Monday, January 26, 2009

The cough-laugh

I'm sure it's only the cutest thing because Sylvia is my daughter, but when she laughs, she often does this cough-laugh that I find simply charming. We're not sure where she gets it, but she knows it makes us laugh, and that just encourages her all the more. It's amazing how much she interacts and entertains us. When I walk into a room she'll often greet me with a smile that's bright as sunshine, even if I've only been out of her sight long enough to wash my hands or put something away. Somewhere in the logical part of my brain I know her smiles and giggles are a way of binding us, her parents, to her, because if we are bound emotionally we'll take care of her. Fortunately, that knowledge does nothing to interrupt my enjoyment of her, or decrease the bond that does grow every day between us.

Of course, it also encourages me to do probably silly things, like let her suck on the crust of a piece of bread I was attempting to eat in front of her at dinner this evening. She's gotten very interested in exploring what her dad and mom are putting into their mouths lately.

Anyway, I wanted to put up more pictures of Sylvia, since that's the real reason most people read my blog, I'm pretty sure, but due to some technical difficulties I can't download anything from my camera to the computer. So, here are some pictures of Sylvia from Christmas. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


So, my last post was more of a semi-transcript with a few of my thoughts on the inauguration as things were happening. Now that I've had a few hours to think about what Pres. Obama said and have discussed it with others, and listened to the speech on NPR again, I think it's for me an even more powerful speech than it was upon first hearing. I know, it's a political speech--it's intended to play on emotions and push buttons. I also know I'm not exactly an objective audience; nevertheless, the speech spoke to me powerfully and was timely and inspiring, and yes, faith-affirming.

I went visiting teaching this afternoon and read this month's visiting teaching message shortly before listening to the inauguration, so I'm quite sure that colored my impression of the speech. Even so, it struck me that the speech was really speaking to the much the same thing as the visiting teaching message--standing strong and immovable in faith (though in the case of our nation, faith might more properly be replaced by freedom, liberty, or any number of other attributes to which we aspire as a nation). This is a nation that was formed by inspired men--imperfect men--but men who stood strong and immovable in their convictions, focused on a set of ideals that was unique at the time and has changed the world we live in. Those ideals--freedom, democracy, liberty, justice, equality--bless my life and the lives of my loved ones. Our predecessors have done great things by holding to the ideals upon which this nation was founded; now it's our turn to push forward to a better world than the one we have inherited. What a wonderful challenge, and wonderful opportunity!

The Inauguration--notes

Barack H. Obama, the President-elect of the United States, walking in, shaking hands and hugging supporters, looking cool and collected as usual. It is obvious he is happy and nervous. People cheer, "O-bam-a! O-bam-a!" and then settle down for the business of swearing in.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein welcomes the 44th President of our Democracy. Celebrates the peacefulness of our transition from one leader to another. This is the moment when the dream that was spoken on the steps of the Lincoln memorial reached the steps of the White House.

Dr. Rick Warren (controversial for his support of prop-8) Acknowledging the supremacy of the Lord God, whose story history is. Celebrate the peacefulness of the transfer of power, celebrate the inauguration of the first African-American President. Give Barack Hussein Obama wisdom, courage, and compassion to lead. Help us to remember we are Americans, united not by race, religion, or blood, but by commitment to freedom and justice for all. When we forget prosperity is thine, forgive us. When we fail to defend those who need defense, forgive us. Help us to serve others.
(I'm liking this prayer)
Quoting the Lord's prayer. I see tears in the audience.

Aretha Franklin, singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee." Big band playing. Her hat evokes an image of a dark shining star.

5 minutes and GWB is out of office.

Why is Bob Bennett speaking? Oh--he's introducing John Stevens, who will administer the oath of office to Joe Biden.

What a powerful oath. Simple, yet powerful.

Dick Cheney is out of office.

Simple gifts, performed by Itzhak Perlman, Yo-yo Ma, and a couple of other people whose names I don't remember. Arrangement by John Williams. So far it doesn't sound much like simple gifts; quite a bit of dissonance at the beginning. Anthony McGill on clarinet brings in the first strains of the main theme while the rest of the performers dance around the theme, complimenting it before joining. This is one of my favorite songs--one I wish we had in our hymnal, actually. Sounds like Simple Gifts running down the Potomac, through tributaries, over rapids, through the sinuous stretch to the delta and out to the ocean.

John G. Roberts will now administer the Oath of Office. Great--they got a stool for the girls so they can see! Obama seems a little anxious, forgetting words, going fast, but smiling at his own mistakes.

Barack Hussein Obama is now the President of our Nation. There really are tears in the eyes of many in the crowd--happy, smiling, crying faces.

