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Never forget what you are, part 1

Today’s featured image: a rainbow over Fort Collins. Spotted this beauty as I walked up the driveway after going hiking with a couple friends.


Last week, I convinced my parents to try watching Game of Thrones (again). Though I can’t see myself getting back into the series at this point, I know they enjoy such series, and it was one of the few that really pulled me in. However, I made the mistake of reading (actually, listening to) all the books, so now the show is rather unsatisfying.

But there was a great line in the first episode that I have remembered ever since the first time I was introduced to the show four years ago. As the Stark family entertains the guests of the king with a raucous feast in the great hall of Winterfell, the Stark bastard, John Snow, takes out his frustration of being an outcast on a straw enemy in the stable. The equally outcast dwarf of the Lannister family, Tyrion, brusquely (and rather drunkenly) makes his introduction to the bastard, calling John Snow “bastard” to his face, multiple times. The Imp knows how to get under a man’s skin, and John Snow is noticeably enraged. But his intentions are good. Tyrion is not picking a fight but recognizing a fellow outcast. He is teaching  John Snow a valuable lesson. He then delivers this line that has stuck with me all these years:

“Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”

So, what am I? What pejorative could be slung against me? What failure ought I wear like armor?

Deserter. Runaway. Abdicator. Flake.

These terms can fairly be levied against me. Though it can surely be inferred from a careful perusal of the archive of this blog, I have never plainly and publicly told the story of my decision to request separation from active duty service. As I struggle with direction and the motivation to regain the traits I had incorporated into myself over the past three years, it is a good time to prove to myself that I have come to terms with this decision. Though my thought experiments of late have indicated that I did make the right decision, I can never truly know what would have happened had I chosen to stay.

Here is the rundown, in the plainest and sincerest terms:

It was late spring of 2014, and I had finally begun primary flight training at NAS Whiting Field, just outside of Pensacola, Florida. Though it had been a year since my graduation from the US Naval Academy, upon which I had accepted a five-year service obligation, I had only participated in intermittent training. The Navy was downsizing and short on funds for training. There was a surplus of young officers like me. Some of my friends on ships were doing made-up jobs because the captain had no real work for them. I used the time to think about life, ethics, politics, and purpose. When my real training finally started, I had come to fear the commitment that I had so excitedly signed under a few years earlier. Because I had chosen to go to flight school, my commitment would not be just the minimum five years. Upon completing flight school (still two years away), I would be indebted to the Navy for eight more years.

When my real training finally started, I had come to fear the commitment that I had so excitedly signed under a few years earlier. Because I had chosen to go to flight school, my commitment would not be just the minimum five years. Upon completing flight school (still two years away), I would be indebted to the Navy for eight more years. That meant that I would spend at least a decade in uniform, doing the bidding of US government, fighting their wars, supporting their agenda, spreading their message. By the time I could legally turn back on this decision, I would be 33 years old. For a 23-year-old, fresh out of college, 33 was deep into life, too far down the line to do the adventurous things young people ought to do. It felt as if that time would be taken from me, the most exciting years of my life sunken in drudgery, marred by the anxiety and stress of military service. What once had excited me now terrified me.

At the same time, my relationship was faltering. I had bought a house with my high school sweetheart and fiancee. We had started a proper life together. Two cars, a kitten and a puppy, a mortgage, full-time careers; on the surface, it was the ideal American life. Underneath, we were suffocating. She struggled with the adjustment, and I didn’t know how to help. She didn’t understand my obsessive tidiness around the house, and I didn’t understand her need for recovery after the stress of her own budding professional career. Our communication was strained, sex infrequent, and ideals in conflict. I began to think that we might be better off going our separate ways.

Little did we know, we had both been thinking the same. She told me one afternoon that she needed to go back to Colorado to see her family. She also told me that she didn’t know if she should come back. I tearfully agreed, grateful that she had the courage to say what I could not.

In all honesty, I can’t remember the order of events, but at just about the same time, I called a meeting with my flight class’s advisor, a senior lieutenant and flight instructor. I didn’t want to talk directly with my instructor for fear of giving him the impression that I was going to give up mid-flight. I told him that I was considering dropping out of flight school.

In the Navy, flight training is a voluntary option. If you don’t think you can hack it, you’re free to “drop on request” at any time, but there’s no going back from that decision. In normal times, a stack of papers summarizing your career called a “package” will be brought before a board of senior officers, who will decide what your new job will be. These were not normal times. That year, about three-quarters of those going before the board were being separated, i.e. released from active duty service. I knew this. It was an open door, and I decided to try my luck to go through it.

At the time, I didn’t understand what I was really seeking, but I knew that there was something in my life that was missing. I had grown up with a clear vision of myself in uniform. I had spent the most formative years of my life engaged (though not always faithfully) to one woman who, I believed, would be my partner for the rest of my life. Based on all I had heard from my parents, friends, and teachers, this was exactly right.

