A Long Slow Golden Fall

I’m temporarily plumbing depths of procrastination and self loathing that I haven’t seen since my thesis.  I should be writing testimony for the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to ignore right now, but I’m not.  Because it seems futile?  Because it’s so impersonal?  Because the box we’re supposed to stay in is so small and lame?  Maybe this means it’s time for a more different job.

2014-10-24 12.41.24

Some folks who lived at Masala when I moved in are moving back to Boulder. I didn’t get to know well enough before they left and got married and reproduced.  I’m looking forward to getting to know all three of them better.  To maybe having a persistent interaction with a kid.  And an excuse to make a bike that carries kids.  Always looking for an excuse to make another bike.

Some good friends are leaving the co-op, pulled away by academia.  Social churn and transience.  It seems strange to be the stable one.  Only person in the house that’s been here longer than me now is Lincoln, Our Founder.  It’s interesting to see how the relationship with the house changes over time.  Still love it, but would be up for another incarnation too.  With more stability and people who have all already learned the basic lessons of living together… rather than always having a few people that don’t quite seem to get it.  We have most of the money and people that would be required to buy our own place and make it a co-op.  But that would be illegal.  Which is infuriating.  So we’re trying to change the law, but it feels like a distraction — I’d much rather do the work of creating community itself, instead of the meta-work of making it legal to live in communities.

2014-10-03 17.53.18

The long slow fall has been wonderful.  Golden leaves and freakishly warm days juxtaposed against each other.  I sleep out on my little deck every night and watch the stars slowly wheel across the sky as the season changes.  Orion and the Pleiades.   It’ll be snowy soon.  The weather could be completely different in a week.

2014-10-19 08.03.38

It’s been a celibate year.  The first once since 2001-2002.  More than friends, less than lovers, and back to singledom.  I’ve felt old this year — a pinched nerve in my neck, lots of gray hairs.  I’ve also felt superhuman — a 150 mile bike ride across the continental divide and back.

I need to read more books.  I’ve even thought that maybe I need to write a book: Amateur Earthlings.  The two might go well together.  Long form ideas are the best.  Impossible to hold in your head all at once, but wonderful.

I need more quantitative folks in my social sphere.  More scientists and engineers.  I miss being embedded in a microculture that not only values that kind of knowing, but where it’s the default — where there’s an underlying assumption that people can understand the world that way.  Not to say that it’s the only valuable way of knowledge… but it’s my way most of the time, and being outside of that sphere makes me feel like an outsider.

2014-10-25 10.37.49

Local politics is both fun and frustrating.  I’ve made enemies for the first time.  People who actively want to undermine me because of my ideas and values and willingness to participate.  That’s been an interesting experience.  There are also unexpected, almost uncomfortable allies.  It’s interesting to work with someone on something you agree on, while knowing that you disagree on something else, and might end up working against each other there. And of course it all feels glacially slow.  There’s always that voice the the back of my head that wants a revolution.

And always that voice in the back of my head that wants a bike tour, too.


The Frequency of Love

Do I fall in love too easily?  Foolishly?  Frequently?  It’s a funny think to think about.  How often do you want fall in love?

Falling in love is emotionally immersive.  Careening toward another human being, drawn down into their gravity well, and like diving into a black hole, you never quite reach the center.  There’s always a little bit of distance left to bridge.

Fall in love too rarely, and it might mean you’re alone.  Yearning.  Isolated.  Or it might mean you’re in love.  Attached.  Satisfied.  If you’re falling in love frequently, you might be skipping from one partner to another.  Always falling, always missing.  Addicted to the plunge?  Deceiving yourself about the connection and running away when it fizzles? Or in our strange little micro-society, it might mean the tendrils of your love are many and branching. Mercurial love, as a non-rivalrous (public?) good.

When it’s rare, it feels precious, and something about that feels good.  But the spaces in between are lonely.  I put my loves in bins, retrospectively.  Was it real?  Or a delusion?  Why is it so hard to tell at the time?  Or does it depend on how it ends?  Mostly I think it correlates with the dreams I had while in the thick of it.  The involuntary visions of a future together.  Expectation.  Mother of disappointment?

