Exuberant Faith

In The Soul Comes First, in assessing the crippling effects of the heresy of Original Sin, I conclude:

The more serious fault […] is the conclusion that Humanity is a flaw in Creation. This is completely in opposition to the actual truth. Humanity is an essential and valued part of Creation, an element that is [be]held with the most tender concern and honored regard in recognition of the difficulty and importance of the work that we must perform, the pain and sacrifice involved in accomplishment of that work, and the joyous consequences of its eventual completion.

When I wandered with the Boy Scouts on backpacking trips, I would feel this shouted at me from the wilderness – the trees, birds and animals begging for relief from drought. When I paused to bless the land, raising my hands to remind the heavens that they suffered, one of the fathers snapped “Would you stop doing that?”

In my dialogs with those of conventional faith – once principally dogmatic Christians, but today including atheists – I am often dismayed by the energy they invest in running from the truth offered in that opening excerpt. I have come to understand that their rejection is rooted in the privilege of flesh that resists the primacy of spirit. For it is the flesh that suffers, and the spirit that reaps the joy.

Even Jesus struggled with that paradox, testifying at Gethsemane:

The sprit is willing, but the flesh is weak. [NIV Matt. 26:41]

This comment, at the end of his long journey of surrender to the limitations of his age, was prefaced by:

My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will. [NIV Matt. 26:39]

In that moment of weakness, with Simon Peter dosing nearby, I wonder if Jesus heard the echoes of the apostle’s complaint on the lake of Gennesaret. The fisherman, weary from his fruitless night and irked by Jesus’ commandeering of his boat as a podium, grudgingly responds to an encouragement to lower his nets in the deep water:

Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets. [NIV Luke 5:5]

And thus unfolds the little charade that Jesus had organized with the fishes, those quiet denizens of the waters that wait so patiently for us to assume our stewardship of the earth. Recognizing the Man that had come to show us the way, they spent the night lurking in the depths of the lake, teasing the fisherman. When the net enters the water at Jesus’ command, they surged exuberantly upwards, each calling to his fellows: “Come! Leap into the net! Show these fishermen his glory!”

But did Simon follow? No, condemned by religious teaching to believe that the sinner eclipses the saint, Simon falls to his knees and begs:

Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man! [NIV Luke 5:8]

This is the second great obstacle to faith: the conviction that we are unworthy to serve love.

Simon Peter, by nature extravagant in all things, expresses this with physical extravagance. Again at the temple, he cannot just deny Jesus once and then depart; he must amplify his shame by lurking in the shadows, watching impotently so that he may deny Jesus twice more. What would have happened if, recalling the fish, he had stepped forward brazenly to cast his arm around Jesus’ shoulders and proclaimed, “Look at the dignity of this man! How could he not be God?”

Instead, Jesus went to the cross, bearing the weight of the dependence of all flesh upon sin, and caught Humanity in the net of his heart. Some still fight to escape that embrace, but I for one hunger for the company of those that leap exuberantly into faith.

Trimmed to Size

I am in the third stage of down-sizing my living space, preparatory to relocation from a 1200 square-foot apartment with attached garage to a 700 square-foot space. Considering the expense of a storage unit, I have steeled myself to discard or donate everything except the bedroom set and my tech tools. I began the final purge and boxing up for the move last night, and stuff that had survived the first two cuts is now either piled up in the garage pending a trip down to Good Will, or sitting in the dumpster.

Strangely, the two collections represent very different aspects of my life.

The primary impetus for down-sizing is that my sons are off to college. I’ve held back their child-hood memorabilia, most of it stored under my bed, which is were it will be again after the move. The rest of me as a father is destined for Good Will, including the power tools that I used in fixing up the house their mother now lives in, the racks that stored their backpacking gear, and the last of the storage bins that held their craft supplies.

In the dumpster lies the record of my intellectual life, starting with the journals I wrote in college that marked the beginning of my attempts to understand the power of love and why it was so hard to transmit it. Also from that era are the remnants of the comic book collection that I accumulated up to the date of my marriage at thirty-five. More significant are the last of the evidence of my investment in Diagrammatic Programming, the systems analysis technology developed by my father who passed away just before New Years.

The furniture and appliances are no loss. But these things hurt somehow.

From the comic collection I did hold back my run of The Puma Blues. It’s been sitting on a wire rack for three months, but made it to my bed last night. My elbow began aching around 9:30, so I decided to turn in. Instead, I ended up propped up by my pillows, trying to decipher the faded scratches of the hand-lettered dialog, while a voice in the back of my head keep on observing “This was the only thing in your comic collection worth keeping.”

