…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

But I have someone else to do my taxes. Which leaves me with the one singular phenomenon that is death. Yet I seem totally unprepared for it. The people who planned my high school curriculum saw it fit that I should know how to do differential calculus and recite Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy. But in my 25 years of formal education I didn’t have a single class on how to die or how to help someone die. So I am stumbling around, blindfolded by social stigma, trying to make my way through thickets of personal experience.

My first brush with death was when my dadoo, my grandfather, died. I was seven. My dad left for the funeral right away. Alu, my mother and I followed a couple of days later. When I saw my dad, his head was shaven. Otherwise he seemed to be himself. He wasn’t crying. He had perhaps finished that part of his grieving, or maybe he shielded me from it. A few years later, our Golden Cocker, Raja, died. That helped me understand death better. It wasn’t the pain of death or the fear of it, it was the finality of it – that I’d never see Raja ever again. Everything I had with Raja was in the past. The future only held memories. And regrets. By the time my mother died, I was an adult. She hadn’t been in great health and her death wasn’t unexpected. I thought that would soften the blow but it didn’t. Arjun’s death was just devastating – I think because of its unexpectedness and also because he left behind his little daughter who was the light of his life. My dad’s death was hard because we had grown very close at that point in our lives – we were spending hours together every day.

We don’t like to talk about death. When my dad was dying, I could not get answers to my questions from the doctors at the hospital. He had arrived at the hospital in a coma. Jo and I were bringing him back home to die. We needed to know what to expect once he was extubated. What to prepare Vivian and Evan for. When to ask Alu to come to Austin. It was finally the home hospice nurse who gave us straight answers.

People die everyday. In an average year the world sees about 60 million deaths. Most of these deaths matter to someone like my dad’s death mattered to me. During the last 12 months there were about two and a half million Covid deaths. Statistically, some of the people who died from Covid may have died due to other causes if they hadn’t got infected with Covid. But still a lot of additional people died and are dying. The US has been affected disproportionately. About 4% of the world’s population lives here. About 20% of the people who died worldwide from Covid lived here. Death is on our minds.

Vivian and I had a conversation about death, perhaps a bit prematurely, when she was three years old which then resulted in her telling the Shahs over dinner one night that I was going to die and that all the Shah’s were going to die. She had just learned that everyone dies. I blogged about it here.

A week ago, Manju Shah died. We all called her “Mummy”. Mummy’s death wasn’t unexpected, but as I found out in the case of my mother’s death, that does not make it easier.

Mummy lived an amazing life. And then died.

I attended a memorial for Mummy hosted by Rajeeta and Minal a couple of days later. It was on zoom, and it was for Mummy’s Osho community . People who were friends of Mummy had logged in from all over the world. Everyone was undoubtedly sad that she was gone. But as the zoom call went along, I had this overwhelming feeling that this was a bittersweet send-off for an old friend who is on her way to someplace better. Hindu philosophy treats the living body as just one temporary stop in the soul’s eternal journey. I am assuming that Osho taught something similar. In fact this memorial was called a “celebration” and it did not have the usual gloom and doom I associate with a memorial service.

Yesterday Jo and I attended Mummy’s funeral. Due to Covid it was small. But it was a beautiful and touching affair. Besides following Osho, Mummy was also Jain. During the funeral Jain and Hindu hymns and mantras were sung. They opened with the Gayatri Mantra, which I recognized and remembered from the ceremony where Alu and I were initiated into brahmin-hood back during our pre-teen years. At one point, akin to the tradition of paying your respect while filing past the casket in Christian funerals, each of us had the opportunity to place some grains of rice and sandalwood dust in Mummy’s casket and spend a moment with the body.

As we drove back home after the funeral, Jo said that the funeral didn’t feel solemn. She felt that the singing and saying Om had a calming effect. She wondered if this was how Mummy had wanted to go. And what we would want our funerals to look or feel like.

I did feel better after the funeral. The rituals and traditions of a funeral provide us with a sense of closure by giving us a time and place to put our feelings of loss into. And for those that believe, the ceremony helped Mummy’s soul onward on its journey.

