellectually, but I think he is severely projecting if he thinks this is a common belief or the gut reaction.

There are all kinds of situations that make it clear, rationally, that the members of society that both have been fully invested in (educated) and who have the most time and potential to be useful to society (smart, hard-working 20 year olds) are the ones that should first be saved, from a utilitarian perspective. When resources are scarce, that choice is obvious. If a boat crashes on a desert island, young adult males are clearly the indispensable ones. Many Chinese parents, bound by poverty and the one-child law, selectively abort girls because they are less able to support them in their old age. When forced to think of things in unemotional, disassociated terms, such as "who would you save if you could keep 100 people from dying in worldwide nuclear war", it's obvious that knowledge and reproductive capability, with long expected remaining lifespan, are important criterion.

Yet in the real world, emotion trumps rationality. Crimes against small children are considered much more tragic (we have a strong gut reaction towards crimes against helpless, innocent victims) than war violence among 20 year old soldiers. On the Titanic, women and children had priority in the lifeboats. Kidnapped children dominate the news vastly more than kidnapped college students in Brazil. We definitely do not mourn deaths of teenagers more than of kindergardeners. But we should, all else equal.

Ok I guess there wasn't much of a point to that rambling, but it really caught me by surprise to read a concept, which I have long believed but thought was a fringe-ish idea, stated as a mundane social norm. I mean, if you're going to murder someone, it's better to kill a baby or elderly person than an innocent young adult. Infanticide isn't that big a deal compared to a lot of other types of violence, but you can't really get away with saying things like that, and that's precisely because it's not the average human reaction.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Mass of Incandescent Gas

At astronomy camp in 2000 and 2001, the camp director, Don McCarthy, played a song about the sun by a guy with a corny old-time style, and we sang it nearly incessantly for 9 days. When I got back, I tried desperately to find a copy of the tape, and downloaded at least 30 versions on the early days of P2P networks, all of which turned out to be the cover version by They Might Be Giants (which is horrible, imo.) Months of searching led nowhere. I couldn't find who wrote it, who sang it, when it was recorded, nothing.

A couple days ago, while planning my solar filter construction, it popped into my head again. Five minutes later I had the whole CD downloaded: Tom Glazer and Dottie Evans performing "Why Does the Sun Shine" on the 1965 album Space Songs, part of the Singing Science series.

I love the internet.

And now for your listening pleasure (and scientific edification, in case you missed second grade), Why Does the Sun Shine:

Friday, July 2, 2010

legal paranoia

Yesterday I went to a telescope store to buy a sheet of astrosolar safety film, to use to make solar filters for my telescope and binoculars. The materials to make them would cost only $30, to buy them ready-made would cost several hundred, so the choice is obvious. Of course, since glimpsing the sun through a telescope will instantly blind you, extreme care has to be taken when constructing and maintaining one of these filters. But this is nothing that a minimal level of common sense and attention to detail can't handle.

Yet when I asked for a sheet of this stuff, the store manager said "We've had to stop carrying it in our stores. You obviously know what you're doing, but frankly, most people are idiots, and we can't risk being sued if someone uses our products incorrectly and ends up blind." I had to special order it on the internet. Thank god for the internet: 15 years ago I'd be SOL.

The fear of being sued is destroying the organic, creative, diverse, dynamic, energetic nature of life in America. How can you live and explore at full capacity when you're walking on legal pins and needles every step of the way?

What do we have to do, require every customer to sign a release of liability form for use of their purchases, every visitor to agree not to sue for any accidental or probabilistically self-inflicted injury attained while on our property? "Use at your own risk" labels on everything? Not only would this be an undesirable state of affairs in incidents where the manufacturer is justly to blame, but they probably wouldn't hold up legally anyway (for that very reason.) Why is common sense so hard to incorporate into law?

Oh how I wish the American West were still the wild, lawless place of decades past. Except for the wild lawlessness of it all, of course...