Saturday, January 28, 2012

Three Consecutive Winter Camp Weekends

My son and I slept in a tent last night on our troop's camp out about four miles from last week's Klondike Derby. Last week the low temperature for the night hovered around 35°F. As described in the linked post, it was wet and rainy. Last night the sky was completely clear all night long. The stars were amazing. The low temperature was very close to 0°F.

Despite the recent snowstorm, there was far too little snow to construct a proper snow shelter. Nor was it of a quality that could be used for an adequate shelter. The 7-8 inches of snow that was on the ground was hard, crusted, and crystalline. It wouldn't pack worth a darn. So, like last week, we campers resorted to tents.

Actually, only my son and I slept in a tent last night. The rest of the troop's campers slept in a cabin heated by a wood burning stove. Nobody else came prepared to brave the low temperatures.

It was cold getting into our sleeping bags. But we have good bags that are rated for this kind of weather. There was very little breeze of any kind during the night. There was no precipitation. But the tent still offered very little insulation. Still, once inside the bags, we were OK.

My young son slept plenty warm. I bring a knit cap with me on cold weather camp outs. If it's cold enough, I don my cap. The colder it is, the further I pull the cap down on my head. Last night I pulled the cap all the way down until it covered the tip of my nose. I cinched up the sleeping bag hood so that only my nose stuck out—just enough to breathe.

Despite my gear and preparations, my feet were cold much of the night. I have noticed that since developing hypothyroidism, my extremities (especially fingers and toes) get cold very easily. It's almost as if they can never really get warm, despite taking the proper dosage of Levothyroxine. Even in the hottest weather, my fingers and toes only feel marginally comfortable.

I still slept relatively OK throughout the night. But I have determined that for future cold weather camp outs I will have to come prepared with glove warmers. If temperatures warrant it, I will have to activate a couple and chuck them into the bottom of my sleeping bag half an hour before bedding down.

We broke down part of our gear before breakfast, and took care of the rest after breakfast. I guess I was hoping that the rising sun would melt the frost and dry out the tent. It soon became clear (as it warmed up to somewhere around 12°F) that this was a vain hope. We pulled everything down and dried it out in the driveway once we got home.

I don't mind supporting scout camp outs. But I'm glad that this particular compacted season of three weekends in a row is finished. I think my wife is happy about that too.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Love Gets Better With Time

Despite our busy family schedule, we work hard to schedule a weekly date with each other away from the home. Sometimes we are so busy that we get away for only an hour. Occasionally our date may include such mundane tasks as running errands. But we make it a priority to get some time each week just for the two of us.

One afternoon a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I enjoyed lunch at a decent downtown restaurant. I enjoyed the atmosphere and the fare. It is our habit when we eat out to sit next to rather than across from each other. That was not possible on this occasion, since we were seated at a table that could accommodate only two.

As we relaxed after the meal, we held hands across the table while our server processed our bill and payment. We eventually stood and I helped my wife don her jacket. My Mom taught me as a teenager to always help my dates with their jackets, to treat them with respect, to open the door for them, and to otherwise act gentlemanly. She made it clear that this was to carry on into marriage.

As we made our way toward the door, we passed our server, who was busy helping bus a table. I stopped and asked if she would give my compliments to the chef for the dish I had enjoyed. It had been quite delectable.

The server surprised us by telling us how much she had enjoyed watching us dine. She was obviously sincere as she expressed how wonderful it was to see two people together that "like each other so much." She said, "It gives me a lot of hope." It gives me joy to think that our example might have given someone else a glimmer of hope.

My wife and I wed a respectable number of years ago. I recall how much I enjoyed spending time with her during our courtship and during the early years of our marriage. I still enjoy spending time with my wife. If anything, I find more fulfillment now in being together with her than in our early days together.

We have been through a lot together. Our bond has developed a depth and strength that simply wouldn't have been possible without our many years of shared experience.

My wife is a remarkable individual. She is a beautiful woman, even in middle age. She is intelligent, thoughtful, and spiritual. She is devoted, loving, and service oriented.

