Sunday, December 20, 2009


I have created this post as a kind of gateway site. The idea here is to keep a topical table of contents to my favorite posts.

Experiments in Graphical Philosophy
(These tend to be my most popular and most original posts)

-Why I am a Christian Despite Evidence to the Contrary (or Testing the R-squared of a World View)

-My Problem With Religion: A Quantitative Inquiry

-Why Christians Suck: The Problem of Christian Hypocrisy

(Posts about counter-intuitive intersections of theology and ecology*)

-The ‘Ideal Free Distribution’ of Professional Incompetence: Applying Patch Dynamics to the Workplace

-The Altruism Paradox: The Surprising Confluence of Christian Anthropology and Evolutionary Biology

-Theo-Coleopteraphelia: Actually, “An inordinate fondness for beetles” is precisely what I would expect

*two fields I have graduate degrees in
General Theology

-Easter Reflections on...the Honey Badger

-Psalm Plots (This was my most popular post.  It didn't exactly go viral, but got a serious case of internet sniffles)

-Chesterton’s Apple: Thoughts on Empirical Mysticism

Cultural Artifacts

-Briony’s Unsatisfying Atonement

Black Mirror and the Commodification of Outrage


-How I Stopped Hating Church

Travel Logs: CambodiaParaguay, Guyana, Afganistan, Kenya, and The Odyssey [2]
My 14 Favorite Hikes: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3
Cities: BangkokSt Louis, Portland, Las Vegas , Kansas City 1, KC 2

Annual Reading Summaries: 2014 Fiction, 2013 Fiction, 2013 Non Fiction, 2012 Fiction, 2012 Non Fiction, 2011 Fiction, 2011 Non Fiction, 2010, 2009

Fragments and Links[1]: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

Explanation of the Blog Title-The Ogre’s Castle

Preaching: MP3’s and Manuscripts
[1] These are posts composed of several ‘mini-posts’ or fragments what I thought were interesting but that didn’t merit their own post
[2] This was a seven day introductory field trip with the new class of UC Davis ecology Graduate Students.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Father’s Time Machine

Not many people can say they actually knew a mountain man. I did. Our neighbor growing up was an older man named Gordon. He lived in a double wide about 150 yards down the road, but totally out of sight as both our plots were surrounded by the thick, deciduous forest characteristic of our upstate home. He sold us our house when he got divorced and carved out a little corner of the land to continue living on. He could have just been the eccentric guy that I waved to as I jogged or biked by, but my dad decided he was precisely the kind of man that a couple of young boys should know[1]. My dad was right.

The first time we went out with Gordon it was to check his beaver trap line. We spent a full day in knee deep snow that ended with me lying on top of a pile of frozen, dead beavers in a snowmobile trailer[2], clinging desperately to the metal frame to keep from being thrown off. Yet, somehow, all of my memories from this day are exceedingly positive. It was the first time I shot a pistol[3] and at lunch, when we broke out our pb&j’s Gordon made a fire and warmed some beaver stew that simply looked an order of magnitude better than what we were eating. By the end of the day, my brother and I had actually strung a couple of the dead beavers up on a thick branch and carried them between us like we were Native Americans.[4]

As we got older Gordon began to bring us to Lost Creek. Lost Creek was a semi-permanent camping site he had forged for the summer months, a ten mile hike into the underutilized public swamp lands on the edge of Adirondack State Park. Each winter, he would stash the homemade wood stove and pack everything else out. Then, each spring, he would rebuild his elaborate canvas cabin which became home base for the summer hunting and trapping seasons[5]. He had done this for years, and had never encountered another person. We would eat woodland creatures (simply but deliciously prepared) by the wood stove in his comfortable but rustic structure at night and listen to stories of his adventures.[6] By day, we would check the traps, explore the woods and drink as much water as we could hold from the artesian spring that day lighted 50 feet from the camp.

Gordon walked those uneven miles in and out again and again, more often then not pushing a heavy load of dispatched critters[7] or supplies in what was essentially, a customized, back country wheelbarrow. It is all the more remarkable because he walked with a pronounced limp, a souvenir from his days as a paratrooper who specialized in setting up communication posts behind enemy lines.

My last trip to Lost Creek post dated my complete loss of interest in dispatching animals for fun, food and profit. I brought a book. I don’t think Gordon ever understood my transition to bookish quasi-jock. Shortly after I went to college his hip was too bad to hike and he made his last trip to lost creek with my dad to extract the last of his stuff. I guess I can’t say I was surprised when my dad told me that he put his shotgun in his mouth less than a year later. I can’t defend the decision, but I also could not imagine him living another ten years in that trailer.

In retrospect, Lost Creek was a time machine. What we got to experience was about as close to the lifestyle of the first European settlers as could be reasonably imagined. But my dad’s precise pedagogical objectives were a little eccentric. It was the end of the cold war, but he was very much a product of it. One of his admitted objectives in raising us was to give us life skills to survive a nuclear winter.[8] But I think the less precise goal was to offer a compelling alternative to the MTV culture[9] we were buying into uncritically. It was a different vision of humanness. It was a different vision of human connection to the rest of the world. It was a way of living where satisfaction was uncorrelated with efficiency or possession. It tempered the devotion of my worship at the temple of the Watertown Mall with the understanding that people live robust, content lives that were totally other than the impoverished version of the American dream I was being offered. I consider the opportunity to know a mountain man a fine bit of parenting on my father’s part. I hope I can find individuals who will affect my children in similar ways.
[1] My dad did stuff like this all the time. I remember that he would send me over to the house of a family friend who was a widower to play dominoes. When I protested that I did not have anything to talk to an old dude about, dad replied ‘ask him about the depression.’ The pedagogical value (and character formation) of these dominoes games far exceeded any social studies content I ever received on this era.
[2] Being the first born has obvious privileges, but when the snowmobile has 3 seats and there are 4 people and a trailer full of dead beavers…lets just say that they don’t totally seem worth it.
[3] I never even got close to the bottle we were shooting at, making it an experience that would affect the way I experienced action films for years.
[4] Or, more likely, as if we were Ewocks.
[5] Permanent structures were not allowed on public land.
[6] Including not one but two bear attacks. There was also a story about how he was hopelessly lost (and when Gordon was lost, it was likely some of the least traveled woods in the north east) and suddenly happened upon a random compass laying on the wood floor. He said, ‘You see boys, this is how I know that God is always looking out for you.’ This was the only insight we ever go into his faith.
[7] He would always stop by our house after catching a fisher or shooting a bear. We always thought it was cool but rarely considered the effort it must have taken to haul a full grown bear 10 difficult miles out of the woods.
[8] At one point I could skin a muskrat in under ninety seconds. This, surprisingly, was not on my PhD qualifying exam.
[9] Though most of our experience to MTV culture was second hand because we lived so far away from ‘town’ that cable never actually made it to us…leaving us with 4 channels. My brother recently said in a sermon: “I have watched a whole He Haw standing next to the TV holding the bunny ears. He Haw was the Saturday night live of my generation…if you were really really rural.” You would think that this would have preserved me from owning a pair of hammer pants or Skidz overalls…sadly it did not.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Augustine as Comedian: Part 1 – Unintentional Comedy