Gracious, Obama thanks his predecessor. He talks of gathering storms, of remaining true to the ideals of our founding fathers and founding documents to weather the difficult times we see ahead. Nagging fear across the nation that future generations will experience a lower standard of living. We have chosen hope over fear, unity over division. The time has come to set aside childish things. Pass on from generation to generation that all men are free and deserve to pursue a full measure of happiness.

I have chills listening to this man speak. He has a rare gift for oratory.

We will restore science to its rightful place (yeah!!!). The question we will ask is not whether our government is too big or too small but if it is effective. Our nation can not prosper long when the market favors only the prosperous. Reminding us that previous generations faced down communism with alliances with others.

I can't believe he's really President. Listening to him I believe what he's saying; I believe he will work toward a better, more peaceful nation; I want to see the world he speaks of, where tribal divisions dissolve, where poor nations become more prosperous, where the corrupt are forced out of power in favor of true civil servants. He is a leader, promising to take us to a beautiful land, if we will but follow.

As they pan across the audience I see solemnity, holiness, firm resolve to create the world of which President Obama speaks. Quoting George Washington to tie the vision he's presented with to the promises of the past, promising us a future of hope and change and freedom, he ends his inaugural address.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Having a bit of behind the scenes knowledge can sometimes be an interesting thing. For instance, today the three speakers were asked to speak on "drawing strength from daily prayer," "changing our lives in accordance with gospel principles," and "providing the Lord's way." Interestingly, all three focused on the word of wisdom. Also interestingly, the three pretty much ran the gamut of interpretation of the WOW, from the juvenile, "don't drink, don't smoke" to the more nuanced approach that acknowledges more of the spiritual side of the physical law, and finally to the embracing of the entire section of the D&C in a way that emphasizes living a simple, healthy, self-sufficient lifestyle. The last speaker even went through the "Do's" of the WOW, including eating herbs, fruits, and grains, and eating meat sparingly. He highlighted families who grew much of their own food, and talked about the health and financial benefits of doing so (though I seriously doubt we could all expect to avoid all illness just by growing our own food--people grew all their own food for thousands of years, and I'm pretty sure farmers got sick during that time, too).

I've never thought of the WOW as a law that encourages self-reliance, but that interpretation makes sense in a lot of ways (and makes the eventual emphasis on abstaining from coffee, tea, and alcohol fit in better--all three are things that were expensive and tough to come by in early Utah. I've heard some suggest Brigham Young interpreted D&C 89 as pertaining to those items for economic reasons as much as health reasons). Societally, if we were to cut back on meat consumption, not only would we likely see a reduction in a lot of health problems, but we'd consume far less of the world's resources and would emit far less CO2. (Note, I'm not advocating going vegan--nor is the WOW, obviously, but it is clear to me that there are a lot of reasons for reducing meat consumption, and some of them are spiritual.)

All in all, it was a really good meeting. Actually, all three meetings today were excellent. Far too often I come away wondering why I go, but I really felt like I got something out of church today. I learned, I was engaged, and I remembered why I believe in this gospel, and why I follow it even when I'm in the midst of a time of questioning.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Getting warmer...

But still oh so cold!

Of course, observations of the coldness of our current weather apparently suggest to some people (who I will refrain from linking to out of a desire to not alienate anyone) that global warming must not be real since it's so stinkin' cold outside right now.


If you, dear reader, happen to be one of those who think that our current cold weather somehow proves global warming isn't happening, I kindly suggest you either quit reading or strap on your thickest skin.

All done?


I know, you think you're being funny, saying things like, "Thank you global warming for the coldest winter ever," but really, you're just showing your ignorance. First of all, I promise you this isn't the coldest winter ever. And that's just for the years for which we have good records (which is probably only about the past 125 years at best). Oh, and climate is different than weather. Climate is an average. Weather, since it's not an average, can vary over a much wider range than "average." In fact, you expect weather to reach highs and lows that are at times far outside the average. 'Cause that's how averages work.

Has it ever occurred to you, dear misinformed reader, that perhaps it is your expectations that are to blame for your appalling misinterpretation of the current weather? Did you really expect the weather to do some DC shift upward? Even if that were the case, would you really expect that you'd be able to see a 0.6 degree C temperature shift? Really? REEEAALY?

Please, before you make more bad global warming jokes that do little more than underscore your devotion to the anti-science agenda of right-wing conservatives, please, PLEASE educate yourself.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


It's cold outside. It's so cold outside the sun looks like it could use a sweater and earmuffs. It's beyond novacaine cold; it's beyond two-hats cold. I need a new term for this cold. All I've come up with is let's burn us some tasty fossil fuels cold. Or maybe so-cold-that-yes-I'll-take-a-ride-to-avoid-freezing-the-bridge-of-my-nose-again-thankyouverymuch. Which is something I was warned about when I went to Antarctica, and to prevent freezing skin with glasses I was encouraged to get plastic frames. Then, because we were on the coast the whole time (really, on the water--boats don't do so well on land, after all) it wasn't ever very cold. Certainly not this cold, and certainly not this windy.