And she is enduring. My wife has put up with my many foibles and idiosyncrasies throughout the years. When I have faced trials, or even perceived trials, she has been there supporting me and alleviating as much stress as possible. In short, she has put up with me. Lovingly. Kindly. Patiently. Endlessly.

It is impossible to imagine what my life would have been like had my wife and I not (miraculously) come together when we did. It is impossible to adequately express my gratitude for my wonderful wife. I pray that we will yet have many years together and that our love for each other will continue to deepen and strengthen.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Wet Klondike Derby

Another Klondike Derby has passed into history. As predicted, it was wet and unseasonably warm. I checked the hourly forecast before heading to the camp yesterday afternoon. As the evening progressed, the temperature and precipitation tracked the Internet forecast very closely.

Around 7:30 pm we stood under clear skies looking at the constellations. By the time we wrapped up the campfire program around 9:15, no stars could be seen due to the cloud cover that had moved in. It was about 35°, which is pretty warm for that location at that time of day and this time of year.

About 300 people attended the event. In the early morning hours light rain began to fall. Those that were prepared did OK. Of course, some got rather wet. But the temperature was still hovering around 35-37°. So it wasn't bitter cold.

The adults in charge of the event stood around under a bowery with a corrugated metal roof discussing how to proceed. The metal roof made it sound like it was raining a lot harder than was the case. Some suggested cancelling the morning events and sending everyone home. The forecast, after all, called for the rain to switch to snow. Some were concerned about getting vehicles up the slope and out of the campground area, given that the road was already slippery.

We gathered at the flag pole at the appointed hour and held flag ceremony in the rain. The man in charge of the event then gave the campers two options: go home now or move ahead with the games. He asked the senior patrol leader of each troop to indicate whether they were staying or going. Most campers enthusiastically shouted out that they wanted to participate in the games. So the games went ahead, despite the doubts of some of the adults running the games.

As I made the rounds and spoke with the event masters, almost every one of them had assumed that the events would be cancelled. Most were surprised at the boys' insistence on holding the games in drizzly weather.

This is a common dichotomy that I have observed throughout my adult scouting years. Boys tend to be far more willing than their adult advisers to engage in adventure. Maybe that's to be expected. After all, the boys only have to worry about how they are faring individually, while the adults have to worry about the safety of all of their youth and the amount of additional work that will be required.

Not long after the games started, the rain switched to snow. Big wet and fluffy, densely patterned flakes fell on the competitors. This didn't seem to dampen their mood. Many seemed to quite enjoy themselves. The games were a success. However, the crowd thinned out rapidly after about an hour and a half. I watched vehicle after vehicle make its way up the slippery slope toward the main road.

After cleaning up, I headed home with my crew. It was snowy for the first few miles. Then we drove through rain mixed with snow. The pass I wanted to take was blocked by a sheriff's deputy due to some hazard, so we had to take another route. As we drove down the canyon toward the city we ended up in rain. I eventually got home and took care of my wet gear.

It has been raining here at home since I returned. Just a few minutes ago the rain switched to big fluffy snowflakes that are rapidly building up on the surfaces outside. Later on I will ponder whether to go out and clear snow or to let it melt off, since the forecast suggests that it may be warm enough tomorrow for that to happen.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Heading to Klondike Derby Again

I am gearing up to head off to another Boy Scout Klondike overnighter event. But for the first time in a number of years, I am not in charge of the event. Those duties passed to another some months ago as I transitioned to being the chapter adviser for the Order of the Arrow in my scout district.

The O.A. has traditionally provided traffic direction services at our district Klondike events. But this year, due to a change in venue, those services won't be required. Instead, we will be handling the evening and morning flag ceremonies and the evening campfire program. We will also provide general staff services, such as cleanup, supporting scoutcraft games, etc.

Today I feel completely different about the event than I have for the past few years. I used to get up on the Friday morning of the event anticipating all of the work I had to do, all of the people I had to rely on, and the fickleness of winter weather in northern Utah. I had no idea whether we would get enough people out to the event to break even. I hoped that, despite hundreds of scouts and adults camping in winter conditions, injuries would be few and good memories would be made.

It felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. I knew that I would enjoy many interactions with people, but that I would also face many frustrations inherent in running an event of this nature. I would finally get everything packed up and hauled home on Saturday and would finally have everything cleaned up by evening. I would be physically and psychologically spent.

