Thursday, December 27, 2007

Violence as Policy

I am seeking for words to describe my emotions regarding todays events. It truly saddens me that most of our world accepts violence as a appropriate and effective means of political change. This attitude seems to permeate every country, religion, and political theory.

"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."
Isaac Asimov

"Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary."
Mahatma Gandhi

Speaking up

One of the things that has really been driven home by some of the books that I have read recently is how dangerous inaction can be. Books like The Lucifer Effect and Mistakes Were Made detail many examples of truly evil situations. In many cases these evils were stopped by one person simply having the courage to speak out. The courage of that one then seems to provide support for others who felt the same but simply lacked to courage of that first person. This was one of the main reasons that I chose to speak up at the library board meeting

I’ve always had people express opinions or ideas that I disagree with and until recently I responded as George Bernard Shaw would have, “Silence is the most perfect expression of scorn”. I agree with this to and extent and I frequently make this my practice.

Last year I had to take a business ethics course as part of the continuing training at work. In the course they described a situation where a group of people made an unethical and illegal decision. One member of the group was present but not an active participant. He felt that since he was not directly involved in making the decision, he didn’t sign anything, there was nothing with his name on it etc, that he would not have any legal responsibility. This person ultimately lost his job because of an ethics violation. He actively did nothing wrong. All of the actual crimes were committed by other parties. However since he knew of the activities of the others and failed to report it his inaction became an unethical action.

With this in mind I have been more vigilant than I have in the past by refusing to simply remain silent. When conversations with friends and coworkers start to approach a moral or ethical “line in the sand” I feel duty bound to let them know which side of that line I am on and that they have reached a point beyond which I can no longer follow. Typically these comments are things like, “ya’ll are on your own with that.” or “let’s not go there.” One time the situation got so bad that I even had to pull the nuclear option and say, “I want nothing to do with this decision. I’m hanging up now and I will report this conversation to my superiors and the ethics office.” This particular issue was the most serious of the situations, It involved the safety of technicians, but in all of them I feel that without my input things could have gone entirely the wrong direction.
These examples are more serious business ethical issues and I have no reservations about how I handled them. The tricky part comes with what could be considered by some to be less important situations. What about the following? You find out that a $.10 candy machine is malfunctioning and giving free runts and people are taking advantage of it. Telling jokes with friends and the jokes start heading toward the racial and culturally bigoted types. You’re a passenger in a car and the driver is going 75 mph in 65 mph zone. What do you? If something gets out of control on any of these it’s easy to armchair quarterback and say, “Yeah I wish I’d have told him to slow down a little”, but how do you identify that point before hand. And how do you respond proportionally to the offense? These seem to be the cases where I’m struggling the most.
I have noticed that I tend to be more vocal and stand up for my beliefs when my children are involved than when they aren’t. I think the logic here is that, at least in some of the situations, I‘m not trying to change the minds of any of the active participants in the conversation, but I just don’t want my kids to think that by not speaking up that I somehow agree with what is being said. Even in these situations I feel like I might be responding a little stronger than I need to in order to get the same effect.

So that’s the crux of my dilemma. How do I balance the power of silence with the ethical need to say something to distance myself from the behavior?

"In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. "
Martin Luther King Jr.

"Oppression can only survive through silence."
Carmen de Monteflores

"The cruelest lies are often told in silence."
Robert Louis Stevenson

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Year of Living Biblically

I must confess that when I checked this book out I thought it was going to be a sac religious stick in the eye to religious fundamentalist and biblical literalists. I was expecting it to be filled with examples of how absurd and even self-contradictory many if the rules in the Bible actually are. I was expecting him to have to figure out how to stone people, tie tassels on all the corners of his clothes, grow a beard and keep kosher. So far he has obeyed all of these weird Biblical laws and a few other odd ones to boot.

What I didn't expect is the humble admission that so far the hardest commandments for him to keep are the simplest ones to explain and ultimately the ones that will do us and those around us the most good. He's having the hardest time with telling the truth, not coveting and loving his fellow man. How often do we loose sight of the details and the minutia of our beliefs and forget the really important stuff?
So far I'm only three months into the experiment and I had to turn the book in. I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of it.


It occurred to me that I never got around to finishing my review of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

I finished reading this last week and I really enjoyed it. The crux of this book was simply that we need to learn to recognize the self-justifications that we make to try to convince ourselves that the mistakes that we made were not actually mistakes. They go out of the way to not criticize the mistakes themselves. Alone and unjustified a mistake is easily corrected. However, once we start down the path of self justification we tend to make even more mistakes and they in turn create their own self justification.

A friend of mine told me that he actually cited the authors work on his PhD dissertation in economics. A lot of bad economic decisions are made simply because people feel the need to justify the decision once they have invested so much into them. We tend to justify our purchases and speak more favorably once we have committed to them. I know people that have a really hard time saying anything negative about a movie that they’ve just spent $10 and 2 hours watching. The investment in the movie causes them to justify their actions. (Incidentally, I don’t suffer from this particular form of self-justification. I can give you a long list of movies that I not only wish I could get my money back but, I’d like that two hours of my life back and I’d like to have the memory of the movie purged from my neurons. The Star Wars prequels lead this list.)

In the above case he was referring to a monetary or time investment. Sometimes the investment could be much more serious and respectively the self-justification is proportionally higher. High on this list is abusive marriages that stay together because of the kids. What about the current situation in Iraq? Here is a case where the US has spent close to a trillion dollars and cost the lives more American soldiers than the total number of people killed on September 11th. It’s very easy to recognize the self-justification machine at work in our Commander-in-Chief.

Towards the end of the book the authors describe a therapy session they conducted at a management retreat. The participants went around the circle and each was required to tell the biggest mistake that they had made. The only caveat was that they couldn’t say anything at all to justify the mistake. Any kind of face-saving remarks were completely forbidden. It was awkward at first but eventually everybody got the hang of it. After a while they were having so much fun that neighboring classes were coming in to join the fray. I tried this today on a smaller scale at work with a few friends. We had a very similar experience. Gone was the defensiveness and the justification. “This is what I did and wow it was a whopper!” We found that once you take ownership of the mistakes that everything else becomes easier. It’s easier to correct any damage. It’s easier to repair any trust that was lost. And it’s easier to stop the chain of self-justification that inevitable leads to even more mistakes.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Perhaps it is just my own lack of linguistics skill however, I’ve found that there are times when the English language falls short in its descriptive ability and new words are required. Last week a coworker was trying to describe the extreme level of micromanagement that our new parent company was putting on us. Since the increase seemed to be exponentially greater than previous “micro”management they coined a new word for it.
Nanomanagement: The process of upper management micromanaging the micromanaged details that middle managers pass on to lower management. (micro)2=nano

