New Podcasts! Former Congressman Bob Inglis and retired professor John Grant

Some of you only get my updates via the blog, but I’m mostly working on the more conventional feeds of Twitter and Facebook. At least for now.

Just a few updates.

  1. I have some new podcast material up. I spoke with former Congressman Bob Inglis of republicEn.org about small-government approaches to decarbonization. I also spoke with retired professor John Grant about his fears and hopes for the future. Links below.
  2. I have two more guests confirmed, one of whom will be my first climate change skeptic. We’re meeting on Friday and hopefully recording next week. The other is CSU climate scientist, and we’ll meet on Monday to discuss details. Big week ahead
  3. In unrelated news, my Belgian work permit got approved! I leave Colorado November 28th, and I plan to be in Belgium the following week. New adventure on the horizon!

 

On Meaning and God

On my way back from Oslo, I listened to this debate between Dr Jordan B. Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and Dr Susan Blackmore, who is currently a visiting professor at the University if Plymouth. They discussed the role of God in giving meaning to life, and they did a much better job of diving into the subjects than I did, so check out their whole 45-ish-minute discussion here.

 

Critical Appearance

The wide black disc flashed with a white rectangle as the shutter released, and the characteristic snap left a satisfying feeling of capturing the moment. T’ew shifted slightly on one knee, the lens of his camera balancing on the edge of my shadow. Behind him, the red and gold leaves of this Korean autumn shone with the growing light of the rising sun peaking over the buildings at my back. I stared unblinkingly into the depths of the lens as it snapped open and closed again. He lowered the camera from his face and inspected the picture.  As he stood and joined me on the bench, he sifted through the series of portraits he had just taken.

“How did they come out?” I asked.

“Here. Take a look,” he said as he passed the camera to me.

Flipping through the dozen or so photos of my face lit with a surreal glow of the background sun, I couldn’t help but think about how uncomfortable it is to be on this side of the camera. Frozen in that instant of an awkward half smile, my likeness was open to utter scrutiny. My broken protruding nose, the red dots of pervasive acne, my matted and unkempt hair all captured in the finest detail. I scrolled across the others quickly, and handed the camera back.

“Nice,” I said. “That shallow depth of field really highlights your subject.”

Your subject. I didn’t even want to admit that I had just been scrutinizing my own face. Though I know I am imperfect, I still find it uncomfortable to look at my faults. They are the first things I see when I look at myself, whether in the mirror or a photograph. Of course, I can do nothing (short of drastic surgery) to change them, but in each picture or frame of film, they stare back at me as a constant reminder of my unsatisfactory state of being.

I stoically obliged T’ew’s requests for me to play the model as he tested his new lens during our early morning walk. We started early – just after 6 am – to capture what is known as “magic hour,” that hour around sunrise or sunset when the lighting is just right for capturing some fantastic images. From my apartment, we ambled east toward Tancheon, a river that flows from southern reaches of Seoul into the Han river in the heart of the sprawling metropolis. After walking a kilometer or so south along the river, we took a detour west along a tributary. The sky glowed pink and blue behind us as we walked and chatted about ethics, philosophy, and science. On the far edge of a very Western-style neighborhood of upperclass homes, we reached a dead end at the edge of an impassable mountain forest. It proved to be a great spot to snap a few pictures before continuing our circuitous journey back to Yatap.

Over the course of several kilometers, we had over an hour to fill the time with conversation between stopping for random photo opportunities. After a discussion about the potential for the indefinite extension of human life, I posed the question Why do people reject the things that science tells us? We both agreed that those who refuse to accept the findings that the scientific communities have made are simply too uncomfortable with the idea that their previously held beliefs were in fact wrong.

That of course begs the question What’s so wrong with being wrong?

