Foibles in Finding Fault

ABC-15, Phoenix, via Associated Press

A driverless car hit a woman who was walking her bicycle across a street at night. Numerous articles, some less useful than others, but also some more helpful to a better understanding, describe this incident. For example, in order of increasing technical detail,

Police In Arizona Release Dashcam Video Of Fatal Crash Involving Self-Driving Car

Self-Driving Uber Car Kills Pedestrian in Arizona, Where Robots Roam

How a Self-Driving Uber Killed a Pedestrian in Arizona

Uber Self-Driving Car Fatality Reveals the Technology’s Blind Spots

I have tried to find articles that do not center on or advance irresponsible histrionics, egregious ideological bias, or insulting, simplistic thinking. Critical thinking matters, especially when people’s lives are at stake.

Given the infancy of driverless vehicle technology, how significant is this incident? All knowledgeable observers have been expecting, and dreading, that something like this would happen. Now that it has, how do we put this in a context that makes sense? That is helpful? That is at least somewhat productive for society? Certainly, snap judgments and scapegoating are the opposite. So let’s first consider a few facts.

According to the CDC, in 2015 (latest official U.S. mortality data) the lower bound on the number of pedestrians killed by people-driven cars was 5,719. Another 17,008 were killed by ‘unspecified’ means involving motor vehicles, so the real number is probably higher than 5,719. Another 8313 vehicle occupants died in accidents, cars killed 4,431 motorcyclists, 675 bicyclists, and 15 ‘other’. Of necessity, those are all lower bounds as well. The total number of motor vehicle deaths in the U.S. in 2015 was therefore 36,161. Further, 94% of traffic accidents are due to human error (i.e., insufficiently sound judgment).

However, the number of driverless cars on the road is as yet statistically minuscule, and the miles driven under realistic circumstances even more statistically minuscule. So any direct comparison is invalid in the absence of substantially further data and more discriminating data measures (such as number of fatal accidents per mile driven) with which to compare. The significance of this incident, for now, lies elsewhere.

In the immediate aftermath of this unfortunate and terrible accident, many of us have several questions in common: what might have gone wrong? Where should we look for correctable fault? With whom should we lay blame? Is attempting to lay blame on someone even useful, to anybody? I would argue that the answer to that last question, at least, is easy and should be obvious: no. The situation is complicated in several arenas (technical, political, psychological, among probably others), with many confounding factors. So, based on experience if nothing else, we know it is likely there are no easy or quick answers. Certainly, simplistic thinking is neither productive nor beneficial.

With regard to the political context…. As so often has happened in the past couple of decades, we could again be looking at the sad, unnecessary consequences of conservative values enacted as irresponsible and reckless public policy: private profits tend to matter more than people’s lives. But that is an entirely separate, infuriating, and thoroughly expletive-laden subject. Here, let us choose not to go there.

With regard to sensors, the Wikipedia article on driverless cars sheds some light but, surprisingly, not much:

Typical sensors include lidar, stereo vision, GPS and IMU.[42] Visual object recognition uses machine vision including neural networks.

The last two journalistic articles linked above are more helpful. In this context, “vision” can mean optical or infrared or both (and/or even some other wavelength range, such as radar). I would have been utterly shocked if these systems did not use both IR and optical sensors. It’d surely be the height of both stupidity and irresponsibility if they did not. It is worth pointing out that engineers are not stupid, and rarely irresponsible, while corporate upper management sometimes is — and politicians almost certainly can be counted on being — both stupid and the epitome of irresponsibility. Given the current apparently poor regulation in this area, I suppose stupidity and irresponsibility are therefore potentially viable likelihoods, despite the no doubt multiple layers of safety protocols that smart people, down at the technical levels inside the companies, have nevertheless managed to put in place despite upper-level idiots (if any).

If this particular car was outfitted with both visible and IR sensors (lidar would necessarily be IR in this context), then the fault must be either 1) with the chosen sensor sensitivities, the chosen sensor ranges, or the chosen sensor fields of view, or some combination thereof; or 2) within the AI decision assessment of the filtered and cleaned input signals; or 3) some combination of both. That’s it; those are the options. Yes, it’s complicated.

(I’m assuming there was not a sensor failure, which would be both a manufacturing testing and reliability fault as well as a redundancy failure in the design. This is a different topic I won’t address here, but at this point it’s also a possibility.)

Indeed, as we learn from the articles above, this vehicle used optical, IR, and radar sensors, as one would reasonably and correctly think should be the case. Whether or not the production design had been recklessly limited to just optical wavelengths — I find it unthinkably unlikely that any significant U.S. company would be that self-destructively reckless, but suppose so anyway — then you must arguably add, and otherwise could reasonably add, a fourth potential likelihood: the fault lies foremost with a cost/safety trade-off decision or series of decisions that some fucking idiot in a position of overriding power might have made — undoubtedly (if this even happened) over the vehement objections of the design engineers and other technical experts. Trade off decisions are ultimately subjective assessments, whether wisely made or not, therefore a thick morass of difficulties and ambiguities. (As an aside, optical-only would be, and many other potential technical shortcomings could be, a direct consequence of allowing privatization in the absence of regulation of technological advances, in spite of all the obvious public risks. Ayn Rand was a fucktard and an awful human.)

But here’s the point I wish to make: either way, the woman who was struck and killed was NOT at fault, no matter how careless or distracted she may or may not have been in that terrible moment. Keep in mind that we can never really know her state of mind or level of distractedness anyway. The available data are insufficient for attempting any such assessment, even if it could have been useful (it is not). But even so that judgment, however tempting for some people when emotions run high, is not relevant. In addition, it is not relevant that she was not at a cross walk; those exist to primarily to counter (or, rather, partly contain) human driver error. Nor is it relevant that it was dark instead of broad daylight: a paucity of optical photons does not affect two of the three sensor wavelength ranges, while optical sensors that are extremely sensitive at low light levels are a well-established and inexpensive technology. It even is not relevant that the safety driver was provably distracted and then failed to react and take control. None of these are relevant if a fatal fault lies further up the precedence hierarchy.

I watched the video clip of the incident, compiled from on-board optical cameras, several times. It is crystal clear to me that this accident should never have happened, because first and foremost something either is or went wrong (or is at least insufficiently comprehensive, therefore still wrong) with the sensor design, or the sensor data analysis software (this is where noise filtering takes place), or the software decision module (the machine learning and AI part), or — and this I think is most likely — some combination of those. Even if every reasonable precaution had been allowed — and we all know that every precaution engineers deemed necessary and reasonable very likely was not allowed, for a variety of reasons (some good, some bad) — this still is where the fault lies that we should all care most about right now. It is a complex system operating in a complex, time-variable setting, and somewhere therein lies a problem, a bug, or an oversight that unambiguously takes precedence over whatever may or may not have been happening with that poor, tragically unlucky woman.

