Sunday, January 30, 2011

One More Klondike Derby Finished

This weekend was the sixth time I have been in charge of our Boy Scout district's annual winter campout, which we have dubbed the Klondike Derby. We had about 410 people this year, which is down by about 40 from last year. We had wonderful weather and good snow conditions. The roads to the venue were dry. Almost everything about this year's event was good.

Our biggest challenge every year is parking. Where can you find a venue to hold a winter camping event for 400+ people that has adequate parking, sufficient winter camping range, pretty good snow, a good area to run games and activities, and that is fairly close — all at a reasonable cost? That's actually a pretty tall order.

This brings up the question of whether it makes sense to hold an event of this nature at all. For more than two decades the BSA has been trying to push Leave No Trace (LNT) outdoor ethics principles. The general idea is to make good use of outdoor resources while leaving them in the best possible condition. Although it may not always be possible to leave absolutely no trace of one's presence in wilderness areas, there is a lot that can be done to minimize impact and even to improve existing conditions.

LNT principles require serious changes in the way people have been used to thinking about and using the wilderness and outdoor recreation areas. Where it was once common to build big bonfires, it is now understood that fire should be used sparingly. When fire is necessary, campers should leave no trace of a campfire. All trash needs to be carried out. Hiking and camping groups need to be small and need to be separated to minimize impact.

It is acceptable to make use of well established campgrounds and trails so as to avoid creating new impact. But does it really square with LNT principles to jam 400+ winter campers into a few acres? The area we use is a public camping park with established campgrounds, but we have to put campers all over the place; not just in the official campground areas.

On the other hand, we do work hard to minimize the impact of our campers. We run a project every spring after the snow has melted to clean up and to fix any problems that might have been created by our usage of the park. We also do a lot of cleanup of impacts caused by other users of the park. In addition, there is an argument for having camping events where scouts and leaders get to see lots of other examples of scout camping. Boys get to see their friends from school doing what they're doing. They see that the program is bigger than their troop. There is value in coming together and learning from each other.

Anyway, back to parking. The gravel parking lot at the park can hold about 35 vehicles properly parked. But we end up with 130-140 vehicles that have to park somewhere. All of them are loaded with gear and/or campers. The process we arrived at years ago before the county expanded the lot size was to have vehicles pull in, dump their gear and passengers, and then drive back out onto the road, where they are to park on one side of the road only. The driver may end up walking a third of a mile or so to get back to camp.

Frankly, we've got some people that simply aren't willing to cooperate. They say that they are leaving their vehicles only briefly. Then they disappear into the darkness and you don't see them again for hours, or even until the following morning. One of my staff members that is a retired fire responder said that he has realized that there are some people in this world that simply think they are far more important than everyone else.

Somehow we manage this nightmare-ish unloading scene one Friday evening every winter. We have hundreds of campers spend the night in self-constructed snow shelters in chilly temperatures. Then the following Saturday morning after our Klondike games, we turn around and reverse the process. The parking lot again becomes a serious challenge. We try to keep parking spots open for other patrons of the park, who are usually cross-country skiers. But the parking lot is still a problematic place. To top it off, the lot is usually covered with a good packing of ice. Even 4WD vehicles with good tires can slip around in some spots.

One of the factors that makes this event work as well as it does is that the scout troops do most of the work and handle most of the leadership. Every year we end up with a ratio of almost one adult for every two boys in attendance. That means that there are far more adults than just the scoutmaster and assistant scoutmaster sleeping overnight in the snow. It never ceases to amaze me that we get a higher ratio of adults-to-boys at this event than at any other scouting event throughout the year. I'm sure that some of these men don't sleep that well in outdoor winter conditions. But they're out there helping boys anyway. What a wonderful service.