Augustine is best know for Confessions, a reflective, passionate, devotional classic that is essentially an autobiographical[1] prayer. It was mandatory reading in our secular undergrad’s humanities program. I have since enjoyed several other works by and about the Bishop of Hippo (most notably, On Christian Doctrine which I eagerly devoured in a single sitting[2]) and have even given talks on his life and theology. So when my reading group proposed taking on his City of God I was thrilled. Let’s just say that it was a slog, even for an admitted Augustine enthusiast. But I took pretty detailed notes[3] on themes and trends. One of the surprising early trends was that in each of our first two or three meetings my friend Dan brought to our attention a line or two that were legitimately hilarious. Soon my weekly notes included a “Comic Passages” section which included entries from all but one chapter.

Even after I sifted through it (to get rid of repetition and ‘you had to be there[4]’ sort of stuff) it is a lot of material for a blog post so I am splitting it by type of comedy: intentional and unintentional[5]. This post will focus on Augustine’s unintentional comedy[6] under two main headings: bombast and irony.


First, we were impressed with the creativity and range with which Augustine mocked the critical faculties of his interlocutors.

“…and anyone who does not admit this is insane.” (392)

“…this was silly talk…” (454)

“Yet anyone who reads the passage in Daniel, even if half-asleep, cannot conceivably doubt the reign of the antichrist is to be endured…” (945)

“No one, unless he is deaf as well as daft, could have any doubt…” (1078)

I guess it would be easy to read these and simply conclude that Augustine was an enormous douche. But this is something you have to get over quickly if you are going to profit from any polemical work written more than, say, seventy years ago. So, instead, we started experiencing his self confident bombast as unintentional comedy in the creative range of his dismissals. It is fun to imagine how he would have fared in a ‘battle’ with the likes of Eminem[7]. I suspect he would have done just fine.

Then there is this gem on his exegesis of 2 Thessalonians 2 “I admit that the meaning of this completely escapes me. For all that, I shall not refrain from mentioning some guesses at the meaning[8]…” (933)

And then there was his compliment to the philosopher Varro: “I understand the difficulty experienced by an intelligence of such range and quality.” (289)

Finally, there was his seemingly unfortunate definition of preaching: “Though there may be direct and clear prophetic statements on any subject, allegorical statements are inevitably intermingled with them, and it is those especially that force upon scholars the laborious business of discussion and exposition for the more slow witted.” (746)

Again, he comes off as a total d#$%, but if you read it, giving him the benefit of the doubt, this comment demonstrates his fundamentally pastoral heart. To Augustine, there was no ivory tower. The point of philosophy and Biblical scholarship was to help people live better. He expended the long hard hours in his study for the benefit of the people who looked to him for insight. Modern rhetorical style finds him wanting, but there is something of real value here from one of the greatest minds in the history of western civilization.


The second great reservoir of unintentional comedy was the passages in which he condescends upon some characteristic he represented. For example many of the unintentional comic passages are either the self parody of his loquaciousness or comedy born of his obliviousness to the same.

On Prolixity:

“Is anything more loquacious than folly.” (224) –said the guy who wrote the 1000 page book

“If all the details that are so pregnant with hidden meaning of great importance were closely sifted, the results would fill many volumes. But a limit has to be set to this work, to keep it a reasonable size and this compels us to hurry on to other topics.” (701)

“even though philosophy had not yet erupted in a teeming flood of subtle and ingenious loquacity.” (791)[10]

“…but this book is prolix enough already, and I am afraid of seeming to seize an occasion for showing off my trifles of knowledge, for idle effect rather than for any advantage to the reader.” (466)

At this point I decided that Augustine’s major works would have been better if he had had a blog. He could have unloaded some of these ‘trifles’ that are embarrassing to a modern reader and make the book over long.

On Tedium:

“just as many words are used to refer to one thing, to emphasize a point without inducing boredom” (401) This was not my experience.

“It is, in my view, impossible to decide for certain whether Socrates was led to take this course (turning philosophy to morality) by the boredom induced by obscure and inconclusive subjects…” (301)

OK, I realize that the humor is hidden pretty deep here, but go back and read that again if you didn’t get it. Augustine is wondering out loud if Socrates turned philosophy into ethics because he wasn’t a very good philosopher or because he was a REALLY good philosopher, and just got board with it. I realize that this is a joke that takes far too long (say 600 years) to unfold, but that is freeking hilarious.

On Proportional Profundity:

“Now, take the prophet Hosea, he certainly has profound things to say, but his message is difficult of penetration in proportion to its profundity.”[11] (795)

I include this in the ‘Irony’ section because this is precisely how I experienced the City of God. It is rightly esteemed as a central work of Western thought, if only for the paradigm shifting ideas about: time, the just war, church/state and eschatology.[12] But unfortunately, reading time is one of my most limited commodities, so works (even classic works) get rated not only on their profundity but by a product of their profundity and their accessibility.

