The Ancestor’s Tale



If you are not in the mood for my idle chatter to follow, here is the bottom line: I love this book. Whether you buy into evolution or not, everyone should read “The Ancestor’s Tale” because it is a marvelous bit of writing which will challenge you to think and rethink the surprising realities and consequences of your own position. Even if you completely buy into evolution, this book dares you to accept its disturbing implications, as unnerving as they may be. And that is always a good thing.

But First, a Story

In the Gene Kelly movie “Singing in the Rain”, Don Lockwood (played by Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (played by Jean Hagen) are silent-era movie stars about to make their break into the “talkies” with a musical. The only catch is, Lina can’t sing and has an awful accent. So they invent the idea of “dubbing,” and have Kathy Selden (played by Debbie Reynolds) to do Lina’s parts while Lina is lip-syncing. So, in the movie, what you see is Kathy talking and singing in a beautiful deep voice behind the stage, while Lina is mouthing in front of the camera.


Now here’s the lesser-known fact: in reality, Debbie Reynolds did not sing in any of those parts — she has a midwestern twang. So they needed to find somebody who could do the voice-overs for Debbie Reynolds doing voice-overs for Jean Hagen’s character.

And here’s the best part: you know who they used to do the talking voice overs for Debbie Reynolds doing voice-overs for Jean Hagen?

Jean Hagen. Turns out that the awful Bronx accent Lina Lamont has is a fake accent, and that actually Jean Hagen has a great voice.

You just can’t make this stuff up.

The Writer’s Tale

No matter how wild and interesting a story a writer may concoct, it seems, Reality has a way to come up with something far more strange than the writer could ever invent. Indeed, if you were to take an insanely crazy true story and try to sell it as fiction, you would have trouble: it would be too weird to be believable. Nobody would buy it.

Irony: although men of great faith are held in high esteem when they hold fast to their beliefs, in spite of all opposing forces (including the hard evidence of scientific experiment), in fact this is one of easiest things for humans to do. In fact, all evidence appears to indicate that when confronted with incontrovertible evidence that negates a strongly-held belief, most people’s response to this is to double-down and hold even stronger to their now-disproven positions.

The scientist, in contrast, has if anything a more difficult and heroic task: and that is to be willing at a moment’s notice to discard their most cherished theories, beliefs, ideas and standards, if it is shown by the findings of experiment, peer-review, and the evidence before their own eyes, that their precious stories — however “reasonable” sounding in their ears — do not describe the real world around them and cannot be used as a guide to how the world works, and they must now embrace their opponent’s creed — the one that they had branded heresy.

The history of science is one of a never-ending series of discoveries which suggest stories that are not only stranger than anyone every imagined, they have become stranger than anyone ever could have imagined. Quantum mechanics. Relativity. Big Bangs. Black Holes. Continental Drift. And among the strangest of tales is Evolution — this latter being a story that is even more difficult to accept because of what is says about ourselves, what we are and how we think about ourselves.

The year 2014 marks the tenth anniversary of the release of Oxford professor Richard Dawkin’s magnum opus “The Ancestor’s Tale,” and it has since its publication joined my short list of books to which I have found myself returning again and again. Whether you “buy” the story of Evolution or not, this book will challenge you, all the way down to the core of your most firmly held beliefs.


Dawkin’s idea for the book is based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which pilgrims on their way to Canterbury each tell their own stories. But now, you are the pilgrim, and your trail is your family tree, which you must follow back in time. And as you travel further and further back, you will begin to meet up with friend and neighbors, at the crossroads where you find that you both have common ancestors.

And part of the motivation for using Chaucer’s book is the remarkable calculation that implies that for any two people now living on the planet, their personal paths of pilgrimage will meet at or sooner than the 1400’s — the time during which the Canterbury Tales was written.

The name that Dawkins gives to a “common ancestor” is Concestor, and the Rendezvous or crossroads is for Concestor Zero — which is his name for a single common ancestor of All Human Kind alive today. In other words, on your personal family tree, Concestor 0 is the first ancestor you find who is also in the family tree of every single human being alive on earth today.  The fact that there is such a person in your tree is in itself one of the first remarkable facts that you are challenged with. And yet, Dawkins presents a clever proof, using only math and logic, and unarmed with the story of Adam and Eve, to argue that at least one such couple must exist in your tree that unites all of humanity. And this is what makes this book great, is that Dawkins doesn’t just claim things, he proves them. To see the proof, you will just have to read the book.



How To Go Faster Than Light

Bottom Line

For those with limited attention spans: yes, in this universe, with a powerful enough rocket you really can go anywhere in the universe as quickly as you like, in your own lifetime, without resorting to any medical tricks like suspended animation. Einstein’s theory of relativity won’t stop you from getting there, the same day even. The hard part is just getting enough energy — and working out the math.

Speed Limits


One big downer — if you can call it that — most people take away from Einstein’s theory of special relativity is that nothing can go faster than light. We are a species that likes to explore, after all, and wo resent the idea that there is a depressingly slow speed limit imposed on us by nature that makes it very difficult to journey through the galaxy.

Science fiction often addresses this either by inventing a device to “warp” space-time (Star Trek), or by adding a few extra dimensions to the universe and bypassing normal space by jumping into hyperspace (Star War).

A lot of this comes, I think, from a confusion about how the universe actually works, as described by Einstein’s theory of relativity. (Note: given the recent creationist attempt to color the word “theory” as meaning something tentative, I prefer to use Richard Dawkin’s coined word “theorum” — similar to theorem — as indicating a theory that is so well established by overwhelming evidence that it might as well be an undebatable mathematical theorem).

