Adult Onset Atheist

Monday, May 8, 2017

Giro D'Big Mountain

This past Sunday found me all too aware of being at least 10 pounds over the weight I would like to be
so many days after the start the cycling season ever. I was climbing up “Big Mountain” pass after just having shot down the southern/eastern side of “Little Mountain” pass. I was willing myself to relax as I subconsciously tensed up in preparation for yet more uphill road. The gates down at Little Dell reservoir were still closed, and half the cyclists west of the Mississippi were taking advantage of this wonderful day to wheeze up this hill.

The Mormon pioneers had come down this way in the summer of 1847. The official LDS church history website describes big mountain pass (1,279 miles from Nauvoo) as: “really just a hill among the surrounding Wasatch mountain peaks, was nevertheless, at 8,400 feet, the highest elevation of the entire Mormon Trail.” Big Mountain pass would be the highest point of my cycling trip on Sunday as I would turn around at the Morgan county line, and head back down towards the State Capitol and my starting place.

I was still about a mile or so shy of slowing to an unsteady four miles an hour when I heard a spirited conversation coming up behind me. Loud and relaxed enough to hear over my wheezing it sounded as if one of the conversants may have had an English accent. They whipped past me as if I was standing still (I almost was) and disappeared up around a bend in the road.

One of the cyclists was at least the second person I had seen in full Team Sky kit, and like the other was riding a black Pinarello that might have been one of the hugely expensive ($13k) 2017 F10 Dogmas like those that another squad from Team Sky is racing in the 100th edition of the Giro D’Italia right now.

While I was climbing on Sunday, Fernando Gaviria (a Columbian sprinter on the Quick-Step Floors team) would battle severe crosswinds to take the flat coastal stage 3 (and get the pink jersey) that ended in the capitol of Sardinia. Tuesday sees the first big climb of the Giro as the race will finish on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. There are informed hunches pronouncing that Gerent Thomas of Team Sky may pull on the pink leader's jersey after that stage.

If I was dusted by actual members of Team Sky they were probably the squad getting ready for the Amgen Tour of California that starts in Sacramento on 14 May this year.

 I pulled over to stretch to keep from losing the battle with the tension in my legs, and my riding companion shot past me. I was momentarily distracted by the almost erotic power her spandex coated thighs were delivering to the pedals, and I decided that the rhythmic swaying of her rear on the seat of her carbon fiber bike would pull me up the mountain in her wake. Unfortunately she was just a little too far up ahead after I climbed back on my bike and began to chase. I huddled into my pain cave and never got to within 50 meters of her before we hit the top of the pass.

Big Mountain Pass looking west



On the way down every ounce of excess personal mass turned into speed. I went way too fast, and the bike shuddered from braking as I approached each corner in the road.

"The descent down the big mountain (as it is called) is very steep, a regular jumping off place, worse than Ash Hollow.” -- William Clayton’s Journal description of the Mormon pioneers traveling down from Big Mountain pass in 1847.


A year ago on Saturday I was battling rain-tinged headwinds on a metric century called “The Front-Runner Century”, and complaining to myself that I was a little too heavy for where I wanted to be
so many days after the start of cycling season ever. I also had a very different view of what I wanted my life to be like.

One year, and things are exactly the same only completely different.









Thursday, May 4, 2017

Zen and the Art of Chariot Maintenance

Because the radio was long dead I was making do with tinny plinkings from the iPhone’s internal speaker. These sounds were losing a competition with the rush of speed wind through the open window as the dead carcass of the air-conditioner was also over a decade in the rearview mirror. Pandora wanted to help a much younger Brian Ferry tell me how he was a “Slave to Love” and I worried it would lose data signal before the end of the song. My new cellphone carrier worked out this road much farther than my last one, but the invisible communication borderline was right around here someplace. I might resort to listening to an audiobook version of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” I had locally stored on this phone. Listening to something helps to take my mind off the spiral negativity of boredom that can sometimes color a drive that lasts for more than an hour or so; especially if it is a drive I have done a few hundred times.

The trouble with just popping Zen into the player was that I was still fidgeting some realizations that had surfaced the last time I had been listening to it.  I had also read Zen a few times when I was young.  It was so popular, and so many people I knew had read it, that the title had shortened to just "Zen" and most people would know exactly what one was talking about.   I had gotten to a part in this latest listening about remembering the process of forgetting something, but in an exquisite detail made horrific by the application of technology. I wondered why I had forgotten this part from back when I was re-reading it, and "Zen" was becoming "Zen". The whole metaphorically fractal design of knowing the organization and patterning of knowledge was the texture I remembered from the book, but some of the critical elements of the narrative were lost for some reason.

I was especially taken by Pirsig’s recursive application of systems engineering principles to the process of knowing anything of value. The complete title of the book is “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values”, but the “An inquiry into Values” part is usually written in a smaller font on the cover or lost entirely to the tittle page inside. “Values”, when placed on the same page with a word like Zen, sounds like a purely moral construct, but Pirsig manages to dancethrough every possible meaning of the term within a single unified context.

