Tuesday, December 23, 2014


The other day I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Nolan's new movie "Interstellar". I had been looking forward to this since I learned that the physicist Kip Thorne was "science consultant" for the movie and indeed was responsible for the original script idea. As an undergraduate I bought and attempted to read Misner, Thorne and Wheeler's Gravitation, a book about general relativity which seems large enough to generate a considerable amount of the force that it describes, and that book crystallized for me a fascination that had begun much earlier when I ran across the writings of Eddington. So, galaxy-hopping space travel through relativistic wormholes - what's not to like?

In fact, it is more the metaphysics than the physics that stuck in my mind. And I don't mean the stuff about time-traveling gravitational-wave messages sent by our future selves. Rather, the basic premiss: Earth is dying. Time to move on out. Our destiny is elsewhere. For the human beings of Interstellar it is true in the most literal sense that "this world is not (or is no longer) my home - I'm just passing through." The contrast between settler and nomad, between farmer and hunter, goes back to the dawn of civilization, and in Interstellar it gets set up once again before any of the characters have an inkling that a return to space is possible. "Some of us used to be looking to the stars", says Cooper, the hero, to his father-in-law, as they sit on the farmhouse porch and gaze across the acres of corn, the only crop that will still grow on a blighted Earth. "Now, we're just scratching in the dirt."

The distances between the stars are so vast that they are insurmountable by any technology that we can realistically conceive of constructing for ourselves. Interstellar gets round this problem by imagining that a shortcut through the fifth dimension has been constructed - and placed in orbit near to Saturn - by superhuman intelligences, "block beings" from the far future. But why are the "block beings" so determined to empower the old human fantasy of leaving Earth behind? Wouldn't it be easier for them to scatter the seeds of some blight-resistant crops right here on the home planet? Or are they perhaps - despite Interstellar's moving appeal to the power of love across generations scrambled by relativistic time-stretching - more turned on by the cold clean certainty of physics in a vacuum than by the messy reality of biology: of life in the dirt?

"No man" (or woman), wrote C.S.Lewis, "would discover an abiding strangeness on the Moon who could not already discover it in his own garden." That desire for the moon and the stars - Cooper's desire - has moved artists and scientists, authors and engineers, for millennia. When humanity is small and the world is vast, it perhaps does little harm to believe that we can always "move on". But in the age of the Anthropocene that same attitude is just a step away from a toxic Rapture fantasy. Does Interstellar avoid this danger? It certainly tries to, but I am not sure that it is wholly successful.

Yes, it's a movie, not a treatise. But, here in reality, as far as we know, there are no wormholes. There is no Planet B. Christ returns to rule and perfect this world, not to snatch us away from it.

Maybe it's time for some gardening. For a little dirt.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Presenting at TEDx

It's just been made public that I will be presenting at @TEDxPSU next March 1st.   The official announcement is on TEDx's Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/TEDxPSU) and the bio text is mostly copied from my Wikipedia entry, which makes me - and by implication the talk - sound super academic and scary.  (Especially since the previously announced speaker is PSU's football coach!)  

Anyhow, I plan to use my few minutes of fame to talk about the "Math for Sustainability" project.  I want to say two thingsThe first thing is that mathematics - the "measuring, changing, risking, networking" toolkit that I have identified as central to MATH 033 - helps us see clearly, helps us to understand the choices and tradeoffs we are making today and the consequences that we are accepting for tomorrow.   The second thing though is that this clarity will not somehow absolve us from accepting responsibility for our values, as though we could somehow outsource  ethics to a giant cost-benefit analysis.  Feel free to share how you think these two themes, and this tension, can somehow be conveyed in ten minutes of TED format.

I have just started working with "speaker consultants", etc, about the talk.  It is clear that this is going to be very different from the kind of math lecture where the speaker walks into the room, fumbles around for a stick of chalk, and just goes with the flow.  I am nervous - and excited!   If you pray, pray that I will do this right.  It's a great opportunity.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

AAR considers canceling scholarly conference, citing climate impact

Laurie Zoloth
H/T to @erikbfoley for alerting me to this news.

From the New York Times: "If the bioethicist Laurie Zoloth, the president of the American Academy of Religion, has her way, she’ll be remembered as the woman who canceled her organization’s conference, which every year attracts a city’s worth of religion scholars.

Two weeks ago, at her organization’s gathering, which is held jointly with the Society for Biblical Literature and this year drew 9,900 scholars, Dr. Zoloth used her presidential address to call on her colleagues to plan a sabbatical year, a year in which they would cancel their conference. In her vision, they would all refrain from flying across the country, saving money and carbon. It could be a year, Dr. Zoloth argued, in which they would sacrifice each other’s company for the sake of the environment, and instead would turn toward their neighborhoods and hometowns."

In earlier posts (here and here) I did some simple calculations about the environmental impact of academic air travel.   It is significant.   Kudos to Dr. Zoloth for drawing attention to the issue, and for her practical, "turning the hearts to home" proposal to make a change.

Read the whole NYT article here.

Photo credit: From the New York Times article linked above.  Believed to be fair use.


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Health update - 6 months

The road goes ever on
At the end of April I was admitted for surgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.  Over a delicate seven-hour operation, surgeons Kofi Boahene and Jeremy Richmon removed two tumors from the head and neck region.  One of them (Dr Richmon's) turned out to be cancerous, so after a month to get my strength back we returned to Hopkins in June (six months ago) for five weeks of intensive radiation treatment (Dr Harry Kwon) with supportive chemotherapy (Dr Christine Chung).

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

News of MATH 033

Here's a Penn State press release regarding MATH033!

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Back in 2008, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain famously argued whether properly inflating the tires on America's roads would be enough to offset the need to reopen offshore drilling.