Puma Blues, which ran only 24 issues, charts the experience of Gavin, a young man confronted on all sides with the futility of the struggle against death. It was created by two Canadians with deep environmental sensitivities. The artwork lovingly captures the natural world, with a moodiness that sometimes makes it difficult to discern the minutiae of artificial existence.

Set at the turn of the millennia, the ecological context of Gavin’s life is terrifying: global warming, acidification, ozone depletion and nuclear terrorism have brought the natural world to the point of collapse. Strangely, in seeking refuge from hopelessness, Gavin finds himself posted at a nature preserve, monitoring the pH of a lake that is being limed to allow the fish to survive, and thus to support the rest of the ecosystem. But with too much free time on his hands, Gavin is brought to confront a more direct experience of mortality, in the form of videos made by his deceased father that consider darkly the larger question of humanity’s relationship to eternity.

The storyline offers two promises for healing, promises that I regret were barely formulated before the series was dropped. The first is the assertion by Gavin’s father that “rebellion is the beginning of faith.” In the backdrop of Gavin’s life, the rebellion is evident in his rootless refusal to engage society, and it is indeed that rebellion that allows him the opportunity to engage his father’s voice. But from my writings here, it might be gleaned that I believe that the whole of religious experience is a rebellion against our Darwinian programming. In both cases, rebellion manifests as a pig-headed refusal to participate in systems that create death.

This parallel will be offensive to lovers of nature, but I stand by it: while it is fashionable to believe that humanity has disrupted a natural balance, that is only true on the human time-scale. Looking at ecology even on the time-frame of tens of thousands of years, and we see a constant rising and falling of species and ecosystems. There is no stability, and the instability brought by death was the agency of our evolution.

Gavin resists faith, however, even though the second promise for healing is nothing less than an absolute miracle. Symbolically, it reflects the hope of life itself, a hope that it will find some way to outgrow the disasters that humanity is visiting upon it. Along with his environmental monitoring duties, Gavin is occasionally ordered to seek out and “transmute” aerial manta rays. Physiologically, there is no concession in the artwork to biological necessity. The rays sport gills, and flutter their wings gracefully as though under water. But they fly through the air none-the-less. Obviously, the only explanation for their survival is access to some other form of energy, a form that is not channeled by the normal metabolic means.

This is the promise that I offered my sons all through their childhood. While I try not to show it, it hurts now to hear them enthuse about terraforming Mars (to which I think: “Really – invest all that energy so we can move there and screw it up?”) or spread nanoscale sensors all over the Earth (“Disrupting the digestion of the insects and worms just as our plastic refuse does that of the birds and fish?”). I do understand, of course: they must survive in a culture that abases itself before its technological avatars, because they offer the promise of complete control of the world through the use of digital technology.

But the problem, as I see it, is in seeking control.

Here’s an experience: I was working at a climate change modelling institute in 2004, back when the fossil fuel industry really began to push back against the scientific community. The ozone layer was a serious concern: the CFCs used for foam production and refrigeration catalyzed the breakdown of ozone, thereby allowing cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation through the atmosphere. While replacements had been found, the chlorine atoms at fault would remain in the atmosphere for decades.

As a physicist, I was mulling one day over the thought that neutrinos from the sun could catalyze electron emission from a neutron in the chlorine nucleus, transforming it into argon, which is chemically inert. Thinking more and more deeply about this, I visualized the neutrino field being emited from the sun, and then honed my attention on the thin shell of the atmosphere. I felt other minds joining mine, and then a frission of energy.

A few weeks later, one of the climate modelers came by after church to say: “We were pretty worried about the ozone layer, but it seems like it wasn’t such a big problem after all.”

And so I find myself a little disjointed today, juxtaposing my promise of hope against the paranoia of Gavin’s father, whose faith manifests as belief in UFOs and the hope that some higher species is standing in the wings to engineer our salvation. Neither my sons nor the authors of Puma Blues seemed ready to proclaim that we are the intervention. We are the tool by which God conquers Darwinian violence.

We just need our rebellion against death to mature into a surrender to love.

Then What are 1000 Pictures Worth?

Reports of the dimming of the star KIC 8462852 have been debunked, causing SETI to revise its claims to have proven the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. The news also caused a crash in Appalachian coal futures, as CO2 sequestration speculators cancelled orders.