I had not forgotten a casual element of the story. I had forgotten the identity(s) of Phaedrus. As Phaedrus was slowly introduced through the first six chapters I could remember a much younger me discovering the Phaedrus dialogs of Plato that featured descriptions of madness and love and knowledge, and which are perhaps best known for the Chariot Allegory (Phaedrus 246a-249e). The Chariot Allegory is arguably a close second to the Allegory of the Cave in the pantheon of Platonic allegories.

In order to avoid disrupting the flow of this blog post by forcing you to look up the Chariot Allegory I will paraphrase it here; if you still want to look it up you can laugh at how foolishly simple I make it sound here.

The idea of the Chariot Allegory is that understanding can be gleaned from picturing the human mind as a soul (the chariot) pulled by two winged horses. One of the horses is noble and godly, and the other is ignoble and base. The charioteer is reason and the when the animals pull in harmony the chariot can take flight into the immortal godly realms of existence. However, driving the two horses is terribly difficult because of their different natures, and so they often act as if they have no wings at all.

It is easy to misinterpret this as being a version of the dialog some animated characters have when they face a moral dilemma; a conversation with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the opposite shoulder. That is a type of over simplification which misses many of the riper intellectual fruits of this allegory, and is linked to the reflexive desire to label a "value" as some sort of moral construct.

Values can be numerical or the stuff from which adjectives are crafted. Values can be the information our senses choose to use to craft everything we call knowledge of the world. In a parallel way the ignoble base horse is not just morally bad as it also represents appetites for substances like food and water and air which are critical for survival. Let that horse do all the pulling and the chariot gets into a bad place, but let that horse be pulled by the noble godly horse and things get pretty bad too.

I remember the younger me being awed by the simple parallel between the Phaedrus of Plato’s chariot and the Phaedrus of Zen; the parallel being that both a chariot and a motorcycle are vehicles with just two wheels. There is also the self-referential parallel. Pirsig recounts the story as a journey; a journey where the prose itself is pulled in one direction by the mundane requirements of a cross-country road trip, and in a slightly different direction by the philosophical musings of the ghostly memories of Phaedrus. When the two competing elements are driven in harmony the story whizzes across beautiful landscapes.

As Phaedrus was revealed I remembered more of my understanding. I re-discovered the allusions, and they felt new.

For a short time I tried to graft some misinterpretation of the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood duet called “One Velvet Morning” onto my re-immerging knowing, but the fit was disharmonious; like I was being distracted into a strange unproductive direction.

-Lee-
Some velvet mornin' when I'm straight
I'm gonna open up your gate
And maybe tell you 'bout Phaedra
And how she gave me life
And how she made it end
Some velvet mornin' when I'm straight

-Nancy-
Flowers are the things we know, secrets are the things we grow
Learn from us very much, look at us but do not touch
Phaedra is my name


The song I was listening to transitioned into another so I didn’t need to fumble with the phone to load up the audio book. It was the meandering lead-in to the three cord march of Lou reed’s “Sweet Jane”. It would turn out to be only partially buffered though, and it would cut off just as the Lou informed me that the “roses seem to whisper to her”.

The day had warmed to the point where I could open the windows all the way and still not be cool enough. So I opened the windows and sped up till I couldn’t have heard the iPhone even if it was still making noise.

The Dodge always seems to be such a large truck after I’ve spent too long driving the Corolla. The reason it can go fast at all is because of the V8 pulling me along. It is not a big V8, but it is still a big powerful engine as engines go; it puts out 230 horsepower. I was being pulled along by 230 horses.

Two-hundred-and-thirty horses, and I was flying.






Robert Maynard Pirsig - 06 September 1928 - 24 April 2017


Sunday, April 9, 2017

Mercury Retrograde April 9 - May 3

This is yet another essay on Mercury going retrograde today.

I thought of Mercury going retrograde as I drove down a street in the "Avenues" district of Salt Lake City.  The sun was setting a brilliant orange back-lighting the capitol and reflecting across the Great Salt Lake itself.  Behind me a moon rose that was all but (an app on my iPhone would tell me it was 1 day and 3 hours away from) full.

For a the briefest of moments I was more aware than is possible of this careening spinning crazy ride through the gravity wells of curved spacetime that all the inhabitants of earth share in, and it was amazing, and then that moment was followed by another.  I liked that one and followed it with a few more and then I was driving alongside I-80 and the surface of the Great Salt Lake was a mirror reflecting an gigantic ball of nuclear fire a million times larger than the planet I was driving across the surface of (Sun's volume is 1.4X10E18 km^3, and the Earth's volume is 1X10E12 km^3) and I liked it till the sun disappeared behind a range of snow covered mountains and the sky became dark enough to see the stars.  And stars are really cool.