But there is a fundamental flaw in this life plan: I knew nothing of the world outside my sheltered upper-middle-class American life except what I had seen in books, images, and the occasional family holiday. I knew nothing of the world or its people, who they were, who I was.

I struggled to articulate this sentiment, but I could feel it. As I explained to my class advisor and later to my instructor and the squadron commander, I felt that I needed to see the world from outside the military machine, on my own, as an individual. Even as I said the words (especially as I said them), it felt like a cop-out, an excuse, like giving up. I knew that it sounded like I was simply giving in to the stress of flight training, and it didn’t make sense to my instructor. I was doing well. I had easily coasted through ground school, receiving perfect or near-perfect scores on every exam. I was weeks ahead of many of my classmates in learning my emergency procedures. Though I was far from ready to take the aircraft alone, by my fourth flight, I was handling nearly all the flight planning, radio calls, and navigation on my own. Landings were still giving me trouble, but my hours of nightly rehearsal was paying off. My instructor didn’t understand, and he was very disappointed, but I knew it in my bones, on a level that words could not yet express.

I crafted a statement to submit to the commanding officer. In it, I did my best to express the need to experience the world, but I also acknowledged that I understood the commitment that I had agreed to. I wrote sincerely that I would serve to the best of my ability in whatever capacity the Navy needed me to for the remainder of my five-year term, but I could not face the fear of a decade of naval aviation.

When I was pulled out of flight training, I was reassigned to the student services office to handle the paperwork of all the aviator hopefuls coming through after me. As I processed names of friends, classmates, and fellow USNA alumni who had graduated a year after me, I started to waver. I began to look into other options. I knew I couldn’t go back to flight training, and I didn’t want to, but I also didn’t want to live with the regret of reneging on my agreement. I found the Aviation Engineering Duty Officer (AEDO) training command on the other side of the training wing’s parking lot. It seemed to be a nice compromise. I could apply my aerospace engineering degree, serve my commitment, but be free in half the time. I started collecting letters of recommendation

I started collecting letters of recommendation for my package. Three of my favorite professors at the Naval Academy (and one from my exchange at the Air Force Academy) penned the kindest words about my competence in engineering, my intelligence, and my character. One of them was Captain Robert Niewoehner, a living legend in the test flight community. He was the chief test pilot for the development of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, an aircraft that has become the backbone of the Navy’s airborne strategy. He was also my instructor for my two favorite classes. His words would almost certainly get me anywhere I wanted to go.

Unfortunately, where I wanted to go did not involve wearing a uniform, not a flight suit, not even utilities. The day before the package was due, I dropped it on my supervisor’s desk to be sent off first thing in the morning. That night, I sat in my slowly emptying house, alone on the floor by the couch that had become my bed since Luisa left and I could not bring myself to sleep in our bed. In the silence, a sudden rush hit me, and I pulled my computer to my knees to type out a new cover sheet for my package.

I couldn’t go halfway. I would be torn. I couldn’t serve with the lingering sensation of “What if…?” I had already pulled the trigger to get myself out of my service obligation, and I was going to ask for it boldly. I restated my willingness to remain in service if ordered to do so, but it was not my first choice. I arrived early that morning. My supervisor had not yet arrived. I replaced the form that had placed AEDO in the top slot with an identical piece of paper that shifted my preferences down, putting “Separation” in its stead. I removed the letters of recommendation and ran them through the shredder. I laid the envelope back on the desk, just as it had been but to carry an entirely different message.

There were no classes coming through that morning, and the briefing room was empty. Having stepped out of the office to leave my colleague to suffer the boredom alone, I sat in the dark, empty room with a scrawled message on the notepad before me. After perhaps the twentieth time rehearsing the message, I dialed the saved number of my former instructor and mentor. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but it was the right thing to do. He deserved to hear it directly that I would not be passing on his letter of recommendation and that I would be asking for the Navy to forgive me of my commitment.

His reaction was exactly what I ought to have expected: disappointed. I sat rigidly, head on my hand, choking back the tears as he lectured on the value of commitment and integrity, on how he could no longer trust me to do what I said I would do. I agreed quietly and accepted my deserved scolding, but the deed was done; the decision had already been submitted. That was our last correspondence.

The discussion with my parents was surprisingly easier. I actually could not tell them directly that I had asked for separation. I wrote them a letter detailing my need to go be a typical twenty-something for a while. Given their fervent support and beaming pride at all I had done in uniform and their proud announcements of my plans for patriotic glory, I imagined that they would also be disappointed in my decision. Their support, though, never faltered. In fact, they were a bit relieved. They trusted that I would continue to make them proud in whatever goal I decided to pursue. It has been a driving factor in my ensuing success. I know that whatever path I choose, it is my devotion to doing it to the best of my ability that makes them proud.

