All I Want For Christmas

Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 10.22.15 PMI admit to having book lust.  My zeal for reading has me, like most 50 year olds, staring down through lenses propped on the end of my nose.  An eye doctor would say it isn’t due to reading, just the natural progression of age.  But I have a good eye doctor who claims he will never retire.  Any way you slice it, it isn’t healthy: reading too much, aging, not retiring.

Rather than deny my appetite, I’ll publish my reading list here, in case anyone wishes to send me something this holiday.  There are 55 books on my wish list,  however I can only realistically read 20 books this year.  Not many of these are at the library, but a few are, like Helen Keller’s autobiography.  I don’t know why I never got to that one.  It’s a must read for anyone human.

The problem with having a wish list is that it grows as new books are published.  For instance, did you know the best work in 100 years on the subject of suicide just came out?  Yes, it is a morbid subject, but Americans tend to deny themselves introspection anyway.  That’s a joke, son.

Lake Padden Trail

Lake Padden trail 3

We take this trail so infrequently, because the parking lot is used mostly by mountain bikers going up the Galbraith Mountain trails on the opposite side of Samish Road.  We were lucky on this rainy day to get a spot.  I always back in, because it is safer to pull out than back out, because bikers don’t pay attention. That’s a true fact. Besides being a solitary and inward-focused sport, bikers are too exhausted to care about anything at the end of the trail.

Lake Padden trail dog 10This particular day, we decided to let our dog Bella off-leash.  She’s 2 now, and has, with the help of treats, earned this right because we trust she’ll return at least for them, if not us.  But she more than proved herself, going on ahead 20 or 30 feet and looking back to make sure we were in sight.  Even when we encountered hikers with dogs, as was always the case, she played for a bit, and then stayed with us.  Bella has reached a turning point.

Lake Padden trail 16

We also reach our turning point.  The trail has larger loops for people able to go the duration.  This one is just within our reach.  If we were to tally the litany of our aches and injuries, you’d see why.  We’re not out to burn calories.  Nothing like a woods trail recharges.  The hell with mobile devices.  All you need is a camera.Lake Padden trail leaf 20Even though this is the woods, everywhere is evidence of human presence, of human disturbance.  This photo of a cedar trunk still displays the axe-cut where the logger inserted a board to stand on while using a one or two-man bucksaw.  This trail resides between Samish Road and the I-5 corridor, so road noise is never far off, despite the sound dampening effect of fir foliage.

Axe cut in cedar trunk. Signs left over from logging.

Signs left over from logging

To get to this Lake Padden Trail going North on I-5 toward Bellingham, Washington, take the North Lake Samish exit 246, and turn left off the ramp.  The trail head parking lot is less than a half mile up on the left.  From Bellingham, take Lakeway east to the I-5 South, then proceed to the same exit, turning left off the ramp.

College Transcripts in the Consumer Age

As if college debt weren’t enough, the ball and chain still dragged around by students includes their permanent academic record, the transcript.  Long after a student leaves college, that institution holds the keys to obtaining an official transcript.  If a student wants a copy of a transcript, he or she pays that institution for an unofficial copy.  If the student transfers to another college, the onus is on the student to request a transcript from the host or exit institution, frequently paying a fee to have an official, sealed copy sent to the host or receiving institution.  In other cases, a student may request and pay for an official transcript to be sent to an employer to verify the student’s education.  In fact, colleges and universities never release official transcripts to students.  The upshot is this: who owns the student’s academic record? Does the student?  Then why pay for the institution for the right to access it?  Does the institution own it?  Then why the interference of the student in paying for a copy and transmitting this document to other parties? Don’t we live in an age of consumers, an age of ownership, an age of individual responsibility, an age of independence?

The fact is that higher education institutions have operated on an ancient model for far too long.  The doctrine of in loco parentis allowed even postsecondary institutions to behave in the stead of parents, taking custody of resident students and meting out discretionary discipline.  With the massive changes higher education faces as a result of costs rising far faster than inflation, student academic records are one area consumers should be contemplating prying away from the purvue of institutions.

For one, students increasingly are characterized by the term nontraditional, meaning 73% of students stop and restart their education due to family and work obligations. They are no longer simply 18-24 year-olds, but mature adults continuing on the path of occupational readiness.  Because of the brevity of work (approximately 2.4 years per worker at one employer), transition and frequent access to academic records should serve as the primary impetus for freeing the institutional hold over student transcripts.  A great many of these institutions are not public, but private non-profit, or private for-profit.  They have administrative policy, not statutory authority, for maintaining student records.

The question is when will student activists rise up to question the traditional aspect of institutional possession of the student record?  When will people place on the ballot initiatives that free their information from the custody of non-governmental institutions which could fail, merge with others, or change address?

“When Am I Going to Use This?”

