The Path We Wander

“Where are you going?” “Dunno. You?”

It is pretty common in western society and probably in all human societies to measure success in what we do. If we can mark off boxes—at school, work, home, the gym, in the grocery or fix-it store, in our partnerships, with our children, in our spiritual lives (whatever those are for any of us, individually), as we wind down the whole business and get ready to check out—we often (not always) feel a sense of satisfaction. Some of us are afflicted with perfectionism. As perfection is an asymptotic goal (we may approach it but will never achieve it), having the sense to wrap something up rather than attempt perfection is as good as it gets. I guess there are exceptions to this notion of elusive perfection but let’s not quibble.

“Well, that’s done!” we may remark to ourselves, to our friends and family, to our bosses and co-workers.

What if we measured our lives by what we left incomplete? For writers, musicians, and artists, in particular, I think this might pose a daunting problem. What about the poem that just doesn’t resolve itself in a sensible way, with the correct word or sentence, the apt metaphor on the tip of our “tongues” and not on the page where it needs to be? It’s not going to do any good unsaid, is it? We really mean that if it is on the tip of our tongues it is eluding our conscious minds, burying itself in all that gray stuff and refusing to come when beckoned. Those thoughts are like the just-fed cat who has no reason to visit at the moment, thank you, and you’ll just have to amuse yourself.

The same happens to musicians and lyricists. Nice melody, great chords through the verse, then a giant blank when it comes to the chorus or the bridge. It isn’t a song and it isn’t complete if those bits can’t be summoned. So there you are, with a guitar on your knee or keys at the ready, pen full of ink, a song peering up and daring you to take the next step. And that next step is frozen in mid-air.

I have watched a friend of mine go through this recently in her art. She’ll send photos at various stages. To me, they all look good, interesting, full of thoughts and feelings that would not be in the world except for her efforts. And then… the next version, she says it didn’t come out the way she hoped, that some element was not working or she couldn’t get the colors to play well with each other or there’s something bugging her about the perspective. There’s something that is doing the same thing to her that the unfinished poem or story or song or sonata does to their creators.

It’s a giant pain!

The reason this works out for the best is that creatives, at least, have a subconscious understanding that what they are doing is a process. It is the path that matters. If we set out for a destination, we may arrive somewhere entirely different from where we imagined the path was going. In fact, that is probably the most likely destination—somewhere unimagined. A place we didn’t expect and hadn’t conceived as a possibility. And that’s fine.

Most of us are probably going to measure completeness as a good thing throughout our lives. It might be better if we measured the things we didn’t complete as well. Those might be the precious discoveries, however incomplete and unresolved they might seem to be. The other stuff might just be signposts and mile markers. Done. Complete. Checked off the list. Not as important as the nagging phrase or the chord change or the foreground figures that didn’t work out and haunt us every day. Those may be where we really distinguish our lives from all the others tramping along.

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A Thousand Swallows

What is it like?

What is it like
to start each night
with a sip, then another,
then a glass, and one more?

What does it say
when we pour a wee hair
when we rise, or at noon
to rescue the day?

When does the pretense
that we seek the truth
convert to a tale, a lie,
a rationale?

What is this stuff
that boggles our brains
when our families
wait for our love?

Why do we drink
our minds into dark
when life provides such
a beautiful feast?

When does a pastime
become an addiction,
a lifestyle, a refuge,
a death by immersion?

Who can love us
when we can’t love ourselves
enough to stop killing
our very own cells?

How do we stop
Consuming ourselves?
A step at a time
For the rest of our lives.