Along these lines, lately I’ve felt the need for another neologism. Overwhelmed just does seem to cut the mustard when it comes to my life lately. Let’s start with work. In the past month three of the best engineers in my group have left, two of them promoted within the company and one outside. We’ve hired two new folks to replace them. Since they have little to no experience the extra work load from the three who left is falling primarily on the experienced folks who are still around. Also, the two new guys need to be trained. This is falling to; you guessed it, the experienced guys who are still around. This week the only other experienced guy whose been sharing the load is out on vacation. So today I am quite literally handling the work that two months ago five engineers were doing. Oh yeah that reminds me, my supervisor is taking the next two days off. So today and tomorrow I have to do a few tasks of his while he’s away. And oh yeah I almost forgot, I am also on a special project team to help build our facilities so that they will handle HD video service. So I just kind of giggle when people pop into my cube and ask, “Are you busy?”
Outside of work I am a Boy Scout scoutmaster. I have a great team of assistants and committee members that help ease the load but it still takes a chunk out of my week. I’m also on our church young men’s presidency. Alone this isn’t too stressful but it just becomes one of the many straws.
We’re getting ready for a family Christmas party this weekend. We decided to finish a couple of the rooms that we never got around to from last year’s remodeling project. So my evening and weekends have been loaded with hardwood flooring, painting and crown molding. Victoria and I spent our anniversary weekend together alone at the house, painting, laying flooring and putting up crown molding.
In today’s “No child left behind” world even my 7 year old comes home with two or three hours of homework. Victoria and I end up having to help one or all of them with homework up until 9:00pm or sometimes even later than that.
Overwhelmed? Overwhelmed implies a position above whelmed. Not sure what whelmed actually means but if is a state of normal expectations then I’m definitely well above it. I could cut my work load in half and still classify as overwhelmed. Here comes my new word for the English language. Hyperwhelmed. If active, overactive and hyperactive are the accepted convention for these words then let’s apply the same logic to whelmed.
I apologize to my few regular readers for not posting a blog more frequently than I have lately. I’ve just been hyperwhelmed with the details of life. I’m typing this up on my Blackberry as I wait for a contractor to show up at a job site where a large cable has been cut.
“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
-John Lennon-

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Moral Law

I’ve been giving this post an awful lot of thought lately. It was when my socially conscious 13-year old brought it up that I finally decided it was time to write it down.

For millennia philosophers and theologians have debated that nature of good and evil. Some argue that good is simply that which god desires. Basically because God likes it, it is good and because God dislikes it, it is evil. This is called the divine command theory.
Others ask questions like “Why does God like it?” and “Is there something about this that makes God like it?” the answers to these questions imply that there is something more than just the divine command. I tend to agree with this philosophy. Whether something is good or evil stands on its own. God’s opinion is not necessary to define good or evil. I believe that the converse is true. Good and evil are necessary in order to define God.

Along these lines Aaron was very concerned about some of the news reports he had seen the last couple of weeks. It seems that many people try to require belief in god as a necessity to being a good person-that somehow morality itself cannot exist without a belief in God. It’s easy to see how believing in a direct correlation between moral behavior and a belief in God can cause more than a little consternation. This is the dilemma that Aaron was having. The federal government has just cracked down on several “Christian” ministers around the country for their misuse of funds that we supposed to go to charities and to help the poor. All too often these ministers were using the cash to buy more elaborate homes, cars and planes. If morality and belief are codependant then why does this happen?
On the other hand why do so many atheists have such good hearts and behave so morally and “Christian” to their neighbors? I don’t think Angelina Jolie is very good actress, but I can’t help but admire how she spends her money. When others would just focus on themselves she is making a difference in the lives of children. Yesterday I read that she and Brad have committed to build 150 homes in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans to help rebuild the city. Now I put the question to you in the words of James.

"If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?"

I realize that there are millions of believes who behave morally and unfortunately millions of non-believers who behave immorally or amorally. I only focused on the above examples because they tend to disprove the rule that God is a requirement for moral behavior.
I enjoy the works of C. S. Lewis, but I take issue with Lewis’s constant insistence that the existence of morality proves a higher power that created that morality. Some scientist have even taken the quantum leap and claimed that the existence of morality is all the scientific proof needed to prove that God exists. I believe that morality exists separate from a belief in God. The examples that I’ve given illustrate that one does not necessitate the other.
Perhaps this belief is why I am so comfortable with learning the doctrines of other religions and philosophies. Lately I’ve read several books with serious atheistic themes. I’m much more concerned that I teach my family to live morally than religiously. As long as I can make the two go hand in hand I will continue to do so. I’ve never been in a position where I’ve never had to choose one over the other and I hope I never have to. However, from the real life examples that I have seen, I’d much rather keep company with moral people no matter what their religious beliefs.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


English needs a non-gender specific pronoun for people. I had to take an online training course today at work. Before I could get started I had to read the following disclaimer:
"Throughout these materials personal pronouns are used to refer to trainees, instructors and any other individuals. This was done to improve readability and is in no way intended to discriminate against persons of either gender. Nothing in this material should be construed to indicate any discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, age, national origin, disability, marital status, disabled or Vietnam Era Veteran status, or sexual orientation."

I understand the need to make this statement but much of it could be avoided if English just found another word to substitute for the awkward he/she or his/her. In some situations using the word they or their is appropriate but these are plural words and are incorrect when the antecedent is singular.
Other languages have solved this problem. Japanese uses the title suffix "-san" to mean Mr/Ms/Mrs. It basically translates to "person to whom I wish to show respect." It's not gender specific and it works just great. People pronouns like kare (he/she), kareno (his/hers) are also not gender specific. They don't even have gender specific alternatives to -san, kare and kareno. I'm not suggesting that English take that step. There are many times when the gender specific nature can add clarity to a conversation. I just think that it's about time we made the language a little less male dominated.

Disclaimer: In the previous post I used the following phrases with the masculine first and the feminine second. Mr/Ms/Mrs, He/She, His/Her. This was intentional. I did not wish to imply any sexism by this. I was simply using the modern politically correct convention. I only post this disclaimer to further illustrate that the conventions, Mr/Ms/Mrs, He/She, His/Her still do not avoid the inherent bias toward the masculine. It's time we came up with something else.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


I don't get football.
First of all, as a kid I was never big enough to get picked anywhere before the last draw. And when I did get picked I was never given a position of great importance so I never had to learn the rules. It just seemed to me like an organized way to bully smaller kids with the sanction if the administration.
I never quite got the hang of all the rules. I mean I know the very basics but that's it. I can't follow the action on the screen when I try to watch a game with friends.
I do know some of the rules:
The players are divided into a bunch of various positions of (fraction)-backs. The greater your fraction the larger you are and the less you actually get to touch the ball. Fullbacks are the biggest guys out there but they rarely get to touch the ball. The quarterback is one of the smallest players and he touches the ball every single play.
They also have a position called the kicker. Ironically, for a sport that is called football this seems to be the only player who actually gets to touch the ball with his foot.
The basic idea, as I understand it, is that your team gets 4 chances to move the ball a specified distance. If they succeed they get 4 more chances to move it an additional distance. If they fail the ball is given over to the other team. If they make it to the other side they get 6 points and then the kicker can help them get an additional point.
I know that there are times when they can kick the ball from various parts of the field to get 3 point, but I have no idea what the rules are surrounding this.
There is also something called a safety that gets 2 points. I have no idea what that is or how you earn it.
There are all sorts of penalties and things that the referees can penalize a team with but, again, I don't know what any of them are or how they are assigned. They are times when flags are thrown in the air. I have no idea what this means. Taken in context I don't think flags are good things.
Friends of mine will try to talk football with me and I honestly think they don't believe me because they keep on talking about it as if I understand. Last week a friend asked if I had head the news a specific player but didn't identify him as a football player. "Hey did you hear about so-and-so?" I thought he was asking about a coworker. He then began to belittle me when I told him that I didn't even know who so-and-so was, let alone had I heard the latest news. For that few seconds I was back on the elementary school playground being picked last again.
I really don't have any beef with football as a sport. I might even enjoy watching it with some friends as long as they could accept the fact that I really don't understand it. The few times friend have attempted to explain it to me they've quickly grown frustrated by just how little I know and given up.
So in the future if any of my readers wants to talk about football, be advised that you will have to give a lot more background detail in order for me to understand what you’re saying. As long as you're cool with that I'll do my best to follow along.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