Looking forward to tonight is a lark in comparison. While I have responsibilities, they are relatively easy. I know how to run flag ceremonies and campfire programs. While I'm not sure how many O.A. youth I will have present, these events can be flexible enough to accommodate just about any number of boys. Moreover, I only have to worry about handling camping conditions for my small group rather than 400 people.

We have had an unusually dry winter in this area. We went through a long bitter cold spell during much of December that was marked by a nasty inversion that limited visibility. That broke just before Christmas. The weather has been unseasonably warm since then.

Just this week a wet and stormy pattern moved into the area. A lot of wet and heavy snow has fallen in the mountains. We have had snow in the valley, but most of it has melted due to warm temperatures and rain. The conditions are ripe for avalanches.

The area where we have traditionally held our Klondike events is relatively flat with few nearby slopes that could host an avalanche. The area where we are headed tonight is closer to slopes that could present dangerous avalanche conditions. (See Utah Avalanche Center for information.)

The campers will be safe as long as they stay in the camping area. Adults will have to keep close tabs on youth to keep them in bounds. The warm, damp weather means that most campers will get a little wet. Some will get very wet. On the positive side, it won't be very cold tonight.

I have long supported overnight scouting events. Last week I slept on the concrete floor of a building in Evanston, Wyoming at one event. I will be camping tonight at our district Klondike event. Next week I will sleep out again with my son at our troop overnighter. I am happy to support these events. But it would sure be nice if they weren't so closely bunched together. My wife and I will be glad when these three camping weekends are past.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Another Voter Questionnaire

I recently received a voter questionnaire from one of the politicians that represent me. (He represents such a huge number of other people that my level of insignificance would be difficult to calculate.) I usually just chuck these things in the recycling bin.

For starters, these questionnaires are not actually meant to provide useful feedback to the politician. They are filled with leading questions designed to elicit certain responses. These mailers amount to little more than campaign literature.

By sending out voter questionnaires, the politician hopes to get you thinking that he is the right guy to represent you. He is hoping to increase the chances that you will vote for him. He does not actually expect to derive any kind of guidance from this process.

Any response to these mailers is a bonus. The politician uses these responses for campaign purposes and as backup for positions he has already taken. I'm sure that almost all politicians will say, dripping with sincerity, that they honestly consider all feedback from their questionnaires. If you buy this shtick, you are worthy of being the pawn they hope you to be.

To be frank, filling out and returning a political mailer with the idea that it will actually influence a politician is ridiculous. Except perhaps at the very lowest local levels, the politicians that represent you have already made up their minds on most issues, having been influenced by professional and semi-professional lobbyists.

Your response will not change what a politician does. It may change what he says about what he does, but it won't change what he does—the deals he makes and the votes he casts.

In case you haven't noticed, I am rather cynical about politics and politicians. Many of our nation's founders felt that politics was a necessary evil—a nasty tool that was needed to achieve good republican government that hoped to balance the rights of the minority and the majority with some level of success

The political system was needed to pit the forces of ambition and avarice against each other for the good of all. But like all dangerous tools, it was meant to be used with great care and with proper safeguards in place.

Throughout the years, some have sought (sometimes successfully) to remove political safeguards because they are so darn inconvenient and prevent "us" from "getting anything done." A whole class of people has emerged that has, in effect, turned politics into their personal religion. They seek to expand its grasp and power with a zeal rarely seen in modern Western religionists.

Politicians may be needed to achieve what our Founders called "good government." But that doesn't mean that I have to like it or that I have to make the pursuit of their craft easier.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Personality Affects Weight

Today's Wall Street Journal offers this intriguing article about the link between personality and weight control. Some of the information in the article is by no means new. After all, it has long been common knowledge that some people turn to food for comfort and that people often eat for reasons other than hunger.

The WSJ article goes further than this, tying certain personality types to a greater propensity for becoming and remaining overweight. Five broad categories are listed:

  • The Night Owl.
  • The Stress Junkie.
  • The Mindless Multitasker.
  • The Giver.
  • The Perfectionist.

