Wednesday, March 28, 2007


"There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered."
Nelson Mandela, 'A Long Walk to Freedom'

Last weekend I took the scouts up to a place that I've been going to for literally decades. My first trip to Mount Yonah was when I was myself a 12 year old Boy Scout. Now I was up here with my son, a 12 year old Boy Scout. The quote above is not quite appropriate but the spirit remains the same.
Actually a lot has changed since my first trip here as a young scout. The mountain then had a road to the top and was a common place for anyone with a 4x4 to drive up and "camp". It was not at all uncommon to see over a hundred cars and trucks in the parking lot. The rock climbing areas used to be choked with all sorts of people of all shapes and sizes and every level of expertise. In the early 90s, when I worked at REI and on the side would guide small rock climbing trips I avoided coming here all together. "Hey, It's the REI guy!" I'd hear and then a few second later I was showing them the correct way to use the gear that they had purchased from me just days ago. On weekends when the local yahoos weren't throwing beer bottles off of the top the Army
Rangers would subdue the cliff with helicopters, miles of ropes and thousands of Rangers. In those days the mountain had been completely tamed and you had to really search for any kind of solitude and reverence.
Today is much different. Development has encroached on the mountain and cabins have been built along much of the old road. The Army has dramatically scaled down how frequently they train here and the road has been restricted to local homeowners only. This last change means that in order to access the mountain you have to hike in about two miles on a moderately steep trail. It's not too bad if you're dedicated. Personally, I think it is just hard enough to keep the yahoos out. And I like it that way.
We hadn't planned on climbing this weekend. I brought a rope just in case, but our focus was just to get out of Dodge for a night. It worked. All who attended were inspired by the view and all had a deep desire to return. We had the place to ourselves. There were a few other cars at the trailhead but we never bumped into anybody else.
Pondering the changes that have happened to Yonah in the almost 3 decades since I first started coming up here forced me to think about the many ways that I had changed. In many way my life is much more cluttered and chaotic now, much like Yonah was years ago. However, for the most part I think that in the areas that really matter I've gotten rid of much of the trash and distraction that gets in the way of who I really am. Like Yonah I still have some scars, some literal, some figurative, of my past but they are fading away and the real spirit is starting to show itself again.
In 30 years I wonder how Aaron's perspective will differ from mine when he returns...

Friday, March 23, 2007

Cool Quote

"Read not to contradict and confute, not to believe and take for granted, not to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider."

Sir Francis Bacon

Thursday, March 22, 2007


As you may have noticed, I never take anything at face value. Whether it is a claim made by a politician, a religion, a scientist or just that email that smells like an urban legend. I tend to agree with Bertrand Russell when he said,
"If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way."
I've written about this before when I blogged about confirmation bias. Well this issue keeps coming up for me. A few months ago, at the behest of my wife I watched "An inconvenient Truth" Al Gore's documentary on global warming. Since then I've been reading many reports on both sides of the issue. My "tree-hugger" friends refuse to look at conservative skepticism of the science and my conservative friends send me links to the conservative skepticism yet have never even seen the movie. One conservative skeptic of global warming criticized a government funded scientist for cherry picking the data to only show the warming effect that he had hypothesised. However, this same columnist ignored the data that was not cherry picked from many other scientist that still show the same effect. Essential he was guilty of the very same thing he was criticizing.
This is just one specific example of how I feel alienated from many of my friends and family on issues such as politics, religion and science. The fact that I read and study both sides of an issue seems to make people clam up because the assume that I have the opposite opinion as they do. The fact is I simply haven't made up my mind on many of these issues and I am still looking for answers in all of these categories.
I imagine it can be comforting to some to simply unquestionably believe what your theological, ideological or political favorites have to say. I can't do it any more. I guess i just agree with Galileo,
"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."

