The evening looks promising.

Transparent air, crystalline blue—emblematic of Flagstaff even in summer—has soothed my soul since childhood. “I can see for miles and miles…” spins in my head, unbidden, as I walk a short patch of worn asphalt, dull gray and pitted from winter’s attacks. Dark green Ponderosa forest broods to the horizon, turning black as the light dims and the usefulness of my retinal color sensors fades. Thin, dry air is a poor thermal insulator, so it chills rapidly after sunset. I zip my jacket.

Ritual scan of the sky, projecting ahead several hours: gauging the night’s weather and observing conditions is an habitual game. I occasionally misjudge, but not tonight. The door clacks shut behind me. I know my keys are in my pocket, but I check anyway. I aim toward the chipped, institutional-turquoise railing in front of the dome. Cirrus lie low in the southwest, painted grunge by twilight and distance (thirty, forty miles). These will likely keep to their remove and not interfere. I pretend to decree it so.

As I shuffle southwest, my face parts the breeze. My felt hat stays on my head, unassisted. I’ve no need to glance at our rooftop weather station’s wind vane or anemometer. It should be a good night, the air clinging to the forest laid out before me as it flows, laminar and unturbulent, lifting with the ridge upon which we root and gliding smoothly overhead. Trudy, our night observer, should get one arcsecond seeing at the 61-inch telescope, perched on its massive concrete pedestal three stories up. It is the world’s most precise star measuring engine. Down here at the parking lot, the air will be more agitated. I’ll see two arcseconds, maybe a bit less, at the 51-inch telescope which squats inside a dome off the edge of the cooling asphalt. The dome resembles R2D2 from Star Wars.

“Seeing” is astronomer jargon for what our roiling atmosphere does to starlight, pushing and shoving it, forcing it to wiggle erratically in random directions as cells of turbulent air, refractive indexes varying slightly from their neighbors, scurry across our line of sight. These pockets of air, fleeing distant large-scale atmospheric pressure gradients, attest to forces at work beyond our tiny purview. This is why stars twinkle.

Baleful blood-red Scorpion heart, Antares, sits low in the south. The orb flashes sharp red and green and yellow and blue (if you stare carefully), dancing. Astronomers hate that. Twinkling harbingers fuzzed, mushy, corpulent images. Spica is higher in the sky, its hard, white-blue light passing through less of our atmosphere. It holds fairly steady, only an occasional flicker. I look higher. Orangey Arcturus, one of my favorite stars, stares unblinking, steady, solid. Some part of my brain registers that stars higher than about forty degrees above the horizon will be sharp tonight. I notice muscles relaxing, a growing anxiety over data quality now dissipates. Mona Lisa smile: in this clear air, the night will be dark and the Milky Way will billow, almost flocculent, and span the entire vault of the sky. I will remember later to emerge and gape at this wonder until my neck aches. Da Vinci would understand.

models fitted to a star’s intensity profile (click to enlarge)

Scientists quantify. Astronomers’ measure of seeing—our means of taking the guesswork out of comparing one night to another—is the size of a star’s disk at the focal point of a telescope (that is, on the sensor hanging off its butt end). The width of a circle drawn half-way down from the central, brightest point of the disk that is a star image to its edge as it merges into the sky background is that measure. We call it “full width, half max”, or FWHM.

We measure angles with telescopes—immense, expensive protractors. This star is so many fractions of a degree from that star. A sixtieth of a degree is an arcminute. Your eyes can resolve details down to about one arcminute, or slightly less. A sixtieth of an arcminute is an arcsecond. An arcsecond is a very small angle: the apparent size of a U.S. quarter, 3.1 miles away. (The 61-inch telescope can measure angles to within one thousandth of an arcsecond.) “Good” seeing is when the FWHM of a star image is one arcsecond or less—a useful cultural agreement. Three arcseconds is bad. Five is horrendous, and the stars are dancing madly, taunting and useless, all the way to the zenith.

Inside the dome, chill seeps through my clothes as I wait for dome shutters and mirror covers to open the telescope’s eye to the heavens. As the liquid nitrogen tank satiates the camera dewar in pulsing spurts, a valve trips and vents excess pressure; the hiss is painful. I escape into the side room and toggle switches, powering various devices. The air compressor initiates a new aural assault. I plug my ears. Why did it choose now, I think. Several of us conjecture that the 51-inch telescope is inhabited by gremlins, not so much malevolent as impish, irritating. Maybe they are leprechauns. Back in the dome, motors stop and the nitrogen tank has finished its rhythmic regurgitation of cold. Pulling on insulated blue gloves meant for such things, I disconnect and stow the thick umbilical hose, its business end caked with ice, thin sheets of condensing air flowing to the dome floor. The drive motors wake and hum, a happy sound, as I feed them power. Everything inside this dome is thirsty.

