Wednesday, July 27, 2016


Fear is a powerful emotion. Great leaders have used it as a rallying cry to guide their people through difficult periods, recognizing its potential to distract and disable them. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s now immortal words from his first inaugural address still ring true, “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

In contrast, infamous tyrants have used fear to justify actions that history condemns without qualification. In deference to Godwin’s law, Hitler’s most cunning weapon was to fan flames of fear against Jews and other races that were perceived to threaten his people. The terror that could paralyze is cultivated into a frenzy that enables unspeakable horrors.

However it is shaped, fear is an ever-present emotion that evokes strong actions. The primal nature of fear is a key element of survival. In the absence of social contracts that moderate human behavior, fear would be a constant that heightens awareness and senses to the many unknown dangers faced in a hazardous environment. Without the consequences of immorality, fear would lead to the demise of the “other” when the “self” is at risk.

Fear does, and always will have a place in a human world. Despite the vast amount of knowledge now available with a click, much is unknown and dangers are very real. Death, whether the end of a consciousness or a transition into a new one, is an irrevocable conclusion to the most cherished of possessions – life. As the vigilant guardian of this possession, fear is a consequence of it.

For societies that have known peace and lived in a world where fear is not a daily concern, the role of fear can be much more precarious. When fear is unfamiliar, the ability to cope with it and harness its power towards a chosen outcome is diminished. Rather, fear often becomes a yoke that is used to the advantage of others to the detriment of the “self”. A person’s will is lost when they subscribe to the fear monger’s ambitions. With such potential, the responsibility to study and understand one’s own fears has never been greater.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States was gripped by fear. When George W. Bush stood on the rubble of the Trade Towers he vowed to bring justice to those who had caused such horror. At that defining time in the nation’s history, fear could have been harnessed to guide people through tragedy; or, as it was, used to justify actions in the name of survival.

Since that time fear mongering has become a norm in the United States. For a media that preys on strong emotions to buoy a bottom line, fear is a means to raise the number of views and appease sponsors. In a political world, it can also translate into votes. However, even tyrants aware of fear’s power and skilled in its exploitation are eventually the victims of its venom.

As Donald Trump now stands on top of a platform built and cultivated by the Republican Party for more than a decade (or most political parties nowadays it seems), he is the inevitable conclusion of their fear mongering. His rallying cry fans the flames of fear, reassuring those who support him that what they are feeling was meant to empower him. In reality, when leaders use fear for their own purposes, they defeat the “others” that bestowed them with such power and are left to face the self-correcting wrath of human morality alone.

As these words flow from my early morning brain, I am both disappointed that my homeland has been intoxicated by fear and seduced by those who are using it for their own benefit. I yearn for leaders with a vision that hopes for a better future. I mourn the loss of the sense of purpose and community, but understand that without challenge and opposition the deep roots that ground us will be too shallow to protect from future storms.

However these words come to light, and I hope they are not in vain, I challenge you to know your fear. Accept it for what it is, and be wary of those who would make it grow within you. Fear does have a purpose, to make you aware of others so that you know they are there. What you choose to do then is what makes you human or an animal.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

I never expected

I never expected it to be hard, but I didn’t expect it to be easy.
I never expected that it would take so long, but come so quickly.
I never expected all the fear, but also the security.
I just never expected.

The truth is that it’s never this or that, its somewhere in between.
The fairy tale life you’ve dream about will never have its sheen.
Normal is the ups and downs, the fights and cuddles, the uninterested and keen.
None of it expected.

What I wanted was only the part that was good and true.
I wanted something that was forever, undying, and without limit too.
They said it would be consume; it would burn inside – like a fire of blue.
It was what I expected.

With the good and true came the bad and the lies
That sometimes felt like forever, decaying - beyond my limits of compromise.
I was consumed, but by thoughts of doubt and feelings in disguise.
Too much expected.

But like a seed that’s planted takes time to root, and sprout, and grow –
A life with another takes time to study, and learn, and know.
Patience, understanding, willingness, consideration, a bit of quid pro quo;
Can be expected.

Expect the hard and easy, the long and quick, fear and security.
Expect the fairy tale, the horror story, and even some drama and comedy.
Expect all that’s good and bad, the truth and lies, and time for maturity.
Just don’t expect it to be what you expected.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Lolly medicine

I realised something this week - there's a reason that cherry flavours aren't abundant in Australia. (Yeah, I know they have cherry ripe.) Only recently did I find a bottle of grenadine, something which is in almost every supermarket in the States, usually next to the peanuts. Grenadine makes a nice cherry flavoured drink when you mix in some Sprite (Australian lemonade) on a hot summer day.  Sure you're just making cherry 7-up, but it's nice to be able to control the proportions. In Australia they have cordial, which is a flavoured syrup used in the same way as grenadine, but they don't have any in the cherry flavour.