I don't detest winter camping. But I don't love it either. I would never go winter camping for my own enjoyment. I only do it to serve others. I tell my wife every year that it takes as much work to take a troop on one winter overnighter as it does to take the troop to a week of scout camp. There is a horrendous amount of preparation and cleanup required to ensure a safe and enjoyable campout in the snow. Frankly, I'd rather be sleeping in my own bed at home. I'd rather not haul camping gear and do all of the work such camping entails. But if it will help others learn how to survive in the winter, I'll do it anyway.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Confessions of a Phone Nerd

OK, I'll admit it. I'm a cell phone nerd. Ever since I first got a cell phone years ago my practice has been to carry the thing around on a belt clip. I've never used a cloth or leather holster. It would take too long to get to the phone. No, I carry my phone around in one of those plastic clips that grips the phone on one side and clips to my belt on the other.

My affinity for the plastic belt clip is purely functional. I do not believe it has anything to do with aesthetics, although, some would argue that the cell phone belt clip is an identifier of sorts. Most cell phone users do not wear their phones like I do. They keep their phone in their pocket. Wearing a cell phone in a holster or clip is today’s version of wearing a pocket protector. Pure nerd.

I have my reasons for my unfashionable phonewear. Back when I got my first cell phone, it was large enough that nobody would ever have thought of putting it in their pocket. So I got used to the belt clip right away. I also think that back in those days having a cell phone was sort of a status symbol, so it was worth showing off.

Over the years, my cell phones became progressively smaller until I went from a standard flip model to one with a full qwerty keyboard. It was only slightly larger than its sleek predecessor, but I could tell the difference.

During this same time, cell phones became more generally used. It seems like everyone has one, from senior citizens to elementary kids. One New York City denizen recently described seeing a beggar on the way to work every day sitting with sign in hand talking on a cell phone.

In other words, having a cell phone isn’t really much of a status symbol anymore. The kind of phone you have might serve to increase your social standing, but just having a cell phone is such a minor deal that wearing one has gone from being a status symbol to being a dork symbol.

Still, I don’t like keeping my phone in my pocket. I’m not going to put it in my back pocket because it would get smashed when I sit down. I keep keys in my front pockets — car keys in one and house keys in the other. I don’t like the idea of my phone jumbling around with my keys. The kind of abrasive treatment the phone gets hanging on my belt is nothing compared to what would happen in my pocket.

Besides, when my phone rings, I want to get to it right away. That’s relatively easy when it comes to retrieving it from my belt clip. Digging around in my pocket for my phone isn’t my idea of fun. I have tried keeping my phone in my pocket a couple of times, but I don’t feel it when it’s on vibrate and I don’t hear it ring otherwise. When I do sense the ring, I end up fumbling around in my pocket and inadvertently pushing buttons. Somehow I always end up cutting off the caller or putting my phone on mute.

Speaking of ringing, I use my phone in vibrate mode pretty much all the time. I don’t want to have to worry about changing the ring settings when I go into someplace that should be quiet. I hate to have my phone sound off in the middle of a meeting.

In noisier settings the sound of my phone ringer seems to blend in regardless of volume and ringtone. I end up missing calls because the ring seems to mingle with the ambient noise. I can’t tell which direction the sound is coming from, so I don’t realize my phone is ringing. The vibrate setting seems to work OK as long as the back of the clip is tight against my hipbone.

I see many people walking around with a cell phone in their hands as if they never put the thing down. I guess that most people of my generation don’t use their cell phones continuously, as do some members of younger generations. I like to have a convenient place to keep my phone when it’s not in use. A belt clip serves that need.

My phone carrier has bugged me a number of times about upgrading my current model, which finished its required contract months ago. There has been quite a push to go to a smartphone, which would necessitate a significant jump in monthly charges to pay for a data plan. I love smartphones. I’m just not ready to pay for one yet.

I suppose that someday I will end up going to a smartphone. I queried a couple of younger smartphone owners at work about belt clips. They looked at me like I was from another planet. “I don’t think they even make one for my phone,” one said. I searched the web and found that one is available. But these guys’ reaction told me everything I needed to know about the social acceptability of wearing a smartphone on a belt clip.