One insider, speaking anonymously to avoid being labelled as a “Koch-head,” revealed “when my employers were convinced that no earthly engineering team could dig an ocean through the Rockies, they were hoping that the ETs would do the work in the course of removing the sub-surface CO2 stockpiles they were hoping to establish in New Mexico and Arizona. No ETs, no CO2 sequestration, no last-grasp strip-mining in Appalachia. Oh well, there’s always that land trade for the Panama Canal!”

More seriously: it turns out that the original study of KIC 8462852, drawing upon analysis of old photographic plates, had failed to account for differences in the equipment used to capture the pictures. By comparing the apparent brightness of KIC 8462852 to that of other stars in the plates, it was determined that the the relative brightness had not changed.

Systematic effects (related to the design of the experimental system) were also a large factor in fueling the “cold-fusion” hype that I got involved in debunking back in the ’80s.

Don’t Blame Love

In the final chapter of Love Works, the feminine personality of life, irritated by the disorder generated by the masculine personality of intellect, grabs him by the short hairs, prompting him to observe:

Choice is a bitch. Let’s hope the kids do better next time. Now, will you let go? (How does she make it hurt so much?)

It’s undeniable that the spread of life across the earth has been driven by primitive urges.

Life’s procreative greed causes ecosystems to become saturated, stunting evolutionary opportunity. The great extinction episodes of paleohistory terminated biological dead-ends, and were all followed by eras in which life took off in new directions.

Conversely, the ability to use tools requires a large brain and flexible digits, both of which limit the growth of organic armor (which traps heat) and organic weapons (which must be anchored to large bones). Thus creatures of intellect such as humans are biologically vulnerable, and so spread only when they can produce tools that overcome the weapons and armor of other animals.

Once those tools were available, however, fear and greed drove us to consume natural resources without restraint, bringing the globe today to the point of ecological collapse. Deflecting the force of these natural tendencies is the challenge we have laid at love’s door.

In the history of religion, that struggle began with the worship of the two polar opposites of procreation and death. With the rise of the hydrological civilizations, an intellectual class of priests began to envision gods with subtle ethical character. But it was really only about 3000 years ago (and only among the intellectual elite) that humanity dared to suppose the gods should be devoted to us, rather than the other way around.

Monotheism is the culmination of this process, and led eventually to the declaration that God is love. This is common to all of the great religions.

But is it to our advantage? Given that we have free will, why should we feel constrained to draw only upon love when we face challenges? When our treasurer embezzles the retirement fund, do we just shrug our shoulders? Or do we get a noose? And when the hanging is done, can’t we justify the act with the assertiong that we are loving our spouse, children and/or co-workers?

The retort to this logic is that if you had really cared about your treasurer and paid attention to her psychological well-being, you would have seen the trouble long before it manifested. But, damn, that seems like a lot of work, and didn’t we pay them to do the right thing? So we keep the noose handy, and that means that the old deities of death get in through the back door of our religions. They stay alive there, and as ecological collapse sweeps across the globe, they will appear once again to grow in power.

But, fundamentally, they are the disease. Sexual indulgence and fear of death are what drove us to exploit the natural world. That love did not have a magic wand to drive them away is not its fault. So we need to stop blaming monotheistic religions for our refusal to hew to the dictates of love. Rather, we need to double down, even as fear sweeps over us, and invest in the love that creates the strength to resist the urge to exploit the world around us.

Wish You Were There

Google has recently announced a “photo location” service that will tell you where a picture was taken. They have apparently noticed that every tourist takes the same photos, and so if they have one photo tagged with location, they can assign that location to all similar photos.

I’m curious, as a developer, regarding the nature of the algorithms they use. As a climate change alarmist, I’m also worried about the energy requirements for the analysis. It turns out that most cloud storage is used to store our selfies (whether still or video). Over a petabyte a day is added to YouTube, with the amount expected to grow by a factor of ten by 2020. A petabyte is a million billion bytes. By contrast, the library of Congress can be stored in 10 terabytes, or one percent of what is uploaded daily to YouTube.

Whatever Google is doing to analyze the photos, there’s just a huge amount of data to process, and I’m sure that it’s a huge drain on our electricity network. And this is just Google. Microsoft also touts the accumulation of images as a driver for growth of its cloud infrastructure. A typical data center consumes energy like a mid-size city. To reduce the energy costs, Microsoft is considering deployment of its compute nodes in the ocean, replacing air conditioning with passive cooling by sea water.

But Google’s photo location service suggests another alternative. Why store the photos at all? Rather than take a picture and use Google to remind you where you were, why not tell Google where you were and have it generate the picture?

