Monday, July 29, 2019

I am a racist

I wrote this Letter to the Editor in response to Charles M. Blow's opinion "Denying Racism Supports It" that was published in the New York Times on July 22, 2019. The New York Times did not use my submission. You can find the original article here:

I am a racist.

I don’t deliberately advocate racism or discrimination. I try to support legislation and civic and personal activities which reduce racism and discrimination. I abhor people who display overt racist behavior. But although I am deeply ashamed and embarrassed to admit it, I am a racist.

Please let me tell you a story.

When I was 6 years old, I was attacked by Humphrey, my best friend’s German shepherd. Although the wound was not life threatening, it was a single deep puncture in the shoulder that required several stitches; it left a physical scar that can still be seen today, 55 years later. The attack also installed a fear of dogs, a traumatic emotional scar that took nearly a decade to heal.

More importantly, the attack revealed a dark emotional scar that I’m still trying to heal.

After the attack I was encouraged to take it easy for several weeks. In particular, I was discouraged from taking part in games during recess at our neighborhood elementary school. So, rather than play kickball, I walked quietly around the edge of the playground watching my friends.

I was not alone.

I was accompanied by another boy who was also discouraged from playing with the other kids. He was black. He was the only black kid attending our school. As I recall, we enjoyed each other’s company and walked and talked together every day during my convalescence. And I didn’t think anything of it. I wasn’t uncomfortable hanging out with a black kid. Indeed, as I recall, I was aware he was black, and understood that was why he was outside the circle of my friends, but I didn’t have any negative feelings towards him. I liked him and was grateful he befriended me and saved me from feeling lonely. But, when my period of convalescence was over, I went back to my circle of friends and never looked back. I abandoned him. Even at 6 years old, I was already a racist.

Now I know that at that age I did not have the maturity or courage to make a stand for my new friend and bring him with me when I rejoined my regular playmates or to stay with him on the edge of the playground. Frankly I don’t remember whether it even occurred to me.

I do know that I have spent the last 55 years being ashamed that I treated by friend so badly. I know in my heart, I did it because I was a racist.

I am a creature of the culture in which I was raised. I feel genuine shame and embarrassment when I find prejudices in myself, but even though I try to be better, I continue to find them. Although difficulty is no excuse, it is difficult to stop being a racist. I am still a racist. But hopefully I will be better, someday.

As Samuel Beckett says, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Tuesday, July 09, 2019


Written July 9, 2018

A while ago I posted an article stating that given the size, complexity, and age of the universe, it seems absurd to me to believe there is a God who cares about humans. However, I understand it is terribly difficult to wrap our minds around the colossal numbers used to describe the universe. I thought it might be useful to share some thoughts about the scales of some common things.

Here’s a little background information:

1 centimeter (cm) is .39 inches

1 decimeter is 10 centimeters long.

1 meter is 100 centimeters and 10 decimeters long.

A cube ten centimeters on a side contains 1,000 cubic centimeters; it is a liter.

Aside: The diameter of softball is 3.8 inches or 9.88 cm. This is pretty close to a decimeter. So, if you have trouble understanding the size of a liter, think about this size of a softball in a box.

A cubic meter contains 1,000 liters.

A cubic meter contains 1,000,000 cubic centimeters.

1 kilogram (kg) is 2 lb 3.273965 oz

1 cubic centimeter of water weighs one gram.

1 liter of water weights one kilogram.

1 cubic meter of water weighs 1000 kilograms.

1000 kg is equal to 2204 pounds and 9.964800 ounces.

So, a cubic meter (about a cubic yard) contains a million cubic centimeters and weighs about a ton.

The average weight of a human is 62 kg.

The average weight of an ant is 5 micro grams. (A microgram is one thousandth of a gram.)

So, on average, each human weighs a million times more than an average ant.

Maybe that’s enough to get a feel for what a million means. How about a billion?

Think about a swimming pool that is ten meters wide, ten meters long, and ten meters deep.

That’s 32.5 feet wide, long, and deep.

That is about the size of a house.

It would contain a million cubic meters.

It would contain a billion cubic centimeters.

It would weigh a thousand kilograms, or about a thousand tons, or 2 billion pounds.

Now that you hopefully have a feel for what millions and billions are, let’s look at some facts:

The smallest length that has any meaning to physicists is the Planck length: 1.6E-35 meters.

The diameter of a proton is 87.E-16 meters. That is 5.4E19 bigger than the Planck length. That is ten times a billion times a billion bigger than the Planck length.

The diameter of a hydrogen atom is 1.2E-10 meters. That is a 1.38 million times bigger than a proton.

The diameter of blood cell is 7.5E-6 meters. That is 62,500 times bigger than a hydrogen atom.

The average human is 1.85 meters tall. That is 247,000 times bigger than a blood cell.

The diameter of the Earth is 6356 meters. That is 3,436 times bigger than a human.

The diameter of the Sun is 1.392E10 meters. That is 2.19 million times bigger than the Earth.

The diameter of the Solar system is 9E13 meters. That is 6,530 times bigger than the Sun.

The diameter of the Milky Way galaxy is 9.5E21 meters. That is 100 million times bigger than the Solar system.

The diameter of an average galaxy cluster is 3E25 meters. That is 3,260 times bigger than the Milky Way.

The diameter of the observable universe is 8.8E28 meters. That is 2,852 times bigger than an average galaxy cluster.

The diameter of the observable universe is 5.52E63 Planck lengths. That is a billion raised to the seventh power. It is a billion times a billion times a billion times a billion times a billion times a billion times a billion Planck lengths.

To me, it is absurd to think that a God created the entire universe for the benefit of creatures that are one or two meters tall who have lived for only a few tens of thousands of years on only one planet in the entire vast universe.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Two kinds of smart - an idea I want to develop

It seems to me that there are two kinds of smart. Or, people exist on a spectrum whose ends are two kinds of smart:

Smart at inventing tools
Smart at using tools

Inventing tools requires a kind of curiosity, a habit of tinkering

Using tools really well requires grace, dexterity,  observing what works and learning to do it again