In hindsight, I had three loves in the first decade of this century.  Two thirds of them reciprocated.  Is that too many?  Or too few?  Seven years were dedicated to just one of them — they were rare by virtue of stability.  Two loves in the other three years.  One love every 18 months?  If I were finding one new person that I felt deeply connected to every year and a half, and if they were accumulating around me in a pile, then that would feel opulent.  It only takes a few other people for me to feel awash in a sea of emotional interconnectedness.  Maybe I’m sensitive that way.

But by and large, they don’t seem to accumulate.  Partly it’s the serial nature of our connections.  The broader societal norm is that you connect to one person at a time, in sequence.  And not just in the sense of monogamy — there’s a more pervasive kind of seriality, in that most of us in America don’t spend most of our time embedded in a densely connected social network.  For the most part, we seem to have fairly disconnected social domains — work, school, family, friends — sorted by context and activity.  Even within each of those, we often find the hub-and-spoke topology.  Each person as the center of their own social universe, and able to cut loose a connection gone bad with modest impacts on the overall structure.

So I’m thankful to be immersed in Boulder’s cooperative scene — dozens of people with a mass of connections between them.  It’s something like what I’m looking for.  I work and live and play with many of the same people.  But it still has a feeling of transience.  Ephemeral. Changing.  People come and go, even if the network has some durability.  Not everybody comes and goes of course — there are some people who have decided to make this place their home.  We need a way to make that community concrete.  To put down roots.  We want to make and own a home together.  A base of operations.  A hearth and table.  An all star team?  A family of friends.  We need to change a law to do it.  Because community like this is illegal in America.  In Boulder.

Our microsociety is strewn with once and future lovers.  When you come into a scene like this, you don’t just meet people, you meet the relationships between people.  You get to know their history.  Their shared passions and ongoing conflicts.  The intimate mess that is humanity.  It’s hard to hide things here.  Secrets are leaky.

If I’m going to fall in love frequently, I don’t want to lose those loves.  Maybe falling can also be way to get close for other ends.


Escape to Elk Mountain

Dark Skies

Kurt and Kerry and I went on a week long bike tour from Boulder to Elk Mountain, Wyoming and back, with about half the miles on dirt roads.  It was 800 km in all, with sun and snow and mud, as well as a cracked rim, elk, moose, and antelope.  We took 4 epic days to get up there, and Kurt made it back in 2.  Kerry and I came back via North Park and Cameron Pass, skipping the last leg from Ft. Collins by taking the bus, and it still took 4 days.  Four nice, non-epic days.  This was not a gentle introduction to touring!  Thankfully Kerry still thought it was fun and wants to go again.

This post has nearly 100 photos in it, so it’ll take a minute to load.  Just go make a cup of tea or something.


What’s (socially) wrong with graduate school?

My Final Report Card

I say to you that we are full of chemicals which require us to belong to folk societies, or failing that, to feel lousy all the time. We are chemically engineered to live in folk societies, just as fish are chemically engineered to live in clean water—and there aren’t any folk societies for us anymore. (Kurt Vonnegut)

Wolfgang Pauli apparently once said of a student’s work: “This isn’t right.  This isn’t even wrong.”, to deride it for being unfalsifiable.  Grad school isn’t quite that bad.  We’re all running the experiment together every day.  We can tell whether or not it’s working, at least in theory.  But only if we’re willing to look.  I’m looking; I say it’s not working, at least not for graduate students, not on average (mean or median, pick your poison).



Two days ago I was leaning towards California’s Area of Bays, but now I’m on the other side of the Rockies.  Trying to imagine, what would I do out there?  How would I get to know people?  Who would I meet?  And even just looking at the organizations I know about already, I’m finding it’s pretty hard to imagine not making friends in Boulder.  Again.  I think part of me has been resistant to the idea, because it reeks of the path of least resistance.  Somehow it feels like running back to Caltech when I don’t know what to do next, and that has historically resulted in a lot of psychological trauma.  As the saying goes… “Never again”.  But moving to Boulder was much more intentional than coming to Caltech the first time around.  I tried to put my head in Boulder last night.  I tried to imagine, what would I be doing now, if I were there?  How would I meet people?  The main strength that the Bay Area has in my mind is that there are more people there that I know than in Boulder, and that all else being equal, it’s likely that that will continue to be the case going forward, as it seems to be a fairly deep potential well for the types of folks that have passed through my life.  It’s a bigger place too, in terms of people and economy.  It would have more variety in both.  More opportunity.  But at what expense?  And is more really better in this context?  Living there is much more expensive (incredibly… since Boulder isn’t exactly cheap).  The wilderness is harder to get to by bike.  I love the idea of cities but for historical reasons, I am a creature of town and country.  There are other paths I might have taken that would have led me to large urban centers, but it’s unclear whether it’s worth my exploring those paths at this point.