We are ready for the night.

the 1.3-meter telescope (click to enlarge)
the 51-inch telescope (click to enlarge)


You recognize as a youngster that science, and music, and literature and writing—creative wonders—draw you along comfortable invisible force lines. But not opera. Overbearing, embarrassing falsetto vibrato is just wrong. As your joints grow creaky and more of your pate warms to the Sun, you know that this is a misperception. You stumble upon more of these, as you notice yourself more often assigning past vigorous feats of physical prowess to the unimportant pursuits of the unimportant young. You ponder these, your various misperceptions. And your misperceptions of misperceptions. Recursion tickles you.


You realize in the shower one day that your—and others’—universal cognitive foibles smacking into observable reality are an irresistible rabbit hole, wondrously vast and an endless source of material to contemplate. Like a particle in the three-body problem of celestial mechanics, your orbit is a tangled meandering, variously lured into the sphere of influence of first one and then the other of those two massive attractors, science and the creative urge. This resonates, and you realize a re-appreciation of past love.


Thus: what shall you write? Unuseful question. The world is big. Where shall you intend your aim? Better. Get thee to the shower!, your ever-reliable Delphic font of nearly every good idea.§ You love nature, and science—especially astronomy and math—and the scientific way of thinking, which come to you with joy and not pain. (This cannot be weird, surely—friends’ and society’s protestations notwithstanding.) The chasm awaits.


On a whim you schlep to a National Association of Science Writers conference, where you are isolated and small, sole introvert amidst a mind-bruising cacophony. Drilling through your crushing discomfort, you meet Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (you buy three copies), you hear Jonathan Coulton sing his wistful nerd anthem, “Code Monkey” (you buy three CDs), and a merciful soul tells you to read Lewis Thomas’s classic medley of essays, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (why is there no Kindle version?). This is it. A trigger, an unlatching: your dormant writing compulsion awakens.

Astronomy with math. True stories, precisely told. A worthwhile target.


Halfway through college, you end the pleasant agony and decide astronomy over music. Seemingly by crazy random utterly naive inevitability, you become a professional astronomer. As your mop grows thinner and your knuckles grow larger, you realize the apparent randomicity is a misperception.

The equations, if you are wondering, tell how a massless particle moves in the combined gravitational fields of two massive objects in orbit about each other.¤ Think, for example, Sun–Jupiter–spacecraft. In astronomy, we call this the restricted three-body problem. It is astonishingly complex.

§ Perhaps only Death is a greater surety—though, surely, only by a little.

¤ For completeness:





Sense and Sensibility and the American Gun Culture

Sense and Sensibility.

Jane Austen put these two words together for a specific reason.

Sense: meaning, understanding, prudence, sound judgement.

Sensibility: sensitivity, awareness, empathy.

She didn’t have to worry about guns the way we do, the way America does today. But if she had I think she likely might have said something worth our while to contemplate. Sense. Sensibility.

We have yet another senseless shooting, this time too close to my home in Flagstaff. At Northern Arizona University, where a close family member teaches, a student retrieved a gun from his car and shot four students, murdering one. (One is still in the ICU.) Over a simple fist fight, hurt feelings, wounded pride — a child lies dead and many lives destroyed.

A spat quickly broke out online over whether or not to call this one (there are so very many) a “mass murder.” The NAU police reassured the public, saying that this was not like another mass shooting that had just happened at a college in Oregon. Others were not buying it. Perhaps because of the shock and cognitive dissonance that comes with a shooting that is too close, too personal, they are missing the point.

A common (sadly — shamefully — this is all too common) behavior can stem from a myriad of complex generators, complicated motivations, because human psychology is, in the now, a complex miasma of innate character, upbringing, experience, and happenstance — nature and nurture and randomness. Yet, dead people on the ground are dead people on the ground: mass shooting, mass murder.

What is the point?

Ask yourself: what is the most common denominator in each one of these mass shootings, this endless succession of mass murders, this underbelly of America’s prolonged spiral to suicide? The answer is readily apparent to anyone not blinkered by stubborn ignorance or mindless fear: the uniquely sick American obsession with weaponry, in concert with the rigidly immoral, ignorant, selfish, counterfactual, antifactual, infantile, long-bankrupt ideology of the right wing, one consequence of which — just one of innumerable repercussions from a depraved world view — is a near-complete absence of meaningful gun regulation.

To choose slaughter (intended or not) over minor inconvenience to the sensible — which is really what we are talking about with effective regulation of firearms — is not an act that comes from moral or ethical values; it is sick and depraved.