The Navy was also very gracious. Not only did they grant my request for separation (as they did for most of the others that month), they allowed me to remain on their payroll until the end of the year. I worked a few days a week at the student services office. The other days, I worked to figure out what the hell I was going to do next.

I considered becoming a software engineer. I had gotten into programming in my engineering education, and I knew it was a lucrative, portable career. I considered culinary arts; I had recently taught myself to cook and loved the idea of one day running my own kitchen. I tossed around the idea of putting my writing to work as a journalist.

Whatever I would do, it had to be completely different. I wanted nothing to do with the Navy or airplanes. I didn’t really even want to stay in the US. I started looking for graduate schools in Europe to study international affairs, but my engineering degree wasn’t helping. I had picked up an obsession with Czechia, and I had even begun learning Czech.

And then the advertising got me:

“Have you ever dreamed of walking the cobblestone streets of Prague on your way to work each morning?”

Yes, actually. I dream of that every single day.

By the end of the week, I had taken advantage of the military discount to start in the next class to get my Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate. It didn’t take me straight to Prague, but Seoul was a good place to start. They offered me a good contract with about the highest salary a first-year teacher could expect, and it was about as far away from the USA as I could get.

I still remember the feeling of stepping into my first class in the run-down KeonDae branch of the SDA language schools. I was nervous but excited. I did exactly what my military training had taught me: pretend like I know what I’m doing. It worked. I quickly fell into the role. My history as a grammar-nazi came in handy as my students challenged me on the endless and arbitrary complexity of the English language. I loved the feeling of helping students learn what they wanted to learn.

But let’s face it: it doesn’t take much to be a passable English teacher. It was fun, but it wasn’t my passion. I had started working toward other careers. I had begun blogging for the recruiting company that got me hired. I took online classes in journalism and academic writing. I continued the search for graduate programs to bolster my background, hoping that the blogging and freelance writing would be enough to complement my technical background.

And then I woke up. I had been scrolling through a list of master’s programs in the Europe. Once caught my eye just before I stepped off the train: Renewable Energy Engineering.

How had I never thought of that? I get so enraged when people deny man’s role in climate change. I have a perfect background to develop such technologies. This is a cause with truly global consequences. 

As I walked home, I became infected by the idea. It would come to define me. Yes, that’s an Inception reference, and that’s exactly how it felt. Thinking through the requirements of such a career path and discussing it with my good friend T’ew (who just visited me and my family in Colorado over the past few days) brought me to the obvious realization that this effort to run away from everything that had once defined me was a fool’s errand. Not only was it impossible, but it was the most cowardly way to handle the shame of having left the Navy.

The American taxpayer had invested upwards of $300,000 in my college education that had instilled in my not only academic prowess but also values of integrity and teamwork, skills like public speaking and organization, and non-cognitive traits like confidence and willingness to fail. I could never repay them for this investment, but that wasn’t the point. I wasn’t supposed to repay them. I was supposed to use what I had been given.

Military service may not have been the best way for me to utilize these skills and attributes, but it was up to me to find another way.

I’ll continue this story later, but I need to get to bed right now. My life starts again tomorrow. I’ve been struggling with the motivation to do things right recently. I’ve struggled to maintain the focus on why I do what I do, mainly because I haven’t had much to do to remind of that purpose. I’ve been slowly scrapping together things to do, but rebuilding a life is a slow process, and I’m young and impatient. I’ve decided that I’m going to use what time I have in Fort Collins to build the local chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a non-profit organization that works to encourage Congress to implement a revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend policy. Tomorrow, I need to prepare a presentation for a fellow environmental group.

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Who are you?

Who are you? Really. What makes you you? How do you define you? Are you a body with definite edges? Are you something inside that body? Are you a brain? Are you a product of a brain? Are you just the collection of chemicals that create your thoughts? Are you the thoughts? Are you all of them or only one of them?

When someone asks, “Who are you?”, what do you say?

Last year, I was at a party, and a girl asked me that question but in a tone that suggested she was not rudely demanding that I simply state my name and relation to the host. I was lost for words. I hadn’t really considered the idea.

Who am I? What am I?

It’s a question we ought to consider more often. We ought to do so far more often than we consider the idea of who we want to be.

As I’ve mentioned multiple times on this blog, I’ve been digging deeply into the writings and lectures of the mid-twentieth century philosopher Alan Watts. He was a great popularizer of Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhism. I’ve been attracted to his work because he puts the ideas of a very foreign culture in a way that resonates well with my Western mind.

One idea that my listening to his 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity has brought up is the notion of the self. The difference in the concept of self between Eastern and Western ideology is a core point of misunderstanding when people of opposite hemispheres meet. Where Westerners often hold a concept of self consistent with Enlightenment ideas of personal liberty and the natural state of man being and individual human outside of society, Easterners see the society itself as being fundamental to the definition of an individual.