It was quite the surprise last year when it got so cold here in Indiana that my metal-frame glasses did indeed freeze the skin on the bridge of my nose. Since that particular sore didn't heal for months (probably because it itched and I kept scratching it) I'm trying to avoid a recurrence. Slow I may be, but pain does teach me some lessons quite well!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Waste not, want not

When my mom was a child, she used soap her grandmother, who was a daughter of Utah pioneers, made from bacon and hamburger drippings for laundry soap. It amazes me that not really all that many decades ago people actually made things. I make bread; I occasionally sew things; I cook my own food instead of buying pre-made or going out. But there is a whole class of stuff I would never consider making, and wouldn't have a clue how to go about making.

I have been reading the Letters of Catharine Cottam Romney, Plural Wife off and on since I had Sylvia. The thing that's struck me most about the life she describes in her letters isn't the polygamy; it's the starkness of her life. She and her family lived at a subsistence level, growing just enough to live and probably not much more. Her most frequent requests from her parents (who lived in St. George) were for papers and for fruit, which apparently didn't grow in Arizona and Mexico. I may be a descendant of pioneers (as are the lovely young women featured on the DUP site) but the more I read about their lives, the more I realize my life is nothing like theirs.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The problem of belief, part 2

It's unfortunate that I didn't discover Radio West until after I moved away from Salt Lake. Fortunately for me, I can listen to Doug Fabrizio on teh interwebs.

Anyway, Doug Fabrizio recently had a couple of interviews that are germane to this discussion of belief. The first concerns the fairness doctrine, which was legislation enacted in an attempt to require radio and television stations to present balanced coverage of controversial issues. Apparently, right-wing talk shows are claiming Obama has designs to bring back the fairness doctrine, supposedly to "shut down conservative radio." Of course, Obama has no such plans, but that doesn't stop conservatives from claiming it's true, or conservative radio listeners from believing it.

The second is an interview with Bill Bishop about The Big Sort, a book he co-wrote about the consequences of the current trend where Americans congregate into like-minded communities. As he describes it,

...the country fractured in the 1960s — around 1965, to be precise. In that one year, trust in major institutions began to decline; membership in mainline churches started to drop; divorce and crime rates began to climb; allegiance to political party dissolved as people lost faith in traditional party labels; membership in long-standing civic organizations (the Elks, bowling leagues) started to drop, as did the percentage of daily newspaper readers. Society seemed to unravel all at once, and when it came back together, the broad-based institutions that had sustained this country were replaced by ones that were more politically homogenous.

For example, as mainline churches — Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans — lost members, independent and evangelical churches gained. Preachers coming through seminary in the 1970s and '80s, such as evangelist Rick Warren, were taught to build their congregations by catering to like-minded groups. This technique was literally called the "homogenous unit principle" of church growth and it was wildly successful in this new, post-'65 world. Similarly, just as the broad-based clubs like the Elks lost people, more targeted groups, like Common Cause, formed and found a following. This shift in association — from general to specific — happened across society. For companies, there weren't mass markets any longer, only individual consumers to be targeted and then supplied with just the product they wanted. The country sorted into separate groupings of lifestyle and belief. We left behind a country that was striving to be whole in 1965, with the passage of civil rights laws and universal health care coverage for the elderly, and we began to sequester ourselves into tribes of like beliefs, images, neighborhoods, and markets.

This homogenization of culture and of opinion discourages examination of beliefs. Admittedly, it's far more comfortable to be around people who share similar opinions, but the lack of opposition allows a sort of echo chamber to exist wherein opinions become more and more extreme. Debate, dissension, disagreement are discouraged by homogeneity--nobody wants to be different for fear of being ostracized, so we either modify our opinions to agree with the majority or find a new group with which we agree more. I don't think it's necessarily a good thing. While it's easy and comfortable to be around people with whom we agree, it allows individuals and groups to persist in unexamined, and potentially very wrong, beliefs.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

5 months

I'm taking a break from my attempt at deep thought to post cute pictures of Sylvia. They're probably more entertaining anyway :) She's 5 months old today, and quite happy about her progress so far.

This is a picture Derrick's dad took at the shower Derrick's family held for Sylvia while we were in Alabama. What you don't see are the claws I'm extending into Derrick's knees. Those aren't bunny ears behind my head--they're horns!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The problem of belief, part 1

As a scientist, ones beliefs are supposed to be based on evidence and arrived at through logic (this is not to imply other people and other professions are not the same, just to say that this is the ideal for a scientist). Ideally, individual beliefs are constantly subject to revision, or even to complete overturning as more information is gathered. We are supposed to be rational and skeptical of all claims, requiring data and distrusting claims that can not be verified independently.