We don’t know yet what, exactly, happened. But we know where we should be looking. It behooves all of us — society — to allow unhindered gathering of all possibly relevant data around the event and give the experts the access, resources, and time that, according to them, they need to hunt down the real cause and find ways to fix it. The technical problem, wherever it lies, is the only valid first priority. Setting up red herrings (“it’s her fault!”, “no, it’s Uber’s fault!”, “no, it’s capitalism’s fault!”, “no, it’s the idiot Arizona legislators’ faults for once again valuing corporate profit over human lives!”, etc.) only uselessly distracts from — and maybe even will prevent — tracking down the technical problem.

Complex systems can behave in unexpected ways. Probably several things — perhaps even each one innocuous in isolation — had to combine for this accident to have happened. It is likely every single-fault failure mode was identified and mitigated by the design and test engineers. Those failure points are relatively straightforward to deal with, and, again, engineers are far from stupid. However, multiple chained events leading to unexpected, even unpredictable, behavior in a complex system can be extremely difficult and time-consuming to debug, both before and after the fact — especially in the presence of insufficient testing or design resources. This is every engineer’s absolute, hands down, most disturbing nightmare. It is THE thing that keeps engineers up at night.

Yet even if every conceivable precaution had been (allowed to be) taken, dependent multimode failures can and do still happen anyway. It is inherent in the very natures of technological advance and sophisticated systems.

Sometimes, nobody is to blame.

The best anybody can ever do — and therefore the most anybody can ever ask — is to implement every reasonably knowable precaution and perform every reasonably knowable relevant test, and iterate sufficiently many of these design-test-correct cycles to satisfy everyone’s most important misgivings, in order to ferret out all (you hope) of the important gotchas you undoubtedly didn’t or couldn’t, for whatever reasons, think of beforehand. Even then, surprising shit will happen. To further compound things, in the real world you very rarely (as in: never) can afford to fully implement these to everybody’s satisfaction, which just makes bad unexpected events all the more unavoidably likely.

Nobody wants it to happen, or even to be a possibility, but bad shit is very likely going to happen no matter what. You do your best — and, even in the real world, almost everybody in this line of work does — given the current context, available knowledge, and available resources, and you hope that you’ve managed to mitigate the severity of the consequences of the inevitable but unpredictable bad things to a sufficient extent that in the end you have navigated this unavoidable minefield without anybody getting hurt or killed.

That didn’t happen, this time. But nobody should be surprised. Nor should anybody be at all quick in pronouncing — nor is anybody entitled to pronounce — ill-informed judgments.

This is the way it is. You learn from the problems that, despite all your efforts, hit you, you fix them, you become wiser (if more saddened), and you move on. My dad was an aircraft flight test instrumentation engineer, so I grew up seeing him and his friends live this process, several times. Please believe me when I say nothing is more inexpressibly horrible, nor more dreaded, nor more devastating, for any engineer to have to live through — and continue to live with — than somebody getting killed. But it happens. Sometimes, nobody is to blame.

Facts Matter: We Know Why Only the U.S. Suffers Frequent Mass Shootings

An abandoned AR-15 assault weapon, congealed victim blood, and empty sandals. July 20, 2012, mass shooting, Aurora, Colorado. (photo credit: AP)

For the umpteen-gazillionth time, here is a known fact: America has more mass shootings — more gun murders — than any other country on Earth, because America has more guns per person than any other country on Earth[3,6,8,11,10,12,13,15]. Our mass shootings problem is not due to any other factor.

It really is this straightforward: more guns, more gun murders; fewer guns, fewer gun murders.

This uniquely American obscenity — frequent mass shootings — is not related to mental illness. The rates of mental illness in the U.S. do not differ from those of other nations[2,11]. It is not related to crime rate. The U.S. is not more prone to crime than other developed countries[6,11,13,17]. It is not related to racial diversity issues. Pointedly, in this era of blatant self-serving liars infesting our nation’s statehouses, Congress, and the White House, America’s gun problem is not related to immigration[4,7,14]. Every study that examines this has found that recent immigrants — documented or not — are less prone to violent crime. Our gun problem is also not related to video games[5]. It is none of these things, nor is it primarily due to anything else. America is suffering a disastrous public health problem[16], and we have long known how to substantially reduce it[1,11]. The largest causative factor for mass killings is simply this: the number of guns. More guns, more gun murders.

A corollary of this fact is inescapable: reducing the rate of gun ownership reduces the rate of gun murders. The relation is clean, and its interpretation is unambiguous[11].

Every other developed nation on Earth has already not just discovered this but has acted upon it to protect and to better their own societies — and it has, with no exceptions, worked. Further, every evidence-based, peer-reviewed study of this relation has verified that the relation is causal — that it is factually true.

More guns, more gun murders.

What about mass killing lethality — the body count per mass shooting? This is not directly related to the question we’re examining here of why we, alone among all nations, have so many mass killings. But any discussion of mass killings in America would be remiss if it did not point out that the death toll from our daily rate of mass shootings — 347 in calendar 2017, for example[9] — is as high as it is not just because of the frequency of mass shootings but also because of the nearly unrestricted lethality of our readily available weaponry:

In my large file of mass murders, if you look decade by decade, the numbers of victims are fairly small up until the 1960s. That’s when the deaths start going way up. When the AK-47s and the Kalashnikovs and the Uzis — all these semiautomatic weapons, when they became so easily accessible.
— Dr. Michael Stone, forensic psychiatrist, Columbia University[2]

(Emphasis mine.) Ready availability of guns is the American Problem. The unjustifiable, immoral lethality of automatic and semi-automatic weaponry that is so easily available to Americans greatly compounds this American Problem of mass shootings.

Another notable difference about the U.S. and guns is this: America, along with only two other countries in the world (Guatemala and Mexico), adopts a most peculiar stance — an attitude that has proven to have been horrifically corrosive to American society. Alone from all others, we think that gun ownership — a priori, with no justification — is an inalienable right that stands alongside such real inalienable rights as life, liberty, equality, freedom of thought, and the freedom to pursue one’s own happiness.

This “right” to unrestricted ownership and use of firearms, this uniquely American intellectual and cultural obscenity, is the polar opposite of the rest of the world’s view, which concludes that gun ownership is a privilege we must first earn by tested demonstration of knowledge and responsibly competent behavior. To compound our error, American gun advocates erroneously — dishonestly — base our “right” on the willful truncation and misinterpretation of an antiquated second amendment that is merely an anachronism, irrelevant to any modern society. Perhaps the worst error of all is that we as a society reliably fail to call out this immoral stance on its (absence of) merits, this corrosive posturing of willing simpletons.

