Category Archives: Essays

My thoughts on social, political, or historical issues, or any other topic on which I feel the need to pontificate.

Farewell Facebook

As a general rule, I am not an early adopter. I typically wait until the development of a new product has stabilized, features have improved, bugs have been worked out, and prices have come down. This was the case for my use of Social Media. I never once even viewed MySpace, I have no idea what the draw are to Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, and Instagram, and I even avoided Facebook up until just a couple years ago.

I began using Facebook a few years ago when I realized I was missing out on things my family were doing. I have a large family, and an enormous extended family. It’s difficult to keep up with them, and in fact, I have first cousins I haven’t seen in over twenty years. Facebook, for me, was supposed to be a way to keep in touch with them. Facebook was supposed to allow me to see at least a little of what they were up to and keep at least casual contact going, and it worked — for the most part.

Over time, I tried to use Facebook to do a few extra things. I wanted a broader audience for some of what I write, so I used it to share content I post here. When I went to print my poetry collection I offered the result up through Facebook. In both cases a few people were interested, but most of what I offered fell flat. Nothing I share with the broader public garners much attention, and Facebook didn’t change that.

For the last two or so years, I’ve tried to see the good in the platform. I’ve been aware of some of the joyful events in my sibling’s lives, and have watched them from afar as they’ve suffered through trials. This was the main purpose behind establishing an account in the first place. I’ve also found old friends with whom I’d lost contact somewhere in the long chain of moves and job changes. I’ve been able to get a glimpse into their lives since we last were together. With these successes, Facebook has been generally successful in doing what I wanted it to do.

If that were the end of the story I’d stop there and continue scrolling through posts and updates. Unfortunately, the reservations that formerly kept me from signing up for the service have proven to be justified. Facebook, for me, has turned into a barren wasteland with only a few small oases dotting it’s vast landscape. My understanding of the down-sides to Facebook has been growing, but it is still immature and incomplete. However, I have reached a point in the analysis where the bad heavily outweigh the good, the trend heavily favors continuation of that balance, and so it must go.

A few points in defense of my decision:

ONE: Our instant impersonal worldwide communication culture has created conditions where everyone is looking for an excuse to be a victim. There are very good odds that at least half of the ten or so people who will ever read this will feel like I am targeting them. Honest discussion is branded hate-speech, and any non-conformant opinion is deemed intolerance.

TWO: Facebook has been a polarizing force in the lives of those around me and has contributed to their misery. The online environment that Facebook has created fosters cliquish behavior that generally seems to create conditions where otherwise reasonable and kind people say and do things that are intended to marginalize, belittle, or generally crush people who hold a different opinion. People I care deeply about have used Facebook as a gathering space for their various sub-communities who focus on a given aspect of their identity. These groups have tended to shift from being a place to enjoy like-minded people into a forum for highlighting every attempted action they disagree with or fear as an effort to target them as a subgroup.

They focus on these events and develop a victim mentality that gets reinforced by the affirmations of others looking to be offended or feel attacked for their shared beliefs. Feeling attacked, they gather more tightly within the group and cling more tenaciously to the shared identity. Because they begin spending more and more time defending that aspect of themselves, it becomes a larger and more central piece of their identity and begins to push other things to the sidelines or off of the field completely. With the world reduced to a small number of contentious issues, they begin to feel personally attacked by any and all of the other subgroups, so they lash out in defense or revenge at the communities they feel are threatening them. Meanwhile, the groups they attack feel exactly like them, and return fire in what they believe is self-defense. This self-imposed segregation has resulted in a state of constant warfare where the only logical outcome is mutually assured destruction.

Conflict is necessary, but not in the frequency and amplitude engendered by the semi-anonymous and impersonal nature of online interactions. Things are said online that would never be said in person because there is a layer of dehumanization that is placed between you and the victim when communication isn’t face-to-face. It’s equivalent to the politicians and bureaucrats who are willing to send people to fight and die in foreign lands for political gain — they don’t see the costs and consequences at a human level. The kinds of conflict I see online are not necessary, and serve to make people miserable.

THREE: I prefer to see the best in people, but that can become difficult when I get a glimpse of some of the unfiltered and poorly thought-through things they post — and the worst part is that I’ve been guilty of doing this myself. Watching some of what people post just makes me more aware of the intellectual poverty around me, and exposes me to parts of people’s inner workings I’d rather remain ignorant of. The same person who posts something supporting late-term abortion with the slogan “My body, my choice” will shortly thereafter post something supporting forced vaccination in direct opposition to the very same “my body, my choice” argument made earlier. People seem to revel in their intellectual bankruptcy.

Facebook and other online tools make it possible for people to accentuate their bad sides, and find those few who agree with them to reinforce them.

Facebook makes it simple and preferable to boil a complex topic down into a single sentence “meme” that garners a gut reaction without addressing any of the complexity or nuance that is intrinsically linked to any contentious topic. This kind of communication makes people appear intolerant, angry, impatient, unkind, ignorant, selfish, etc… If that is who people really are, I’d rather be unaware of it.

Facebook (through likes and affirming comments) rewards posts that pander to a specific audience, creating a vicious cycle of positive feedback. Application and reception of positive feedback, if not managed very carefully, leads to instability and system failure.

FOUR: People will post a range of things attacking others for disbelieving any number of things that science has “proven.” Be it climate change, vaccinations, the specific shape of the globe, or countless other issues, anyone with a heterodox opinion is vilified. Let me be clear, I believe in science. I have a PhD in Electrical Engineering that incorporated large parts of the curriculum from the Physics Department. I am a scientist, but I would never try to use the outcome of “science” to belittle someone else, and it bothers me when others do that.

Anyone who actually believes in science understands that there is great utility in questioning previous conclusions and assumptions. In the early 20th century, physicists thought they understood how the world worked (with the exception of a few “minor” inconsistencies that they were sure would be quickly resolved). A handful of heretics questioned a few of the fundamental assumptions on which Newtonian mechanics was based, applied heretical views to the few “minor” issues, and quantum mechanics was born. If you like the capabilities represented by your computer and any number of other modern conveniences, you need to thank the heretics.

Anyone who actually believes in science understands that we fundamentally know almost nothing about anything. They understand that all of our knowledge is based on assumptions, approximations, and models, and that these are only useful to the extent that the results it produces are consistent with observation and useful for prediction. Newtonian mechanics is based on this logic, and is quite useful for a wide range of applications, but it is fundamentally incapable of explaining some critical observations. In a sense, Newtonian mechanics is “wrong.” By the Facebook standard of treatment, anyone who happens to believe in the macro-scale concepts of mechanics would be branded a heretic and a mental midget. Anyone who would take time to study and understand Newtonian mechanics would be ostracized and made to feel like a pariah. Never mind the fact that for most people Newtonian mechanics is more than adequate to explain their experiences.

People who understand science will acknowledge that the underlying assumptions on which all our understanding is based may be fundamentally wrong. Heretical views may be wrong, but they may also contain the key to unlocking a whole new universe of possibilities. An unwillingness to countenance heretics is a fundamental hallmark of intolerant dogma — not science. It saddens me to see anyone fall victim to intolerant dogma as either a receiver or giver, and yet, that is the vast majority of what I see posted on Facebook. Dogma should be a personal matter, and it should be tolerant of those who don’t conform.

FIFTH: Facebook hasn’t proven to be particularly useful. I thought, for a time, that Facebook would provide me a a broader audience for my poetry and other writings. All told, only a few additional people have even noted the existence of my work as a result of Facebook. I suppose I could use Facebook’s tools to heavily advertise and market, and that I could commercialize what I do. It’s well suited for that purpose. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that any attempt to monetize or commercialize what I produce is counterproductive. Commercializing it takes all the joy out of it. If I don’t find joy in it, it isn’t worth doing, and the results from trying are terrible.

There are other reasons I’m ready to ditch my Facebook account, but they follow along these same lines. I haven’t been able to determine that Facebook has done anything to make my life, or the lives of those around me, better.

A proposal to put myself out of work (part II)

Earlier I wrote a bit about what I would do to cut the Department of Defense down to something more limited in scope and expense. Granted… some of the proposals weren’t strictly Department of Defense, but that’s not particularly important.  In that post, I mentioned I might get around to explaining some of my rationale for my recommended changes, and at the moment I have some time, so I’ll start and see how far I get.

1.  There are no substantial external threats to the United States

My first, and most important, recommendation was to recognize that there are no existential threats to our territorial sovereignty and survival of the United States.  All my other recommendations pivot on this point.  However, after further reflection, I need to slightly modify this one…  We need to recognize that there are no substantial external threats to the aforementioned.  If there are no external threats, and we are committed to not using the military for domestic security, there is no need to maintain a large standing military with all the infrastructure that goes with it.

Our geography is such that the majority of our borders are protected by vast expanses of water, and forcefully invading a well armed country by sea is not an easy undertaking, nor is it one that is likely to succeed given the substantial segment of the population that is privately armed and the resources that would be available in the National Guard and Reserves if I were to get my way with those organizations.  No nation in the world currently possesses, or could reasonably quickly acquire, the fleet of vessels required to force entry from the sea.

An invasion across the borders to the north is similarly unlikely to succeed. To the north there is either 1) a nominally friendly and ethnically similar culture that lacks the military capacity to seriously threaten invasion, or 2) arctic wilderness.  Even had they a desire to invade, Canada doesn’t have enough people and equipment to seriously challenge a United States focused on homeland defense.  We will not be invaded from the north unless the world unites and convinces Canada to allow them to stage an invasion from Canadian territory, in which case there would be an extended build-up providing ample time to prepare a potent response. I find the prospect of a world revolt against the United States astronomically unlikely, especially if we quit interfering in other people’s business (intervening would be a more politically correct but less accurate term).

The border to the south is more problematic, but not when it comes down to essentials.  First, the only threat currently present at that border is a criminal element that has overwhelmed Mexico’s capacity to deal with it.  While border crime, drug trafficking, and human smuggling all have substantial impacts on our nation, it is not an existential threat.  The drug cartels aren’t interested in replacing our government.  In fact, they rely on the US as a principal market for their goods, and would suffer if it collapsed.  Laying the criminal element aside, Mexico (like Canada) lacks the resources to invade… even without the rampant crime siphoning resources.  Any attempt by Mexico to invade would require an extended period of build-up and preparation that would be highly visible and allow the United States to prepare an overwhelming response.  Additionally, Mexico is significantly dependent on trade with the US, and would suffer greatly by any serious deterioration in status-quo relations.  There is simply no motivation for Mexico to attack.

I’ve never come across anyone who would argue that we are likely to ever be forcefully invaded.  So the question remains: “what then are the external threats to our vital interests that justify the expense and risk of maintaining a large standing army and constantly using it around the world to interfere in other nation’s business?”  This is a much thornier issue, but one I believe has an answer that is much simpler than the big-brained think tanks would have you believe.  I’ll give you a hint…  it starts with “N” and ends in three letters that spell out a number between 0 and 2.