The Confusion

Here is the deal: while it is true that to people watching from earth a spacecraft can never be observed to go faster than light, that doesn’t mean that the passengers on the spacecraft have the same experience. In fact, what Einstein’s theory would say is that as far as the passengers can tell, it seems like they can go as fast as they like. Due to the relativistic “warp” of space-time as you approach the speed of light \(c\), the passengers experience time much more slowly and their “effective” speed as they travel through space appears to be much greater than light.

Let’s do the numbers.

Some Terminology

In the “Star Trek” series they used the “warp \(N\)” terminology to refer to “effective” speeds that were \(N\) times the speed of light \(c\), so that “Warp Two” for example was twice the speed of light or \(2c\). In that series they had a special “warp drive” that bent space-time around so that they would go faster, but the actual fact is that in our everyday world just the mere act of going faster by any means actually warps space-time (more precisely, it rotates or twists spacetime coordinates).

Tech Note 1: In the Star Trek original series, their “Warp N actually refers to 3-dimensional space warp, and so goes as the cube of my linear-scaled “Warp”. So technically, when Trekkies refer to Warp 2, it corresponds to my Warp $2^3$ = Warp 8. In Next Generation Star Trek, the exponent was 10/3. Go figure. For my discussion, I will stick with the linear scale.

The Warp Equation

I plan on using the trekkie terminology (and standard relativity) to state and prove the following interesting fact:

The Warp Equation
If you have a payload with mass \(m_{payload}\), and a means of converting matter into kinetic energy with 100% efficiency, then the mass \(m_{fuel}\) of fuel needed for you to travel at an effective speed of Warp \(\omega\) where \(\omega > 0\) is given by$$ m_{fuel} = {\omega}^2 m_{payload} $$


So for example, in order to travel at Warp 2, a person of mass 80 kilograms would require 320 kilograms of (say) a proton-antiproton fuel in order to travel at that effective speed. That is roughly equivalent to 6,400 Megatons of TNT. Coincidentally, that is almost exactly the combined explosive power of all nuclear weapons now on our planet. That is a hell of a lot of energy, but the point to be made is that is within the bounds of our current technology.

The fact that you have to square the warp factor to get the amount of energy to go that speed makes perfect sense. Even in classical Newtonian physics, the energy related to going at velocity \(v\) is given by

$$E = \frac{1}{2}mv^2$$

so doubling the velocity \(v\) on the right hand side multiplies the energy by four. The fact that the energy happens to be equivalent to four times your payload’s mass comes from Einstein.

The way in which we’ll prove this is to first calculate how much matter is needed to attain an observed velocity v, and then figure out what the relationship is between the observed velocity, and what effective velocity the passenger actually experiences. Note: I have no doubt that there is probably an easier way to derive this formula. But this is the one I came up with and it isn’t all that complicated.

Conversion of Matter to Kinetic Energy

Let’s start with Einstein’s equation:


What we are going to do is to use this equation, together with the law of conservation of energy, to compute how much matter it takes to accelerate a payload \(m\) to (observed) velocity \(v_{o}\). Now as the observed velocity \(v_o\) approaches the speed of light, the relativistic mass of the payload becomes:

$$m_{relative} = \frac{m_{payload}}{\sqrt{1-(\frac{v_o}{c})^2}}$$

Now Einstein’s equation for energy represents both the energy of the mass at rest, together with the (kinetic) energy of the mass in motion. And so, if this mass was put into motion by the conversion (at rest) of a certain mass \(m_{fuel}\), where

$$m_{fuel} = \alpha m_{payload},   where  \alpha > 0$$

Then since energy is conserved we can relate the conversion of the mass \(m_{fuel}\) into motion \(v_o\) by:

$$ (m_{payload}+m_{fuel})c^2 = E_{rest} = E_{moving} =\frac{m_{payload}}{\sqrt{1-(\frac{v_o}{c})^2}} c^2$$

so dividing both sides by \(m_{payload}c^2\)

$$ 1 + \alpha = \frac{1}{\sqrt{1-(\frac{v_o}{c})^2}}$$

squaring both sides and solving for \(v_o\) we get the following rule:

Matter to Velocity Conversion
For a payload of mass \(m\) and a ratio \(\alpha > 0\), if fuel \(m_{fuel}=\alpha m\) is converted to kinetic energy, the observed velocity \(v_o\) of the body will be$$v_o = (\sqrt{\frac{\alpha}{1+\alpha}})c$$


This jibes with what Einstein said about observed velocities, as the right hand side will never be greater than the speed of light \(c\). As the ratio \(\alpha \rightarrow \infty\), the velocity goes to \(c\), so we can get as close to \(c\) as we like — but no further.

Velocity – Observed and Effective

So now we come to the idea of “effective” velocity. The weirdness of relativity comes from the fact that as the observed  velocity \(v\) of ship approaches the speed of light, the passenger’s own time-scale is compressed by what’s called the Lorentz-FitzGerald contraction, according to the formula

$$t_{effective} = t_{observed}\sqrt{1-(\frac{v_o}{c})^2}$$

(From this point on we will just write \(t_e\) and \(t_o\) for \(t_{effective}\) and \( t_{observed}\) respectively) Then given a fixed distance \(\Delta x_o\) as measured by the observers on earth, the effective velocity as experienced by the passengers when traversing that segment of space over their time \(\Delta t_e\)  is:

$$v_e = \frac{\Delta x_o}{\Delta t_e} = \frac{\Delta x_o}{\Delta t_o\sqrt{1-(\frac{v_o}{c})^2}}$$

which in turn simplifies to this formula for converting observed to effective velocity:

Observed to Effective Velocity
$$ v_e = \frac{v_{o}}{\sqrt{1-(\frac{v_o}{c})^2}}$$


The important thing to note about this concept of “effective” velocity is that we are computing the ratio of observed change in our distance with our own experienced change in time. Suppose for example that over centuries the earth residents went out and placed “mile markers” along your path to your destination. Then once you got up to warp speed, not only would your sense of time be compressed, but distances that you measure out with your tape measure would also be compressed by the same Lorentz-FitzGerald contraction. Consequently, if you were going at Warp 2, for example, your sense of time elapsed going from one mile marker to the next would be cut in half, but also (this is the point) the distance between those two fixed mile markers as the earth-people laid them out would also appear to you to be half. So if you were instead to calculate your velocity by dividing your measured distance by your time, you would never get a value at or greater than c.