So maybe I will eventually become a convert to storing my phone in my pocket. Perhaps I’ll find a way to make that work for me. But for now I’ll continue to play the nerd.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Facebook Ascendant While MySpace Flounders

Everyone knows what Facebook is. There is a whole generation of individuals that use Facebook as an extension of themselves. Facebook is as ubiquitous for today’s teens as telephones were to teens of my era.

Before Facebook came along there was already a social networking site with a large base of dedicated users. Does anyone even remember MySpace anymore? As Facebook has become dominant, I have often wondered what happened to MySpace.

Writer Adam Hartung answers that question in this Forbes blog. In essence, MySpace suffered from a management style mismatch with its market niche.

MySpace was purchased by the “powerhouse media company” News Corporation, which proceeded to implement a highly professional top-down management approach filled with well educated MBAs. Leaders decided where the business would go, made plans accordingly, showed those plans in big PowerPoint presentations, implemented the plans, and tracked the results.

In the meantime, a group of undergrads managed Facebook using White Space management, “where rules are vague, authority is fuzzy, budgets are nonexistent, and strategy is unclear….” In effect, the less educated group of dedicated Facebook founders followed the market as tightly as possible and learned from mistakes. Instead of boardroom meetings dictating a predictable course, the business was allowed to simply flow along with the unpredictable nature of the market.

It turns out, says Hartung, that when “it comes to applying innovation,” a poorly defined White Space management style beats business plans, number crunching, and “multi-tabbed Excel spreadsheets and Powerpoint matrices.” A passion for getting the team to deliver as rapidly as possible what the users want today beats management teams full of highly educated big wigs with solid plans.

Hartung doesn’t delve into the question of whether this is a permanently sustainable management methodology. After all, Facebook is only seven years old and the whole technological social networking phenomenon is still in its infancy. Will White Space management still serve the company well when the entire market segment is more mature, say ten or 15 years from now?

I also wonder how widely applicable the Facebook style of management is to businesses in general. I suspect that the appropriateness of a given management style depends on a variety of factors such as market maturity, potential customer feedback cycle length, relative demand for innovation, level of competition, etc. How well would Facebook’s style of management work in the dishwashing detergent business or in the airline industry?

One thing is clear: the White Space style of management clearly worked a lot better in the fledgling social networking tech sphere than did the professional management approach. At this point, it would be surprising if MySpace manages to survive.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

We're Making College More Expensive by Subsidizing It

I have written a number of times about problems with our higher education system. (See June 2009 post, which has links to other posts.)  I have suggested that a college education isn’t for everyone and that our incessant push to make it so is simultaneously increasing the cost and lowering the value of a college degree.

The various public funding mechanisms we throw at higher ed, including subsidized student loans, are frequently touted as ways to make education more affordable. In reality, they often serve to pull people away from more productive pursuits while pumping loads of taxpayer dollars into overfunded institutions, both public and private.

This is a very similar approach that our nation took to mortgage loans, and it will ultimately produce a similar result. Just as the mortgage bubble pushed the cost of housing above its true market value, public higher ed subsidies are increasing the cost of going to college.

When the housing market finally rationalized to reflect more accurate housing values there was a huge crash that is still impacting us today. When we reach the point that people begin to realize that a college degree isn’t worth what they’re paying for it, we will see a similar devaluation of such degrees. There’s no telling whether this will be a sudden crash or a slower market decline. There are too many variables involved to make an accurate prediction.

This AP article discusses problems with the idea that attending college results in learning. A broad-based study found that after two full years of college, “45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing.” After four years, it’s down to 36 percent. I wonder how much of that 9 percent improvement is due to the dropout rate as opposed to actual learning.

Students and parents of students should be aware that the study also found that more social involvement at college — fraternities, sororities, hanging out with friends — generally resulted in worse outcomes. Interestingly, “working off campus, participating in campus clubs and volunteering did not impact learning.”

College degrees are not created equal. Degrees that require more rigor, such as in “traditional arts and sciences” produce better learning outcomes. So does studying alone, and copious reading and writing.