Frequently I'll hear a book review on NPR or I'll hear somebody reference a good book so I'll just go to library website and request the book. Sometimes in the process of reading one book my interest will be sparked in another. I just wait until the library sends me the email that the book is ready and I go pick it up off of the hold shelf. In this process I frequently forget how I found out about the book in the first place. Such is the case with my current book. Due to the similar themes, if I had to guess I'd suspect it was referenced in The Lucifer Effect.
Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) details the process that we all take to distance ourselves from our mistakes. Like The Lucifer Effect it is an eye opening book. I'm about half way through and I've been really impressed with it so far. The book doesn't criticize people for being human. In fact most of the analysis in the book starts after the mistake has been made. If we own up to and speak about it in the active voice we are on our way to starting to correct the problem.
One part that I thought was very eye opening was an FMRI study on the brain activity of people as they were told different pieces of information that agreed with and some that went contrary to what the subject already believed. As long as the statements being read to the subject supported their existing beliefs their brain activity showed normal activity in the logical areas and the emotional areas of the brain. When they are read a statement that is dissonant to their beliefs the logic areas shut down and their emotional areas spike. In a very real sense they have shown that the fight or flight reflex by its very nature is illogical and based on emotion. Once they are again told statements that they agree with the logic area begins to function normally again. I've witnessed this personally on many occasions. When I've pointed out someone else's inconsistency they have lit into me with a strong emotional tirade.
Just as with Zimbardo's book, so far this book has shown me the value of being intellectually honest and consistent in you opinions. For me this has not been much of a problem. I've never felt the need to follow the herd. I'm perfectly fine with being the only one who believes quite the same as I do. I can see how someone who proudly touts their political affiliation would have a hard time making internal peace with decisions made by they candidate that went contrary to their personal philosophy.
One story that they tell about overcoming this cognitive dissonance came from conservative columnist William Saphire. I normally haven't been too impressed with Saphire's opinions. However, in this story Saphire takes the moral high ground in order to avoid his internal dissonance. Such actions should be admired. They are very rare, especially in politics. Saphire was a very vocal opponent of the Clintons and he was extremely critical of Hillary violating the law and refusing to turn over the Rose law firm's billing records. Saphire criticized her distain for "the rule of law" on many occasions. So several years later when Dick Cheney was being evasive about his energy policy records Saphire had a dilemma. He could support his man or bite the bullet and do the intellectually honest approach and criticize Cheney for the same reason he criticized Hillary. Such standing on principle is very rare in the political arena.
The thing that I enjoy most about these types of books is that they give real, practical advice as to how to avoid the behavior that they describe. Actually putting it into practice is, of course, much harder. I'm looking forward to reading the rest.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"The Lone Dissenter"

Well at least that's what the AJC is calling me.

First I owe a debt of gratitude to the many friends and family members who provided moral support and advice in the days leading up to this meeting.
Thank you Snowflake for proof-reading my notes and helping me remove the LDS specific references that would have been confusing to a non-LDS audience.
Most importantly, thank you Victoria for talking me into going in the first place and then attending with me. Because of you I never really felt like a "lone dissenter". The more nervous I became the more convinced I became that this was the right thing to do.

Here are few links to news clips and articles about the Library board meeting.

Atlanta Journal and Constitution

CBS 46 video

Gwinnett Daily Post

And here are my notes from my presentation:

I’d like to start by thanking the Library Board for this opportunity to speak.

Thank you.

In response to the fervor around this issue I asked the board for a chance to publicly state that I agree with the current policy on internet use at the public libraries

I realize that there are many people in attendance today who will not understand my position. I hope that I will be able to convince you that I agree with the moral values you are trying to teach. I simply disagree with your strategy and ultimately whose job it is to teach them.

I have been a patron of the Gwinnett County library system for over 30 years. I have many memories of riding my bike to visit the library when it was in the basement suite at the intersection of Five-forks and Rockbridge. Now, my family of six uses your library system pretty much daily. I am also a Boy Scout scoutmaster over a small troop that meets at a church that is less than one mile from a library branch. I serve in a leadership position over the youth at the same church. I personally find pornography repugnant and degrading to both men and women. I have a real vested interest in the morality of our society and am working hard to teach all those in my charge the value of making correct choices.

With these credentials you may find it surprising that I support the current internet use policy. The truth is I get very scared when any one group tries to decide what is moral and correct for somebody else.
I respect your use of internet filters that would prohibit illegal images to be displayed. However, the stated goal of my opposition today is to restrict the legal access by adults to images that they find objectionable.

This is where I draw the line. When it comes to legal websites that may simply contain material that may be objectionable to someone else, I could give you a long list of images that I personally find to be objectionable but I do not expect the library to restrict access to this legal information simply because I object to it.

On the other hand in the past year I have read many books and accessed websites about the evils of polygamy. I have recently read a book which details the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. I like to read information on both sides of an issue before I form an opinion. As such I have even accessed material that is very critical of mainstream Christianity. I am sure much of this material would be very objectionable and possibly even considered pornographic to someone who was just looking over my shoulder while walking around the library.

If taken out of context by a passerby I can think of many situations that could be described as vulgar or pornographic but taken in context are far from it.

A medical student viewing an anatomy website.

A criminal justice student looking at crime scene photos.

A nervous mother-to-be viewing images of child-birth.

A teenager viewing a video about how to protect herself from date-rape.

A mother looking for more information about a surgery that her child is about to undergo.

A woman afraid she might have breast cancer viewing a site with details on how to give a self examination.

My church preaches modesty in dress and as such we discourage two piece bathing suits and any outfit that shows any part of a woman’s torso. As such will any image that includes a belly button be filtered?

The Amish, Mennonites and some other Christian denominations take this morality a little bit further and find exposed human skin on the arms and legs to be offensive and immoral. Are we going to protect our Amish library visitors from being offended?

Some cultures require even more covering for their women that the Amish. Some find any visible female skin to be offensive. I have sat next to library patrons several times who were wearing full burkas. Should we filter based on their morality?

The dilemma here is that if we allow legal images to be restricted based on morality, then whose morality do we use? There is no way that the library can be expected to shield other patrons from accidentally viewing material that anybody may find objectionable.

My family already has filters in place to protect our children. Those filters are my wife and myself. We have educated our children as to what behavior is acceptable and what books and websites we will not allow to be viewed. They know that if someone else is involved in behavior that we find immoral that they are to walk away and not participate. The images that I described above are already available in countless books in the library system and every single day, during warm weather, my son has to walk into the library and see girls that he believes are immodestly dressed.

The library system is not a baby-sitting service and the librarians are not our children’s nannies. Get involved in their lives. Attend the library yourself. Help them select the books and websites that they choose to read. If they are old enough to leave them unattended show up early to pick them up periodically and see what they have been doing. In short, let’s do our job as parents. Let’s not surrender our parental responsibility to a software package, the librarians and the county government.

This is where I ran out of time but I felt it was just a good a way to end as any so I simply said thank you and sat down.

These are the few paragraphs that I had to leave out:

Just this week my wife and I found out that a popular, award winning children’s book had themes that we disagree with. We will not allow our children to read that material and we have educated them as to why so in the future they will be able to make that decision for themselves. As offensive as this particular book is I am sure that there is not a single software package out there that could make this decision for us. No filtering software can protect my family from immorality. That’s why I am acting as that filter and I am teaching my children to filter themselves based on our own morality and not someone else’s arbitrarily assigned values.

Please continue to allow me to be in control of what I decide to view while using library resources. Our country’s founders would be proud that you have chosen to stand up for the first amendment and refuse to censor this media.

I believe that our freedom of choice is a sacred trust that was given to me by my God. I honor Him by choosing as He would wish, not by restricting the ability of others to choose good over evil.

Thank you.