I don’t usually provide any explanatory note following a post. I feel that I should in this instance. I have watched too many friends start their adulthood – or leave their adolescence – with a “celebratory beverage” in hand and succumb to this dreadful addiction as they matured. It is a story that applied to both of my parents, who were intelligent, successful, driven people with full lives behind them when I entered the picture, yet they were less than they could have been for my brother and me due to their retreat into the bottle at various times of the day for various unexplained reasons. It was more common in their generation than, I guess, in mine. That does not make watching it happen any less awful. I was lucky. I always drank too fast and was sick before I knew it. This set up a helpful aversion reaction that I finally recognized when I was 25. I stopped but I had never really gotten started. The patient load-in of ethanol is the mechanism that creates tolerance and, if not attended, addiction. Please be careful. There are many ways to have fun; find a bunch of them that don’t involve self-harm.

Featured image from Pixabay, no attribution required

The First Date

She looked fine.

I met her on one of the less-populated branches of the web, one where unpopularity could be confused with privacy, where loneliness could be mistaken for intimacy.

She looked fine. She seemed fine. As I approached, trembling a little on the inside, I could smell her and she smelled better than all the flowers that had ever wafted their perfumes past me.

She turned a little, perhaps shy. We had never met and it was to be expected. At least I thought I expected it. The shyness. Maybe what seemed one way was another. In retrospect. Maybe it was caution. Or curiosity. Was I what she was looking for or just another guy on the web?

I approached. She extended a hand and helped me up. This was moving quite fast! I considered my options and settled in, feeling her energy coursing into me as I pulsated against her, brittle limbs embracing, tight and loose, urgent and relaxed.

It was then that it all went wrong. She turned her head, opened her mandibles and bit into my left eye, blinding me. But she just munched, cracking the crisp facets of what had been a perfectly good eye into a chitinous snack. I opened my mandibles to protest and she assumed, I guess, I was offering her one. Well… both. But one at a time in a token act of selfless courtesy on my part, I suppose. And there it went, my left mandible falling apart in her mouthpieces and departing whatever still remained of my head.

At some point in this dismemberment, I realized I was still within her, priming what would be a new generation of young mates, guys and girls, ready to pair off and go through something horrid like this when they grew up and became adults. At this point, I felt a flutter of hope and tried to pry myself off her, away from her hooked arms, her tight and unyielding embrace. She would have none of it.

It’s an odd thing, being eaten so soon in a relationship. I know I had hoped for a second date, maybe a third. This had been my first, of course. It would be my last. Perhaps my expectations had been too high.

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Thanks to confabler for unwittingly providing me with the idea for this piece!

I Was Nominated (and Accept)

Confabler nominated me for a Sunshine Blogger Award!

My distant, yet close friend Confabler has nominated me for the Shiny Shiny Sunshine Award. I love her imagination and sense of whimsy; she lets her muse du jour lead and she follows. There’s a wonderful freedom to that which is (1) difficult to allow in the rational process of “writing” and (2) enjoyable to find.

1. If you were to choose an insect that would take over the world after human extinction, who would that be?

It sort of depends on our route to extinction. If it involved an epidemic, the population of flies might see a giant uptick. This would be a good one:

Gauromydas heros

If it is a slow process, then I nominate the Japanese Rhinoceros beetle because it would be awesome if creatures  with such improbably fashioned protuberances were to be the alpha species (Megasoma and Titan beetles would be acceptable alternatives):

Allomyrina dichotoma

 If our extinction took all other terrestrial life along for the ride, I would like to see this enormous isopod (a relative of our terrestrial roly-polies) rule the seas (note inclusion of actual human hands for sense of scale):

The underside of a male Bathynomus giganteus, a species of giant isopod captured in the Gulf of Mexico in October 2002.

2. How old were you when you first read Harry Potter? And your favorite author of course?

I was pretty old when I read my only Harry Potter book (the first one). I didn’t enjoy it enough to complete the series, although I’ve seen all the films and enjoyed them well enough. In the period I read that first one, I was typically reading a lot of history and didn’t find that it was a good use of my time. When I was really young, I read the Classics Illustrated versions of novels, which were quite good at introducing a curious young mind to the wonders of literature without having to do the work (sort of illustrated CliffsNotes (I didn’t use these in school though), if you will). When I was a little older, I read Robert E. Howard, Sax Rohmer, John Carter of Mars, H. Rider Haggard, Stanley Weinbaum, George McDonald fantasies, etc.

