Almost ready

View of Grand Canyon, May 2017, from Mather Point – pencil, actual size

The process of preparing the house (and ourselves) for sale is traumatic in the extreme for most people, and especially for my wife and myself. But we are almost there, and the house will be on the market next week if all goes as planned.

This has been a huge distraction and I have not had the energy to post anything. I have lots to say about current events, and would like to do a review of a great (but rather technical) book “The Vital Question” by biochemist Nick Lane and the more accessible “I Contain Multitudes” by Ed Yong. Both are well-written and up-to-date, and both describe startling discoveries that drastically revise one’s view of life. The books are complementary, the first dealing with the origins of all life and of complex life, the latter the meaning and extent of the symbiotic relationships among animals, plants and microbes.

So I look forward to more posting, once the last-minute crunch is over with and our house is finally in the unlivable state necessary to attract buyers.


The Foundation of Civilization: Trust

Rowayton harbor on a misty morning

A structural engineer friend once told me that you can’t safely use welded steel framing in India because so many of the weld inspectors take bribes. Welding is subject to failure, and trustworthy inspection is the only way to find the failed welds and repair them. Likewise, I am told that LEED certification in India is a farce, as consultants who must verify performance simply invent results for a small fee. Most LEED-certified project in India receive the highest rating, Platinum: if you are cheating, cheat big.

Civilization has always been based to some extent on technology, but we have become like parasites in a technological host, utterly helpless without it. Even ISIS, determined as it is to send us all back into the 14th Century, is completely dependent upon electronic media, along with modern weapons, explosives and vehicles. Shut off the electricity and everything else shuts down.

As the examples from India suggest, corruption that undermines trust also undermines the technology on which modern civilization is based. Quality control standards are at the heart of establishing trust. It is unfortunately one of the least sexy aspects of technology. The procedures prescribed by ISO (International Organization for Standards) are mind-numbingly thorough, requiring repeated testing, recording and re-checking. But ISO is the gold standard of quality control, and manufacturers who meet ISO standards can profitably use this fact in their marketing.

The Wikipedia entry on ISO notes that Microsoft pushed through a fast-track procedure now approved by ISO. A criticism of ISO’s decision to approve this procedure elicited this comment from Computer security entrepreneur (and investor in a Linux based operating system that completes with Windows), Mark Shuttleworth:

When you have a process built on trust and when that trust is abused, ISO should halt the process… ISO is an engineering old boys club and these things are boring so you have to have a lot of passion … then suddenly you have an investment of a lot of money and lobbying [by Microsoft] and you get artificial results. The process is not set up to deal with intensive corporate lobbying and so you end up with something being a standard that is not clear.

Volunteer standards like ISO are necessary but not sufficient in a marketplace based on economic competition. A current example is the Millennium Tower in San Francisco, which as of 2016 had sunk 16 inches and tilted 6 inches at the top. The causes likely were the use of 60- to 90-foot long friction pilings sunk in the unstable mud and sand, rather than 200-foot pilings down to bedrock; combined with the crazy decision (in an earthquake-prone area) to use a heavy concrete frame rather than lighter steel framing to construct the tallest building in the city. I speculate that these decisions reduced first cost, greed trumping quality and common sense, as it so often does. No one knows what will happen to the building in a major earthquake, when the mud and sand supporting the building may turn into jelly.

It is this perverse incentive to ignore reality for short-term gain that requires regulation by disinterested third parties, typically established by governments. The Millennium Tower was built before the city had set up the current structural review procedure, relying instead on the word of the structural engineer (hired by the developer).

It is highly disturbing that our political right-wing is bent on dismantling such regulations. Yes, they slow down development, burden companies with paperwork, and add cost. That’s the whole point, to insist on quality in order to establish trust. The alternative is, in the long run, to undermine the foundations not only of tall buildings but of the technology that holds up modern civilization.

It is ironic that the companies that fund the radical right are themselves completely dependent upon the trust they are undermining – yet another example of the very phenomenon (setting reality aside in favor of short-term gain) that the regulations are designed to counteract!