Saturday, March 17, 2007


I love rock climbing and I used to take every spare moment to head out and look for something to climb. This typically involved a lot of driving on the weekend considering Georgia is not exactly known for it’s plethora of tall cliffs. Just 3 days after Aaron, my older child, born I accepted a promotion with REI and transferred my family to Salt Lake City. My motivations for this were multiple. I had family back in Utah and I looked forward to getting to know them better. It was a promotion in and industry that I enjoyed and hoped to be able to sustain a family while working in. And finally it was closer to the rocks. Knowing that I now had a kid and would not be able to get out as much as I did before he was born, I looked forward to having the rocks much closer.
Working in the industry allowed me to buy gear at reduced rates and also gave me access to a large network of other climbers. With all of these things going in my favor I was able to greatly improve my rock climbing skill. I was getting stronger and my technique was getting better than it ever could have just climbing the stuff in Georgia. I set my goals high and had a great time in the process. With my new connections I was able to climb successfully not just in the Salt Lake area but in Moab, Zion NP, Joshua Tree NP in California and even in Yosemite NP. I was really enjoying the life I had created for myself.
My trip to Yosemite was enjoyable for a few days but partner problems and having to get rescued off of Middle Cathedral Spire due to a rope jammed in a crack left me feeling like I had to go back to the valley and redeem myself. Having pledged myself to return and improve on my performance I resolved to train as often as I could.
Shortly after I’d turned 30 I went out rock climbing with a friend. I had planned on doing a few short warm up climbs and then attempting a rather long hand crack called Mexican crack. The warm up route that I’d picked was called “Lunge or Plunge”. Although it was rated a 5.11+ it was relatively short so it made sense to use it as a warm up for the technically easier 5.10 “Mexican Crack”.
I’d climbed the route successfully less than a month earlier when there was still snow on the ground underneath me. I felt confident that I could do it again. I’d even considered doing the route “free-solo”, meaning without a rope. Having not climbed too much with Davis before, I didn’t want him to think that I was unsafe so I decided to rope-up for the warm up. I started up the climb and just like before I place the appropriate cams and nuts in the rock to protect me in case of a fall. About 15 feet up the small crack that I’d been using to petered out and at that point you find out why the climb is called “Lunge or Plunge”. Up to this point the crack has provided not only the safety protection but also all of the hand holds. The next handhold was at eleven-o-clock but about 6 feet away from the current hand hold. The only way to reach the hold was to get my feet as high as possible and crunch up my body while still holding this last handhold in the crack. Then I would simply straighten my legs as fast as possible and kind of jump, or lunge, for the big hold with my left hand.
Well that was the plan anyway. And that’s exactly how things went the month before so I didn’t see any reason why it shouldn’t go that way that time. I walked my feet up and got into my little crunch preparing for the lunge. As I did so I noticed that the cam that I’d placed was not as secure as I’d have liked it. I had two options. Move on and hope for the best or climb back down a few feet and try to set it correctly. Thinking at the time that discretion was the better part of valor I opted for the latter.
All I can assume is that as I was stepping down I lost my grip with the shoes and began to fall. I was looking straight forward and it was as if I became hyper-aware of every single detail in my surroundings. I saw the rope slide through the top piece of gear and then I saw that piece of gear pop out of the rock and back toward me. Then my eyes dropped down about four feet to the next piece of gear and I focused on it hoping that it would hold. Still focusing on that piece I was twisted back and my gaze was pulled straight up. This wasn’t right. The piece should have pulled me into the rock and I shouldn’t be looking this way. I paused for a second and looked around. I was sitting on the ground at the base of the climb. With the top piece gone there was too much slack for the second piece to do me any good and I’d crashed to the ground in a heap a few feet before the rope would have caught me. Ironically, had this been a taller climb I would have been saved by the rope. Although it would have been a longer fall, there would not have been that sudden stop at the end.