You may be thinking, “but this does not apply to me.” Do you choose to stand by and do nothing? Are you silent? Then you, too, have opted for preserving our awful status quo, for senseless bloodshed, shattered bodies, ruined lives, devastated families. Inaction is a choice.

Silence is a choice.

To choose instead reason, and sense, in light of overwhelming evidence; to proactively choose responsibility to the people around you, and empathy for those not in your shoes, and good governance in public policy — these come from ethical, moral values. Reasonable values. Wouldn’t this be better than continuing to tacitly approve senseless carnage?

That is the point.

It is time we start acting like adults, you and I — own up to our responsibility. It is up to you, and me, and you and you and you. The nature of this monster, this beast that we have allowed other monsters to create and nurture while you and I were distracted, is that none of us gets to opt out; you cannot not play.

So which do you choose? Continuance of our national blood bath? Or sense and sensibility?

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Nutballs and the Mode

Atheist Republic's Kaaba: Love Wins
A stylized Kaaba (click to embiggen).

Recently, Atheist Republic (AR) posted this image (⇒) in response to the Supreme Court’s decision (pdf) that legalizes marriage in the U.S. It is a Photoshopped image of the Kaaba in Mecca. The reaction from noisome elements of the Muslim community has been, predictably, swift, violent, and largely incoherent (cf. the Facebook post or AR’s original Twitter post for a sampling). AR’s post is fine; I think it is timely, in good taste, and makes a good point. However, I think AR made a mistake.

AR responded to the growing shit storm in a subsequent post on their web site (WARNING: one image, about ¾ of the way into the post, is deeply disturbing), electing to show a number of select examples of the insults and threats they’ve received to make a point:

Please keep in mind that these aren’t members of ISIS or Al-Qaeda making these statements, but rather are your everyday average Muslim.


…these aren’t extremists or jihadists, they’re just average Muslims. These are the ones who call themselves “moderate”.

And, if you are feeling particularly thick-headed:

To make it clear that these are supposed “moderate” Muslims, I’d like to point out that we know for a fact that one of these men is a US citizen. This particular commenter has specifically asked for information from one of our admins that he suspects lives in his area, and threatened said admin with physical violence against this admin and their family.

A skewed distribution (click to embiggen). Where do you think IPLs reside?

One thought kept nagging me as I read AR’s response: AR furnishes no valid evidence or argument to support the all-too-common claim that these select nutballs are “your everyday average Muslim” (as opposed to the crazies that carry out terrorist attacks in the name of their religion or, more accurately, their ignorant, deranged ideology). It seems likely to me that the cretinous whackjobs sprinkling AR’s posts with turds are neither average nor representative of Muslims in general. These whackjobs are—like our own noisome right-wing nutballs—an abnormally incoherent, ignorant, and vocal minority. I’ve no doubt average Muslims are as willingly delusion-controlled as our average Christians here in the U.S., but I have to question that the infantile profane loudmouths of either organized delusion system lie anywhere near the peaks (i.e., the modes) of their respective population distributions.

The excerpts above—and, indeed, AR’s entire argument—illustrate several common logical fallacies. In the first two excerpts, the author is arguing by assertion. This is a counterproductive rhetorical tactic. It raises people’s hackles, to your disadvantage.

The third excerpt is somewhat more interesting. First, it cherry-picks an anecdotal example. (The example itself also seems hardly relevant—a red herring.) This is a surprising mistake, since cherry-picking is perhaps the most common logical fallacy for which rationalists such as AR criticize religionists and the right-wing.

In this excerpt the author also equates being a U.S. citizen with being “moderate”, with no supporting argument or evidence. As recent events in the U.S. have shown repeatedly, there is nothing moderate about the beliefs of U.S. terrorists, Muslim or not. This is  a false equivalence, perhaps the second most common logical fallacy employed by the right (or maybe the third, behind strawman argument).

This is not an apology for “average” adherents to horrifically damaging organized delusion systems. From all that I’ve seen, Western religions are among the most senseless and destructive invented concepts in the history of humankind. But accuracy, precision, and validity in our claims and arguments, whatever the context, matter.

We rationalists are—or should be—better than this.


Seriously, you do not need to see this image—it cannot be unseen.

 Speaking of crazies, is there much, if any, difference between a Muslim terrorist who slaughters innocents in a medical treatment building and, say, a Christian terrorist who slaughters innocents in an African American church? Or between that (or any other) Muslim terrorist and a Christian terrorist who shoots dead a medical doctor during church services?

The Printer and I: A Tale of Spinning Fans, Diseased Hearts, and the Tragedy that is Life

[Click to embiggen.]