My favorite author is Gabriel Garcia Marquez for One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. His writing is so rich, amusing, full of simple wisdom and abundant humanity it is hard to believe he was just a human being writing about the lives he saw playing out around him. I literally would read some passages and have to put the book down as if I had just sipped the richest chocolate elixir in the world and needed to savor it until I sipped again. His Spanish-to-English translators did a good job in getting it right; Gregory Rabassa (OHYoS translator) was even praised by Garcia Marques himself!

3. If you were invisible what is the craziest thing that you would do?

Here’s an odd one: Go and hang around bigots, transcribe their conversations, and publish them for the world to see how terrible people speak when they think no one is listening (but, oh yeah, we have the internet so this already happens). If I could walk through things, which seems fair since I’m invisible, I would go around seeing what it felt like to do that—see if there were different textures to different things on the inside than on their surface.

4.what food makes you feel like a hungry hyena?

This has changed so much over time! These days, I don’t get this kind of urge anymore. In my early adult (late teen?) years… ICE CREAM!!!!

5. A song that makes you dream?

Gymnopedie #1 by Erik Satie

6. Have you ever planted a tree?

Yes. Unasked but answered: quite a few!

7. Choose your man: superman/ Spiderman/ iron man and if he was your best friend one thing that you would make him do?

Can I choose Supergirl? If I can, I would have her take me around to various places in the world, build shelters so I could stay there and visit free, then whisk me off to the next place on “our” list (she would be enjoying the sight-seeing with me, of course! What kind of boor do you think I am?!?!).

8.How much time do you spend in front of the mirror everyday?

As little as possible, which involves shaving and brushing my teeth. I find that shaving my teeth first helps with the brushing.

9.why you started blogging and tell us about the post enjoyed the most making.

I was having a bunch of conversations with people who did not seem to understand the wonderful humility of learning and doing science and wanted to see how well I could write about how science is a discipline that can assist us all in not leaning out too far over our skis (getting ahead of ourselves and pretending we know stuff we don’t). Blogging has become so much more than that since my first post on June 22, 2016, and I have had so much fun writing fiction and revisiting some poetry I wrote several decades ago (and finding them easier to “fix” than I remembered).

I’m not sure which of my posts I enjoyed the most. They’re all my children so I like them all? I probably like the odd bits of fiction that I had no idea were inside me when I woke up and then found them on the page looking up at me. I like The Big Day of these. Of the science posts, I like The Mess: Parts 1 & 2 and the Appendix 1 items best (maybe). Of the historical pieces, I like Risk Management. Of the life pieces, I like Building Blocks the best. Anyone who reads this is encouraged to make up their own mind; I am hopelessly biased.

10. Which social media platform are you addicted to (including WordPress)?

I don’t do much social media except WordPress. I don’t like Facebook at all and deleted my account. WordPress is addicting but in a very healthy way! You get to create something and share it with new friends from all over the world. That’s a great addiction have.

Now the rules:

1.thank the person that nominated you.

Thank you, Confabler. You are a true virtual friend, and I don’t mean that in any Pokemon way either!

2. Answer the questions from your nominator.


3. Nominate fellow bloggers you follow.

Hereinafter lie the following nominees in no particular order (order, of course, being an illusion):

Confabler – it would be completely wrong not to boomerang this thing back at her; how could I like what she writes and like that she nominated me but ignore why we share interests at all?

November_child –  in her poetry, every word is judiciously considered for its various meanings and the images they stir and she makes great short stories that are deep and playful and serious all at the same time

anonymouslyautistic – for doing an AMAZING job of writing about this misunderstood spectrum of living – and for inviting others who share her interest to contribute

English Lit Geek – because she searches the web and her library for poems that communicate her inner soul to us all out here in the ‘sphere and I appreciate this!

