Wednesday, November 11, 2015

My "thank you" to Veterans is Both an Apology and a Thank You.

Does this type of post honor veterans
or criticize "this country" for not honoring them enough?
Is that the same thing?
Today is Veteran's Day, so prepare yourself for a social media overload of flags, pictures of statues, and quotes intended to be inspiring about the sacrifice of veterans like the one on the right.  We celebrate our Veterans for their courage, their bravery and for their sacrifice, as well we should. But is it enough?

Some people will lament the fact that the celebration is only one day, or that it doesn't change the way we honor the veterans, or fail to, on other days.  The government agency tasked with helping Veterans is plagued with scandals, and the NFL has to be paid to honor the veterans.  So it's no wonder that we've gotten cynical about how much a few "thank you" messages matter.   Is it enough to say "thank you" if we don't really try to understand what the sacrifice of a veteran is?

You've probably heard someone say before that it's not what you say but how you say it.  A flat, uninterested "thank you" from someone who doesn't really care feels patronizing, because it is.  So how can you say "thank you" and mean it?  To do that you have to understand why you are saying "thank you."  Are you thankful that a veteran was willing to die for their country or for your safety; are you thankful because their voluntary service meant that you didn't have to serve; are you thankful because you've lost someone and you feel that you understand better the sacrifice others have made; or are you thankful for some other reason that's personal to you and not easily summarized by an internet quote?

Why you are thankful matters because it will and it should affect how you say "thank you."   My reason for being thankful for the service of many of my friends is at least partially tied to the fact that I did not serve, and was not required to serve.  I grew up in a very safe environment and, like many Americans, do not worry about my survival on a daily basis.  This has shaped who I am and it is a comfort that we all want to provide to our children.  It's easy to see the physical safety that a strong military provides for us, but what's less obvious is the mental and emotional safety that a voluntary military provides to its non-military citizens.

Serving in the military and risking one's life requires accepting training on how to be prepared to kill another human being and to sacrifice human life when necessary.  Military advertising glosses over that fact, but it is a necessary component of military training and sometimes of military service.  Post-traumatic stress and other invisible wounds that veterans suffer from can mostly be traced back to the existential absurdity of facing death while fighting for a better life.  We teach our children that all life is sacred and that being "good" is about living up to that ideal.  Then we teach our warriors that our life and our way of life is more sacred than other life, and we expect it to have no effect.  But it does have an effect, and that is not something to be ignored, but something to be mourned and honored.

There are people in this world that want to hurt us because we are different than they are, and the existence and necessity of the military is an ongoing acknowledgement that staying free requires that we protect ourselves from those other people.  We accept that collateral damage in that protection is inevitable.  We should continue to try to minimize that collateral damage, but we should also remember that no matter how many statues we erect and fancy commercials we make, being a veteran means sacrificing something no person should have to sacrifice.  It means accepting a loss of their innocence so the rest of us may remain innocent.  In some ways that is more of a sacrifice than risking one's life, and yet most of our "tributes" only acknowledge those who died while those who survive continue to sacrifice.

You've probably heard the saying "freedom isn't free," meant to honor the fact that our veterans give up some of their freedoms to help protect ours.  But freedom isn't an endpoint either.  Simply having freedom means nothing if we do nothing with it.  Freedom from tyranny grants us room to grow and be better people, and it gives us the room to connect to each other.  Empathy is not possible when we're in survival mode, but empathy is the greatest gift we can give to our fellow humans beings and ourselves.  Just as fear leads to hate and anger and suffering, empathy leads to understanding, connection and happiness.

For me, my "thank you" to veterans is both an apology and a "thank you."  I appreciate your service and your sacrifices, both visible and invisible.  And I am sorry that the world is still a place where your service is necessary.  I am sorry for any part I play in creating more conflict rather than reducing it and every day I will try to remember that a viable space for empathy to grow is the true gift we receive from our veterans.  For that, I say Thank You.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Netflix is not the Problem. They're the solution to a problem that shouldn't exist!