Tech Note 2: “Effective” velocity is non-standard terminology. In the literature, this would be the velocity as measured by the passenger’s Proper Time.

All Together Now

So if we start with fuel \(\alpha m\) which we use to accelerate our mass \(m\) to the observed velocity \(v_o\), we can use the two formulas we just derived to express the effective velocity \(v_e\) as a function of \(\alpha\). We can rewrite the “Matter to Velocity” formula as

$$ (\frac{v_o}{c})^2 = \frac{\alpha}{1+\alpha}$$

So our effective velocity formula simplifies the bottom of the fraction to

$$v_e = v_{o}\sqrt{1+\alpha}$$

and then substituting the formula again for  \(v_o\) we see that our fuel mass \(\alpha m\) gives us an effective velocity of:

$$v_e = c\sqrt{\alpha}$$

Thus if we have defined velocity “Warp \(\omega\)” to be \(\omega  c\), then we can write

$$\omega = v_e / c = \sqrt{\alpha}$$

So that to attain an effective velocity of Warp \(\omega\) we must use a fuel-payload ratio of \(\alpha = \omega^2\), ie

$$m_{fuel} = \omega^2 m_{payload} $$

which is exactly the “Warp Equation” we were to prove. QED

Let’s Do the Time-Warp Again

It should be pointed out that of course to the observers on earth, even though you are going at an effective speed of Warp \(\omega\) you will never appear to be going faster than \(c\) and so it will take you a long time to get where you are going. You, however, will not experience that, and so you will effectively be travelling through time much faster than your friends at home. How much faster? According to our formula above relating \(t_e\) to \(t_o\), and expressing that in terms of the warp factor \(\omega\), we can show that the time-warp you experience will be:

$$t_e = \frac{t_o}{\sqrt{1+\omega^2}}$$

And so, in our example, the 80kg person travelling at Warp 2 will feel like they’ve reached their destination in \( 1/ \sqrt{5} \) of the earth time, ie getting them there in about 0.44 of the time observed on earth, and exactly twice the time it would take light to appear to get there.

So, not only can you go as fast as you like, you can also travel as far in the future as you like. For example, to travel 100 years into the future, just get in a spaceship armed with 10000 times your own mass in matter-antimatter fuel, and then travel at Warp 100 for one year. When you reach your destination, one year will have passed for you, and 100 years (plus a little bit) will have passed on earth.

Of course, then you’ll have to get back to earth, so good luck with that.

The Buckaroo Banzai Principle

The Buckaroo Banzai Principle

No matter where you go — there you are.
— Buckaroo Banzai

The point of this exercise is that if you really understand what Einstein said, the idea should be that there is no absolute frame of reference. What this means is that even if you are travelling at 99.999 % the speed of light relative to the earth, as far as you know everything still looks and feels like Newton’s physics, where F = ma and you can always accelerate faster and faster. And not only that, but if you are heading for a specific location, the faster you go, the faster you will get there.

No Free Lunches

Now having said that, there are some consequences that the universe may unleash should you decide to try to go Warp 100. This is because even though the physics of your spaceship will be the same even at this insane speed, you are also surrounded by the gases in your local galaxy, as well as all of the light from stars that are visible to you. And even though from the earth much of this light is nice, low-energy visible spectrum, and even though that light will still be reaching you at the speed of light, it’s relative energy is radically different when you are plowing through that light at Warp 100. In fact, what you will be observing is a massive Doppler-shifting into the deep blue/ultraviolet of all light coming at you in the direction you are headed (and conversely, red-shifted looking back towards earth). Some of this light may be equivalent to the powerful cosmic rays that hit the earth, and which were generated by massive explosions or quasars just after the Big Bang. The energy in these photons may be enough to kill you all by themselves, especially at Warp 100. You may need a very large and thick radiation shield, along with all the extra energy to carry that shield along with you and your ship.

And so as we already should have known, there are no free lunches. At least it is nice to know that a faster-than-light lunch is available, should one choose to pay the price.

New Year’s Koan

Koan: a paradoxical question or story, used (in Zen Buddhism) as an aide to meditation and as a means to lead one to enlightenment.

The main problem with New Year’s resolutions and the reason they fail, I think, is that they are in the form of commandments. Humans are contrary by nature and any dictate — even one they have given to themselves — is doomed. The thing that motivates people is curiosity, and so in that spirit I offer up the following questions, upon which the reader (including myself) may ponder, and should any insight be gained, I am hopeful that it will lead one to a more fulfilling or meaningful life in the future. As with most Koan, I have no answer to these questions, and have no expectation for you to answer them — just to think about them.

New Year’s Koan for Atheists

Koan A1: The atheist Christopher Hitchens once said “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” Suppose a close and lifelong friend tells you one day “I have been in love with you for years.” This comes as a complete (though pleasant) surprise to you. Should you dismiss this assertion without proof? Alternatively, do you demand proof or accept the statement on its face? Does Hitchens’ principle not apply in this case? If so why?