This latter view, I believe, is an unfortunate oversight in the Western mind. We are so apt to define ourselves as separate from the world, an intrusion into it, and somehow an independent actor upon it that we frustrate ourselves in the endless search for our proper place within it. To take the view that not only is our relationship to society fundamental to our concept of self but so is our relationship to the entire universe eliminates this question.

To answer the question“Who are you?”, we must define some sort of limit where “you” end and the rest of the universe begins. Does it begin at the end of your brain? At the edge of your body? At the edge of the things you control? And how does one define these edges? Is it at the first molecule of air resting upon the surface of your skin? Is that last molecule of dried and dead skin which awaits its imminent fate as a speck of dust actually still part of “you”?

Pursuing these questions ought to illuminate the fact that our final decision is simply conventional. Such a convention is useful for purposes such as communication or the studies of biology and medicine, but they are no more real than the words on your screen. They are simply ideas, concepts, constructions of the human imagination.

When we recognize this fact, we must also recognize that this lack of boundaries means that I am no more separate from you than your brain is separate from your body. Though thousands of kilometers of Earth, water, and air may separate what our categorizing human brains recognize as our two separate and distinct physical entities, we are both merely features of the existence that we call the Universe.

Purity

Note: Hej allihopa. I’m back on the internets. I’ve been hesitant to open my computer over the last week, but I’ve been jotting lots of things in my journal. I’ll get around to sharing some of the more interesting stuff this weekend. Here are my thoughts from last night after the final events of the 2017 World Wind Energy Conference in Malmö, Sweden.

Today’s featured image: Sunset over Pildammarna, the lake in the middle of a large park in Malmö.


Any atheist who says that their lack of belief in the supernatural requires their lack of religion is full of shit. Atheists can be just as religious as the most fervent apologist, and I honestly hope that many are. It just depends on how you look at what exactly a religion is. Typically, it’s associated with a “supernatural controlling power” that is imagined as a god that is a creator of the universe. However, such a figure is really no more than an idea that lives in the collective imagination of humanity, and gods make up only a small part of that collective imagination. Other significant ideas are those of justice, human rights, liberty, rationality, integrity, and a whole host of other banaler an uncontroversial concepts. String a few of these together, and you’ve got yourself an ideology, and the line between ideology and religion is a narrow but fuzzy one.

Those that gain a significant enough number of followers to be recognized as a distinct doctrine almost invariable have a code (or at least a central message) that is simple enough for followers to explain and for potential converts to understand. Whether they do it in the name of the group or not, the adherent will try to convince others (or at least hope that others are influenced) if they truly believe that their doctrine is right.

To move past the theoretical, I must bring in my own religion: sustainability. There exists enough data to determine that certain sources of energy, modes of transportation and diets are more sustainable than others. This knowledge and a dedication to a sustainable lifestyle guide my decisions, large and small. I, of course, want others to follow this doctrine because my own adherence is insignificant without the help of many, many others.

I do my best to set the example by being vigilant about wasted energy in my home and workplace. I am proud of my pursuit of a career in renewable energy development. I have been consistent since the end of my winter travels in choosing the low-carbon option for my travel.

But I have been a confused mess when it comes to my diet. Over this past week, I have eaten more fish, chicken, pork, and beef than I had in the past two years. I have not compromised my “sustainatarian” principles that I cook vegan but otherwise, will eat anything that is offered to me or is bound for the waste bin. This is not a simple doctrine that will gain converts. It requires significant and often convoluted explanation. I am doing nothing for my cause by snagging extra plates of roast beef even if I am convinced that they’ll otherwise be wasted. The image of me, forkful of red meat plunging into my maw, does not send the message, “That plate of food required too much greenhouse gas emissions for me to approve by consuming it.”

I am herby repenting for my sins and reaffirming my faith. I am holding to the simple rule in order to set the example for all who want to reduce the carbon footprint of their diet:

I don’t eat meat.

As with any religion, there are caveats and exceptions. I’ll need a cheat meal every so often (once a month at a maximum; let’s face it, I still enjoy meat). If I have been invited to a meal and the plate in front of me does not allow the simple offloading of the meat to a neighbor, I will graciously accept the food. And, of course, if the agricultural industry learns to make meat widely available with significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions (and ideally without animal suffering), my mission will be complete, and I will enjoy the miracle of technology.

However, save these, I will practice what I preach and show consistency that does not require explanation.

So if you see me sneaking a piece of chicken from the buffet counter, please stab me with a fork and remind me of the commandments of my god.

My Windmill

Today’s featured image: Voss, Norway. I’ve decided that when I retire, I’m going to become a farmer in these mountains, and the view will continue to take my breath away every single day.