Rebecca Eggenschwiler wrote a wonderful point of view recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “When Am I Going to Use This?”, the common refrain of students bored with the current class. The short answer is “I don’t know”, but if clairvoyance were a reality, we wouldn’t need college classes anyway.  Myself, having just completed a post-master’s certificate, and not having the current fortitude to last out a doctoral campaign to its finish, I found Eggenschwiler’s article at first amusing. On reflection, my decidedly non-academic occupation as a service technician has me frequently asking, “Did They Have to Design It This Way?” Like Eggenschwiler’s non-fictional question-asker, every time I begin taking the panels off office equipment, I openly question the rationale of the hardware or software engineer. Even so, I find copy machines, fax machines, letter folders/inserters, and postage meters interesting, even though they are the epitome of dullness to the average office staff (aka knowledge workers).

The problem with my thinking is that some engineer had to work hard under many constraints to create a piece of equipment to do a job.  Any criticism should be tempered.  Some of the constraints have to do with, in the case of postage meters for example, security requirements of the US Postal Service.  The machines are akin to ATMs.  You can’t be allowed to print postage indiscriminately, even though it is your money.  Second, time and space dictate how a mail piece goes through a meter to get sealed, weighed, and imprinted with an indicia (a digital stamp).  Last, it has to be in a marketable package, not bare metal and exposed wires.  So, the same plebeians who cry foul when confronted with Latin, the finer points of Microsoft Excel, or the privacy aspects of HIPAA should inform me (and others like me) to refrain from complaining when a screw drops from the non-magnetic tip of a driver.  We just don’t have all the answers, and that’s okay. As for the question “When will I use this information?”, the answer is:  Every single day.

Get Admitted to the College of Your Choice THIS Fall

Get Admitted to the College of Your Choice THIS Fall

Are you STILL wondering whether to attend college this fall? If you’re fresh out of high school, my advice to you is: don’t wait another minute. GO!  But wait, you have to choose.  If you’re a mature learner who wants to go back to get a degree after a few years away from school, my advice is the same, but different. Be choosy (sp)!  Of course, I can help.

The difficulty of choosing a college this late in the year is that many college enrollment seats are full for certain programs of study (See this Chronicle of Higher Education article You as a learner may not have the funds to attend the college of your choice, much less relocate to said college town and exhaust yourself in registering, finding textbooks, an apartment, orienting to the locale, and then actually attending the first class.  It may be that you just want to get into the community college. But without help, navigating these treacherous waters could take every last ounce of energy to the point where you just give up. No one wants that.

Enter the seasoned professional (that’s me). For a small investment of time, I can help you not only feel comfortable with your choice of college, but assist in entrance exams, letters of recommendation, and the multitude of hurdles you must jump – not to mention flaming hoops – in order to be a success in your study discipline. You can do this. With a little guidance, your college experience can be made much less stressful and much more productive. Better yet, you won’t regret your decision. Drop me a note.

Examining Consciousness

In a Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “Visions of the Impossible: How ‘fantastic’ stories unlock the nature of consciousness’, author Jeffrey J. Kripal suggests that paranormal phenomena should be placed not only on the table, but center stage in our scientific discussion of consciousness.  He says we should get beyond the stigma that strange occurrences are somehow taboo to speak about in the science realm.  He’s right, but not entirely for the reason he states. It isn’t for lack of trying that investigators have desisted from putting an authoritative stamp on proving paranormal evidence as real and valid.

Kripal refutes his own contention that science has utterly failed to explain consciousness in his next paragraph, “we now have two models of the brain and its relationship to mind”. A model explains the mechanism. Theory supports a model. Neuroscientist Steven Pinker summed up the Aristotlean model on Stephen Colbert’s show (2/8/2007) in response to Colbert’s challenge to describe how the brain works in 5 words or less. Pinker said “brain cells fire in patterns.” I take this to mean that consciousness emerges from complexity, but the patterns do not stop at the brain. Using the rest of the nervous system, the brain builds a map of the body and, by extension, a map of the environment as well. This map of the external relies on expectations based on principles, such as the principle that, when you turn a corner the street continues. If it doesn’t, there should be a dead-end sign. There would rarely, say, be something unexpected, like a sinkhole.
There are other external means to examine consciousness. For example, the Turing Test, named after computer pioneer Alan Turing, posits a human having a conversation with another entity. If the other entity can hold their end of the conversation, can be distinguished as human, then we may conclude that the entity has some form of consciousness, even if that entity is a computer. One might argue that a computer may be made complex enough to stump any human into thinking it wasn’t a computer. Try texting your friend random messages. Soon enough, they will get irritated and ask, in so many words, “Why are you being so irrational?” Now, it may be that you have some psychological issues, but there again, others become concerned when a person’s mental state reflects the lack of a conscience, if not of consciousness altogether. Generally, psychopathic tendencies make the average person question another’s humanness. We tend to urge psychopaths toward mental health treatment. If they act very badly, we tend to put them away, even call them “monsters”, because they are beyond reason.