To set the stage for my argument, consider the political environment between the 1920s and 1960s.  A new political ideology developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and fundamentally opposed to the capitalistic principals on which this nation was founded was gaining steam around the globe, including in the US.  Multiple nations fell into its grasp as one corrupt dictatorship or government after another crumbled.  There were reasonable fears (especially in the ’30s and ’50s) that this revolutionary wave would flood over the US, and that it was being supported by foreign governments.   This fear of communism was among the factors contributing much of American intervention in Greece, Korea, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

The question remains, was this a valid external threat to survival of the United States?  The answer is a clear NO.  Communist insurgencies have only ever thrived in locations where oppression and corruption created conditions where the message of communism resonated.  To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence — A satisfied people, secure in their persons, property, and prospects are extraordinarily unlikely to ditch an existing governmental system in favor of revolution.  No matter the extent of foreign involvement and support, without corruption, oppression, and inequality creating conditions for growth, communism or any other form of government inimical to the American system of representative democracy will never get enough of a foothold to threaten national survival.  In fact, I’d argue that foreign involvement only strengthens the will of a people to resist that influence… Cuba being a case in point.  I claim this logic applies to any form of externally driven or supported revolution.  Any revolution, whether supported externally or not, is a result of issues internal to a state, and is therefore not an external threat.

One last aspect to consider is the potential that perceived or real external threats could be a means for stabilizing internal dissent.  Rather than get into conspiracy theories, I’ll offer up that this tactic was/is used regularly by the likes of the Kim dynasty in North Korea, Hugo Chaves and his successor in Venezuela, and the Castros in Cuba.  It’s a cheap move that does tend to galvanize support, but one that can’t be used regularly without the public catching on to the scam.  Furthermore, investing the resources wasted in “dealing” with the external threat in actually dealing with the underlying issues is much more likely to produce long-term results.  Made-up or manufactured external threats aren’t a legitimate strategy for national survival.

Finally, I will admit that there are substantial threats to our long-term viability as a nation.  The nation is in tremendous debt.  Our families are falling apart.  Our morals and standards are sinking faster than a lead brick thrown into a deep pool of water.  Our primary and secondary education systems, struggling against a relentless tide of parental disengagement, over-regulation, political correctness, and sense of student individual entitlement are putting out generations of poorly educated zombies who don’t know how to think about hard problems, ask hard questions, and come to logical and supportable conclusions. Our post-secondary education system openly espouses moral and political philosophies, political and pseudo-scientific theories, and other ideas fundamentally opposed to the foundations on which our nation was built.  Our society has become so politically correct we cannot label anything as wrong or right without offending the sensitivities of some politically connected group who crush anyone who disagrees with their opinions.  Our government has grown into a behemoth that reaches into every aspect of the lives of ordinary citizens and has been heavily corrupted by special interest groups and a small class of privileged elite.  We continue to pour our nation’s blood and treasure into half-hearted wars in foreign countries.  We have out-sourced almost all manufacturing and manual labor.  We are dependent on a very narrow range of food sources and subject to minor disruptions causing mass hunger.  We are raising generations who don’t value hard work, denigrate traditional values, despise traditional gender roles, and view parenthood as an unfortunate and optional consequence of sex.  Our financial system is built on a fiat currency with striking resemblances to a Ponzi scheme. The list of real threats to our future could continue much longer, but those above should be sufficient to demonstrate that none of them are an externally driven threat except to the extent that we have out-sourced a problem we created in the first place.

2.  Imperialism and Interventionism rarely advance National Interests

Many may interpret my feelings and preferences as being those of an isolationist.  That is wildly inaccurate.  I recognize that no nation on the face of the planet currently is fully self-sufficient.  Even were the United States to re-tool the economy and resources to become self-sufficient, doing so would be anti-competitive, inefficient, and fundamentally against my personal economic and political philosophies.

Now, that said, I don’t think it is in our interest to “intervene” or get involved in the internal and even international affairs of other nations.  Our track-record of intervention is abysmal.  Even in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein was widely despised throughout the Middle East as a brutal dictator, our intervention destabilized the region, created conditions for a sectarian civil war, enabled a radical Islamist movement to occupy and destroy cultural heritage across vast swaths of territory and terrorize huge numbers of people, and has re-written the Saddam narrative to portray him as being a hero of the people who resisted the imperialist invaders.   Our involvement in the Philipines, Nicaragua, Egypt, Lybia, Somalia, Lebanon, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Cuba, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Tunisia, Columbia, Mali, and other places have resulted in significant second-order backlash without much by way of positive outcomes.

External solutions to internal problems are almost never optimal.  Our attempts to impose a Western-style government in Iraq demonstrated an unrealistic understanding of the cultural dynamic in the area.  Similar failures have characterized our experience in Afghanistan.  Our support for corrupt governments in South Vietnam helped to harden Ho Chi Minh towards communism as opposed to ethnic nationalism and anti-imperialism.  Our support for the Shah in Iran was, and continues to be, a major factor in anti-American sentiment in that country.    The Bay of Pigs invasion was an astonishing failure, and actually strengthened the Castro regime.  Short of the Marshal plan for rebuilding Europe and MacArthur’s dictating terms in reconstituting the government of Japan after WWII (cases where the long-term cost/benefit calculations are debatable), I am taxed to find a case where American intervention ultimately created conditions favorable to the United States.

I believe we would be better off letting other nations sort out their own issues.  International relations should deal principally with ensuring fair access to markets without passing judgment on their form of government, cultural values, political affiliations or preferences, and national character.

3. The majority of the Armed forces belong in reserve status.

One of the core functions of the Federal Government is to provide for the common defense.  There is a clear requirement for a capable and credible force to respond to aggression or large-scale threats on the order of World War II, but having that capability embodied in a standing military is an enormous burden on the economy, an easily accessible tool for international interference, and has historically been a threat to the government it ostensibly serves.  Consequently, the founders feared large standing armies.  So how can the government provide for the common defense without a standing army?  The answer is pretty simple, and is consistent with what the founders had in mind… namely a large militia composed of people trained, equipped, and ready to respond in a crisis.

I can’t say how often I’ve sat in meetings where the services complain about the high and escalating personnel and health-care costs.   Cutting the military to a core staff capable of overseeing and managing training for the reserves and handling the administrative and acquisition tasks of the restructured military would bring enormous cost savings in reduced personnel, retirement, and health care costs.  Furthermore, the reduced training schedule for reserves would extend the service life of expensive equipment while simultaneously reducing operational costs.

Moving a large portion of the military into the reserves would also put a large number of personnel who are essentially bottomless resource sinks back into the economy where they can contribute to the overall economic activity of the nation.  Doing so would also tend to reduce the appetite for deploying the military to deal with every perceived crisis around the globe.  Local governments and populations would be less insulated from the military and feel the effects of deployment more substantially than under the current model.  Activation and deployment would be much more likely to have enough of an impact to engender the kind of debate and discussion that should be warranted before we sacrifice our brothers and sisters in armed combat.

4.  Close all military bases on foreign soil

Bases on foreign soil really only serve only a handful of purposes.  Primarily, they enable global access for the US military, or otherwise stated… they make it much easier to get involved in the affairs of other nations.  Initially, many of the bases we maintain overseas were built during or after major conflicts such as WWII or the Korean War to help stabilize the regions and prevent regional nations from rearming and igniting another war.  However, after six or seven decades of the United States subsidizing foreign security these bases remain, and are used as jumping-off points for international adventures.

We deliberately maintained an occupying force in Europe and Japan after WWII, and as a result the affected nations have under-invested in their own defense, relying on the US security guarantee, while spending broadly on social programs and other domestic expenditures.  The net result is American taxpayers funding generous medical, retirement, and other social programs throughout the territories of our former allies and adversaries.  I firmly believe the security situation in Europe would quickly stabilize to a new norm if we were to withdraw, saving the US untold costs.

5.  Eliminate the United States Marine Corps

This proposal won’t make me any friends among my marine brethren, but it is long overdue.  The USMC is essentially an offensive force postured for forcibly entering foreign territory and securing port or beach head access.  They have served as a separate Army and Air Force, while refusing to integrate into the broader joint fight.   If we decide as a nation to abandon our practice of interfering the internal affairs of other governments, we have no need for an amphibious assault force.  Furthermore, this would eliminate redundancies and institutional conflicts with the other services.  While the USMC brags about their low-cost force, their budget only encapsulates personnel costs with the Navy picking up the tab for all their equipment and facilities.  Finally, eliminating the USMC would also allow the USN to cut it’s large fleet of amphibious ships and support capabilities.

6.  Eliminate the pre-positioning fleet

The US military maintains a fleet of ships loaded with tanks, trucks, helicopters, bombs, bullets, and just about everything you would need to start a war.  These ships are stationed at various places around the world and require staff, transportation, and maintenance… all so we are in a position to more rapidly involve ourselves somewhere overseas.  If you haven’t noticed, I’m not a fan of getting involved overseas, and anything that makes it easier to do that is on my chopping block.  I can conceive of no situation where we would use the pre-positioning fleet to defend the homeland, and major world crises on the scale of a world war don’t break out on timescales that would preclude shipping equipment from the territorial limits of the United States.

7.  Eliminate Ground-based ICBMs and tactical nuclear weapons.

The number and type of nuclear weapons in the current inventory far exceed the quantity required for maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent.   China, for example, maintains a nuclear deterrent consisting of a comparatively small number of weapons, yet is in no danger of suffering a “first strike” attack.  The infrastructure required to produce, maintain, and field the broad array of nuclear weapons and associated equipment is enormous and expensive due to extensive safety, security, and certification requirements for anything that comes within earshot of a nuclear weapon.  Any reduction in the number and type of weapons would yield significant savings.

Personally, I don’t like tactical nuclear weapons.  Any time someone considers deploying a weapon capable of this scale of destruction, it is strategic, and it had better be worth it.  Tactical nukes are not necessary as a deterrent, and use as a tactical weapon would be a human tragedy on a massive scale.  Get rid of each and every one of them.

Similarly, I don’t like silo-launched nuclear weapons.  They are at fixed locations and are consequently easily targeted.  I believe a small fleet of nuclear capable bombers with strategic weapons (B83s) and the current inventory of submarine launched weapons is more than adequate to ensure we are capable of responding to an attack and providing a credible deterrent.

8. Consolidate and refocus intelligence agencies and operations.

There are a wide variety of intelligence agencies spread throughout the DoD and other government agencies.  The NRO launches and manages spy satellites.  The NSA manages technical intelligence operations.  DIA manages the DoD’s intelligence programs.  The CIA does it’s thing, and so do all the other 3, 4, and 5-letter agencies who are part of the overall Intelligence Community (IC).  Within that big, happy family of the IC, there is intense competition for resources, infighting, secret keeping, rice-bowl politics, overlapping and disputed authorities and operations, competing priorities, and all the other crap that goes along with big parallel bureaucracies.  Restructuring and consolidating these organizations would cut waste and simplify setting and following-through on priorities.