Koan A2: There is to date no scientific evidence that Free Will exists. Does it make a difference to you in how you experience the world by assuming that you do or do not have Free Will? In other words, do you live your life “as if” Free Will has been shown to exist and that you possess it? Would it make a difference if you learned that Free Will does not exist but is some kind of illusion? Why?

Koan A3: The atheist Chris Arnade is a former physicist who worked for Wall Street before working with and photographing homeless addicts in South Bronx. He observed that in these squalid homeless places, often empty shells of buildings, bibles were always found and that this bible was all these hopeless people had to carry them through the next day or hour. Suppose your otherwise healthy spouse or child told you they’ve given up and wanted to kill themselves, and by their attitude and mood you are convinced they are sincere and would carry out their threat. As an atheist, what could you tell them that would give them some hope or reason to carry on with their lives ?

New Year’s Koan for Judeo-Christians

Koan B1: In Exodus 32:14, God changes his mind about punishing Moses’s people who had become corrupt, after Moses reminds God about the promises God had made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel. Let us leave aside the puzzle of how an omniscient god could change his mind. Do you have enough faith to talk back to God himself as Moses did, if you believe He has made a terrible mistake? If you were to talk back, what would you say?

Koan B2: If the Judeo-Christian belief is correct, then among those nonbelievers who have not been saved from damnation are Socrates, Buddha, Gandhi, Richard Feynman, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russel, Isaac Asimov, Albert Camus, Bela Bartok, David Hume, Bertolt Brecht, Heraclitus, Anton Chekov, Billy Joel, Joseph Conrad, Sergei Prokofiev, Eric Hofer, Camille Saint-Saens, George Santayana, Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Dirac, Sigmund Freud, and Alfred Nobel … to name a few. On the other hand, the Emperor Theodosius, who executed children for playing with pagan dolls, and Charlemagne, who beheaded 4500 Saxons that refused to convert, were Christian and therefore saved. There is no question, this is simply something to ponder.

Koan B3: Do you believe that you have a soul, the essence of your spiritual self, and that it is eternal? If so, are the things you are doing in your life really preparing you for an infinite amount of time in which to spend your days? Remember, a billion years is a blink of an eye in the face of infinity. What will you do? And how will you keep from becoming bored beyond all measure? Knowing yourself, do you expect that a day will come in a quadrillion years in which you long for an end to endless wakefulness, in other words to Die? If so, how do you distinguish this place from what most would call Hell ? If you had a choice, would you prefer that your soul was only finite in time, say a thousand or million years ? Three score years and ten ?

New Year’s Koan For Everybody

Koan E1: If the race of man is to advance, either through evolution or divine intervention, in what way could man as a species be improved? Having answered that, is there any way in which you can begin to manifest any of that change in your own life ?

Happy New Year.

Our house, December 2013.

Grow Up!

I love a good novel, and the thing that makes a novel good is that it pulls you in, and is so well written that you are willing to suspend disbelief and swim in that world until the last page. And when it is over you wish there were more, because the story was so good.

I don’t buy most of the world’s religions these days because their stories aren’t believable, and I find myself putting down the book on page one. And after all, what is “faith” but another word for the willful suspension of disbelief ?

The world languishes from the lack of a religion for adults, who have had rich and varied life experience, a fully developed cerebral cortex and capacity for reason, complex emotion, and powers of direct observation of phenomena. A religion that has matured to the point that it admits that it does not have all the answers and is as flawed as we are, subject to revision pending new insights and findings as they come along. A story written by an unreliable narrator, who admits as much in the telling of the tale, but you don’t care because the story rings true.

The reason I don’t buy the stories told by the major religions of the world is that they sound like they were written by very small children, to whom their parents are perfect, omniscient, and will always take care of them to their dying days. What I don’t see in any of these stories is the humility of an adult, who has learned that their parents were flawed creatures at best, just like themselves, who didn’t know all the answers but tried their best, and at least has some hope that even if their own lives were screwed up, maybe the children of their creation will learn and do something good with this mangled beautiful mess of a world.

If for the moment, I buy the part of the usual story that we are created in the image of the universe’s creator, I would have to conclude that the creator was a fairly good mathematician and an artist, but like myself also mortal, and painfully limited in foresight about the consequences of one’s work, but hopeful that something good might come of all this after they are gone.

The first steps into adulthood begin when you realize that your parents are gone, and it is time for you to pick up the baton and do something yourself, with the realization that everyone else is in the same boat, and to have compassion for their own struggle with existence. If there ever was a creator, I am sure that they are long gone, but I’d like to say thanks for the good work, we will take it from here — as Ayn Rand would say — In the Name of the Best Within Us.

That is what I would call a religion for adults.

The world, with its undetermined future, is a vast blank canvas, and if there is any meaning in all of this, it reveals itself when you create something on that canvas that is beautiful.

Time to grow up.

There is No Such Word as Have

I had a “revelation” of sorts in recent years, which in retrospect many religions would (rightly)claim they thought of first: which is that much needless suffering and misery comes from the use of the meaningless yet toxic word “Have”. The word “Have” is a story, and almost pure fiction, as about the only thing you can truly be said to have is this moment in time, and the choice presented to you in that moment. All else in this saha world is like water, which slips through your fingers no matter how tightly you grasp.

To put things in perspective, wherever you see the word “Have” replace it with “Take Care Of” (or similar active verb), and the issue will become clear. Here is a short list of examples:

1. You do not Have a baby.  The reality is, for the next 18 years you will be Raising an Adult Human Being. You are required to study for years and get a license to be a psychiatrist or teacher or financial planner (skills needed for this task), and yet all you require to be presented with a high-maintenance creature such as a baby is puberty and a poor sense of future consequences.