We all know the feeling of being wrong. It feels exactly the same as being right. We are ignorant of our ignorance, and we are able to live our lives without a second thought. That is, of course, until we find out that we are wrong. At that moment, we begin to feel anxious and afraid. Something is out of place. The pieces of the puzzle that our mind had put together suddenly no longer fit, and it’s not entirely clear how they must now be relaid. The bigger our misconception, the more uncomfortable the feeling. Particularly when science challenges religious dogma, this feeling can be overwhelming. When the entire fabric of the world, the genesis and conclusion of everything we know, become imperiled, the reaction is to fight back and return things to the way they were. What evolutionary advantage this feeling may have had, I will not speculate, but it is certainly innate within almost all of us. For some, it is so strong that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they will stand by their convictions, assured that the rest of the world is mistaken.

Though we feel incredibly uncomfortable in these moments, that in itself does not morally incriminate the state of being wrong. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Recognizing the fallacy in our assumptions and our beliefs is the grandest opportunity of all to take part in a process that defines and separates, improves and empowers our species: learning. When our ancestors began to plan, think ahead, and think abstractly, it began to separate itself from the rest of the animal kingdom. The development of a new type of cognitive function opened the door for innovation, engineering, and most importantly, education. No longer were the advances of our species limited to their creator, they could be passed laterally to all of their peers. Over our long history, we have reached a point at which we need not solve the vast majority of our problems on our own. Our understanding of concepts and ideas can come from our contemporaries and our predecessors. This process is not without mistakes. Untruth can be passed just as easily as truth, and discerning the difference is often difficult. However, we are a species that is constantly evolving and improving. The evolution of our knowledge now far outpaces the evolution of our genes. This means that we can grow and develop ourselves at a rate no species has ever been able to. To waste this ability is a tragedy.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “being ignorant is not so much a shame as being unwilling to learn.”

When we returned to my apartment after watching the new film Martian, T’ew started to press me on my growing conviction against eating meat. I am still internally debating the ethical issue of consuming the flesh of another animal, but the environmental argument for a plant-based diet is obvious and defensible. Pound for pound, raising livestock produces vastly more greenhouse gas than growing crops for human consumption. For me to lobby for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and insist that others take steps to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint while supporting an industry that produces nearly 20% of the global greenhouse gases that are raising the average surface temperature of our planet would be the epitome of hypocrisy.

T’ew challenged nearly every one of my assumptions and beliefs about this new way of living, even stating the futility and insignificance of my actions. He made me defend my position with arguments I had not considered, describe perspectives I had not seen, and evaluate premises I had taken for granted. To hear him challenging my view of the world was uncomfortable. It raised my heart rate and put me on edge. The challenge was, however, gladly welcomed. It is through this process of critical examination that I can discern if what I believe is an untruth either developed erroneously or accepted irrationally. He exposed gaps in my knowledge and faulty assumptions I hold about the world. Imagine if I continued through life without this experience. How would I continue to justify my deprivation of bacon, hamburger, and sushi? How long would my conviction of these principles hold? How soon would I relapse into hypocrisy? How easily might I abandon my new life goals altogether?

In taking the most basic of our beliefs and pulling them apart, we can examine them in fine detail to scrutinize their every fault. However, unlike the blemishes that become painfully obvious in the high definition image of my face, we can quickly correct our misunderstandings. In doing so we may grow and advance ourselves and our species. In overcoming the fear and discomfort that comes with realizing our ignorance, we become stronger and more capable of facing the challenges that this world continues to present us.

I want to be proven wrong. I want to figure out that I had things mixed up. I want to know that my image of the world was false because I want to learn.

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How did I get here?

My 11am class didn’t show up again. It happens fairly regularly. My one consistent student broke her ankle earlier this week, and the others are on and off. Given that it’s the short week between two holidays, I didn’t expect much. This morning, though, I had one guest. An occasional sit-in student from another class, she hesitantly crept into the empty classroom five minutes after the hour just as I was getting hopeful that I could take off early to make it to the Russian visa office in the city.

