Commenting on the State of the World

I have not been posting about all of the traumatic news in recent days—whether political news or news of acts of violence—for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that, in my current full-time job, I am a public servant who cannot, for ethical reasons, comment every time I might want to do so. Various ethical and disciplinary rules mean that I simply cannot comment at all on certain topics. On other topics, my commentary would have to be incomplete and might be misleading or confusing. So, unfortunately, I often have to stay silent, in exchange for the great and humbling privilege of working in the Texas justice system every day, in hopes of contributing to the proper, fair application of the law.

If you read this blog or my social media feeds and wonder why I have been silent about these topics, please know that my heart is broken by the news of violence and mayhem over the last few days. There are no words for the senseless violence we have seen in numerous places in the U.S., tonight in Nice, France, and in countless other locales around the world. Whether we are talking about large-scale terrorist attacks, armed conflict, or violence against specific individuals, there is plenty of news over which all of us who respect and cherish life—regardless of political party, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, or sexual orientation—can and should mourn together. In this fallen and hurting world, sometimes that is the best and most important thing we can do in moments like these.

Please join me in praying for wisdom for our leaders, for peace, for healing for the hurting, and for justice to be done. Lord, have mercy.

What I’m Up to Now

If you read this blog regularly, you know I have a lot on my plate. Here’s a quick snapshot of what I’m up to.

It’s safe to say 2016 is off to a busy start.

Stack Overflow Moderator Elections, Part IV

Earlier this year, I stood for election as a moderator on Stack Overflow, the biggest and best Q&A site for programmers. I was not elected that time around. Yesterday, Stack Overflow concluded another election, and I am happy to say that I was elected, along with two other excellent candidates!

Stack Overflow Election Results Screenshot

I was amazed and humbled by how many people voted for me in the primaries and in the main election, not to mention by the many kind comments that people made. I am excited about the opportunity to serve the community as a moderator, and I am grateful for the support of everyone who voted.

For those who wonder, this will actually have a relatively small impact on how much time I spend on Stack Overflow. Between my work and my own curiosity, I have already been on there quite a bit.

Anyway, again, thank you!

Faith-Based Physics

theory-of-relativity-486718_1280When I enrolled at Rice University, I thought I would dual-major in math and physics en route to a Ph.D. in physics, a university professorship, and a career relishing the life of the mind in the esoteric realms of the subatomic. No, I had known that I would do that since sometime in middle school.

Within a semester, I had doubts that my career path lay in academic physics. By the end of my freshman year, I knew pure physics was not for me; I was considering biophysics, physical chemistry, and other, physics-adjacent disciplines. By the end of my third semester, no majors involving the name “physics” were even on my radar. I ended up, after some soul-searching and a year of exploration and reflection, settling on majors in math and religious studies, the latter with a concentration in Judaism.

Why? It wasn’t that I had lost my interest in physics as a subject; I still haven’t. It wasn’t my grades. It wasn’t even that I was unhappy with the work I was doing.

What really drove me off was this: I found that the kind of physics I wanted to do—the cutting-edge, theoretical stuff—was disturbingly full of hand-waving. That is, the really tough problems were either ignored entirely or roundly dismissed as inconsequential, even if they had potentially huge significance for the entire field. These were problems in which no one was doing any serious investigation—indeed, serious investigation might not even be possible under the current state of the art—but “we” supposedly “knew” something was true. Nine times out of ten, statements of this sort were literally accompanied by hand-waving by the professor or teacher’s assistant making the statement. In at least one incident, I witnessed a Nobel laureate brush off a series of hard-hitting questions in precisely this manner.

This is not to say that no one ever attempted to explain such things. Usually, the explanation was a deus ex machina based on the “standard model” or an appeal to authority. The thinking seemed to be this: If you don’t know the answer, just refer vaguely to the standard model, Einstein, Heisenberg, or Feynman, and the troublesome freshman/sophomore/high-schooler will get the idea that he or she is out of his or her depth and leave you alone. Even if the question was perfectly reasonable. There’s no grant money for investigating pesky “side effects” that show up in 200-level labs but that we can’t explain. “No grant money” means “forget about it.”

With all of the latest buzz about the so-called “multiverse” and, relatedly, parallel universes, at least a few of my beefs with academic physics have gone mainstream. In particular, Rod Dreher has posted an excellent piece about the faith of the physics academy. Some key quotes:

Physicists have a nerve. I know one (I’ll call him Mark) who berates every religious person he meets, yet honestly thinks there exist parallel universes, exactly like our own, in which we all have two noses. He refuses to give any credit to Old Testament creation myths and of course sneers at the idea of transubstantiation. But, without any sense of shame, he insists in the same breath that humans are made from the fallout of exploded stars; that it is theoretically possible for a person to decompose on one side of a black hole and recompose on the other, and that there are diamonds in the sky the size of the moon.

. . . .

I have never quite understood why the “many-universes” theory is considered science, not religion. How could you ever falsify the thesis?

. . . . We assume that the Scientist must know what he’s talking about no matter what he says, because he has studied his field, and is committed to a rigorous methodology and epistemology that rules out what cannot be known empirically. If a Scientist says it, it must be true, because it has either been proven experimentally, or can be.

. . . .