2. You do not Have a million dollars (when you win the lottery). The reality is, you need to Take Care of Money for it to grow (or even stay the same). The sad thing is, most people do not know what Money is and how it works. If you stuff it in a mattress, inflation will make its magical power vanish. If you buy things with it, and those things do nothing useful, then they will break down and you will again have nothing. If you suddenly are given a million dollars, what you would need to Do is to study finance and accounting, and try to find investments (ie, business verntures people Do) that are productive and profitable.

3. (My recent example) You do not Have a house. The reality is, There are weeds to pull, Adobe bricks to repair, air filters to replace, pool water pH chemistry to maintain, mortgages to pay, and so on. If you do not Do these things and Take Care Of the House, it will break down, burn down, be condemned, and one way or another, it will go away. If you don’t think you would enjoy Taking Care of a House, then don’t buy it.

4. (This one really pisses me off) You do not Have a puppy. You are entrusted with what will soon be a much larger and  highly energetic border collie mix, a herder breed, who by her nature needs to be walked several times a day, given her shots, kept active and busy or she will eat and destroy your plants, shoes, blankets etc, and needs to be trained not to herd your other pets and kids. You need to be aware of all of this before you give your kids the cute little puppy, so that later you don’t renege on your promise and one day in frustration drive the dog out to a lonely stretch of highway in the southwest Utah desert, and abandon it on the road to be killed by cars or coyotes. If you do such a thing you also abandon your right to be called a Human(e) being. Only if the animal is very lucky, will she find a home occupied by people who take responsibility for the creatures entrusted to them, because they know there is no such word as Have.

5. You do not have Have a Life. You are Living.

Other examples are left as an exercise to the reader.

The Day Santa Wept

[My mother’s article, reprinted from The Argus]

The Day Santa Wept

By Lucille Mieher

It was early December, 1957, and I was climbing the steps to the second floor of the sprawling brick building. Looking down at my my bright red costume, I thought how fitting for a woman 8 1/2 months pregnant to play Santa Claus. No stuffing needed. A naturally round “jolly old elf.”

Stopping at a landing to catch my breath and adjust my wide black belt, my thoughts went back to September when this had its beginning. The young women’s club I had just joined had several pet projects, one of which was entertaining a ward at our local state mental hospital. Kentucky was having its typical Indian summer, I was suffering from the heat, and quite frankly secretly dreading this philanthropic chore.

“Let’s forgo the Bingo games today,” said the activities director, “and take the patients for a walk on the grounds. It’s cooler out there.”

As we gathered the people together, I noticed one young woman sitting on the floor, her back to the wall, her arms holding her knees tight against her chest, her head bowed.

“What about her? I inquired.

“Oh, that’s Evelyn,” the patients volunteered in unison. “She never does anything. Leave her alone.”

Ignoring their advice, I went over and touched her shoulder.


Slowly she raised her head and I saw that she was probably my age or a few years older. Her eyes were expressionless until she spotted my maternity top and the obvious condition beneath it.

“You’re pregnant, aren’t you.” It was more a statement than a question.

“Yes, I am, and we’re all going for a walk out under the trees. Come with us.” I held out my hand to her.

We went for a walk

She hesitated, then put her hand in mine and slowly rose from her crouched position.

As we walked, she began to talk, mostly about children. She asked questions: “When is your baby due? Is this your first? Do you want a bory or a girl?”

I said, “The baby is due in late December, I already have a three-year-old boy,l and I’m kind of hoping for another boy.”

Then it was my turn to do the quizzing, “Do you have children?”

She became pensive for a moment, and then, in almost a whisper, said, “Yes, I ahve two beautiful little girls, only a year apart in age. I’m not sure how long it’s been since I saw them. I do remember waving to them as they boarded the school bus. We live in the country.” Evelyn and I continued to walk and talk.

After the outing and a cool drink of lemonade, our club returned our charges to their ward. As I waved good-bye to my new friend, she called out, “Good luck. I hope you have another boy.”

Back as Santa

Now here I was back again, but this time eager, rather than apprehensive. I practiced my “Ho Ho Ho” one more time, and entered the ward.

As I handed out presents and candy canes to the patients, I kept scanning the faces in search of the one most familiar to me.

“Where’s Evelyn?” I asked the nurse who was plaing Santa’s helper.
“She’s not here.”

“Oh, no.” I was almost afraid to ask the next questino. “What happened to her?”

Seeing my distraught face, the nurse continued, “Don’t worry, it’s good. In Septermber — I guess it was soon after your group was here — she began to respond to treatment. She asked to see her husband and children. They visited her, and she was allowed to spend Thanksgiving Day at home with them. That went so well, and she showed so much improvement, the doctors granted here what we call a ‘furlough’ to spend the month of Deember with her family. With luck, she may never have to come back here.”

Needless to say, Santa stood there crying in his beard. Tears of joy.

Two weeks later, my son was born.

Book Review: Dreams From My Father

 Dreams from My Father

by Barack Obama

The woman who inspected my bag at the security gate of the Playboy Jazz Festival noticed the copy of Dreams from My Father that I had packed along with the wine and cheese. “Have you read it?” I asked. “No,” she said, “I’m a Republican.”

If I had asked whether she had ever heard Dave Brubeck in concert, I thought, would she have said, “No, I’m Episcopalian?” I took my bag and went inside, sad, puzzled and troubled by ill omens of things to come. I thought of Danny Glover’s character in the movie Grand Canyon in one scene where he said, “Oh, man, things ain’t supposed to be this way.”