My only fear during this whole process was that in standing up for freedom of choice and parental responsibility that people would think that I was advocating pornography.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Nonsense Intollerance

As you’ve probably noticed I don’t have much tolerance when people take superstition and try to masquerade it as science. I read a lot of science and skepticism books, websites and blogs on a daily basis. I subscribe to many email newsletters from science organizations and I also listen to a several blogs a week on different aspects of science, religion and philosophy. Science, religion and even mythology all have useful places in our culture, but I find it very sad that so many people are so negative about science.
On a very personal note: I strive to stay up to date on the latest news, information and potential breakthroughs in the study of Autism. My brother-in-law has autism. Even before Victoria and I were married I have accepted the fact that at some point in my life I would likely be Denny’s primary care-giver. With this in mind I get a serious bee in my bonnet when I hear some of the superstition and nonsense get gets throw around as helpful advice for dealing with autism.
Recently Jenny McCarthy has been promoting here new book about her life since she found out her son was autistic. For years a preservative called thimerosal was used in vaccines. Some believe that this preservative causes autism because it contains mercury. No proof of this has every been found. McCarthy claims to have witnessed her son transform from normal to autistic right in front of her eyes after he was given a vaccine. The real kicker here is that there wasn’t even any thimerosal in the vaccine he received. She also likes to tout the fact that she trusts her “mommy instinct” more than she does the scientist and doctors. Let’s see, on one side we have thousands of doctors and scientist who have been objectively studying this issue and on the other side we have a Playboy centerfold and her mommy instinct. Hmm… I have nothing but sympathy for what McCarthy must be going though. I applaud her efforts to use her celebrity to bring this issue into sharper focus for parents and family members who are dealing with this disease. Her cart just seems to have derailed from reality and she is now using emotion to justify and add legitimacy to her unfounded superstitions.
Even big named famous doctors are not immune to falling victim to nonsense. Last week CNN medical stud Sanjay Gupta posted a blog about FC, facilitated communication. This is an old practice where a helped will support and autistic person’s hand and “stabilize” his/her jerky motions and allow him/her to type a message on a keyboard. At first this looked like an astounding breakthrough in communication. That is until tests revealed that the IQ of the autistic person with a “facilitator” was remarkably similar to the IQ of the facilitator. Whether deliberately or unintentionally the facilitator is just moving the hand as a pointer just like the old Parker Brother’s Ouija board pointer. In tests of this nonsense they would blindfold all of the participants and suddenly the ability of the “spirit” to locate the letters completely disappeared. I suspect that if a similar, double blind-controlled test were ever to be performed on FC that the results would be strangely similar.
Its not a matter of being closed minded to new ideas. Quite the contrary, I just believe that the more extreme the claim then the more extreme the evidence required to prove it. If FC ever tests successfully I would be the first to go over to Denny’s house to see what he had to say.
Having a facilitator just put on a blindfold seems like a very simple way to provide some measurable data about whether FC is based on the reality or fantasy.

Here’s the link to Sanjay Gupta’s blog.

This is Jenny Mccarthy’s book.


A few days after every caving trip I find that muscles I didn’t even know I had ache. I also find a bruise or two that I can’t even remember how it got there. Saturday’s trip to Petty John’s cave was no exception. For the last couple of years every time I’ve dropped into a cave it was in a guided situation where I was the guide and most everybody else it was their first time into a cave. And typically it’s a rather large group, ten or more. Last weekend was a significant departure from the norm. The group was relatively small. There were only six of us. Two of us had a great deal of experience in this cave. Aaron has also been in Petty John’s five or six times. Although he’s only thirteen, in the past I’ve used him to lead groups much older than him through the tight spots so I could “bring up the rear” with the folks who need more assistance. Two others had been in the cave with me before and took to it very well. We only had one complete novice and he did amazingly well for his first time.
With such a motivated group we were able to descend all the way down to the waterfall in what they refer to as the lower stream passages in record time. This was no small feat and I’m very proud of all who came along. We were able to go into some places on this planet that relatively few people will every see.
Every time I take a group of people climbing or caving all I ask is that they do their best. I don’t care what your ability may be I just want you to push yourself right up to that limit and keep trying. I get much more frustrated with people who quit too early and stop trying than I’ve every been with folks who just kept on trying no matter what level that took them. This group did very well. There was a great deal of the reaching down to provide a hand hold for the next guy and even a few situations when we would literally stand on each others shoulders in order to help each other get to the next level spot. I find this type of teamwork to be spiritually fulfilling no matter which side I’m on. Whether it’s my shoulder being stepped on or I’m the one doing the stepping. When I find myself in the position of the step I reflect up the examples of those that have taught me in the past. Considering the many great leaders that I’ve had in my life it is very humbling for me to fell the weight of others no relying on me for their progress. I doubt I am worth of this respect and it causes me to be very introspective as to whether or not I desire the trust that they have given me.
I have no delusions that I’ll discover any new passages or make any amazing breakthroughs in speleology. However, I doubt that I will ever stop caving. The metaphors that become literal in this situation are far to powerful for me to avoid.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Why Darwin Matters

Why Darwin Matters is the latest book by Michael Shermer. I've read and reviewed many of Dr. Shermer's books before on this blog. The main focus of this book is to explain and detail the current attacks on science that originate from the Intelligent Design community. Shermer does an excellent job of explaining the history of both evolution theory and the intelligent design/ creationism movement.

Unfortunately I feel that the people who could benefit the most from this book, the ID proponents, are the least likely to actually read it. If anyone were to read this with an open mind I think they could see that Shermer successfully defuses the false dichotomy that an acceptance of evolution necessitates an atheist theology. I've never quite able to see how observations in the natural world could have any implications at all about things that are, by definition, outside the natural world. Personally I've always felt that trusting a theologian over a scientist to answer scientific questions is roughly akin to taking your social studies teacher's advice over you Science teacher when it comes to physics questions. Why do so many people have such a hard time making this distinction?
One minor frustration with the book is that Shermer seems to have written it as if this was the first time his target reader had even picked up any book on the issue. As such it is very well detailed and he does a good job of detailing evolution v intelligent design 101. As someone who has read all of Shermer's previous books and follows this debate pretty thoroughly, much of the material came across as a little bit remedial. However, if you are interested in getting a handle on this issue I think this book is very well done.
The most damning quote from the entire book came not from Dr. Shermer but from the judge in the Dover school board intelligent design case from 2005.

"Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

To be sure,
Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

The citizens of the
Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy."

John E. Jones III

Now before you try to dismiss this guy as another "activist judge", keep in mind that he is a self-confessed evangelical Christian, a Republican and was appointed to the bench in 2002 by George W. Bush.