. . . . [C]ertainty in the sense of probability is not the same thing as necessary being: If I toss a coin, it is certain that I will get heads or tails, but that outcome depends on my tossing the coin, which I may not necessarily do. Likewise, any particular universe may follow from the existence of a multiverse, but the existence of the multiverse remains to be explained. In particular, the universe-generating process assumed by some multiverse theories is itself contingent because it depends on the action of laws assumed by the theory. The latter might be called meta-laws, since they form the basis for the origin of the individual universes, each with its own individual set of laws. So what determines the meta-laws? Either we must introduce meta-meta-laws, and so on in infinite regression, or we must hold that the meta-laws themselves are necessary — and so we have in effect just changed our understanding of what the fundamental universe is to one that contains many universes. In that case, we are still left without ultimate explanations as to why that universe exists or has the characteristics it does.

When it comes to such metaphysical questions, science and scientific speculation may offer much in fleshing out details, but they have so far failed to offer any explanations that are fundamentally novel to philosophy — much less have they supplanted it entirely.

Read the whole thing.




In case you haven’t heard, I am now a proud daddy! Our adorable little girl, Catherine Jane Cottrell, arrived last month. Mom and baby are both doing well.

Needless to say, I’ve been busy ever since. It’s so worth it.

Stack Overflow Moderator Elections, Part III

As I posted here and again here, I stood for election as a moderator on Stack Overflow this year. While I was not elected, I made it much further than I expected and finished in sixth place out of 32 nominees, 30 primary candidates, and 10 general-election candidates.

Stack Overflow is an amazing site, and the moderators have a tremendous responsibility. The candidates elected are all excellent choices who I know are already making the site even better. That said, I greatly appreciate the thousands of people who cast a vote for me, and I am deeply humbled that so many people thought of me as a good choice for the role. Thank you.

Stack Overflow Moderator Elections, Part II

In case you missed my first post on this topic, I am a candidate in the 2015 Stack Overflow moderator elections. I made it through the nomination phase (32 candidates) and primary (30 candidates), and now I’m in the general election with only 10 candidates for 3 spots remaining! I am extremely honored and humbled to have received so many votes in the primary phase, especially with so many amazing candidates. Thank you to all who supported me!

I would really appreciate your vote in the general election! I would also urge you to vote for Martijn Pieters and meager, though I don’t think you can go wrong with anyone in this amazing group.

Larry Niven Programming Quote

Please remember to read all of the remaining candidates’ nomination comments and candidate questionnaire answers.

4 Lessons from Moving

Well, it has been about a month since we moved, so it’s time for me to share a few thoughts about it.

You Need Professionals. Moving is a huge pain. So are the processes of selling and buying houses. You know that. I know that. But there are people out there who refuse to let it get them down. We worked with some amazing people. Our real estate agent and mortgage broker made an awesome team and headed off a potential disaster when one of the other parties involved ran into problems. Our movers were similarly, awesomely efficient and professional. If you are looking to move in the Houston, Texas area, give me a shout; I would love to recommend them to you.

Keys Were Everywhere. One of the biggest surprises for me was just how many unidentified keys we had floating around. When I was a little kid, I thought old keys were awesome. Now, they are just unrecognized but potentially important clutter, the worst kind of tchotchke. My solution: henceforth, every key we own gets cataloged in Evernote, with a photo, a description of what it does, and, if we have multiple copies, both the number of copies and where they are stored.

Paper Was Everywhere. We also have a veritable sea of paper floating around. The solution to this is easy: go paperless. The best way to do this, hands down, is the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 Deluxe Bundle Scanner for PC. It includes the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 scanner, which is incredibly fast, accurate, flexible, and user-friendly, as well as a full copy of Adobe Acrobat (Standard). It has already helped us digitize a tremendous amount of paper, with more to follow. Of course, Evernote is indispensable for this task, too.

You Need a Budget. Finally, of course, You Need a Budget (affectionately known as YNAB), about which I’ve written before, was also indispensable for the budgeting and money-management side of things.

Disclaimer: the Evernote, YNAB, and Amazon links in this post are affiliate links. I may receive site credits or a portion of the sale for purchases and registrations made through those links.

How to Make Pretty Blanks in Word

The Problem

If you ever work with Microsoft Word, you have probably needed to insert a blank line or a block of text in a filled-in blank. For example, maybe you want a blank like this: . Or maybe you want a blank with text in it, like this . If you just try turning on underlining and typing a lot of spaces, you don’t get any underlining at all. There’s a right way to work around this that always works, and a wrong way that often results in unprofessional-looking documents. This post will show you the right way.

What many people do is the wrong way around this: they use a combination of underlining and underscore characters, so they end up with something ugly ____like this____, or even worse, ____like this____. The broken line looks unprofessional. The doubling up is just awful.

The Solution

To insert pretty blanks in Word, you can insert a non-breaking space. In Windows, you can do this by pressing Ctrl + Shift + space . For Mac, use Option + space .

An Example

Say you want to type this: Hello . The exact key sequence (in Windows) would go like this: Ctrl + U (to start underlining), Ctrl + Shift + space , Ctrl + Shift + space , H , e , l , l , o , Ctrl + Shift + space , Ctrl + Shift + space , Ctrl + U .

More Uses


This is also very valuable for preventing awkward line breaks. For example, in legal writing, you usually want to keep the section symbol (§) with the following text, so you can put a non-breaking space between the symbol and the next character.


As many of my readers know, I have a lot going on right now. We’re expecting our first child, Catherine, in May!

Face 2 Color - fixed

Profile - fixed

Meanwhile, my wife and I are selling our current house in Houston later this week and moving to a Houston suburb (more house, less money, good times). Things are a little busy.

That said, I am going to try to post here a lot more frequently. After all, I started this blog almost 14 years ago, back when “blog” was barely a word, and not one I’d ever heard before. Feel free to hold my feet to the fire! I really want to make more use of this space.

Want to follow what’s going on here? Subscribe by filling in the box on the left, and I’ll keep you posted!