Everyone is complaining about Netflix trying to find a polite way to charge more for their instant watch service. What you should be complaining about are the cable companies. Here's why:

Netflix has found a way to offer you a service that your cable company is too stupid to offer: actual on demand viewing of movies and shows you want to watch. Your cable company already has the infrastructure in place to offer on-demand viewing, already has the content, and already has a lot more of your money than Netflix. And for all of that you get on demand viewing of maybe a couple episodes of shows you might want to watch. Netflix charges you 1/10 of what your cable company charges you to get access to much much more on any device, anywhere you get internet. The problem is not the service that Netflix offers, the problem is that you should already get this service for free from the company you already pay to bring you the same content.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

134340 Pluto, and his little brother Charon

Pluto, formally known as a Planet, has been recategorized by the International Astronomical Union on August 24, 2006 as a dwarf planet. Although no longer considered an upstanding member of the solar system (to borrow a phrase from 2 Skinnee J's), Pluto is now the largest member of the Kuiper belt. So it's not all bad for Pluto. Rather than being the smallest fish in a sea filled with giants like Jupiter, Pluto is now the largest member of a smaller sea.

But what about Charon. Charon is the largest of Pluto's moons, or rather that's what Charon used to be. Since Pluto is no longer a planet, it's inaccurate to call Charon a moon, a nickname for natural satellites such as the Earth's Moon that orbit planets.

At times Charon was even referred to as a double planet with Pluto because of its size compared to Pluto, just over half the size of Pluto. Indeed, Charon and Pluto are so close that neither actually rotates around the other. Instead they are deadlocked in an icy stare, with the same surface of each always facing the other.

Charon even used to have the unique characteristic among moons of being the largest moon in the solar system proportional to the planet which it orbited.

But no more. When Pluto lost it's status as a planet, Charon lost it's moonhood. Charon is now just another member of the Kuiper belt, and will always be second fiddle to Pluto in that sea. Even the International Astronomical Union hasn't bothered to define Charon's status, though if Pluto gets to be a dwarf planet it seems obvious that Charon should have the same designation.

For now, all we can do is wait until July 2015 when NASA's New Horizons robotic spacecraft will arrive at the Pluto-Charon system. Maybe then Charon will get the recognition it deserves. Though it seems likely that Pluto will still be hogging the spotlight.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

DVDs are the Best Argument for Electric Cars

So the commercials for the new Nissan Leaf got me thinking about how far away we are from large scale conversion to electric cars (or some version of electric-motor-drive car, such as the hydrogen fuel cell cars we keep hearing about).

The arguments in favor are simple. While the internal combustion engine is relatively efficient it cannot be as efficient as large-scale energy generation just because of scale. Although, the power has to come from somewhere, plugging a car into your home outlet would be significantly more efficient (and therefore less polluting) in the long run than running a small-scale power station under your hood. Designing a car around a small (non-explosive) and quieter electric motor also provides infinite possibilities for improvement in safety, aesthetic and spacious design.

Contrarians that suggest the technology can't be advanced to the level of internal combustion engines (in terms of distances per charge, torque etc.) are obviously ignorant of the Tesla Roadster.

The only argument left against large-scale conversion is the cost of changing infrastructures. And in this respect we should learn a lesson from the DVD. DVDs, short for Digital Versatile Disc or Digital Video Disc, were introduced in the United States as a video format in March 1997. In less than 12 years, we not only have another potential format change (to Blu-Ray High Definition video discs), but the preferred video format prior to DVDs (VHS) are no longer produced in the United States for major film releases.

The infrastructure built to sell or rent VHS tapes (including all players, display materials, related marketing and delivery infrastructure, etc.) have all been replaced for the delivery of DVDs.

Although the scale of the economy is different in many ways (i.e. DVDs are far smaller than cars), the principle of updating or changing infrastructure is similar. If you think about it, how many 10 year old cars do you even see on the roads anymore? Tomorrow when you're driving to work, look around and think about what the world would be like if 10 years from now, that's how many internal combustion cars you saw.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Donuts & Coffee

I haven't posted here recently because I've been overwhelmed with a head cold and trying to get our new office website up and running. I am getting over the head cold, finally, and the new website is up and running, and now I have to figure out how I get back into my routine.