Another change the IC desperately needs is to place less trust and emphasis on technology and technical intelligence.  We have become fascinated and intoxicated by the information we are able to gather and process using imaging, signal collection, and cyber operations, but tend to forget the human aspects of the situation.  The wealth of information available tends to lead analysts to believe they know more than they really do, and can also put analysis in a position where they see what they expect to see.  What was supposed to be an adjunct to traditional spycraft has become the principal tool for the work.

In addition to providing often incomplete or wrong pictures of the targeted individual or group, technical capabilities are also profoundly expensive to develop and maintain due to the frequency with which technologies become obsolete both on the sensor and target side of the equations.  Rather than continue in this arms-race of technical means, we should refocus our efforts on more traditional spycraft.  If it’s not worth the risk posed by boots on the ground and eyes on the target, it’s probably not worth bothering with.

That’s it for now… Maybe I’ll work my way down the rest of the list another night.

Grouchy bear and Clifford Heber

As I sat in church today, two men wove their way through my thoughts in a way they haven’t for years.  It happened during a discussion about talents, and using them to further the Lord’s work.  It crossed my mind that one talent that has greatly influenced my life was the talent to tolerate young boys.

When I was quite young, I was part of a pack of boys at church.  We were what you might label “challenging” to the extent that the church leaders had trouble finding anyone who could put up with us for more than a few Sundays before deciding they weren’t cut out to deal with the likes of us.  We went through a number of teachers in just a matter of a few months.  Somewhere in the course of this saga, they called a man named Clifford Heber to keep us out of trouble during Sunday school.  For the next several years, Brother Heber would diligently show up every Sunday with a lesson prepared, and make patient and often futile attempts to teach us something about the nature of God.

As an example of the kind of issues Brother Heber had to deal with, I remember one Sunday when Ben and Craig were sitting behind Amanda making small balls of wet chewing gum and throwing them in Amanda’s 1980’s big hair without her noticing.  The rest of us boys saw what was happening and did nothing to stop it.  This kind of stuff happened every Sunday, but it never stopped Brother Heber.  Instead, he would put his arm around our shoulders, tell us he loved us, and that he expected us to be gentlemen.  He made us open the doors and let the girls in first.  He made us treat the girls with respect.  We hated it.

While we may not have appreciated it at the time, Brother Heber’s lessons, expectations, and actions made a big impression on me – even if not on the all of rest of the pack.   Along with my father and a few other men, he was responsible for making me the man I aspire to be.  Unfortunately for me, Brother Heber died of cancer about the time I graduated high school and began to understand the impact he has had on me.  I never got a chance to tell him how grateful I was, so I am left to hope that he sees the man I am from the other side of the veil and understand the role he played in that.

Another man who had a profound impact on me was Carbon Lundgren.  The way our church organizes youth, there is a marked separation between those under 12 and those between 12 and 18.  When my cohorts and I turned 12, Brother Heber got a break from us and we were handed off to Brother Lundgren who served as Scout Master for our congregation.

Brother Lundgren took on the task of leading a bunch of stupid boys out into the wilderness to teach them skills and life lessons.  Along the way, he picked up a nickname that stuck…  Grouchy Bear.  Though I’m not sure that brother Lundgren didn’t just give himself that moniker, Grouchy Bear earned his name.  He was quick to correct us… we thought… and didn’t tolerate some of the more egregious things we did.  We thought he was overly mean sometimes.

Looking back, though, he was actually highly tolerant, patient, and gave us lots of room to learn and grow.  In fact, by modern standards of helicopter parenting, he was grossly negligent (something for which I am eternally grateful).  However, he had expectations of us, and wouldn’t accept anything that fell short.  When he was grouchy, it was to help get us back on track.  Grouchy Bear was a teddy bear, and I owe him a lot.  Any time I get to go to church with my parents, I look for Carbon and Cindy Lundgren and say hi.  I hope he understands why.

A proposal to put myself out of work

I believe it’s the nature of any bureaucracy or bureaucrat to take whatever territory, responsibility, or power they have and expand it through any means possible.  Walking around Washington, DC, there is ample evidence of that trend.  If you visit the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall and make your way to one of the corridors you can see a display of two panoramic pictures taken from the top of the castle tower.  One of these pictures was taken roughly in 2005, and shows the area as it is now with the exception of a few new buildings.  The other picture, however, is quite remarkable to me.  It was taken somewhere in the neighborhood of 1910 and shows a much different city.  The major landmarks are there, and some of the large government buildings are there as well, but houses line many of the streets, there are open spaces in the neighborhoods, and there are even what looks like a few small animal paddocks or pastures.  All of what was once a semi-rural suburb is now covered in massive buildings housing either government bureaucrats or the contractors who depend on them.

Over the last 100 or so years, our government has grown remarkably – each branch, division, and office bowing to the inexorable pressure to expand its size, scope, and influence.  What begins as a small organization slowly expands as authorities are assumed, stretched, or granted to meet some perceived need – often derived from some form of crisis or another – and never relinquished.  Power granted in an exigency is almost never withdrawn when the crisis is over, and suddenly we find we can’t live without something that previously wasn’t even a consideration.  Individual bureaucrats seeking personal validation and believing in their personal superiority in whatever specialty for which they were hired or appointed push their boundaries into new territory, setting precedent for those who follow.  This constant push for more influence and control spans the full breadth of the institution from the lowest level secretary or technician clear through to the President, and ultimately results in an ever growing enterprise that has more and more control over the everyday lives of us mere citizens.  Of these influential organizations within the government, one stands out to me as a particular behemoth in dire need of a reduction.  Oddly enough, though, it happens to be the one that employs me.  In spite of the fact that I belong to the Department of Defense (DoD), I firmly believe that it is much too big and plays far to great a role in the lives of ordinary people around the globe.

In the early years of our nation, there was great skepticism by both the founding fathers and much of the general population with regard to large standing armies and foreign entanglements.  Standing armies represented a concentration of power in a few people that had high potential for abuse.  Large bodies of armed and angry men wield enormous power, and armies have used that power to depose governments and infringe on the rights of the people repeatedly throughout history.  Recent history has demonstrated the potential for conflict represented by a standing army as several nation states have been victims of military-led coups.  In an effort to limit the potential for this kind of event here in the United States we have instituted controls such as posse comitatus and civilian control of the military.  While those controls have been largely successful in this nation, they are no guarantee.  The existence of an apolitical and civilian-subservient military is an anomaly in the grand scheme of history, and there is nothing more than tradition and culture preventing it from going extinct.  Tradition and culture are never more than a single generation from demise at any given time.

Standing armies are also expensive, especially when they are staffed by mercenaries (volunteers).  The men must be fed, clothed, and paid enough to make it financially advantageous to other jobs in the economy.  Unlike laborers and other employees, in the absence of a credible and substantial threat members of the military produce nothing of value for their pay.  However, they do produce a source of power for those in control – power that can be used and abused.  Leaders who come to rely on the power of an army are obliged to justify paying for them, and justifying a standing army has typically meant a combination of empire, international adventurism, and a string of exaggerated or invented crises.  Without a public perception of an existential threat, the public might find it difficult to justify the costs.  Additionally, with a large and capable army ready and waiting it quickly becomes the go-to solution for situations that should probably be dealt with in less violent manner.  In essence, having a standing army is akin to having a toolbox where all the other tools are buried under a large number of expensive hammers — anything pointy begins to look like a nail that needs hammering.

Following World War II, the United States military was used all over the world to fight the spread of communism.  Bureaucrats and politicians hyped up the threat posed by the communist ideology and deployed America’s strength and youth to fight in the fields of Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Central America and South America.  We supported corrupt dictators and strongmen all over the world or stirred armed rebellions in shitholes around the globe including Vietnam, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Cuba, the Philippines, Guatemala, Haiti, Argentina, Columbia, Nicaragua, Mali, Somalia, Lybia, Tunesia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and many others.    None of the “interventions” I’m aware of have resulted in a positive outcome or enhanced security for the United States.  In the bigger scheme of things, most of the attempts to shape the outcome have resulted in nothing but badness.

As an illustrative and essentially typical example, consider Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.  Prior to the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan was reasonably developed, and the United States had no real strategic interest in the region.  It was geographically distant, politically and economically insignificant, and incapable of producing a real threat against the United States or its core interests.  In spite of this, we intervened by supplying military goods and expertise to the “freedom fighters” who ultimately succeeded in bleeding the Soviet forces until they gave up and left.  The resulting instability ultimately led to the collapse of the government and a major power vacuum.  That vacuum was filled by the same religious zealots we had helped arm… the disciples of the Deobandi school of Islam known as the Taliban. We helped to create a world-class incubator for Islamic extremist ideologies.

Side step into Saudi Arabia…  American oil companies were reaping huge profits drilling the easily accessible oil reserves of the Arabian Peninsula and needed a compliant government in Riyadh.  Consequently, they structured their agreements with the Kingdom to greatly enrich the royal family and ensure their access.  The large royal family proceeded to spend their wealth in riotous living that caught the attention of the local population made up of poor and highly conservative Muslims who began to stir.  To counter the PR problem, the royal family started a new sport… competitive religiosity.  In founding the kingdom, King Saud had enlisted the support of the Wahabi warriors to secure the kingdom, and now turned to them to solve the PR problem.  The royal family put on a public show of piousness, pouring vast amounts of money into advancing the extreme Wahabi school of thought and building madrasas to propagate their message.  One student of that school of thought was Osama Bin Ladin who cut his teeth with the Mujahadin in Afghanistan.

Stepping next-door to Kuwait, a corrupt dictatorship was stealing Iraqi oil by slant-drilling into Iraqi oil fields.  Once our ally against revolutionary Iran, Sadam Husein (a violent dictator in his own right) reacted by invading and occupying Kuwait.  The US responded by deploying a massive invasion force to Saudi Arabia.  To Bin Ladin and many other Muslims, this was an act of extreme desecration of the most sacred places on earth, an act of disrespectful imperialism, and would shape Bin Ladin’s message for the remainder of his life and career as an anti-American antagonist and terrorist.  If this weren’t bad enough, the US invasion of Iraq in 1992 started a fight that has continued uninterrupted to this day. US forces have been engaged in combat operations in the middle east non-stop ever since.  The end result is an entire region devastated by war and instability.

I have to ask myself how this would have turned out had the US not had a large and powerful military it could turn to to provide arms to insurgents and jihadists and invade foreign countries.  Was Vietnam actually an existential threat to the United States?  History tells us no.  We lost that war after spending immense sums of blood and treasure, only to watch Vietnam sit as an international backwater after we left.  Was Kuwait of vital interest?  Again, the answer is no… The United States has vast untapped oil reserves that could meet our needs.  Even more significantly, any government in the middle east will only survive so long as they can sell oil, and in a global market it is essentially impossible to block the sale of oil to any given market.  No matter who controls the oil in the middle east, the end result will be oil available on the global market.