When I’m in a crisis I turn into Spock. I became strictly logical. There just doesn’t seem to be any place for emotion in those times. I looked down at my leg and I was looking directly at the bottom of my left foot. It took me just a second to say, “Okay then. My leg is broken. You go call for help.” I then picked up my leg which was bent at a 90 degree angle above my knee and straightened it out. Davis ran down the approach trail to get help.
He didn’t leave me alone though. My two-year old son Aaron was with me to keep me company. As I lay there I could only think of how foolish I had been. My family, Aaron, Victoria and Rachel on the way were not even in my thoughts at all so far that day. And they should have been.
The search and rescue folks arrived about an hour later. Ironically, I had been on an ice climb with many of them just a few weeks earlier in the same canyon. They did their best to stabilize my broken leg and lashed me into the litter for evacuation. Every few minutes my thigh would start to contract and push the broken chunks together. When this happened I let one of the EMTs know and he pulled on my leg and I did my best to relax and stop the leg from contracting. The trail to the climb gains about 600’ in about a quarter of a mile. Going up I had to use my hands and feet to climb it. Now these guys had to haul my butt down this same trail. If they’d have dropped me I’d have had a nice sled ride to the base of the trail. They had to rope up the litter and belay it down every section of the trail.
A short ambulance ride to the hospital and I was waiting in the emergency room. This was the first time I’d had access to a phone. Victoria was at work and I had to let her know what had happened. I don’t remember how I started the conversation went but I will always remember her saying, “You broke your leg.” before I’d even told her about the fall. Up until this moment I had had no pain killers whatsoever. I didn’t know what paperwork I’d have to sign and I wanted to stay completely lucid just in case.
Victoria showed up Just as they were bringing back the x-rays. My hip had been shattered. I counted at least 10 pieces of varying sizes, all of which used to be my left femur. I was in for a long hospital stay, surgery and a bunch of recovery.
The hospital stay was absolutely miserable and the doctor’s son broke his neck in a climbing fall. So, he was not the least bit sympathetic of my situation. Surgery went well and I managed to recover much faster than the doctor expected. I was even back on the rocks three months after the fall.
It took the fall, the surgery and the recovery for me to realize that Utah was not where I was supposed to raise my family. My job was only a vehicle for me to continue climbing and it was time I grew up and figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t know exactly what I was supposed to do but I knew that my dead end job at REI would not get me there. I packed up my family and we moved back to Georgia.
I’m sharing this because my fall was 10 years ago today. Since then I’ve found a great job at AT&T, had two more kids and I’m really enjoying the changes in my life. As I said on yesterday’s post I think the real challenges in life come when we have to sacrifice one good thing for something else good. In retrospect, it is obvious to me now that I was failing the test. My priorities were out of whack and I was allowing more important details to fall by the wayside. It was drastic and I have an 18 inch long scar and a slight limp to remind me that I need to focus on what’s really important.
Now days I don’t get out climbing as much as I used to. I still enjoy it even though I only get out two or three times a year rather than two or three times a week. I’m not nearly as good as I was in 1997 but I’m much better in every other area of my life. I still reach down with my left hand and feel the scar on occasion when I feel like I might be letting my personal wants and desires get in the way of what I know is really important.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Kobayashi Maru