Having spent most of my waking hours over the last two weeks working on the new website, in order to get it out into the world as quickly as possible, I now have to figure out how to calm down. Filling your time with work for two weeks straight changes the way you look at the world, and makes it difficult to relax. When the website finally went live and was debugged (for the most part) by Saturday afternoon, I had to forcibly stop myself from reaching for the computer every ten minutes to do more work. Although, it's great that, as humans, we're able to adapt to different conditions so quickly, it's also dangerous it you value balance.

What's worse is that I can't figure out if my routine is so comforting, then why do I stray from it when I get sick or busy? Why did I start drinking coffee when I was sick and now am back to having no interest in it? Isn't it typical to look for comfort food when you're sick, not foods you typically dislike?

And this is how it all comes back to donuts. Donuts are a food I enjoy, when sick, busy or going about my normal routine. And it's important to have certain elements of your life that are centering, even if those elements themselves have no center.

We are constantly changing and adapting but the simple things, the constants (like donuts and loved ones) are the things that help keep us balanced, that drag us back from the edge of darkness (like 100 hour work weeks). So remember how important donuts are and check out our new family law and mediation website, with circle designs inspired by, you guessed it, donuts.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

We are all living in a bubble.

The Solar System is protected by a helium and hydrogen bubble from cosmic radiation. Although scientists were previously aware of the existence of the heliosphere (the name for this bubble), they only recently discovered (or hypothesized depending on how you read the article) the bubble-like nature of the heliosphere, protecting our solar system on its journey through the universe.

The heliosphere is one of the many elements that allows our planet to sustain life in s safe and nourishing environment, and our knowledge of how it works is very recent and constantly being updated.

Some might say the existence of the heliosphere is evidence of a divine purpose. It could also be extraordinarily lucky, a statistical anomaly that among all the stars in the universe was bound to happen somewhere. Or it could be a typical characteristic of a solar system, something which just happens to coincide with sustainability of life, like heat and light.

Either way it is damn neat. It is amazing that our ecosystem depends on the smallest changes, that we live and die by molecules in our air and water. And it also depends on a bubble of protection that is so big it keeps cosmic radiation away from earth despite being 75 to 90 astronomical units from the sun (i.e. approx. 7 to 8.4 billion miles).

Although, the scale can be intimidating at times it can also be comforting. Thinking about how small we are in comparison to the size of our solar system or galaxy or universe, can make you feel insignificant: 1 of 6.7 billion instead of just 1.

But think of it the other way. There is a wall of hydrogen and helium that is 6 to 7 billion miles away that keeps cosmic radiation from reaching you (as well as everyone else), which means you are connected to and have something in common with everything inside that bubble. You are not just connected to the water you drink and the food you eat on earth, you are connected to every other body in the solar system, even the distant Pluto (albeit a tenuous connection given the International Astronomical Union's revocation of Plutos' planetary status).

That connection is so awe-inspiring that I hope Pluto and I can still be friends.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Why you should watch Star Trek: a letter to my Wife.

Although I am a second generation Star Trek fan (i.e. I grew up watching Star Trek: TNG), I enjoyed the original Star Trek and even most of the later spinoffs. I am also an avid movie fan, and as such could talk for hours about the different themes presented in the many Star Trek movies, both original and TNG.

But the creation of the new Star Trek universe by J.J. Abrams presents a problem for me. Is it a gateway by which new fans will be introduced to the Star Trek I love or is it just an action movie to be enjoyed and forgotten? It is both a celebration of the old and a creation of something new to enjoy and a well balanced combination. But part of me fears that the enjoyment of the new characters and CGI action will distract some from realizing why the old Star Trek is worth celebrating.

After seeing the new Star Trek with my friends I was disturbed to discover they had not seen The Wrath of Kahn. How could you understand the Kobyashi Maru, or the welling of tears you should feel upon hearing the line "You are and always shall be my friend."? How could you really know how well Chris pine grew into the character by the end of the movie if you don't truly know the real James Tiberius Kirk?
How can you truly understand the difference in theory between Kirk's and Spock's solutions to the unwinnable scenario if you hadn't seen Kahn?