Now… given this long-winded context, I get to my proposal summarized as follows:

  1. Recognize that there are no existential threats to the territorial sovereignty and survival of the United States (vital interests).
  2. Recognize that interventionism and imperialism do not ultimately further significant national interests.
  3. Move 85% of the active Army into the National Guard and Reserves and maintain them on a traditional reservist/guardsman status.
  4. Move 70% of the Air Force into the same Guard/Reserve status.
  5. Close ALL US military installations on foreign soil.
  6. Eliminate the United States Marine Corps
  7. Eliminate the pre-positioning fleet
  8. Eliminate all ground-based ICBMs, and tactical nuclear weapons.  Restructure the fleet of nuclear capable aircraft to minimize the number and type.  Maintain the submarine-launched ICBM nuclear deterrent
  9. Eliminate the NRO, NSA, and DIA.  Consolidate intelligence services under the CIA with a focus on foreign human intelligence instead of a fascination and inexplicable trust in technical intelligence means and methods.
  10. Get out of the habit of using a $400,000 warhead when a $0.50 bullet will do.  Even better, don’t react at all and accept the risk.  Risk avoidance has a price tag, and it’s not always worth the cost.
  11. Close down all but one of the nuclear labs (Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Idaho National Labs, Pantex, etc… )
  12. Cancel the F35, retire the B52, KC135, KC10, C5, F16, A10, and F22.  Acquire the super-hornet for AF use.  Upgrade the F15.
  13. Reevaluate Army acquisition programs for similar cuts
  14. Retire all large-deck amphibious ships.
  15. Refocus Navy requirements on protecting US shipping and maintaining open shipping lanes worldwide.
  16. Eliminate the current MAJCOM structure dividing the world into combatant commands.  Shut down all the staffs.
  17. Drop out of NATO and other mutual-defense agreements.
  18. Shut down all traditional special operations missions (building partner capacity etc…) and refocus a smaller special operations force on counter terrorism and clandestine high-risk operations.
  19. Eliminate the paramilitary programs within the CIA.  Limit them to intelligence collection/processing/evaluation/dissemination
  20. Eliminate DHS.  Use the national guard for homeland defense/security.  Roll the USCG under the DoD
  21. Cancel the mid-course interceptor program

If I ever find the time, I’ll talk through my thoughts and justifications for these recommendations, but for now, take them at face value.  I will say, however, that they all are grounded in the idea that we have no real enemies who are likely or even capable of causing a no-kidding non-nuclear disaster, that we are safest when we give fewer people a reason to hate us, and that we can best defend ourselves by staying home and protecting the ground that belongs to us.  Just think about the potential economic impacts if all the human and financial capital we flush down the drain by wasting it on military adventures overseas were available to the general economy.

A Rant on Modern Science

When I was a kid, my best friend Zeke (not his real name) was what we all considered “fat.” In addition to being heavier than the rest of us, he had a complexion that would have been described as sallow, had a tendency for profuse sweating, bad teeth, and delayed mental development. He was different, and that made him a target. Aside from Zeke and one or two other kids in my elementary school, I can’t remember a single kid who would be labeled overweight by today’s standards. Fast-forward thirty years, and my experience would infer that Zeke would be quite normal in a modern school.

There appears to be near universal alarm, hysteria, and media hype about an “epidemic” of obesity; childhood obesity in particular. Everyone from the First Lady to self-help authors are on the bandwagon, shouting to the hills about the evil of one perceived cause or another and schilling for their particular remedy. Assuming you believe the publicly circulated reports, obesity is responsible for or contributes to more untimely deaths than smoking, and the rate of occurrence is reportedly on the rise. Based on my personal experiences observing and interacting with every-day people, I would have to agree that something has gone seriously wrong in the thirty or so years between my generation and the current one. The real question, and one that I don’t believe has been adequately answered, is what?

Given the wide acknowledgement of a problem and poor public understanding of the causes and cures, industry writ-large is exploiting the vacuum to bleed the public. The diet and supplement industries are playing to this tune and stripping billions from the pocketbooks of people who have fallen victim to this plague. It seems every day there is a new “miracle” diet that completely contradicts yesterday’s diet d’jour and will cure you of your ills for a price. I’ve lost count of the number of miracle supplements and “natural” products (all of them expensive) that were supposed to make weight loss easy only to see them pulled from the shelves as unsafe or fade away into oblivion as the public gained experience and found the results to be wanting.

The pharmaceutical industry too has stepped up to the plate by introducing new miracle drugs that promise to end heart-disease by lowering cholesterol, cure obesity by interfering with our ability to digest fat, and in general make us healthier and happier through chemistry – for a price. It almost seems to be a point of pride for some (some quite close to me) how many different drugs they are taking. The food industry has also responded by introducing an endless stream of new “healthier” alternatives to traditional foods. Diet sodas, low-fat snacks, processed whole-grain cereals, cholesterol free refined vegetable oils, and so on and so on. In addition to providing “healthier” ingredients, the industry is saving us the trouble of having to think about what goes into the food we eat by providing these items to us in a processed form that is ready for consumption, complete with labeling to reassure us that science is on their side. Looking around me, it is clear that science has failed us in many respects. “Science” has been promising painless progress and perfect cures for this health epidemic and it’s close cousins since before I was born, but the overall trajectory in many ways has been increasingly downward.

One thing I’ve not seen, though, is a willingness to reexamine the fundamental premises of the current hysteria. Historically, obesity was an affliction of the affluent. The kinds of heart disease and other chronic illnesses that make life miserable or short for a great many people today were reportedly almost unknown in preindustrialized societies. As recently as the 1930s, Weston Price was able to find societies who hadn’t adopted modern lifestyles and eating habits, and where rotten teeth and heart disease were virtually unknown. None of these people followed the advice of modern science for caring for their cardiovascular system or teeth. They ate diets that for the most part would be condemned by modern science as an irrefutable recipe for an early heart attack. Science has been unwilling to question how and why this is the case, and either writes these cases off as aberrations or statistical anomalies, or looks for other factors that they can use to make the data fit their existing hypothesis. The science of heart disease and tooth decay is “settled,” and the debate is over. Never mind the fact that nearly 40 years of low-fat, low-cholesterol hysteria has done nothing to reduce the actual prevalence of the condition it was supposed to fix. One of the truest tests for the utility of any scientific theory is it’s ability to make predictions that match observations. In this case, the predictions have been abysmal – enough so, I believe, that the theory should be scrapped. Yet we are unwilling to go back to the beginning and re-examine the underlying assumptions. We seem unable to give up on something new and go back to reevaluate the wisdom of the past.

I think it is a part of the American psyche that we tend to want to look forward, to “progress.” There is an implicit trust in anything labeled as science and deriving from experts, and a serious prejudice against the preferences and traditions of prior generations. This mindset has been at the heart of some of the greatest inventions the world has ever known, but it can also lead to devastating consequences if our trust is misplaced. In the past it has resulted in products such as methamphetamine being openly marketed as a cure for fatigue and a miracle diet pill. It brought in kudzu to the American south for erosion control. It brought African honey bees (killer bees) into South America. We have a habit of arrogance that can be astounding, and a willingness to remain blind to our own limitations and limited understanding.

It is a fundamental characteristic that the capacity for evil inherent in any given object, capability, or idea is almost directly proportional to the capacity of the same thing for good, and it requires great diligence, thought, and analysis to distinguish between the two when the messages are controlled or shaped by those with an interest in the outcome. What’s more, we are truly adept at ignoring those things that are somewhat inconvenient or that would require us to move away from the preformed ideas we hold. In my mind, there is at the core of much modern debate a fundamental inconsistency – one that we tend to ignore just like other the inherent flaws and contradictions in our attempts to “fix” the human condition through “science.” This inconsistency, if truly examined and acted upon, would radically change the way we look at the world around us; and it is this kind of change of perspective that I am seeking for myself.


“He is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock.” – Luke 6:48

Not too long ago my wife and I purchased land and contracted to have a home built on it. Before any other work was done, the contractor dug a hole in the ground near where the house was planned in order for a specialized engineer to evaluate the soils and design a foundation that would be strong enough and anchored deep enough to prevent it from shifting, heaving, cracking, and generally undermining the construction. After evaluating the soil, the engineer retired to his firm to do the required analysis and design. His results indicated that the standard foundation construction for which we had budgeted and scheduled would be inadequate. We would have to spend significantly more money and allow extra time.

This was a significant challenge for our family. We had already delayed construction several months due to difficulties closing on the land and construction loan, and were facing a period of homelessness between our extant lease expiring and our house being ready for occupancy. Unexpected costs at closing had sapped much of the reserve we had allocated for cost overruns. The additional costs and delays required to evaluate and design the foundations were a significant inconvenience. However, there was never any doubt about the path we needed to take. Weakness in the foundation would undermine the entire house and jeopardize everything we had put into it.

What does this have to do with the topic at hand? The answer lies in the foundations for many of the positions and arguments made today. I believe we have built many of our exquisite explanations and justifications on the weakest of foundations. Foundations that were cracked even as the first bricks were laid for the enormous house of cards that we have built. However, because we are deeply invested in what we have built up we continue to patch, re-level, brace, and generally bandage the teetering tower of sophisms rather than look at the root cause of the repeated need to patch.

In order to get a clearer understanding of the problems we face, and find any hope that we can begin to correct them, we need to start by acknowledging the failure of current foundations, then identify the requirements for a solid foundation on which we can build a durable and strong structure capable of enabling clear understanding.

What then is the foundation upon which modern thinking is based? In short, my view is that our cultural and intellectual foundation is grounded on the belief that man has evolved or progressed miraculously in the last 100 years or so, overtaking and overcoming all the wisdom of the ages with irrefutable and indisputable science. We seem to believe that we are fundamentally different from our ancestors, and that anything produced before our living memory is as crude and barbaric as bleeding a sick patient in order to “re-balance the humors.” We believe we can accurately explain anything, and are quite adept at developing explanations and theories that fit conveniently with and support our biases, prejudices, and preferences. We also believe that we actually understand the intricacies of the universe we live in and the relationships between the numberless components and influences. We also tend to reject or write-off data or theories that don’t fit with our pre-conceived notions or current understanding.

I claim this foundation is perhaps as shaky as any ever built. Each aspect I evaluate seems as solid as a cloud, glued to the rest by little more than air. To begin with, consider the basic premise that science has answered or will answered our questions irrefutably and that using scientific methods, we have proven theory beyond any shadow of a doubt. I personally find this belief preposterous for a very simple reason. We are inside, affected by, and affecting in the course of observation or even existence the system we are attempting to describe. Our ability to objectively and fully observe any phenomenon is fundamentally limited. At best, we can view or account for only a small subset of the conditions, variables, forces, and other interactions that make up even the smallest and most controlled of physical experiments.