Wiser Daily – because this guy writes REALLY well about every single subject he wraps his mind around, because he is not a scientist but writes extremely clearly about science, because he is just a damned good writer!

Breathmath – because they are doing an astonishingly serious job of trying to get the world to see the beauty in mathematics

Sheryl – because she’s written a book, is working on others, has great tips for doing the same, and kindly visits my offerings fairly often

The Nexus – because he writes REALLY well about physics and does a great job of doing what I set out to do, whether I’m doing it on any given day or not

The Biology Yak – because she is passionate about biology and shares her passion in every word on every topic she chooses

afternoonifiedlady – even though I have no idea what it is to be an afternoonifiedlady, I love her rants about living with and without her ex and trying to wrestle with notions of romance – she is very witty and amusingly pissed off!

Yaskhan – for her lovely, succinct way with words

urbanagscientist – because she is at least as worried about the misunderstanding of science as I am

Luke Atkins – because he writes really well about difficult subjects and he writes like the stuff matters a lot, which it absolutely does!

And there are more in my list of 119 writers that I am following but this is enough for now.

4. Give them 10 questions to answer.

If you wish (and I clearly cannot impose this on any of you, please respond to confabler’s funny questions. I enjoyed them, maybe you will too!

Kind regards, MSOC

It was Generous of confabler to choose me. Now I have to Jump off and do other stuff!

The Mess (Part 1: Too much mess!)

There is nothing superficial about surfaces.

There is nothing superficial about surfaces. While there are many objects that appear smooth, most of what we see is all about nooks and nicks, crannies and pores, pleats and folds, imperfections and inconsistencies, hooks and dips, bumps and craters. We live in a world of beautiful deformations, of breath-taking imperfections, and we should celebrate all of them. Simultaneously. In one globally cavitating “YAWP!” at least once a day.

I first read about close packed structures in high school. I found it fascinating. I can’t explain being fascinated. It is one of those dovetailing moments when your own individual, completely unique brain that is also just like all the other human brains finds something that it likes for whatever impossibly complicated reason and latches onto it. It is a concept with which all of you have more familiarity than you think.

Have you ever shopped for oranges? Not just an orange but a box of oranges. The first layer sits in the box and reveals a uniformity of depressions where each orange touches two (at the corners) or three (at the sawtooth edges) or four (at the straight edges) or six (anywhere besides the places above). Those depressions are an invitation to add another layer of oranges. Or not. You can add that next layer to the enticing curve-edged triangles that have appeared between oranges or you can add them directly above the oranges you’ve already added to your box. If you add them to the dips between oranges, you are making a close packed structure of oranges and they will all sit very comfortably in those dips until you get them home, their imperfect skins pressed against their friends like tiny butts in triangular swing seats.


Take a look at that first layer of white, imaginary spheres and pretend they are oranges…

From this illustration, you see the first, second and third layers and two possible arrangements: hexagonal close-packed (left) and face-centered cubic or cubic close-packed arrangement (right). So orderly! So nice!