When I was a kid, the biggest damper on my vacation fun was waiting for the ladies to arrange their hair and clothing when it came time to take a photo. Why impose that on them any longer? Enjoy the sites, relax, be yourself. Then go home, dress for the occasion, and send up a selfie to a service that will embed you in a professional scenery photo, adjusting shadows and colors for weather and lighting conditions at the time of your visit.

It might seem like cheating, but remember how much fun it was to stick your face in those cut-out scenes on the boardwalk when you were a kid? It’s really no different than that. And it may just save the world from the burdens of storing and processing the evidence of our narcissism.

Live Oaks Matter

When dealing with a problem as large and diffuse as anthropogenic climate change, many of us have a Rubicon to cross. As recently as five years ago, I had practicing engineers tell me that there was no way that our individual impacts could combine to affect a system as large as the Earth. The escalating frequency and power of destructive storms has changed the minds of many of those doubters.

For myself, I never doubted the science, but it was an abstraction until I observed the changes in the Oak Trees when I returned to Livermore in 2004 after being away for ten years. Persistent drought had reduced the level of the Del Valle reservoir by almost thirty feet. When I finally found the opportunity to hike the hills rising from its western shore, I was astonished and dismayed by the battered look of the oak trees. Flaking bark and fallen branches littered the trail, and the sturdy equanimity of forest was replaced by a beaten weariness. When flying into Oakland over the reservoir in the early evening, the rust-colored crowns were evidence that the ecosystem was facing the loss of its keystone species.

These observations were magnified when I visited the IONS retreat center in Petaluma. I had seen isolated instances of sudden oak death along the freeway, but the trees along the ridge around the retreat center were decimated by the scourge. The branches and leaves were coated with a choking fungus. Recent rains had brought new buds that twisted as they suffocated. I reached out to offer a compassionate touch, until a voice warned me that the contact would coat me in spores that would travel with me.

The death of the oak forests was not so visible in Southern California. The coastal ranges come right down to the shore north of Santa Barbara, which seemed to act as a barrier to the spread of the fungus. And the trees in the Thousand Oaks area often line waterways sustained by treatment facility discharges. Even so, my thrice-weekly runs along the Chesebro trails confronted me with evidence of trees in distress.

Other factors also brought me pain: all throughout the West, the native scrub is being wiped out by the European grasses that now sprout up in the aftermath of wildfires. Even on old growth hillsides, shrinking brush has left exposed ground that is overrun by verdant lawn after rains. Where water gathers on fields, the invaders are thick stands of mustard plant. The weeds last only long enough to choke out the native sprouts, then die off, leaving soil at the mercy of the wind. In many places, the chalky lime of the range peeks through under the burnt stems of the sage.

When I took up Bikram yoga to combat my chronic back pain, my contact with these realities lessened. Even moderate exercise causes me to perspire profusely, leaving me in a dehydrated condition that forces me to break posture early in class. So I have given up hiking to refine my posture and prana flow. The disconnection came to the fore when one of the other students remarked that it was nice to see the hills greening again. I had to hold my tongue – I had observed over the winter that the lime green of European grasses was spreading on the burnt ground.

But I had been hooked. As I walked back to my car this morning, I felt the call of the green world. It seemed to say, “Yes, it’s not the way it was. But it is new life. Come and see us!” So when I arrived home, I put on my hiking boots and headed up the trail.

WP_20160220_13_36_30_Rich_LITo be confronted with a large Valley Oak that had shed its lowest limb in a recent storm. The wound, so evocative of a screaming face, shocked me into recollection of the frightening dark forest of the Witch of the East in the Wizard of Oz. The sight was leavened somewhat by the sunflowers propped up against the trunk. I stopped to place my hands against the deep bark, and willed the matriarch to live, but she was weary. It was time to let go. So I offered the hope that a new sprout would rise under her guidance to provide new expression.WP_20160220_13_38_33_Rich_LI

I wish I could say that it was an isolated experience, but not a hundred yards up the trail I encountered another casualty. This friend had lost its crown, probably more than a year ago. The lower limbs were thick with brushy twigs, made bare by the winter weather. This determined manifestation of the will to survive was contradicted by the evidence in the bark of a tree that stretched its lowest branch across Chesebro from the far side. The pattern of bark discoloration suggested that it, too, would be diminished in the near future.

While the Valley Oaks seemed doomed, the Coastal Live Oak, less grand in their ambitions, seem still to thrive. They lose their limbs, but even hollowed out, they channel water through the cambrium, reaching up and out to paint the sky with green.

