Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fundamental Science Practices

How DO you do good science?  When I first joined the US Geological Survey (USGS) I was introduced into a powerful culture of high integrity science.  It came with an unusually stringent ethical code; I had to divest myself of some worthless mining stock that had been given to me.  As my branch chief told me, the only thing we have is our reputation as purveyors of extremely high-quality, unbiased science. Fail in that and we are nothing.

Since it came into existence with the Organic Act of 1879, the USGS has maintained comprehensive internal and external policy and procedures to ensure the quality, utility, and integrity of data, analyses, and scientific conclusions to maintain the reputation of USGS science for excellence and objectivity. In other words, certain specific high standards on how we must do science - from gathering data all the way to publishing it with an interpretation, and all the steps in between.  

In 2003, the USGS formalized these standards to ensure that the incoming biologists (yes, the USGS has a large biological discipline) as well as the geologists, hydrologists, and geophysicists all adhered to the same high standards.  A concept document was developed that outlined a set of science practices, philosophical premises, and operational principles that would serve as the foundation for USGS research and monitoring activities. Using the concept document and the best of our longstanding policy and procedures as the basis, in 2006, the USGS Fundamental Science Practices (FSP) policies were established.  Procedures related to applying these policies were developed, with the overall intent to ensure the quality and integrity of all future USGS science activities.

The FSP focuses on the operational principles related to planning and conducting data collection and research: how USGS science is carried out and how the resulting information products are reviewed, approved, edited, and released. The FSP are not designed to address the question of what work the USGS should do—this is addressed in many documents related to Bureau science planning.

A crucial part of the FSP is peer review of every science report or document: a minimum of two other disinterested scientists with expertise in the area of the report must do a critical review: did the authors think of this?  Did they follow a recognized valid procedure for that?  

Most important: will the final product - which must have both editing clean-up and Director's Sign-Off -  cause embarrassment to the USGS?  Director's Sign-Off is a read done by about 10 designated senior experts (not managers) who ensure that if there are political implications in a report - for instance a forecast of undiscovered hydrocarbon resources - that the USGS management gets a heads-up. Some have complained that this is in effect political interference, but in my experience this has never happened - at least in the USGS.

It seems like an admirable goal: nothing ever produced can be less than the very best, completely defensible - to maintain the reputation of the USGS. Historically this has been taken to such extremes that scientists have sat on a report, reworking the maps and the data, for years. The Best has sometimes become the enemy of the Good. Another potential problem is that risks are not often taken - there is a bias against going out into some completely new research direction.

For someone with an ego, finding all sorts of critical notes in red ink on your manuscript may be hard to take - until you see that what has been done by your peers is designed to protect you from embarrassment. 

The result is two-fold:

1. Every publication with the USGS logo on it is well-written, in impeccable English, and free of errors.  No fundamental assumptions have been missed, no logic bombs have slipped through.

2. If you are a USGS scientist, you can be justifiably proud of the scientific league you belong to.  


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Selective Evidence

Out of the blue this morning I received a phone-call from a man in Mississippi.  Months ago I had tried hard to answer a question from him, submitted to the USGS "Ask a Geologist" web-link.  He took my sincere effort to answer his question as sympathy, tracked me down, and talked long and loud over the phone to get me to agree with his theory:

That the Great Comet of 1811 was the cause of the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquakes.

Some background: 
1. The Comet of 1811 was a real humdinger, visible longer (March 1811 til Summer 1812) than any other comet until Hale-Bopp.  It came nowhere near the Earth.
2. The New Madrid earthquakes took place in the Mississippi valley where Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas touch. This point is apparently in the center of an ancient failed continental rift, where North America started to split apart (like the Red Sea), but then stopped after partially opening up the Mississippi valley. The first two New Madrid earthquakes were BIG: estimates from ground evidence (sand-boils, reversal of the river, etc.) put them in the Magnitude 8 range. That's comparable to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake but these were felt far more distantly. Two large aftershocks hit the following January and February of 1812. Eye-witness reports indicate that the Mississippi River flowed backwards for about an hour, creating and filling Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, before returning to its normal course.

Basic fault physics, and the fact that the Great Comet never came within 10's of millions of miles of Earth, make anyone who spends 5 minutes following those links above discard any possible connection.

However, the individual on the phone told me that he has seen a sunken rim near his home, had found "thousands" of meteorites, and even "encased pieces of human bodies" on his property.  He also said a USGS seismologist agreed with him, but wouldn't return samples he sent her.

She was someone I knew, so I called her - and you probably would not be surprised to hear she had a very different story.  The sunken rim was an ox-bow of a tributary river to the Mississippi - something common with rivers in flat land.  The "meteorites" were a well-known regional sandstone formation.

I tried to ask this guy how he had dated the individual features to connect them - especially the meteorites and the "encased pieces of human bodies"?  He brushed past this and said that I must Google a topic - it would lead me to his website. He had built a website to support this theory of his.

[Early take away: treat everything you find on the internet with caution - even those Wikipedia links above - if it hasn't been vetted with a scientific peer-review process required by all reputable scientific journals. If as a scientist you based your hypothesis and subsequent scientific research on something pulled out of someone's ear, you can bet it won't get you very far - certainly not to the Truth.]

I work for the US Geological Survey, and have specific tasks I am charged with doing.  I'm not paid by the US Taxpayer to have fun and pursue what I might like to do, so responding to Ask-a-Geologist queries is something I do on my own time as a volunteer.  To stop the high-speed chatter from this man on the phone, I asked him to send me his important points in an email message.

The main take-away: as Federal scientists, these sorts of things are all too common.  We run into these all the time. There are two common denominators:

1. An individual has formed a strong opinion about something, and is frustrated that no one will agree with him.  They frequently say things like 'scientists are set in their ways', and 'scientists won't listen to an average guy if he's not educated.'
2. They do selective evidence-shopping: if something doesn't support their theory, they discard the evidence.

The first issue is understandable. They didn't work and starve for 10 years to get a PhD, and resent that someone with one asks inconvenient questions, or perhaps just blows them off. There are issues of kindness and respect here, and we all know brusque and impatient people, whether they have a PhD or not. It's probably understandable that someone who is busy on a project will have little patience with someone who didn't do their homework, and says things that make no sense to someone who has studied physics, or astronomy, or geology, or whatever.

The second issue is far more serious: selective evidence-shopping is the antithesis of science. It will never lead you to the Truth. That selective evidence-shopping in this case included mis-representing what a fellow scientist had said - he twisted his encounter with her to serve his needs. As you might imagine, neither she nor I wish to ever talk with this individual again, for fear that he will mis-represent what we way to someone else - that he will allege to someone else that TWO USGS scientists agree with him now.

It all boils down to integrity: if you're not honest, you will fail as a scientist. It may happen before or after you earn your degree(s), but you will fail. When people learn that you have been dishonest, they will never trust you, and won't waste precious time on you. Sadly, I've known people with enough brains to earn a PhD who can't seem to understand this simple principle. They never seem to understand why their careers dead-end.

SCIENCE REQUIRES HONESTY.  If personal integrity isn't important to you, don't bother to apply.


Sunday, June 26, 2011


On the face of it, the need for a college education may be vastly overstated. We've all heard of the infamous Party Schools. There is an active grant system already in place today to encourage brilliant young people to by-pass college altogether and strike out to develop their own dreams. Everyone knows of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg as iconic examples of fabulous financial success - by guys who never completed college.