If you have any doubt at all as to the illegitimacy of intelligent design as science please read this book.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Staying Open-minded

I worked in the outdoor retail industry for nine years. And I'm a self confessed "gear junky". I really like the latest high tech gear. Having to schedule and participate in vendor clinics for years really gave me the inside scoop on the technology of camping and climbing.
A few years ago I had a friend build an alcohol stove and he was really singing the praises of it. I told my friends in the industry about it and asked them why there were so few alcohol stoves on the market considering how light the finished stove turned out. They explained that the heat output was so low for alcohol that it just wasn't a feasibly option for more than just and overnight trip.
Recently I had another friend show me a simple alcohol stove that he uses. I have trusted this friend before so I opened up my mind and decided to give the fuel another shot.
I found a great site online that had several different models and complete instructions on how to build them with nothing more than 2 Pepsi cans and a little bit of epoxy. I spent most of Friday night and Saturday morning building and testing three slightly different models of one of the stoves. I experimented with different sized jets; different amounts of jets and different spacing, etc. The best model was able to boil 8oz of water in 6 minutes. The catch was it burned a lot of alcohol, about 2oz, in the process. The stove was exceptionally light; however the fuel efficiency would only make it practical on a very short trip. I own an MSR whisperlite that I've had for 20 years. I have hiked for 7 days and 84 miles even boiling my water to purify it and only used 12oz of white gas for the whole trip. If I'd have tried this with the alcohol stove it would have require close to a gallon of alcohol. Once the fuel weight is taken into account this stove may actually turn out to be quite a bit heavier than my whisperlite.
One of the driving forces behind my experiment is that my scout troop is planning a 50-mile hike for April. I wanted to give the scouts a practical inexpensive alternative to high priced commercial stoves. During one of my tests today I found that I couldn't tell if the stove was still burning or not. I had to look at the distortions of the sunlight in the shadow of the stove to see if there was heat rising from the stove. Alcohol burns almost invisible in the daylight. Last night I could see the flame just fine, but in the daylight I was almost impossible. That was the nail in the coffin for me. There is no way I am going to encourage our scouts to make fires with a fuel that they won't even be burning. It's just too much of a safety concern. The photo above shows the stove while it is burning.
At any case I'm glad I gave it a good attempt. And realistically my only investment in the experiment was a can of denatured alcohol and a bunch of cans from the recycle bin.
Incidentally, if anybody else would like to try to build one of these I found that by using Dr. Pepper cans for my upper and Dr. Brown's cream soda cans for the lower that there was no need at all to dilate the lower can. It was a snug fit without all of the trouble of having to try to flare out the can.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Freedom of Expression

"But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

John Stuart Mill

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Lie Detectors?

I’ve always been very curious about the concept of lie detectors. One Christmas when I was in my early teens I got a Radio Shack 150 in one electronics kit. It was a big board about 11”x17” that had all sorts of electronic pieces mounted to it. Next to each piece there were two springs. Also included in the kit was a big mess of wires and a book with 150 schematics. The idea was you looked at the schematics and placed you wires in the little springs and you could build what ever you liked. The most complicated project in the whole book was a “Lie Detector”. I bypassed all of the other schematics and went straight for the big one. After about a day of insert tab a into slot b and so on I finally had it complete.
The input from this device was two bare wires taped to my forearm about an inch apart. The output was a simple analog meter set to measure the skin resistance. It operated on the premise that people sweat more when they lie. The wires measured this galvanic skin response and the meter showed you the results. I was very disillusioned with this device. I tried it on many members of my family and was only to get and ever so slight change in the needle. I had grand visions of strapping it on my brothers and asking them, “Now were did you hide my legos?” and getting instant confessions, just like Wonder Woman’s golden lasso.
Later on I realized the “real” lie detectors measure several different things that are believed to be associated with lying; heart rate, blood pressure, respiration etc. These many measurements make up the modern polygraph test.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that the polygraph was better described as a nervousness detector than a lie detector. If somebody could control all of these factors then they could “pass” a polygraph test even though they many be lying. On the other hand if a certain subject provokes a nervous response then the subject could fail the test. What would happen if a person who was a victim of child molestation years earlier were accused of committing child molestation? I dare say that the question alone may cause enough nervousness and stress to fail the test.
Later on in life I learned that in some states it is ground for a mistrial if the phrase “lie detector” is ever used in a trial. Many states are realizing that it does no such thing.
This week on NPR they have been running a three part series on detecting lies. I found it very eye opening that in the final episode they referred the research of Dr. Paul Ekman who I have blogged about several times in the past. I doubt that a device that accurately detects lies will ever truly be developed. In fact I've come to realize that this device is not modern at all an it is more closely related to folk magic like dowsing and palm reading than it is to any real science.
So in the future if I ever decline to take a polygraph test please know that it is not because I know that machine works and I am afraid of having the truth revealed. It is because I know that the device is little more than witchcraft and I don't trust the results at all.

If you are interested in learning more about the controversy around the “polygraph test” check out the following links.
NPR Episode 1 Episode 2 Episode 3

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Natural Man

For about the last six years I've had a hard time concentrating in Sunday School. I pretty sure most of this started right about the time I really began to delve into the history of the church and the obvious whitewashing of many facts and events. I think that up until that time I was very guilty of falling victim to the argument from authority. Basically, I went about things incorrectly. Rather than examine the facts and then make my own conclusions I accepted what I was told as facts and then looked for evidence that supported those facts. Once I started looking at theology and life in the correct order I began to question most if not all of the assumptions that I previously had held to.
Yesterday in Sunday School was no exception. We were studying Ephesians and somehow we got on the subject of putting off the natural man. Most of the other students just accepted this premise and moved on, but for some reason I got stuck on it and couldn't concentrate on the rest of the lesson. What bothered me was the premise that man is naturally evil. I don't recall that as a tenant of LDS doctrine. In fact we take it further than most and even reject the idea of original sin. Philosophers have debated the idea for millennia. Is man naturally good but easily tempted to do evil? Or is man naturally evil and needs the fear of punishment to turn him good? I don't know what the answer is. And it is likely different for each person. However, I think that since the instructor didn't elaborate any more on this scripture that she believes that we are naturally evil. Personally I don't take this pessimistic approach to humanity. I believe that if left to their own devices they will choose good over evil more often than the opposite. Ironically, after reading the Lucifer Effect I am even more convinced of the inherent goodness of humanity. It is only when we surrender our choices to a perceived authority and act as a mob that we become evil.
Years ago in a business setting a supervisor told me that you could separate all employees into two groups: those that are motivated towards a good result, and those that are motivated away from a bad result. Although it may sound the same, since they are both going the same direction, in practice they are very different. One is a pessimistic approach and the other is optimistic. The first group will respond to a statement like, "Good job, this is top quality work." But the second wouldn't but be just as motivated by "be careful. You don't what this think to blow up."
Although I can see elements of both in myself, in my heart I just cannot accept that humanity is naturally evil. If we are actually the offspring of deity I find it much harder to believe that we are naturally evil. It's much easier for me to accept that we are naturally good but just stuck in a tough situation to see how we will choose.
It saddens me to think that so many people have such a dim and pessimistic view of humanity in general and themselves in particular.
I avoid expressing these points in class simply because I have my own doubts about how relevant they are to the topic at hand and in many cases I admit that they are at best a tangent to the main lesson. But it does provide me with something to ponder about and post to my blog. :)

Friday, October 26, 2007


People frequently ask Victoria and me how we met. So for those of you who haven't heard the story, the following is a selection from my personal history that I started writing in 2000.

"Whenever people ask us how we met our standard response is for Victoria to look over at me and pause... Then I say something to the effect of “She has had a crush on me since she was 9 and she finally caught me.” Which is true but that sounds a little too one sided.

Victoria, her mother and step-father joined the church in 1979. Jim was called to work with the Cub Scouts in the Ward and I was assigned as the Den Chief over that Den. Den meetings were at Jim’s house. I was only 12 years old at the time and I was very interested in Jim’s HO gauge train set. It took up an entire room. Jim soon began to trust me enough to babysit Victoria’s older brother Denny. Denny was older than me and bigger than me, But he was Autistic. My instructions as a sitter were to “Stay away from my daughter and if Denny has a fit let him beat on you while Victoria calls for help.” Jim would frequently sign my checks as Combat Pay. I can’t remember ever even seeing Denny and after a while I told Jim to stop paying me just to come over to his house and play with his trains.