A contact of mine on LinkedIn shared an article today from the New York Times entitled “In Praise of Lost Causes” by Mariana Alessandri. Though the only specific causes Alessandri cites in the article are those from the early twentieth-century Spanish dissident Miguel de Unamuno, her ideas fit easily over a wide swathe of lost causes and giant windmills that are in need of their own quixotic errant knight.

The article was particularly timely for me. I read the article and am responding while on a train to Malmö, Sweden where I will attend the World Wind Energy Conference during the first half of this week. I have rushed back across the Scandinavian peninsula from my little mountain paradise in Bergen for the sole purpose of meeting contacts who can help me kickstart my career in renewable energy development.

This passion that I have dedicated my life to in relocating to Sweden to study wind power specifically and in committing to a return to North America despite the strengthened allure of Norway, is indeed a known lost cause, and Alessandri’s rousing call for action was exactly what I needed right now.

To answer your obvious question, yes, I do see myself as a Don Quixote tilting at windmills. I know that neither I nor we as a renewable energy industry will take down the fossil fuel machine upon which our modern world is built. Well, we will eventually, but I know that it won’t happen before it’s too late to stop many of the predicted consequences of climate change.

Keeping average temperatures below two degrees rise above preindustrial levels? Not a chance. We’ve practically already blown our carbon budget, and we’re not slowing down anywhere near fast enough.

Avoiding major food supply disruptions due to altered weather patterns? The recent drought in the American Southwest, where we grow a significant portion of food that the US and many other countries depend on, is only a taste of what will surely rock the food system in the next couple decades.

Handling the flood of climate refugees that will overwhelm host countries, pry at societal cleavages, and exacerbate fundamentalist extremism? A passing glance at any set of headlines ought to be enough to see that it’s already too late. Let’s not pretend that climate change had nothing to do with the situation in Syria.

Of course, the more pressing question is “Why?” Why should we continue tilting at windmills? Why bother trying to save the world when it’s already well on its way to certain doom?

Because this isn’t the end of the world, but merely the end of an era. This is the end of the era of rapid industrialization and dirty energy. It’s the end of the commercial boom and extreme inequality. It may even be the end of the fully independent nation-state and the monopolar world order enforced by a sole superpower. Human society as we know it is destined to change in unrecognizable and unimaginable ways, and I will put my chips on the square that reads in my lifetime.

And when the heat waves take their victims and we finally adapt to an ecosystem we have learned to respect, when the food shortages kill millions before we figure out a better system, and when the civil wars of inflamed nationalism finally quiesce in peaceful settlements of a truly global world order, we will need an energy system that does not equate to dumping our garbage in our living room. In whatever world we come to on the other side of this, we will need a global sustainable energy system that provides humanity with the energy it craves while accepting the gifts of the Earth and the Sun as gracious guests in our single, unified home.

If these utopian dreams don’t come to pass…?

then I suppose it is a lost cause because we’ll all be dead.

Two good things

The area around Stockholm Central Station was quiet, but it boomed in a frenzy of activity. It just felt quiet because it was nothing like what I had experienced when I passed through last weekend. The roads were blocked off to traffic so the noise was that of rocking music from a stage set up in the back of a truck, the voices of those walking the open street, and the shouts of the volunteers who had come to support the Stockholm Marathon. On my way back to the station to catch my train to Oslo, I watched the runners behind the 5.5-hour pacer slog their way up the long gentle climb to the north. They barely shuffled their feet in a mockery of running, their clothes soaked through with sweat though the temperature was cold enough for a jacket. Their faces twisted in pained looks of exhaustion, knowing that this fight was far from over. The singer in the portable stage belted encouraging lines to keep up the spirits of the weary racers.

Watching this line of competitors, competing not against each other but against their own desire to give in, I felt the sudden urge to cry. I think it was the feeling of a parent when they see the accomplishments of a growing child. It was the feeling of being proud of someone for their strength and resolve to be the best version of themselves. It was the feeling of seeing a truly good thing.


A bit less than two hours east of Oslo, our train slid along through the drizzle that dampened the dense green mixed forest and farm of the borderlands between Sweden and Norway. As I started to feel a returning alertness from having slept through most of the journey, a voice came over the intercom. It said the same thing twice, once in Swedish and once in English. As he finished the English translation, “We have now crossed the border between Sweden and Norway”, two startling realizations hit me in short succession. The first was that I understood the message both times. Despite my having been in Norway for the past eight weeks (except this most recent one), I still followed simple messages in Swedish. It’s not exactly a useful skill for someone who is shortly leaving Sweden for the foreseeable future and who speaks only languages that almost every Swede also speaks, but it’s a nice feeling. The second realization was that the message was purely a courtesy. There was no instructive information that followed. He did not ask us to ready our passports or to be awake for border control agents passing through the train. If he had not said anything, most of us would not have realized that we had entered a new legal jurisdiction. This border is literally just a line on a map. It does not exist in the real world, and they are making no pretense that it does. It serves merely as an administrative convenience to determine which government is responsible for which lands and people. But to cross over it is as natural as to step over a stone lying on a forest path.