The resulting difference and its consequence — an unfortunate but inescapable conclusion — between us and nearly everybody else in the world? Between our culture on guns and almost everybody else’s culture on guns? The result is this: America deems senseless slaughter and mass murder, even of children in their classrooms, acceptable — a worthwhile price, dead bodies as tokens of our “freedom”. The slaughter of innocents is of less consequence than being able to own a lethal firearm with few to no constraints and with no more legal, ethical, or moral justification than merest whim.

This is worth repeating, to give the horror of it more time to sink in: In America, we view as acceptable the routine, senseless slaughter and mass murder of innocentsIn America, mass-murder rampages, enormous numbers of shattered, blood-soaked bodies, are of less concern to us than being able to own lethal firearms under few to no constraints, and with no more justification for ownership than thoughtless fancy. Does this conclusion shock you? Does it strike you as shrieking hyperbole? Yet it is an inescapable logical result that directly follows from valid, evidence-based premises. Mass murder is an okay trade for idle gun ownership.

More guns, more gun murders; fewer guns, fewer gun murders. This relation is not just common sense, nor does its validity stop at correlation. It is established fact[10]. But many, especially among the ideological right, actively deny this fact, or they willfully ignore it (which is the same as denial), and they frequently throw an infantile fit whenever their proven wrong stance is called out on the facts (this is a particularly immature form of denial). Besides being fallacious logic, this behavior — denial — no matter how vociferous or “sincerely felt”, does not alter the facts, does not change the truth. Nor does denial alter what these facts tell us about the hideous visage that is modern American gun culture. Nor — tellingly — does it change what the facts imply about the moral character of those who willingly choose to bury their heads in the dirt of denial.

To deny verified truth is to be in the wrong — in both senses of that word. It is wrong not only on the facts themselves, but, according to traditional American values — above all, honesty — it is morally wrong. If you deny established truth, your values are incompatible with foundational American values that real Americans all hold dear — those very same values that once had made America the envy of the world, that once had made America a great nation. Due to our enduring, stubborn denial of evidence and truth, we have made of ourselves and our nation a fallen, sad laughing-stock.

It is often said that the root of all evil is the love of money[19]. But one of the hallmarks of the greedy and the avaricious is dishonesty; greedy people always utilize dishonesty to get more wealth. Another hallmark of greed is denial of reality. To be a greedy bastard is to dishonestly deny that societal needs, that the suffering of other people, matter if one is to count oneself a moral and ethical being. Greed and denial both are incompatible with morality and with ethics. Further, to exist, greed and denial both need dishonesty.

Since dishonesty is a prerequisite for greed, dishonesty is the more fundamental characteristic. More broadly, one cannot help but notice that a core requirement for every kind of evil — not just greed — is dishonesty. Dishonesty is the universal common element of evil — the seed from which all evil grows. It is little wonder that dishonesty plays so central a role in the mythologies of every culture. In the third chapter of Genesis, for example, the serpent’s lie — dishonesty — instigates the Fall of Man[18].

So I would point out that the root of all evil is not love of money, not greed and avarice, but dishonesty. As an aside, this is precisely why the very most abhorrent, most reviled character trait in all of science — ask any scientist — is dishonesty. We can conclude, then, that one of the most loathsome human characteristics to find within oneself is dishonesty.

Now that this horse has been sufficiently flogged, we can better appreciate the weight of the moral implication of this statement: if, upon learning that you are factually wrong, you still choose, for whatever reason, to continue to ignore and/or deny the established facts, then you are dishonest. This is a disconcerting result.

More guns, more gun murders.

If you know someone among the reality deniers — the dishonorable and unprincipled — regarding this uniquely American of problems, then you know that something is wrong with where their head is at. Assuming they are a normal human being capable of introspection, this wrongness, you would think, should cause them to fundamentally question why they feel such a need to deny reality. But it is a defining and quite stubborn characteristic of a person in denial to not question the sources of their denial. Therein lies the rub.

We should be clear that in this case complicating factors are not a valid excuse. Studies have repeatedly shown that one of the most consequential facts of the American Problem is a simple and robust relation, one that is also perfectly in line with the most basic of “common” sense. Nothing about it is unintuitive. As with anything in the real world, there are complications, confounding factors. But all known confounding factors have been proven minor with respect to this simple relation. More guns, more gun murders; fewer guns, fewer gun murders. No complicating factor changes this relation; the evidence shows that it is solid — what scientists call robust. So one does not get to hide behind diversions, red herrings — dishonest changes of subject. And we should not allow them to.

For the good of the country we all care about, and for the good of those close to us, as well as for ourselves — we all have to face this at some point, to ask ourselves this question: where does our denial come from? What is it based on? Somebody else’s dishonest information, perhaps? Ideological bias? What are we actually basing our stance on? Only we, within the quiet of our own selves, can answer this. And once we have discovered it, we must ask ourselves this: does our answer — our truth — sit well with our conscience?

[1] Beauchamp, Z. (2016), “A huge international study of gun control finds strong evidence that it actually works” , Vox, February 29, 2016.

[2] Carey, B. (2017), “Are Mass Murderers Insane? Usually Not, Researchers Say” , The New York Times, November 8, 2017.

[3] Chalabi, M. (2012), “Gun homicides and gun ownership listed by country” , The Guardian, July 22, 2012.

[4] Chattanooga, W.W. (2015), “Not here to cause trouble” , The Economist, July 10, 2015.

[5] Fisher, M. (2012), “Ten-country comparison suggests there’s little or no link between video games and gun murders” , The Washington Post, December 17, 2012.

[6] Fisher, M., and Keller, J. (2017), “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings?” , The New York Times, November 7, 2017.

[7] Florida, R. (2011), “The Geography of Gun Deaths” , The Atlantic, January 13, 2011.

[8] Gilson, D. (2013), “10 Pro-Gun Myths, Shot Down” , Mother Jones, January 31, 2013.

[9] Gun Violence Archive.

[10] Lankford, A. (2015), “Are America’s public mass shooters unique? A comparative analysis of offenders in the United States and other countries” , International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 40, 171-183. PDF available here:

[11] Lopez, G. (2018), “I’ve covered gun violence for years. The solutions aren’t a big mystery.” , Vox, February 21, 2018.

[12] Lopez, G. (2017), “America’s unique gun violence problem, explained in 17 maps and charts” , Vox, October 2, 2017.

[13] Lopez, G. (2015), “America’s gun problem, explained” , Vox, October 3, 2015.

[14] Nowrasteh, A. (2015), “Immigration and Crime – What the Research Says” , Cato Institute, July 14, 2015.

[15] Willingham, A.J., and Ahmed, S. (2016), “Mass shootings in America are a serious problem” , CNN, June 13, 2016.