Next…Augustine’s Intentional Comedy

This post was written while listening to The Dear Hunter Pandora Station

[1] Many assert that he innovated the genre of autobiography.
[2] A rarity for me since I read so slowly.
[3] I have an 87 page word document with major themes, quotes, and notes that I could e-mail if anyone is interested.
[4] ‘there’ usually being a 34 page discussion of an obscure Roman philosopher who’s work isn’t otherwise extant
[5] Which will include his characteristic dark humor, a surprising amount of sexual or scatological hilarity, and a category I could only label: ‘um...what?’
[6] As such, this post will be mostly irreverent to a guy who is, really, one of my heroes. But the ability to laugh at someone’s ridiculousness is a pretty good litmus test for differentiating between healthy admiration and unhealthy idealization.
[7] A contemporary context (as in, it was contemporary 10 years ago) in which ad hominem polemics are considered fair game.
[8] While this confidence may seem misplaced to a contemporary evangelical trained in historical-grammatical hermeneutics, it makes far more sense in the context of ‘On Christian Doctrine’ where Augustine essentially argues that interpreting scripture is difficult and making localized errors in interpreting individual passages is not that grievous an error, as long as you err does not depart from the overall teachings of scripture.
[9] I am using the word irony ‘in the way it has come to be know.’ Here’s the thing, I know Irony’s pure definition. Let’s call it the Keirkegaardian use of Irony, saying one thing but meaning the opposite. But the word’s semantic range has clearly expanded to include what I will call the Alanis Morissette usage of, ‘wow that is oddly poetic or had the opposite outcome that one would expect.” I am open to another, more precise, verbal signifier to describe this latter phenomena, but until I get one I will continue to brazenly misuse ‘irony’ under the expansive protection of the ‘contemporary semantic range’ argument.

[10] Some days this is how I feel about philosophy.
[11] This is pretty much how I feel about the Old Testament in general (i.e. why it is hard to preach and why most Christians who read their Bibles regularly camp out in the New Testament). The cultural distance is greater and so it takes more work to mine it for value. It is like the historic shaft Iron mines in the Adirondacks that were abandoned once the Minnesota strip operations spun up. It is just more economical to mine the NT for insight. I am not defending this, just observing it.
[12] I owe my own loosely held position of amillennialism to the Bishop of Hippo.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

UCD Fish on ESPN

I am going to resist the urge to turn this into a biology blog (or even a science blog) now that much of my reflective/study time is spent on Carbon based organisms and systems, but as I continue to sit on some partially written philosophical/theological pieces, I thought I’d do a video post[1] on my biological brain crush…fish.

The biodiversity class at UCD broke the class down into 3 parts with 3 professors: One for prokaryotes, one for plants and one for metazoans (animals). The ‘animal’ Prof[2]studies fish feeding and showed us the following video in class.

The Prokaryote prof[3] twittered this link and in 48 hours it had gone viral with > 200,00 views, culminating in it ending up on ESPN’s SportsNation.

Four things interest me about this anecdote:

1. This story about disseminating academic research on fish feeding included three media forms: television, YouTube and Twitter. I have thought a lot about what the scientific community owes the society that funds it in return for that investment (particularly for those forms of science that do not translate into technology). I feel like this is precisely the sort of result I would hope for. In addition to the formal contributions to the journals, these professors have leveraged technology to produce cultural value from the result of (admittedly obscure) work. [4]

2. Some of you may recall my very early post about content and community. I argued that the model of the lonely preacher producing compelling content week after week is fundamentally flawed and is an expectation unmatched by any other professional field. Even the academy is going to this model of producing content in community. It is not a coincidence that a class this good had three world class minds contributing to it.

3. Prof Wainwright liked to say human[5] jaw structure is relatively boring, having a single hinge. All our specialization is in our teeth. But there is incredibly rich and gorgeous diversity in the jaw structures of fish. I feel like there is a Tolkein-esque insight here about unexpected reservoirs of transcendence[6].

4. I love the confluence of science and sports as the punch line of this anecdote precisely because I counter-intuitively have the same existential reaction to theses seemingly disparate spheres. I enjoy descriptive science and sports because they are both windows into transcendence. One could say that Chris Johnson and the slingjaw wrasse are both just curious because they are tails of statistical distributions and therefore appeal to our voyeurism. But I choose to believe that there is something more than that going on. I think that both of these exceptional organisms tap into our desire to experience something qualitatively different[7]. Our fascination with them is a symptom of a spiritual hunger…an appetite for otherness...a conduit for worship.[8]

But mainly this post is just an excuse to post a series of Professor Wainwright’s stunning videos. So here are a few more[9]:

This post was prepared while listening to the Charlie Darwin Pandora Station

(Note: Listening to a station based on a hauntingly beautiful song called 'Charlie Darwin' seemed appropriate for this post, even before it brought up this song.)
[1] This is the kind of thing that would normally end up in one of my fragment’s posts, but between wrapping up my PhD, finals, family, work and a pretty rigorous preaching schedule this blog has been quieter than I like. So it became its own post.
[2] Peter Wainwright – a fantastic and energetic lecturer.
[3] World renowned Jonathan Eisen, also a fantastic professor, who maintains a very good blog on evolutionary biology. And Martin Doyle, the undisputed Angiosperm expert handled plants…lets just say to call the class thrilling is an understatement. Sadly, the brilliance was lost on many of the pre-med undergrads who simply saw it as a difficult obstacle between them and becoming a cutter.
[4] In light of my perspective on this I have distilled my dissertation into 10 - 3 minute videos and will have a nerdy YouTube channel of my own once my third paper is accepted.
[5] Actually, all Tetrapods.
[6] One of the comments on his youtoube channel asks “are you a scientist or an artist or both?” – I do enjoy the blurred distinction. Anyone who has read this blog for a while will recognize that I think the distinction between those categories is all together too rigid.
[7] Prof Wainwright himself appears to also experience some sort of beauty in both of these enterprises since his first lecture included a discussion of natural selection, ecological specialization and phenotpypic variation by examining NFL combine stats for various positions in three different decades. It was a bit of a non-sequiter, but thoroughly enjoyable and intellectually profitable.
[8] Incidentally, this gets at the root of the most prevalent of all spiritual disorders: idolatry. 'Idolatry' tends to invoke the anachronistic image of ancient Mesopotamians bowing down before great bovine statues. But it is every bit as prevalent and insidious in our milieu, as idolatry is simply confusing an awe inspiring object/organism/experience as a source of transcendence rather than a conduit.
[9] You can link to his Youtube channel here.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My Top 14 Favorite Hikes Part 2: Himalayas, the North Coast and Lots and Lots of Sierra Granite

Part 1 is here
Part 3 is here

#6 High Sierra Trail: Sequoia NP (4 days, 35 miles)

When most people hear about Sequoia National monument they generally think of trees. HUGE trees. The kind you could drive your car through. While Sequoia does have some extremely impressive trees, they are not, in my opinion, even close to the park highlight[1]. Few people know this, however, because unlike Yosemite or King’s Canyon, Sequoia’s greatest wonders are not visible from the road. I like to call it the shy park, only unveiling its glories to those who put boot to trail and cover some miles into California’s wild, road less spine.