This epiphany only happened when I offered some Twizzlers to a work colleague.  Normally they are strawberry flavoured, but in the care package Grandma sent they were cherry.  They have licorice over here, just not ramped up on sugar to the same level as in the States. When I offered some to my work friend she first commented that they had no taste. After another work friend inspected the package, read the label to confirm that there was a lot of sugar, she then commented, "Oh, it smells like medicine." Suddenly the other friend who had been eating a piece agreed, "Yeah, it does taste like medicine."  In that moment I had my answer for why cherry flavouring in Australia would never be a success.

In the pharmaceutical companies' rush to make their products more palatable for children, they have plagued a whole portion of the lolly industry with an undesired stigma.  Never again will and Australian child say that their medicine tastes like lollies.  Nay, their once pleasant cherry lollies now all taste like medicine.  The puzzle for me now, though, is why do American children not have the same reaction?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Cakes to feed angels

When I was growing up my Grandma made angel food cakes for Easter. I'm not sure how many times she actually did this, but I remember it on more than one occasion. I think once or twice she may have decorated it with coconut shavings coloured green to imitate grass, with jelly beans to look like Easter eggs. Regardless of how many times she made it, I remember liking it a lot. I'm not sure if it was the fluffy cake, or the cream cheese frosting that made it so good. Eventually she started making the cakes just for me. Now when I go back to visit it's often a request (along with Pete's Fish and Chips burritos).

A month or two ago Grandma sent me a package and, per my request, included angel food cake mix and tubs of cream cheese frosting. The cake mix hasn't seemed to come to Australia yet, but while I wasn't looking the cream cheese frosting has. When I first moved here you couldn't find the tubs of frosting very easily, but now you can get vanilla, chocolate, and cream cheese.  Woot! Even if I couldn't get it at the store I had the tubs Grandma sent. The only thing I needed was the pan.

The pan problem was a little tougher to solve. I tried looking for it at some kitchenware shops here, but apparently angel food cake isn't on offer very often. Fortunately the internet proved helpful.  I found a pan being sold from a kitchen supply wholesaler, but they had to be bought in lots of six. The internet being more than just a one-outlet-town, I found another option that seemed to work. Thanks Harvey Norman! An order on Sunday meant that the pan was delivered by Tuesday.

With all the mixes, tubs, and pans at the ready I was prepared to have a go at making my first angel food cake. The preparation is really simple, add water and mix. The batter is very frothy and light, and it's amazing that just adding water does that. I read on the box not to use a pan smaller than 10" x 4", so I split the batter into two pans, trying to estimate how much I would need to fill the proper angel food cake pan. I was a bit worried as it was cooking, but it settled a bit when I took it out of the oven and I think it turned out alright.

A bit of the bottom corners came off the cake as I was cutting it from the pan, but it appears to have cooked through properly. The colour seemed right, and everything looked encouraging. Just needed to add the frosting.

I wasn't sure how soft the cake would be, and the frosting had been in the fridge, so I warmed it up a bit first before spreading it on the cake.  Things seemed to be working fine.  Could it be that I had an Easter cake here in Australia??

Yep.  It's a little lop-sided because the edges came off, but it tasted great. I guess now I need to make sure my angel food cake mix dealer back in the States keeps my supply topped up. I hear angel food cake is good for trifles.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Australia, land ho!

When I first moved to Australia in February 2009, I had no idea what I was getting into.  I'd never been here before.  Yes, I moved to a country I had never even visited.  How's that for adventure? Fortunately, it was a great gamble and has turned out really well.

This week I was looking back through some of my posts and pictures and re-read this one: Brisbane, the next great adventure On that post I included some pictures of my trip Down Under. One of them was a photo of the first bit of Australian land that I saw out the window of the plane.  In case you didn't click the link, here it is again:

I've lived in Australia for more than 4 years now and I started wondering what I had seen out the window on my first flight. There were a few distinctive features.  Obviously it was a coast line. There appeared to be some sort of headlands that went down to the water's edge.  You can make out a sandy patch within the forest behind the beach.  If you look really closely you can see some houses.  I also realised that I took this not too long before we landed, so it had to be pretty near to Brisbane. Well, after a little bit of sleuthing I think I've found it.

View Larger Map
And the answer is... Point Lookout, Queensland. This is the northern most tip of Stradbroke Island, in Moreton Bay. The little town is pretty much due East of Brisbane, and it makes perfect sense to have flown over it on the way in. Looks like we flew in, headed a little south of Brisbane and then landed at the airport. I've actually stayed there since flying over it the first time, Christmas holiday 2011. Kinda cool to go back and solve a mini mystery like that.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Probabilities and pseudoscience pundits

I often think back to my statistics classes when reaching for a pair of socks every morning. Yes, the geek part of my brain is a permanent resident. Usually there are two types of socks in the box in the closet, and the lectures of probabilities run through my head after I retrieve the first sock.