After a semester in John Roe’s Mathematics for Sustainability course (MATH033), students will be able to whip out their calculators, estimate the numbers and make a determination about whether properly inflating tires is beneficial or not.

MATH033 is a newly introduced course at Penn State that will be offered in spring 2015. Through this unique course, the students will be able to study sustainability from a mathematics perspective.
“Engaged citizens need to be skilled in talking about these issues," Roe explained, “and not just glazing over when the numbers come up.”

The class will carry out specific case studies and analyze sustainability issues that range from local Penn State campus waste management to global warming. Students will learn how to analyze sustainability issues by asking fundamental mathematical questions: How large? How fast? How risky? How connected?

“This class is so different than any math class I've seen,” said graduate assistant Sara Jamshidi. “It introduces ideas and concepts that few people outside of math or research get to see, and I think it does so in a very down-to-earth way.”

The aim of the course is for students to become informed citizens who are able to engage in discussions about sustainable resources, pollution, recycling, economic change and similar matters of public interest.

“When most people think about math, sustainability isn't usually a topic that crosses their mind,” said teaching assistant Kaley Weinstein. “But almost any sustainable decision made by someone ultimately has math behind it.”

Weinstein continued, “Since sustainability can be applied to everyone's life, it is important that people know how the math behind sustainability works.”

This course fulfills a GQ (general education-quantification) credit and is intended for students who are not mathematics majors.

The course is scheduled to take place from 2:30 to 3:20 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 115 Osmond. It is limited to 40 students, so interested students are encouraged to register now.

For more information about Mathematics for Sustainability, visit www.sites.psu.edu/mathforsust. To learn more about sustainability at Penn State, visit www.sustainability.psu.edu.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Praying the Te Deum and Benedicite

"Let us now sing the first six verses of the Tedium".

That at any rate is how my mutinous younger self parsed the vicar's injunction, herded into traditional Anglican worship every Sunday morning at school, and by no means a believer at that time.  The vicar, also, seemed in a hurry to get on with the service - I don't think we ever recited more than the beginning of the canticle Te Deum Laudamus ("We praise Thee, O God") taken over by the Book of Common Prayer from the Catholic liturgy and thought to be written in the fourth century AD.  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

MOOC reflections

I'm three weeks into David Archer's Coursera course Global Warming: The Science and Modeling of Climate Change. There were several reasons I signed up for the course:
  • I'm interested in understanding climate science better, and this seemed a better way to get a first-shot overview than diving straight into a textbook like Pierrehumbert's Principles of Planetary Climate or Kaper and Engler's Mathematics and Climate.
  • I wanted to see whether there were ideas (both in terms of content and of teaching methods) that I could borrow for my Mathematics for Sustainability course next semester.
  • And, I had never taken part in a MOOC (massive online open course) and I was interested to see what the experience is like.
 So, three weeks in, how is it going?  A few thoughts.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Speed Kills

Fascinating article by Mark Taylor, chair of the department of religion at Columbia, in the Chronicle today.  It's titled "Speed Kills".  It takes a metaphorical cue from two-year-old op-ed in teh New York Times by Jared Bernstein, former chief economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.  The op-ed, entitled "Raise the Economy's Speed Limit", makes an analogy between the rate of GDP growth and the "speed limit" for the economy.  In other words, it confuses velocity with acceleration.

Taylor takes issue with the resultant vision of endlessly accelerating churn and what it does to human community.   Here are a couple of quotes:

In the past 50 years, two economies that operate at two different speeds have emerged. In one, wealth is created by selling labor or stuff; in the other, by trading signs that are signs of other signs. The virtual assets scale at a speed much greater than the real assets. A worker can produce only so many motorcycles, a teacher can teach only so many students, and a doctor can see only so many patients a day. In high-speed markets, by contrast, billions of dollars are won or lost in billionths of a second. In this new world, wealth begets wealth at an unprecedented rate. No matter how many new jobs are created in the real economy, the wealth gap created by the speed gap will never be closed. It will continue to widen at an ever-faster rate until there is a fundamental change in values.
and the final paragraph

Within the long arc of history, it becomes clear that the obsession with speed is a recent development that reflects values that have become destructive. Not all reality is virtual, and the quick might not inherit the earth. Complex systems are not infinitely adaptive, and when they collapse, it happens suddenly and usually unexpectedly. Time is quickly running out.

Read the whole thing here.

Photo by Kevin Kasper.  Public  Domain/Creative Commons License

Friday, October 10, 2014

"The Kingdom of God as a Steady State Economy"

Brian Czech
I wanted to give a shout-out to this article by Brian Czech at CASSE (the Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy).

He begins:
I’ll never forget the privilege, maybe five years ago, of addressing a small, interdenominational group of faith leaders in Washington, DC. They’d asked me to talk about limits to economic growth and to give a synopsis of the steady state economy as an alternative to growth. We then went around the group, perhaps eight in all, and discussed the issues. One pastor, deep in thought, summarily theologized, “The steady state economy; now that’s the Kingdom of God.” I can hear it like it was yesterday.
 He goes on to reflect on an ecological interpretation of Isaiah's "all flesh is grass", and the trophic levels in the human economy analogous to those in the natural economy.  Good stuff.

But then he writes, in a couple of paragraphs devoted to population issues at the end of the article, "My theology is amateurish at best, but isn’t the Kingdom of God supposed to lead to the final Kingdom of Heaven? It would seem that, at some stage, after life on Earth, the Kingdom of Heaven comes to its fruition of souls..."

I don't really understand what is intended here, although I don't think that using "heaven" to relativize "earth" is good environmental theology.  But I'm not writing this post to criticize Czech's article but to say how interesting it is to see the folks at CASSE explicitly making such a theological connection.  Someone should take it further!

Article link

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

We're in the Daily Collegian!

The Daily Collegian, Penn State's student newspaper, ran an article on "Math for Sustainability" yesterday (coincidentally, my birthday).