My fond memories of this trip begin with the night before. We drove to a hotel[2] just outside the park with enough time to swim and enjoy above average burritos and Coronas on a patio watched over by a roosting owl who would occasionally vocalize its recognition of our presence. The next morning we were up early and on the trail and could not have asked for a better day.

The best part of the ‘High Sierra Trail’ is that it takes you deep into the remote Sierra wilderness[3] with almost no elevation loss or gain over the first 8 miles. So we packed in to Bear Camp[4] and took day hikes from there, covering most of the dramatic elevation sans pack.

The first outing was the 4,000 foot climb to Elizabeth Pass that peers precariously into Death Canyon. This was a grueling climb on par with any mountain we have ascended. But the views it afforded of Lonely Lake and especially the ‘Angel’s Wings’ formation were worth every step. On the way back to camp we saw a black bear across the canyon which meant that, on the day, we saw more bears than people.[5]

The second outing was more dramatic than the first. I had originally planned to take Kaweah Gap, but had been married long enough to re-think the plan after the epic assent of the previous day. We opted instead for a leisurely 4 mile (one way) climb to Hamilton Lake for a swim a mid-day nap and some Lewis[6]. Hamilton Lake was epic. It is what I imagine the Alps look like.

#7 Gori Panni: Anapurna Range, Nepal (3 days[7], ~20 miles)

I graduated college a semester early in the hopes of going somewhere crazy and doing something outlandish ‘for God.’ Nepal had always intrigued me, so when the opportunity to serve in an orphanage for 3 months came up I raised a little money and got on a plane.[8] My motives of ‘desire to serve’ and ‘desire for adventure’ were clearly mixed[9] and when I got an opportunity to do some trekking, I took it.

The Gori Pani[10] trek is in the Annapurna range. If it had just been me, I would have taken the trail that circumnavigated Annapurna herself. But part of the opportunity involved trekking with others that were not even remotely in shape. It was still a remarkable experience. Unlike every other hike I have been on (before or since) the trail was totally populated. Most of the trek was on a well maintained path through villages that seemed to derive most of their income from trekkers. There wasn’t a tree to be found and we slept and ate in ‘hotels’ every night. But the experience culminated in an early morning hike to see the sun rise on Annapurna. I had made a habit of getting up at 5 in the city to see the sun rise on the mountains (as that was often the only time you could see them through the haze) but this was just so much closer and more dramatic. The qualitative difference between the Himalayas and other mountains simply escapes articulation.

But the coolest thing we encountered on this trip was many not have been the mountains or waterfalls. We had Nepali born westerners[11] with us, so ‘we’ got to have more significant conversations with the locals than we could have in English. And we happened upon a new church. We returned a few months later with Bibles (they were all sharing one) and got invited to a worship service. Essentially one guy had gotten a hold of a Bible and some literature, became a Christian, and lead 30 people in his town to faith. And that was it. 30 people meeting quietly in a barn,[12] singing some songs and hanging on the teaching of their unassuming ‘leader’ who had been a Christian all of 2 weeks longer than them. No western influence (apart form the first contact). No western money. When we visited the second time, they were half way done building a church (that had not existed just weeks earlier). I know that it is easy to romanticize something like this, but it struck me as the purest working of the Holy Spirit I had ever seen.

#8 Lost Coast (3 days, 32 miles)

(photo by my friends Sarah and John)

Highway 1 follows the epic California Coast for hundreds of miles of hairpin turns north and south of San Francisco. The road combines the unfortunate qualities of requiring 100% attention to driving to keep you from careening to your death and epic scenery that you can’t help but stare at. It is definitely worth a day or three if you ever find yourself in NorCal. But about 200 miles north of San Francisco, Route 1 juts temporarily inland, leaving a 32 mile stretch of this epic California coast roadless. This has come to be known as the Lost Coast and is one of the most famous 3 day California shuttle hikes on a list otherwise dominated by Sierra granite (much like this one).

We had just learned that Amanda was pregnant so I did this hike with two friends from work. It was a totally unique back country experience. Nearly the entire trip traversed a seemingly endless stretch of secluded beach. The silence of the mountains was replaced by the ubiquitous roar of the ocean waves. And timing became tricky at certain points because there are parts of the ‘trail’ that are impassible at high tides.

#9 Half Dome: Yosemite (1 day, 22 miles)

I am still shocked, to this day, when we meet a native Californian who has never been to Yosemite. Yosemite is worth a vacation to California all by itself. It is our second favorite national park, though we have been over a dozen times. But Yosemite has a seminal hike…the 18 mile[13] trek up half dome. Half Dome is Yosemite’s most distinctive feature. It literally looks like one of the great rounded peaks of the South Sierra was sliced in half like a melon. It was a beautiful Saturday that started early. We were parked and hiking by 5:30…and filed into a steady stream of dozens[14] of hikers who had also heard that 5:30 was the right time to start.[15] It didn’t take us long to get ahead of the crowd, though, and the first 4 miles were pleasantly familiar. The first part of the hike climbs the mist trail to Nevada falls, easily the most surreal, otherworldly 4 miles of trail I have covered (though usually too crowded to really take in). Before second breakfast, we hit the ridge where we could peer all the way up the forbidden Tenya valley.[16]

Despite its substantial mileage and vertical gain, half dome is best known for the last 800 feet, up the actual dome, which are too steep to climb without gear. To make the climb more generally accessible[17] the park service installed cables to aid the ascent. To call these cables treacherous would be a dramatic understatement.[18] But the view from the top was 100% as advertised.