“Oh what fools these mortals be.” – Shakespeare

As an illuminating example of how insignificant our capacity and understanding are, consider the anecdote of the butterfly flapping his wings in one hemisphere tipping the scales and initiating a hurricane in the other. Every aspect of the atmosphere is interconnected. On a very small scale, we have written equations and theories for how the major constituents of the atmosphere react to pressure, temperature, motion, etc… and have shown that these equations accurately predict observable changes in controlled environments. Analyzing the theory has resulted in insights and additional predictions that became the basis for great discoveries and inventions such as the jet engine and common refrigerator. These developments have been practical and important, and were based on principles derived from the same fundamental theories that should govern butterfly wing turbulence and hurricanes. The problem with applying these theories to the global-scale is that complexity makes the problem intractable (a scientist’s or mathematician’s way of saying impossibly complicated and unsolvable).

Things in the real world are impossibly interconnected and involve an almost infinitely dense set of relationships. This fact makes definitive theory useless for application on that kind of scale. In the case of the butterfly flapping it’s wings, we would need to know the texture of the wing in exquisite detail, the precise motion of the wings, the location and physical shape of the butterfly and every object in the vicinity that would impact the induced air currents, the terrain and all other physical features of the global environment that would affect the movement of air. Each of these factors are potentially related, with one affecting the other, requiring specification of the first-order (how one thing affects it’s neighbor) and higher-order (how multiple things combine to affect other things) relationships between them.

As an example of how ridiculously complicated this becomes, consider one method for modeling where we cut up the space into small cubical “blocks” of air that are next to each other. This division into discrete blocks is not reality, but is a simplifying approximation required to even begin framing the problem. Each block interacts with at least the six other blocks which border it (top, bottom, left, right, front and back). At a minimum, all six of these interactions must be described by at least one relationship (equation with at least one variable) and initial conditions (starting points) for each variable. For the approximation of the “block” of air to be moderately accurate, the block must be small enough that the stuff inside it is easy to fully account for and everything inside the block is uniform… Nothing inside the box is affected by anything outside it, and there is nothing inside the box to perturb the internal conditions. The entire box of air reacts together to the influences of the boxes surrounding it.

Now, rather than tackle the entire globe at once, consider a 2000 square-foot house with eight-foot ceilings. For simplicity and illustrative purposes, assume that we can adequately describe the atmosphere by chopping it up into one cubic foot blocks (about the volume inside a mid-size microwave oven). Also for simplicity, assume there is a single, one-term, relationship between each face of the block and the block next to it. Assuming the house is a pure cube with no walls, ceiling, heat sources, furniture, or other factors that could influence our butterfly turbulence, there are 16,000 “cubes” of air, resulting in at least 96,000 starting data points and first-order/nearest neighbor relationships.

This sounds pretty difficult already, but with modern computers systems of even millions of interrelated equations are easily solved. I personally have written programs to grind through extremely large problems, and am enamored of the computing capacity we have developed. Our 96,000 element problem is simple once the relationships and starting conditions are defined. However, one cubic foot is HUGE compared to our butterfly. If we break up the atmosphere into one-foot cubes we will loose the butterfly to the assumption that the air inside the box is uniform. In order to preserve any of the effects of the butterfly, we’d have to break the box up into pieces less than about 1/10th the size of the smallest feature in the system. For the sake of this example, think of something on the order of one cubic millimeter (roughly a grain of kosher salt) or even smaller. In this case, our 96,000 relationships for the 2000 sq-ft house become more than 2.7×10^12 (2.7 Billion) relationships and starting conditions. Add to that the need to describe every square millimeter of air contacting non-air (walls, floor, furniture, etc…) in 3-dimensional space, and an expression that adequately captures the way the air interacts with it (for example, foam would be substantially different from steel), and it would take well over 20 terabytes to digitally store just one double-precision value for each cube.

In addition to cutting up space in to blocks, time must be discretized in order to compute the effects of our butterfly. Think of it like watching a movie… Each picture in the movie is a single snapshot of what things look like at that time. If we are only working to the fidelity of the human eye, we only need to cut time into segments of about 1/24th of a second each (24 frames per second) since the eye can’t really respond faster than that. However, if you use this frame-rate to record something that happens very quickly, all you see is a blur that washes out the very thing you were trying to record. This is why National Geographic and other documentarians love extreme slow-motion cameras for filming amazing things like a great white shark attacking a seal, a humming bird flying, or a chameleon catching a fly. These scenes are created by breaking time up into much smaller chunks. In a similar fashion, to model the effect of the butterfly’s wings, we need to break time up into chunks small enough that the “wave” of turbulence generated by the butterfly doesn’t travel across any of the blocks of air between time slots. What this means, is that the entire gargantuan system of equations we’ve developed to model the system has to be solved over and over again for each tiny time slot until the effect has reached the time we are interested in. Assuming access to a supercomputer large enough to store and process data on this scale, the time required to process a single slice of time would be substantial. Continuing the computation to describe the immediate effect just across the room (not to mention the late-term and second-order effects) would be phenomenal.

Solving this system might be conceivable in the future if Moore’s law continues to hold (roughly stated – computing power doubles every 18 months). However, the complexity doesn’t stop there. We could continue to refine the problem (and make it more realistic) by adding second and third-order effects, further breaking down the discretization (blocks) into smaller blocks, and including an almost infinite list of external influences ranging from the effects of gravity on the density of the air as a function of altitude to the temporal and spatial variations in solar heating caused by variable absorption in the atmosphere and so on, and so on… Our ability to even comprehend all the factors that may influence even a highly artificial and controlled situation is fundamentally limited. At some point, we become part of the data set ourselves (our breathing and movement for example), and in the act of setting up our measurements we perturb the experiment and invalidate the results to some degree.

Finally, perform this mental experiment: Look up your house on your favorite mapping software that includes satellite imagery. Think how complex the problem of scientifically describing your house is, then slowly zoom out until you have an appreciation for how small your postage-stamp on planet earth is in the grand scheme of things. That zoomed out picture contains a great many houses of similar complexity with additional “stuff” between them that must be similarly described. Continue the exercise by mentally backing out further until the earth is a speck in the solar system, the sun a dot in the galaxy, the galaxy a small speck in the universe, and so on… The closer we look, the smaller we are, and the more we understand how little we actually KNOW.

There are good reasons why weather guessers have a hard time predicting the weather more than just a few hours in advance. Even equipped with the best models, super computers, and science to back them up, their computations are necessarily based on simplifying assumptions and approximations. The best they can hope to do is run a whole bunch of simplified simulations with varying amounts of randomness added in to simulate the unknown contributions of the real world to their idealized model and hope the average comes out somewhere near the truth. This isn’t unique to weather. All of human endeavor is clouded by the limitations of finite understanding, precision, and capacity. Sometimes the effect is obvious (like the weather), and sometimes it is hidden or small enough that we ignore it either willfully, deliberately or through ignorance of its existence.

Even if by some miracle we were to completely observe, describe, and incorporate all influences within a system into a universal theory that worked all the time, there is no real way to prove the theory is in fact the way things actually are. We can demonstrate the adequacy of the theory for describing and predicting observations. We can similarly disprove a bad theory by showing counter-examples. And, once certain underlying conditions have been set down we can “prove” a theory in some sense provided our underlying “facts” are in fact correct. However, all proofs begin with a statement of the given facts, and as much as we would like to dis-believe it, facts in an absolute first-principles sense are difficult to come by. The best we can hope for is confirmation that the theory is capable of predicting the behavior of the system for which it was created.

As an example, consider one of the fundamental “givens” in physics: opposite charges attract in quantifiable terms, and like charges repel in a similar fashion. We can demonstrate easily that objects imparted a “charge” of “like” or “opposite” character will attract or repel each other in a well behaved and well defined manner. If we add to this the concept of magnetism and describe the observed effects in equations laid down based on scientific observations by Gauss, Maxwell, and others many moons ago, we can take those relationships (equations) and use them to predict certain observable behaviors that explain things like stereo speakers, power generators, radio waves, light, and so on… Using the core concept of charge and magnetism, we have been phenomenally successful at identifying means to leverage and manipulate the world around us for our own convenience. This is the true utility of science. It allows us to describe interactions in a way that enables comprehension and understanding sufficient for predicting the outcome. However, being able to describe something in useful terms and being able to give the definitive specification for what something actually is are not necessarily the same.

As an example, the concepts of “charge” and “magnetism” have proven very useful; expanding from the extremely small-scale universe of quantum mechanics through to grand-scale cosmology, and have stretched into the even more esoteric realms beyond. I don’t believe there has been a single data point or theoretical instance that casts doubt on the utility of these concepts. However, we don’t often stop to think and ask ourselves – what is a charge? I contend we don’t actually know, and fundamentally cannot know. All we can hope to do is describe it’s effects. We can’t inspect it directly. We can’t see it. And even if we could, we would be limited by the fact that we are part of the system within which the concepts exist, and therefore not in a position to step back and pass absolute, impartial, and correct judgment. It would be a bit like asking a blind salamander who had spent his entire life in a dark cave to describe the universe based on the minerals dissolved in the water he drinks and the detritus he cannot see that makes its way into the darkness of his cave.

Unlike the blind salamander though, we have been amazingly adept at using our limited capacity to comprehend the universe to build theories and explanations that conform with observation. As we have gained experience with these theories, we have historically become more and more confident in their correctness, to the extent that we become blinded to our own nothingness. Prior to the 1920s, physicists believed they were just about “done.” They had built up a theory of how the world works that could describe almost every observable phenomenon when viewed in isolation. There were just a few inconvenient aberrations like why a heated incandescent light-bulb filament is the color it is and why different materials retained heat better than others. Many physicists were convinced these trivialities would surely be fixed in due time and the theory of how the universe works would be complete.

Scientists can be a rather arrogant lot. When we think we know the answer, we tend to push back at anything that seems “counter-factual” or inconsistent with our understanding. We look for plausible explanations for “outliers.” We get comfortable with a theory and forget the limitations and uncertainty upon which it is built. We begin to confuse belief and knowledge, model and object, master and servant. This behavior is not unique to the big-brained academics. We all tend to assume we “know” things that at their heart are fundamentally unknowable, and to discount anything that is counter to our predetermined outcome. In the case of the initial forays into quantum mechanics, the professors of classical mechanics didn’t react well to the radical new theories that fundamentally undermined their understanding of the world.

Unfortunately for Sir Isaac Newton and those who followed in his footsteps, the inconvenient aberrations or oddities early 20th century physicists explored shook the very foundations of science in ways nobody could have predicted. The resulting innovations in thought and theory resulted in new ways of describing the world that opened the doors to an amazingly wide range of modern innovation ranging from the amazing contributions of chemical engineering to the world of digital electronics that surrounds us now. In the course of exploring the oddball “boutique” problems, brilliant minds would introduce the theory of quantum mechanics and turn the scientific world on it’s head, all while demonstrating the absolute inadequacy of what had been all too recently declared as essentially “done.”