Something has gone terribly wrong lately in the way people talk to other people, and by “other people” I mean people who do not happen to come from the same tiny enclave, church, cable channel, blog, twitter-feed or political clan. I don’t know why. It does not seem to be limited to the right or left, the religious or secular. There is a visceral, almost toxic reaction people seem to now have about “Others” that shuts down all discussion, all willingness to see the world through others’ eyes or even acknowledge that others may have legitimate reasons for thinking the way they do.

This is my second review of the Barack Obama book, Dreams from My Father. The first one I threw away. Which is sad, because I thought it was a very interesting study of Obama’s story in light of Joseph Campbell’s universal Hero-myth, comparing Obama’s spiritual search for his father with the myths of Orpheus, Gilgamesh, King Arthur, and yes, even Star Wars and Harry Potter.

All very interesting, yet none of it, I’m afraid, convincing to a security guard at the Hollywood Bowl to whom the face on the cover is in itself a conversation stopper. She doesn’t know what the book is about, and she doesn’t want to know. I’ve tried to think of what I could have said to this person that would have made her even consider the possibility of opening up a copy of the book and reading a paragraph or two. I could have tried saying something like this:

“Politics aside, this is a great book. Not only may you be surprised by what you learn about the author and his story, but you might learn something about yourself as well. And who knows? Wonder of wonders, you may actually find that you are enjoying the process of reading a well-written and engaging book by a talented author.”

. . . . which would all be true, but even then I doubt that she would be convinced. One look at his face on the cover and there is simply nothing to discuss.

And so we arrive at a major theme of Obama’s book: How can people from different worlds and different tribes ever learn to communicate with each other? Unless we learn how to do that there is no hope.

Dreams from My Father was based on work originally commissioned in 1991 by book publishers seeking to capitalize on the notoriety of a young Obama, fresh out of law school, and the first black editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. He had intended the book to be a systematic analysis and discussion of race relations in America, but as he confesses in the introduction, “When I actually sat down and began to write, though, I found my mind pulled toward rockier shores.”

Rocky shores indeed. As the son of Barack Senior, a black African man and Stanley Ann, a white mid-western woman, Obama’s very DNA is of two worlds conventionally considered mutually exclusive and antagonistic. Whether it was with his black friends’ refrain “that’s just how white folks will do you” or when his white grandmother was scared by a panhandler – not because he was big, but because he was black – the same theme emerges: people with whom he identified talked with fear about scary people from a foreign world called them, and Obama realized that in both cases he was them. In Dreams from My Father, after learning of his grandmother’s fear, he wrote:

The earth shook under my feet, ready to crack open at any moment. I stopped, trying to steady myself, and knew for the first time that I was utterly alone.

Indeed, the book is prefaced with a biblical epigraph from I Chronicles 29:15: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.” While the significance of the passage in referencing fathers is clear, the key I believe lies in the word sojourner, a stranger, passing through a place not his home.

The author has a talent for writing clean simple prose and allowing emotions to emerge in concrete external things. As the story opens, Obama has just received a long-distance phone call from a stranger who says that she is his Aunt Jane in Nairobi, Kenya with news that his long-absent father was killed in a car accident. He describes the moment like this:

That was all. The line cut off, and I sat down on the couch, smelling eggs burn in the kitchen, staring at cracks in the plaster, trying to measure my loss.

I love this passage. In one sentence the writer has marshaled all five senses into an elegant haiku about a single moment, the un-measurable despair dripping from the plaster cracks. The book is filled with such word-craft, making one eager to press on through the narrative for further rewards.

Though he initially planned to travel to Africa to attend the funeral, Obama decided at last not to go. In spite of this, the tragic event of his father’s death sets in motion the idea of a journey within Obama, a need to come to terms with the stories told about his father, and the stories he told himself, and a quest to find and reclaim his own identity and find a place called Home

In part one, Origins, he traces his childhood first in Indonesia and then Hawaii, growing up with his white mother and grandparents, attending college and ending with his memory of a brief and only visit from his father. He determines that he must somehow find him. In part two, Chicago, he embarks on an idealistic project working as a community organizer in the south side of Chicago. Things do not go well at first and the presence of machine politicians with agendas gums up the works. He eventually begins to have small victories, and in the process meets many people who later become significant in his life such as the controversial and outspoken Reverend Wright who coined the phrase “The Audacity of Hope.” In the third and final part, Kenya he travels to Africa and meets the Obama side of his extended family. He learns the long story of the Obama clan and the battles fought between his father and authoritarian grandfather.  culminating in a profound and gut-wrenching epiphany by the author at the stone-covered grave of the father he never knew.

The people who populate his story are complex and three dimensional human beings. You care about them even if they sometimes annoy you. Obama does not let you off the hook with easy stereotypes such as the “Caring Mother” or the “Corrupt Chicago Mayor.” People have reasons for what they do and often have doubts. Even in his self-portrayal, Obama relates his inner thought processes and dialectic struggles, and admits that he does not know all the answers — in a way that makes me understand now why he can sometimes be infuriating to both sides of the political spectrum. For Obama, as for all of us, the answers are never simple and sometimes our opponents really do have valid points.

It is not a spoiler to tell you that in the end Obama returns from his vision-quest and the transformation at his father’s grave with newly found wisdom. If our security guard at the jazz festival could read only one passage from this book that is the distillation of the contents, I could do no better than recommend to her (and you) the concluding words Barack Obama addresses to his father regarding the great and dangerous powers of the modern world and its only hope:

…That this power could be absorbed only alongside a faith born out of hardship, a faith that wasn’t new, that wasn’t black or white or Christian or Muslim but that pulsed in the heart of the first African village and the first Kansas homestead – a faith in other people.