Only half prepared to give a lesson, I welcomed her and started the usual small talk. We glossed over the lesson quickly and moved on to the conversation portion of the day. In guiding was was effectively more small talk, I helped her get out her thoughts on the day’s topic of manners and etiquette. Much to my surprise, in response to a question about the transformation of manners, she told me that she thought people were becoming more polite. Growing up in a society in which complaints of rude and undisciplined youth are incessant, I had expected the opposite answer. However, she made a good point that the older generations grew up in rural areas where etiquette and decorum were unimportant while kids now grow up in huge cities like Seoul where they now have to figure out how to live alongside each other. She actually used my own hypothesis (refer to my synopsis of China) to show my initial misconception when applied to the rapidly developed countries of East Asia. She seemed to revere the ingrained politeness of Western culture, so I naturally asked if she would like to work or live abroad someday. She immediately shook her head in embarrassment.

“Why not?” I asked.

“My English is not good,” she insisted.

“Ok, let’s say that you graduated from this program, you were certified at a C2 fluency, and you felt comfortable speaking English all the time. Would you go abroad?”

“No.”

“You like it in Korea?”

She shrugged. “It’s ok.”

“Where do you think it would be better?”

“I don’t know. It’s ok in Korea.”

“Why don’t you want to go abroad?” I asked, now perplexed by her contradictions.

“I don’t like when things to be changed,” she stumbled out.

“You don’t like change?” I corrected.

“Yes. I just do the same thing. Every day. That’s my life.”

“That’s your life? That sounds like death!”

“Death?! Oh no!” She laughed, starting to blush. “You like change?”

“Yes. Absolutely”

“Don’t you miss your home? Your friends?”

I paused, thinking of my positive mood, lack of anxiety, and the excitement that I have found in my small adventures.

“Yes.” I answered. “But staying there wouldn’t be worth all of the incredible, amazing
experiences I’ve had since I left. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”


That is a true statement. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. This was my first attempt at casting off the moorings of my old life, and I have made landfall in the most exotic of places. All things must end though, and I do not fear those endings. They are only transitions to new beginnings.

Leaving my old life in 2014 was probably the hardest thing I ever did, but it has opened me to a new world of possibilities, and I am eternally grateful that my partner and I both had the strength to do what needed to be done. When that door opened, this new life became visible. The far side was distant and the space between clouded, but I could see that it was good. It held wishes for a future that was impossible on the other side of that door. It may be true that the grass is always greener on the other side, and the pastures I saw were full of the sweet long grass that my hungry spirit longed for.

My new direction shared little in the way of its secrets for the future, but I was certain that I would seek them in whatever corner of the globe I could reach. The choice of South Korea was one of pure rationality. Teaching English was the most viable way to leave the comfort of my home country, and South Korea offered the most lucrative jobs for my experience level. In seeking this new life abroad I had three goals: pay off my school debt, experience living abroad, and determine a new path for my life.

I am proud to state that I have accomplished all of those goals.

On a cool Sunday evening in early September, I stood hunched over my computer, shoved between the potted plants on the stairway window sill. Taking advantage of the building’s wifi that doesn’t quite reach my room, I searched excitedly for train schedules, ferries, and hostels. Flipping between pages of university advertisements and transportation options, I totaled the cost of each leg of my proposed route. With each new interesting course of study, I added a leg to the journey. This being the last in a long string of nights of this type of research, I finally reached the point at which I was satisfied that I had located all of the stops I intended to make. The route was set and the costs tallied, and now I needed to know if it was was possible. Sifting through my bank accounts and hidden pockets of money, I totaled my net worth. In a spreadsheet, I compiled all of this information: destinations, transportation, lodging, visas, penalties, and the sum of all my current holdings and incomes. In a clearly marked cell, I wrote the formula to find the difference between my current debts, coming expenses, and available funds. If negative, the numbers would turn red, and I would start figuring out how to save the rest of the money. If black, my life would change immediately.

When I hit enter, the numbers stayed black.

I stood back and stared at the screen in awe. It’s positive.