#10 Tuolumne to the Valley Through Hike: Yosemite (3 days, 32 miles)

Two hikes in the top 10 are what I will call, ‘gravity aided,’ including this one. These are hikes that ooze marital harmony as the trail head is several thousand feet higher than the exit point. We took a bus from the Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadow and hiked, mainly downhill, through some of Yosemite’s seldom seen wonders…back to the valley. The highlight was probably camping by a waterfall in the little Yosemite Valley the second night. Little Yosemite Valley is not as dramatic as the main valley, but that is like saying that Kevin Garnett is not quite as impressive as Labron James.

And we got a waterfall entirely to ourselves.

#11 Desolation Wilderness

One of the fantastic things about Sacramento is that there is world class backpacking less than 1.5 hours away. The Desolation Wilderness is a geologic curiosity. It is a large region of glacially exposed granite, west of Lake Tahoe. You can make out the region on Google earth because it looks like a bulldozer removed all of the soil and trees leaving a stark granite wonderland. We backpacked in about 6 miles, stayed at Aloha Lake, did a day hike loop[19] the next day and packed out the third day. We put our tent in a fantastic spot, a wooded peninsula jutting out into the Lake.

The first night, we drank the wine I had packed in and watched the sun set against the stark granite peaks of the Pyramid range. But the most memorable part was yet to come. We stayed up, snacked, talked and enjoyed the wine. At one point an owl buzzed us which was delightful. But about an hour after the sun set, Desolation gave up its most dazzling secret. We had accidentally planned our trip for a full moon. I know hikers that try to avoid a full moon because it obstructs the stars. But as the moon began to pour its light into the stark granite bowl we were in, I realized that from that moment on, I would always try to schedule Sierra trips as close to full moons as possible. The white granite all around us began to glow with an eerie brightness. It was almost as light as daytime, but the light was softer, more mysterious. We stayed up late[20] taking it in and enjoying a rare moment[21] with nothing else to do but be together in a dazzling place.

This post was prepared while listening to Iron and Wine's Pandora Station
[1] They are not even California’s most impressive trees. For those, you have to go to the Avenue of the Giants, in Redwood State Park in Northern CA. There is a race on these trails every year that I hope to run in someday. The picture is Amanda with the biggest tree in the world (by mass).

[2] Here is the strange thing. I don’t enjoy camping. I don’t really like sleeping in a tent for its own sake. Car camping totally befuddles me. But if I am collecting miles and views tent sleeping suddenly makes total sense.
[3] The most famous route is to ‘cross the spine’ taking the High Sierra Trail all the way across from the trailhead in Sequoia (West Sierra), across the Sierra, up Whitney (the highest peak in the lower 48) and out in the East Sierra (around Bishop). This is only a 5 to 6 day hike. The problem is that since there are no roads through the mountains here, the shuttle from trail head to trail head is 8 hours one way…blowing another 3 days in transportation. So this epic hike remains ‘life list’ fodder for the post-kid backpacking renaissance.
[4] Which, incidentally, we wouldn’t recommend. Bear camp is not impressive and is in earshot of the wilderness lodge, which was in closing weekend party mode the week we were there. There is a great camp site just before Bear Lodge which I would recommend instead or, if I were to do it again, I would pack all the way to Hamilton lake and make that the base came to explore the Kaweh gap area that, I understand, is particularly amenable to off trail exploration.
[5] It was at this point that I realized that my favorite hobby was heavily subsidized by federal tax payers. What would you pay to rent thousands of acres of our nations most dramatic wilderness for a single day of private use? What kind of monetary value does that have? It must be enormous. We got it for something like $7.50. Somehow, it is hard for me to get worked up about middleclass subsidies for the urban poor.
[6] In our last couple years backpacking we began to bring one of the Narnia books each trip. They are perfect for a backpacking couple because they are light enough (thematically) to read out loud, light enough physically to bring along (LOTR is out on this criterion) and they usually involve a long quest on foot somewhere.
[7] Of course, to reach the trail head you have to take your life into your hands by taking a bus over the single lane mountain roads. 8 hours to cover 200 miles.
[8] To this day, it is part of Gibson lore that the earliest ticket available was for February 14th, and so I left the country for three months on valentines day. But I brought a ring back, so that has to count for something.
[9] One of the guys I met in ministry there called another guy 2/3ds totally sold out for God and 2/3rds wild adventurer. I have always been enamored with that idea.
[10] Literally ‘Donkey-Water’ treck – and there were plenty of both.
[11] Kids who had grown up in the orphanage and had made lives for themselves in the US or Canada.
[12] While we were there someone came by and banged on the door cursing them for abandoning the Hindu gods.
[13] The hike is 18 miles from the trail head, but you can not drive to the trail head and the busses do not run at 5:30, hence the extra miles.
[14] Maybe hundreds?
[15] This was a weird phenomena, to be hiking a wilderness trail in a crowd before sunrise.
[16] The Tenya valley is forbidden for the very reason it is gorgeous…the stark, steep granite regularly collapses.
[17] In an act of relative hubris that would never be repeated today for safety and conservation principles.
[18] There have been 4 deaths since 2006 (mostly during slippery conditions) which Yosemite says is above average but strikes me a shockingly low given how many people who do not hike regularly and were ill equipped (we saw a lot of sandals and even a baby in a backpack) for an ascent of this nature we saw.
[19] It is this loop that actually demotes this trip. I made an error in map reading so what I thought was an 18 mile day hike with the elevation gain of two passes (which would have pushed our limit as is) was actually a 23 mile day, our longest day of all time. To make matters worse, it was Columbus day weekend, so the days were short and it took an hour to find our nicely secluded camp site in the dark when we finally made it back. Not my finest moment.
[20] We rarely stay up after sun down on the trail. Staying up late led to getting up late which exacerbated the problems of the following day.
[21] We were both working full time and going to grad school full time at the time.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Was God Lonely?

Two separate students have asked me in the last two weeks, why God created humans. It seems they independently ran into the objection that if God was omnipotent, omniscience and self sufficient, there would be no need for him to make us. This suggestion always seems to devolve into cheeky anthropomorphism declaring God lonely or board.