How To Read a Poem

(after listening to one too many poetry readings)

How To Read a Poem

and for all that you keep holy please DROP
that whiny-assed sing-song whimper-will

you are reading to human beings
— do you hear? —
made of blood and clay
and sperm and shit and brains.

know your audience:

lovers who’ve fucked themselves into screaming madness
on wintry granite mountaintops, flecked with snow
amidst bristlecone pines born before Jesus

philosophers who’ve whittled matter down to quantum formula
and in one such coffee-stained scribble — for just a moment —
swore that they saw fingerprints of divinity

soldiers who’ve spit from sandy teeth
bits of friend’s livers and spleen
flung by roadside bombs in Basra

memento mori, dear reader at the podium:
you, too, will slam into a brick wall some day.

so speak from the rumbling earth,
and grumble that metaphor and essential trope
from your salivating cunt,
from your enraged cock,
and read like you’ve got a gun pointed to your head
(for you do),

and not like you’re ordering
a god-damned chamomile tea.

The Past Exists

When some Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door recently and asked about my own faith, I told them that I was a “secular buddhist” — which is to say I considered myself a non-theistic person guided by a scientific preference for direct evidence over dogma, and in grey areas of emotional and spiritual life and issues of teleology am informed by a more or less buddhist sensibility that rejects the split between this floating world and some Platonic ideal.


So, the perennial question arises: how does a purely secular person who does not embrace the colorful stories of an infinite, personal God and of an eternal, indestructable soul find Hope or Meaning in this one, small finite life amidst a cold impersonal universe ?

Consider this entry (and its title) to be my own offering to you all, in the spirit of the holidays. It’s a bit long winded and technical in parts, but if you can just suspend disbelief for the moment, I promise that by the end you will, at least, have a glimpse into another way of Looking at Things, that if not as bright and shiny as the stained glass of a church, is still a very good story in its own right, and at least makes the adventure of life seem a good and worthwhile thing, while simultaneously taking the hard and painful edge off of the prospect of inevitable Death. Not only that, but unlike most inspiring stories it may actually turn out to be true.

But First, a Little Astronomy

orionHere is a picture of the constellation Orion that I took a month ago, while standing outside our house on a cold and freezing midnight, watching the Geminid meteor shower (click to enlarge the photo). I put the camera on a tripod and set it for a 30 second exposure, cranking down the aperture so the stars wouldn’t be such large blobs. There is still a little bit of smearing in the picture due to the rotation of the earth.

There are many stars and nebulae inside this constellation, but the brightest and most noticeable ones consist of the four stars forming the outer corners of Orion, along with the three in the middle forming the “belt”. The orange star in the upper left corner, for example is the red-giant called Betelgeuese, which is approximately 640 light-years from earth. Diagonally opposite, in the lower right corner, is the blue supergiant Rigel, roughly 770 light years away. The other stars in the constellation range in distance from just 26 light years up to 32,000 light years away.

The Orion (Crab) nebula is difficult to discern in this picture, and I would need to go for a very long exposure (with telescope star-tracking mount) to bring it out clearly. It is one of the three “stars” that form a vertical “sword” beneath the belt. Parenthetically, two days after this picture was taken we watched a movie called “The Fountain” with Hugh Jackman, in which Orion and its Crab Nebula were featured prominently. An interesting movie, which reminded me a bit of “Pan’s Labyrinth” — but I digress.

A Simple Question
Before I go on, I would like to pose a question about your own beliefs: do you believe that those stars and nebulas in the Orion constellation actually exist, in the same way that the upholstered chair you are sitting in exists, and with the same, near-absolute, level of certainty? You don’t have to tell me your answer, just hold on to that thought for a moment.

What We Now Know
You might have noticed that when I listed out the stars in the constellation that I used the traditional unit of “light-year” to indicate how far away those stars were. It seems a bit strange, I’m sure, to have a time-flavored word like “year” involved in a unit of distance, but that is really an essential clue to the modern view of the universe. A light-year is simply the distance that light travels in the vacuum of space in a single year, roughly six trillion miles. It makes really big distances a lot easier to work with. There are twelve light-months in a light-year, for example, and sixty light-minutes in a light-hour. Our own sun is just eight light-minutes from Earth, which sounds a lot less daunting than 93 million miles.

Alas, like a parent with a child nearing puberty, the time has now come for us to sit down and have a mature, frank discussion about Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity. There is simply no way around it. Take a deep breath. The childhood days with all those stories you were told to make things simple have now passed. To get along in the world of adults, where Newton’s and Aristotle’s and Plato’s model of the world are quaint toys to be put away, you must unlearn some things you thought to be “True”, and try to accept what has been learned about the Way the World Works. Nobody wanted it to be this way, not even the scientists, not even Einstein, but the results of hundreds of thousands of experiments rejected all other possibilities, and with great humility the scientists had to let go of the old stories that they once held dear, and begin to think differently.

Here is the old story that they once held dear:

The world is all the stuff in space that you see around you, and time is something different, a thing that passes as the stuff moves around in space. The world moves through time.

Here is the new story, as told by Einstein:

Time is made out of the same stuff as space, and the two seemlingly different things are part of a single whole continuum we call the Cosmos.

spacetimeLike most children who have heard dark rumors about the adult world and what they do behind closed doors, you may have heard things about something called “space-time”. Almost certainly the rumors you have heard have come out mangled, half-truths, with the wrong picture. Most likely, the idea you have gotten is that “space-time” is something where you take the three dimensions of space in which our world exists, and then tack on a time-axis to make it four-dimensional. That is actually the old view, the one that Newton and Lagrange and all the others have always used. Here, for example, is a space-time diagram of the (blue) earth orbiting around the sun over the course of a year.