This up-ending of understanding is not unique, and won’t stop with the current generation of experts. However, there are limits to what we can observe, and therefore limits on how much we can usefully predict and begin to understand. In every generation, there have been those who argued vehemently against any form of theory or thought that went against conventional wisdom. In every case I’m aware of, every single professor of wisdom who declared the argument over and science settled has, in the end, ended up on the trash-heap of history. I find it an amazing mark of arrogance and stupidity when I look around me and find an entire generation who have bought off on the message that science has “proven” this, that, or the other, and that the debate is over. To think that we are capable of completely comprehending, understanding and accounting for all of the influences and interactions that make up this amazing universe of ours is indeed one of the most stupid things I can come up with.

If we as a people are to have any hope for increasing our understanding and improving our situations, we need to be honest about our own inadequacy. When we are arrogant or self-certain, we close the door on learning. There is no student more difficult to teach than one who believes they already know the answer, and the most unfortunate part is that the answer itself is rarely the point of the learning. We must be humble to be teachable. We must comprehend our limitations and be willing to acknowledge that even our most exquisite and best developed theories are no more than that… theories that are useful within the context for which they were developed.

Down With Intellectual Laziness

“For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat” – 2 Thessalonians 3:10

One of the most important lessons life has taught me is to question everything with an open mind. I believe we as a society have become too mentally lazy to do the real work required to thoroughly analyze a problem, research answers, organize and arrange the results and come to a conclusion based on rational and defensible conclusions. The human desire for simplicity and ease is natural, and is to a great degree responsible for many of the improvements in our lives. The desire to get more out of the limited resources we have is the driving force behind innovation but also lies at the heart of laziness. Very few people, indeed you could argue that no one, will sacrifice short-term gains unless they perceive a long-term payoff that makes the sacrifice worthwhile. The distinguishing factor behind laziness is the inability or unwillingness to look forward into the future to identify areas where sacrifice or hard work will pay off.

The American public has become intellectually Lazy. It is much easier for us to accept a party line, polished explanation, or the confident explanations of experts than to spend the time and effort to truly evaluate the substance of the messages we hear. More often than not, positions are taken based on popular appeal, fair speaking, hollow promises, uncritically examined ideologies, or blind acceptance of the status-quo. This mental flabbiness seems to extend to all aspects of modern life. We have reached a stage of society where the 6-second news clip can incite riots, the most repeated opinions are taken as truth, and true debate and discussion are displaced by unthinking partisan bickering, intellectual dishonesty, and unreasoned and inflexible dogma.

In my personal efforts to overcome this mental laziness, I have read and considered some of what would have passed for mass media early in our country’s history. A case in point that illustrates how far we have wandered from our roots as a thinking society are the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers. These papers were originally written as series of newspaper articles intended to inform the public and shape the public debate surrounding the adoption of our current constitutions which represented a much more powerful and expansive federal government than existed under the Articles of Confederation. The pubic debate they represent could not happen in today’s society. The arguments are too dense, discussion too long, and thoughts too deep to survive the attention span and understanding of the masses. We are simply too lazy to put the work into understanding the issues, dissecting the arguments, and forming our own opinions.

To complicate matters, we are constantly bombarded with predigested and analyzed sound-bites informing us what the “correct” opinion is. In this “information age” many had hoped for an empowered populace who could freely share information and allow all to discover the “truth” independent from the media moguls and other power players who historically shaped opinion by using their printing presses or bully pulpits. However, as we have gained more and better access to instant information, major information brokers have risen up and established themselves as the filter for what is true and newsworthy. In spite of our incredible access to information, I believe the average American is more poorly informed on important topics than his antecedents. While you could argue that keeping abreast of the current status of ones friends, family, pop-stars, pets, and other random strangers is being informed, I disagree. We live in an age where some of the most thought-provoking items are pictures of an angry cat with a few words emblazoned across it. We have drowned ourselves in worthless information to the exclusion of truly important issues.

We, as a society, must get better at shutting out the trivial and prepackaged messaging that would lull us into a thoughtless stupor. We need to deliberately work to strengthen our critical reasoning skills. We need to deliberately work to learn new and challenging things. We need to deliberately work to understand both sides of complex and contentious arguments. We need to deliberately work to understand our own beliefs and the foundations on which they are built. We need to deliberately work to probe, push and expand the boundaries of our capacity. All of this is work – hard work – and work is antithetical to laziness. We must not be lazy.

Healthy Skepticism

“the unexamined life is not worth living” – Emerson.

Skeptics can be hard to live with or be around. The incurable skeptic is rarely happy, and seems to delight in toppling the cherished beliefs of those around him. This is not the kind of skepticism that I advocate. We should be willing to look at anything with a healthy dose of caution, but I’m not talking about the biting skepticism that sees no truth in anything and draws it’s strength in only tearing down and demolishing. Rather, I’m talking about the kind of skepticism that leads one to look at an argument for more than its fit and finish. Healthy skepticism should lead us to at least question the motives of information brokers, the strengths and weaknesses of the source, understand and look for holes in arguments, compare what you find against your own personal stores of truth, and be willing to accept something only after careful consideration. Several years ago, I worked for an organization who’s motto was “Trust but Verify.” This, in essence, is the kind of skepticism I believe is called for in most things.

Science of all kinds has a long history of being biased in favor of those who fund it. This is occasionally overt, cynical, and self-serving; but more often it is a result of unacknowledged biases, unrecognized blind-spots, and group-think that can lead the investigator to discount the truth in favor of something they hope to find. When we are presented with a new set of data, it would behoove us to question the biases and motivations of both those who paid for it, and those who generated it. One simple test I have used for blind bias has been to look at how one reacts to criticism. Reactions that are more appropriate for a religious zealot, and show the kind of arrogance and hubris I’ve already described, are sure signs of internal bias that will undoubtedly taint the data. Intolerance of dissent or questioning is a characteristic of a cult, not a scientific endeavor.

Respect the Past

“Study the past if you would divine the future” – Confucius

We are all too prone to look at history as being peopled with a different race of being who was all together less intelligent and capable than us. While there were many beliefs and practices throughout history that were truly barbaric and ill conceived, the basic nature of humanity hasn’t changed nearly as much as we think. While our technologies have enabled us to see things that were previously unseeable, and we have gained insights that were previously inconceivable, that is no reason to discard wholesale the wisdom of the ages.

As a case in point, I recently heard a story of a team decided to comb through an ancient viking medical text for insights fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The team discovered a recipe for an ointment that was noted as working very well for a particular form of eye infection that can be refractory to conventional treatment. Rather than dismiss it as hocus-pocus or snake oil, they decided to follow the recipe exactly and see what came of it. To their surprise, the resulting product had phenomenal antibiotic properties against some very difficult to treat bacteria. The medical community was not only skeptical, but openly hostile when the discovered the original source. Now, I doubt the original developer of this recipe understood that the infection was caused by bacteria, and that the particular mixture he developed had antibiotic properties; but I do believe that it was based on observations of what worked, and that explanations of magic or the like were used to describe what they saw in terms familiar to the audience.

Humankind had spent millennia observing their environment and conducting experiments based on those observations. While some theories and practices that resulted had, in the end, no justifiable basis and were ultimately harmful (bloodletting and the medicinal use of mercury for example), others have proven much more useful. One case in point relates to the anecdote with which I opened this essay. As shown by both the fossil record and studies by those like Weston Price, traditional societies who eat the way they did hundreds or thousands of years ago, and eschew the kinds of highly processed low-fat foods that are now the rage, have little to no tooth decay, heart disease, or obesity. Coincidentally, those same groups tend to eat a diet high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein. I think, as a general rule, a healthy respect for what tradition says about what is good for health and society should be given the benefit of the doubt, and that new evidence that “proves” that what has been considered “wisdom” for generations is false should be subjected to intense scrutiny. We are far to quick to discard tradition simply because it is old. Let us respect tradition and look for ways to integrate it with our modern world.

What’s so wrong with not liking Christmas?

“Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”

“I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”

Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”

“Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.

“What else can I be,” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

It’s been said that I am somewhat of a Grinch or Scrooge about Christmas, and the sad part is that my accusers are probably right.  In spite of repeated assurances and vociferous assertions to the contrary by my family, I really do struggle with the whole thing.  Every day of the Christmas season tends to bring something that makes me want to either scream or retreat to my cave. However, the comparison is incomplete.

In the case of Scrooge, his dislike of Christmas stemmed from his miserly ways and the selfish desire to extract as much profit as possible from the populace. While I have a strong distaste for the fiscal liabilities and financial strain of the holiday, I flatly deny that my feelings are based in greed or selfish motivations.   When I was younger, I assumed the stress and unhappiness that came at Christmas time stemmed from the somewhat constrained financial resources in my family growing up.  My parents struggled to make ends meet from time to time, and the holidays were always an extra burden on an already tight budget.  I watched them stress over how to satisfy the greedy demands of the season.

Worse than the strain on my parents, I began to recognize selfishness in myself.  I began to compare the presents my friends got with what I was given.  I saw others flaunting their ill-gotten gains and was jealous.  I became unsatisfied.  Recognizing those feelings in myself engendered a sense of self-loathing that still haunts me from time to time.   Every year, as Christmas rolls around, I am reminded of what I felt and how I acted.  They are shameful memories complicated by the fact that I see the same behaviors in people around me without the shame that should attend.

However, monetary scarcity is not at the heart of these frustrations.  As time has worn on, I have progressively made more money until I’ve reached a point where I consider myself rather well to do.  I distinctly remember looking at the pay tables many years ago and wondering what I would do with the kind of money I am making now.  However, in spite of this change in situation, Christmas is still a financial pain.  Contrary to popular belief, more pay doesn’t necessarily mean more unallocated money, and by the time Christmas comes around, we end up making financial trades in our house to try to accommodate the extra food for all the parties and other social gatherings (never my favorite thing), decorations, more parties, gifts, more parties, gas to get to the stupid parties, etc…  Those trades spark some of the same selfish tendencies that taught me to hate the holiday many years ago.  I have to admit to fundamentally hating the fact that I have to give up some simple pleasure (often a matter more of time than of money) so we can hang out with a bunch of people I don’t really want to be around from work or other associations.  Recognizing this selfishness, in spite of years of working to suppress it, is depressing.  Unlike Scrooge, I don’t hate Christmas because I’m selfish and want to keep what I have, I hate it because it exposes selfishness I wish to suppress.