I have a may-die-soon list in my head. Thankfully, often the list is empty. Lately it hasn’t been that way. When I get a phone call or a message from anyone close to someone on the list my heart skips a beat. Even though I know that life is uncertain and that I may die just as easily before anyone on the list.

Two days ago I got a message from a friend that her daughter has been diagnosed with a life threatening disease out of the fucking blue. A tornado of worry and despair roared through my head. Followed a million thoughts. How do you tell an exuberant and otherwise healthy child that she is very sick? Twenty four hours before that they were eating dinner and chatting away just like us.

Epicurus famously said that death …is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. Simple words. But, when we are not, others still are. Therein lies the rub.

About ten days ago I had a conversation with another dear friend who is firmly in the red zone. We laughed and joked and laughed some more and his voice was strong and his brain was as good as ever but his body is ready to give up and he has decided against further medical intervention. One of these calls will be his last. I feel I should say my goodbyes while I have time but I haven’t. If death is certain, life is hopeful.

It is hard to merge the cold reality of my empirical atheism with the spirituality of death. When you believe that your body is just a bag of unstable cytoplasm, amazing and miraculous as it is, the end is the end. There is no wiggle room for second acts, transmigrations, or quantum mechanical fudging. The curtain falls. You are done. The comfort lies only in recognizing what life has left behind – the friendships, the memories, and for some, the actual strands of DNA in future generations. From dust you came, and to dust you shall return. And the cycle continues.

Hindus take off their shoes before entering temples. The individual soul is considered a part of the cosmic soul of the creator, and so there is a bit of god in every one of us. Perhaps it was a combination of these two reasons, but when we walked up to Mummy’s casket yesterday at the funeral, we took off our shoes first. I looked down at my socks in horror. There were golf ball sized lemon yellow skulls printed on the dark grey background of the socks. And some text: “I almost died but it was just a cold”. Jo had given me these socks for Christmas to make fun of my man colds. But they were so inappropriate for a funeral. I had to suppress a giggle. Others noticed my socks too. I was embarrassed. Then I remembered Mummy’s smile. It is the thing about her I will miss the most. If she saw me in these socks at her funeral, I bet she would smile.


Imagine if a hundred million years from now, an advanced species find Ted’s asshole (that was redundant) meticulously preserved in a mason jar on Trump’s dresser in Mar-a-lago. They describe it in detail and publish photographs of said asshole. Due to the paucity of pickled assholes, their entire understanding of human assholes is derived from Ted’s.

That’s almost exactly what happened to a large-dog sized sub-adult specimen of a Psittacosaurus that lived about 100 million years ago in north-eastern China. Scientists found a well preserved fossil of its asshole. In a recent publication, they first describe the general area of the asshole. Then comes the gem: “The darkly-pigmented tissue surrounding the vent is wrinkled, the creases of which are parallel and radiate from the vent in a posterolateral direction (∼3 cm long) towards the ventral tip of the third haemal arch.”

I love science. Imagine if that’s the the culmination of your life’s work. That one sentence in that one paper sets you up for tenure. Head of department doesn’t seem that far away suddenly. After all you were the very first to know for certain that a dinosaur’s asshole is dark and wrinkled! Scientists have theorized since birds and crocodiles are descendants of dinosaurs, and both have a type of asshole called a cloaca vent, that dinosaurs probably have similar plumbing. A cloaca vent is like an iPhone’s lightning port. It takes care of everything – poop, pee, and sex. Turns out that they are right. A dinosaur’s asshole is a cloacal vent and it somewhat more similar to a crocodile’s than a bird’s butthole.

Here is a photo of the poor dinosaur’s asshole lit up with lasers and a link to the paper but be warned that the the rest of it is boring. “The junior senator from great state of…blah blah blah”.

We often discuss the latest scientific breakthroughs over dinner. The other day, along with the dino asshole fossil, we chatted about wombats and their uniquely cube shaped poo. Here’s a photo that often shows up in google searches (I got this one from twitter where Trump can’t post his shit but wombats can). It shows cube shaped wombat poo on a used computer punched card (so what is the back-story here?). It has been theorized that because wombats use their poo to mark their territory, and because they live in hilly places, cubey poo is less susceptible to rolling away and easier to stack when compared to traditional poo, thus providing an evolutionary basis for the shape of their shit.