The first couple times I “Denny-sat” I didn’t even know that Victoria was home. She usually stayed in her room. After a while she started hanging out with me. I think it started shortly after a ceiling fan was pulled down, Maybe she felt like she had to baby-sit me. ( I’ll let her tell you the ceiling fan story. It’s rather embarrassing and she’ll be much more colorful than I would be.) Well anyway, soon Victoria and I would talk, play monopoly, and fight over the remote control. We became good friends. I was rather naive at the time and had no idea that she had a crush on me.

When we were both old enough to go to the church dances Victoria and I used to dance together a lot. Everyone else that I hung out with saw the dances as places to get phone numbers for future dates. Victoria went to dances to dance. I know it sounds like a novel idea but she actually danced at dances. She danced to every single song until the dance was over. She was a lot of fun. If a fun song came on I could always count on her dancing with me.

A friend of my dad’s gave me some tickets to go see the Atlanta Theater do Great Expectations. I wasn’t really into the dating scene yet and I was nervous about calling anyone. My parents were insistent that I go out on a date. I called one girl and was rejected immediately. My parents suggested another girl, they looked up her number, and her parents said no. My very first date was starting off in the worst possible way. I then tried to talk my folks into using the tickets instead of me. My mom’s response was to try to set me up with yet another girl. I decided to call Victoria. After I called and asked her she stepped away from the phone and I could hear her talking with her mother. I was sure that she was going to come back and reject me again. When she came back and said “sure” I felt even worse than if she had said no. Now I actually had to go on this date. I don’t remember if I even said anything to her at all that night. I was so afraid that I was going to do something wrong. I don’t think we went out to eat. I don’t think I held the door for her. I don’t think I walked her to the door when it was over. My parents had never taught me how to date, so I did everything wrong. That is probably why to this day Victoria claims that it was not a date it was just two friends going to a play. I wish I had known that it wasn’t a date at the time. I’d have probably been more relaxed and we’d have both had a better time.

After my mission Victoria was one of the first people to come and visit me. I was severely jet lagged but she stuck with me and told me everything that had happened in the last two years. She introduced my to all of her new friend that she had met at Young Adult dances. I was quickly accepted into her little clique.

A few months later I broke off a relationship with another girl when I realized that she was just not at all the girl I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I was feeling kinda bummed about life and Victoria called me to remind me that there was a dance that night. I went. She was teasing me because I was not exactly the life of the party. I told her to lay off ‘cuz I’d had a bad week. Victoria brought me out in the hall and we just talked. We walked around the building and I showed her the font that I was baptized in. She told me about her plans to go on a mission. How could I have been so blind? Every girl I had dated up to that point did not measure up. One was Jewish and not the least bit interested in converting, one was completely morally bankrupt, one was shallow, and the few others are not worth noting. Here she was right in front of me my whole life and I didn’t even see her until now. She’s beautiful, she has a twisted sense of humor, she loves camping and the outdoors, she wants to be married in the Temple, and now she’s being sensitive and compassionate. And best of all “she likes me”.

From that day on we spent every possible moment with each other. She’d drive to see me at work for just a 30 minute lunch. I’d come home from school and stop by to see her at 10:00 or later. Sometimes we’d fall asleep on the couch and I’d get up and go to work from her house. I can’t believe that either of our parents allowed that. One night in December we ditched out of a Young Adult activity and went to Stone Mountain at midnight. It was raining and the Park was closed so I talked her into climbing over the fence and climbing the mountain anyway. It was a full moon so there was plenty of light, but Victoria’s eyes are bad at night and the rock trail was slippery so she held my hand tight the whole way up and back down. Never before in my life had anyone trusted me as much as she had that night. After our little trespass we went to the Krispy Kreme and got donuts and hot chocolate. I don’t know when I got her home but it was well into the next morning.

I proposed to her a couple of months later in my apartment after I had cooked her a nice dinner. It wasn’t that fancy. In retrospect I wish that I had had the Blue Angels skywrite “Will You Marry Me?” over her house, but I was still rather akward and scared.

We just celebrated our Tenth Anniversary. We pawned the kids of to all of the Grandparents for a long weekend and we ran down to a cozy little Bed and Breakfast in Charleston. We signed up for a walking tour of the town but we were the only ones who showed up so we had a 4 hour private guided tour of all the homes in Charleston. Later on we took a ferry out to Fort Sumter. I will always have fond memories of this trip."

Our eighteenth anniversary is coming up soon. I'm trying to plan a little get-away for the two of us. Not a day goes past that I do not reflect on the joy that she has brought into my life. I need to do a better job of telling her and showing her how much I love her.

"There is no remedy for love but to love more."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Simple Monk

I left work a little early because I was expecting it to be a little bit of a frenzy downtown. As it turned out we didn’t need to be quite so fast but I’m glad we did. Aaron reviewed the history that he’d learned today in school. So I got to hear all about Egyptian history and theology on my train ride downtown.
We got to the park so early that we were able to get front row seats. I mean that literally. If we’d have sat any closer we’d have had to stand up to look over the barricade. The weather started out looking a bit gloomy but I think it helped to keep the crowds small and we could sure use the rain in Georgia so I didn’t complain.
Apparently the Dalai Lama likes jazz music. Along with some traditional Tibetan groups, he asked a really nice jazz trio to play before his speech, The Gary Motley trio.
During his speech I took a few notes on my blackberry. I was most struck with how universal most of the concepts he spoke about were. They seemed to apply to almost any religion. He even stated that these concepts where essential human concepts and they were more important than any specific theology. Here are a few of the notes I took:

We should all strive to see each other as brothers and sisters
I am nothing special. I am just a simple monk.
Identify destructive emotions and reduce them.
We are born with the seeds of compassion. We get it from our mothers. At birth we are entirely dependent upon the care of others. We need to remember this and help care for others. He learned more from his mother than he did from Buddhism.
World peace must come first from inner peace. It will then flow from us to those around us and eventually the world.
Give your children maximum affection. Of course I'm a monk so I'll leave that up to you to do.
Modern education alone is not adequate to develop warm-heartedness. I want to educate entire humanity the importance of love and compassion.
It is a mistake to try to relegate love and compassion to religion alone. We need to apply it in all aspects of our lives.
As much as you love God you must also love your fellow beings.
Compassion is the foundation of self-confidence. Self confidence reducers fear. Reduced fear brings peace of mind and health.
If you do this there's not much else for me to talk about.
First we need Inner disarmament. That will lead to outer disarmament. The concept of war is outdated. Destruction of enemy is destruction of yourself. Let's leave bloodshed in the last century. Make this, the 21st century, a century of dialog. Commit to a non-violent way. Work for the middle way even in world events. Not a compromise but a true win-win situation for all.

I must say that I really felt what Paul Ekman was speaking about. This man honestly felt every emotion and his countenance showed it. At one point during his introduction Dr. Martin Luther King’s name was mentioned. The Dalai Lama reached next to him and grabbed the arm of John Lewis. The look on his face was so honest and caring that you could see the true compassion that he had for both Dr. King and Mr. Lewis. It wasn’t some photo-op. It was real. I need to work much harder to develop this kind of love and compassion for those around me.
I found it more than a little ironic that as I listened to this man of peace I was sitting only a few feet from an act of violence. In 1996 Eric Rudolf set off a bomb at this park during the first night of the Atlanta Olympics.
The only real damper on the event was as we were leaving. A couple women were handing Christian witness cards. (I use the term Christian only to indicate their confessed belief and not their behavior, which was anything but.) I took the card and started to read it. It had a gory image of a mangled body and car after a traffic accident. The text said that if I got into a car accident and died on the way home that I would go to hell. Then there was a paragraph written in much smaller type that I didn’t bother to read. I simply crumbled the card and placed it in the garbage can near the two women. It really saddens me that these two could listen to this man speak the same truths that the Bible teaches and still think the way they do. I could find Biblical support for nearly every sentence that he said yet since they seem to feel that since he is a Buddhist that he is from the devil.
I had heard that security was going to be very strict. They advertised no backpack or even umbrellas. I was worried that they would confiscate it so I left the camera at home. Ultimately his words will mean more to me than his image. Still, It would have been nice to have the images too.
I continue to admire and look up to this humble man, who refers to himself as just a monk. His example and loving nature are best described as Christ-like.