I might sound like just another geek to you or the type of person who thinks you have to overanalyze something to enjoy it. But if that's the case then you probably don't understand why Star Trek is so important. Let's see if I can explain:

Great storytelling is measured by personal realization, by what you learn about yourself when watching, reading or hearing the story (not by what you learn about the characters or the storyteller). The stories that describe the dark side of humanity (Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Flies) make us contemplate our own primal urges. The stories that describe the great things we can accomplish even in the face of great obstacles (The Lord of the Rings, The Stand) make us aspire to be better.

Star Trek does both. It envisions a world where we've advanced well beyond war and famine on our home planet, to the point where we can concentrate great effort on exploring the unknown instead of fighting amongst ouselves. At the same time it describes the stories of individuals who face their own obstacles and in the best episodes face their own demons.

Star Trek is hope for a greater tomorrow and recognition that life will always be a personal battle between good and evil. It embraces the amazing potential for discovery of the natural world, the scientific world, and ourselves.

And great storytelling is universal. Even if you don't dream of exploring the stars, you can appreciate the exploration of what it means to be human embodied in the struggles of Data, or the dangers of how much technology should be integrated into our lives as embodied by the fight against the Borg. Of course these are regurgitations of the themes in the stories of Pinocchio and Brave New World. But show me where on TV today you can find these themes explored in the same depth and by actors half as good as Patrick Stewart.

That is why I love Star Trek. It appeals to the philosopher and the scientist. It challenges me to be a better person and to think better of the people around me. Best of all, it reminds me of being a child, and a time when I tried harder to set goals as high as the stars. Those are the types of feelings and dreams that are meant to be shared with your loved ones and that is why you should watch Star Trek with me.

Fishing for Religion: a Skeptic's Journey

Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe in one God. A supreme being that created our world.

Atheists believe that there is no such God or Creator.

And the popular description of Agnostics is that they don't care.

So what do you call a person who refuses to define beliefs based on insufficient evidence but who cares a lot about the questions of creation and faith?

I am not a Protestant, despite my baptism, because I don't believe that a God exists who consciously planned and created the Universe, created people for a purpose, and then bore a human son who was later killed and resurrected. I do believe that many of the teachings of the Protestant and Christian faith are laudable, but I don't think they're the teachings of a divine offspring. In fact I believe this possibility to be unlikely given the lack of evidence to support such an elaborate theory. This means that I am not a Protestant even if I was raised to be one.

In fact I think it is just as unlikely as the theory that there is no God, or purposeful Creator. Although I can't believe in a benevolent being that cares about me personally without evidence I also can't preclude that being's existence without evidence.

The tendency of the universe towards chaos (what newton's second law describes as entropy) is somehow counteracted by all observation in the organization of galaxies, solar systems, planets, and most of all life. My own observations lead me to believe that there must be some force as of yet undiscovered or undefined that counteracts chaos and creates purpose in the world, or at the very least organization. This means that despite that phase in high school I am not an atheist.

Unfortunately, I haven't heard or thought of a theory yet that explains this missing link, the counter-force to chaos, and that stands up to a healthy questioning.

We should also take a closer look at the definition of Agnostic, as well:

1. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.

2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study.

Although it doesn't describe someone who doesn't care, both definitions are left lacking in hope. I cannot be an agnostic because, despite the fact that I am skeptical, I do have hope that the truth is knowable. I have hope that despite a belief that human knowledge is limited to experience, our powers of observation are ever increasing and expanding and that the constant reaching for the next horizon continually provides us with a little more of the puzzle.

My spiritual journey, therefore, is one of hopeful skepticism, a journey described in great detail in the works of Carl Sagan. Although many would have called him an atheist I think it more accurate to simply call him a skeptic; a man unafraid to play devil's advocate to the theories of believers, no matter the belief, and apply skeptical scrutiny to the process by which they reach their beliefs.

Although skeptic isn't a pretty label it applies better than the alternatives. I could call myself a Saganist but I'm not sure he would approve.