But as I strode away from the arroyo to cut my way home along the road, the future was painted in bright green. After the last wildfire roared up Chesebro Canyon in 2004, the forest service attempted to demark and maintain native species restoration plots. Often no more than ten feet on a side, the chicken wire was often lost in a sea of mustard plant, and while steadfastly maintained, the drought yet murdered the native plants that had evolved to survive the dry months of our Mediterranean climate. The future was obvious on the slope above the trail head: stunted oak saplings, ringed by white plastic tubes to protect them from the deer, evoked a military graveyard against the backdrop of the European grass that coated the slope in a hyperactive green.WP_20160220_14_11_23_Rich_LI

Russian to the Brink

While Nikita Khrushchev once pounded a negotiating table with his shoe, promising that “[the USSR] will bury you,” Vladimir Putin seems committed to a course of “let’s all drown together.” Whether it be oil or violence or rising oceans, the real risks facing his people are clouded in his mind by the demands of keeping a nation of eight time zones under his thumb.

As an industrialized nation whose ports are locked in ice for six months each year, Russia has a mania for warm weather. That was expressed in the ’50s in currying favor with its neighbor Iran, and in the ’80s with the invasion of Afghanistan. As global warming gained steam, the failure to secure a warm-water port made Russian nominally the only nation standing to benefit from climate change.

That wasn’t enough for Putin, whose seizure of Crimea was a thinly-disguised grab for an outlet to the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, a good piece of Ukraine stood between Russia and its new acquisition. Western opposition to the dismemberment of the Ukraine has frustrated Putin’s ambition and exposed the weakness of his military. The flurry of airspace violations by Russian fighter jets has died down as the maintenance bill mounted.

Instead, Putin has shifted to support of Bashar Assad in Syria. This is an escalation of the asymmetrical warfare epitomized by suicide bombers, except in this case the walking dead are the refugees fleeing conflict. The cost of managing the millions fleeing the region is mounting, and borne almost exclusively by the European countries who have responded to Russian adventurism with diversification of their fossil fuel supply.

Again, this geopolitical aim is shrouded in a lofty rationale: Russian claims to be fighting Daesch, the Islamist caliphate that is looting the abandoned regions of eastern Syria and western Iraq. In reality Russian military might is strongly aligned with Assad in his battle with the rebellion again his criminal regime.

In the meantime, Russia continues to pump oil into the Chinese and other markets. Its primary competitor in supply is Saudi Arabia, whose cheap production costs and small population allowed flexibility to decrease production during an oil glut to stabilize global output. Unfortunately, Sunni Saudi Arabia is locked in a regional struggle for dominance with the Shiite regime of Iran, nominally a supporter of the Allawi regime in Syria. This has led it into military adventurism in Yemen, at the cost of $17 billion a month, and is now prompting the Suadi’s to consider intervention with ground troops against Daesch in eastern Syria. An obviously a side-effect is to secure the existence of a Sunni bastion in a region about to be dominated by Shiite states. But it also creates a drain on the Saudi treasury that forces it to sell oil, driving down the price even further.

Saudi Arabia is not the only threat to Russian control of Syria. The rebels being bombed by Russian jets are not going to go away should the regime reestablish control of their strongholds. They will melt into the population, and continue to operate as insurgents. And of course, there’s all those returning refugees to provide for. Just as in Ukraine, Putin is setting himself up to be trapped for the long term in the Middle Eastern quagmire.

Finally, we have the paradox of the melting Russian tundra, composed in no small part of methane crystals that are evaporating. How much of Russia’s oil and gas infrastructure will be swallowed in sinkholes is anybody’s guess. At the very least, we can expect roads and rail lines to be disrupted. Worse, some estimates are that the continental shelf along the Arctic Ocean will soon burp up enough methane to drive global temperatures up by 2 C in the next ten years. That will moderate as the methane burns off, but the effect will be to increase desertification of Russian agricultural land. While warming Siberia is huge, it is dominated by tundra and boreal forest, possessing only a thin layer of soil. It’s not going to be a breadbasket anytime in the next thousand years.

Russia has always been a marginal state, held together by the repressive fist of the tsars. As the last of that line, Putin is playing a game of personal power on the global stage driven by the need to prove his strength to the Russian people. While it’s anybody’s guess as to how soon the Russian state will collapse under the weight of his ambitions, all we can hope is that there’s something left for the Russian people to rebuild with.