I am hopeful that this will help get the word out about this course and encourage students to sign up.  (Anybody reading this who is interested is welcome to contact me directly.)

Here's the start of the article:  "A new math class at Penn State will focus on sustainability.  This spring a new math class titled MATH 033: “Mathematics for Sustainability” will be offered at University Park, Professor John Roe said. The class has a focus in economic and environmental sustainability."

Read the rest

Sunday, September 28, 2014

I am a MOOCer!

As I get ready for the anticipated launch of "Mathematics for Sustainability" next semester, I am very interested in what other people are teaching along similar lines.

How are they communicating scientific concepts without getting sunk by advanced mathematics?

How to manage online course materials (I am intending to have a significant blogging requirement in MATH 033)?

And I'm just excited to connect with other faculty who are see sustainability education as an important task across the disciplinary "silos" of the modern university.

These thoughts encouraged me to become a MOOC student in a course taught by David Archer at the University of Chicago.  It starts tomorrow so there is still time to sign up if you want to! 

The course, called Global Warming: The Science and Modeling of Climate Change, is available through the Coursera platform.  According to the course web site, "This course assumes no scientific knowledge and is geared toward a general audience. The problem sets require high-school-level algebra."

That may be of interest to some other readers of this blog, as well as to me. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On the starting line for MATH 033

After a series of setbacks (bureaucracy... cancer... my own dilatoriness, probably) we are finally ready to do with "Mathematics of Sustainability" for next semester.

For any Penn State students reading this,  the course will be MATH 033 at 2:30 on MWF... sign up now!  (I attended an event organized by Penn State Net Impact this evening, and they will circulate info about the course, but all students with an interest in sustainability should consider it.)

Here's the official announcement and link to the course web site.  Preliminary versions of the course materials are available at the web site and I'd welcome comments or suggestions.

A new course, MATH 033 - Mathematics for Sustainability, will be introduced at University Park this spring.  This course meets GQ requirements and is designed primarily for students not in scientific and technical majors (which is also the case with MATH 034, MATH 035, and MATH 036).  Its key mathematical ideas of measurement, change, risk and connectivity are integrated around the central theme of environmental sustainability.   Students completing the course will gain the quantitative skills needed for informed participation in discussion of sustainability at the local, national and global levels.  More information can be found at the course website: http://sites.psu.edu/mathforsust/

Image by Peter Griffin from Public Domain Pictures.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Paul Krugman's Despair

A couple of important economic reports this week lay out the argument that climate mitigation measures such as a cap and trade or carbon taxation would not accrue nearly such high short-term costs as might at first be expected.  One of these is from the International Monetary Fund ("Carbon Pricing: Good for You, Good for the Planet") and the other, the New Climate Economy Report, is authored by a blue ribbon panel advised by top economists.  The message from both reports is that when one accurately counts even the short term benefits of carbon pricing measures (e.g. reductions in mercury pollution from coal burning) they will outweigh the short term costs.

Over at the New York Times, star economist Paul Krugman uses these reports to argue against the "dangerous" doctrine of what he calls "climate despair": that the "only way to limit carbon emissions is to bring an end to economic growth."  As he points out, this assertion can cut two ways: on the right, to claim that since growth must continue at all costs, we cannot afford climate policies that might reduce it; or on the left, to argue that physical constraints will sooner or later bring growth to an end, and that we should start planning for that era now.

It's the second of these positions that seems particularly baffling to Krugman.  With astonishment, he acknowledges that even some hard scientists argue that economic growth is physically constrained - according to Krugman, because "...they don't understand what economic growth means.  They think of it as a crude, physical thing..."

Apparently, if those like UCSD physicist Tom Murphy truly appreciated the non-physical (a.k.a. spiritual, what else should we call it?) aspect of economic growth, they would understand how it could float free of those pesky laws of thermodynamics!

In their book How Much Is Enough?, Robert and Edward Skidelsky demonstrate that from Adam Smith to Keynes and beyond, economists treated "growth" (they would probably have said "improvement") as a short-lived phase through which they hoped societies would pass until they reached the stage of "enough", the point where all their citizens could enjoy the resources needed for a good life.   It is only recently that "growth" has become detached from the objects that it was sought in order to attain, and has become regarded as an end in itself.

From this perspective, and whatever the short-term costs and benefits analyzed in the two reports I mentioned (and all can agree that the news in them seems good), the environmental limits revealed by climate change are important news, an euaggelion, not a message of despair: a message that calls humanity back to what really matters.

Message to Krugman: Crying "More" for ever is not what really matters.  Growth is an idol.  And bowing down to an idol is the true despair.

Image of Paul Krugman from the New York Times, believed to be fair use.
EDITED: Response to Krugman by Paul Heinberg of Post Carbon Institute here.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Light in the Brain

"You won't feel anything", they assure you the first time you head in to the radiation machine.  "It's just like a CAT scan".

That's almost true.  But, every time, for the first few cycles, I see a series of bright flashes at the periphery of my vision.  Though not everyone has this experience, it is fairly common among patients receiving radiation to the head.  The flashes are there just the same whether my eyes are open or shut.  They don't correspond to any actual light in the world outside.  Instead, they arise directly from stimulation of the brain (or the optic nerve) by the gamma-ray beam - tampering with the perceptual process and making me see things that aren't really there.