"How many socks would you have to select from a box with X types of socks to ensure that you had a matching pair?"

Since I have two types of socks in the box, the answer is three.  If I selected three socks I would be guaranteed to have a pair, though I could get lucky and get a pair after only selecting two.  I won't go through the maths, but it makes sense if you think through each selection.  The first time I will get one of the two types.  The second time I will get one of the two types as well. Assuming I have mis-matched socks after two selections, the third is guaranteed to match one of the socks I've already selected.

The logic behind that is pretty sound.  You don't have to have a degree in statistics to understand those kinds of probabilities. They make sense to us because we experience them everyday, though I'm not sure everyone thinks about the maths of it when choosing socks.

A strange thing happened a few days ago that helped me understand this whole process a bit differently, and gave me a bit of insight into what scientists have been struggling with recently with the advent of the internet. As I drew my two socks from the box I thought, "Alright, now this next one is guaranteed to match." I was surprised to discover that I had draw a third type of sock from the box. Somehow the contents of the box had become "contaminated" and my rock solid laws of probability were spun into confusion.

Was my original probability wrong? Well, it was based on the assumption that there were only two types of socks in the box.  As long as that assumption was true, so was the probability. The moment it wasn't true - and there were more than two types in the box, the original probability changed. The key, though, is that it changed in a predictable way - but based on a new set of assumptions. With three types of socks I'd now have to draw four to ensure I had a pair.

This was an interesting parallel to my experience with some anti-science groups. They will often claim that science is flawed because it hasn't considered all of the options.  In other words, science can't guarantee there are only two types of socks in the box - so any attempts to explain how many attempts it would take to select a matching pair can't be trusted. Just like my unexpected discovery with the third type of sock, any possibility that there are other options - no matter how remote, is proof that the science is flawed. This is especially difficult to understand when the probabilities for things being talked about, like fluoride, cell phones and cancer, vaccinations, are more complex.  The science isn't just about how many socks you have to select to get a matching pair.

However, despite what the anti-science people may claim, the problem is not that the logic behind the probabilities is flawed. The issue I have with this is that from the anti-science point-of-view the discussion is not about recalibrating the original assumptions to account for what is constantly being discovered, it's a complete discounting of the whole process.  "This part of science is wrong because it can't guarantee that it's right," they might say.  Well, there aren't many guarantees in life.  I'd like a guarantee that I will never have to jump out of a plane or be struck by lightning, but the fact that I am alive on a volatile world means that I have to accept a certain level of risk. Besides, science is not supposed to be about absolute correctness, it changes all the time based on new knowledge and insight. When something is discovered that changes things, scientists go back to the original probabilities and say, "Hey, would you look at that!  There's another type of sock, and that means the number of selections has changed."

So when I selected that third type of sock a few days ago, I thought about how the new discovery didn't actually ruin the years of statistical learning.  Rather, I wondered how it got in there and threw off my expectations. The box should have had two types, and somehow this one got in where it shouldn't have been. When I sorted it into the proper box my original assumption was true again.  I wonder if we will ever get back to a more adaptive kind of logic in popular discussions about science. I certainly don't want to live in a world of either / or's... gray can be such a lovely color.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Monkey spheres - social media and the life of a sedentary nomad

Back in June 2007, I stumbled across a website about monkey spheres. The original website is now gone, but the article has been ported over to the wonder that is  Take a moment and go have a read here:  This is really a reintepretation of the Dunbar's Number concept.

I've been active in the computer world ever since the 5th grade when I found out that technology had solved the problem of getting all the words to fit nicely on each line as I type (word wrap). Since those formative years in elementary school I, along with so many others in my generation, have evolved along with the rest of the world into a digital existence. When social media came around in the early to mid naughts I was reluctant at first, but haven't turned back.

Today it is easier to connect with people than ever before.  I actually miss the days where you got bored, walked up the street and knocked on my friend's door to see if they could come out to play.  I wonder what my friends would do now if I came over without texting or calling first. The ease of connection means that my "lists" of friends also grows, many times without any further interactions than the silent stalking that happens on social media.

So in terms of monkey spheres, social media clearly entails different levels of interactions. I think that point of the article is quite clear. I occasionally go through and cull my lists, because my digital monkey sphere begins to feel a bit too crowded. However, there's something in this process that begins to feel like a good bye - which relates to another aspect of monkey spheres that I don't think was as well developed.

While a monkey sphere may have its limits in terms of the number of members it may have, not all of us have only one monkey sphere.  I've lived in several places, and I find that I now have multiple monkey spheres tied to those places, and to the different groups I was a part of while living there. While I try to port the more important people into my social media monkey sphere in hopes of keeping the real life relationship alive, at some point that monkey sphere gets too crowded and culled. I guess the sense of good bye is because if a person can't migrate into the "active" monkey sphere they become archived to memories.