The best part of the event was just hanging out with my social conscious 13-year-old for half a day. Thanks for going with me Aaron.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Dalai Lama

Buddhism has always been close to my heart. Even as a young boy I cherished the Buddhist values of living simply, reducing suffering in other beings and looking inward to find peace and harmony. On my mission in Japan I had a problem with asking devout Buddhists to reject their faith when so much of what they believed was good and true. Friends of mine have even called me the first Buddhist Mormon they’ve ever met. I take that as a compliment. I’ve always felt that the truth was completely independent of theology. Or to quote the bumper sticker, “God is too big to fit into just one religion”. Now there are a few times when I think that one religion or another may be a little off base, but rather than criticize those aspects I’ve found it more satisfying to celebrate when they get it right.
A few years ago while reading the Dalai Lama’s book, The Wisdom of Forgiveness, about halfway through they mentioned a meeting between His Holiness and Paul Ekman. Ekman is considered the world’s foremost expert on emotions and the human face. He's like a body language expert who focuses solely on the muscles of the face. He recently made the news for interpreting some of the Al Qaeda videos. Ekman commented that when the Dalai Lama felt any emotion that he felt it 100% and that based on his expressions he was the most honest and genuine person he had ever met. I have felt this same sense of humility and honesty in all of his books and when I read his lectures.
Friends and family members have quizzed me on whether or not I believe that he is really the reincarnation of Buddha and other such detailed questions. Personally I find those of secondary importance. Here is a man who has learned to love his fellow man. And I believe is doing everything in his power to foster and promote that love. I would be doing myself and those around me a disservice if I chose to ignore his teachings simply because they didn't come from Salt Lake.
Last week I mentioned that he was going to be in town and my oldest son asked if we could go see him. I was a little taken aback. I hadn’t realized that he had been paying so much attention when I shared my views with Victoria. Aaron’s wisdom and maturity on ethical an moral issues greatly out paces his years. I shouldn't have been surprised.
Monday I will be taking a day off to go downtown with Aaron to hear the Dalai Lama speak. He has been in town for a few days and I tried to get tickets to see some of his other, less festival-like, appearances. Sue actually got a few tickets for me only to find out that they were only valid with an Emory university ID. Thanks for the attempt. I really appreciate it. I realize that the pop culture aspect of the Dalai Lama will bring out large groups who don’t fully appreciate the lessons that this man can teach. Ideally, I would like this experience to turn out very similar to attending General Conference on the lawn at Temple Square. Realistically though, I’m expecting the atmosphere to be somewhere between that and a “Dead” show.

"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion."

-The Dalai Lama-


I just got back from a fun weekend at scout camp. Well not exactly. There were no boys at this scout camp. The Church has been encouraging all scout leaders to get as much training as possible. Woodbadge training is coming up in the spring. Last year they wouldn’t let me take Woodbadge because it had just been too long since I had taken the basic training classes. Never mind that I had actually served on training staffs several times, they still wanted me to re-take the basic training class. It was four Tuesday nights and then the weekend campout to apply what we had learned.
The patrol they put me in was really good. We all got along pretty good and all seemed genuinely excited about learning as much as possible to take back and apply to our troops.
The courses kept us moving constantly so I’m due for a good nap. I must confess that much of the reason I’m so tired has little to do with the planned activities but with what happened afterwards. A couple of my fellow trainees are rather accomplished guitar players. After the official activities ended they pulled out their guitars and we all stayed up far too late trying to remember lyrics so we could sing along.
After this weekend and the weeks before of being trained the official way to do things I’m even more convinced of the need to apply every possible principle into my troop. I think I’ll have a little bit of a struggle doing this but I’m up to the challenge. Without exception the greatest scouting experiences I’ve had have been when the boys were in charge and running their own program. I confess that I’ve been letting it get away from that in the last year. With the recent leadership changes and additions in the troop I feel like this is the right time to make sure that we are doing things right.
I’m looking forward to this spring so I can take Woodbadge. But for right now, its just good to be back home with my family.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Political Action

A few days ago I wrote a post about how my pro-freedom opinions frequently make me feel like an apologist for behavior that I do not agree with. That post was prompted by an email that was circulating to try to get our county library to censor and filter the material that can be viewed from library computers. I sent the following email to the library board to voice my opinions on the subject.

Dear Gwinnett County Library Board,

In response to the attached email I wanted to let you know that I agree with the current policy on internet use at the public libraries.

My family of six uses your library system pretty much daily. I am also a Boy Scout scoutmaster over a small troop that meets at a church that is less than one mile from a library branch. I serve in a leadership position at the same church. I personally find pornography repugnant and degrading to both men and women. I have a real vested interest in the morality of our society and am working hard to teach all those in my charge the value of making correct choices.

With these credentials you may find it surprising that I support your internet use policy. The truth is I get very scared when any one group tries to decide what is moral and correct for somebody else. Book burnings and restricting information access is historically one of the first steps toward tyranny. Karl Marx said that controlling the media was an essential early step to creating a communist state.

I respect your use of internet filters that would prohibit illegal images to be displayed. I draw the line when it comes to legal websites that may simply contain material that may be objectionable to someone else. I find most images of warfare to be objectionable but I do not expect the library to restrict access to this information simply because I object to it.

On the other hand in the past year I have read many books about the evils of polygamy. I have recently read a book which details the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. I have even borrowed books that are very critical of mainstream Christianity. I am sure much of this material would be very objectionable and even pornographic to someone who was just looking over my shoulder while walking around the library.

Please continue to allow me to be in control of what I decide to view while using library resources. Our founders would be proud that you have chosen to stand up for the first amendment and refuse to censor this media.

On a religious level, I believe that our free agency is a sacred trust that was given to us by God. We honor God by choosing as he would wish, not by restricting the ability of others to choose good over evil.

Thank you,
Michael Taylor

In response I received the following invitation:


Thank you for your comments and support.

Given our current board and their reactionary policy, they are already working with the county to change the policy to allow librarians to look over your shoulder. I suspect this policy will be changed at the November board meeting. I urge you and anyone else you know to come to the board meeting on November 12th at 6:00pm and voice your opinion. You may want to request to address the board by e-mail before hand to be sure you get a spot on the agenda. These spots are filling up fast with people that have the opposite views.

Brett Taylor
GCPL Board Member

I realize that there will be many people at this meeting who will not understand my position. I hope that I will be able to convince you that I agree with the moral values you are trying to teach, but just disagree with your strategy to teach them. I just feel too strongly about this issue to remain silent. As a Mormon, if I allow censorship based on a public opinion how long will it be before anything sympathetic to LDS causes is removed from the library?

Saturday, October 13, 2007


I just finished well earned shower.
After about 12 hours in the garage and driving back and forth to Lowes the old dripping water heater is out by the curb and the brand new one is in the spot that the old one vacated. It didn't go completely without a hitch but nothing beyond what I'd expected. The new heater is about 5' taller than the old one. There wasn't enough slack in the pipes to accommodate so I had to move the Hot water out, the cold water in and the gas connections up to make enough room. The first time we tried it it leaked all over the place. I suspect that the solder flux that I'd used just wasn't wicking it into the connections properly. So I took it all back apart and used a different flux. That seemed to solve the problem.
Well hopefully I won't have to do that again for another 15 or twenty years. But if the occasion arises I'm glad I now know how.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Water water everywhere...