While it is generally true that more education translates to more earning capacity, it is not always specifically true. The study found that after getting a four-year degree, a third of former students move back in with their parents. 10 percent of graduates remain unemployed a year after graduation.

Besides, the relationship between higher education and income is not well understood. Does the higher degree generate higher income or do individuals that are capable of earning higher degrees generate more income? Studies exploring the individual’s native level of intelligence suggest the latter. Non-degreed individuals that are equally as intelligent as those that earned advanced degrees tend to earn about the same as their college grad counterparts. In other words, pushing people through college may not actually increase their lifetime earnings.

It seems as if the market is already starting to understand that the average college degree is too expensive for the value it provides. This article discusses the rise in vocational certificates aimed at “skills-oriented fields of study.” Such certificates can lead to a decent career path or may even be a stepping stone on the way to a college degree, if it turns out that such would work out for the individual.

There are some fields of study where a college diploma is a de-facto certificate of skills, similar to a vocational certificate but at a much higher skill level. But there are also fields where a degree isn’t going to produce enough additional value over a career to warrant the cost and effort of getting the degree.

This means that some college degrees will continue to be worth the time and expense, while others won’t. The same was true of the housing market after the crash. There were certain market segments where houses continued to bring in top dollar. But most houses simply weren’t worth what people had been led to believe they were worth.

For the kinds of jobs that do not in reality demand a college degree, our society can and should find more efficient ways to credentialize workers. Traditional college degrees will still play a large role. But reality will eventually dictate a smaller role than is currently the case.

Update 2/2/2011: This AP article explores the relative value of a 4-year degree as opposed to 2-year degrees and vocational training in preparing students for the real job market.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Few Bad Apples

I have been an adult volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America for decades. Having been greatly benefited by the program as a youth, I have seen this as an attempt to “give back more to scouting than it has given to me,” as I promised to do when I received the Eagle rank.

Scouting today has many of the same elements it had when I was a boy. But Scouting has also changed in many ways.

In my youth it was common for a lone scoutmaster to accompany boys on campouts and at meetings with other adults present only occasionally. Scouts regularly engaged in activities that would be considered far too risky today. Scouts were expected to learn, internalize, and act on safety and emergency response principles.

When we were at summer camp one year, a boy stepped outside of the axe yard to chop on a nearby fallen tree. Without adequately checking for clearance, he swung the axe back and then brought it forward to strike a mighty blow. Unfortunately it caught the axe yard rope just below the axe head. The rope stretched just far enough to allow my friend to get the axe in front of him. Then the rope stretched back, pulling on the axe and causing the butt of the axe head to strike my friend on the side of his forehead.

We dressed the wound and our scoutmaster drove my friend into town. When they returned a couple of hours later, my friend had seven stitches in his head. The boy’s parents had been notified. He completed the week at camp despite the injury. Nobody thought the scoutmaster had any culpability in the event. Instead we all learned the lesson that it is important to obey all of the axe safety rules we had been taught.

I remember hearing as a youth about a number of scouts being killed on their way to summer camp. They were riding in the back of a large farm truck when it slid off a dirt road and rolled over. After that tragedy, the BSA prohibited riding in a truck bed during a scouting event. That didn’t stop the practice. It still occurs today. But it is far rarer than it once was.

Up until the early 1980s the BSA had dealt with a handful lawsuits each year, almost always dealing with an injury or a death. Then one year the BSA was hit with a huge number of child abuse lawsuits, most of them dealing with sexual abuse. The BSA’s insurance premiums went up 1,200% in a single year.

The next year, the BSA implemented a new youth protection program. One of the central features was two-deep adult leadership, meaning that there will always be two responsible adults present at a BSA activity, and that no one-on-one adult-youth contact is permitted.

The youth protection program has evolved over the years as society has become more litigious and as the organization’s leaders have become aware of threats, patterns, and additional information. (See Youth Protection Guidelines.) Today, no one is supposed to be allowed to begin volunteer service with the BSA until they complete the organization’s youth protection training and pass a background check.  Background checks are done each time an adult changes positions.