This (see photo) is how I spent my afternoon and evening, today. I have a conference to attend next week and must present a poster paper on some recent research results. Because I know by now that both Old Man Murphy and Loki the Trickster always lie in wait, snickering — I hear you, you bastards — I go to check the large-format printer. It is a Beast, and it turns electrons into poster papers. I flip the power switch, and it makes a horrible noise, won’t boot up, freezes, then whines plaintively, “call HP … call HP … please, won’t you call HP ….” Not very encouraging. Screw you, Loki — thou art a Puck.

As with all things computer that misbehave, I keep trying the same thing over and over, hoping for a different result, though I know full well that no different result will … um … result. Indeed, no dice. Run around the building and check with everybody: nobody knows what’s wrong or what happened. Yeah, sure.

What to do? Go find some screwdrivers, of course. The horrible noise emanates from somewhere around the power supply. Sort of. It’s buried in the guts of the Beast, so it’s hard to tell from the outside. It is a place to start, anyway. I roll up the sleeves of my robe, pick up a Holy Implement of Torx, and get to work …

Several hours later, I finally have figured out, cuss word by cuss word (proper ordering is important), how to get past all the barriers cleverly designed by Evil HP Engineers to make rational disassembly near-impossible. (Ever disassemble a laptop computer, down to the bare metal? This is harder, I kid you not.) Sixty screws later (I count them, twice), I get to the power supply fan. The heart of the Beast is diseased, despoiled. It is not turning quite right, and the motor shaft wiggles a little. It is not supposed to wiggle. Even a little. Culprit apprehended at last? Perhaps. Fortunately, it’s just a cheap $8 cooling fan you can pick up at any Radio Shack.

But Radio Shack does not exist anymore. When did that happen?

We have come round to this place again: what to do? Rummage around in the junk spare parts room, of course. It is a glorious room, beloved of tinkerers on staff. Bingo: six salvaged computer power supplies, just lying there on a shelf, calling to me. No, seven! But I am wise to their siren song. One after another, a closer look reveals frightening ugliness — mostly in the form of caked-on dust and dirt and grime. Their hearts spin, but they are Unclean and Decrepit. Sigh … last one: yay, Cleanliness! The Blessed One, Savior of the Beast, is found.

It believes it has been bestowed a new chance at life. I wish I could be happy for it. Little does it know its fate. Surely it deserves to be told of its pending doom? Yet that would crush its new-found hopes. You are perverse and cruel, you Fates! I do not have the heart to tell it.

True to my calling as Lord High Tinkerer, I pick up the Holy Implement of Torx and sacrifice the Blessed One upon the Ancient Altar of Gorthung (a fifty-year-old, government-issue desk, solid and heavy as a tank, with an ice-cold slate top). I flay its body and cut out its heart. I know no mercy.

Fan in bloody hand (a blood blister acquired some time during printer pieces-parts separation has popped), I trundle down the hill to the electronics lab. There, a colleague — the Wizard of Wire, Lord of Circuit — performs minor surgery. Lo, and behold! Upon application of the Lightning of Zoltar (a 12-volt power supply), the heart of the Blessed One lives again, spinning round and round in a most pleasing whir. Back up the hill.

That dreaded niggle squatting in the back of my mind finds a crack and blossoms. It dawns on me: now I have to put it all back together. Sixty screws. I realize I am tired. I’ll never remember where they all go. Come back tomorrow with freshly caffeinated veins? Pffft. Such is for wusses, unbecoming of a Tinkerer. So, since the operation of my memory — even on a good day — resembles most closely that of a sieve, I have little choice but to re-figure out how to take apart the Beast but in reverse. I am reminded of Ginger Rogers. I miss Ann Richards and her rapier wit. Today is not a good day.

Another hour passes by. I wave hi. We do that a lot, Time and I. My finger leaks on the table; I wipe it. And also on the housing of the reassembled printer power supply. I look at the smear, and I do not wipe it. I have left my mark upon this Beast, I think to myself. I shall not remove it. It will be buried amidst your guts; only you and I will ever know it is there. This token of my toil is enough, I decide. I move on.

At last, it is back together, despite all the King’s men staying home, watching TV. I do not want to plug it in. I’m sure you understand. Don’t you? Even so, I still roll the Beast back to its lair. I reattach its stiff black tail. I notice it is dirty, the cord, this conduit of the Lightning of Zoltar.

We have arrived at the moment of truth: I flip the switch. And wait. As with a pot of water that has yet to boil, it is best not to stare at a booting computer, especially one as slow and dumb as the Beast’s. I stare anyway. I wave hi to passing Time again, then it whirs with a pleasing sound. And dies. And tells me to call HP.

Naturally, I turn it off, wait ten seconds (capacitors can be slow to bleed, you know), and then turn it on again. Maybe something different will happen this time.