Thursday, January 18, 2018


Sulitest report logo
I received an e-mailing from an organization called "Sulitest", which stans (I think) for SUstainability LIteracy TESTing.  This is in fact one of the many ideas that are related to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro, 2012, and known as Rio+20 because it was a 20-year follow-up to the original Earth Summit also held in Rio - in 1992!

Specifically, Sulitest is part of the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI). The website says, By joining the HESI, Chancellors, Presidents, Rectors, Deans and leaders of Higher Education Institutions and related organizations, acknowledged the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development. They agree to teach Sustainable Development concepts, encourage research on sustainable development issues, make their campuses greener and more sustainable, support sustainability efforts in their communities and share results through international frameworks. 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Thy Word Is Truth

I was having my afternoon nap when my phone rang. Usually I remember to set it to "Do Not Disturb" during my nap, but this time I had forgotten.

"Hello, is that John?  This is Matthew" began a bright, cheery voice, obviously launching into a script of some sort. [Name has been changed.]

I grunted something incoherent, in the way one does when one has just been woken up. But "Matthew" was unstoppable.

"I'm a financial advisor.  I work with several of your neighbors and I'd like to help you too."

I grunted some more.

"Let's get some things straight. Tell me, do you have any investments with X or Y [two well-known mutual fund companies}?"

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Welcome to Newspeak

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a political satire written for its time (the late 1940s).  Orwell extrapolates the totalitarian direction of the Stalinism of his day, and imagines what would happen if it were combined with ubiquitous surveillance technology. In the world of the novel, truth is no longer a constant, an unchangeable record of how things really are.  Instead, "truth" varies from day to day according to the requirements of the Party.  If the size of the crowd at a certain event was declared, by the Party, to have been the greatest ever - why, then, it was the greatest ever, and any historical record suggesting otherwise needed to be adjusted [this example is not an actual incident from Nineteen Eighty-Four, but a similar though more extreme "changing of gears" occurs at the beginning of the crucial Chapter IX of the book]. In fact, the Ministry of Truth, where the book's hero, Winston Smith, works, has as one of its main functions this continuous 'adjustment' of the historical record. Winston rebels, but by the end of the book he has been brought back into line; he will declare even that 2+2=5 if his Party torturer demands it.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Waiting close

When we lost Eli - nearly two years ago now - a great many decisions had to be made in a hurry.  We quickly decided that his body should be cremated, but  what should be the resting-place for his remains? We are fortunate that there was a natural answer. Some years ago, wise and generous donors endowed our church with a columbarium - a place (actually part of the church building with a little garden) which provides spaces where the cremated remains of church members may be respectfully stored.  I love the symbolism here - that when we currently-living members enter in to worship we do so in the company of a whole fellowship  of believers extended backwards through time. In England one often enters the village church through the graveyard, receiving a similar message about the "communion of saints".

As you can see from the picture, each niche in the columbarium can hold two sets of remains.  When we laid Eli to rest, that did seem as though it might be a problem.  It was not long, however, before we found out that the space we had reserved for the second occupant was going to be needed soon enough - for me! So, once the stupid cancer has its stupid way with me, I will rest close to Eli as we both await the general resurrection.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Manifesto, Part II

A week or two ago I put up a post called Manifesto.   The idea was to ask myself what I - or what Points of Inflection - should be standing for in these serious days.  It looks as though my own days are short - but if they were long, if I were writing a manifesto for some kind of gathering or movement, what would I emphasize as centrally important?  And in such a document I'd want to bring together both the hard-headed mathematical analysis that I've tried to do, and also the spiritual or even "prophetic" critique which tries to understand the 'principalities and powers' that are in action behind the upheavals of recent times and which we can expect in the future.  So, in the first Manifesto post, I revisited the idea that materialism bears responsibility for our woes, and found it misguided: I felt our problem was that we did not revere materiality enough, not that we revered it too much.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

My mission statement

I can't remember, to be honest, when I first got the idea of a personal mission statement.  It was quite a while ago - I would say before the word "mission statement" had become part of standard managerial-ese, an idea to dread as much as to welcome.  Nowadays it sometimes seems that a highfalutin "mission statement", heavy on jargon and light on content, is a required component of any kind of planning for something new.  Dilbert, as usual, neatly satirizes the trend:

But wherever it came from for me - perhaps from Stephen Covey's Seven Habits, perhaps from thinking about my impending duties as department head, perhaps somewhere else - I found the idea of a personal mission statement a helpful one.  Not something that would necessarily set objectives for me every day - but something that I could review prayerfully, every day, to remind me what was important.  Various versions of this have lived with me over the years - currently it is incorporated into PrayerMate, the excellent iPad app that I use to remind me about daily prayer items. [Splitting it into daily items in this way has allowed me to add comments - "Move out of the comfort zone" has somehow acquired the comment "When was I last in it?"]  But while tidying up my desk (actually, while rectifying the consequences of near-disastrously spilling my drink around the router) I found an old copy with the nine points neatly listed.  I wondered if I should share them.  Please ignore these if they are of no use to you, but here they are:

John's Mission Statement

All to the glory of God
Succeed at home first
Communicate every day
Seek the heart of worship
Move out of the comfort zone
Teach from the heart
Prepare the ground for insight
Start with what matters most
Love alone endures

It is hard to write these things without being all too aware of how I have failed to live up to the aspirations they represent; but, as I approach the end of earthly life, I do feel that by and large those aspirations were solid ones, worth aiming for, and worth seeking Grace for when I miss the mark.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

“Mathematics for Sustainability” sent to Springer

Friends -

I am very excited to share with you the news that Mathematics for Sustainability has been sent off to Springer-Verlag, the publisher, for copy-editing.  During the past couple of months we have been responding to comments from Springer’s readers, and from other friends who have reviewed the manuscript for us, and their input has helped us significantly improve the book.  Now that work is done.

This is the next-to-final step in the publication process.  The copy-editors read the book looking for spelling errors, misplaced punctuation, and things like that.  This job will take a couple of weeks.  After that, we get to review and incorporate the copy-editors’ corrections (together with any additional minor changes of our own), and then return the final book version to Springer.  At that point everything is out of our hands and the physical process of printing can start.

It is so exciting to have reached this point! I would like to take the time to once again acknowledge (split infinitive! Don’t tell the copy-editor!) the enormous gift that my coauthor Russ deForest has made in bringing the project to completion, especially in recent months when illness has limited the amount I can contribute.  Thank you!

We were honored to hear a few days ago that as well as listing it in their series Mathematics of Planet Earth, Springer have also chosen our book to inaugurate a completely new publication series, Texts for Quantitative Critical Thinking.  This is a strong push from our publisher and helps convey their confidence in the work we have done.

We were also honored by a most gracious and lovely foreword contributed by Francis Su, past president of the MAA.   Here is part of what he wrote (addressed directly to students):

Here’s what stands out to me when I read this book: there are many math books that will feed you knowledge, but it is rare to see a book like this one that will help you cultivate wisdom.

There is a deep difference between knowledge and wisdom. A knowledgeable person may be armed with facts, but a wise person considers how to act in light of those facts. A knowledgeable person may think an answer is the end of an investigation, whereas a wise person considers the new questions that result. And a knowledgeable person might ignore the human element of a problem that a wise person deems essential to understand. As the authors illustrate, mathematics that pays attention to human considerations can help you look at the world with a new lens, help you frame important questions, and help you make wise decisions.

Amen!  I truly hope and trust that this book will help its readers cultivate wisdom.