There's something a bit disquieting about this experience.  It disrupts our common way of thinking that the mental and the physical aspects of our existence are two quite separate realms, interpreted in different ways, with traffic between them permitted only at a few well-understood border posts.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Addleton Tragedy

Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle wrote fifty-six short stories about his detective hero, Sherlock Holmes.  The narrator, Holmes' companion Dr Watson, regularly tells us that his writings are only a selection form Holmes' case-book, and the hints he drops about Holmes' extra-canonical exploits are endlessly fascinating.  Who could not wish to learn more about "the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared" (The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire)? Why couldn't the whole story about "the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant" be given to the public (The Veiled Lodger)?  What exactly did Holmes infer from "the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day" (The Six Napoleons)?  And what were the "singular contents of an ancient British barrow" which gave rise to the Addleton Tragedy (The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez)?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Health update - week 14 or so

It must be good news that I can't remember what treatment week I am in now.  I've met a couple of people this week who've told me that they are reading this blog regularly, and wondered how I was doing because I haven't posted an update for a while.  It is such an encouragement to hear from people who care!   Speaking for myself, I would suggest, if you have a friend who is sick or grieving or troubled, and you feel that you "don't know what to say" to them - then reach out!  It says so much when you reach out,  saying (or doing) something rather than nothing, that you shouldn't worry too much about saying absolutely the right thing.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Information Aversion

In II Chronicles 18, the kings of Israel and Judah, Ahab and Jehoshaphat, make an alliance to go to war together.  Before they march out, though, Jehoshaphat makes a request: "Inquire first for the word of the Lord."  Ahab "gathered the prophets together, four hundred of them" and they unanimously proclaim that victory is at hand. Jehoshaphat though is not fully convinced: "Is there not here another prophet of whom we may inquire?".  Grudgingly, Ahab admits "There is one, Micaiah ben Imlah...but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but always evil."

Ahab is suffering from information aversion - he is strongly motivated not to know, indeed he is willing to pay a price to ignore, what Micaiah may be going to tell him.  In Azimuth today, John Baez has a great post on some modern research on this topic, and its implications for climate change.  It begins:

Why do ostriches stick their heads under the sand when they’re scared?

They don’t. So why do people say they do? A Roman named Pliny the Elder might be partially to blame. He wrote that ostriches “imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed.”

That would be silly—birds aren’t that dumb. But people will actually pay to avoid learning unpleasant facts. It seems irrational to avoid information that could be useful. But people do it...
Read the rest here

Photo: Ostrich, mouth open CC BY 3.0
Donarreiskoffer - Own work

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Update - Week 9

Dinner cooking
"Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible".  That's an old phrase which seems rather apt as I slowly recover from the treatment effects and try to get back towards a slightly more ordinary life.  Here are a couple of matters that have been at the front of my mind over the last couple of weeks.

1. Food - For the final week of treatment and the first two post-treatment weeks, it was difficult to eat anything at all.  I would sit in the morning in front of a small bowl of Shredded Wheat, slowly maneuvering one biscuit after another past the sorest spots in my mouth; when, with a sense of great accomplishment, I finished the last one, I would find that an hour had passed.  Now the mouth pain has largely gone away and I am (sometimes) energetic enough to start cooking for the family again, as well as eating the results - see the photo of this evening's dinner. In place of the pain on eating, I find that my sense of taste is completely muddled up, with some foods tasting extraordinarily bland, and others - especially anything spicy or alcoholic - producing fireworks of flavor at the slightest drop.  (I incautiously ordered fish tacos in a restaurant the other day - I doubt they were really that spicy, but it was though I had never experienced chili peppers in my life!)

A couple of years ago, one of the retreats I made with GreenFaith was at a Buddhist community in Ulster County, NY.  An abiding memory from that time is of sharing meals with the community.  One aspect of Buddhist teaching is "mindfulness" or giving focused attention to what is happening in the present.  It was extraordinary to see the focus the community members gave to fully experiencing the food they were enjoying (wonderful food, by the way) and it reminded me how so much of our US food experience is of eating without enjoying, almost without noticing.  In a strange way I hope that these weeks, in which eating has been so laborious, will help me more fully remember to enjoy the gift of food even when eating becomes physically easier.

2. Strength - This last week has been one of surprising physical exhaustion - hours of sleep, hard to move, lack of energy.  This may have been caused by some kind of infection which I think I am getting over, I am not sure.  This kicked in more or less as the radiation and eating issues were receding, so that the pattern of "always something new" seems to be continuing.  For days in a row I was unable to do much in the way of writing or mathematical work, and though I have enjoyed reading a lot of books I am feeling like I should be doing more.  I think "should" is probably a dangerous word when recuperating in this way, but there are still some things that definitely need to be done!

One consequence of this exhaustion is that I have once again decided to postpone the start of the Math for Sustainability course which I have blogged about many times over the past year.  From being planned for this fall, we have now postponed to next semester, Spring 2015.  This also has been a story of many postponements, and this last one is the most frustrating of all.  But my level of exhaustion was such that I could not imagine teaching an undergraduate class, and it did not seem fair to gamble on recovering my strength before the seemster began.  Stay tuned for more...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Update - Week 7

The sinister DEVICE
It's been a couple of weeks since I posted an update on my health issues- two weeks during which I finished radiation treatment at Johns Hopkins, came home, and (in theory at least) started to recuperate.  If I say that I keep trying to post an update but then finding myself asleep, you will realize that these have also been two weeks when I have felt extremely tired... tired enough to have almost fallen asleep on my feet, now and again.

At my final meeting with Dr Quon, he seemed pleased with my progress but warned me that for the first two or three weeks after treatment, my body will continue to react as though treatment was still going on.  As well as the tiredness, that means continuing mouth sores, and continuing high doses of narcotic medications to manage the pain that they cause.  Just over a week after the end of treatment I do notice a slight improvement in the mouth issues, but that has been offset by radiation burns on the skin of my face and neck, something like a really, really bad sunburn.  Again, this was not unexpected, and can be managed with appropriate medication - but it was a surprise that the burns suddenly manifested themselves acutely after radiation treatment was over.  We had a difficult weekend taking care of these, but things have improved yesterday and today.