Presentation

Yes, I missed a day yesterday. So, here are 1,000 obligatory words. It’s a rambling journal entry, but it’s a fair thought. Honestly, I just needed to get some words on the page. This is a tough week for writing. Indeed, minimal chance I’m going to get out 500 words tomorrow. I’ll try to knock it out over lunch, but we’ll see.

Tomorrow morning, I will present the results of my thesis project, which I just completed in cooperation with WindSim AS in Tønsberg, Norway. I spent the last two weeks fretting off and on about how I wanted to present the information. Of course, I could have just turned the headings of the prescribed outline of my thesis into the outline of the Powerpoint slides and read through them like I was recapping my thesis. I suppose that’s what they’re expecting me to do, but that’s not what I’m going to do.

The past three days have been full of just such presentations from researchers who are here in Visby attending the wake conference. Most of them were absolutely terrified to be on stage, but 50 out of the 80 attendees still got up and presented their or their colleagues’ work. Granted, English was not the native language of all but a few of the presenters, but I can’t say that more than three or four were actually engaging. I won’t blame any of the presenters for my lack of understanding (it was mostly extremely technical stuff that was way over my head), but something struck me about the overused format that didn’t make for an entertaining presentation.

This leaves me with a rather uncomfortable question: should a presentation be entertaining? Or is the important part the content?

I’m sure that all of the presenters had useful content. A few had some fairly suspect errors in their analysis, but their putting the information out in public was useful for the audience and even more useful for the presenter. Actually, in comparison to how much the audience got out of it, the benefit to the speaker was probably infinitely greater. How much does the audience actually get out of such presentations? How much do we actually remember from having someone talk at us for fifteen minutes? I can remember bits and pieces of a few that I found particularly interesting, but out of eighteen hours of presentations, how much did the audience really take away? One percent? Less?

I’m currently looking back through an entry I wrote two years ago when I took a course through Coursera called Learning How to Learn. It was a fantastic 101 MOOC on the processes of memory and learning. It’s really intended for freshman college students who are out on their own for the first time and are now realizing that they never actually learned how to learn. For the final project, I wrote a short essay on forming memories and the role of sleep. Lessons from that course have stuck with me, and I guide much of my study based on their tips. Of course, a pair of professors who study learning ought to know how to present information in such a way that you’ll remember, right? Apparently. How does their approach differ from all those presentations that slipped out of our brains before we even got to the question & answer session?

First off, they at least tried to be entertaining. They used goofy little animations throughout their videos. The silly cartoons were almost embarrassingly simple, but I still remember the image of a brain with four short term memory areas. It’s a recognizable pattern, and I won’t forget that our working memory struggles to hold three or four different things at once. I even remember the terribly drawn chalkboard that represented short term memory. It was a comparison between short and long term memory. Short term memory is like a chalkboard on which someone is coming along behind us with the eraser and smearing everything we wrote a couple minutes ago. Long term memory is more like a warehouse in which things are stored safely and orderly, so we can recall them quickly far into the future. I even remember this awful clip of one of the instructors running along the beach. He looks goofy as hell, and he’s got that unattractive round shape that late-middle men who spend far too much time sitting at desk tend to develop. But I’ll never forget how much they talked about the importance of strenuous physical exercise in the process of neuron growth, which is an essential part of forming new memories.

Can I adapt these to my presentation? It’s a bit late now. I’m not going to add in little Shivas in my slides to represent the creation and destruction of turbulence kinetic energy, but I can at least try to make the slides visually appealing. Actually, that would have been a pretty good idea. Oh, well. Next time.

One other big idea that I took away from that course was the idea of “chunking”. This is the concept that in order to form a new memory, we need to have a solid chunk for it to attach to. Understanding that memories are actually neural pathways, not just static bits of information, is essential in understanding how we actually build new memories. We can’t just absorb a completely new piece of information, store it, and retain it forever. We need something for it to attach itself to. The stronger that initial connection, the longer it will stick. This is what I do try to emphasize in my presentations. I try not only to use simple language that a broad audience can relate to, but I try to explain complex items in multiple ways in hopes that each of them will form a strong connection with different people in the audience.

However, the biggest thing I’ll try to do tomorrow is something that I didn’t learn in that course. It’s just to be different. After the presentations yesterday, we had a champagne hour in which I started talking to a presenter from the first day. I had to ask him to recap his work because I couldn’t remember what he had talked about. Most of the presentations had all blended together. There was only one that really stood out. A young researcher from Germany elected not to follow the typical script. He decided that he wanted to tell the story of the development of his model. With great moving visuals and an engaging presentation style, I remember at least what I understood of his model. It actually was one of the simpler methods presented in the conference, but it seems the most impressive because of the way he presented it. Or perhaps it was more complex than it seemed, and he just explained it well.