This is all part of life I suppose. Possession may be 9 / 10's of the law, but proximity - even in a digital world - is also 9 / 10's of a relationship. I have many great friends that I still keep in touch with, but the older I get the more monkey spheres I make. At some point there is a limit.

I found myself thinking about all of this recently when trying to sort through the instant messenger applications I use.  So many entries that have failed to sign on for years.  I wonder if the program is broken, or if the monkey sphere has downsized. I appreciate social media for allowing the sliver of connection to exist, but even with all good intentions eventually those unmaintained connections are doomed to fade away.

Who knows who will read this post, though I imagine the only ones with any interest will be my friends. This wasn't intended to be a melancholy examination of friendships and relationships, but more a explanation of reality for a person who moves around. I'm so glad for all the different experiences I've been able to enjoy in my life. I just wish that my monkey spheres weren't so stuck in time and place.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A portrait of middle age

I guess it's probably time to dust this thing off. Seems like once you get stuck into a career the other things take a back seat. Things like updating blogs. That's probably because the days seem to fade into each other, and there doesn't seem to be much to write about. You know the routine, wake up, go to work, come home, eat, chill, sleep, repeat. I could write about my days at work, which are sometimes quite interesting - but it's likely a good thing that I don't since I shouldn't talk about some things in a public forum. Public servants are supposed to be neutral politically.

All that being said, I still think the blog is important. I won't add much to it this time around, but it's about inertia.  Once you get going it's easier to keep going.

This post is about a picture. Brendan drew it. He recently purchased a charcoal set, and has been having a go at unleashing his artistic side. Many artists draw what is right in front of them, and Brendan did just that. Unfortunately he captured me, at my typical position on the couch with the laptop. I can't imagine how many hours of my life over the last 4 years have been spent in exactly this position. Kinda makes me laugh and cry all at once. 

Friday, May 21, 2010


To anyone checking my blog, my email accounts were recently hacked. Please know that I am okay, safe and sound... and in no need of your money. What did I just say!!! Seriously, I'm fine. I hope that I have resolved whatever happened.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The end of an era

For whatever reasons that I'm not in the mood to research at the moment, Australians drive on the left side of the road. As an American I was afraid this change would be hard to adjust to, especially after my 12 post rant on left lane driving. However, the change has been much easier than I thought. The hardest parts are turning, because there aren't always clear visual clues about where to go, but then that can be hard even in America if you're at a busy intersection. After a few tries behind the wheel I felt pretty confident about my skillz as a driver in Australia.

I have been very fortunate to make many great and wonderful friends since I first arrived here over a year ago. One of those gracious friends has been Brendan, who took a risk and let me drive his car. I did eventually get a Queensland driver's license, even though I don't really need one while I'm here on student visa. Having a license doesn't really help you learn to drive here though, since the process is essentially completing an application form and paying the fee. (Yes, that's really all there is to it for American's who want to have one here in Queensland.)

Well, my luck was bound to run out eventually... and that it did on a nice January day earlier this year. I was driving back to the house after having a busy day of errands and school. Although I was a little anxious to get back to begin preparing a dinner for some friends coming over, I was in good spirits. I was driving along in the right lane about 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) away from the house when suddenly the car in front of me stopped. He was responding to the car in front of him who had suddenly stopped. That car was responding to some yellow car that had suddenly decided to turn right and slammed on the brakes because there was oncoming traffic. Yes, I was the tail end of three car fender bender.

I might pause to add that while Brendan was gracious in letting me drive his car, the car he was driving was a 1992 Mitsubishi Magna that was probably on it's last legs (or wheels as the case may be.) After 18 years the old girl didn't have the reflexes of the younger more agile wheeled transportation. While I stood on the brakes she didn't come to a stop until after bumping the fender of the car in front of me. All said, I think she ended up with more damage than the other two cars, which isn't saying too much if you look at these pictures:

Not knowing what damage had been done under the hood, Brendan decided not to drive it until having it looked at by a mechanic. I encouraged him to call his insurance company, despite some disagreement over whether the person responsible should file the claim or wait until the person affected has done it. The folks at his insurance place were quick and easy to deal with, and before long a truck had come by to get the car. Here's a photo of it's last moments.

Fortunately, Brendan had already decided to get a new car. He had actually already picked out the one he wanted and just needed to get the bank loan in order. In less than month a new car was in the driveway. Here's the proud owner with the updated wheels:

So all said it actually worked out for the best. He got a better deal from the insurance company than he would have trading it in or selling it to a wreckage yard. The bad part is that I was the cause of the old girl's demise. I have only driven the new car twice because I don't want to be the cause of any more damage to vehicles while I'm here.