[16] Zhang, S. (2018), “Why Can’t the U.S. Treat Gun Violence as a Public-Health Problem?” , The Atlantic, February 15, 2018.

[17] Zimring, F.E., and Hawkins, G. (1997), Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America, Oxford University Press.

[18] Genesis 3:1-5 (KJV):

Now the serpent was more subtil [sic] than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

[19] 1 Timothy 6:10 (KJV):

For the love of money is the root of all evil…

cretins, fucktards(*), and liars

Benjamin Torode / Getty Images

Trigger warning: I am about to use facts. If you are a conservative, the following will be foreign to your way of thinking and therefore will induce apoplexy. You should probably stop reading NOW.

Looky there, my pay check has changes, as promised! Trump and the Republicans have been incessantly, obsessively, and noisily claiming that we, the 99 percent, will see real benefits, as a result of Republican changes to Obama-era public policy, in three major economic areas that loom large for us, the 99 percent: salary, federal taxes, and health insurance premiums. Let’s call them on their fakery and see just how these stack up when we consider the facts of a typical upper middle class case.

  • I got a pay raise! Due to a purported “cost of living” increase, my (civil servant) salary went up by 1.68%. But inflation in 2017 was 2.1%. Result: my new pay rate, in constant money (2017 dollars), is smaller by 0.41%, meaning I make $17.43 less per biweekly pay check than before.
  • My federal taxes changed! Oh, gee, it looks nothing like what Trash Trump and the Robber Republicans have trumpeted, since I am a member of the 99 percent. Result: as a proportion of my salary, my federal tax rate went up by 0.18%.
  • My health insurance rate changed! Surprise, surprise, it went up. In 2017, my biweekly premium was $240.77 (or 5.6 percent of my 2017 salary). The 2018 premium is $257.81 (or 5.9 percent of my 2018 salary). In 2017 dollars, that’s $252.51. So my health insurance rate went up by (252.51-240.77)/240.77 = 5.48 percent in constant dollars, which is par for what others like me have seen.

The upshot: the net change of my biweekly income due to these three factors — salary, federal taxes, health insurance — expressed in 2017 dollars, is a decrease of $35.01. This is a 2017 salary fractional decrease of 1.0 percent. So, where are my promised “real benefits” due to Republican policy changes from the Obama era?

Gee, thanks, Trash Trump and Robber Republicans, you cretins, fucktards(*), and liars. Every one of your claims and bragging points is FALSE. As is always the case with you. You are liars. You are never not liars. Did you really think we would somehow fail to notice your trademark fraud, mendacity, and trumpery?

As my (Republican) dad would have put it, you bet your sweet bippy I will remember this — and your uncountable(**) earlier and ongoing cretinous acts against the American people — come November.

(*) fucktard (noun): A person of unbelievable, inexcusable, and indescribable stupidity (stupidity being defined as “knowing better yet doing it wrong anyway”). Note: a character trait, not a physical or physiological defect or shortcoming.

(**) uncountable (adjective): said of a set which has more elements than the set of integers.

My Dear Moore Letter

Hey, Roy Moore,

Here are the numbers (WaPo, NYT, and all manner of Fake News):


You lost. It was not a fair contest, since you Republicans prevented thousands upon thousands of those people from exercising their constitutional right to vote. Even so, you lost.

Not so fast, you say? Okay, sure. I can be all lawyery and numbery and elitist and argue totally for you and see where that gets us. This will prove you won, as is only right and fair and just, right? Well, no, but what the hey, I haven’t had my morning covfefe yet, so here we go.

Blanket Declaration*:

Now, let’s just declare, up front and all obvious-like, that ALL assumptions below are true and in your favor. You might have won after all! (Finally got your attention, didn’t I?)

* That means this is important for you to remember, Roy.

The military votes have yet to be counted. But, taking the tallied votes as reported by 100% of precincts, which is the overwhelming majority of possible legal votes, 49.92% voted for Jones, 48.38% voted for the asshole and child molester—for a difference of 1.54%—and 1.70% threw their vote away in justifiable disgust. A result that differs by 0.5% or less triggers a recount.

Guess what, Roy? You can’t guess? Here, I’ll make it easy: 1.54 is bigger than 0.5—in anybody’s version of reality, including even your magical Land of Nod.

Let’s try another way to view it, which I know is familiar to you and which even someone like you might grok: I believe in my heart of hearts—my heart of hearts, Roy!—that the simple, second-grade math above is true. So, therefore, it is true: you lost. There, does that convince you?

There’s wiggle room!, you say. Well, I’m pretty sure I heard something like that somewhere in your spittle-flinging ranting. Okay—we’re now going to start using the blanket declaration above—suppose ALL of the eligible military voters sent in ballots, and further suppose that ALL of those ballots are valid, and, even further, suppose ALL of those valid ballots were cast for you, the pedophile. Then we have 49.60% for Jones, 48.71% for the Alabamer prevert, and 1.69% for legitimate disgust. 49.60 minus 48.71 is 0.89, which in anybody’s version of reality is also bigger than 0.5. You still lost.

But wait, there could be more, Mr. Moore! (I figure you could never actually think, never mind think of this next possibility all by your widdle sewf, but hey, I’m a nice guy, capable of empathy (I know that word is alien to your kind, but bear with me here), and you’re pitifully pathetic even for a Republican, so here, this is me helping you out.) Suppose, after election officials—granted, election officials work for the evil gubment, so they’re pinko commie socialists committed to restoration of the Great Conspiracy—suppose all of them see the Light of your Righteous Cause and examine each write-in ballot and “discover” that, to everybody’s shock, the ballots are ALL valid, and that they are ALL for Moore the Misogynist. Let’s further suppose, as before, that ALL eligible military voted, ALL those ballots are also one hundred percent valid, and ALL are for precioussss little you.

The probability of this is not significantly different from zero, but let’s suppose all of it is true anyway, since you believe in miracles. Yes, I know, you don’t know what those big therefore bad and evil words mean, so you hatesss them, you do—trust me, that’s okay, I know you’d ignore the concept even if the words consisted of just monosyllabic grunts, your native language. Anyway, the tally then would be 49.60% for Jones and 50.40% for you Mr. Monster! That differs by 0.80%, which is again bigger than 0.5%, but this time it’s in your favor!

Yay! You win! You win!

Just kidding—you know every bit as well as the rest of us that you lost. As is true for everybody of your mental-midget ilk (that means people like you), you’re a shitty liar.

You’re welcome anyway to wait for the secret agent socialist election officials to examine the write-in ballots, and for that commie USPS to finish delivering the military ballots to the secret agents for tallying, and see if all those improbable things above come true. I have lots of popcorn, and I’m pretty sure everybody else does, too, so we’re all good with that.