But scientists are humans, and just like other humans, it feels good to be right and bad to be wrong, and, even though we're supposed to take all relevant data into account, it's easy to ignore anything that contradicts what we believe. Scientists do a decent job of ferreting out the truth, at least on average, but it's also safe to assume any individual scientist is going to claim some things that are not true, or at least aren't supported by the facts, just like any other human on the planet.

A scientist spends a lot of time (and I mean A LOT of time) thinking about some question, in the process becoming an expert who is, more than likely, more familiar with their topic and its associated minutia than any other person on the planet. Although experts can be wrong for a variety of reasons, typically they are not, or at least, are not completely wrong. We scientists argue quite a bit in our pursuit of truth, but usually it's over minutia, not over the whole theoretical structure (mantle plumes being a notable exception, but there's no real way to resolve that one without an unobtainium ship capable of drilling to the center of the Earth a la "The Core"). For the most part, though, I am comfortable trusting the interpretations of other scientists, especially when I understand the data and logic that lead to those interpretations.

The thing is, I don't always understand the data. You can show me an fMRI and tell me what it means, but I don't have the training to really independently understand what it means. My trust is, in some sense, blind. There is so much out there to understand it really isn't possible for me as an individual to evaluate the validity of all the science I'm presented with, so I am reduced to simply trusting that the person measuring and interpreting their results is doing so in a way that is consistent with their data and consistent with previous scientific findings. As maligned as the peer review process is by non-scientists in particular, it does allow me as a non-expert to trust that the publications I read are rigorous and, even if they're not totally correct, at least they're not completely ridiculous. Ultimately, my trust of other scientists comes from a trust in the scientific method; trust in the peer review process; and trust in the cantankerousness and stubborn reasoning of men and women who, through time and thought and reason, have become experts in their fields.

Which is a bias that makes me no different from anyone else.

Nobody can go out and verify the reasonableness of all our opinions and beliefs. At some point we are all reduced to listening to expert (and not so expert) opinions to form our own. So, how do we choose who is an expert worth listening to? How do we choose who to trust, and over what topics we should trust them?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Fish and visitors

Derrick and I had a good time in Birmingham, but it was definitely time to go by the time we left. I'm not sure why we all got on one another's nerves so much this time, but we really did. The climax of the annoyance was probably about four days before we left, when Derrick tried to explain to his mother why scientists are convinced global warming is happening and why we think it's man-made. Derrick went slowly and made sure that his mom understood what the data were showing, and to make sure she agreed with the interpretation. As a heat flow person his argument was based on boreholes, which are also probably the most difficult to argue with since you're dealing with temperature rather than a proxy for temperature.

I'm rather impressed with Derrick's teaching, as a side note. He took his mom through all the steps at a pace that was very appropriate. I kept interjecting--I love talking about climate science and have a tendency to get ahead of myself. Derrick was much more controlled in his explanation. Something I'll have to work on in the next semester.

Anyway, we've had heated discussions before with Derrick's family. It's no secret that we're more liberal than them. As similar as we are in many of our values, our political leanings are not similar, and are becoming less and less similar as time goes on. Derrick's parents pretty much parrot back the Rush/Fox news view of the world, while we, NPR-listening, quinoa-munching liberals spout off about our liberal views. Most of the time we avoid talking politics, but this year--perhaps because Obama won--there were a lot more subtle and not so subtle jabs at one another's politics which climaxed in the discussion of climate (and taxes, and health care, and welfare--all the hot-button topics made at least a brief appearance). And let's just say it got a bit heated. We avoided saying mean things about one another, but in the course of the discussion it became clear that Derrick's parents completely distrust the government and the scientific community and are pretty much convinced that both are out to take their hard-earned money away from them. Which, of course, we as scientists dispute (at least when it comes to science), but we are incapable of convincing them. They are certain our chosen professions are basically out to hoodwink them. It's more than a little tough to take.

So, it was time to go home sooner than I think would otherwise have been necessary. It's too bad, too--Derrick's mom loved, LOVED having Sylvia around. In the future I'm sure my handling of Sylvia will be what causes the inter-familial friction. But, the experience really got me thinking about belief and the problems unquestioning belief creates, both interpersonally and in the wider world. Over the next few days (yeah, right!) I'm going to try to explore some thoughts on the problem of belief--how do we choose who to believe and how much trust to give self-proclaimed experts. Why are we so willing to believe people who don't necessarily know what they're talking about, and so slow to evaluate the veracity of their claims, and even slower to change our beliefs when something is dis-proven?

Friday, January 2, 2009


Not that I care all that much, but Utah just beat Alabama. Pretty dang cool. Sad for my Mother-in-law and Derrick's Uncle (who are both Alabama fans). Neither Derrick or I expected Utah to win; certainly not to dominate so decisively. Good for them.