Nor is the story of the Grinch a complete comparison.  The Grinch’s feelings about Christmas weren’t too far off from mine, but that was simply a function of his misunderstanding.  When the Grinch came to understand the real meaning behind the holiday, he had a change of heart and embraced the season.  Unfortunately, I have a crystal clear understanding of why Christmas is celebrated.  I absolutely agree that the subject of Christmas is a reason for great joy and rejoicing.   Angels heralded the birth of Jesus, and we too should remember that event with joy and rejoicing.  The problem I run into is that I don’t celebrate things the way the world would have me do.

The ways the world celebrates don’t focus my attention, thoughts, prayers, or actions on Christ.  They don’t help me remember the incomprehensible miracle that was His birth.  In fact, they tend to distract and depress me.  I tend to celebrate in very private and personal ways, and demanding that I participate in public displays of any sort is almost a sure-fire way to cause me to rebel against whatever it is you desire me to do.  This rebellion sets up a vicious cycle of me being unhappy, someone else (usually Liz) being unhappy because I’m unhappy, which makes me even more unhappy.

Unfortunately, nobody seems content to let me alone to celebrate in my own time and manner.  I guess I don’t understand why it’s so wrong to feel as Scrooge did when he said “Nephew! Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”

Book Burning

For most of the world, there is little thought that goes into disposing of something.  You simply put it in the trash bin, set that bin on the curb roughly once a week, and it magically disappears.  When you live where we do, though, there is more to it than that.  For those in our “neighborhood” who elect to pay for regular trash service, they pay roughly ten times what it costs in the city for the privilege.  As an alternative, we have the option of bagging our trash and hauling it off to the local dumpster once a week for a set price per bag.  Many of us, on the other hand, find alternative ways to deal with unwanted stuff.

There is a well-defined and graduated scale of sophistication in back-woods trash disposal.  Lowest on the totem-pole are the jerks who look for some unattended place to simply dump their crap and make it someone else’s problem.  These are scumbags who don’t think twice about throwing a half-empty 20oz beer can out of the truck window and into your yard.  May they get warts and boils on their intimate parts.

Next up the ladder of sophistication are the old-school farmers who never get rid of anything, opting instead to throw it on the pile that’s been building in the back lot since grandpa discarded an old plow or other piece of worn-out farm equipment, saving it “just in case.”  This crowd doesn’t really care much about what others think, but scoff at making their junk someone else’s problem.  They respect others property rights, and expect you to respect theirs by not complaining when their front yard looks like a scrap-heap.  The only time this group becomes a problem is when they die or move, necessitating a major cleanup effort.  They do have a bad habit of dumping fairly toxic stuff rather than incinerating or otherwise dealing with it.

Next there are those who believe in having their own personal landfill and dig a big hole somewhere on their property to push everything into, thereby dealing with the cosmetic issues the first kind of “freestyle landscaping” causes by burying it.  Unfortunately, this group isn’t very particular about what goes into the holes, tossing used motor oil, unused agricultural chemicals, furniture, plastics, and anything else they happen to accumulate into the pit to contaminate the groundwater.  Recognizing the limit on space, they often have a habit of separating at least the large items with metal in them for eventual recycling (usually when they move or die).

Next in sophistication are those who get tired of digging new holes, so they burn the pile in the hole on a regular basis and only cap it off when the ash builds up.  This tends to minimize the space used and consume many of the more nasty chemicals and plastics that would otherwise pollute or clog landfills.   The ash it produces, however, is toxic in itself.

Finally, there are guys like me.  In our house, we separate our waste into a few simple categories.  First, there is food waste.  There is no point in wasting what would otherwise be effective fertilizer, so 100% of it is either fed to the chickens or composted.  Second, there is the organic matter that isn’t easily composted or edible like paper, cardboard and wood.  This we burn in our fire-pit, collecting the ashes and scattering them in the field to return the minerals that remain to the soil.  Third is anyting metal.  Metal doesn’t burn, and I don’t like the idea of burying a bunch of it on my property, even if it isn’t likely to be toxic, so it gets collected until there is a sufficient pile of it and I turn it in for scrap.  Finally there are glass, plastic, and contaminated paper products.  Glass and plastic aren’t worth recycling here, so it isn’t separated from the other things I can’t recycle.  All of this is burned in a ventilated burn-barrel.  When the barrel fills with ashes broken glass, and anything else that didn’t burn up, the ashes are triple-bagged and hauled off to the dump-station where they are taken to a lined landfill.

Between being conscientious about the kinds of stuff we buy and making the most of the system I described above, we’ve reduced our contributions to the landfill to about two to three moderately large trash bags every six months while only spending about $20 in that same time-frame.  I don’t want to hear any griping about air pollution or carbon dioxide emissions.  I’ve considered the alternatives, and this has the least overall impact on the environment without going to uneconomical extremes.  The only real down-side is the work that goes into burning.

So, what is the point of this long dissertation on how country rednecks get rid of trash?  Recently, Liz and I went through our extensive collection of books and down-sized the library.  One consequence of this was a decision to rely on electronic means for many materials that are readily available for free via the Internet, and the library for books that aren’t likely to be referenced frequently.  Many of the books we identified as excess are worth selling, others were worth donating to the local second-hand stores.  However, we had a large number (mostly religious and available for free on-line) that were not likely to be marketable even at a thrift store.

Given that we have to pay for every bag of trash we throw away, and that you can only reasonably put so many books into one bag without it tearing through, I didn’t want to just throw them out.  Not only that, but the ash content of the paper is rich in trace minerals that can fortify soil, and most of the inks used in modern printing are vegetable based so I wasn’t worried about any concentration of toxic crap in the ash.  The books simply had to be burned.

Burning books is not something that feels intellectually good.  Generally speaking, book burning brings up imagery like the Nazis prior to WWII or the firemen from Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451.  I treasure books, information, and the free-exchange of ideas (even when I disagree with them).  The idea of doing something supported by fascists to stamp out or bury information causes cognitive dissonance.   However, I’ve a long track record of overcoming hesitation when something needs to be done.

Last night, Isaac, Michael, and I spent the evening burning the pile of junk books.  Something I’ve learned over the couple of years we’ve lived here is that you can’t just throw a book in the fire and expect it to reduce to a small heap of ashes.  In fact, there are few things that are ultimately flammable which are harder to burn.  If you want a book to burn, you have to separate the leaves of paper to allow the air to circulate, otherwise the ash from the outside pages smothers the pages within and results in a book with scorched edges that is generally intact.   The three of us spent most of the night tearing out pages, crumpling them, and adding them to the fire slowly enough to prevent suffocating it.

Burning books is a slow, hot, smelly, smoky, painful, tiring process.  While I was stirring the pile of burning paper with a shovel last night to make sure everything burned down completely, I reflected on how much malice there must have been in the hearts of people who participated in burning “unwanted” documents in Nazi Germany.  While I don’t understand how you could get to a point where it would be appropriate to eradicate and criminalize dissenting opinions, I now have some minor insight into how committed those who got to that point were.  They must have really been committed to spend that kind of energy.  As for me, I’ll be happy if I never have to burn another book again.

What Do We Hunger For?

Today I was listening to a talk (or sermon depending on your faith tradition) and was granted a new insight into a scripture story I’ve read and contemplated many times before.  The speaker brought up the miracle of the loaves and fishes, where Jesus miraculously fed the multitudes.  Often this miracle is the focal point of the message.  As the speaker continued with the story, I was struck by what followed.

In John chapter 6, we read about Christ feeding the masses with five loaves and two fishes.  In addition to the marvelous teachings they heard, all who were there witnessed a miracle that resulted in tangible results: they had full bellies when they otherwise would have gone hungry.  Many who were there followed Christ, and I’d like to think that I would have been among them had I been there.

Unfortunately, many were only converted to the physical rewards of discipleship.  They had hungered and were fed.  This miracle was what they sought.  Christ knew this and decided to use it as a teaching moment to help the crowds understand a much deeper lesson about the atonement and His mission.  When the food from the previous miracle wore off, the crowds were again hungry.  Christ could have easily broken bread again sufficient to feed the crowd, but he opted not to in order to do something much more important.  He knew that no amount of miracle bread and meat would convert the hard-hearted, so he used it as an opportunity to test the righteous and teach them about eternal life.

All of this should sound familiar to anyone who has studied the New Testament.  Nothing I’ve written so far could be construed as a new insight.  The insight for me comes from elsewhere in the scripture.  After Christ finished teaching the lesson he had for the masses, many who had followed him left.  They had come hoping for a tangible and temporal miracle, and were unwilling or unable to accept the miracle of wisdom that was offered in its place.  Not receiving what they had desired or expected, they fell away.

This interaction reminded me of an experience a friend of mine has had.  He was an active follower of Christ, and appeared to be strong in the faith.  However, some time after we parted ways (he to one state, and me to several others) he began to experience some serious health issues that interfered with several things that were very important to him.  He sought for a temporal blessing, and was hurt when it wasn’t granted.  At least in part due to this experience, he went through what he describes as a “faith transition,” eventually convincing himself that there was no God.  Because he didn’t get the miracle he sought, he, like the people in the scripture story, no longer followed Christ.

What higher blessing could have been available to my friend had he maintained faith and continued on the path of discipleship nobody will ever know but the Lord himself.  However, what is certain is that he gave up a great deal.  Unfortunately, this case study is far from unique.  I’ve known far too many who have grown resentful at God because they were not blessed in the way they desired and expected.  I believe it is likely all of us experience this to some degree or another.  For one, it is a failure to be healed of some physical malady.  For others it is a blessing sought for family or other loved-ones.  There are innumerable ways we can feel like we are being denied a blessing or miracle we righteously seek.  Unfortunately, our perspective is terrible.  Sometimes the worst thing that can happen is for us to be given exactly what we ask for.

The key, I think, is to keep in mind Peter’s response when Christ asked him if he too would go away:

“Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”

Where else could we go that would better prepare ourselves for the trials that surely lie ahead?  Who else could we turn to when the burdens of this life feel overwhelming?  What other source could we turn to in order to find happiness in this life and the next?  The answer to all of these questions is simple.  There is no other way to enjoy the fullness of this life and the potential of the next than through faith in Jesus Christ, and that includes the faith to forgo a blessing we feel we need and trust that the Lord knows what he’s doing.

Bag of Rocks

Many years ago, two intrepid scout masters took the young men from my church youth group on a week-long backpacking trip into an offshoot of the Rocky Mountains.  One of the guys in our group was physically smaller than the rest of us and had a chip on his shoulder to compensate.  As a result, and as matter of record, I didn’t have a lot of love for him.  In fact, he had spent most of the last two years pestering and tormenting me — his apparent goal being to start a fight with me (beat me up) to prove he was big and strong.   Earlier in the summer of this trip he succeeded in pushing me over the line while we were working a fund-raiser.  I finally got fed up with him, pinned him against a concrete-block wall, and proceeded to pummel him with all the malice I could generate.  Had his larger “cool-crowd” friends not intervened I probably would have hospitalized him.

