Text Substitutions

Most people are probably familiar with text substitution, in some form. It’s when a particular bit of text in a document is replaced throughout with an alternate. In many packages this is carried out via a Find/Replace dialog box. My main use has been in a Unix/vi environment, where the friendly and intuitive command :1,$s/old text/new text/g finds every instance of “old text” and replaces with “new text.” The true nerd will appreciate that the command is compatible with ‘regular expressions’ (an innocent-looking term that conceals a boatload of nerdcrap).

Over the years, I have developed a number of automatic text substitutions for phrases/platitudes I hear people utter. The filter works so that what I hear is converted into my internal version before processing further. This post collects a few such examples, although I’m sure I’ll think of more after the fact.

In each of the cases below, the heading is the spoken phrase, and the bold sentence that follows is my internal translation.

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A Story of Mice (and Men)

Picture a natural prairie, boasting an explosive diversity of grasses and flowers. Every year, at different times of the year, the grasses and flowers produce seeds. Some of these seeds, naturally, propagate their respective species so that the grasses and flowers will survive into the next year and the next.

But the plants are generous, generating more seeds than are necessary. Being the only form of life on the prairie capable of harvesting solar energy and turning it into food, they know they have sole responsibility for supporting their entire community. And why would they want to share their wealth? Well, they rely on insects for pollination, fungi for trading nutrients, worms for turning the soil, birds for spreading seeds far and wide, mice for planting their seeds and providing rich fertilizer, and on and on. Open-ended generosity pays back via other gifts in a spirit of reciprocity.

The mice in the prairie have done well for countless generations. While they are capable of explosive reproduction, they can’t expand willy nilly because food resources are limited: if they overgraze, fewer plants will survive into the following year. Meanwhile, hawks, owls, foxes and snakes are always looking for a snack. And so the prairie has settled on a roughly stable mouse population that works in concert with the rest of the ecological community. The population of mice (and of their predators) is not rock-solid: it fluctuates from year to year, but seldom strays very far before self-correcting. When mice are few, their predators diminish, seed abundance goes up, and the stage is set for a resurgence.

Then one day a foraging mouse notices a new hole at the base of an abandoned silo on the edge of the prairie that’s been dormant and irrelevant for all these years. Out of this hole some grains of wheat have spilled out. Tasty! Excited by her find, she brings her friends and they all have a feast. Within weeks, the mice are growing in number and exploiting this seemingly endless resource. All troubles would appear to be over.

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Wasp Wisdom

My patient wasp family on the end of their stick, after completing woodshed reconstruction.

One way to measure the change I’ve undergone in the last several years is via wasps. That’s right: wasps.

It’s as if I woke up one morning realizing that I grew up in a society of human supremacists, that I was one too, and that I no longer want to live that way.

In 2022, I began heating my home by burning firewood—mostly from scavenged trees in my forested area that have blown down. I needed a shelter for drying the wood and hastily constructed a structure mostly out of spare materials on hand. This summer, I decided to gussy it up to last a while. As I began unloading wood from it so I could rebuild it from the ground-up, I found a small nest of paper wasps attached to a stick on top of the pile, just under the roof. It was a smart location for the wasps.

In the past, I would have eliminated the nest, as it interfered with my plans. My biggest concern would have been how to wage war on the wasps without any risk to myself. Growing up, I feared wasps. I suppose I imagined they were after me—which I see now as a form of projection. Mentally, I was at war with wasps, so naturally these enemies would also be at war with me. If they weren’t so dumb, they would ambush me as a preventive offensive.  It is somewhat telling that when I searched on the internet to identify the wasps, a shocking fraction of the search results pointed to sites geared toward exterminating these “pests.”

Now that I am trying to operate as a humble member of the community of life, and to think of wasps as sisters who have been around for a long time and can probably teach me a thing or two, I find that my initial reaction is not one of fear, but of admiration.

The wasps did nothing wrong in choosing their spot. It was a solid choice. My desire to rebuild the shed was outside the parameters of normalcy. So I decided to work around them.

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Confessions of a Disillusioned Scientist

AI-generated stranger; I’m not so young/attractive

After a rocket ride through science, I am hanging up the gloves, feeling a little ashamed and embarrassed to have devoted so much of my life to what I now see as a misguided cause that has done more harm than good in this world.

The previous post details my views about the limits of science. In this post, I will focus more on my own reaction as a human participant in the enterprise.

As is so often the case, my trajectory, in hindsight, looks straightforward and linear. Halley’s comet introduced me to the sky in 1985–1986 at age 15–16, quickly leading to my building a 10-inch Newtonian telescope on a German equatorial mount (using plumbing parts from my plumber neighbor). Through this telescope, I saw all nine planets in one night (when there were nine), an individual star (supernova) 36 million light years away, and a quasar 2 billion light years away. I was a physics major at Georgia Tech and spent every-other-quarter at the Naval Research Lab working on optical communications for space. I had my pick of graduate schools, and chose Caltech for its idyllic setting, its relaxed, collaborative atmosphere, and access to “big glass.” Within a few months of starting, I had gone on observing runs to the venerable Palomar 200-inch telescope and the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory on Mauna Kea. What a dream I was living! Meanwhile, I enjoyed many outdoor adventures with fellow grad students, some of whom have become life-long friends.

I did not expect to stay in academia (the statistics were not encouraging to a middling student), and interviewed at a few “industry” jobs while also dipping a toe into “prize” postdoc fellowships and create-your-own postdoc adventures. I picked one from the “adventure” bucket, to start a lunar laser ranging project as a test of general relativity at the University of Washington. Abandoning my graduate expertise in infrared astronomical instrumentation was risky, but I saw this postdoc as a last hurrah in academia, deciding that I might as well have fun. I loved the people I worked with, and savored my time in Seattle. Unintentionally, this gutsy move looked very attractive to faculty search committees, two of which tracked me down based on the reputation of my graduate work and then put me on their short lists after learning of my new direction. One of these led to a tenure-track job at UCSD starting in 2003, where I kept the pedal to the metal on the lunar ranging project. During a 20 year career there, I was never turned down for funding my project, hit all the usual promotion steps at the expected times (tenure then full professor), and felt that I had “made it” by all traditional measures. Having written and reviewed a large number of peer-reviewed papers and served as panel reviewer for NASA and the NSF for far more proposals than I ever wrote, I knew the “game” quite well. I had a versatile set of powerful tools that I could bring to bear on what seemed like almost any problem. Science was, in some ways, the essence of my being, and I found plenty of reward in it—both intrinsically and societally.

So, what happened?

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