The truth of the matter is: these success stories are incredibly rare. Really? Try this: how many people can you personally name who dropped out of college and became a big success? Do you need more than one hand to count that high? One finger?

Most of us make our way in this world by hard work.  Luck occasionally helps, but luck never lasts.  Brains help... but if you don't work hard brains will fail you 100% of the time.  Most of us in the real world need jobs.  If you want someone to take a risk and hire you - let's assume for the moment that you do not have a wealthy parent to invest in you - then you have to present some evidence that they can use to make the bet on you.  Make no mistake: hiring someone is a very risky bet.

How would you prove to someone that you were worth taking that risk? Being an Eagle Scout is good enough for Marriott Corporation - they will hire Eagle Scouts who need work because they have already proven that they can (a) work hard, and (b) stick to a task to completion. It may be entry-level, but it's a job. A college degree is pretty much the same thing, but brings with it evidence that you have some sort of advanced level of knowledge: you have proven that you can write, or you can design, or you can build, or you can market. Two or more is an added bonus to the person hiring you.

There is another reason for a college education: if you lose your job, you have both the degree and your previous experience to lay out as evidence to people who would potentially hire you.  In the current job market, it's not unusual to have 6 to 1,000+ people applying for a single job.  Put yourself in the shoes of the hiring agent: how can you sweeten the deal for her?  What evidence can you show that puts your head above all the others?  If most of them have college degrees and you don't, then you are starting on your knees.

Finally, here is something many people don't think about: with a general college education you acquire other things that a hiring agent probably won't care about. I took a class once just on the plays of Henrik Ibsen. I took another on Shakespeare and one on art history. I took a class in far eastern religion and philosophy. I also took an archery class (I still have the bow-snap scar to prove it), and several other odd-ball classes... just because they seemed interesting. I am so much the richer for these.

The result is that I can appreciate watercolors in a movie like Totoro, I can appreciate good writing in a movie  like Camila. I can pick up on - they make me smile - the subtle external references in movies like Avatar, Inception, Hero, Serenity, and Master and Commander that would just fly over the heads of people looking for cool CGI and a lot of blood and gore. Those people are easily bored; I'm not.  I can watch some movies multiple times and see new things each time. Because of college.

I'm saying this: a general college education means that your eyes are open to appreciate things you would not have appreciated otherwise. You are no longer a two-dimensional person, but someone who can live in a three-dimensional world and love it.

Sue, it's not cheap, and sure it takes some sweat and work. In this world, however, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. If someone paid $1,500 for a black belt in a martial art (I've seen schools offering rank for a fee), how much do you really think people will respect you for that? Would you even really respect yourself?

Get that college degree. I'll go out on a ledge here and say that I don't really care what you get that degree in, or where; certainly a Harvard degree means little to anyone who are not Harvard grads. Ask around if you doubt me here; I've hired people, and someone who is full of themselves for where they came from is not what I'm looking for. But most of all, get that degree for yourself: become a greater person, a more enriched person. The carpenter who repaired my house in Virginia had a college degree; he picked it up on the side, and it wasn't easy. He had enough experience that he eventually built up a small company, and even ran for (and was elected) Chairman of the County Board of Supervisors. He was leading people in making huge, life-effecting, big-ticket funding decisions in infrastructure and education. His impact on people in that county will never end. He's also a Mormon bishop, helping people in yet another level.

Why do you think he was able to advance to where he is? He studied at night and stuck with it. Everyone admires and appreciates Scott.


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Climate Change

You don't need to believe in climate change.  It's pretty much a done deal - no belief is necessary. It's been going on since the beginning of time, and there is a huge trove of evidence supporting the fact that our world is always changing. This evidence comes from isotopic evidence in lake bottoms, it comes from fossil evidence - warm-blooded fresh water animals whose remains have been found in Antarctica. There is even evidence from packrat middens (ancient packrat nests that can be dated using C14), and tree-rings. I have visited building sites while surveying in the southwestern US that show a huge population existed in the region that today could no longer support even a fraction of the evident population. I could fill my house with all the evidence that has been accumulating that shows our climate has changed and is changing.

What most people are hollering about these days is a slightly more specific question: how much of the recent climate change is anthropogenic - that is, human caused?  It's no surprise to anyone that we are using more fossil fuels today than are being replenished - by many orders of magnitude. Records kept since the 1950's at an atmospheric observatory on Mauna Loa volcano's north flank in Hawai'i show a steady rise in CO2 in our atmosphere. Recently, scientists have made enough measurements to quantify what is contributing to this CO2 increase in our atmosphere. A brilliant scientist who used to work for me (now retired) named Terry Gerlach recently published a paper in EOS, the weekly newsletter of the American Geophysical Union (14 June 2011 issue).

Some nay-sayers have argued that volcanoes contribute most of the CO2 to our atmosphere. Here are the final measured numbers:

Volcanoes: 0.26 Gigatons of CO2 per year
Humans:   35 Gigatons of CO2 per year

And it's accelerating: there has been a 550% increase in atmospheric CO2 emissions just since 1950. It's a known Greenhouse Gas - high-school kids prove this in physics classes.

How could this be? Well, for starts, China is bringing one new coal-fired power plant online every week.

Until recently, geologists broke up prehistory into several categories:
The Precambrian Era ended about 542 million years ago (we start seeing fossils).
The Paleozoic Era ended about 250 million years ago - and 95% of all living things died.
The Mesozoic Era (the age of Dinosaurs) ended about 65 million years ago when a 10-km/6-mile diameter asteroid crashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula.

We are now in the Cenozoic Era, which has several sub-sets:
  - The Paleocene lasted until 56 million years ago
  - The Eocene (when horses first appeared) lasted until 34 million years ago
  - The Oligocene lasted until 23 million years ago
  - The Miocene lasted until about 5 million years ago
  - The Pliocene lasted until about 1.8 million years ago
  - The Pleistocene (Saber-Tooth Cats, Mastodons, etc.) lasted until about 10,000 years ago.

Until recently, the last 10,000 years have been just called the Holocene. Now it is broken up to add a more recent epoch: the Anthropocene:  The time when Man started changing things. When mass-extinctions have accelerated so fast that it's comparable now to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Latter-Day Saints understand that the Earth is a living thing.  Implicit with that understanding is a responsibility to take care of her.

Abundant recent evidence suggests that politicians aren't up to doing anything about this.

But 65 million years ago, everything changed in just a few hours with the Chicxulub Event, with an explosion equivalent to about 100 million megatons of TNT.  About 30% of all life-forms were destroyed.

Are you ready for a very short-notice change?  Does the Abomination of Desolation ring a bell?

Somehow, I think that's in His Toolkit.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

He gave us the TRUTH

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm an utter pragmatist.  In college I found math difficult to focus on - unless I could see a practical point to it.  Group theory?  Not much.  Complex variables?  YES.  Fast Fourier Transforms?  DEFINITELY YES.  It works - and will allow me to map rare earth elements (REE's) on the Atlantic Continental Shelf.

This is why I teach and study Jujitsu: as my oldest son said when he introduced me to it, "Dad, I finally found it!  This is a Martial Art, not a martial business, and Dad - it works."  I know I can stop a fight, I've watched a 5'1" grandmother take down a Navy SEAL Trainer not once but three times.  I'm not wasting my time swatting air or flailing around at people wearing heavy pads and helmets.  Jujitsu works.

This is also why I'm a geophysicist, and not a string theorist.  Math is fine if it's beautiful, but unless there is a point to it, I'm not interested in wasting time on it.  I successfully used an airborne EM system to map the groundwater beneath the 1,000-sq-km San Pedro Basin in 3D.  It works.