The simplistic reason something would shit cubes is because they have square assholes. But a quick check of wombat’s backsides showed that the simple answer was wrong (take that, Occam). Back in late 2018 (I somehow missed this important news till recently), researchers from Georgia Tech presented their findings at the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics’ annual meeting in Atlanta. They said that the elasticity of the walls of the last 8% of a wombat’s intestines varied dramatically, thereby making it possible for wombat poo to come out cubed. Researchers agreed that this may have valuable applications in manufacturing. Our dwellings on Mars may be made out of martian bricks made this way. But first we’ll need to fly a bunch of wombats to Mars. And may be Ted too.


There are classic conspiracy theories like the Loch Ness monster, faked moon landings, flat earth, alien abductions, and UFO sightings (read about our visit with the Roswell aliens from five years ago). Then there is JFK’s assassination with theories involving LBJ, the CIA, the KGB, and the second shooter on the grassy knoll. I was visiting NASA Houston with my parents many years ago and I was in this room that had a bust of LBJ and the pen he used to sign important space exploration-related legislation. A dad walked in with his young son sitting on his shoulders, much like I carried Vivian around many many years later. He looked at the bust of LBJ and announced to his son “So – this was the guy who killed Kennedy”, and spun around and walked out of the room. People in the room, mostly foreign tourists like my family, stared slack-jawed after him, awkwardly smiled at one another, and continued with their visit.

Holocaust denying is another amazing conspiracy theory. Erasing the cold-blooded deaths of six million Jews and all the hard evidence that goes with it requires agile mental gymnastics. But it shows that if you really want to believe something that contradicts the facts, then the audacity of your falsehoods is not an impediment. Popular 9/11 conspiracies include a US government inside-job theory and a theory that Israel carried out the attacks. It almost seems that the bigger the event, the greater the likelihood that there’s a conspiracy theory tied to it. Many feel that climate change is a well-funded conspiracy theory. Still others believe that there is a conspiracy theory to debunk climate change.

Covid has spawned its share of conspiracy theories: masks are dangerous to your health, the Chinese created the virus to enslave Americans, the whole thing including the death counts are a hoax, and Bill Gates made the vaccines to inject chips into your body to turn you into a communist. There are more subtle ones like the mRNA vaccines will change your DNA.

Unlike Nessie and Roswell, conspiracy theories surrounding the holocaust and 9/11 are dangerous. If a conspiracy theory gets enough support, the innocent are sentenced guilty and the guilty go free in the court of public opinion. In the case on Covid, the conspiracy theories have resulted in poor policy and risky behaviours, leading to one of the worst outcomes of the disease in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. People have died because of Covid conspiracy theories.

I wrote about another particularly nasty conspiracy theory a few months ago while rambling about morals:

Two years ago on Valentine’s Day, a shooter armed with a semi-automatic rifle shot and killed 17 people at the Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. If you are a staunch 2nd Amendment supporter and worry that “the government is coming for your guns”, that’s one thing. But if you morally believe that anyone should be allowed to own guns and ammunition without restrictions, your choices are limited when you learn that a troubled underage youth is able to legally buy a semi-automatic weapon that he then uses in his rampage to kill 14-year old students at a school. One option is to dive into a wild conspiracy theory conveniently provided to you. Instead of admitting that some gun purchases may be dangerous you are willing to accept a theory that the whole school shooting is an elaborate hoax put on by parents, school administrators, local, state, and federal government, hospitals, doctors, nurses, funeral homes, students, the police, and journalists, all of who are doing this just to make your god-given right to bear arms look bad so that it can be taken away. This suddenly gives you the license to become the enraged victim and to rail against the devastated parents who are grieving the sudden violent death of a child.

This happened soon after the Sandy Hook school shooting too. About eight years ago, a 20 year old shot and killed 26 people at an elementary school in Connecticut including 20 six and seven year old children. You can Google for a podcast of This American Life for an amazing interview with Lenny Pozner whose son Noah, one of a twin, was killed at Sandy Hook that day. It will take you deep into this particular conspiracy theory that claims that no one was killed and everyone involved were actors. You will hear the recorded voice of one on my fellow Austinites, Alex Jones, the founder and chief conspiracy theorist at Info Wars.