I had taken a picture of the radiation burns, but hesitated about using it in this post because it does look a bit gory.  Fortunately, a FedEx box arrived today with something less scary-looking that I can photograph instead.  The DEVICE (officially, the "TheraBite Jaw Motion Rehabilitation System") was prescribed by speech pathologist Heather Starmer because she is concerned that radiation and surgery has constricted my maximum jaw opening - if it continues this could make it hard for me to eat and talk, or for a dentist to look around inside my mouth.  Despite my following (more or less) a course of jaw exercises, my maximum opening has gone down again, so I am going to need to use this contraption regularly to expand my mouth.  Once this post is done I have to watch the instructional video to find out how it works...

In my last post I wrote, "I am rejoicing that the end is in sight".  That "end" has come and gone and, as so often in life, it has turned out to be more of a way station than the end of the line: after it, there are still medications to be taken, pain to be managed, exercises to be done.  Nevertheless, I will continue to rejoice.  I have so much to be thankful for and (cliche though it is) this illness and treatment has made me all the more aware of that.  "I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart." (Psalm 86:12a)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Update - Week 5

As well as being an update on my current situation this is a practice post from the iPad using the Blogsy app, so I am not really sure how the formatting will come out - we shall see!

Anyhow, as of today I am DONE WITH CHEMO which amkes me extremely happy. Even though I have mostly avoided the worst side effects of chemotherapy, my body has still taken a beating, especially these last two weeks. Tuesdays have been rough days. So "no more" of that is excellent news.

As far as radiation is concerned I have 6 of my 48 treatments left: two tomorrow, two on Thursday, and two next Monday. These have also been getting harder but I'll make it through.

The hardest thing to contend with has been the mouth sores which I have mentioned before. These have got to the point now that eating anything at all is slow, tedious, and painful. I am taking pretty heavy doses of opiates to deal with the pain, and I am sure that without them I would not be able to eat, or talk, at all.

So, things are getting harder, but I am rejoicing that the end is in sight!


Thursday, June 19, 2014

Book review: "Reason in a Dark Time"

I've wanted to do a review of Dale Jamieson's Reason in a Dark Time for a while. (Besides, it will make a change from the personal posts.) Subtitled "Why the struggle against climate change failed, and what it means for our future", this is not a feel-good story about international efforts to stabilize the climate.  Instead, Jamieson tells the story of the period from the Rio Earth Summit (1992) to the Copenhagen conference (2009) as a tragedy: a narrative that, starting with high hopes, has now, thanks to the flaws and mixed motives of the participants, ended by "locking in" a level of global warming above the threshold that they had originally decided they must avoid.   As a philosopher, Jamieson wants to ask two questions: What made this tragedy inevitable?, and What resources do we have to move forward from here?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Halfway mark

Perhaps I need a few more different meds...

We're approaching the half way point for my treatment and I'm beginning to notice some side effects.   Not that I don't have plenty of medications to reduce the side effects.  And medications to counter the side effects of those medications.  (I don't think I have yet advanced to the third order of medication-indirection.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

News from the Chemofront

Radiation machine
We're about 30 percent through the chemo/radiation regime here and I wanted to post an update on how things are going.

The first thing to say of course is that as far as success or failure in actually treating the disease is concerned, no-one can say what's happening.  We're not attacking a substantial tumor here which one might see shrinking: we are looking to eliminate invisible microscopic bits which might have been left behind even by the marvelously skilled surgery that I received in April.  So, no news (and let's hope that is good news).

So what I'm more focused on right now is the side effects of radiation (sores in the mouth, difficulty swallowing, stiffness of muscles) and chemotherapy (nausea, taste changes, sun sensitivity) and how well I am managing them.  And in that respect the news is good so far.  I have some sores starting, but I am still enjoying my food and actually gaining a little weight (I am under instruction to load up now because it may be harder later) and the pain is managed well by Dr Quon's drug regime.  And I have had no chemo-related nausea yet.  Thanks, Zofran!   (Even though you make me constipated.  In fact, pretty much all the meds seem to have that effect...)

Apart from "eat plenty and healthy" the other instruction I received was to keep exercising and that I've managed to do so far.  There is a gym with cardio and weights on the Hopkins campus - intended for staff, but long term patients like me can get access.  I've been there regularly and the other day was able to make it out to an Earthtreks climbing wall as well. So that seems good news.

And I am beyond blessed by the cherishing care of my wife Liane.  When I get confused or frightened or angry, her wisdom and love are like a refreshing drink of cold water on a broiling summer's day.  When we made those "in sickness and in health" vows back in 1986, we meant them: but somehow I hadn't really thought through what it would mean to be the person who receives the cherishing, the sick one, the needy one.  We so like to think of ourselves as strong, don't we?  Well, sometimes we're not.

For the future: I've had an easy start, and I've met a lot of people who are in a much worse place than I.  I expect the next couple of weeks will be harder than these last ones have been, so keep me in your thoughts and prayers (if you pray).  I so much appreciate all the messages of support that you've sent via Facebook or email or whatever.  They touch my heart.  Thanks a bunch!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Another Adventure

Liane and I are off to Baltimore tomorrow for me to begin radiation and chemotherapy at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.   Treatment will be every day for several weeks, and we are privileged to be able to stay at the Hackerman-Patz apartments which are right next door and are intended for those who have come from far away to receive treatment at the Center.

I can't help thinking of old Bilbo Baggins: "I think I'm quite ready for another adventure".

I'm not altogether sure that I'm ready for this adventure, but, ready or not, here it comes.  I'll post a few updates to this blog.  I'm hoping to keep the regular material going too (right now I'm thinking about an analysis of the "Solar Roadways" video which many friends have reposted...)  Meanwhile, I find myself chewing on the words of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong — body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Wanted: a theology of mining (part 5)

"Brotvermehrungskirche BW 3" by Berthold Werner - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
This morning I was reading in Matthew's gospel the story of Jesus' miraculous feeding of five thousand.   Matthew locates this sign directly after the death of John the Baptist: after the banquet which Herod gives  (which turns out to be no celebration for him but a feast of shame and death), Jesus is host at a different kind of meal, showcasing a different sort of abundance...