The fixes suggested in the article, however, are overly simplistic. Maybe that's to be expected from a brief news article. But telling someone who is a lifelong perfectionist to "Try to set realistic goals; strive for progress, not perfection" is just silly. It's not that perfectionists don't know or haven't been told this kind of thing. It's that such an approach goes completely against their internal operating system.

I began grappling with weight issues as a teen.  24 years ago I embarked on a yearlong journey that resulted in significant weight loss. Today I weigh 70 lbs less than I weighed in January 1988. I have had to work over these years to keep the weight off. It hasn't been an easy ride.

As someone that has grappled with weight throughout my adult life, I have found some principles that seem to work for me. But these same things might not work for someone else.

Not only do humans necessarily have an inherent physical connection to food, we have a deep psychological relationship with food. Since our psyches differ, what works for one person cannot be universally applied. Each person needs an individually tailored approach.

Moreover, our psyches change over time. So what works for you today may not work for you at some future point. Your health maintenance system has to evolve with your personality.

A relative recently sent me dietary advice, suggesting things that should be avoided and things that should be more abundant in my diet. Frankly, almost all of it amounted to little more than fine tuning. Many of the suggestions were also very expensive—the kinds of things people with lots of disposable income do to make themselves feel important.

I personally believe that any successful dietary program has to focus primarily on the macro rather than the micro. Finding a way to manage total calorie intake while feeling satisfied will produce far better results than all of the organic dietary tweaking in the world. Take a whack at the 80% and worry about the 20% later (if you can afford it).

Besides, the prideful side of me didn't want to take the relative's advice. Despite having Multiple Sclerosis and hypothyroidism, I am in pretty fine health for my age. I figured that I could start thinking about the advice offered when the giver of the advice slimmed down to where their gut didn't overlap their belt buckle.

People tend to want some kind of simple (magical) solution to complex issues. When it comes to weight control, we like to think that some pill or some minor tweaking of our diet will help us achieve optimal weight. Actually, we know deep inside that this won't work, but we often pursue such courses anyway because they are preferable to making the actual sacrifices that must be made to achieve the kind of results we imagine we want.

The fact is that no single weight control system works for everyone. If such a thing existed there wouldn't be hundreds (thousands?) of weight control offerings on the market.

Another hard truth is that the only way to find a method that works for you individually is to make a serious commitment and to experiment on yourself until you hit on something that works reasonably well for you.

And here's more bad news. No matter what you find, it's going to require a lot of sacrifice.

No wonder so many people continue to remain overweight. The physical, psychological, and financial costs of getting skinny simply aren't worth it to them.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Data Based Policies

People often develop courses of action based on data. We do this in our personal lives. It happens in organizations of every size. In fact, we think it ridiculous for people to make decisions without supporting data.

But sometimes when we develop plans based on data, we use faulty, inadequate, misinterpreted, or poorly correlated data.

For years I have camped with Scouting groups that occasionally make what we call ZIPLOC omelets for breakfast. It works like this. Each person breaks however many eggs they are going to eat into a freezer strength ZIPLOC (or other brand) bag. They add shredded cheese, bacon bits, diced ham, salt and pepper to taste. They squeeze all of the excess air out of the bag and seal it tight.

The bag is then dropped into a kettle of boiling water for about 10 minutes to cook. When there is no longer any liquid egg in the bag (you have to squeeze the concoction to make sure), it's ready to eat. You can dump it onto a plate or eat it right out of the bag. The process is quick and the mess is minimal.

On one camp a couple of years ago, one scout's mother refused to allow him to have a ZIPLOC omelet for breakfast because she had heard a news report stating that cooking food in such bags can cause cancer. Her concerns were not unfounded. As explained in this article, ZIPLOC bags are not designed for boiling and can break down under such temperatures.

While we should use boil-able pouches (yes, they are available), this mother's concerns were way overblown. Her son is not going to contract cancer from having two or three ZIPLOC omelets during his time in the Scouting program. When one considers the other far more hazardous fare consumed by this family, it would seem that the anti-ZIPLOC omelet rule is like straining at the gnat while swallowing the camel.

Sometimes we see a good trend and assume that an organization or a population could achieve better results by enticing or forcing people to follow that trend. This sometimes gets the equation backwards and produces less than optimal results.