For several months, I had struggled with the weight of a profession I now know I am in now way intended for. In a matter of months, my future plans which had once stretched for the better part of a decade in which I would bounce around Asia teaching English or sojourn in Australia to work the fruit farms had deteriorated into a race to get my life back on track as soon as possible.

It was earlier this summer that a completely rational and reasonable idea overcame me. In my haste to flee my old life, I had overlooked an entire region of the pasture that laid on the other side of my proverbial door. In pushing science and engineering to the back of my considerations for building a future, I confined myself to wandering incoherence as I tried to pin down potential careers for which I was wholly unqualified. It was on a fateful day of daydreaming about a future beyond the sweltering heat of this Korean summer and pervasive anxiety from entering another classroom full of screaming demon spawn that the veil was lifted. Like the myth of the shaman who revealed to the Native Americans the Spanish ships on the horizon, a chance reading of the name of a potential graduate program opened my eyes to a field I had never considered. Now it seems so painfully obvious that I can hardly imagine my life before this revelation. Today, any of the fields I had tossed around over the preceding year seem frivolous and petty in comparison.

One day in mid-summer, T’ew and I sat lethargically at a back alley cafe on the south side of the city. Neither of us had plans, so the sipping at the melting ice of our coffees continued with deep conversation about futures and philosophical struggles. He had recently returned from a jaunt in Northern Europe during which he felt his first real desire for a place of more permanent resettlement. It challenged his moral compass in that such a life would mean modern comforts and European privilege. It weighed on him that so many of his countrymen remained in poverty, under threat of disease and natural disaster, and that he had the opportunity to escape all of it. I shared this kind of guilt, knowing that the life I have lived was only possible because of the good fortune of my birth: a stable home, responsible parents, a solid education. Most Americans do not have the combination of good luck that I had when I was born. Though I felt this, I spoke not for myself when I reassured him that he should not feel guilty for trying to better his life. He should do so by all means and take solace in the fact that his work will benefit those whom he has left behind. We whom have been graced with this good fortune ought to use it to its fullest for the betterment of ourselves and the world.

Even at the time of stating it, I was blind to the ways in which I was limiting myself. With a degree in engineering, I was looking for ways to build a life as a political scientist, journalist, or hapless nomad. It was only on a fateful day of perusing fanciful future courses of study that I became aware of my ignorance. The title of the program was International Environmental Engineering. In most instances, I would have scrolled right past anything with “engineering” in it, but this one was buried deep in a list of international policy and sociology programs. I read it only seconds before putting away my phone to get on the train. As I stood in the gently swaying car, the beats of my headphones silencing the sounds of the other passengers, the idea twisted and weaved through my mind. Why had I run so vehemently from engineering? I love science. I love creating. I dream of doing something that will impact the world. What could be more perfect?

When I got to a place where I could open my computer, I started looking, and what I found excited me more than anything I had glossed over in all my months of searching. Piles of educational and career opportunities were open to me, and they all sat square in the middle of the three traits I think any appropriate career should have: passion, ability, and salary. The fields of environmental or energy technology engineering both cut at the heart of solving our climate crisis, an issue over which I become lividly impassioned when I hear doubters spew their ignorant rhetoric. My past education has laid the foundation for understanding the systems and technologies that those in these fields have used, currently use, and are still developing. Life is not cheap, but careers in engineering continue to be some of the most dependably lucrative in the world.

It had become clear that I was now headed back on the path of engineering, and one more objective became struck through in the mark of accomplishment.

Standing in the stairwell, staring at the single number on my computer screen, I felt an impending excitement welling inside me. I forced it below as I touched the keypad again and revisited the numbers. They were all correct. My brain jumped through the logical hoops in an instant. I have now lived abroad for over six months. CHECK. I have determined unequivocally that I will pursue a career in sustainable development. CHECK. I have now confirmed that all of my debts can be paid. CHECK.

I am leaving Korea.