Given this description of my feelings towards the kid, it might be surprising that this trip found me largely pitying him by the fourth day.  On the first day, all of us took off from the trail-head slightly overloaded with food and other necessaries.  Fresh legs and the excitement of what lay ahead of us compensated for the weight, and we reached our first stop tired but in good spirits.  Courtesy of the constant feedback gravity had provided over the course of the day, we all lightened our packs considerably by gorging on at least two days worth of food and praying we would be able to catch enough fish along the way to make up the difference.

As we progressed through the trip our legs got tired but our packs got lighter.  The two seemed to compensate each other since we managed to get to the end of our day without feeling any more or less tired than the day before… all of us except for the twerp.  Every day he seemed to get more and more tired and lag more and more behind the rest of the group.  This puzzled me, but seemed to be a source of endless mirth to his “friends” (incidentally the same ones that egged him on to the fight that they subsequently broke up).   By the morning of the fourth day he was exhausted, so we stopped earlier than planned for a break.  That’s when he discovered the rocks.

His “friends” had been sneaking small rocks into a large but formerly unused pocket in his pack.  They had added one here, one there, sneaking them in any time he wasn’t looking.  The end result was that his pack grew heaver and heavier as time wore on.  By the time he figured out what was going on there were probably 20 lbs of rocks in his bag.  For a 110 lb kid, that’s a substantial portion of the workable load.  Eventually, the extra weight and fatigue of hiking became too much for him to bear and he had to stop.  Luckily for him, he found the problem, corrected it, and managed to do quite well for the rest of the trip in spite of some choice words with his “friends.”

I was significantly larger than this kid, was carrying about the same basic load, and felt pretty tired by this point.  Watching him struggle was uncomfortable, and when it became clear that the difficulty was the result of mean-spirited actions by people he liked and trusted I pitied him.  The load of rocks he had gradually “picked up” along the trail had built up to the point where he couldn’t take the load any more.  Individually, the rocks were small and wouldn’t be considered a burden unless it had been wedged under your foot to irritate at every step.  Each rock that was added made only a small incremental addition to the weight, hiding the total contribution in the larger mass of the pack.

Now, why would I choose to reflect and write about this experience?  Sometimes I feel like I am hiking with a bag of rocks on my back.  As I trundle down the trail that is my life, I am constantly bumping up against little annoyances, inconveniences, issues, problems, frustrations, or demands on my time and talents – rocks.  At each juncture I am often faced with choosing one of a few possibilities: I can bypass the rock and leave it for someone else to stumble on and deal with,  I can react badly and make the problem someone else’s, or I can take care of the problem and clear the path for the next traveler.  Most of the time, I decide it’s a small thing, bend down, pick up the rock, and throw it in the bag.  The small service I render to those behind me on the trail makes it well worth the almost imperceptible extra weight I now carry.   I don’t grumble or use it as an excuse to further burden someone else.  My strength quickly adapts to the slightly heavier load, and I carry on.

Other times, there is no choice.  The rock simply must be added to my load either by force of others, the nature of the situation, or by my own (sometimes unwilling) conscience.  These are the most difficult rocks because they don’t necessarily bring with them the sense that I am sacrificing for someone else’s good.  They are simply an ugly addition to the weight I already carry.   Additionally, these rocks aren’t constrained to be relatively small.  They can be quite heavy.  However, I recognize that the only way to build strength is to take on progressively heavier loads so the muscles, bones, and connective tissues can react and rebuild stronger.  In this light, the burdens are lightened and I can generally pick them up with magnanimity and press on.

The difficulty comes when the rate at which I add to my load begins to exceed my ability to marshal and develop strength to carry it.  Sometimes the load becomes so heavy that even an additional grain of sand can be a soul-crushing weight.  My default reaction when the load becomes overwhelming is to want to dump it, and were I on a real trail, I’d simply step off of it a few feet and create a neat little pile of my accumulated rocks.  Unfortunately, life’s burdens aren’t so easily discarded.  Each one is tied to someone or something that would suffer if I were to let that rock drop back to the ground.  Many of the heaviest burdens would have eternal consequences should I fail to carry the load they represent.  This situation makes it nearly impossible to lighten the load in any tangible way.   I can complain and leverage my burden to add to someone else’s load, but this gives no real relief and I am left with no viable choice but to continue on; hoping I can find the strength to continue, and praying I won’t be asked to pick up any more rocks.

One of the more irritating aspects of having this load that I can’t drop is the fact that I have a tendency to become resentful and selfish when someone tries to add anything to the pile.  People seem to assume that because you are currently carrying a heavy load that you are strong enough to further add to it.  They want to give you their burdens, not realizing that the only way they can build strength is to continue carrying their own load.  They don’t, or can’t, see that while your strength is great, it is matched to your load and doesn’t leave much of a margin for additions.

Where I generally feel happy in lifting someone else’s load or clearing the path for those behind, a heavy burden poisons the joy that would otherwise have helped steel me for the task.  I no longer want to help.  I want to protect what strength I have left for myself.  I want to pass by the things that could trip up others and make it their problem.  I want to pass off my load to someone else rather than reach out and steady or lift someone else’s. I want things that I know I shouldn’t want.  That knowledge on its own is a burden.

So what do you do when you feel the crushing weight of responsibility sucking the life out of your soul?   Where do you turn when there is no clear path of escape?  How do you get help lifting a load you are unable to share?  How do you help people understand that while each small thing is individually easy to carry, there is a wellspring of others, both seen and unseen, that combine to make the load much worse than would be expected based on external appearances?  How do you carry on when the one Being capable of seeing things in their entirety seems distant and unconcerned?  How do you even admit to feeling that way when you know it isn’t true?

Mortal onlookers are always quick to suggest quick solutions or trivialize the burdens they are able to comprehend and fixate on.  I would they could see and feel from inside, but sharing glimpses through the means available tends to simply give them only a small piece of the puzzle they latch onto and use to try and explain the whole without sorting through the pile and taking time to put all the pieces together.  Even if they had that desire, it would be impossible, since some of the pieces are hidden even to me.

Were I not who I am, I think I might do as the twerp did when his pack became too heavy…  Simply stop in the trail, dump the load, and refuse to go on until I have strength to continue  That won’t work however, since the burden of the failure represented by those dropped rocks would far outweigh the load I now carry.  There is one, and only one, real solution to this dilemma, only one source for relief, and it doesn’t involve removing any of the weight.

We have been promised by the Lord that we will not be burdened with more than we can bear, tested beyond our strength, or asked to do something we cannot do.  These promises should give us hope and comfort, and will… if we allow them to.   The loads we carry are not unnoticed by our Father in Heaven and our Lord Jesus Christ.  Nor are they without purpose.  They are adjusted to our capacity, calibrated to strengthen us, designed to meet the Lord’s purposes, and necessary for our own eternal progression and salvation.   Should the load begin to actually be too heavy, the hand of the Lord will lend us strength until the burden lifts or our strength is sufficient.

While it won’t sell many self-help books, make an interesting movie, or lend itself to a new system for self-actualization, the solution boils down to something pretty basic: We must trust the Lord, simply continue on at the best pace we can manage, and try not to be so grouchy, judgmental, and selfish when someone asks us to help them pick up and carry another rock.


Life can be funny sometimes.  Things we often tend to view in absolutes can become quite fuzzy or even inverted when the context is right.  One example I’ve experienced very recently is an inversion of the concept that it’s bad to be unwanted.

Most of us spend a good portion of our lives trying to be something or someone who is wanted.  We develop skills that are wanted by employers.  We seek to be wanted by friends and love interests.  We often find ourselves trying to acquire stuff and abilities that place us in a position to be envied.  I think it is a part of human nature to want to be something admired or desired by almost everyone we meet.

When I was a kid, I was a klutz who was usually among the last to be chosen when it came time to pick teams for any kind of sport (a situation, incidentally, that hasn’t really changed).  I hated feeling unwanted, and as a result I pretty much quit trying  to play sports in the first place.  As a young man, I didn’t fit in with the “in crowd” (who incidentally have for the most part had fairly miserable adult lives if reports are to be believed) and was an unwanted strap-hanger or outsider.  I hated it enough that I quit going to youth activities at church to avoid feeling unwanted.  I wanted to be wanted.

Fast forward many years, and I am now waiting to find out where the Air Force is going to send us for the next four years.  For some unknown reason, the personnel gods decided to completely ignore my preferences and the recommendations of my senior leadership and opted to recommend me to the “cables” office at the office of the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF).   This office is basically a glorified 24-hour a day, 365 day a year answering and generalized executive services staff for the SECDEF.  It’s not the kind of thing I’ve spent years and years in school only to spend the last years of my military service on.  In fact, one of my friends from a previous assignment had worked in that office before, and the first thing he said when I called him was: “You’ll HATE it!”  Based on his subsequent descriptions, I’m certain he was right.

The way I found out about the personnel system’s intentions was a call from the chief of the cables office, a Navy Captain (Colonel equivalent).  He was concerned that I didn’t have enough “operational experience” in my background.  He expressed hesitation and reservation in hiring me, and made it sound like the job was something to be coveted.  He seemed to suffer from the same delusion many Air Force fighter pilots are under that being an “operator” qualifies you for everything, and that anyone who hasn’t done what they’ve done couldn’t possibly be as good at anything as they are.  I’m not sure what planning and executing operations has to do with answering the phone and filing emails, but I answered his questions and sent him a more detailed resume anyway.  Along the way, I think I might have mentioned the fact that I hadn’t exactly volunteered for the position (didn’t intend to submarine the job, but sometimes Freudian slips are hard to avoid).

I didn’t hear anything back from them for a week, waiting the whole time for the dreaded notification that my assignment had been finalized.  By Thursday (one week since sending my resume), I sent a short note to the Captain asking if he needed any additional information and if they had made a decision yet.  He informed me that they were still deliberating and had received another nomination from the personnel center.  The only way they would have gotten another nomination would have been if they asked for one.  The message, intended or not, was that they weren’t happy with my background.  Yesterday this was confirmed when they sent me a message telling me I was not selected for the position.   I guess answering phones is too tough for someone as unexperienced and uneducated as I am.  It’s never felt so good to be unwanted.  I cried all day… tears of joy that is.

The only down-side to this tale, however, is that while the cables office was waffling and “deliberating,” people were being matched against all the other less than awful jobs on the must-fill list.  The entire job-matching process is supposed to be complete tomorrow, and the personnel system didn’t get the message I wasn’t accepted until yesterday.  They are probably going to plug me against one of the must-fill jobs that nobody volunteered for, since almost all the rest will have already been filled by now, and they don’t have a lot of time to do anything different.   Man… I can’t wait to find out what other hell-hole of a job they think my PhD and varied experience qualifies me for.


It would appear we are off to Albuquerque where I will for the first time be in a position that actually has the potential to utilize all that over-hyped and high-priced education the military paid for.  Michael has trouble pronouncing it, instead using a word that is more of a cross between an albatross and a turkey (albaturkey).   The other kids just have trouble spelling it.