Those impossible things won’t happen, though. Sorry-not-sorry, but miracles don’t exist. Reality does. So suck it up and be a Marlboro Man, asshole: you lost. As even Mike Huckabee—Mike Huckabee—said this morning,

“In elections everyone does NOT get a trophy.”

See those quotation marks? That means Huckabee really did write that.

Now, about that miracle recount for which you still insist on throwing a tantrum. Do you even grasp, yet, how dull-witted and infantile this makes you look? No, of course you don’t. Privation of even minimal cognition and mental agility is your problem. (Your therapist can explain this to you.) As mentioned, you don’t qualify for an automatic recount on the taxpayer’s dime. But you could still pay for a recount out of your own pocket, right? People have done that, and you can, too, right? Especially since you’ve been wronged—wronged, how dare they!

Well . . . WRONG, dude. You were seeking federal office. That matters in Alabama. You don’t get to demand a recount for a margin greater than 0.5%, even if you could convince some idiot to pay for it for you (assuming that’s even legal—but remember the blanket declaration at the top of this letter). Alabama state law says this, and it’s crystal clear on the matter. If you have any groveling flunkies left, get one to look it up for you.

You lost. Grow up.

Red, White, and Green, and the Children Scream, and it is Impossible to Breathe

Here is one man’s poem. His poetry is not easy to listen to. It is poetry, which means shining a light on uncomfortable things, dark things, things which are hard to look at. But we are human, most of us, and so we look, and listen — as we must.

In the words of Nick Laird at the Guardian, poetry . . . “lets you – it makes you – experience in words the feelings of others. And then it makes you do it again.”

In the words of JFK (who was assassinated three weeks later), “When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment.”

JFK’s speech at Amherst led Johnson to establish the NEA two years later. Which conservatives, being among other things profoundly uncomfortable with truth, have been trying to kill ever since.

Nothing ever changes, does it?

If you’re not squirming, or crying, or ashamed, or raging during this, this is how you can know that you are a dead thing.

Further Reading

JFK’s speech at Amherst College, October 26, 1963.

Listen to JFK’s speech.

Nick Laird: Why poetry is the perfect weapon to fight Donald Trump

National Endowment for the Arts


A Physicist Contemplates Training Wheels

Motion catches the corner of my eye. Look up. Over there, beyond Spike the cat on his high perch, out the front window, past the rough-barked pine trees. A little girl struggles to get her bicycle going again. It is an impossible bright pink, with incongruous black rims and stout black spokes. Pink helmet, blue-jeans shorts and sneakers, a pink shirt with a pattern I can’t quite make out, probably animals. She pushes and shoves, single-minded, her entire world encompassed by this instant, realigns with the center of her sidewalk highway, and is on her way again, oddly upright. She is gone before I figure out the oddness plucking tunelessly at the back of my mind: her winged Pegasus, pink bike with the black rims and thick spokes, has training wheels.

A minute or two later a couple strolls by, chatting and laughing quietly, comfortable with their daughter on the fluorescent bicycle roaming her sidewalk highway in search of adventures. He is tall—very tall, I realize—dark-haired and relaxed and fills an oversized baggy white shirt and oversized baggy blue gym shorts. She is short, dark-complexioned as well, with long Mesoamerican black hair flowing down a relaxed back over a shapeless baggy garment of muted earthen colors. Her being animates the facial features of a woman from a Central American country, a newborn swaddled to her chest. He laughs again. Whatever world they inhabit in this moment, it seems pleasant—fitting for a quiet mountain neighborhood on this sunny, breezy, unexpectedly warm and easygoing March day. Sharp contrast to the cold hardness and wantonly inflicted greed newly risen from a vat of putrescent bile left simmering in the underbelly of our country.

I can’t help but smile in response to a brief respite in this couple’s welcoming sunny bubble, even at a distance. Vicarious pleasure is still pleasure; escape is sometimes necessary. After perusing the news after telling myself that I would not peruse the news, which seems always horrific in this dank hegemony, seeing the chatting and laughing couple is a surprising if welcome balm, a salve for psychic ills and the hurt billowing across the world.

A study in contrasts, this, but a common theme emerges: disposition emanates and infects, whether one realizes it or not. I think of my leaden, lowering demeanor this morning, then of their easy laughter. I am glad that they can infect me, and not I them, in this chance one-way encounter. We humans are a spongy mirror, the physicist’s black body, absorbing and re-emitting packets of dark or light that happen to intersect our surface—venom or laughter, pain or comfort, bigotry or celebration.


But do we create? Can we create? To what extent do we have a choice? If all of us absorb and reflect, then what is the source of the light, what is the source of the dark, these quantized carriers of sadness and joy that scatter through our society, random-walking among neighbors, among couples, among children riding pink steeds along narrow weathered-cement roadways?

It dawns on me that this chatting and laughing couple, this reflection of what is, or can be, right in the realm, is the essence of resistance—resistance to the advancing wave of hard dark bone-seeping cold things, predatory denizens swimming a fouled and murky miasma, this newly-erupted, unwelcoming abyss. This couple and their fleet daughter, emitters of packets of wonder and humanity, whatever their origins, are what saves us. Hold on to this and do not let go, I say to myself, however violent and turbulent the buffetings to come.

I wonder if they are new to the neighborhood. Two world lines intersecting defines a point in space and time, a before and an after, that changes both in the instant, in the mystery, of interaction. Perhaps we will cross walking paths. I think I would like that. Perhaps, even, the training wheels will be off.

Further reading

“Black Body”, Wikipedia,

“Quantum”, Wikipedia,

“Sunlight Is Way Older Than You Think!”, Sten Odenwald, The Huffington Post (2014),

“World Line”, Wikipedia,

“Overview of the fundamental interactions”, Wikipedia,


On Conservative “Governance”


Maternal mortality rates in Texas, 2000-2014 (click to enlarge)

Maternal mortality rates in Texas. What happened in 2010-2012? One theory is that the coincidence of the nearly doubling of the death rate of women giving birth with the mass statewide closing of health clinics due to targeted budget annihilation by Republicans is more than mere coincidence. The range of effects is slightly more complicated than simple-minded black-and-white thinking will yield, but it is plausible, seems likely, in fact, that this single act of what can only be called hatred caused a predictable panoply of health-related domino effects that killed—and are still killing—women for no reason other than ideological bigotry, misogyny, and spite. This theory has not been conclusively proven.

There are no other theories.