The thing is that nature is not orderly and nice. What happens to the stacks of oranges if we add in a grapefruit in one of the layers, right in the middle, and then a couple of divots later we add in a grape or seven? Then we add a variety of apples, plums. and kiwi fruit on top of that? Let’s put a cantaloupe into our lattices, but keep piling up and pushing in the oranges wherever spaces are left. And we do this kind of craziness, not for two or three layers, which would still be a sub-microscopically thin collection of atoms (but a good box of fruit); we go for a trillion cubic layers of atoms (the fruit thing has just become an impossible and fairly useless analogy; let’s put them all back in the grocery already). Atoms don’t always sit in a single layer with other identical atoms. Atoms are paired (or tripled, etc.) with disruptors to these simple lattices (“lattices” is what these formations of atoms are called). Sodium atoms (ions actually, but that is a rat hole I will not go down – yet) are paired with chloride ions (still atoms, just with an additional electron, stolen (perhaps) from the sodium). Sodium and chloride – atom center to atom center – has a lattice constant of 564 picometers (5.64×10-10) meters, a very small but critical distance that helps make those nice cubic crystals you see when you look at a grain of salt with sufficient intent. If you grow your sodium chloride crystals in a vacuum from absolutely pure water that includes nothing but pure sodium and pure chlorine, they will probably be gems of perfection. If they grow in the real world – on a beach or rocky shore at the high tide line or in evaporation ponds used since pre-history to harvest salt, those little crystals will probably include other ions. These are called inclusion impurities or coprecipitates. They may be ions or organic substances that got muscled into the crystallization process in spite of their differences or they may have sufficient affinity with one or another of the primary ions in the substance to bind simply because no energetic reason not to do so. The shape of the crystals will not be so perfectly face-centered cubical and their color might even shift, depending on what is included and to what extent.

In virtually any water you can imagine except the purest water (but we might as well start talking about unicorns now), sodium ion, which has given up an electron to have a single positive charge, a single electron-shaped absence in its uppermost and typically populated energy level, badly wants to fill that hole with almost any substance that comes along with a spare electron in its uppermost and fully populated energy level (we’ll just put the concept of energy levels aside with the notion of ions, although we are now revisiting ions after I promised to delay them). If a fluoride or bromide or iodide atom floats by, they will fill the bill quite nicely but water molecules will do the job by pairing its comparatively electron-rich oxygen (negatively charged) with the momentarily electron-poor sodium ion (positively charged). The water is just lending its cloud of electrons through a process called hydrogen bonding, illustrated forthwith:


Schematic representation of the aqua ion [Na(H2O)6]+.

Instead of this “flat” representation, the sodium ion sits at the center base of two four-sided pyramids defined by the oxygens from the water molecules; this is known as an octahedron. To illustrate, we have the structure on the right, although instead of rubidium ion (Rb+) at the center we have sodium ion (lithium is smaller and only requires four waters for its solvation shell, thus forming tiny floating tetrahedrons all linked to other tetrahedrons through other waters).


Li- and Rb-water omplexes
Water-solvated lithium ion (left) and rubidium ion (right)

To further illustrate, here is a stripped-down diagram of six waters binding  to an ionized metal (M) at the inner center of the octahedron. The diagram also shows how this hydrogen bonding continues by oxygens in the next sphere out from the metal binding through the hydrogens in the waters affiliated with the metal ion.


But again I have digressed! Water – pure, unadulterated by absolutely anything water – will dissolve anything onto which it can place its tiny hydrogen bonding mittens. If no sodium ion (or any of the other group 1 alkali metals) is available, a group 2 alkali earth metal – or almost any ionizable metal from the transition metals or lanthanides or real-world actinides will suffice, thank you. And we haven’t even touched on all of the polyatomic ions that water will cluster about like electronically ambiguous fanatics looking to rub shoulders with their i(c)ons. Water will grab anything with an electron or more missing and will grab anything with extra electrons as well. If there is soluble lead in a water pipe, the lead is grabbed by water and whisked along to your tap. It will grab organic compounds (table sugar, vitamin C, short-chain alcohols and acids, for instance), charged or not, to the extent that they are mixable (miscible) with water; if the organic compounds aren’t miscible, they will form a very tight interface. You have probably seen this interface in oil-vinegar salad dressing, although that is an imperfect example. If you have some mineral oil in the medicine cabinet, remind yourself what an immiscible interface looks like.

To provide a visual example, the following is a photograph of air bubbles in foam. Notice the irregularity of the bubbles. This is not exactly like imperfections in crystals or  dissolved substances, but will suffice as an analogy to the irregularity of materials dissolved in water. All water-metal solvation does not form octahedrons and not all waters surround positively-charged ions; they also surround negatively-charged ions, neutral materials, and are surrounded by other waters as well. It’s messy.