Perhaps it was the great weekend that had left me with the feeling that I was soaring through a universe that wanted to act like I was noticing it in new and thrilling ways? 

Supposedly cell phones are going to glitch (more than normal) and other technology and communications are going to go awry. Some well meaning people recommend just curling up and cocooning as the “crazy” caused by Mercury’s retrograde passes.

I can only imagine that the wonderful full moon contributes to the mystical happenings. 

Gala Darling” describes some of the effects of Mercury going retrograde as “It’s like everyone you know has suddenly gone mad! You might find yourself getting into bizarre arguments about nothing at all, being unable to finish sentences or barely even able to form a coherent thought.” Imagine the effect on people who regularly lack the desire or ability to form coherent thoughts?!?

So, what makes this madness happen?

Mercury orbits the sun every 88 days, and it is common knowledge that the Earth orbits the sun every 365.25 days. This means that every Earth year mercury laps the Earth around the sun slightly more than four times.

Mercury orbits the sun the fastest of all the planets.  As one travels out from the sun the planetary orbits become longer and longer. Venus orbits the sun every 225 days, and so it laps the earth every other year; sometimes twice in a year.

The planets farther from the sun than earth are lapped by the earth. Saturn orbits the earth only once every 29 years so the earth laps it almost every year.

To the casual observer the planets appear like slightly brighter specks of light against a scattering of bright specs of light in the night sky. They do not appear to be billions of times closer. We can deduce that they are closer because the angle we see them at changes as we move around the sun, and we move around the sun at an incredibly high rate of speed (30 km/s) so even though the planets are far away they can appear to be in different places almost every night. Because the orbits are roundish the planets will appear back at almost their starting place after some multiple of the ratio of the two orbit durations. Ancient astronomers used to squint up at the night sky and make surprisingly accurate predictions of the orbit times for all the planets they could see by measuring things like how long it took them to pass back through some particular constellation.

The geometry that defines the retrograde motion is not difficult, but it is cumbersome to the point of being tedious. I will spare you this time. Even more complex is the model Ptolemy used to describe the motions of the planets given a geocentric model of the solar system. The model includes orbits looping about orbits and the complete trace is much like something one could create with a Spirograph set. I always loved Spirograph so it is unfortunate that the model apparently fails after a while. That is one of the problems with overly complex models; they hide failures in late iterations.
By James Ferguson (1710-1776), based on similar diagrams by Giovanni Cassini (1625-1712) and Dr Roger Long (1680-1770); engraved for the Encyclopaedia by Andrew Bell. - Encyclopaedia Britannica (1st Edition, 1771; facsimile reprint 1971), Volume 1, Fig. 2 of Plate XL facing page 449., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10884763

I saw at least one YouTube video created with the intensity of a WTC7 conspiracy theorist about how retrograde motion in Mercury proves that the Sun orbits the Earth. I am sure the government is hiding this from us because we re all some sort of “sheeple”, but I did not watch it that long.

Because the planets are all traveling in the same direction about the sun they mostly appear to travel in the same direction across the night sky. Venus and Mercury, being on the sun side of the earth most of the time, do not really travel across the night sky, but the little they can be observed to move they go in one direction mostly. Because all the planets either lap or are lapped by the Earth this apparent motion across the sky also changes direction for short (relative to the orbit of the earth) period of time. That change in direction is called apparent retrograde motion, or in astrology terms “being in retrograde”.

Wikepedia has a great picture that shows the apparent retrograde motion to an observer on earth of an outer planet.
By Rursus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7119751

I tried to do something similar for Mercury, but, the changes in angle are so big it is hard to contain them in a graphic. Here is one picture I made which has the Earth going about a quarter of the way around the sun and Mercury going all the way around the sun. I’ve numbered where the parallax puts the apparent location of Mercury against the backdrop of apparently unmoving stars.

If you look you can see how the order of the numbered observations changes between observations 2 and 3, then goes in back in the same direction for the sequence of observations 3,4, and 5. The retrograde motion would occur between observations 2 and 3. One of the other things this picture make kind of obvious is that most of the observations occur during daytime on Earth when Mercury is not visible to the naked eye.

In this picture I’ve tried to capture observations occurring at a great enough angle as to have Mercury at least visible in the late evening or just around dawn. Unfortunately when I do this the graphic does not capture any retrograde motion. The point being that it is really hard to notice retrograde motion in mercury, even though it happens at a greater frequency than it does for any of the other planets.  In fact this problem with Mercury being obscured by daylight is one of the reasons why it is suggested that the great astronomer Kepler did not ever observe Mercury during his life; let alone observe its retrograde motion.

So those that put stock in the magical meaning of Mercury being “in retrograde” are almost forced to use the calculations and data derived by processes all to rational and specific to make room for the ephemeral magic mumbo jumbo they use them to define.

Mercury will also be retrograde August 13th through September 5th so it will be retrograde during the solar eclipse; I wonder what kind of special magic that will cause?