Well it appears that the puddle inside our furnace/air conditioner is actually being caused by a small leak in the water heater. I looks as if my Saturday is going to be spent replacing a water heater. We've done a little bit of research found that a tankless water heater would cost close to $1000 not counting installation. If we just replace what we have it'll be around $400 without installation. Consumer reports that most houses save $40 to $50 a year on gas costs with a tankless water heater. That means that it'll be 12 to 15 years before the additional cost of a tankless heater is offset by the savings. So we'll probably just install a traditional water heater.
I've had good experiences and bad experiences with
tankless heaters. The good experiences were in Japan where the homes were designed specifically around tankless heaters. We had a heater directly over the kitchen sink and it was only about 10' of pipe from there through the wall to the shower. So we only had to let the water run for a few seconds before the hot stuff came out of the shower.
On the flip side of that a family member put a
tankless heater in a house that was previously designed around a traditional heater and it takes 5 to 10 minutes before even tepid water makes its way back to the shower. More than likely the water gets relatively hot at the source but just cools down too much on the long trip. In this situation, I'd be willing to bet that any savings from not having a tank are quickly lost in extra water costs while you're waiting for the water to get hot.
Two years ago I went down to Florida to help people in Orlando area put tarps on their roof after being barraged by three
hurricanes in a row. Since we were having to work around their solar water heating panels I took the time to ask the home owners about them. Being a hippy at heart the idea had always appealed to me. I was glad to have the chance to ask some first hand users what they thought about the technology. For the most part they all seemed to enjoy it. The biggest complaint they had was that is was too hot in the summer and just that it was hard to regulate.
All of these
experiences have me considering that the best option was probably a hybrid of all three solutions. You could have solar system that was used to preheat a storage tank. Then you could have an inline a.k.a. tankless heater after that. This would basically just be a regulator. When the water entering it was too cold it'd give it a little boost. Then after that you could have a very small reserve tank that would do nothing more than provide the first couple gallons of hot water so you didn't waste water waiting for the other systems to kick in. If I built something like this it'd probably be at least twice that cost of any one of the individual solutions. But it'd be fun. Truth be told it be the financial planner, Victoria, who decides what I have to build tomorrow and not the tinkerer experimenter, me.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Libertarian Dilema

As a libertarian I typical take the side of an argument that allows more freedom and liberty to those involved. Suppose somebody wants to restrict another person’s ability to, let's say, play soccer because they feel it is unsafe. They may have a valid point and can show loads of reports on broken ankles, head injuries and mangled fingers. Some would be tempted to allow legal restrictions to be put on playing soccer. But what if the activity is only harmful to those who are participating in it, as is the case with soccer? Do I as a non-soccer player have the right to tell others what they should or should not think is safe? I would say no. Whether I choose to play it or not I don't have a right to restrict other's freedom to participate.
The dilemma I have with taking this pro-liberty, pro-freedom stance is that all too frequently a libertarian may appear to be defending the decision of another rather than just their right to have that decision. If I think that kids should have the right to play soccer that does not mean that I would have chosen the same way.
Granted this soccer analogy is not quite to the point. Few have serious concerns about whether or not people should be allowed to play soccer. However, please keep this analogy in mind as I attempt to make my next point.
What if the choice goes against my personal morality? Should I be allowed to restrict someone else’s freedom in that case? Let's take smoking for instance. I can provide reams of evidence that shows how dangerous it is. But should I be allowed to restrict another’s right to hurt themselves? How about harder stuff like narcotics? If somebody wants to toke it up in their home and they don't drive while high why should I have the right to force my moral decisions on them? I don't believe that I do have that right.
I fear that because I take this position I end up alienating people on both sides of the issue. I don't condone the use of narcotics but I believe that the choice should be left up to the user. I don't condone accessing internet porn but I also don't think it's my job to force my morality on others and suggest censoring.
I have given a lot of consideration to the morality of this issue. And I have made peace with my decision. In LDS theology we have a story about the War in Heaven. Lucifer proposed a plan that would force everybody to be obedient and Christ proposed a plan that allowed us to choose whether or not we would obey. The Father then chose Christ's plan. This story always comes to mind when I hear attempts to limit the freedom of others. All too frequently I get little pangs inside me that say, "This sounds similar to Satan's plan".
So in those situations where I chose to allow others to potentially choose differently than I would prefer I am comforted by the fact that I believe restricting their right to chose would be even more immoral.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Still More on Situational Evil

I'm still reading the Lucifer Effect. It's not exactly the type of book you'd want to skim or just give a rough read. I've been reading a library copy but I think I may go buy a hard copy. I'm having to resist the urge to highlight and make notes in the margin.
As I read I'm becoming increasingly aware of the "situational" forces that work around me. Zimbardo describes several situations where otherwise good people refused to speak up when their own morality was telling them they should. Instead they relied on the judgment of their supposed superiors to make the moral decision for them. If I've learned anything from this book it's that my own silent refusal to respond can and most likely is interpreted as agreement. I've found that since this fact is front and center in my mind that I am increasingly intolerant of immoral and unethical comments. When friends, family members or coworkers make comments that I find morally repugnant I used to lean towards just ignoring them. However, I have since become aware that this passive attitude is only marginally different than an endorsement of their comments.
I've never been good at confrontations. I'm doing my best to figure out how to balance these two conflicting forces inside me. At what point is okay to say "I don't agree and I want no part of this conversation"? And when I do respond is my response proportional to the initial comment? In the past I think I've waited far too long before I made my voice hear and then I respond too strongly. I fear that now I may be reacting to strongly too fast. Be patient with me as I wrestle with this dilemma. I'm working to find a balance that with accomplish both goals, not alienate everybody around me, and yet let them know that there are certain moral and ethical bounds that I will not cross.

I've been especially surprised at the comments I've heard from family and friends about the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
"Well if wearing women’s underwear on you head is torture there are a lot of fraternities that should be shut down too."
"They were just using these Muslims weird beliefs against them." Etc etc.
(I debated posting sevarla of the Abu Ghraib images that were clearly much worse than frat house hazing. I decided against it. if your interested just do a google image search for Abu Ghraib and your see more than you wanted.)
The analogy to a frat house is common one but the two situations are very different on a number of major ways. In a frat house the 'victims' are there because they want to be and are trying to do thing to get into the organization. In Abu Ghraib the victims were prisoners who did not want to be there and wanted to get out of this prison. This twisted "frat house" analogy only holds water if we ignore the conditions of servitude and the desires of the victims. Without these two conditions what's the difference between rape and consensual sex? There is none.
As far as the comment about using their beliefs against them goes, I agree. But it's also worth noting that the guards were also making these prisoners do things that went against their own moral beliefs. That is where they violated not only the morality of the prisoners but their own as well. I don't think it's going out on a limb to say that these soldiers would not want to have the same actions forced upon them.
Most of the comments I've heard defending the guards actions come from people who have done little to no research into what they actually did. Many of the sexually explicit images never made it on the broadcast news. And all too frequently people are just waiting for their talk radio spin doctors to tell them how to believe. So I'm not really surprised that I've heard the "frat house" analogy from more than one source. They all got it from Rush Limbaugh.
I don't believe that we have to behave like a terrorist in order to defend ourselves against them. Zimbardo's book is forcing me to become more vocal in my opposition to the situational forces around me. As he points out it isn't easy to stand up for your personal morality. But I believe that by remaining silent on these issues I become part of the system that is influencing others to do evil things.

Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.
Friedrich Nietzsche