It is an interesting argument. But I think Christianity has resources to address the objection that are not available in the other monotheistic religions…namely the Trinity[1]. The objection fails to take seriously one of the most confusing but most fundamental tenets of Christianity. Christians believe that God not only existed eternally but loved eternally. One of Basil’s (that most heterogeneous of the Capadoccian fathers[2]) favorite metaphors for God was a dance. God’s eternal completeness did not emerge from stark unity[3] but his essence as a loving community.

Clark Pinnock takes this idea on in his book Flame of Love: “Atheism is partly the result of bad theology, an unpaid bill resulting from the failures in depicting God. How often have people been given the impression of God as a being exalting himself at our expense! One might be afraid of such a God, but no one would be attracted to love him.[4] So often lacking has been the vision of the triune God as an event of open, dynamic, loving relations…Prayer is joining an already occurring conversation. The Spirit calls us to participate in the relationship of intimacy between the Father and Son and to be caught up in the dance already begun.”[5][6]

A recent experience illustrated this for me. I remember talking to my close friend Tyler the winemaker[7] right after their third child was born. I asked him, ‘So what’s it like having three?’ Now you have to understand, Amanda and I are trying to decide if we are going to have another child. I already feel like I don’t spend as much time as I would like with the two that I have and am nervous to further subdivide my love. So Tyler’s comment really rang my bell. He said ‘It’s so great. Each new child just multiplies the love.’ He could not be more right. By adding Aletheia to our family, we have increased the degrees of freedom of love in our household.[8] The love that passes between Charis and Aletheia that proceeds from Amanda and I but also exists independent of us, is one of the most beautiful and unexpectedly enjoyable aspects of parenthood.

This is the metaphor that I think makes better sense of God’s sentient makings. It is less like a mid 30’s boy-man reluctantly deciding if he is going to get married, weighing the relative virtues of companionship and freedom, and more like a happy family deciding if they are going to welcome another child into the world.

[1] Note: I understand the weakness of positing a philosophical paradox to address a rational objection to Christianity. But my epistemology allows for mystery, defined by one church father as ‘ideas that suffer, not from a deficit of intelligibility but a surplus.'
[2] Being the only one not named Gregory.
[3] The aspect of his nature preferred by the Platonists, and thus, Augustine, and thus, Calvin, and thus American Evangelicals.
[4] I have run into no better articulation of this than Modest Mouse’s Burkowski.
[5] Pinnock’s book deserves its own post…but for now, here is my general reaction. I liked it. Two specific thoughts: (1) I found it interesting that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is so neglected in Western non-Charismatic Christianity that Pinnock could write what is, essentially, a book on the Trinity and it ends up reading like a book on the Holy Spirit. (2) There was far too much use of the words ‘non-deterministic’ and their synonyms. Um, I’ve taken graduate classes on stochastic calculus. That crap doesn’t sneak by me. There was no reason to put so many references to openness theology in a very good book on the Holy Spirit.
[6] OK, one more, this may be my favorite, though mostly unrelated, quote from this book: “Our language is often revealing-the Spirit is a third person in a third place. At times the Spirit can even sound like an appendage to the doctrine of God and a shadowy, ghostly, poor relation of the Trinity. In the Church year the celebration of Pentecost hardly compares to the observances of Christmas and Easter. Even worse, it may be…eclipsed by Mother’s Day.”
[7] This story has nothing to do with his profession, but I feel like this has become his identity in this blog…so unless he objects, Tyler the Winemaker it is.
[8] Even as it increases the risk of disappointment and rejection by the very nature of adding another independent will capable of love.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Fragments 6: TV, Quotes and Science

So I’m back to a regular preaching schedule. As usual, I will be posting manuscripts and MP3’s. But I have also managed to collect enough fragments for another Fragments and Links post (something I try to do every other month or so). This week, a spattering of TV thoughts, a few quotes, the standard music commentary and a couple science anecdotes


I am warming to Mad Men[1]. I am one season in and the characters are taking form. The following exchange demonstrates 1) who Donald Draper is and 2) why the show is compelling.

Hippy: You make the lie
You invent want
You are for them.

Draper: There is no lie.
The universe is indifferent.
-Mad Men Season 1 Ep8

I’m not really into the new show Community, but found the this exchange pretty interesting:
Dr. Ian Duncan: I'm asking you if you know the difference between right and wrong.
Jeff: I discovered at a very early age that if I talk long enough, I could make anything right or wrong. So, either I am god or truth is relative. And in either case, boo yah!
Dr. Ian Duncan: Oh, interesting, it's just the average person has a much harder time saying "boo yah" to moral relativism.

Amanda and I have been watching How I met Your Mother lately which is probably the third best sit com on right now…substantially behind Big Bang Theory and the Office[3]. But the premier of season 4[4] had an exchange that left me laughing out loud harder than any dialogue I can remember in a long time. Stella (Ted’s new fiancé – i.e. Elliot from Scrubs[5]) admits to Marshall that she didn’t enjoy star wars (Ted’s favorite movie) leading to this exchange:

Stella: "It's sooo stupid. I mean, first of all, how do they understand that walking bear they hang out with all the time?"

Marshall (dejected and hurt): "Wookie."

Stella: "Yeah. He goes, ‘Arrrrrr,' (trying to imitate Chewbacca badly), and they're all, like, 'that's a good point, bear! Let's try that.'"

'that's a good point, bear! Let's try that.' – I am giggling like a 4th grader just typing that. Perfectly written and perfectly delivered.
Speaking of Star Wars. I have always been intrigued by tauntaun digestion (how tauntaun digest not how one digests a tauntaun). I can't seem to figure out how it would work given the brief glimpse we see of their innards. I mean are the ruminants? Are they omnivores? I can’t imagine they are grazers unless they were imported to Hoth for the purpose of Rebel transport….even then they must be from a frozen biome to be suited to Rebel activities on Hoth. But they don’t seem to have the dental equipment to hunt and kill. And why do they need so many intestines? I have so many questions.

Back to How I met Your Mother, I would like to commend them on being the first major media example I have encountered that has broken ‘The Stan Rule.’ What is ‘The Stan Rule?’ Well I’m glad you asked.