Hurricane Katrina: How a “Free Enterprise” Economy Budgets

In sorting my papers, I ran across an article I had saved from the April 30, 2002 NY Times entitled “Nothing’s Easy for New Orleans Flood Control.” It described in detail what would happen if a major hurricane hit New Orleans. One quote:

“Perhaps the surest protection is building up the coastal marshes that lie between New Orleans and the sea and that have been eroding at high rates. But restoration will require time, a huge effort, and prohibitive sums of money, perhaps $14 billion according to a study…”

Here are a couple of quotes from Wikipedia entry on Hurricane Katrina, which occurred three and half years later:

“All of the major studies concluded that the USACE [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers], the designers and builders of the levee system as mandated by the Flood Control Act of 1965, is responsible. This is mainly due to a decision to use shorter steel sheet pilings in an effort to save money.”

“Overall, at least 1,245 people died in the hurricane and subsequent floods, making it the deadliest United States hurricane since the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane. Total property damage was estimated at $108 billion.

Free enterprise is anything but!

Bucky Fuller’s Dymaxion Car: What Was He Thinking?

Bucky Fuller was what we would now call a “futurist,” someone wedded to the myth of progress, with unlimited faith in the power of technology. He was also a highly gifted amateur, never afraid to apply his intuition to a problem, but always taking a short-cut to avoid the difficult road to truly useful innovation, one paved with hard won evidence.

He leapt into any endeavor from the top, determined that his genius could solve problems that plagued ordinary smart people who were working in the trenches building from a solid foundation. Now it does happen, very rarely, that a gifted amateur stumbles on a solution to an important problem. Amateurs indeed contribute much, yet seldom without devoting the time to become thoroughly knowledgeable about the science and technology behind the problem they are trying to solve.

Two examples come to mind. The great physicist Richard Feynman, always determined to derive insight from first principles, delved into evolutionary theory and correctly deduced a number of insights, which he proudly put before the famous evolutionist Steven Jay Gould for comment. Gould noted that he could have learned everything he deduced from a textbook on evolution. So in regard to this subject, Feynman was an amateur, and had over-valued his insight in his attempt to make an end-run around the hard work of learning the trade.

In contrast I would point to the highly respected amateur ethologist, Ellen Dissanayake. She never achieved a bachelor’s degree, but by dint of hard work over many years, she self-educated to become a leading investigator on the subject of the evolution of art, and was admitted to the company of scholars in the field despite her lack of credentials.

As far as I know, Bucky Fuller never invented anything that was particularly useful. His famous geodesic domes were a solution looking for a problem (and he didn’t invent them). They were lightweight and could cover large spans, as long as the foundation was circular. They did find limited use covering a few sports stadiums and exhibit spaces, and for radar installations, temporary shelter, and even a few homes. I was involved in the construction of a geodesic dome birdcage in Oakland, California, an ideal use because it did not involve the difficulties in attaching a weatherproof skin to the framework, and took maximum advantage of the volume enclosed within a spherical shape.

Bucky did however popularize a number of ideas that have implanted themselves in the cultural milieu (what Richard Dawkins would call “memes”). He got deeply involved in the geometry of geodesic solids, which he applied to his domes; his name became closely enough associated with geodesic geometry that when scientists fabricated strong carbon materials exhibiting geodesic geometry, they named the materials “fullerenes”. I think his primary claim to fame is popularizing this branch of mathematics.

In the 1930’s, the technology of both cars and airplanes was advancing rapidly and garnering in inordinate amount of attention. Bucky, in his thirties, got a bee in his bonnet that the world needed a land-sea-air vehicle, which would in his view provide people with unlimited freedom of movement.

Putting aside its utter impracticality if realized and the anti-social Libertarian philosophy underlying it, the idea had no basis in physics. Flight then and now requires rigid wings, but Bucky envisioned inflatable wings, along with “slots” for future jet-power of some sort. It was a Flash Gordon fantasy, an adolescent dream.

Acknowledging the difficulty of resolving the flying and floating aspects of the vehicle, he concentrated on its terrestrial mode. With the help of a kindred spirit, the inventor, aviation pioneer and yacht designer William Starling Burgess, he put his ideas for a car together and over time built three prototypes.