Okay I confess. I'm a Trekky. I've always loved Star Trek and most science fiction. My favorite science fiction stories are the ones that make the most effective use of the genre. Good Sci-Fi is rarely about what life is like in the future or about aliens or space travel. They just use those vehicles to tell a deeper story with a more "universal" theme.

In Star Trek 2, the Wrath of Kahn, and incidentally the best of the movies, there is a scene in the beginning where the crew is playing a training war-game. They have to rescue a ship named the Kobayashi Maru. All Starfleet officers must take this test before graduation. That particular test is un-winable. No matter what action is taken the crew of the Kobayashi Maru, the Enterprise or both are doomed to be destroyed. The point is to see how officers will react once things really start hitting the fan. They are graded on the order that they start making sacrifices and how they react when they can no longer rely on the procedures that they've been taught to follow.
Since Star Trek 2 I have learned that the Air Force uses a similar technique in their flight simulators. They slowly start adding elements until the pilot has too many protocols to be able to follow them all. Just like the Kobayashi Maru they are judge based on their priorities as they start ignoring certain procedures.
I've noticed that in my life several times I've had to make decisions in similar situations. I didn't have all the information that I needed to make a 100% well thought out decision however if had waited until I had all that information it would have been too late and other things more important would have been neglected.
In the movie Kirk had the reputation as the only one who had ever won the
Kobayashi Maru. As you find out later in the movie he actually cheated. Philosophically he didn't believe in the concept of a no win situation. So he hacked the computer and slowed the program down to allow him time to rescue the ship and save his own crew.
In spite of his "cheating" later in the movie he was presented with a real life no win situation. Just when he thought he had beaten the odds again he found out that it was only by sacrificing his best friend's life. He finally had to learn the lesson that he had cheated his way though earlier in his life.
Just like in Star Trek, frequently in life we have to make really tough decisions.
In the long run I don't believe that getting every answer right is the most important goal. We need to realize that our priorities can help us make the best of a situation where one goal has to be sacrificed to achieve the rest.
Good fiction uses the setting and genre to convey themes and ideas that are much closer to reality than we may at first want to accept. I believe that sci-fi has a greater potential to illustrate these themes than most genres.
So just like M*A*S*H was never intended to be about the Korean War. Star Trek was never about space exploration. Those were just the vehicles used to teach truths that are much closer to home.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Debate follow up

"To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead."

Thomas Paine

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


At the beginning of the year people were asking me if I’d sent any New Year’s resolutions. I avoided the typical responses like, loose weight, get more exercise, etc and responded with a more esoteric goal. “I’m going to talk less and listen more.” Somebody once said that there are three kinds of people in a conversation; talkers, listeners and waiting-to-talkers. Unfortunately most of us switch from talking to waiting-to-talk without the most important step of listening. I long ago recognized this in myself and I’ve been trying to make amends.
Today I was listening to a podcast while working. Penn Gillett, of Penn and Teller fame, was interviewing Adam Savage of “Mythbusters”. Adam was considering doing an episode on psychics. Specifically he wanted to see if psychics did any better than a cold-reader. Cold reading is a process of listening carefully to everything said by your target as well as paying close attention to physical clues and body language to learn something about a person. Sometimes they will use little “fishing” lures like just making rapid fire vague statements in hopes that the victim will unknowingly provide information to them. This is the major technique used by alleged psychics like Sylvia Browne and John Edward. Incidentally, neither of them is very good at it. Max Mavin does a much better job and doesn’t pretend that he’s using paranormal powers.
Anyway, as Adam was talking about his plans for the episode, Penn told an experience of his own that happened while working on an episode of his Showtime series, which will remain unnamed on this blog. They trained a friend to do exactly what Adam was planning on doing. The girl posed as a psychic at a book signing and gave readings to several people. She was a phenomenal success and many people thought that she was the best they had ever seen. Then she had the heartbreaking task of fessing up to them and telling them that she had just been putting them on. She felt morally bankrupt and it took her week to forgive her self for betraying these people’s trust.
Penn then shared with Adam and his listeners that this just shows how few people in this world actually listen to each other. All this girl did was listen a little bit closer than most people and just pay attention to them. In turn they credited her with supernatural powers. How sad a commentary it is that when someone simply pays attention we think they are psychic.
This exchange just reinforced my resolution to talk less and listen more. Perhaps someone with in turn think that I am psychic. Perhaps this is something that all of us should be accused of more frequently? Maybe only then with the simple act of listening loose its supernatural mystic.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Pale Blue Dot

Lately I have been particilarly inspired by the writing and philosophy of this man. What I have posted here is his comments on this photo of Earth taken by Voyager I in 1990 as it left our solar system on its journey to deep space.

Reflections on a Mote of Dust
-- Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Excerpted from a commencement address delivered May 11, 1996. Dr. Sagan's book Pale Blue Dot expands on these ideas.