You see I have this theory about my name. It is not a very cool name. In fact – it is anti-cool. So, if you are writing a story or script and need a character who is a geek, a nerd, or a tool, don’t have the narrative space or motivation to develop the character, you just name him Stan and the audience will tap into an unspoken cultural expectation that ‘this guy has some glaring personality flaw.’ I have collected evidence for this theory from sources as diverse as Harry Potter, Three’s Company, Sex in the City and Second Hand Lions. But in Season 4[6] they introduce a character named Stan who is meant to embody all that is cool and smooth and wise. And did I mention he is black? This may be the first confirmed sighting of a black fictional Stan in recorded history.[7] But I am going to label this anomaly ‘the exception that proves the rule’ since I think they are clearly going for irony here. They introduce the Stan character in dialog, allow us to build our culturally programmed expectations, and then reveal him, generating comic tension out of our dissonance. So, ‘The Stan Rule’ is, in fact, alive and well.


Flannery O’Conn0r “At its best our age is an age of searchers and discovers and at its worst an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.”

I broke out Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in 10,000 Places for a talk I am working on. It may be one of the most quotable books I own. Here is a quote I didn’t use: “The usual way to avoid the appearance of crass individualism is through sectarianism. A sect is a form of narcissim…We construct religious clubs instead of entering resurrection communities. Sects are the termites in the Father’s house.” p244

Chad Walsh: the Christian writer ‘gives himself to his task in a spirit of deadly serious playfulness’

“The definition of sacrifice is doing something without appropriate compensation…(Counterintuitively) this can lead to bitterness…and greed.” –Nic

There were two quotable moments from my time with the in laws

The kids were talking about a guide to my father in law’s legendary speeches and decided to call it ‘a guilt trip tick[8]

Anne – ‘Masons is kind of like girl scouts for grown ups.’ This is particularly hilarious in light of Dan Browns new book.

Speaking of Dan Brown’s new book, I noticed that there is a purchase correlation on Amazon between its buyers and people who bought Glen Beck’s new book. I wonder if this is a statistical artifact of Amazon’s correlation algorithm that simply reflects the fact that they both sold a bazillion copies or evidence that enjoying these authors suggest similar plausibility apparatus. I suspect it is the former, but desperately want to argue the latter.


I think there is something wrong with my ears. Despite several attempts, I have never been able to get into Radiohead. They seem like the kind of band I should like. But I just don’t.

I know I am late to the game, but I have been into Tool lately. Sober appears to be about a friend of the band who could only do art when under the influence:

Theres a shadow just behind me. shrouding every step I take.
Making every promise empty. pointing every finger at me.
Waiting like a stalking butler, who upon the finger rests.
Murder now the path of must we, just because the son has come.

Jesus, wont you f*$^ing whistle. something but the past and done.

Why cant we not be sober? I just want to start this over.
Why cant we drink forever? I just want to start this over.

I am just a worthless liar. I am just an imbecile.
I will only complicate you. trust in me and fall as well.
I will find a center in you. I will chew it up and leave.
I will work to elevate you, just enough to bring you down.

I want what I want...

I love the imagery of that first verse. Tool is trying to paint a picture of a complicated malevolent dependency, but, more and more, I like the metaphor of addiction for the edenic nature. There is a lot about that verse that I see in many facets of my own existence.

Of course my ‘favorite’[9] tool song is "10,000 Days (Wings Pt. 2)" about the lead singer’s religious mother who died after being confined to a wheelchair for years.

I wonder if I am the only person in Pandora history to form a blended Tool/David Crowder channel[10]. But this is precisely the kind of soundtrack I like while writing my talks. We claim our college ministry is supposed to be a place for 2 kinds of people: those who have chosen to follow Jesus and are trying to work out what that looks like and those who are spiritually curious and looking for a safe place to experiment with Christian ideas and community. I find that a tensioned sound track (including a thoughtful opponent to Christianity or agnostic and a thoughtful Christian) helps generate an emotive space that keeps both audiences before me.

Speaking of preaching, I found Bill Simmons discussion of ‘the Adam Carolla Rule’, extremely interesting. It goes something like this: ‘For every hour that you film someone trying to be funny, you will get one minute of usable comedy.’ This is intriguingly parallel to the rule of thumb I follow in preaching prep that it takes 1 hour of prep for every minute you spend talking to put together something worth saying.


My Facebook status from a few weeks ago: I’ve identify the red gravel in his can imagine my surprise to find that it is probably 'greenstone.' Geologists are adorable.

Overheard in Bio lab: "Wouldn’t it be cool if humans could fix nitrogen."[11]
My response: "You just described the lamest super power of all time."
What followed was a brief but nerdy conversation about what a Halloween costume for Nitrogenese Man would look like…which was followed by me thinking about it for much longer.

I have Dr Don Strong for intro to Evolution and Ecology. Prof Strong is animated and engaging (I started my last talk with an anecdote from this class and he performed not one but 2 death scenes as part of his discussion of the Nitrogen cycle). He does not seem to be a friend of the teleological argument, though. He gave a lecture on epistemology and took the position (without saying it) that positivism has epistemic priority.[12] There have also been backhanded jokes about design[13].

But he made this comment the other day, which I loved: “If I am looking in nature for evidence of supernatural powers I would say, ‘the lord has saved us from ourselves,’ because (fossil fuels) are too diffuse for us to pump out and suffocate ourselves.”[14]

Speaking of positivism.[15] The opening chapters of Wrights New Testament and the People of God has done a masterful job crafting a worldview that negotiates the narrow path between positivism and phenomenologicalism.[16] But his comments about positivism is salient here:

“Though this view (positivism) has been largely abandoned by philosophers, it has had a long run for its money in other spheres, not the least those of the physical science. Despite the great strides in self-awareness that have come about through (for instance) sociology of knowledge, not to mention philosophy of science itself, one still meets some scientists (and many non-scientists who talk about science) who believe that what science does is simply to look objectively at things that are there.”[17]

This is one of the things that bugs me about Dawkins. He does not own his presuppositions, even when they are philosophically passé. How many of his readers do you think could identify him as a positivist, and how many of them realize that positivism has not been considered philosophically viable for decades.