This is your country. This is your country on Republicans. Any questions?


more info:

And They’re Fluffy: an Ode to Modern Air Travel

Other than the airports; the TSA ding-dongs, dipshits, and assorted knuckle-draggers, wannabe-thugs; the doltingly stupid “security”-theater rules invented by bitter assholes who’ve nothing better to do all day than find even more pointless, inane ways to make people miserable; the noisy, milling mass of yabber yabbers polluting gate areas with their meaningless babble at full volume always full volume; the humanity, oh, the humanity; the FUCKING TVs that nobody ever actually watches and that have metastasized to every gate area and whose volume controls are now shielded from both generations of my TV-B-Gone TV volume zappers; the people who stand still on the left, on the right, and in the center of every moving walkway; the goddamned “caution! the walkway is ending!” bullshit that repetitively exists only in America, Land of Idiots (as if we needed yet more evidence that lawyers are evil); the shitty-smelling air on more airplanes than not, especially Alaska Airlines for some reason even though in every other respect Alaska Airlines is AWESOME; the wretch-inducing smell emanating from my seatmate’s smushed oozing pale vomitous lump that she sheepishly calls a sandwich which I can’t get mad about because she’s a nice person, one of the few pleasant persons on-board, and it’s the punishing absence of actual food on planes that forces her and everybody else to smuggle foodstuffs that roil with microbes—always odoriferous microbes—due to the unanticipated lines, waits, and delays, mostly from TSA pointlessness; having to dislocate hips and knees in order to fold my body into “seats” (that’s what they call them) that are uniformly shaped to cut off circulation from mid-thighs down no matter your height or contortions or body proportions, that cruelly prevent any form of sleep or rest, and that cause at least three herniated disks PER FLIGHT; the invariable blaring glaring walking shouting banal advertisements for birth control that are wholly incapable of instilling the slightest modicum of civility or reasonable behavior in the greasy monstrous creatures they call their children; middle seats (although middle seats get a worse rap than deserved, but, still: middle seats); the ever-present very large (and, nowadays, any not-actually-petite) person who didn’t have time for a shower that day spilling over the boundaries into MY SPACE, and even though they are more than fully aware of the situation and are nervous and sweating which makes them smell worse in a recursive ouroboros of miasmatic misery and are thus helplessly far more uncomfortable than I can possibly know, so I feel guilty for even thinking about it, and even though I know neither they nor anybody else can help it because the airline wanted to fit ONE MORE fucking seat across the cabin, I still get irritated; the piercing evil-eye launched from at least four pinched faces attached to people that are pissed that I raise my window shade (on those occasions that I do manage to snag a window seat, whose window is invariably scratched, frosting, and coated with hair gel (at least I think it’s hair gel)) so I can blissfully escape and gawk at the stunning views outside, about which they seem incapable of ever being curious much less experiencing the yūgen that contemplating our universe instills; the fucking little hearing-damaged shits with their cheap crappy earbuds that fail to dampen the cacophony of their crappy nerve-scraping “music” the least little bit, at least two of which are offensively within earshot at all times; the vile urchin from hell behind you that kicks your seat for four hours solid and whose mother hurls javelins of epic mondo stink-eye (do they practice in front of mirrors?) for even the most polite, deferential, soft-spoken, and diplomatic of intimations that her little spawn of Satan might want to stop kicking my seat or else suffer sudden involuntary decapitation (flight attendants frown on avoidable messes, so, really, nobody wants that); and—the ultimate, ever-present pièce de résistance—SCREAMING BABIES, EVERYWHERE; why, other than that, I love flying. The clouds are pretty.


This is America

This is America.

Republican politicians cynically abandon every American value, values we the people—some of us—hold dear. You who voted for Donald Trump and for other high-office Republicans: you are lost, only half a step behind your callous leaders, none of whom give a damn about you.

You voted into the highest office in the land a misogynist bigot and con man, an ignorant billionaire and narcissistic pig who spent his entire life crushing people just like you, without a second’s thought.

You excuse yourself for voting for this monster, for inflicting this hideous thing on our country. You tell yourself that it’s okay because you are mad at … at … you can’t legitimately articulate what you are mad at or why, can you? You excuse yourself, but you have fooled nobody—not even yourself. Somewhere inside, you know that you have done something terrible.

You make me sick.

Look at who you have become, what you have abandoned. Look at it, and remember, over the coming weeks and months and years. Your thoughtless action identifies you with Trump, the vile putridity that he stands for, that the Republicans stand for, and has put you as far from this, our America, as is humanly possible. You own this. Read, and be ashamed for what you have done, for what you chose, for what you have become. Because this is America, and you are no longer a part of it:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

–Emma Lazarus, 1883


Thor’s Day Morning Mathematical Musings

Have you had your caffeine injection yet? Well, then, here are three puzzles (with answers, but the answers are not helpful!):

  1. Can you completely mix a mug of coffee, such that, at every point inside the mug, the coffee at that point is different after stirring from before stirring? Go get a cup of joe (or tea), stir it, and see what you think.
    Answer: no. There will always be at least one point that is the same after the liquid has settled, no matter how vigorously you stir it. It is mathematically impossible for there to be no such points inside the mug.
  2. Do there exist on the surface of the Earth, at any given time, two antipodal points that have exactly the same surface temperature?

    Answer: yes. What about two antipodal points that have exactly the same barometric pressure? Also yes. Two antipodal points that have exactly the same surface temperature and exactly the same barometric pressure? Yet again, yes. This is mathematically inescapable.‌

    antipodal points on a sphereAt any time there exists a continuous curve on the Earth’s surface on which every point has an antipodal point that also lies on the curve and that has the same temperature. There is a different continuous curve on which antipodal points have the same pressure. And the two curves must intersect, since both encircle the globe, each separating it into two pieces. So that means there must be, at any time, at least one pair of antipodal points somewhere on the surface of the Earth that have the same temperature and the same pressure.

    You’ve probably surmised by now—you drank that cup of joe, right?—that this is true not just for temperature and pressure but for any two continuously variable parameters (such as temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed, solar and terrestrial radiation, cloud ceiling, particulate density, atmospheric composition, and so on). You would be correct.
  3. Think of a multi-digit positive integer. Any such number will do—for example, $76.$ Now add up its digits and subtract that sum from the original number. $76\,- (7+6) = 63.$ Now apply this algorithm to the new number: $63\,- (6+3) = 54.$ Keep doing this until the resulting number has shrunk to just one digit. $54\,- (5+4) = 45$, $\dots, 18\,- (1+8) = 9.$

    Ta da! (Yes, really.) No matter your starting number (as long as it has more than one digit), you will always end up at $9$.