That's also why I'm a Latter-Day Saint: it makes sense, it answers all my questions, and puts everything in a rational, systematic framework that I can use to process life experiences.

Question for you: What do the following have in common?
Malachi 4: 5-6
1 Corinthians 15: 29
1 Corinthians 15: 40-42
Jeremiah 1: 5

There are quite a few more like this, but these are some of the more obvious parts of the Bible that no other Christian faith understands.  No other Christian faith has Temples, either.  Christ taught in Temples.  Israel was instructed to BUILD Temples.  However, only Latter-Day Temples exist on this Earth - at my last count, at least 136 of them all over the world.

I find it both irritating and amusing at the same time that a small number of "christians" take it upon themselves to excoriate Latter-Day Saints for not being Christian.  Yet they don't practice - nor even understand - simple and clear elements in the Bible like those verses, nor apparently how to be Christ-like. They also apparently never spent any time studying what happened at Nicaea in 325 AD, when a political decision was made to adopt a consensus understanding of who God the Father and Jesus Christ were.  Whited wall, indeed.

I've seen old stories about Joseph Smith, written by excommunicated bitter men and long since disproved, dredged back up again and again.  Why the animosity?  Why would anyone care?

To me, it's a back-handed compliment: someone is motivating a small number of susceptible people to attack a man who managed to explain those and many other obscure scriptures, who gave us the TRUTH.  There must be something to this.  Something must be working that bothers some people.

As far as I can tell, the Book of Mormon (521 pages dictated start-to-finish in just 60 days without corrections or editing), is exactly what it claims to be.  There are too many things in it - both content and structural - that were unavailable to anyone on Earth in 1828, but have since then been discovered.  I feel good when I read from it, while I do NOT feel good when reading the Song of Solomon.

This Gospel has opened my mind to continuing personal revelation, something unavailable in every other religion I studied when I was searching, and that by itself is a gift beyond measure.  My wife and I have received such amazing peace from it, and Joseph Smith is the reason I have this.  Joseph Smith also gave his life and blood rather than deny what he had seen and learned.  This Gospel works.

And I honor him for providing it, at great personal expense.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dark Energy

No, nothing evil about it. It's just referred to as Dark Energy because astronomers can't see it.

But they can infer it, and "it" is pretty huge.

In 1998, two different groups of astronomers were trying to figure out how fast the expansion of the universe was slowing down: were we gonna go out with a Bang (the Big Crunch) or with a Whimper (to quote a favorite poet)?

To their mutual astonishment, they discovered that the universe expansion was accelerating. To do that, of course, requires a humongous amount of energy.

Unraveling what this Dark Energy is preoccupies astronomers and cosmologists more than just about anything else these days.  They may not know what it is, but they can calculate how much of it there is.  Remember from yesterday that matter and energy are equivalent: E=mc^2. Current data are consistent with this breakdown of the universe:

71% Dark Energy
25% Dark Matter
  4% Ordinary Matter (you, me, and the stars).

Not sure about you, but this really boggles my mind.  I told you that "it" was the Biggest Thing of All.

There are a lot of ideas about what Dark Energy is: perhaps it's the Vacuum Energy I talked about yesterday? Maybe we're mistaken in thinking that Einstein's theory of General Relativity applies the same everywhere, and for all times present and past? Or, maybe this is a manifestation of some sort of ultra-light scalar field that has been speculated about, called "quintessence"?  (I can hear my grandma snorting her disgust at this "foolishness"...)

Perhaps the weirdest suggestion I've seen (from Physics Today, June 2011, p. 54):
"Could the observations be telling us that despite the near-isotropy (translation: looks the same in all directions) of the cosmic microwave background, the universe is inhomogeneous on large scales and our Milky Way galaxy is located near the center of a very large void?"

Occam's Razor says that when faced with several possible explanations for something, choosing the simplest one is probably where the smart money is.  For me, this would be something different than what you might think:

When someone says they know where life came from - and it wasn't from Divine Intervention - and why we are here in this incredibly large universe, and that even thinking about this stuff is just random good luck multiplied by 1 with twenty million zeros after it... 

I'd say that they were half baked raisin bread.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Candles and Constants

I've got something interesting for you, probably the Biggest Thing of All. However, getting there took more explanation than I thought it would... 

But first, an odd observation: In early cloud chambers physicists would see evidence of paired particles popping out of nothing into existence. They were always particle-anti-particle pairs and they always flew off in opposite directions, so conservation of momentum was conserved. But to conserve mass-energy (remember the old Einstein mass-energy equivalence equation Energy = Mass times the velocity of light squared), you had to assume that there was an energy there before the particles appeared. That energy exists even in a vacuum - and this is where Vacuum Energy got its name. 

Another observation: There are supernovae of a certain type (Type Ia) that blow up in very predictable ways.  These are stars of a very large mass, and their explosions are so predictable that they are used as "Standard Candles". That term stems from how bright is a "standard" candle as seen from a given distance... a century and a half ago. The idea is that if something always blows up the same way, and gives off the same amount of light each time, then the dimmer it was the farther away it was. This was perfect for astronomers, because while there are other Standard Candles out there (Cepheid Variables for one), Type Ia supernovae can be seen and measured a whole lot farther away.

Hang in with me here, this really is going someplace, I promise.

In the 1930's, Edwin Hubble
(the guy the space telescope was named after) figured out that a lot of the "fuzzy" objects visible in early telescopes were really giant galaxies like the Milky Way. This was a pretty humbling observation, because just a few centuries earlier, humankind thought IT was the center of all creation... and now humankind realized that it occupied a small stony planet in an insignificant solar system in the middle fringes of an average-sized galaxy... and there were millions of galaxies. Quite a come-down.

But Hubble was more fascinated than bothered. He observed that the farther away these galaxies were, the redder was the light coming from them. For anyone who has heard a siren pass by them and noticed the pitch drop, this is called the Doppler Shift. No, it wasn't named after someone named Shift, either. The equivalent of the siren sound dropping in pitch is light turning redder if something is moving away. The faster you go, the lower the pitch, and you can relate those two with a constant number multiplier. If the galaxy was coming toward you, a galaxy would have a blue shift... but ALL galaxies had RED shifts - so they were all receding.

Ever bake a loaf of raisin bread?  As the loaf rises, ALL the raisins are moving away from each other in all directions. The farther away a pair of raisins were to start with, the faster they move away from each other as the loaf rises.  Galaxies and raisins: pretty much the same thing.

At that time it still wasn't certain how big the Hubble Constant was, but Ed took a stab at it: something between 40 and 70. In a nicely-behaved universe, the Hubble Constant would relate how FAR something was by how RED the light coming from it was. In other words, how much the Hydrogen-Alpha absorption line in a solar spectrum was shifted down into the red range, multiplied by Ed's Number, would tell you how far away the galaxy was. At that point of time in science history, everyone knew about the Big Bang theory, and this seemed to prove that it was the winner over its big rival, the Steady-State theory. So... if you could narrow down the Hubble Constant, you could also get a handle on when things started flying apart. In the last few decades, the age of the universe has been narrowed down to about 13.4 billion years.

What came before that?  Good question to ask an atheist.

OK, if things are flying apart, and there is gravity acting on the same things, then the expansion should be slowing down - as gravity exerts its inevitable pull on those things.