That’s what I’m shooting for tomorrow.

Eating

What if fat doesn’t make you fat?

That was the question New York Times Magazine posed to its readers back in the summer of 2002 when Gary Taubes, a science journalist, submitted his lengthy attack on the mainstream view of nutrition in the article “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” He peeks behind the curtains of the medical research field and shares a tale of incompetence, CYA politicking, and well-intentioned misguidance. Though the science was far from conclusive in 2002 (and still is, of course, rife with controversy), the evidence for the hypothesis behind which most of the medical community and the full force of the US government had stood since the early eighties was unconvincing at best. Indeed, the body of evidence showing that the hypothesis was exactly wrong was growing steadily, and the past fifteen years has seen only more reinforcement.

And what was this disastrous advice? That fat makes you fat. That the key to dieting is counting calories. That a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. That too much fat will kill you, and you’re better off loading up on grains.

Over the past couple months, I’ve been looking into this debate, and I’m fully convinced. The healthiest diet is one of lots of fats, complex carbohydrates from a wide variety of vegetables, an enjoyable helping of fresh fruit, and solid intake of protein from nuts, legumes, and animal sources (if you’re not ethically opposed to the last).

I’ve actually spent so much time reading up on this that it’s almost become common knowledge, at least to me. I’ve gotten in the habit of preparing recipes that fit within Tim Ferriss’ “slow carb diet”, and I’ve come to accept that bread and potatoes should be for cheat meals. I seem to be an outlier, though. Especially now that I’ve been sharing food with friends and colleagues more frequently, the conversation seems to come up at least once a week. Someone makes a joke about how all the fat in the meal is going to kill them, and I can’t bite my tongue anymore. Especially after spending two months gathering around a lunch table with a spread of sugar-laden packaged potato salads, a variety of sugary cheeses, and at least a few members finishing every meal with a slice of bread coated in a dripping layer of honey, I can’t not be that righteous ass who takes the bait.

“Actually, it’s the carbs in the bread, not the fat that’s going to kill you,” I’ve retorted more than once. I then have to rehash the processes I’ve only partially understood but have rehearsed enough to get through a reasonable explanation of the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats.

I hate being that guy, but I feel like a religious apologist who just wants to save the souls of those I care about. There has been so much misinformation about nutrition over the past few decades that it seems no one knows what they ought to be putting into their bodies, and the overwhelming amount of terrible options makes it all too easy to make bad choices.

Perhaps I’ll do this properly at some point and actually go through a well-cited review of the literature, but I need to get to sleep. I still need to prep for my thesis defense on Friday, and I’ve ended up being more involved in this conference than I had planned, so it’s going to take most of my time over the next couple days.

If you’re curious about the subject, I suggest starting here:

The Story of Fat: Why We were Wrong About Fat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5S6-v37nOtY. This is basically and entertaining and abbreviated version of Taubes’ article.

This guy has a bunch of videos on the subject, and he really seems to know his stuff on an extremely detailed level.

Here’s a pair of videos about fat and weight loss:

https://youtu.be/cRSeyCZwEUI

https://youtu.be/KHaCKudtVi0

Here’s one about the drug that’s basically alcohol, but it doesn’t even get you drunk enough to stop caring how bad it is:

https://youtu.be/f_4Q9Iv7_Ao

And why it’s so hard to avoid:

https://youtu.be/KHaCKudtVi0

And how you can break the habit:

https://youtu.be/olEMIohTgzQ

And a habit that you absolutely should pick up, no matter what you think of athletics, competition, or physical work:

https://youtu.be/DsVzKCk066g

Schooling

Today’s featured image: Sunset over Tønsberg harbor.


I left off yesterday with a bit of pondering about my future with a potential family. The idea is far from settled, but the topic of education has come up multiple times over the past week. Of course, this is a major concern for any current or expectant parent, and everyone seems to have their own idea of what a proper education looks like.

Returning to the film Human Resources, there was a small but significant section that discussed the development of the modern education system. As I discussed previously, the writers and experts showed no restraint in blaming the ineffectual and rigid system on a cabal of capitalist elites who designed the system as a form of social control.

I’d like to respond to the claim. First off, the claim that any system of such proportions as a country the size of the United States (even at the turn of the twentieth century) could have been designed by a small handful of people and actually achieved its ends gives those people far too much credit. The strongest case against almost any conspiracy theory is that the people implicated almost certainly could not have pulled off the plot. Whenever you think that the people in power are deviously super-intelligent and can dupe an entire nation, just remember that the current cabal is either part of the Trump administration or is flailing in disarray because they couldn’t figure out how to stop the Trump train.

Is it really so unreasonable that the current state of education came about in much the same way any large human system did? Organically, without design, and constantly evolving. I will make no effort to defend or criticize the current system. I have many bones to pick with education systems around the world, but why must we immediately jump to the conclusion that a failed system is the result of intentional skulduggery? Is it not just as reasonable that the system is failing not out of malice but out of ignorance? Or incompetence? Need there be devious intent? Let’s play out an alternative explanation.