As an adult leader, youth protection also protects me. With two-deep leadership in place, I should always have at least one other adult around to keep my back and protect me from false accusations, a phenomenon that has been known to happen.

The threat of child sexual abusers being involved in youth programs is real. At least three adults that I personally knew and that were involved in scouts when I was a youth subsequently went to jail or prison for child sexual abuse. Although I was never a victim, I knew at least one victim and now suspect that several others that I knew were victims. It is fitting to take appropriate precautions to prevent abuse.

Although there are real abusers lurking about, writer Lenore Skenazy opines in this WSJ op-ed that we have gone overboard. Every man is now a suspect first. While trying to protect our kids, we have, says Ms. Skenazy, fostered an environment where all men are treated as potential predators.

While I did know three men when I was young that have been confirmed to be predators, I have known scores of morally upstanding men that have graciously spent their time and talents bettering the lives of youth. In Ms. Skenazy’s estimation, our whole society has arrived at the point where we paint the faces of the three abusers on all of these men. They are guilty until proven otherwise. She writes:

“Last week, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Timothy Murray, noticed smoke coming out of a minivan in his hometown of Worcester. He raced over and pulled out two small children, moments before the van's tire exploded into flames. At which point, according to the AP account, the kids' grandmother, who had been driving, nearly punched our hero in the face … [because] she thought he might be a kidnapper.”
Skenazy points out several examples that show that “regular folks” have taken to seeing all men as would-be abusers. This perception is pervasive enough that men now take care to distance themselves from situations that might provide grounds for the slightest suspicion of predatory behavior. As a society we are erecting a wall between men and children. This can have nasty side effects. Skenazy recounts:
“In England in 2006, BBC News reported the story of a bricklayer who spotted a toddler at the side of the road. As he later testified at a hearing, he didn't stop to help for fear he'd be accused of trying to abduct her. You know: A man driving around with a little girl in his car? She ended up at a pond and drowned.”
It is as if, aware of the small army of predators in our society, we are taking the TSA approach to child safety. Just as the TSA treats all air travelers as possible terrorists to avoid stigmatizing any group, we now treat all men as probable predators.

As men are treated as de-facto suspects, it will become increasingly difficult to find men willing to volunteer in programs like scouting and little league sports. Men already make up only a small minority of elementary school teachers. Our all-men-are-evil fixation will drive them out of elementary schools completely. There are so many youth that crave positive male role models in their lives. Why are we trying to kill all chances that they will ever have these kinds of interactions? 

As men are walled off from interacting with children by being treated as likely predators, they will be like animals in a zoo.  They will tend to act more like the animals society already suspects them of being.  It will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We all want to make sure that our children are safe. We can do things to reduce risks, but treating all men as potential predators, says Skenazy, is not the sign of a safe society. It’s the sign of a sick society.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Exercise ≠ Weight Loss, but It Has Benefits

Fretting about the “obesity epidemic” and the sedentary lifestyle pandemic is one of our national pastimes.  Conventional wisdom tells us that more physical exercise will help us shed unwanted pounds.  ‘Everyone’ knows this.  Academicians, industry representatives, media pundits, and politicians continually harangue us about our inactivity and excess weight, noting the obvious connection between the two.

There’s only one problem with this common knowledge.  It is largely incorrect.  (Consider the information presented in this Time article.  It is important to note that some — especially in the fitness industry — take exception with some of the article’s assertions.)

More studies than anyone can count hit on the weight-exercise link from various angles.  A review of scientific data reveals surprisingly little evidence that weight reduction can be achieved through more exercise.  In fact, experts have known for years that exercise can actually increase weight if it results in building muscle.

We have been told for years that weight is a simple function of the difference between calories expended and calories consumed.  Therefore, it seems obvious that the key to weight loss is either going on a diet or increasing calories burned through exercise — preferably both.  The trouble is that physical exercise burns relatively few additional calories.