The problem of evil has often been subdivided into categories of human evils and natural evils, with the latter being the more difficult to answer for because it can not be foisted upon human will. But I would like to propose the following argument on Katrina in light of San Francisco, Natomas, and Seattle – In the next 30 years something horrible is going to happen in Natomas[18] (flooding), San Francisco (earthquakes) or Seattle (volcanic devastation) and we will ask, how could God do such a thing. It won’t occur to us to ask, ‘are these really places humans should live’ or ‘how could the local or regional leadership allow such a thing?’

There is a marked proof of first paper[19] online here.

The odd thing about my PhD is that I am primarily a numerical modeler. Secondarily I am a field and project scientist. What I was not, remotely, was an experimentalist. Yet my dissertation is experimental[20]. The cool thing about this paper, though, is that 2 people have already contacted me who will be doing their dissertations, at least in part, on trying to numerically replicate the experimental results from this paper.

There are two numbers that I think are interesting enough to post here from my dissertation: 100 and 600,000. The first is how many tons of sand and gravel I shoveled into and out of my flume[21] in order to set up and clean up the 25 experiments I conducted. The second number is how many sand grains I counted (and color sorted) with a dentist pick and a magnifying glass.[22] I am one of the only people I know who have an intuitive sense of how many 1 million is because I have counted over half way there. It is a LOT. Anyway, this is all to explain what became my motto for the doctoral work. I began to describe my approach to academic innovation with the phrase: “What I lack in ability I make up for in industry.”

The sand counting task made me want to include the following excerpt from The Phantom Tollbooth as an appendix to the work. I refrained:

Firstly, I would like to move this pile from here to there," he explained, pointing to an enormous mound of fine sand; "but I’m afraid that all I have are these tiny tweezers." And he gave them to Milo, who immediately began transporting one grain at a time…

"Quite correct!" he shrieked triumphantly. "I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit...There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why, if you stay here, you’ll never have to think again—and with a little practice you can become a monster of habit, too."

This pretty much sums up my feelings about the PhD. The master’s degree is, by far, the more efficient vehicle of intellectual exchange and development. If you are thinking about getting a PhD, get 3 Masters Degrees in different subjects instead. You will come out of it with the same amount of effort invested and will be better educated.

[1] As I have mentioned before, I gave up on it at least twice before returning to it after critical acclaim and the recommendations of people I trust.
[2] Draper is in advertising. I love this line almost as much as Drapers.
[3]And Scrubs in its prime, but seasons 7 and 8 of scrubs were not as good as the previous and I am not that hopeful for a season of scrubs that ‘takes the focus off JD’ and only has the main characters signed to 6 episode contracts.
[4] Yeah, I know. We don’t keep a TV so all of our small screen consumption is either Hulu or, mostly, DVD’s so we end up being a year behind. I’m ok with that, but it doesn’t exactly make for cutting edge cultural analysis.
[5] Who was great for the part but not showing a ton of range.
[6] Incidentally, I think the really historic part about season 4 is that both female leads got REALLY pregnant during the shooting (Hannigan even gave birth and disappeared for a few weeks near the end of the season) and they didn’t write either of the pregnancies into the show. There were just a lot of flowing tops and enormous purses. It became a comical sub-plot. This is understandable with the Robin character who supposedly hates kids, but Hannigan’s character is happily married. It makes me sad that there is no room for children in a show like this. Sad but not surprised.
[7] Because, in fiction, black is shorthand for cool as much as Stan is shorthand for uncool…and honestly, rightly so.
[8] My in-laws are a AAA family. Some of you may not remember this, but before Google maps or mapquest you could go to AAA and get essentially the same service. It was called a trip tic.
[9] Hard to call it a favorite since it is so brutally heart breaking
[10] Usually I like the variety and insights into new bands that Pandora provides, but I really wish the David Crowder channel played more David and less others because I don’t know if there is another genre like ‘worship music’ (a horribly self involved moniker) where the top performer is an order of magnitude better than the average band.
[11] The process by which only about 20 Bacteria and Achaea turn atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia which is needed for all life.
[12] Honestly, it is just irresponsible to teach on the philosophy of science without even mentioning Kuhn.
[13] Which, in fairness, have often been apt and enjoyable. My favorite ‘Cyanobacteria forgot to read Genesis.’ Of course, my response, ‘Genesis isn’t about the endosymbiotic cyanobacteria that lives in all photosynthetic organisms…it is about the dark parasitic idol maker that lives in my heart.’
[14] He was talking about the molar equivalency of oxygen and fixed carbon. For every mole of Oxygen in the atmosphere, there is a fixed carbon in the lithosphere. If we had access to all the world’s fossil fuels we could literally turn all of our atmospheric O2 into CO2 and asphyxiate ourselves. Strong’s argument/joke is that it is fortuitous that only a small portion of fossil fuels are in economically viable concentrations.
[15]I am working on a post about the role data selection, presentation and funding plays in destabilizing positivism and why I am an unabashed Khunian in my philosophy of science.
[16] Or, as he puts it, “To one side we can see the positivist or the naïve realist, who0 moves so smoothly along the line from reader to text to author to referent that they are unaware of the snakes in the grass at every step; to the other side we can see the reductionist who, stopping to look at the snakes, is swallowed up by them and proceeds no further.” (p61)
[17] p33 – The presuppositions most likely to derail the scientific enterprise are the unacknowledged ones. Wright says elsewhere, that the claim to neutrality is usually just a clue that one’s biases have not been robustly evaluated.
[18] Or, even more likely, the Sacramento Delta or New Orleans…again.
[19] The paper was published in Sedimentology in August. The second paper is coming out in the Journal of Geotechnical Engineering in February.
[20] Here is how it went down if anyone is interested. I started out trying to design a numerical algorithm for bed mixing and realized that there was no data to base it on. So I got a few experiments funded and 25 experiments, 3 to 6 papers and a 450 page dissertation later, the data set itself, rather than the algorithm is my actual contribution.
[21] A flume is essentially an experimental fake river. Mine was 3ft wide and 74 ft long. Gravel weighs around 120 lbs/ft2.
[22] One of the substantial contributions of my work was to finally hone in on a repeatable method to do this with image analysis, but this technique was not perfected until near the end of the study…so I did a lot of counting by ‘hand.’
[23] Excerpt from The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, 1961; pp209-214