Pretty straight-forward, right? Some people speculated that when gravity finally took over, everything would collapse back onto itself into something called the Big Crunch: the End of the Universe.

Turns out that everyone was 'way wrong on that one.  I can't WAIT to read tomorrow's blog to find out!


Sunday, June 19, 2011


Last Sunday I was in an Airbus crossing the continent for some meetings that started in Reston, VA, on Monday morning.  Whenever I miss Church I feel a deficit - something is missing.  It's like forgetting to put my cell-phone on charge the night before, but the internal loss is more so.

Years ago, I was the USGS Science Mission Chief in southern Venezuela.  I was resident there with two other American geologists and their families, and I had responsibility for the work and logistics as well as for the safety of up to 12 "TDY" (Temporary Duty) scientists each year. They would come down for 1 - 3 months at a time to help us and our Venezuelan Tecmin counterparts map the roadless, jungle-covered southern half of the country.

Because I was responsible for their safety as well as for directing them, every time a geologist took a helicopter into the jungle - or moved camps - I would be there with a Nomex flightsuit and a helmet.  This was especially critical for Venezuela, where the pilots were as spotty as the maintenance on the aircraft.  These were so dangerous that by the third year we were doing most of our entradas in dugout canoes.

By a coincidence, I had to do this three Sundays in a row, and it was really getting me down. Finally, I asked my stake president (I was his 1st counselor) for permission to administer the Sacrament to myself. Surprised, he said yes, certainly. It gave me an opportunity to explain about Keys to this only-three-year member of the Church - and how critically important they were.

I pulled off the side of the road to Tumeremo in the southern jungle just before sunrise; Tumereno was our Tecmin helicopter base. I opened and read from Section 20 of the D&C, and I administered the Sacrament to myself using a canteen and a small pancito (a small French bread roll about the size of a hot dog bun).

As I finished, I looked to my left and the Sun was just rising; the sky was a glorious riot of color. Only then did I realize that it was Easter Sunday. Someone reached out and touched my mind, and I cried like a baby.  I've never forgotten that special morning, and since then Sunday is more special to me - and especially Easter Sunday.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

You Bet Your Life

I wrote an article for the American Jujitsu Association newsletter several years ago with that title. My point: there are over 850 different Jujitsu techniques cataloged within Budoshin Jujitsu. You could spend your entire life trying to learn them all - but that wouldn't be very pragmatic. Instead, I encourage my students to perfect those that work for them - work on the ones you would bet your life on. For instance, a shorter student naturally can get off a hip-throw on a larger person (and thoroughly trash an attacker) much easier than the other way around. Why, then, would one of my 6"1' (185 cm) blackbelt assistant instructors even bother with working on it? Mainly, so he can teach it to the 5'1" (155 cm) female student who is so good at it now that she is already a brown belt - almost a blackbelt herself.

If it isn't pragmatic - if it doesn't work - I'm not interested in wasting time on it.

I feel the same way about my LDS religion. Does it work for me 168 hours per week?

I require that.

The things that are most attractive to me about LDS doctrine are that it is self-consistent - no loose threads, no Limbo elements - and it is utterly pragmatic. Don't get me wrong - Joseph Smith himself pointed out that fully a third of the Book of Mormon was sealed and unavailable to him... and that some knowledge was available to individuals only after much pondering and personal revelation.  For me, this included an off-the-wall thing like knowing if a nuclear holocaust would happen between the US and Russia. Until the 1990's this was a persistent residual worry in my life; this was one of those things that was important to me, if not others. I got an answer, which (also as a fundamental and elegant part of LDS doctrine) I am permitted to share only with my family. The basic stuff is all there, though, and it works for everyone who cares to think about it.

The LDS doctrinal philosophical framework works for me in the most pragmatic way: it makes me happy. It is also consistent with my lifetime experience - how things work in the world, and how it makes the wonderful and sad things of life all make sense.  I have a means to fit them into a larger context: they all fit into one greater whole.

I'm quite content to bet my life on it.

Is my LDS belief system conformable with science? Insofar as science understands things, absolutely. That's another requirement. A key issue here, however, is that science is an evolving understanding of things real.  Some scientists have a myopic view that the current version of scientific understanding is the ultimate, perfect, will-never-change-in-the-future science. (It's their religion.) Even a casual examination of the history of science disproves that particular conceit. There are 26 fundamental constants that physical science simply cannot explain: they just are what they are.  In the larger scheme of things, modern science and technology are light years ahead of the science of the 17th Century. However, if you look at things like the anthropic principle (see earlier blog of that title), the fundamental constants, climate change, Dark Energy, earthquake prediction, the nature of the Earth's core... well, it becomes abundantly clear that we are barely in the infancy of science right now.  It's really not a bad place to be - I have something to do.

From where I sit, however, I can see them both converging on the same thing: The Truth.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Popper in Sir Karl Popper (1902 - 1994).  He was an Austrian philosopher of science who rejected the traditional idea that science advances by observation, deduction, and proof. Instead, Popper held that knowledge advances through a creative process of developing theories which are filtered out by Falsifiability: they were assumed to be correct until proven wrong. In the 1930's the logical positivists treated him as a kindred spirit. They held that a statement was true only if it was verifiable (a sort of reverse way of saying the same thing). The weakness of this approach is that Popper felt that knowledge advancement was an evolutionary process.

Well... sort of.

What he meant was that the theories that survive are the ones that best help us survive and prosper. When a theory is tested, we consider how it fits with our overall belief system and reject the theory that is most expendable - the one with the least inductive evidence supporting it. Sort of like cross-pollinating and irradiating your roses to evolve the Black Rose that your aesthetic has desired. This is like adhering to a religion that's convenient.

That's not really how real science works. Falsifiability is crucial, yes. However, convenience - to convolve a theory to optimize our existing belief system - no. That's not seeking Truth.  It's taking the road most traveled.

Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) argued forcefully that science advances only through a process of observing anomalies that don't fit with existing theories... these inevitably lead through a "paradigm shift" to a newer theory. Quine and Duhem (1861-1916) also retrospectively laid out a weakness of Popper's approach - they were certain that hypotheses can never be falsifiable in isolation. Any scientific theory is really an interdependent set of theories and assumptions, where any anomalous observation can falsify a number of different hypotheses. Falsifiability proceeding this way is closer to how modern science works.

There are also hypotheses that can never be falsifiable by definition: the existence of God, the existence of a Multiverse, etc.

For this reason, String Theory isn't science, but instead could be better described as mathematical philosophy.  Perfecting a Black Rose - creating something beautiful and intellectually satisfying. While the theory strives to match observed physics, it isn't testable.  For some, it's become a new religion (see an earlier blog entry about Atheists Believe).

This is the sort of thing that gives philosophy a bad name in the first place: it's just another example of the un-testable how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin sort of stuff that preoccupied religious thinkers before the Enlightenment... before the idea that you could - and should - actually test things to prove them.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Blue Ridge

As I write this I am looking westward towards Virginia's Blue Ridge.  I've been participating all day in meetings in the USGS National Center, to discuss with several corporations how we can use a technology I developed to map and identify rare earth elements hidden beneath the Atlantic Continental Shelf.  I've retreated to my hotel room to get some space to myself - something I have in common with a majority of the human population who are not hard extroverts.

It's called Blue Ridge because... it's blue.  It's edges and colors are lost in the permanent haze on this side of the country, caused by the prevailing winds blowing eastward all the pollutants of the continent.