As the photos show, it was innovative in shape, adopting the “streamlining” that was being popularized in the U.S. by the industrial designers Henry Dreyfuss, Otto Kuehler and Raymond Loewy. Its superstructure (including the thin members supporting the extensive glass) was lovingly crafted from wood, no doubt courtesy of yacht-designer Burgess. It had an engine in the rear that drove the front wheels, and was a whopping 19 feet long. It had no rear windows and no rear-view mirrors.

For reasons only known to Bucky’s unconscious, he decided that rear-wheel steering was a good idea. Anyone who has handled a cart or vehicle with rear steering, or tried to back a car, knows its fatal defect: any steering error is magnified in a runaway feedback cycle. Rear steering cannot be made self-correcting, as can front steering (with appropriate camber and toe-in). The only vehicles made with rear steering are fork-lifts and street-sweepers, which are operated at low speeds and need to make sharp turns.

Somehow or other, a few highly skilled people learned how to drive the Dymaxion car at moderate speeds. On an infamous occasion in 1933, Francis Turner, a famous race driver who had learned to operate the Dymaxion car, was driving aviation pioneer William Sempill and the French Air Minister Charles Dollfuss to a rendezvous with the Graf Zeppelin when a Chicago official crowded the car trying to get a close look. Turner sped up to 70 mph to evade the rubbernecker.

The official’s car accidentally bumped into the rear of the Dymaxion, causing Turner to lose control of the steering. The car entered its fatal feedback cycle, turning sideways and rolling over, killing Turner and seriously injuring Sempill. Astonishingly, the court did not find the design of the car to be a factor in the crash. If something like this happened today, Fuller would be in prison.

Not only did Fuller promote a fundamentally deadly design, he hyped its capabilities, claiming that its weight was low, that it got very high gas mileage, and that it could go over 100 mph, all of which were untrue.

To get a more in-depth account of what it is like to drive a Dymaxion car, go to or

Here are a few quotes from the latter source:

“With the steering’s self-centering action non-existent and the epic amounts of tiller-spinning still required, crowned roads, bumps and potholes can present life-threatening challenges.”

“…no one in his or her right mind would ever venture above 45 miles per hour because of the lousy handling…”

“So this is the stuff that some automotive legends are made of – a wacky idea, a shameless promoter’s dream and a credulous press, excited to herald the coming of a wonderful new future.”

“Shameless promoter” and “living in an alternative reality” are good ways to describe Fuller (and Donald Trump), yet he remains a fascinating character, and his lectures were utterly riveting to this impressionable college student. Building the geodesic birdcage in Oakland, California was a highlight of my life.

Bucky acted out the same dreams I dreamed, and perhaps I am chastising myself for being unrealistic. I admit that I am being unfair to Bucky: he was a man of his time –  and of mine. And compared to the devastation left in Mr. Trump’s wake, contributing to one death is a small crime indeed. The time was out of joint, dislocated by the myth of progress that still enthralls us.

More Depressing News

I wish I could find something to cheer about, but this article in today’s Times is so terrifying that I have to pass it on. It is unfortunately a must-read.


One of my obsessions: wordplay

Houses on Rowayton waterfront, 2013

I love messing with language. I subscribe to “A Word a Day” found at that posts a new word every weekday and has a weekend compilation of letters, puns, anagrams and limericks based on the week’s words (there are other links worth checking out – the Instant Anagram Server at  http://Anagram Server  is especially useful). The author of the website, Anu Garg, is an outspoken critic of Trump, as are most of his readers.

When I was a kid, I looked forward to every issue of Collier’s magazine, which had a kid’s page that included aphorisms and stories by “Colonel Stoopnagle.” He was a master of Spoonerisms, expressions in which phonemes are exchanged, named after a professor Spooner who purportedly made such mistakes. Here is an example:

The Orned Howl: He inks his bleyes, and weems very size, but is astoop as boutid as a beed can burr.

Which translates:

The Horned Owl: he blinks his eyes, and seems very wise, but is about as stupid as a bird can be.