Regardless of what label or names I am called I am determined to keep caring about what it means to believe in something greater than oneself and to keep searching for an organism or organization worth believing in.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Does Technology Make Our Lives Better?

The Geek Answer: Come on! Of course it does.

The Philosopher Answer: Define "Better", and "Technology", and "Make."... Just kidding.

The reality is that technology makes your life better even if you don't realize the many ways that it does. Even if you're the type of person who believes that focusing on the simple things in life are what make your life better, then consider the following:

Do you enjoy sunsets or sunrises? Well, now you'll get to enjoy more of them. The average life expectancy in 1901 was 49 and by 2000 it was 77. This is due mostly to technology that allowed us to have cleaner (disease free) drinking water, better medicine and safer transportation. That's 10,277 more sunsets.

Do you think food should be simpler and "organic"? Well, you can thank modern transportation for giving you the options. Although food was simplest when raised in your own background on your family farm, the choice was greatly limited and a lack of refrigeration technology meant that for food to last it had to be smoked, pickled or otherwise prepared (most of which have their own health consequences). Transportation and refrigeration technology have given us the ability to choose food options that we wouldn't otherwise have access to.

Not convinced? Still think things used to be better before?

Nostalgia often makes us think of the past through rose-colored glasses. For instance, how many times have you heard people say how their old cars were like "tanks", much stronger than today's "plastic" cars?

Check out this video showing how well the technology of 50 years ago stands up to today's version:

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Top Ten Commandments?

What happened to The Ten Commandments?

Although there are a few versions (depending on how you number them) the basics stay the same. At the Catholic High School I attended we were taught the following ten commandments:

1. You shall not worship any other gods or make yourself a false idol.
2. You shall not use god's name in vain.
3. You shall remember the sabbath and keep it holy.
4. You shall honor your mother and father.
5. You shall not kill.
6. You shall not commit adultery.
7. You shall not steal.
8. You shall not bear false witness.
9. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor's possessions.

There is nothing simpler in the complicated world of religion than the ten commandments. There is no ambiguity (or at least very little) and the list is short enough to remember. It was certainly easier to understand religion when I was a child and I was told these are the ten things you need to know.

I was reminded of these commandments recently because of the overwhelming news coverage of Tiger Woods breaking #6. While the details are sensational and titillating, the news coverage is warranted more by the interest of the general population seeing a star fall from grace, than from any widespread moral outrage. In fact, the newscasters have reminded us multiple times that except for a minor traffic infraction, Mr. Woods has not done anything illegal by cheating on his wife.

Now, I'm not inclined to get on my high horse and preach about his moral wrongs. But I am struck by the odd contrast in our society between the attention warranted by simple personal "moral wrongs" and perceived political "wrongs." Except for the fact that Tiger Woods is rich and famous his adultery would not be news, not even the fact that it was with multiple women. Not that I want the news to cover every adulterer's infidelity, but where is the outrage in our society for the simple sins.

I've seen more news stories than I can count about the obesity of Americans, despite the lack of any commandment about overeating. But I've never seen a news story about how many Americans steal or commit adultery.

Indeed, it is only a matter of time before the news turns back to the debates over whether or not we should have nationalized health care, whether global warming is preventable, or whether the government should legalize gay marriage.

Now, again, I'm not inclined to get on my high horse and argue that everyone should live by the Ten Commandments all the time, but they're certainly a great standard and a simple standard to aspire to. In the spirit of the story that "he without sin should throw the first stone", perhaps we should spend more time in our society worrying about the simple basics of our beliefs (or our religion) before we start preaching to others on more complicated issues.

Put another way: You shall not curse the evils of national health care, oil use, and gay marriage while at the same time failing to clothe the poor or feed the hungry, or aid the sick, or while failing to guard against your own covetous nature.

While I'm not saying these other issues don't merit debate, I am suggesting that we should all start by prioritizing our lives. If you still have time to spend protesting gay marriage or global warming then you obviously have the rest of your life in much better order than I do.

What's my point? Save your outrage for the outrageous, or it loses all meaning.