    Here is a quick and dirty python program that performs this task for any positive integer, returning the end result (which had better be nine!) and the number of iterations it took to get there:

    def digi9(n):
        count = 0
        while True:
            k = sum(list(map(int,','.join(str(n)).split(','))))
            m = n - k
            if len(str(m)) == 1:
                return m, count+1
            n = m
            count += 1

    Let’s consider an example:

    >>> digi9(72459075)

    Starting with the randomly chosen number $72,459,075$, over two million iterations later we indeed end at $\dots, 27\,-(2+7) = 18,$ $18\,- (1+8) = 9.$

How are the answers to these little puzzles so? Welcome to the world of fixed point theorems! In mathematics, a fixed point is a member of a set such that an operation on the set at that point maps back to the point. The set can be anything—the set of integers, a Euclidean line, surface, or volume, etc. This concept has wide application and profound consequences in many branches of mathematics. The above puzzles are examples of fixed points in their respective sets. Put that in your mug and stir it!

Now go get some more coffee.

Show Me!

Suppose we have a function $f(x)$ such that $f(x) \in [a,b]~~\forall~x \in [a,b]$. That is, the function maps back to its domain. Then $f(x)$ has a fixed point $f(c) = c$ somewhere in the closed interval $a \le c \le b$.

Why? Well, it must be true that

\begin{equation}f(a) \ge a~~~ \mathrm{and} ~~~f(b) \le b \label{condition}\end{equation}

The intermediate value theorem says that if a function $f(x)$ is continuous on a closed interval $[a,b]$, then, for a given $c$ such that $f(a) \le c \le f(b)$, there must exist at least one value $x_0 \in [a,b]$ such that $f(x_0) = c.$

Since the range of our function is restricted to its domain, $f([a,b]) \in [a,b]$, we have from eq. \eqref{condition} that $f(a)-a \ge 0$ and $f(b)-b \le 0.$ If we define $g(x) \equiv f(x)-x$, this is $g(a) \ge 0 \ge g(b).$ By the intermediate value theorem there must then exist a value $c \in [a,b]$ such that $g(c) = 0$. Hence, there must exist at least one fixed point, $f(c) = c.$

This—or, rather, its generalization to any Euclidean space—is essentially a statement of the Brouwer fixed point theorem:

Every continuous function from a closed ball of a Euclidean space into itself has a fixed point.

Legend has it that Brouwer was lead to his theorem by pondering the surface of a cup of coffee upon stirring in a lump of sugar. (That someone would debase a good cup of coffee with sugar is a wholly different issue.)

Vsauce has an interesting video about fixed points, from which I stole the three examples above:



Polish immigrant tobacco farmers, 1940 (Getty Museum
Polish immigrant tobacco farmers, 1940 (Getty Museum)

Because, now and then, for the well being of your soul, you have to evict the empty diversions, addictive distractions, the noisome bile, and ponder, in the brief space exhumed by an image, a note of music, a spiraling leaf, a stranger’s touch, a kindness, a child’s wonder, or Earthshine married to sliverous Moon, in this volume of relief, this anomalous bliss, this sudden expanse of silence—how is it that we, somehow, have willingly mongered purposeful calm for mindless glitter, mere noise?—and reflect on the inverse of nothing.

Comet C/2011 L4 (Pan-STARRS) and crescent Moon, 2013-03-12 19:25 MST
Comet C/2011 L4 (Pan-STARRS) and an Earthshine-lit crescent Moon, 2013-03-12 19:25 MST


Thursday Morning

Windows wide,

birds chirping front and back,

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony

fills the house.

Life could be worse.



Rest in peace, Suki.

Littlest Kitty, Squirt, faithful companion.

Shoulder rider, lap sitter, mouse catcher, jumper.

Lover of chin scritches and forehead scritches and string cheese and pizza sauce.

Head butter, snuggler, blinds cord chewer, prancer.

Algebra proofreader, bookbinding assistant.

Fearless imperious disdainer of the Dread Great Vacuum Monster.

Heater hog.

Conqueror of Puffs.

The sweetest kitty.

April 2002 – 28 April 2016.


Suki 2015-10-27
Suki 2015-10-27 (click to enlarge)
Nap time (Suki, Frank, and Spike) 2015-01-04
Nap time (Suki, Frank, and Spike) 2015-01-04
Suki 2014-07-19
Suki 2014-07-19
Suki and Hat 2014-06-21
Suki and Hat 2014-06-21
Suki 2005-12-18
Suki the Bookbinder’s Assistant 2005-12-18
Suki watches the room 2005-06-02
Suki watches the room 2005-06-02
Suki and Puff 2003-02-05
Suki and Puff 2003-02-05
Suki and Cord 2002-12-17
Suki and Cord 2002-12-17


When I am at my desk, preparing for tonight’s observing. And it is evening.

Notes to self, part 437.