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:13-21)

Friday, May 23, 2014

After Diagnosis

'Earth' photo (c) 2009, tonynetone - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Someone told me that your life splits into B.C. and A.D.   That's Before Cancer and After Diagnosis.

That's a tad melodramatic for me.  But the moment after diagnosis really is one when, all of a sudden, the world looks completely different.  Suddenly, going on with life as usual is no longer a possibility.  The default option is no longer an option.

Of course I still do have an option not to accept treatment.  I could say that the side effects seem too unpleasant, or that getting treatment shows a lack of faith, or indeed that the medical establishment is just out to make money by tormenting its patients.  But declining treatment would not magic me back to the world B.C.

No, even though cancer treatment is scary and unpleasant - even though it is full of uncertainties and probabilities - even though there is a huge amount we don't know - the right thing for me to do is to follow the best advice I can obtain, to take this journey through chemo and radiation.  Once I understand that the default option is no longer an option, it becomes clear that treatment - the fear-laden, disruptive option - is the right option.

The ancients made an analogy between the microcosm (the human body) and the macrocosm (the whole planet).  Seems to me that regarding human-caused climate change and environmental degradation, the macrocosm is also living in the period After Diagnosis.

The question is whether we are able to accept and act on the claim that "the default option (business as usual) is no longer an option."   Will we take the scary road to treatment?  Or will we keep trying to wish ourselves back to B.C.?


A couple of other pieces making the same analogy at greater length:
Image from Wylio.com

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Health update

Life on the edge
It's the fourth Sunday after Easter.  Cranmer's collect for this week is one of my favorite prayers:
O ALMIGHTY God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
It's also two weeks since Liane and I learned that I have cancer.  An operation on April 28th removed a carcinoma of the parotid gland - that is one of the glands in your neck, below your ear, which make saliva. The operation will be followed up by radiation therapy and chemotherapy, which will begin on June 2nd.

Life can change in a moment (a true "point of inflection").  And yet where true joys are to be found does not change.  They never were in the now-threatened future accomplishments, the memorials I might dream of building.  They are hid with Christ in God, in his eternal present.

I'll mingle some updates and information about how I'm getting on with the other reflections on this blog.  I hope that will be okay for readers: of course, feel free to skip the more personal stuff if you don't know me and/or it is TMI for now.

Grace and peace


Saturday, May 17, 2014

At Bertram's Hotel

Towards the end of her long reign as England's Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie wrote a book which seems, at first, to be an exercise in pure nostalgia: At Bertram's Hotel

Miss Marple, the village detective whom Agatha Christie introduced more than thirty years before in Murder at the Vicarage, is now old and frail, and the apparently immutable background of her life - with its minor gentry, its middle-class gossip, and indeed its Vicarage - has gone down like hay before the scythe.  By courtesy of her nephew she spends a couple of weeks in London at Bertram's Hotel, where it seems that the social certainties still hold in full force:
..you felt, almost with alarm, that you had re-entered a vanished world.  You were in Edwardian England once more.
At Bertram's, seed cake is still served for tea, sundry aristocrats and clerics populate the dining room, and breakfast is delivered by "a real chambermaid looking unreal... a smiling, rosy, countrified face.  Where did they find these people?"  The reader, lulled into an indulgent sympathy with the author who seems to be allowing her alter ego to enjoy they pleasures of a vanished age one last time,   misses the insistent sounding of the note of unreality.  What was once (in Miss Marple's youth) the ordinary way that her world operated has been simulated, by artifice and at considerable cost.  By the end of the book we understand that Bertram's is a facade for an elaborate conspiracy: a work of art, but, as Miss Marple remarks, "it is sad when a work of art has to be destroyed".

I was enjoying the book again just a few days ago when it occurred to me what a clear-eyed view of a certain temptation the book presents.  Within the world of the novel, we don't presume to question the lifestyle of Miss Marple's youth.  But she is sensitive enough to realize  that, whatever its past, it cannot be continued into the present without one's becoming an accomplice, even if unwittingly, in an extractive criminal enterprise.  Bertram's Hotel can serve as a metaphor for other unreal facades powered by extraction.  We may expect to see more of them.


The video above is of the incomparable Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in the BBC adaptation of At Bertram's Hotel.

IMO, the best critical analysis of Agatha Christie's novels is Robert Barnard's A Talent to Deceive.  As Barnard points out, there are other novels in which Christie enlists the reader's sympathy for social stability as a device to mislead, most notably The Patriotic Murders (=One, Two, Buckle My Shoe in UK).

Friday, May 9, 2014

Hardy and Beck

I was reading Richard Beck's new book The Slavery of Death last week (I love everything this guy writes - head over to his blog Experimental Theology for more). With his trademark blend of theological and psychological analysis, Beck explores the idea that "our slavery to the fear of death often manifests as idolatry, as service rendered to suprahuman forces", such as apparently durable and meaning-making institutions, cultures, or value systems.

And he argues that it is insofar as I receive my identity as a gift from outside myself, through Christ the kenotic giver, that I am set free from the fear of failure, or meaninglessness, which are so pervasive in our world and which Beck would see as neurotic mutations of the basic fear of death itself.

The mechanism that Beck identifies seems to be involved in the questions we've been thinking about under the heading "Creation and Meaning", where I've referred to the threat to the "meaning-making project of the future" posed by the scientific news that humanity's current planet-wide growth trajectory is probably unsustainable.