This is a sort of metaphor for our memories.  I recall some things vividly (close calls with death tend to stand out), but most other things are lost in a blue haze like my westward vista.  This is not abnormal, it's not bad - it's part of the human experience.  The digerati among us know that to record the video and audio details of 16 waking hours of our life would require something larger than the hard disk on our desktop computer... and that's not even hi-res.  If we had perfect recall we wouldn't be able to hear ourselves think for the racket of all the details crowding into the forefront of our minds.  This is not a fault of the human mind, it's a defense.

Any good scientist will demonstrate certain habits.  They take careful notes of their experimental results. After a few cases of a lost sheet of crucial numbers here or there, scientists become compulsively well organized as well: they record things in a bound notebook, or if they are really OCD like me they keep detailed notes in a digital file... with backup copies all over the place in at least three different formats.

THIS way, we can always recover the crucial information - the memories that have gone hazy and blue - when necessary - when we want and need them.

I once put together a list of things that I labeled THOTL, which was short for The Hand of the Lord.  This list was the 13 different critical nodes on the Gantt Chart I used to plot our family's move to Venezuela for a three year assignment. Failure to pass through any single one of these nodes on a precise schedule - passing the State Department health screening, for instance - would have left us in the United States with mono-lingual children. I never would have had those hundreds of astounding jungle experiences, we would never have had all our life-long Venezuelan friends. There is a huge list of positives for all seven of us that came from this experience.

However, if I had not put together that list - kept detailed notes - all the critical step-by-step getting-there information would have been lost in the blue haze of time. I would have easily forgotten that 13 separate nodes were all passed successfully - a statistical improbability. Flip a coin 13 times and do you think they will all come up heads? If you're interested, there is just a 1 in 8,192 chance that this could have happened without outside intervention.  And that's not counting the precise timing aspect.

My life is full of these things: success after improbable success. A recently example: a huge survey off the coast of South Africa using my marine induced polarization patents. The survey defied the odds: not a single failure of any one of ~30 different components. We successfully mapped a 45 km x 15 km chunk of the sub-seafloor off the coast of South Africa, and laid out in three dimensions where the placer heavy minerals could be found.

You can invoke incredible luck - or accept outside intervention.

There is a crucial take-away here, too: if I had not recorded these events, the blue haze of human memory would have lost them - like tears in rain - and with time I would not have remembered or recognized the repeated Divine Intervention that defies all probability. Don't get me wrong: I am tested with difficult things like anyone else, maybe more so to keep me humble. If I dwelled on these - instead of the intervention miracles - I would be the Biggest Loser.


Don't throw away the incredible gift of recognizing Divine Intervention and the love that it implies so strongly.  If you record these, you WILL see that Finger through the veil.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Line Upon Line

A musical genius named Lex de Azevedo wrote a song, part of "Saturdays' Warrior", with that title.  I cannot sing it to myself (I've memorized it) without tearing up at the astounding promise it unfolds.

As noted earlier ("ESTJ") I am a very linear person - I get uncomfortable if I can't see where I'm going.  I want the answers to everything now.  Patience is for the testosterone-challenged...

The first time I stepped beyond my linear comfort zone was to accept that being 85% convinced that the LDS Church was the Sendero Luminoso - the Shining Path was enough (I refuse to let the Peruvian Maoists usurp that name).  I took the Leap of Faith and became a Mormon.

I started getting help and guidance then... if you've read this far then you already know were that came from.  My life veered from its usual oscillatory character into an upward trajectory of consistent happiness and growing knowledge.  However, Mr. Linear wanted ALL the answers and wanted them ASAP.  To that end I took all the Institute classes offered at the University of Arizona - 10 semester classes - in two years, finally co-teaching one of them (on Science and Religion).

There were still things in the Bible and the Book of Mormon that I didn't understand, and likewise with the much-denser-content Pearl of Great Price... but with time I was able to walk and drive about 60% of the Lehite Trail, and everything checked to the tilde (see the oddly-named chapter on the Frankincense Trail, "How to deal with a corpse in 35 C weather").  I served as chief scientist for volcano hazards for the US Geological Survey, and 3 Ne 8 correlated precisely with a ~VEI 6 to 7 level volcano-tectonic subduction zone event.  The volcanic history of Central America, of course, wasn't available to anyone in 1828 (see "Volcanoes you could never know about").

With time I actually matured a bit (to the surprise of many).  I took the Federal Executive Institute management-bootcamp-on-steroids training and learned how to moderate my heat-seeking missile personality... over time I began to appreciate how wonderful it is to steadily gain new knowledge.  As a scientist I learn new things about geology, hydrology, biology, volcanology, cosmology, quantum mechanics, etc., every week, sometimes every day.  As an LDS Scientist, however, the growth is even richer, verging on the knee-shaking astounding.  The real character of the Urim & Thummin, the vast, multi-generational power and ultimate significance of the Family, a steadily-broadening understanding of the Atonement... have all been added unto me.  I also have help with my own research - I don't waste time following dead ends, because I have guidance that helps me avoid them.  That's astounding all by itself, even after I've become used to it.

The best news of all, however, is that the progression isn't slacking off: it's picking up speed.  Like the Dark Energy effect on the galaxies, my knowledge-universe expansion is actually accelerating with time.

Line upon line, precept on precept
That is how He lifts us
That is how He teaches his children
Line upon line, precept on precept
Like a summer shower
Giving us each hour His wisdom

If we are patient, we shall see
How the pieces fit together in harmony.
Then we'll know who we are in this Big Universe...


You need to go find that last part yourself.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Aggressive Driving, Poison Pen

There is a certain degree of anonymity that comes with posting things online - comments, email, chat, whatever.  There is also a certain degree of anonymity when we are alone at the wheel of a car.  Or at least it may seem so.

In both cases there can be a personality change.  In neither case should there be.

It's become something of a cultural icon: the Soccer Mom.  Too many obligations, high stress, and time constraints can change our personality for the worse.  We can all sometimes allow ourselves to get wound too tight.  I've had to pull part-way off the road to avoid a head-on collision because someone was absolutely determined to pass me in a dangerous stretch - just to get to the next light and start again at the same time as me.  She really didn't gain 9 more seconds on her schedule.  I've found myself fuming that the person in front of me was driving 5 miles below the speed limit.  My wife had a road encounter with a young Mormon bishop and described her contempt at his aggressive driving - and what that said about him.  Whoa.

The same holds true for writing.  I once met a senior geophysicist in Boulder, Colorado.  He was a very polite, almost obsequious individual.  I subsequently dealt with him professionally over reviews of some manuscripts, and that is where I learned the meaning of "poison pen" - it was a very different, aggressive personality: a Mr. Hyde personality exposed.  Years after I moved away from Denver and this individual had apparently retired, I received what my wife calls a "nasty gram": He accused me of sabotaging an NSF proposal he had sent in.  It had been several years since I had reviewed an NSF proposal, of course.  In the same nasty letter he included two sheets from his professional bibliography - his way of bragging apparently.  I immediately noticed that there were multiple papers - apparently the same thing but with slightly changed titles - submitted to different scientific journals.  Each paper had a number: 746, 747, 748, etc. It was a startlingly overt case of what in science professions is called "padding your bibliography."  It's a form of professional cheating, and anyone who spends any time reviewing such a thing (for instance, while serving on a peer-review panel... or reviewing an NSF proposal) will recognize this quickly and downgrade the bibliography and the worth of the individual accordingly.  I couldn't imagine a more jarring letter: an unfounded accusation and bragging combined with transparent dishonesty.  I learned later that his goal was to reach 1,000 publications before he died.