I need a sense of community, and a local culture I can feel a part of.  I need some strategic long term flexibility in job opportunities.  I need wilderness.  I need a place that loves bicycles.  I need some social seed crystals.

I’d been thinking that I’d float for the summer, traveling and visiting, but without any real roots.  Without making a choice.  And then in the fall, figure out where to go.  But now I’m not so sure that’s the best way to go.  Maybe instead it makes sense to go to a place and float there.  Tread water, and see how it feels.  This would put these summer months to good use.  Still enjoyable, but with the deeper purpose of getting to know the place and the people.  Or getting to know them again.  Backpacking and bike riding.  Potlucks and parties.  Social networking for fun and profit.

And so it was that I re-acquainted myself with Community Cycles, which is a kind of combination Bike Oven and CICLE, rolled into one.  I was especially moved by this wonderful five minute vignette:

It seems almost too good to be true.  A town cris-crossed by bike paths, with a multi branch bike culture organization that is apparently thriving and growing and able to support itself financially?  That has an aggressively understanding DoT (compared to some places we could name).  How could I not work with them?


Doctoral Leaflet

It seems a bit of Vaudeville is still lingering around the Academe…



Zane A. Selvans


Date/Time: 2:30pm, Friday, 20th November, 2009
Bldg./Rm: Benson Earth Sciences (BESC) 380

Examining Committee Members:

  • Karl Mueller
  • John Wahr
  • Robert Pappalardo
  • Bruce Jakosky
  • John Spencer


Major Field: Geological Sciences


A descendant of Dust Bowl migrants, Zane grew up near Fresno in California’s San Joaquin Valley. He left as soon as humanly possible, and got his BS in Computer Science at the Caltech in Pasadena. After a brief stint working in Silicon Valley (which unfortunately did not result in any kind of dot-com stock option fortune), he returned to Caltech via sea kayak to work with Mars Global Surveyor data, mapping Mars’ south polar layered deposits. While he has been a student at CU Boulder since the fall of 2002 you may not have seen much of him lately, because in early 2006 his wife and advisor both moved to Caltech/JPL, and like a long period comet, he slid back down into that place’s deep potential well to be with them. Next year, Zane intends to spend a lot of time on his bicycle.


Time, Tides and Tectonics on Icy Satellites
Faculty Advisor: Karl Mueller


In the outer solar system, we cannot directly use the radiometric dating techniques widely applied in terrestrial geology. We also lack the detailed understanding of the correspondence between crater size-frequency distributions and absolute ages that the radiometric dating of lunar samples has given us in the inner solar system. Additionally, many geologically interesting surfaces on the icy satellites are insufficiently cratered to allow us to infer precise relative ages. Thus it is desirable to find other ways to construct geological chronologies that function well in the outer solar system. In this work I develop two techniques.

The first compares the linear tectonic features covering Jupiter’s moon Europa to modeled tensile fractures resulting from tidal stresses due to the non-synchronous rotation (NSR) of the satellite’s decoupled, icy, lithospheric shell. The amount of shell rotation required to align a feature with the stress field resulting from NSR is used as a proxy for time. This translation is potentially convolved with a phase lag between the tidal potential and the stresses it induces, resulting from the shell’s partially viscous response to the NSR forcing. The geography of individual lineaments is found to be no more consistent with NSR stresses than chance would predict, however, the ensemble of global lineaments displays a non-uniform apparent rate of lineament formation throughout the time period recorded by the surface. This non-uniformity may be explained either by steady state fracture formation, activity, quiescence and erasure, or by a transient episode of tectonics.