The new view is that what “space-time” means is there is really only a single substance (what should we call it? Spice?), and if you grab a glob of it near you, you can if you like draw some lines in it and call them “time” and “space”, but those lines are completely arbitrary, and the direction you travel through the “spice” are completely up to you. Space and Time are interchangeable, and the “exchange rate”, expressed as a ratio of space-per-time, just happens to be c, also known as the speed of light.

Thinking Differently
In this new view, there are many words which we have always used, which need to be modified or understood differently. Even the rules of grammar and syntax need to be changed.

For example, as I write this, there is a classical guitar in its case, leaning against the wall of my office, about ten feet from my desk. That is the old way of looking at things. Light travels about a foot in a nanosecond (a billionth of a second), and so the distance between me and my guitar can also be said to be about ten nanoseconds. In both cases I am measuring the same “spice”, using different units. The guitar that I am looking at is actually the one that existed ten nanoseconds ago. There is no difference between separation in space, and separation in time, because they are the same stuff.

As a parenthetical note, there is one old word that anticipated the modern view and which really should be revived: the word “Whence”. It refers to a location, but has the word “when” in it, merging the two ideas of space and time into one.

The thing that sparked the whole Special Relativity thing was the discovery that the speed of light is constant, as it passes through space time. What is not so well known is that this does not just apply to light, but that (according to relativity) every single thing, every single particle of any type in the universe passes through space-time at a fixed, constant speed, which is — surprise! — the speed of light. This speed never changes, ever; the only thing you can control is the direction, which can be more through time or more through space. Even if you are just sitting in your chair, not moving, in space-time you are traveling in an almost 100% “time-like” direction at the speed of light. If you then get in a spaceship and fly off, your motion will now be moving a lot faster through space and, since your speed through space-time is constant, it means you are traveling through time a bit slower. That’s why scientists say that folks who come back from space are a tiny bit younger than they would have been if they had never left. The clocks that they carry with them also appear to verify this.

So, what does all this have to do with life, death, meaning and immortality?

The Past Exists
If you may recall, I had asked you all if you would agree that the stars in the Orion nebula actually exist. The stars that we are talking about are far away, and I had noted that they ranged in distance from 26 light years to over 32 thousand light years away. From the new view of the world, a light year (in distance) is equal to a year (in time), since they both measure the same stuff. So, the star you are looking at that is 26 light years away is the light from that star that left 26 years ago. And the star that is 32 thousand light years away is also 32 thousand years in the past. And yet, you agreed with me that these particular stars exist.

This is true, because the one, difficult to believe, thing that appears to be correct is: The Past Exists.

Let’s be very clear about this: in every sense in which you customarily say something right in front of you exists, the things and events which we think of here and now as being in the Past, actually still exist, as real and as tangible parts of the Cosmos as the classical guitar that rests against the wall of my office, waiting to be played.

This is not an idle speculation, and it has real consequences. Let’s go back to the Orion constellation for a moment. There is a minor star in that constellation called “13 Orionis”, which is 92 light-years away. Let us suppose that you are still having a hard time buying the new idea that the past exists, but that you will grant me the likelihood that the star 13 Orionis has not gone anywhere in the last 92 years and so the same star is still out there, now, as we speak in “the present time”, where you agree that things-that-exist actually live. Suppose that around that star, right now, are orbiting some very powerful telescopes, which can not only see the Earth, but can pick out the people wandering around on it (this is technologically possible with big enough scopes). The light from Earth that they are receiving now left our planet 92 years ago, in 1917.

snow_1917Why did I choose this particular star? 1917 was the year that my grandparents, Lennye and Norvis (Nick), were graduating from highschool in Kentucky, already dating each other and trading letters. Anyone who is now manning the scopes around 13 Orionis and who decides to focus in on western Kentucky will soon be treated to the view of Lennye and Nick, laughing in the snow. Nick has already fallen to the ground and Lennye is about to pummel him with a snowball. They have their whole lives ahead of them, and the America that they know is young, the idea of World War does not exist yet. And they are alive and happy, now, as seen by those watching from the telescopes orbiting the star called 13 Orionis.

The Past Exists. Now. In this world we call the Cosmos.

Being Finite
Unless you are four years old, the idea that some of your friends now live a thousand miles away probably does not bother you. Nor should it. Sure, you do not have the ability to be both here and a thousand miles away, but as an adult you are able to sleep well, knowing that your friends are still alive and kicking, in their own homes a thousand miles away. If you push this a bit, it should also not bother you if they were instead a billion miles away, or even six trillion miles — which is to say, a light year — which is to say, a year in time. If a friend passed away a year ago, then, it should not bother you too much. If what we know now is true, your friends are still alive and kicking, in a part of space time that is a measurable distance away: twelve trillion miles, which is to say two light years. So, just as it does not bother you that your own life only spans five or six feet vertically and a foot or so horizontally, it should not bother you that your home in space time is roughly half a quadrillion miles in the long direction. That is the size of your home, and it’s where you live.

So Now What?
So what does this mean? What should a person who comes to accept this idea do with it. What should one do?

Here is my own suggestion, humbly submitted: it means that this life, this span of space-time in which we live our days, is a finite canvas on which we are free to paint whatever kind of experience we choose. The canvas, though finite and bounded in both space and time, is eternally part of the fabric of the Cosmos, and will at any moment once more become visible to someone, somewhere, somewhen, who chooses to look in that particular direction at that particular moment. So what it means is, you have only a small canvas on which to paint, so make it good, and to the best of your ability, make it beautiful.

Or, failing that, at least make it entertaining, and throw a few really good snowballs at someone that you like for good measure.

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