What a miserable excuse for immortality.  How incredibly sad.

My dissertation director and friend Ken Zonge once told me that in his experience dishonesty will always come back to bite you: in 10 seconds or in 10 years, perhaps - but it will come back at you.  This was in response to my reflective comment that I was glad to have him as an adviser because he was both honest and considerate.  He made it clear that he was this way for his own personal peace of mind.  

Stephen R. Covey observed that trust in someone takes a long time to build - but can be lost almost instantly by an ethical or moral violation.  He describes this pattern as a saw-blade: a long ramp up, a sharp drop, followed by a much longer ramp up to rebuild trust again.  Once burned, twice wary.  This crops up over and over again with politicians in the news.  It seems like a significant percentage of the human population is unable to think clearly in certain areas.  Gonads for brains, a roommate once said.

The take-away here:

Your private life must stand up to public scrutiny.  There is no such thing as anonymity - even hackers who use Anonimizer get nailed (three hackers in southern Spain were jailed on 10 June, 2011).  Misbehaving when you think no one is watching - or with other misbehavers and assume that it won't leak out - is a fool's errand.  Everything, always, will come back to haunt you.

If you always behave in private like everything will become public at some point... you'll never have to worry.

How do you spell tranquility?  Live so you never have to say you're sorry.


Monday, June 13, 2011

Gelb fil Gelbi

This is the beautiful Lady I married: Gelb fil Gelbi (heart of my heart).  Shodan (Blackbelt) mother of five with an MA in Linguistics and an MS in Biology-Ecology.  Thinks spiders are cool.  Wanted a skateboard for her birthday.  Plays All-Teeth-and-Elbows basketball, and as team captain won a regional championship while 5 months pregnant with her 5th child.  Absolutely fearless.  Scary smart.  She's holding a future professor of Anthropology at Macquarie University in Australia.



Sunday, June 12, 2011


In a day-dream long ago I thought about "falling into" a medium-sized fortune.  I'm sure this hasn't happened to anyone else  ;=)

This day-dream, however, didn't compute - made no sense to my right brain.  This is because my parents were solidly middle class - and because I consider the Lotto a tax on the computationally challenged and won't have anything to do with it.  From somewhere, nevertheless, the very specific number of $26,000,000 came to me (the origin of that number is lost in a twilight dream).  By today's standards, this would be more like a small fortune

I first thought that I would build a round turret-shaped study, something that Louise had always dreamed of.  For the record, she loves her current study with a territorial view of Clark County and a peek at Mount St Helens.  She's more than earned it: raising 5 kids in harsh circumstances in Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, going back to school - starting from scratch twice after a long absence - to first earn an MA in Linguistics and now an MS in Biology-Ecology.  Her typical work-week is 60 - 80 hours. She deserves something nice - but I can't even talk her into a camera for her birthday.  Sigh.

I next thought that I would buy a house in the neighborhood for each of our kids - a nice house.  Then I thought of investing in Don's med school education so he didn't have such a hideous debt, and Cory's college, and Jared's film industry career...

But a house in our neighborhood would effectively clip their adventurous wings; all five kids have lived for extended periods of time in three or more foreign countries, speak multiple languages - and what could they do here?  Walk in the rain a lot, that's certain.

I also thought about getting a trawler for myself: a motor-vessel around 15 meters long that I could motor up the west coast to the remote coves and bays of SE Alaska that I used to work in.

Then reality set in:

Three of our kids who completed high school in Switzerland while we lived in Saudi Arabia had up-close contact with the children of Russian billionaires and wealthy mafia bosses... and my kids couldn't stand even one of them.  They were spoiled, incredibly self-absorbed, and every one was startlingly unhappy.

I can't think of a better way to ruin your kids than to throw money at them.  They would never learn how to make their way through the world on their own, and would have badly skewed perceptions of their own self-worth and that of others around them.  Might as well break both legs - they would at least recover from that.

And I can't even buy jewelry for Louise: she politely accepts any ring I buy her and promptly stashes it in some un-findable safe place so it doesn't get lost.

Finally, I faced the reality of my motor-vessel dream: In my professional work I have had a lot of experience on motor vessels in rough seas.  I've done geophysical mapping from a ship in southeast Alaska. I've developed a (now patented) electrical geophysical towed-streamer technology to map minerals buried beneath the seafloor.  In all the sea-trials, I am now 4-for-8 for getting seasick.  The old saying is that "Five percent of human beings never get seasick, five percent never recover, and the rest of us fit somewhere in between."  True that.  I'm personally acquainted with puking shoe-peg corn through my nose.  Ech.

Finally, the most unhappy person I have ever known up-close for an extended period of time was my sister's second husband, who would never tire of letting me know that he was worth $10,000,000 or $15,000,000 or $20,000,000 (the number evolved over time).  He lived for his next toy, but a toy for him was a Ferrari, or a Steinway player piano (he couldn't play it; he never applied himself to anything except weaseling money from widows).  The day after any new toy arrived he was unhappy again.

In a detailed study of 10 people who had won the Irish Lottery, nine of them said that it had completely ruined their lives - and 8 of the 9 were in debt!  A similar study of winners of the Virginia Lottery was 100% ruination: in debt, kids messed up, the whole works.  The lone exception in Ireland was a shepherd who lived in a dirt-floored hut on an island.  He put the money in the bank and forgot about it.  Ten years later he was living in the same hut and said he was quite happy, thank you.

What was I thinking?!??


Saturday, June 11, 2011


In the side of my desk-bookcase I have a Gary Larson cartoon.  It's just a single frame, with a befuddled man standing in front of two doors.  Above one it reads "Damned if you DO" and above the other "Damned if you DON'T"  

Behind him is a tall creature with a goatee, horns on its head, a tail, and two hooves for feet, poking the man in the back with a trident.  "Come on, come on," says the devil, "It's either one or the other."

Agency doesn't mean having easy choices.

Coincidentally in that same book case is Kierkegaard's book "Either/Or" (1843), written under a pseudonym "A" as was his wont.  In it, Kierkegaard writes about different ways of living.

Most people when they hear this name think of the expression "Leap of Faith" - under the somewhat mistaken understanding that Kierkegaard somehow intellectually justified exercising faith in God.  In a roundabout way, he did.  He postulated that most people live their lives in one of two ways: the Aesthetic Life, where we live in the present and have beauty in some form(s) as our goal.  Another way to live is the Ethical Life, where we try to live in accordance with the truths of morality.  Kierkegaard found both to be unsatisfactory for a thinking, rational individual.  He proposed as an alternative a third way" living a Religions Life - but acknowledged that this wasn't really a rational choice, either.

Kierkegaard distinguished between Objective Truth and Subjective Truth. Objective Truth is a scientific undertaking, designed to sync our beliefs with the external world around us. Subjective Truth on the other hand was where the relationship between an individual and the world around her/him is built into the system of belief. However, there are internal contradictions (at least in the religious traditions that Kierkegaard was aware of at the time he wrote this book): How could Jesus, for instance, be both God and man at the same time? Kierkegaard felt that a Leap of Faith was required to reconcile oneself with Subjective Truth. To believe in God in order to conform to society is worthless; even in the 19th Century, most nations had a State-sanctioned religion. We must instead make a passionate leap into a faith-based, subjective belief - this is the only way Kierkegaard felt we could achieve fulfillment as human beings.