As the Industrial Revolution came into full swing in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, the economy started to become more coordinated. It required that people be in the same place at the same time. This is also the time period that you start seeing some of the first alarm clocks and people actually having clocks in the home. With the advent of the assembly line just after the turn of the century, it became an imperative that many workers are in their places at exactly the same time. Life itself became more rigidly structured. People who grew up in such a system saw it as a logical and efficient way to structure all sorts of things, including the education of their children.

Building not only on the structured time of the Industrial Revolution but on the academic compartmentalization that grew out of the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, educators put together systems that they believed would most efficiently bring up the children. Lawmakers, proud patriots that they were, recognized the importance of education in building a strong nation of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs, so they made formal education compulsory. They were convinced that it was for the good of the children and the nation. Despite all these good intentions, everyone was working with constrained budgets, infrastructure, and time. The systems needed not only to give the information to the students but also to accommodate the limited resources. What developed is a clunky and inefficient machine, founded on outdated assumptions about learning and incentive schemes that have grown away from their original intention.

This is, of course, purely a speculative thought experiment, but it seems like a more logical sequence of events to me.

Blame

Today’s featured image: Verdens Ende (“World’s End”), the southernmost point of the island of Tjøme, which lies in the fjord south of Tønsberg, Norway. I guess you’re only seeing that if you got here through my social media feeds.


Many of you slightly leftist and generally rebellious readers in my social media circle are, no doubt, familiar with the linguist and pop culture philosophizer, Noam Chomsky. Professor Chomsky – whose education and academic career were entirely in linguistics, not political theory – rants endlessly about the lack of democracy in the United States. He confidently asserts that the political system has been corrupted into an oligarchy of wealthy politicians who feign a type of choice while playing petty games of political wrangling to ensure their perpetual rule. This system, though clear to all as a farce, he explains, perpetuates itself through the massive financial efforts of the ultra-wealthy, particularly the corporate elites, who have made elected officials dependent upon their enormous political advertising campaigns, which ensure that only the politicians who will dependably legislate in favor of the interests of the top 1% can even have a shot at running for office.

Despite my condescending tone, I think he’s essentially right. But he didn’t convince me. Lawrence Lessig, in his book Republic, Lost convinced me that this is actually the situation we are in. Both men have identified the same phenomenon, but I see one as a rambling old crank who maintains his popularity through a pedantic pseudo-intellectualism and the other as a logical and just, if ineffectual, scholar, whom I wish was able to lead a larger movement.

Why?

The two political critics have very different targets for their vitriol. Chomsky is unabashed in his blame of the heartless ruling class, who conspire in nefarious schemes to satisfy their own greed at the expense of the poor, innocent laborers. Lessig, on the other hand, points the finger at the long and dangerously banal evolution of a gigantic political system into an oligarchical behemoth that swallows up both politician and voter alike.

Chomsky blames people. Lessig blames systems.

What’s the difference? Systems are just collections of people, right?

Sort of. People act within systems, but a system can persist for generations not because people want it to but because they can’t (or won’t) conspire to change it. Placing blame on a system recognizes that maintaining the status quo is always easier (often significantly so) than challenging it. Blaming people assumes that some intelligent actor(s) is/are actively deforming the natural order through their malice, greed, or other motivation to ensure their own material gain at the known expense of others.

I will admit that I don’t personally know any billionaires or high-ranking government officials or federal politicians, but I would bet my bottom dollar that these people are not so different from the vast majority of human beings that they have become so callous and sadistic as to devote their lives to the pursuit of making everyone below them in the socioeconomic order absolutely miserable. I would bet that dollar again (the stakes aren’t very high) that most of these people are actually well-intentioned, caring human beings who want the best for their families and friends, who legitimately care about the suffering the in the world but believe that our solutions are either misguided or infeasible, and who often use their social or political power to effect changes that were honestly meant to do good for others but fell victim to the inevitable law of unintended consequences.

Maybe I’m giving them too much benefit of the doubt, but what good does it do to call them greedy and psychopathic? Does pointing our finger and identifying the culprit actually solve the problem? What is the logical response to a crowd of raise fists? To cooperate? To submit? To throw their money out the window as they flee in terror?

I hope you see the preposterousness here.

These thoughts came from my viewing of a documentary called Human Resources. It shed light on some very interesting and dirty parts of American history, but there was a constant overtone of conspiracy by the corporate elites who have trapped us through their devious technological advances in a cycle of control.

Perhaps I’ll go deeper into this tomorrow, but such extraordinary claims are almost invariably made without any evidence (much less the requisite extraordinary evidence) and belie a simplistic vision of the world that I believe is worse than useless.

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