A few years ago when I was serving in a leadership position in my LDS ward (congregation), the church announced that it was raising the standard for young men to serve as missionaries for the church. When we understood the scope of the new rules, my congregation's leader confided that one missionary serving from our ward wouldn't be serving if the policy had been in place a few months earlier. Within a few months the young man left his mission early.

The rationale for the policy seemed well founded. But I wondered how the old policy had come about. After all, during my missionary days, the church would take almost anyone that met minimal qualifications. Leaders would go to great lengths to keep some of these people on their missions when common sense might have dictated otherwise.

I started to connect dots as I attended leadership meetings over the following couple of years and spoke with acquaintances that had some inside information. Church leaders had data showing that those that faithfully completed missions for the church were far more likely to remain faithful in the church and be successful in family life than those that did not. The natural conclusion was to assume that getting more young men to complete full-time missions would extend those results.

My understanding (which may be inadequate) is that church policy was based on this assumption for many years until they developed more data that demonstrated this assumption to be false. Young men that barely qualified for missionary service or that stayed on missions by the skin of their teeth fared no better in church activity and family life than those that never served as missionaries.

When I was a missionary, Elder Robert D. Hales (who was then a Seventy and now serves in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) visited our mission a couple of times. During one meeting he encouraged missionaries not to be "a Harry." He then related the following joke.

A man went golfing every Saturday morning with his friend Harry. One Saturday afternoon the man returned home looking awful. His wife asked him what was wrong. "You wouldn't believe it!" he moaned. "Harry had a heart attack on the 10th hole." "Oh my goodness," his wife responded, "That must have been awful." "It sure was," said the man. "For the next eight holes it was hit one, drag Harry, hit one, drag Harry."

Elder Hales said that some of our missionaries were like Harry when it came to missionary work. Their companions had to drag them around to get anything done. "You know who you are," he said.

When it became apparent that some of the "Harrys" in the mission field weren't themselves being helped by being there, raising the standards for missionary service was a natural response.

It is well known that the average bachelor degree recipient earns far more over their lifetime than the average high school graduate that has no college education (see L.A. Times article). The natural thinking is that getting more people into college and more people graduating from college would dramatically increase lifetime earnings for those that otherwise wouldn't go to college. This has driven public and private policy for many years now.

But it turns out that many degree recipients that would not have gotten a degree in earlier years do not earn more (or much more) over a lifetime than they would have earned sans a college education (see Jan 2011 post). The reason for this is that they get degrees that are not worth much in the job market. Or they get decent degrees but cannot perform jobs that produce higher income.

Not all college degrees are created equally. So, while the average college graduate out-earns the average high school graduate, there is such a broad variance in the value of a college degree that many now graduate college with mountains of debt and little or no increased earning capacity to show for it.

Perhaps it would be wise to ask what characteristics distinguish higher earning people. This includes far more than a college diploma. Giving someone a diploma that lacks the other (and probably more important) characteristics of a higher earner will not make them earn more over their lifetime.

Much of this attitude that still pervades higher education was at the root of our recent crash in the housing market. For years public and private policy assumed that society would be better off if more Americans owned their homes. Data showed that homeowners had lower rates of crime, greater family stability, and better financial performance than non-homeowners.

In an effort to try to get these kinds of benefits for those that didn't own homes, gargantuan sums of public money were poured into housing subsidies (with a fair amount of it ending up in the pockets of well-heeled bankers, heads of quasi-government agencies, and politicians).

But the nouveau homeowners did not turn out to have lower rates of social problems than their non-home-owning counterparts. A fair number of them couldn't actually pay for the homes they were enticed into buying. The market has had to absorb all of that, exacting a nasty price from almost everyone.

Maybe it would be wise to take a humility pill when thinking that we have data that proves that we can make people's lives better if only we can get them to pursue some course of action, especially when incentives and/or coercion are involved. These are too often simply demonstrations of hubris.

I have no problem with inviting people to pursue worthy actions. This is what marketing is all about. It is what missionary work is all about. But whenever we start thinking that we have ways to shortcut the system, we are creating future problems that someone will have to clean up.