These theories are no longer supported by isolated crackpots. Greene, recently elected to the US congress from Georgia has supported that both Parkland and Sandy Hook are fake (and she also believes that the California wildfires were started by Jewish laser beams from space). Jones is considered only second to Trump in inciting the January 6 failed Capitol coup. Which bring us to the mother of all modern day American conspiracy theories: the QAnon business. Way back, in December 2020, back when most of the world either hadn’t heard of QAnon yet or assumed that it was an isolated crackpot thing, polls showed that 17% of Americans believed QAnon’s core falsehood, that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media”. I feel silly even saying it. But more than one in every six people in this country think it is true. That is more than the number of people who believe in Santa Claus.

What makes us do this?

Some of it is about our psychological profiles. Evan more sceptical and Vivian tends towards gullible. But they will probably moderate both tendencies as they grow older. In fact age is highly inversely correlated to belief in conspiracy theories. Most kids believe in Santa Claus (for a good reason – they are systematically encouraged to do so by their trusted adults), and most adults don’t. To fall for a conspiracy theory, we need the right mix of scepticism and gullibility: just enough scepticism to suspect there’s something wrong when there isn’t, and just enough gullibility to believe something is true when it isn’t. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is understandable because neither unconditional trust or complete scepticism are winning recipes.

A reason for the popularity of conspiracy theories is that they meet a fairly basic epistemic need, looking for knowledge for the sake of knowledge. We prefer certainty to not knowing. Another explanation is more existential. If we lack control over our lives or situations, especially big situations like 9/11 or Covid, knowledge, however flawed, gives us back a sense of control. This is similar but subtly different from a third reason why conspiracy theories flourish – they are social. They give us a feeling of superiority over others who we view as just sheep.

We start with an underlying feeling that something is not quite just right. Often this is caused by justifiable scepticism of past events. If we feel like the world is spiraling away from us, or we feel underappreciated but have an over inflated sense of our own importance, we are primed for that conspiracy theory clickbait. We are ready to be sucked down the rabbit hole.

The problem isn’t that we are skeptical because something doesn’t feel right. It is that we are looking for answers in the wrong places. Evolution has given most of us at least three tools to judge the veracity of new information: intuition, trust, and logic. Intuition is the easiest and often the best way to tell true from false but it can be systematically tricked, just as a magician does. Optical illusion are simple proof that the brain is easily fooled. See my graphic of the Shepard tables – they completely and totally fool my intuition. Then we have trust. We ask someone we trust. This used to mean our parents, teachers, priests, elders, neighbors. Now it is whoever that has the best clickbait designed to entice our psychological vulnerabilities. Finally, there is logic. But often we never get here because we’ve already used intuition or trust to judge what is true. The earth looks flat. The night sky looks like a dome. Time feels invariant. Particles are not waves. Nobody I know voted for Biden.

On January 20th just before noon there were millions (yes, millions) of Americans waiting for QAnon’s prophecy to come true. They had been convinced that the elections had indeed been stolen and that Trump was the rightful heir. Besides, he had not yet delivered the Great Awakening where he frees the nation from the cabal of pedophillic globalists, as he is destined to. So the only way forward was for Trump to regain the presidency. When he and his wife boarded Air Force One that morning for Florida, the message boards buzzed that it was a decoy. Trump was only giving everyone the impression that he had left Washington, D.C. As noon approached the frenzy grew. Some wailed that Trump had deserted them. Others theorized that this was the plan all along and that he’d be back. Some even guessed that Biden may be QAnon. It was sad to watch so many collapse into despair. This guy summed up the feelings of the faithful at that moment of doubt (though his English teacher may have preferred more nuanced adjectives).