The second technique encodes the myriad superposition relationships evident between Europa’s tectonic features as a directed graph enabling algorithmic analysis. The observed superposition relationships are generally insufficient to construct complete stratigraphic stacks, but we can calculate the degree to which they corroborate or contradict another hypothesized order of formation. We find that they tend to corroborate the hypothesis that the lineaments are tensile fractures due to NSR stresses.

Together these results offer cautious support for the idea that Europa’s shell rotates independently of its silicate interior, and demonstrate techniques useful in comparing tectonic features on other icy satellites to hypothesized mechanisms of formation.


Amateur Earthling on Hiatus

I have lots of draft posts in progress here on the back end, calling to me whenever I log in like internet sirens:

  • The Scale and Form of Cities, about how one might design a city from the ground up today, with efficient resource utilization and conviviality in mind.  A follow up to What Are Cities For?
  • Corporate Paternalism, about the ways in which we (especially conservatives) seem to have more faith in corporations than our elected representatives when it comes to making decisions for us.
  • Our Newtonian Hangover, about the non-linear, non-deterministic nature of history and technology, and James Burke’s excellent BBC series The Day the Universe Changed and Connections.  Miraculously, they are almost as relevant today as they were 30 years ago, and we are in the process of implementing one of the strange futures he foretold.
  • The dunes told me to work on passive buildings, which is a more personal and spiritual response to the NREL interview questions than seemed appropriate for a job interview.
  • and a magnum opus entitled What’s Wrong With Graduate School, that examines both how my own graduate career has been uniquely flawed, why I believe the graduate education system as a whole is in general broken, and a vision of what I think higher education might look like by the time any offspring I could conceivably have would be there.

However, at the moment the thing most wrong with graduate school is that I’m still in it.  My PhD defense has been tentatively scheduled for November 20th, and I’m going to the AGU fall meeting in San Francisco in mid-December to present my work, so I’m going to be completely occupied until the beginning of 2010.  There will be no further blog updates between now and then.  Or at least, there shouldn’t be.  If you see me making posts, don’t read them.  Instead ridicule me in person, or offer up some kind of digital castigation.

Of course, you can still read my mind keep in touch with me via my linkstream, my tweets, and my photos.  Oh, and of course there’s always e-mail and the telephone.


Snowshoeing to Boreas Pass

Two carloads worth of us headed up to Boreas Pass outside of Breckenridge, CO on New Years Day, for a mellow ski/snowshoe in to the Section House hut, about 6 miles in on an old mining railroad grade.  Along for the ride were Kamile Dilmurat, Trevor Stone, Stephen Hill, Michelle Selvans, Zane Selvans, Mike Stempel, Susan Stempel, Paul Stempel, and Megan Fluckiger.  We had some ominous but ultimately calm weather on the way in, and a gorgeous sunny day on the way out, with blustery wind all night long.  Kamile didn’t really sleep the night before, and had never been on such a trip, so she was pretty zonked.  Michelle was still getting over her winter break bug, whatever it was, and got kind of sick on the way out.  But other than that, I think everyone had a good time.  I’d definitely like to do more hut trips… with more snow, and a working knowledge of skiing!

The photos in the slideshow are a compilation from the cameras of Stephen, Trevor, and Zane, blatantly pirated for display here.


Sketch of a Future Home

I pinged Norris Minnick and the Buyer Brokers of Boulder last week. Curious to know whether what we’re thinking of exists, and whether it’s economically possible.  And to get the desires written down. I don’t know how far in advance one ought to start looking, but I suspect it’s like getting a job and getting pregnant: don’t start trying unless you want it now.

Boulder has so far been able to avoid most of the recent boom, and most of the recent bust. The enforced geographic constraints on development and the relative affluence and desirability of the area probably help. This makes me suspect that getting a low interest rate is probably more important than trying to let the market “bottom”… who knows what it’s going to do. Modest living seems like the best insurance.


Longing for Colorado

Fickle weather.  Deep, stony, mountain gorges.  Bike paths and festivals.  Rides up the canyons to picnics by the creeks.  Cool winds and thunderstorms.  Bright sun and clouds that move.  Margaritas and popcorn.  Shortness of breath on 13,000′ peaks.  A change of seasons in twelve hours.  Collegiate girls lounging in the sun.  Green smoke in the woods.  Busses that work.

Visiting makes it harder not to stay.