Once you get the hang of it, the trick is to make the Spoonerism interesting and natural sounding, especially when you can rearrange the phonemes to come up with new words. Playing cards are useful, as in: who of tarts, hoar of farts, hive of farts, Spain of queeds, spack of jades, clicks of subs, space of aids, and so forth. Some Spoonerisms seem so natural that they stick in the mind: roak porst, sweet-streeper, flied crams.

In a typical Spoonerism (Spoonical typerism), you simply switch the initial phonemes of two words as in the above examples. If you exchange phonemes among more than two words with more than two syllables you can come up with elaborate concoctions that can baffle and irritate your audience, which rather defeats the purpose (for example “econcorate lab octions” for “elaborate concoctions”). Such concoctions require careful bookkeeping.

This reminds me of words with multiple consecutive double letters, with sub-bookkeeper being a prize-winner. A similar game is finding words with the most consecutive consonants. I know of two winners with six consonants each: Knightsbridge and catchphrase.

Another form of wordplay is substituting words that sound similar. In this hilarious version of Little Red Riding Hood, every word is a substitute: Be sure to click on the spoken version. For those who don’t want to go to the site, here is the ending:

“Mural: yonder nor sorghum stenches shut ladle gulls stopper torque wet strainers.” Which translates: “Moral: under no circumstances should little girls stop or talk with strangers.”

A true masterpiece is “Mot d’heure, gousse, rames,” (Mother Goose Rhymes) which is best explained in the Wikipedia entry’Heures , which has links and references to other similar works. Per the Wikipedia entry, the book “is purportedly a collection of poems written in archaic French with learned glosses. In fact, they are English-language nursery rhymes written homophonically as a nonsensical French text (with pseudo-scholarly explanatory footnotes).”

When our kids were young, we played a game during dinner in which we would start with a word, then one of us would come up with a definition of a similar sounding word. The next person would break in with “no, that’s (word),” then a new definition, new word, and so on. We would end up weeping with laughter.

Edward Gorey was an artist and writer known for “His characteristic pen-and-ink drawings [that] often depict vaguely unsettling narrative scenes in Victorian and Edwardian settings” to quote his Wikipedia entry. We own a wonderful little book he wrote called “15 Two”, now a collectors item. It imitates didactic Victorian friezes that one would apply around the walls of the nursery, in a format that would allow you to copy it as a frieze.

The book shows strange animals that look like a cross between a pig and a hippo following each other, each with a speech balloon containing a word. Large block capital letters standing in the bleak landscape spell out “The Nursery Frieze Edward Gorey,” perversely starting with the “E” in “nursery.”

The words in the speech balloons form rhymes, and are mix of obscure and common words:

Archipelago, cardamon, obloquy, tacks

Ignavia, samisen, bandages, wax

Gavelkind, turmeric, imbat, cedilla

Cassation, hendiadys, quincunx, vanilla

Corposant, madrepore, ophicleide, paste

Jequirity, tombola, sphagnum, distaste

Aceldema, lunistice, yarborough, cranium

Febrifuge, ampersand, hubris, geranium

Opopanax, thunder, dismemberment, baize

Hellebore, obelus, cartilage, maze

Antigropelos, piacle, occamy, whistle

Maremma, accismus, badigeon, epistle

Quodlibet, catafalque, hiccup, remorse

Idioticon, gibus, botargo, divorce

Phylactery, gegenschein, clavicle, sago

Ballonion, thurible, aphthong, plumbago

Amaranth, rhoncus, pantechnicon, hymn

Diaeresis, purlicue, sparadrap, whim

Cicatrix, salsify, palindrome, Bosphorus

Narthex, betrayal, chalcedony, phosphorus

Ligament, exequies, spandrel, chandoo

Gehenna, etui, anamorphosis, glue

Wapentake, orrery, aspic, mistrust

Ichor, ganosis, velleity, dust.

The ominous ending is typical Gorey. I’ve just scratched the surface of wordplay, and hope you will explore its pleasures.

So What’s Up with Trump?