Pat Bagley explains Occam’s Razor nicely in the cartoon I started with. Occam’s Razor is a founding principle of machine learning. When YouTube serves you up the next video and you automatically like it, and Echo plays the song you asked it to, and in hundreds of other ways in our daily lives, machine learning algorithms are scrubbing huge amounts of data every second and finding new interesting relationships and patterns using Occam’s razor. We too use it to tell fact from fiction sometimes. Given two explanations, we usually believe the simpler one. Except that sometimes what is simpler is deceptive. Relativity at first doesn’t sound simpler than classical physics. A theory that explains a lot about the universe by telling us how gravity bends space and time is simpler. To use god to explain the world sounds like it is simpler but it is the opposite of Occam’s razor. About 15 years ago I was watching a thunderstorm with one of my nieces. The sky opened up and rain came pouring down. My niece who was four said “God really wants it to rain”. I tried to convince her that “conditions were right in the atmosphere for precipitation”. The god explanation sounded simpler to her. But the atmospheric precipitation explanation is simpler. It has good predictive power over a broad range of weather conditions.

On the other hand Yuval Harari thinks that one of the reasons humans got to where we are today is our ability to believe in abstract things. It enabled us to create common myths which in turns allowed is to live in ever larger social groups. Yet we act surprised when half the country believes in wild conspiracy theories. But we have evolved to believe. We have been taught to believe. And to believe is to see.


Two months ago Evan couldn’t give a shit. Today he’s geeked out. I’m not sure what happened.

In retrospect, there were warning signs. When he was little his favorite books were the encyclopedic ones. Two years ago he read “what if: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions” and declared that it was his favorite book ever. He gave me the follow-on book titled “how to: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems” this Christmas.

But at school things were not grabbing his attention. For years he declared that his favorite subject was lunch break. His next favorite subject was morning recess. He was indifferent to his teachers. He would mentioned that Luke and Sydney were the ones who knew the answers to the difficult questions. He was happy to be a bystander and cheer them on.

Last month I gave Vivian a book that Jo had given me years ago. It has a long title: “The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements”. Vivian (who is a self-described geek, among her many other personas) passed the book on to Evan. Suddenly Evan was chatting about the number of protons in a helium atom over dinner. Approximately at the same time he’d come back from school and say that he’d finished the math test before anyone else and got all his answers right. Or that he knew the most Latin and Greek roots in his English class. This was new to us. While bragging isn’t pretty it was the very first time he bragged about academics.

At around the same time he and Vivian were applying to St. Stephen’s for middle and high school. Whether they go there or not, applying and going through the admission process has been very instructive. For instance when Evan found out that he had to ask teachers and others for letters of recommendation he was surprised. “What – they have to like me?!”. The kids had to take a three hour long standardized test (the SSAT), be interviewed over Zoom, and write essays. One of Evan’s short essays was to write about his favorite word. Here’s what he wrote:

My favorite word is teleportation, and I have a lot of reasons. My first reason is that if I could have a superpower it would be teleportation. I also think the roots for teleportation are very interesting because tele means distance and port means to carry so technically a car is teleporting you, carrying you over a distance. And last but definitely not least, scientists can teleport things! I was talking to my dad and he said that using quantum entanglement scientists have teleported qubits 44km! But even though this is a scientific breakthrough it’s not really moving them.

Pretty geeky. While driving to soccer practice, Evan will wonder. “Have you ever thought how a living thing is made from inanimate things like quarks and electrons? What makes it a living thing?!”. Or “Did you know that stars can’t make elements heavier than iron without a supernova?”. (I did know, but only 10 years ago, as documented here:

This is new ground for our little fellow, and a geeky dad couldn’t be prouder : – )

I’ve Been Through the Desert

It’s been almost a year since I’ve been more than a mile or two away from my car. This week I fixed that. Brendan, Chris and I parked at the Chisos Basin and hiked for 40 miles over hill and dale and through the desert and four days later we clambered up on to Regan’s front porch in Terlingua Ghost Town where his son handed us cold beers. Best Miller Lites ever. There were plants and birds and rocks and things. And the sky with no clouds. The heat was hot and the ground was dry. But the air was full of sound.

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain

Alas I was walking through the desert with a couple of musicians and there was whiskey involved.