It's also visible in ordinary professional life.  In A Mathematician's Apology, Hardy writes
Mathematical fame, if you have the cash to pay for it, is one of the soundest and steadiest of investments.
But his argument doesn't seem able to assuage his anxiety
 Yet how painful it is to feel that, with all these advantages, one may fail. I can remember Bertrand Russell telling me of a horrible dream. He was in the top floor of the University Library, about A.D. 2100 . A library assistant was going round the shelves carrying an enormous bucket, taking down books, glancing at them, restoring them to the shelves or dumping them into the bucket. At last he came to three large volumes which Russell
could recognize as the last surviving copy of Principia Mathematica. He took down one of the volumes, turned over a few pages, seemed puzzled for a moment by the curious symbolism, closed the volume, balanced it in his hand and hesitated.…
In the Apology, Hardy begins by describing himself as "a man who sets out to justify his existence and activities".  For years, I have hardly been able to read those words without a tear.  Thank God that the business of "justifying  our existence and activities" does not rest with us. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Creation and Meaning III

In the first post in this series, I reflected on the "meaning-making narrative" about the future that many of us tell ourselves - the narrative of the open frontier, of endless resources, available to human skill and ingenuity, that may be deployed for human good. (I say "human good" because I want to be clear that the implications of the "open future" narrative don't have to be simply selfish or greedy - they can equally include sincere and admirable work to secure human flourishing or eradicate poverty or disease.)

And I suggested that much of the passion with which we resist the idea that our planet's resources are limited (and contemporary climate science, in suggesting that our resources for absorbing carbon dioxide are limited, is simply the most salient such idea) comes from the threat that it poses to this narrative and to the sense of meaning thereby constituted.  Rather than being spiritual subjects, creators and tellers of stories, we have to get used to thinking of ourselves as physical objects whose ingestions and excretions tether us to a single, small planet.  There is no "elsewhere" whence our food comes and whither our wastes go.  Through the narrative of the open future we seem at times to be flying, freely, above the earth:  but then (to borrow some words of C.S.Lewis written in an entirely different context) we feel "the sudden twitch that reminds us we are really captive balloons".

Then in my second post I looked to Easter for the source of a different meaning-making narrative. It might seem though that the Easter story fits all to cosily into our original story, the story of the open frontier.  After all, isn't the "open frontier" story one of humanity transcending apparent physical limitations? And what physical limitation is more basic than death?  Isn't Jesus' resurrection some kind of guarantee of access to a new realm of reality, one where we are no longer "captive balloons" subject to physical constraints, where unlimited resources truly are available? And if so, doesn't Easter challenge us to focus our attention on that realm, whatever good (or bad) may be happening to this creaky old planet?

Well, no, I don't think so.  As Tom Wright puts it,

Jesus's resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.  (Surprised by Hope)

But that will have to wait for another post. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Creation and Meaning, II

In last week's post I talked about how climate-change science seems to threaten a master meaning-making narrative of our society, the story of "opportunity" or "achievement", of the open frontier where wealth awaits the one bold enough to seize it.

The fact that this narrative is not working out so well at present (with the huge majority of economic gains being made by the already enormously wealthy) will not undermine the fervor with which it is believed by those already committed to it.  For those without prior commitments though - perhaps those who are just entering the workforce - the plausibility of this master narrative is already failing.

But no master narrative is abandoned simply because of its own internal inconsistencies.  When it falls, it will do so because someone else has a stronger story to tell - a story which yields a deeper insight, a greater truth.

At Easter time, I remember that the Church claims to be the custodian and messenger of such a story.

(To be continued)

Painting of the Resurrection by Raphael (file: Wikimedia Commons)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Creation and Meaning

Philip Johnson's Reason in the Balance is a classic of neo-creationist or "intelligent design" literature. Having (at least according to the jacket blurb) "demolished... the scientific case for Darwinism" in an earlier book, he sets out in this one to explore its moral and social consequences.  "Darwinian evolution", he announces near the beginning of his first chapter, "is important not as a scientific theory but as a culturally dominant creation story."  And he continues, "If we want to know how to we ought to lead our lives and relate to our fellow creatures, the place to begin is with knowledge about how and why we came into existence."

Whether or not one agrees with the rest of his book, I think that Johnson is on to something here.  It is a huge misunderstanding to think of "creationists" as persons committed simply and inexplicably to a literalistic reading of Genesis (indeed, Johnson is no literalist). Rather, creationism's passion stems from a sense that meaning is under threat: that an elite group is at work undermining (whether knowingly or not) the narratives that make ordinary people's lives morally significant.

But the past ("how and why we came into existence") is not the only locus of these meaning-making narratives.  Like Gatsby's green light, the future also draws us on - opportunity, prosperity, success, achievement.  This narrative has long been especially potent in North America: Lord Dunmore wrote in 1774 that Americans "for ever imagine the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled...if they attained Paradise, they would move on if they heard of a better place farther west."

I suggest that the fairest way to understand the antagonism generated by climate-change science is as a reaction to a similar perceived threat to the meaning-making narrative of the future. The IPCC can easily fit the perception of an out-of-touch elite whose dictates undermine the narratives by which ordinary people guide their lives.  Moreover, I doubt that any amount of calibration of climate models will change that: the science itself is not the threat, but its assumed ideological implications.  (Would such intensity be aroused by a discussion of the climate on Venus or Mars?  The question answers itself.)

To be continued...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Letter from Middletown

I'm in Middletown, CT, this evening having just given the mathematics department colloquium at Wesleyan University.

Wesleyan is a medium sized liberal arts college which supports a PhD-granting science and math program.  My invitation was an unusual one.  It said, "We'd like to hear about your research in geometry and we'd also like to hear about your ideas on sustainability education." So I tried to come up with a one-hour talk that would combine both themes into some kind of conceptual unity.  In the end I just went with a one-word title: Growth.