I’ll relate one more test, a though experiment. Let’s assume you are sound in body and mind. One day, you lose your toes to frostbite. No more toes. Are you still you? Few of us would say “No, I’m the former me, minus toes.” Let’s keep losing body parts. You get in an accident and your legs need to be amputated. Are you still you? Of course, you experienced trauma, but again we retain our sense of self. Say you have further bad luck with heart disease. This time, you get an artificial heart transplant. It takes some getting used to, but you’re still glad to be alive. But then a disease takes your eyesight and your hearing away. Are you still conscious. Of course. No less so than Helen Keller. And this isn’t simply because you retain feeling, taste, and smell. Take those away, I argue, and you still have consciousness. In fact, you can whittle the brain down considerably, and the organ’s complexity continues to provide you a conscious self. No further proof is needed to show that brain is mind. However, I will provide one more.

Physicist John Archibald Wheeler, the guy who came up with the name “Black Hole”, posited that the universe follows the Participatory Anthropic Principle. Basically, things exist because we observe it, but not in the sense that, if the world disappears behind a closed door, we rebuild it from scratch when it opens. We build theories of how the universe works. We know what to expect. It is truly a wonder that the universe is predictable, because it means that we occupy a stable pattern. Just like the brain itself, humans and galaxies are composed of stable patterns of atoms. Without pattern, there is no consciousness.

My last thought. The phenomena Kripal mentions are categorized as paranormal. Full-time paranormal researcher Joe Nickell (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) has tested hundreds of claims like these using the scientific method to probe evidence. Like debunker James Randi, Nickell has yet to confirm a case as true. The magnitude of human experience provides us with many possibilities, and the potential for the strange, the coincidental, and the mysterious means that we all may encounter something we can never explain, perhaps more than once in our lifetimes.

A Patchwork Understanding

When God created the heavens and the Earth, the seas and moon, the creation stared back, blinking in its newness, at once a fresh, fantastic whole, “a vast array” (Gen. 2:1), while simultaneously divided into separate worlds, bound together by invisible rules that humans, quite alone in their intellectual capacity, rose and began attempts to piece apart.

Today, the scientific community continues the legacy of the ancients to stitch together the multifarious secrets nature both hides and lays bare.  It is the drive to make sense of the universe, and interrogate each new phenomena to ensure our theories of it match those already tested.  The scripture splendidly portrays mankind’s propensity for combining, for structuring the apparent broken world in symbolic and practical ways.  As the early characters of the Bible sought to understand their place and context, they left us stories we can relate to as seekers and students.

The first people, Adam and Eve and their offspring, on discovering their nakedness, went about as best they could to find appropriate clothing.  They sewed together fig leaves (Gen. 3:7), but it wasn’t enough.  God made them garments of skin (Gen. 3:21).  With the occupation of shepherding not only wooly, but all types of animal, teaching them the beginnings of the way to understanding their surroundings and predicament, the creator showed them the start of the kindness that is forgiveness.

The first family grew steadily in knowledge, learning how to toil, to make furrows in soil, sow seed, and reap,  tend flocks, gather the output, and tease out products.  Because their lot now included pain and death, their time was limited.  They were what we now call the prototype Puritans exercising what we now call the Protestant Work Ethic: industry, frugality, and contentment with what one has.  No easy lessons for novices.

God counseled Cain, unsuccessfully, to take these things to heart, to become a fully realized individual, to avoid making errors, much less the same mistakes twice.  The creator used the term ‘master’, and today some of us strive to achieve a higher education that results in such recognition of competency.  However, mastery doesn’t require a certificate.  Still, should we not approach our studies with the same goal of mastery?  Why aim for less?

Yet, we put together a patchwork understanding trying to assemble a meaningful picture, a view from space.  Astronauts call it the Overview Effect, which is nothing short of an out of body experience, the body being our planet, all its inhabitants, and all of their cares and woes.  Mastery is elusive, of our awareness, emotions, over judgment.  Lack of it dogs us, or possession of it serves us, until each of us draws our last breath.

However we wish to characterize the early lives of humankind, that is, from a creationist or evolutionary standpoint, we can certainly agree that technology plays a civilizing part.  Tool use once defined what it means to be human, before Jane Goodall and other researchers observed that other creatures besides human beings fit this definition as well.  The sophistication of human tools, however, bears emphasis.  Genesis reveals the formidable technology already in use by its fourth chapter, where textile fabrications, musical instrument manufacture, and metalworking hint at what early people knew of complex materials and processes, the tanning of hides, weaving on looms, or of reeds into mats.  Weaving fabric is one thing; quite another is making tents sturdy enough to withstand wind and rain, large enough to house families, portable enough for nomadic life.  Imagine design after failed design before a yurt stretched over a suitable frame came to Jabal’s mind and translated to his hand.  Envision the successful design repeated for others to build, of detailed plans and measurements, the communication of tools and methods, of setting up and breaking down, of folding for stowage, of ropes and poles cut to exactly the right lengths, diameters, and other unknown specifications.  This certainly did not occur overnight, or even perhaps in one generation.  It is the profession the apostle Paul took up.

