The twenty-oughts, a decade in review

I will remember the past decade as graduate school.  Only 6 years actually enrolled, but also another 1.5 or so working at Caltech beforehand, trying to get in.  However, all the highlights took place in the other times.  The 2.5 years yet unaccounted for.  Of that time, about 18 months was spent traveling, and that’s where the memories really are.

A wolf in our camp by the calving McBride glacier.  Paddling over Pacific swell with seaweed and a wright whale by George Island.  The miracle of getting over sea sickness while fishing for salmon on the M/V Radio out of Pelican.  A brown bear and her cubs on the beach.  Lonely, wordless, solo backpacking in the Beartooth range.  Two weeks in Dark Canyon with the ringtails eating cattail roots.  A half eaten deer and mountain lion tracks in the morning by our campsite in the Zion narrows.  A night with Concept One and Aphex Twin in a Subaru crammed full of camping gear during a rain storm in the redrock country.


I’m older than I’ve ever been

In class Peter Goldreich once said “You don’t get smarter in grad school. You just get older.”  I don’t know if I agree entirely, but there’s a grain of truth in there somewhere.  It is a strange kind of scientific hazing ritual.  An induction and an indoctrination.  Highly skilled and intelligent people, doing difficult technical work, for years, earning something close to minimum wage.  Why?  Is it for a chance to play in the tenure-track tournament, with the odds stacked 10 to 1 against you?  If you win, you can study anything you like (as long as there’s funding…).  Is it because we think having a PhD will get us somebody’s respect?  Whose?  Our parents?  Our advisors?  Society at large?  It’s certainly not because we’re seeking power or riches.  That way lies law school, or the dreaded MBA.  Is it because we don’t know how to do anything else?  Because our self esteem has been so entangled with school for so long?  Because we are a people addicted to understanding?  What fraction of PhD students finish feeling good about themselves, or in love with their research?  Or even learning in general?

The Thesis Cell

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.


Colorado Dreaming and the Two Body Problem

While we were both in Colorado last winter, Michelle and I talked a lot about the emotional and physical logistics of moving back there permanently.  Our two body problem.  Location, career or love, (like sleep, good grades or a social life): pick two.  We tried to write an outline of all the decision points we might face.  A decision tree.  It became a mess.  Then we started writing it as a Python program, with zane and michelle objects, and method calls like zane.findjob(loc="boulder").  But it’s not really that kind of problem.  It’s not deterministic.  This is decision making under uncertainty.  Strategic and emotional, not entirely susceptible to reason.  It really stopped being an academic problem when I got the interview with NREL, and it seemed to go well.  Even if I don’t get the job (they still haven’t said one way or the other, as of mid February August), it was certainly a useful exercise in the sense that It made us think and feel through the realities of what doing something like that would mean.


The Once and Future Friend

At some point growing up I thought that all the “old” people were so different from me.  Actually, I thought just about everyone in Sanger and the Central Valley was different from me, but looking across generations it seemed most obvious.  I think the first hint I had that there were people like me (whatever that means) from the past were Hugh and Dianne in Davis.  But it didn’t really get through.  Caltech wasn’t any better – the inter-generational divide (student to teacher mostly) was too wide to really see the faculty as people.  Nevermind the unpleasant schooling experience and all its baggage.


Another way of breeding

More and more I suspect that short of some kind of existential catastrophe, in the near future the human genome is going to start getting re-written de novo every few generations.  This makes the already shaky argument for propagating my own personal genome all the more ridiculous.  Queen Elizabeth, for instance, in all likelihood carries exactly zero genes passed down to her from William the Conqueror, and that’s without genetic engineering.  Far more important today will be the ideas and technologies that are passed forward.  Add to this my deeply held belief that virtually all of the dangers and problems we face in the near term as a species, and a biosphere, stem from the enormous and rapidly growing human population (and it’s unending desire for material goods), and actually reproducing biologically becomes not only unnecessary, but morally dubious.

But there is still a powerful attraction to having kids.  To experiencing that kind of persistent mentorship, from the point of view of the mentor.  To watching, and hopefully guiding, another human being on the path to self-awareness, and an awareness of the world.  To having a visceral and deep connection to the future, through a person who will live in it.


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.


Autumn is Here

Fall arrived today, not officially, and not to stay, but for sure it’s now begun.  And it’s not just the shit-slinging monkeys running for public office that tips you off.  We didn’t need the fan last night.  We kept the windows closed.  The breeze at home is cool even at 3:45pm.  I wanted to wear long sleeves.  I didn’t want iced coffee.  The shadow of the shade cloth is falling on the planters in the courtyard, and the light has that golden hue.  The middle of the day is disappearing, and edges are rushing in, changing the feeling of solar time as we tilt away from the sun.

I’m sure it’ll get hot again.  The offical weather reports don’t even seem to admit that it’s cooled off now (highs are supposedly still above 30°C… but they sure don’t feel like it).  It can be 40°C in October here.  But the blinding and oppressive light that summer wields is weakening.  The darkness is coming back.  The safe and enveloping darkness we can hide in.  The sun that grows broccoli and chard and peas and mustard greens, but puts habañeros to sleep.  The gray marine morning.


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.