Order and chaos of air-bubbles in a foam: from order to chaos or from chaos to order? Hexagonal packing of spheres due to regularly sized spheres, transitioning to disorder due to spheres of differing size.

If water has a difficult time being pure, what about the rest of the world? The rest of the world is more like the composition of minerals than it is about absolute purity and pristine structures. What do I mean? Here is a mineral, or rather here is a photograph of at least three minerals (Uvarovite, Malachite, Azurite) sharing space.

A proliferation of minerals

Uvarovite has the chemical formula Ca3Cr2(SiO4)3. Malachite’s formula is Cu2CO3(OH)2. Azurite goes by the alias Cu3(CO3)2(OH)2. When they are blended together as they are in this formation, bits of each stick into the lattices of the other – a copper (Cu) infiltrating the chromium (Cr), a silicate ion ([SiO4]4−) latched onto a copper, an hydroxide (OH) here, a carbonate (CO32-) there, an intrusion of calcium (Ca2+) toying with the affections of a carbonate, although there may be patches that are as pure as nature allows. And there is always the promiscuous water molecule and its tendency to complicate matters with its waters of hydration to consider. See the wave-like shapes in the chunk of history above? There’s a really good chance that this occurred because the various minerals were once suspended in water and somewhat slowly, for whatever reason, the water dried out or the minerals were in a sufficiently concentrated solution that they precipitated out. The blue stuff in the middle? See the little bumps? Those are tiny crystals. This is where all the stuff about water solvating various ions of various sizes and the solid surfaces of rocks kind of come together.

And this is the sort of world that surrounds us. A world of appearances that are far more complicated than they seem. Surfaces that are even more complicated than diligent study reveals. Scientists, after all, are looking for rules, patterns, predictability (however chaotic at first blush the predictability may seem) at the heart of the messiness. It would not make sense to take an item like the pictured jumble of minerals and break it down – the only unique “it” that “it” is – and determine EXACTLY how all of the minerals fit together and where the inconvenient atom that is “none of the above” has interloped into something already impossibly complex. The scientist studying any facet of the universe looks for the through-line that links the messy with its fundamental characteristics and helps us understand what a predictable, impossible universe surrounds us.

(Updated, extended, clarified, polished, and propagated afresh: 12:21PM EDT Aug 12, 2016).

(Further updated with the addition of the following videos 7:15PM EDT Aug 12, 2016).

Hydrogen bond rearrangement dynamics in liquid water by molecular dynamics simulation. 1 second in the movie corresponds to 1 picosecond in reality. The blue spheres represent oxygen, aqua spheres represent hydrogen and the yellow connectors represent hydrogen bonds.

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“I like it the way it is.”

“What do you mean?”

“I like it the way it is.”

“What do you mean?”

“How can I make that any more blatantly obvious? It’s fine. Don’t do anything!”

“But you have a very large budget to complete this.”

“I’m well aware of that but look at it and tell me how it could be any better.”


“If you’re stumped, then you agree with me? Finally?”

“No. I mean….”

“What do you mean ‘no’?”

“No, I’m not stumped. I am just wondering whether you’ve thought this through.”

“I’ve thought about it. I live with it every day. You live with it every day. We all do. It is perfect as it is. Why would you want to go and mess that up?”

“I don’t. It’s just that….”

“I get it. You think that we have this stuff and we need to do something with it. Well, we don’t. That’s been the problem, don’t you think? We’re always trying, always doing more, and we always end up with less. So, let’s not and just leave it as is.”

“Should I load it all up and take it back?”

“Load it into what?”

“Where is it?”

“It left.”


“Does it matter?”

“I suppose not.”

“So, let’s go do something. We have all this and a whole bunch of time. Let’s go!”

“Okay. Sounds fine to me.”

It all stayed right where it was and none of it was used as everything was just perfect as it was.