Consider the supporting understanding needed to make harps and hammers.  It seems the ancients relied on trial and error, experimentation (the application of theory to see whether a predicted outcome happens), or on the persistence of every-day miracles.  That animal sinew could be stretched between a U-shaped lyre and strummed must have seemed so.  That a ram’s horn or conch shell could be blown into to create a much louder and more resonant sound than the human voice seems so as well.  To imitate those attributes by artificial means must have been a leap, and must have made their builders seem ingenious to some, like magicians to others.  Put the instruments together and a new kind of community results.  Like spoken stories, those entrusted with verbal histories found them easier to recall when put to poetry, and from poetry to lyrics set to music.  The lyricists of Psalms and the orchestral directors encapsulated history and prophesy in their timeless word rhythms.  Not incidentally, the procedures for making stringed instruments closely match those for crafting weapons, particularly the recurve bow.  The Turkish perfected archery’s distinct compound design of horn and wood laminated with animal gut glued together in a strong, compact, portable form for shooting while riding horseback.  Nimrod, the mighty hunter (Gen. 10:8) must have known many types of bow and other weaponry used in the hunt, like javelins often launched from throwing devices to increase range, slings, and hidden tripwire traps with the flexibility and high tensile strength to snare and hold big game.  Nor is it a far cry from the metal work needed to make ringing horns and symbols to that of forged blades and shields for attack and defense.  Iron in particular required a heat substantially greater than that for the smelting of copper and tin into bronze.  Lacking a measure of temperature, the expert fire-maker found that different fuels and furnace designs facilitated flames that, by color, indicated the heat needed to smelt iron ore.  An open blaze couldn’t reach this stage.  Clay brick vessels were built to withstand and retain high temperatures for the long period of ore transformation.  But thoughts of taut ropes, bright tent flaps and clothing, the glint of crafted wood and metal must dim.  Our ancestor discovered soon enough the edict in Gen. 4:17 and on that all of a person’s sweat to create led to naught.

In the end, not only do we turn to dust, but our works as well disintegrate.  The heights we build topple.  As the Scottish poet Robert Burns put it, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley (often go awry)”.  Much more than that.  Wool felt wears and frays.  Ropes of hemp left out in the rain attract mold and rot.  Unkempt bronze turns green as it oxidizes, while iron left out unused rusts and flakes.

So, people learned to repair their precious goods.  They learned to patch.  They patched tears, bound snapped poles, restrung instruments, banged out dents and sharpened dull or chipped edges.  They made glues for various cracks.  Perhaps this is how mankind stumbled across medicines.  The first person to suture a wound probably took a cue from mending fabric, which the skin resembles.  They took advantage of the body’s gift to heal on its own, given the chance for closure.  Physical ills, it is said, inform us of the normal physiology, whatever normal means.  Dysfunction highlights the body’s proper function, but very specifically, down to the system and organ.  Disease, like that inflicted on Pharaoh and his household (Gen 12:17) sets people to search for the cause and the cure.  In ancient times, the cause was not easy to attribute to some factor, internal or external, as is the case even now.  It isn’t that we lack the tools.  We live in a world pocked with troubles, pains, and suffering.  Then as now we visit doctors who diagnose, prescribe regimens and therapies, who mend us back to wholeness.  Just so, in times of less acute crises, we try to figure out what’s gone wrong with us, what path to follow, which needle to pick up.  Often, what narrow decision to make turns on a problem vexing us.  In early Bible times (identified scientifically by the Bronze Age and early Iron Age), problems seems to escalate to conflict and war (Gen. 14:1-3).

Adam learned that his and his descendants’ times on Earth were short, and that, seed time and harvest would never end as long as the Earth did last.  Which is to say, it won’t.  With this in mind, the search for understanding takes on urgency.  Today, the generally long average human lifespan gives each of us an opportunity to come to wisdom, to mastery.  Some say the child who will live to 150 years will be born among us today.  Given that the first 20 are spent attaining maturity and the last in attempts to prolong it, we have many hours to stumble and perfect our values, attitudes, and behaviors.  We have been given the whole truth, whether we view it from scripture or from nature is indifferent.  Search to do better, to improve: that’s the job we’ve got.  Instead of conflict and harm, instead of resisting, we should, like our forbears, reach for our tools and combine what we can toward a better understanding of our lot on this planet.


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