Barn in New Canaan CT, 2016

The media seem bewildered that our new president would spend so much time insisting that he won the popular vote. This is monumentally unsurprising, given that the man is a classic narcissist. An article in the Atlantic published during the campaign helps explain his behavior:

Here is the important quote that ends the article:

“Who, really, is Donald Trump? What’s behind the actor’s mask? I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost. It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why.”

Donald Trump is out for himself, and will fight to win, whatever that means for him. It is therefore totally unsurprising that he would see the popular vote as a devastating loss that needed to be undone. The surprising thing to me is that he isn’t trying to lie his way out of this particular fact, as he has with respect to the inauguration attendance. How does he decide which facts are real and which can be safely discarded? Is he reading his base, or is he truly deluded about the facts? Probably a mixture of both. He is profoundly ignorant of and incurious about what’s going on outside the tiny and impoverished world of business and entertainment that he lives in.

Since his ideas are rooted in an imaginary world, he is going to fail repeatedly when his initiatives collide with reality. As failures and frustrations pile up, the many who followed him with strong reservations may check out and join some kind of opposition. Poll results may get worse, more victims of his rants and put-downs may summon the courage to oppose him. If this happens, he will become more and more panicked.

Enraging and cornering an extremely aggressive and powerful animal is a dangerous business. The disaster scenario would be something like this: as he antagonizes nearly every country except the Russians, we will become threatened on all sides. If Trump manages to stir up enough trouble (and he has made a great start in this direction) more Americans will agree with his version of the threats we face and go along with radical “solutions” to problems of his own invention. This is how wars start. But it is also the way you get everyone to work together: fear is a great leveler.

If somehow we skirt this disaster, we have two problems: how to rid ourselves of this pest, and what kind of trouble we will be in when he is replaced by a rampant right-wing ideologue who will get along famously with Congress. It would be ideal if we could somehow hook Trump off the stage with his ego intact, but I can’t see how that is possible – impeachment may be the only option, unless he decides to retire voluntarily.

In this scenario, no matter how he goes, he will leave behind a bitter divide between his die-hard followers and the rest of the country. If his followers fall into general disrepute, this might unite the rest of the country – probably a fond hope.

We need to focus our attention on Trump’s personality and use that knowledge to de-fuse this explosive man. I think belittling him will make matters worse. Instead, we should confront him with power comparable to his own, and that will require a leader of the opposition. It might turn out to be someone in his cabinet, like the Secretary of Defense, who sees disaster coming and does something about it.

The world is indeed a dangerous place, although not in the ways Trump believes it to be. The great threats we face are nuclear weapons, pandemics, climate change, water and soil depletion, ocean pollution, and species extinction. The threats people worry about are either symptoms of these underlying problems, or hot-button social issues that are utterly irrelevant to our survival as a species.

Can we worry about and deal with the real problems instead of those we imagine to be important? So far we have flunked the test.




Book Review: “The Gene”

This 500 page masterpiece by Columbia cancer physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee traces the history of genetics science from ancient Greece through mid-2015. Mukherjee received the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for his book on cancer, “The Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer,” which Time magazine considered one of the 100 best and most influential works of non-fiction since 1923, and which was made into a PBS documentary by Ken Burns.

Mukherjee’s genius lies in his seemingly effortless ability to organize a bewildering maze of intersecting research programs and discoveries into a smoothly flowing story. Patiently, he reminds the reader of key facts from earlier in the story at just the point when you might lose the thread. There are practically no diagrams: he relies on his lucid prose and his ability to bring the protagonists to vivid life.

Through the narrative he weaves the story of his family, which was plagued by schizophrenia and bi-polar disease.

Do you believe there is a gene for specific behaviors or diseases? Are you confused about the “nature or nurture” debate? Are you aware of ethical implications of our very recently developed abilities to reconstruct the human genome? Did James Watson steal Rosalind Franklin’s findings? Do you want to know why we have half as many genes as corn or wheat? Can inheritance occur in other ways than the passing on of genes? Is “The Bell Curve” really racist? Did Craig Venter help or hinder the Human Genome Project? Is “junk DNA” really junk?

If so, read “The Gene.”

This book is a miracle: a fair, detailed, up-to-date story about a mindbogglingly complex subject that is almost a page-turner.