On the long drive back to Austin, I spotted a sign outside a real estate development near Alpine. “We sell tranquility by the acre”. If you want it by the hundreds of square miles instead, head for Big Bend. It was a great trip and a lot of fun. And thank you to the Reeds for putting up with us and putting us up. And for the stuffed jalapenos and balls. And thank you to the virus for the negative rapid test on Monday morning.

My fellow hikers were discussing that it was a bit discombobulating to be away from their families after having spent the last 12 months within spitting distance of one another. As I dropped them off, their wives and kids ran out of their homes and there was much kissing and hugging and a general appreciation for having returned home alive. I dryly note that my family didn’t get off the couch when I got home. Literally. Ouiser was beside herself but that was it. I am definitely going to talk up the dangers of whatever I do next in the hopes of getting a warmer reception. Mountain lions. Bears. Starvation. Death by dehydration. Lost in the desert. I’ll report back how that works out for me.

Dog Park

Ouiser had friends. About 20 other neighborhood dogs. Some of them were named Fargo, Quigley, Daisy, Boss, Birdie, Jessie, Rex, Kody, Daphne, Oliver, Loui, Nala, and Scoop. The dogs met and played and socialized at school. Human children went to the same school during the day. But that was okay because Ouiser and her friends only came to school after the human school kids finished their school day. The best part of this school was that it was fenced which meant that neither the human children nor the dog parents could get lost.

The dogs ran around, chased each other, smelled their private parts, tried to pee on each other’s pee, ran after tennis balls, and occasionally humped each other – just another day at school. When they pooped their parents ran up and collected their feces in colorful doggie poop bags decorated with paw prints and dropped off the bags in the garbage bins. Parents used the school hose to fill a big five gallon plastic bucket with water that the dogs drank from when they got thirsty chasing each other. Ouiser loved going to school. She’d get ready and wait at the front door, pawing the door to remind Vivian that it was time. Vivian and her friends met on the street outside with their dogs and walked them all to the school every evening. After school Ouiser came back home tired but with a huge grin on her face. She ate dinner and then passed out on her bed with an enormous happy sigh. Good times.

Then one day human parents whose kids played on the swings on the other side of Ouiser’s school complained that Ouiser and her friends were running around without a leash. The school district sent their police who sheepishly told the dog parents that they needed to put their dogs on a leash. They sent the dog catcher from the city who looked even sheepisher and stayed outside on the street and spoke to the parents about taking their dogs to other city designated dog parks.

Now Ouiser doesn’t see her friends any more. But in a few years Vivian will be old enough to drive and then she and her friends can get together just like before with their dogs and drive just a few miles away to another neighborhood and Ouiser will be able to play with the dogs in a dog park there. Meanwhile, Ouiser thinks humans are fucking stupid. Not her parents, though.

Circle of Life

We’re watching a cute impala fawn frolic on the savanna. A lioness leaps out from the long grass and grabs it by the throat. Blood splatters on the brown dry dirt as the children cringe. The grown-ups say “it’s the circle of life”, almost expecting the accompanying deep zulu notes from the Lion King to play in the background. The phrase has rightfully or otherwise become one of the Great Cliches.

In a very different way, our family experienced this last month. Ouiser turned one year old and that same day Tori died. Here’s Tori from over three years ago.

You never had to look for Tori or call her. She was always close to Carol’s feet. If you distilled loyalty and poured it into a living being, that was Tori.

When Ouiser first met Tori, one was a pup and the other a grande dame. Tori tolerated Ouiser. But till the very end Ouiser never stopped hoping that Tori would shrug off her slow stiff old dog walk and come run with her. That never happened. Tori grew stiffer and in the end lost use of her hind legs. So she dragged herself to stay close to Carol. Loyal to the very last breath.

Ouiser meanwhile celebrated her first birthday with a parade of toys that she joyfully destroyed. Young dogs and children are the quintessential snapshot of a family, holding back Father Time for an instant. She enjoyed all the extra attention she got, and wondered why she didn’t get as many treats or toys the day after her birthday. Two days later when we went to visit Carol, Ouiser sniffed around for Tori. I wonder if she missed her or will come to realize that Tori is gone or if that is an anthropomorphism. Or maybe animals innately know the circle of life.