Lost you yet?  This has been a problem with most philosophers: their turgid prose was comprehensible to few but contemporary philosophers.  To that end, you will not see a summary on this blog of Immanuel Kant.

But if you re-read the summary above, you can at least say you sort of understand one famous philosopher. I admire Kierkegaard for trying so hard with what little he had. Personally, I find that there is an utterly pragmatic and self-consistent philosophical framework underlying my LDS faith. One of the greatest compliments ever given to Shakespeare by contemporaries (and my Shakespeare professor at Berkeley) was that he could talk to two or even three different audiences at the same time, occupying the different tiers of the old Globe Theater in London.

My perception of LDS doctrine, however, is that it can talk to all human beings in a manner consistent with their current intellectual development. More than just broadly satisfying, it helps us all understand this life in a manner that makes it incredibly satisfying. Like Objective Truth, however, it is also consistent with everything I have encountered in this world and beyond (see my earlier blog entry on Hymns and Cosmology).

I pity my atheist friends - but not too much.  We all must sleep in the bed we make ourselves.  At the same time however, I am satisfied that no matter how wasted their time on this planet may be, they will be taken care of, too.  You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink: God will force no man to heaven.

While I periodically worry about my inactive kids, I know that the meaning of family is far greater than changing diapers and paying for college - it extends to helping each other through all generations of time.  The template is in the Atonement.  In the meantime, I won't try to mess with their agency - that would be a terrible thing for anyone, especially anyone I love.

Agency is the most important key and characteristic of godhood.  

Sure must be scary for some people in the Final Foxhole, however.  


Friday, June 10, 2011

Flattening the Curve

When I was young, I would watch my parents (I had four; divorced and remarried), and my grandparents.  It was like I was watching two different species, the difference was so substantial.  My maternal grandmother was dead of a tobacco-fueled heart-attack, and my Grandpa was well along into a long-term dementia.

My paternal grandmother stayed with my Mom after her son had left us, and raised me and my sister.  I just assumed this was normal at the time, but that grandmother had been abandoned by her husband, and knew what that was like.  She also didn't like hearing that one housekeeper had drugged me with Laudanum to keep me from disturbing her day, and the replacement had beaten me senseless with wooden hangers.  My Mom figured that one out when she found most of her hangers broken in a trash can.  Grandma Wynn stayed with us for seven years and raised me, taught me my ethical principles, and my work-ethic.  She seemed quite a bit different than other older folks I knew as a child... she had wrinkled skin, but boundless energy and wit.  She spent all her time helping and taking care of others.

But to the story at hand: Why were my grandparents so different from each other, and so much more different  than my parents?  As a young adult I picked up on the idea du jour that normal human beings "peaked" at around 25 - 30 years old, and it was all a long, slow downhill from there.  Fall apart slowly and then die.  A humped curve: like the Pike's Peak Marathon, the second half was all downhill.  Sheesh.

I became a Mormon at age 21 and began to notice right away that older Mormons didn't seem to follow that pattern.  It was apparently the norm for Mormon Church Presidents to be hale, articulate, and vigorously active well into their 90's.  They traveled all over the world, directed a complex organization... and seemed to be inexorably happy.

I learned some principles which I have shared with each of my kids: keep active, eat right, avoid tobacco and alcohol and a couple of other obvious vices - and that humped curve flattens out.  Too late (for my neck, face, and forearms, anyway) I also added onto their lesson-list to avoid excessive Sun exposure.  I'm still glad I'm a geophysicist/geologist.

I won't belabor you with the details of what "active" or "eat right" mean - fully a quarter of any modern magazine stand dwells on this in exquisite detail.  There are two more things that I would add to this list, however.
1. To be happy, you will have to stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about how you can help others.  My former Kaiser physician told me that she worked a year or two at a time so she could serve for a year in a free clinic for the homeless.  "I need my community service 'fix'" as she put it.
2. You will also have to get yourself to a place where you are comfortable with being a person doing the right thing: conformable with your Manufacturer's guidelines, so to speak.  No sane person would pour gasoline into their car's oil crankcase, for instance, but I've watched human beings do the equivalent thing all the time - and wonder how they got to look so beaten up.  The old fashion way of saying this is "avoid sin."

Instead of a "humped" curve, then, you will reach a peak - and stay there for many decades. It really IS possible to "flatten the curve".  I'm quite a bit happier at age 65 than I was at age 50... and for my birthday I biked up to the top of a neighboring hill that you cannot climb even in 1st gear on any sit-down bike. You must "jump the stirrups" - jump and power down on each peddle all the way to the top of the hill. It's fantastically aerobic, and I just did that particular route at the same average speed - about 19 kph - as I did it 9 years ago. I will test for my 5th degree black belt this coming August. My skin and white hair say one thing, but Louise says my energy and joie de vivre convey something entirely different.

It's fun to be on a flat curve. I just don't want to hang around here forever, though, and my faith makes a huge difference in how I view both my purpose in life and my inevitable departure.

But not for another 25 years, at least.  There's too much fun stuff yet to do.


Thursday, June 9, 2011


The chief ethical counselor of the US Geological Survey defines ethical behavior as doing the right thing even if you knew that no one was watching.  Unclear where nose-picking fits into this.

A major issue of contention between atheists and believers is that ethical behavior comes from a religious tradition.  Atheists say no - it's inherent to the human species.  Look at me - I'm ethical, they say.

Other atheists - the kind that attribute everything to Darwinian natural selection no matter the paucity of evidence - argue that ethical behavior is a societally-promoted evolutionary end-product. Those who weren't ethical in earlier, less forgiving eras... were killed by tribal or vigilante groups. Conform, help the group - propagate your genes. Thieves and murderers produce fewer children. Case closed.

I challenge any reader to deny that their parents ever corrected their unethical behavior when they were children or teenagers. "You will come with me as we return the toy you stole. And you will apologize." This would seem to imply that people are not born with ethical principles, but I disagree.

It's clear that there is perceived room for interpretation: taking a cheap pen from a hotel room?  Taking a towel? Taking a TV? Where do you draw the line? I knew a senior scientist in the USGS who would buy and bring his own drafting pencils to work for fear of using a government pen or pencil to write down a personal note. I watched another scientist ridicule him for this... and once sat beside that other scientist a year later, eating lunch on the edge of a fjord in southeast Alaska.  I pointed out a seal watching us from the water... and was stunned when the man pulled out his .44 Magnum pistol and started firing at the seal! I jumped up and asked what the heck? "Everyone has his time," was the laconic reply. I asked him if he'd had a mother, and he didn't reply, but the seal was smarter than me and dove beneath the surface.

Clearly there is a breadth of interpretation about what is right and what is wrong, but surely there must be some basic core principles that everyone from all societies adhere to?

How about killing a human being?  In Srebrenica, "Christian" Serbs murdered 8,000 innocent Muslim men and boys in 1995.  On 9/11/2001, Muslim fundamentalists murdered 3,000 innocent American men and women - including a significant number of Muslim men and women in the Twin Towers.  You could argue that this is just the behavior of sociopaths... but it took a lot of ordinary Serbs to bulldoze the burial trenches, to bus the victims to them, etc., and it took a lot of infrastructure and donations from a wide-ranging Middle East population to pull off 9/11.  There was a vast infrastructure and population behind the Holocaust, including hundreds of thousands of "ordinary" people.

Niccolo Machiavelli argued in The Prince that it is better - in terms of stability, economic well-being, and the happiness of society as a whole - for a ruthless ruler (the Prince) to kill some individuals.  These could be people who potentially threatened the ruler's power, or they could be innocent individuals being simply being used as an object lesson to instill fear and obedience.