  1. When I am at my desk, preparing for tonight’s observing.
    1. And it is evening.
  2. If an email arrives from the satellite tracking app, you could open it.
    1. Be aware that this alert is for tonight.
    2. You did bring clothing for the weather, right?
      1. Not that it matters. You don’t pay attention to these things.
      2. Maybe you should.
      3. Come to think of it, you do recall thinking, this morning, that you could get away with not paying attention today, since you figured you’d be inside anyway.
        1. Running late, you were in a hurry.
        2. And you are lazy, when possible: it makes life more efficient.
  3. You bring your digital camera with you to the Observatory, because you never know what will demand photos on any given day.
    1. Or night.
    2. Mountain weather dances, flits, pirouettes.
      1. Cloud formations tend to be awesome.
      2. Atmospheric effects abound.
      3. Evanescent.
      4. Most, even in such a wondrous, sky-dance land, never look up.
        1. Is the mundaneness of our daily routines so important? That we must concentrate our gaze, glazed, on the mud of our feet?
        2. This is a great sadness.
  4. According to the alert, the International Space Station is due to pass overhead.
    1. Tonight.
    2. It is an especially good pass:
      1. For once, its path will track straight overhead.
      2. For once, it will largely miss the Earth’s shadow.
        1. This means the ISS will be a bright beacon from nearly horizon to horizon.
        2. This means it must be nearly either a north-to-south or a south-to-north pass. Ah, spatial geometry.
      3. For once, this good fortune is not tied to a predawn pass.
        1. You do not function well in the predawn hours.
    3. To compensate, Murphy’s Law will demand its due.
      1. It always does.
        1. This is consistent with observation.
      2. You hypothesize that this is a conservation law.
      3. Murison’s Corollary: When fortuitous good things happen, the balance of the Universe must be restored.
        1. Count on it.
  5. Fire up the satellite ephemeris program you wrote.
    1. Fetch the latest orbital elements from
    2. Create plots of azimuth and height above the horizon.
    3. Check that your observing window matches the alert’s prediction.
  6. Glance at the outside temperature: +12°F.
    1. You are surprised.
    2. But then you remember this morning, and your decision to leave the coat, the scarf, the gloves, behind.
    3. Tell yourself: that’s okay, this should be quick, it’s not that cold.
  7. Grab the camera and head outside ten minutes early.
    1. Always start early. Things go wrong.
    2. Rats: you didn’t bring a tripod.
      1. Hand-held video recording it is, then.
      2. You are secretly a little relieved at not being able to try anything fancy.
        1. Even though nobody else is here, it feels like a secret.
        2. Can we really keep secrets from ourselves?
  8. The door locks behind you: click.
    1. Memory trigger.
    2. Check your pocket for keys. After it locks behind you.
    3. This strikes you as humorous.
  9. Find a good spot: the middle of the small parking lot.
    1. Unobstructed view north, west, and south.
    2. The main telescope dome, three stories high, with a halo of Flagstaff light pollution, swallows the eastern sky.
    3. The satellite is on a south-to-north path tonight.
    4. Yes, this is perfect.
  10. The southwest wind is brisk.
  11. Unpack and check your camera.
    1. Breathe. Go slow. Be methodical. Think.
    2. Everything functions as expected.
    3. You don’t expect this. What will be the yin to this yang?
  12. +12°F is cold.
  13. Bare hands in +12°F will quickly go numb.
    1. Forty-five seconds to a minute, tops.
    2. You will marvel at the pain, though you cannot feel anything.
    3. Configure and start your camera before this happens.
  14. Check your watch: seven minutes to go.
    1. This, too, is unexpected.
    2. Try not to think about your body heat rapidly fleeing with the wind, that thief.
      1. Your warm, warm, cozy, comfortable body heat.
      2. Via your hands, and neck, and head, and feet.
      3. When did these jeans become so thin?
    3. Seven minutes is an eternity.
      1. When there is nothing to do but not think about how uncomfortable it is.
      2. When standing exposed in the wind.
      3. When it is +12°F.
  15. Keep your eyes on the view through the camera.
    1. Is that it, there, low in the southwest?
    2. Look up, blink-flick distorting tears, and verify with your eyes: yes, there it is.
      1. Right on time.
      2. In the right place.
      3. Glorious.
  16. Follow it slowly up, and over, and down to the northeast, where it softly slips into shadow before reaching the treeline. The five-minute pass passes quickly.
    1. Now you cannot feel your feet.
  17. It is done.
    1. Note the satisfaction in your gut: good data acquired, it says.
    2. Bask in that warmth as you lean down to pack up.
    3. And then your circumstances impinge.
  18. Fifteen minutes is a surprisingly long time when it’s +12°F out.
    1. And you’re wearing only a t-shirt and light jacket.
    2. And Birkies.
  19. If you can’t feel anything with the stumps at the ends of your arms, there will be consequences.
    1. You won’t be able to turn off or stow your camera.
    2. It will be surprisingly hard, and hence take a surprisingly large number of tries, and hence take a surprisingly long time, to get your key into the door lock and scurry back inside, to your office.
    3. Where it is not +12°F.


Camera: Canon G3 X. Video processed using kdenlive.

On Dirt

Star guts. Ground mountains. Seething motion unseen. Organism detritus. Feculence. Bug poop.


Knees pop as I bend down and pinch a gram of soil between my fingers. I bring it up to my face: grains, and the filler between the grains. I am looking at 1013 bacteria, each a tiny furnace eating chemical energy.

nutrients: carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sunlight.

The critter universe in this quarter of a thimble of soil is more numerous than the stars swirling around the spiral galaxy we call home. By a factor of roughly a hundred. Or 1,500 times more numerous than the people on Earth. I work with such numbers every day. After thirty years, I still cannot fathom their import. Grains escape my clumsy dermal trap and sift back down, to the ground.

soil: earth, terra, qaḏāra, drytt. (The word dirt , from Middle English drytt, annoys soil scientists; it is an epithet.) Clay, silt, sand. Browns and tans, flecks of blacks and reds and whites. Crystalline facets sparkling in bright sunlight.


Soil is Earth’s largest reservoir of carbon, the basis of all known life. Too much carbon in the air, and we die, we voracious eaters and stirrers of dirt. Too little, and we die, we profligate disturbers of Nature. We live, we stumble, we contemplate, among a balance of energies that flow in overlapping cycles, large and small, short and long—a balance that seems ever more fickle, precarious, as the world grows warmer.


I look up and squint. The Sun, a middling, middle-aged star in an unremarkable part of the galaxy, warms my face, the skin on my arms. I know this sensation to be my brain, some still poorly understood interconnected agglomeration of neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters, making sense (or such is my perceived reality) of neurochemical signals instigated by infrared quanta, packets of energy that were born of violent subatomic interactions and that fled the core of our star a thousand millennia ago. It takes that long for light to wend its random way from the Sun’s core to its surface.

macrofauna: woodlice, worms, beetles, ants.

A roundworm has 300 neurons and several thousand synapses. My cat has three-quarters of a billion neurons, and about 1013 synapses. She is gray and feisty and adorable, and getting on in years, like me, but she is not the sharpest knife in drawer, perhaps also like me. I rub a larger number of bacteria between my fingers than she has synapses, the connections between her brain cells.

mesofauna: mites, nematodes, roundworms, coneheads, blind and heartless pauropods, indestructible tardigrades.


Digital elevation map of the San Francisco Volcanic Field in Northern Arizona. (source: AZGS)
Digital elevation model of the San Francisco Volcanic Field in Northern Arizona. (source: AZGS, click to enlarge)

I wonder, where was this microcosm of mineralogy, pinched between my fingers, a million years ago? Flagstaff sits atop the San Francisco Volcanic Field, a complex of around six hundred volcanic cinder cones that have been active over the past six million years. The San Francisco Peaks, named in the 17th century for St. Francis of Assisi, themselves are the weathered remains of a stratovolcano that erupted between 0.4 and 1 million years ago. This bit of soil, at least its silica grains, may very well have been in the upper mantle, squeezing towards a volcanic hole in the Earth’s crust, when the photons warming my skin began their arduous journey.


We know about the bacteria in this pinch of soil, at least their rough numbers if surprisingly little else, because our optical instruments, microscopes, allow us that determination, given enough time and persistence.

microfauna: bacteria and fungi, thousands of species, mostly unknown to science; yeast; protozoa with their pseudopods, their flagella, their cilia; disintegrators of organics.

I don’t see stars in the daytime sky, other than our Sun, but I know they, too, are there, each of them a furnace converting matter in their cores to energy. At night, our telescopes show us their rough numbers, given enough time and persistence. Our microscopes also enable us a rough count of our neurons, and our synapses, these tangled little engines of thought. We don’t yet understand consciousness, our self-awareness that causes us to ask questions, stir the soil, and build tools so we can determine these incomprehensible numbers, and to ponder—if not grasp, for that seems a long way off still—their significance.