I started off talking about the old chessboard legend: you know, the one where the king promises to reward the inventor of chess by granting him whatever he may desire, and the savvy inventor asks with pretended modesty for just one grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard, two on the second, four on the third, and so on.  That and so on conceals the terrifying power of exponential growth which by the 64th square would demand a rice mountain five miles high - half a trillion tons of rice or about 1000 times the amount produced each year everywhere on earth.

I went on to consider the superficial geometry of exponential growth: the fact that there is no "deep inside"   an exponentially growing system, it is all "on the surface", and the expression of this through uniformly bounded homology and Ponzi schemes.  I talked about some research mathematics here, with a bit of discussion of the index theorems that showed up in my thesis.   But then I veered back to talk about growth in the usual "economic" sense, and my perception that mathematical educators owe it to our students to give them the conceptual tools to consider whether or in what sense growth can go on for ever, and what (if anything) might come afterwards.

I've never tried to give a talk like this before.  I felt that it went pretty well, and I made some good connections; I need to let it settle though.  Meanwhile here is a link to the slides.  And if any other math department would like to invite me to give some version of this talk, I'm happy to do so!

Photo of Wesleyan University by Flickr user AmandaB3, licensed under Creative Commons

Monday, March 24, 2014

Penn State Zero

Jon Brockopp and Sylvia Neely from PAIPL have gotten involved in a new initiative - Penn State Zero.

Reposting from the blog "Spring Creek Homesteading":

A group of five faculty members including Brockopp (History and Religious Studies), Neely (History, retired), Ray Najjar (Meteorology), Andy Lau (Engineering Design) and Leland Glenna (Rural Sociology)  began meeting monthly in October 2013 to discuss two key questions:
  1. “Why isn’t Penn State’s president a signatory to the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment?”
  2. “How can our small committee get more faculty and administrators interested in and educated about climate change so that they can influence the president to sign on?”
Read the rest here

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Book Review: "Atomic Accidents"

Points of Inflection has been silent for nearly two months.

I'm sorry about that.  It's been a helpful discipline to try to blog here regularly, but several unpredictable things have combined to consume a bit too much of my time recently.  I'm trying now to get back to a more regular (but probably still slow) posting schedule.

I recently read the book Atomic Accidents by James Mahaffey.  Mahaffey was a senior researcher at Georgia Tech and his book is a clear-sighted, technically detailed and yet also readable and witty account of the quest to obtain safe, clean energy from nuclear fission and the numerous ways in which safety mechanisms carefully devised by human beings have been circumvented, undermined or just messed up by other human beings (or sometimes even the same ones); quite often with fatal consequences.  From the disasters of the radium-dial factories, through the Manhattan Project and the early attempts at civilian nuclear power, to the headline-grabbing accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, this book covers a lot of historical ground.  Many accidents are described in extensive technical detail - though nuclear processes have many frightening features, Mahaffy believes that the instinct for secrecy, arising from military nuclear programs, has not helped teh civilian nuclear industry, and that more information may reduce unfounded anxiety.  I wonder whether he is right?

Because, for all his encyclopedic knowledge of nuclear accidents and foolishnesses, Mahaffy is a (carefully qualified) proponent of nuclear energy.  His thoughts on this can be found throughout the book, especially in its final chapter, Caught in the Rickover Trap.  Admiral Hyman Rickover devised the propulsion system for US nuclear submarines and his water-cooled reactor design, scaled up by two orders of magnitude or so, is the basis for most nuclear power stations today.  "There have been trillions of problem-free watt-hours generated by scaled-up Rickover plants", writes Mahaffy, "but there may be a problem area that was not evident when submarine reactors were tiny 12-megawatt machines but that was revealed when the Rickover model was enlarged multiple times over for industrial use.  The reactor core, the uranium fuel pellets lined up in zirconium tubes and neatly separated from each other, is terribly sensitive  for such an otherwise robust machine... There have been many engineering fixes and modifications to correct these problems, but, ironically, these fixes can present new issues as they are complex add-ons, cluttering up an otherwise simple design... most of the plumbing in a nuclear plant has nothing to do with generating electricity.  It is part of the fix." 

The message of this final chapter is that the sheer bigness of the nuclear project may have led the nuclear industry to focus prematurely on one apparently effective design.  Perhaps there are other possibilities?  Mahaffy can tell us about the exotic reactor designs of the 1950s and 1960s (some arising from the crazy project to build a nuclear airplane).  Could these be revived as an alternative?  Some of them indeed do form the basis for the futuristic Generation IV nuclear plant proposals.   Some could perhaps be made much smaller - a large power plant would consist of many identical "modules" rather than one giant reactor.  Indeed, the message I took away from this book is that the major issues with nuclear power seem less technical than political: the size and complexity of the nuclear power process in relation to the societal "containment" within which it must necessarily operate.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Math on the Rocks

I'm giving a talk next week in Baltimore.

The occasion is an evening reception sponsored by the Association of Christians in the Mathematical Sciences, which is being held during the annual joint meeting of US mathematical societies - the biggest regularly scheduled math conference in the USA (maybe the world?).

It will be a short presentation called Math on the Rocks.  I'll talk about mathematics and climbing, and my perception of overlaps, connections and creative tensions between them.  If I manage to hit an environmental theme too, that will be pretty much the whole of this blog compressed into one half-hour talk!

If you'll be in Baltimore, you're welcome to come to the event!  There's an informal reception (with refreshments) at 5:30 on January 16th in the East/West Ballrooms of the Marriott Baltimore Inner Harbor Hotel, followed by my talk at 6:30.  After the talk, there's an opportunity for dinner: we have reserved tables of 8 at ten local restaurants, and you can arrange during the reception which group you would like to be in.

A very funny presentation of the connections between math and climbing is the article: Adams, Colin. “Into Thin Air.” Mathematical Intelligencer 22, no. 1 (2000): 21–22. I'm thinking I might start by quoting some of that article...