No, left alone, mankind (as opposed to womankind *) seems to be able to carry out vast atrocities - history is full of these.  There are far too many of these, in fact, to be attributable to sociopaths and psychopaths.  Human beings appear on this planet as infants - nearly empty slates - and they can be molded to do most but not all things.

(* There are exceptions of course, but statistically, most of the murders and atrocities in our society's history are perpetrated by the male half of our dimorphic race.)

There is a history in my paternal line of infidelity - and a lot of women and children suffered terribly because of this.  My gentle Uncle James (earlier blog) was a notable exception.  The infidelity example, however, was before me as I grew up; I was reminded one way or another nearly every day that other kids had dads, and I didn't.  I made a conscious decision as a young man that the infidelity buck, figuratively, stops with me, with my generation.

I believe this decision was rooted in both my childhood loneliness, a basic core level of empathy, and with my growing awareness of a Supreme Being.  Even before I gave up atheism I had thought through this particular issue and made that particular decision.  Ultimately, I believe ethical behavior stems from recognizing the expectations of our Maker.

Someone IS watching.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Rotational Management

In most universities and many (but not all) of Federal government science agencies, there is a practice called rotational management.  The theory behind this is that in order to manage scientists, you must be a scientist.  This is so that you can hold their respect without beating up on people (an extremely inefficient way to manage), but also so that you can understand what your scientists do - so you can help them do it more effectively.  There's another paradigm out there: that you don't really need to understand what your scientists are doing, you just need to be a leader.  No, that doesn't make sense to me, either, and I've noticed that scientists operating under this sort of paradigm generally just ignore the management... and hold it in deep contempt.

I've seen two management styles in the USGS.  One style I would call collaborative - this is what I practice during my rotational management assignments. I find that when everyone works to set the goals together, they all feel some degree of ownership of those goals - and naturally work that much harder.  Scientists living under this style of management are also happier - and naturally more productive as a result.

I've seen a few examples of what I would call totalitarian management.  The most egregious example was one where an individual had a copy of Machiavelli's The Prince on his desk (in the original Italian), and openly stated that to be an effective manager one had to use intimidation and fear.  He actually lasted as a manager for several years, until it became clear to everyone including his boss that he could no longer hold things together.

I've chalked the few examples of this latter style to inexperience - a scientist who has never managed and suddenly finds herself or himself floundering may reflexively do this.  Also, I've seen several cases where a formerly decent person, when they feel they have some power over others, undergo a weird personality change.  In two cases, I've seen this style develop in a team or science center when a sociopathic individual somehow was selected as the next leader.

You can guess how things might play out under these two different kinds of leadership. There is an old expression I've heard: "teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves." 

During the 2004 eruption of Mount St Helens in Washington State, people moved cots into their offices to sleep and were working 18 - 20 hour days to monitor the volcano (which killed 57 people in 1980).  They felt they were actually doing something to help their country, to protect their fellow citizens.  When the Secretary of the Interior visited the day after the first atmospheric blast on 1 October 2004, she held a press conference which I conducted.  After the formal part was over, reporters stuck microphones in the faces of the senior scientists and Interior managers present, including me, standing next to my boss's boss's boss.  One radio reporter asked me "What's it like leading a group of high-powered scientists like this?"

I stepped back off the sidewalk into the bushes behind me and replied "I've learned to get out of the way so I don't get run over."

That's why rotational management - when it's done collaboratively - works so well.  I cannot imagine how you would otherwise get 80 people present in the Cascades Volcano Observatory at the time to work 186 hours in a single two week stretch (this happened).


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Uncle James and the Bombing of Dresden

My Uncle James is 88 years old.  He's a gentle soul, belying his experience.

As a 14-year-old, his father abandoned him and his mother, and he lived hand-to-mouth in the Depression, shooting squirrels for the family protein and going to high school only half time so he could work to support his Mom.  The family farm was foreclosed and they had to move into an attic in Somerset, KY.

During World War II he was drafted and sent to the European Front.  Because he had not landed at Normandy - he arrived a month later - he was treated like scum by the others in the regiment he "joined".  He was just filling in for their dead friends.

On December 16, 1944, his platoon was at the German frontier with Belgium, the "Lead Dogs" of the push into Germany.  He didn't realize until the next morning that what became known as the Battle of the Bulge had begun and was already engulfing him.  As the Lead Dogs, they were the last ones out.  Several non-commissioned officers, who had treated him and the other late-arrivals with contempt, sent them down a road to guard an intersection - then they headed north.  Uncle James' platoon were the sacrificial lambs, and it took James nearly 15 years to come to grips with that horrific act.  Of the 25 privates sent down that road to protect their NCO's butts, only 11 were alive by 18 December.  I did some research on this on my own, and I believe that the NCO's who did this to James and his buddies were probably caught up in the Malmedy Massacre - where ~500 American captives were herded into a field near Malmedy, Belgium... and machine-gunned down by elements of Joachim Pieper's 1st SS Panzer Division.  There is justice in this life for some people if not for others.

There followed 6 months of starvation and cruel slave-labor where James' weight dropped from 186 lbs to 95 lbs (he's 6' tall).  He was deliberately poisoned once.  His POW train was strafed by an American P-51 once.  After six months of living with death all around him, James was repatriated to American lines by the Russians in mid-May 1945.  All this time Aunt Alice and my Grandma Wynn had no idea if he was alive or dead.  It must have been just as bad for them.

James was working on a Komando - a slave-labor team doing hard scut-work for the Third Reich - when the terrible bombing of Dresden took place, and he watched the scene unfold.  The final bomb-rack was cleared only 30 meters from him.  He described the horror of this period to me and I built a website to document it - and to honor him.

I have a photo on this website of James at graduation from Boot Camp in Tennessee, and the day he was repatriated on the Czech-German border.  His sandy hair is the same, but he is skeletal by comparison.  He pointed out that in 6 months his hair and fingernails didn't grow at all.  He also mentioned in passing that his feet have been numb for the last 66 years from the frostbite.

There is a lesson in Uncle James' life: no matter what kind of a hand you are dealt, just do your best and be kind to people.  James didn't blame the Germans (his mother had been born in Germany just 60 years earlier), and he got over his deep resentment toward the US Army for what they did to him and his little family.  He harbored no resentment that he had to show his dog-tags, letters from the Red Cross, and his German POW tags to prove he was a veteran - because someone had lost all his paperwork.  He harbored no animosity for the fact that a Bronze Star given to others in his Battalion for surviving the Bulge wasn't given to him until 60 years later... because he had been in a German POW camp at the time.

A record of this amazing story, with maps, photos, and additional details, can be found here.

James made two important points for me:

When he was in the Intersection of Death, hearing German infantry go from foxhole to foxhole and shoot and shoot and shoot, James became convinced he was about to die. He was profoundly aware of his failure to take care of his aging mother and his young wife.  Then he heard a voice: "Just like you and I are talking now, Jeff," that they would be OK.  That HE would be OK.  For the rest of his life, James never doubted where that Voice had come from, and was determined to live his life in an appropriate fashion.  He has never feared death since then.

In my last conversation with my Uncle James, he said this:
All that's really important, Jeff, is to seek and then follow The Lord's Will.  If you do that you will be happy, because you will be doing what you are here on this Earth for.  

I once heard an interesting expression:
Harboring hatred is like drinking poison, hoping it will hurt the other person.