Burning calories is harder than you think
It is true that a vigorous session on my Nordic Track cross country ski exerciser burns about triple the calories I burn while sleeping, but this is only a difference of about four calories per minute.  A 30-minute session would burn 120 more calories than complete rest during that time.  A single slice of multi-grain bread with a low-calorie topping would completely eliminate the benefit of the extra calories burned.

Please note that you’d have to burn an extra 3,500 calories to lose a single pound of fat.  You could do that with a high intensity workout on the Nordic Track or running hard — for 14.6 hours straight, that is.  A few fitness extremists might do these kinds of workouts, but most of us have real lives to live.

Exercise is also just one factor affecting a rather complex biological-psychological system.  Researchers have discovered that we tend to eat according to appetite.  In general, this is a good thing.  Hunger is a signal telling us that our bodies need more fuel to properly function.

It turns out that our hunger mechanism almost universally gets us to eat more to compensate for additional exertion.  We used to call this working up an appetite.  It is how our systems were designed to function.  Researchers have also found that people that deliberately exercise often ‘reward’ themselves by eating even more calories than they burned during their workout.

Another interesting set of studies has found that purposeful physical exercise does not lead to overall increased activity.  Whenever we engage in physical exertion, we tend to compensate by reducing physical activity during other parts of the day.  We tend to achieve roughly the same amount and intensity of physical exertion during a 24-hour period regardless of whether we go to the gym, go to work, or do chores around the house.

The upshot is that increased physical exercise does not necessarily translate to weight loss.  At best, it contributes to weight control far less than is commonly believed.

So, should we eat less instead?
If it is so difficult to effectively increase the difference between calorie intake and calories burned by increasing physical activity, what about reducing caloric intake?

A couple of months ago, the news that a nutrition professor lost 27 lbs in 10 weeks by eating mostly Twinkies and junk food took the nation by storm (see CNN article).

The good professor explained that his secret was taking in fewer than 1,800 calories per day, while a maintenance diet for a man his size would be 2,600 calories.  All of the professor’s health markers improved, despite the deplorable quality of the food he ate.  It turned out that food quality was far less important than the number of calories consumed.

But no one can effectively eat fewer calories than they burn for very long.  Once again, this is due to the amazingly adaptable human machine.  Researchers have found that once you go for more than 72 hours taking in fewer calories than you expend, your body begins to compensate by reducing its metabolic rate — the rate at which it burns calories at rest.

When restricting calories eaten, your body works to quickly adapt calorie expenditure to the new reduced intake level.  The rate at which you adapt depends on the amount of excess pounds you are carrying and how much you are eating in relation to actual survival needs.

This is why most dieters see a higher level of weight loss in the first few weeks, followed by decreasing results until they finally hit a plateau where they can’t lose any more, regardless of how hungry they are.  In the meantime, dieters often report hunger, crankiness, and tiredness.  The most common pattern is that they then go off their diet and return to their previous caloric intake, but with their body burning at a reduced rate.  They end up putting on pounds until they weigh more than when they started their diet.

The individualized approach
No single diet has been found to be effective for everyone that needs to lose weight.  But there are a broad variety of dietary approaches that have proved effective for some people.  One of the biggest problems with most diets is that they become psychologically unsatisfying over time, making it difficult to endure.  Some stick it out for years, but most people don’t.

About 23 years ago, I successfully dropped 60 lbs by following The Neuropsychology of Weight Control.  Having always been a bit chubby since childhood, it felt good to be ‘normal’ weight.  A few years later, after adding back 10 lbs, I was able to drop that weight by shifting to the Zone diet.

I later followed the Body for Life plan and later the Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle approach.  Each of these produced some positive results, but I was always looking for something else.  Last year, after having slowly gained 10 very stubborn lbs, I dropped 13 lbs by following the 6-Week Cure plan.  This approach was perhaps the tastiest of all that I have tried.  It was also easier to eat out on this plan.

A couple of years ago, a friend decided that he was tired being overweight.  He wanted to get back to the weight he was at in his mid-20s.  That represented more than a 70-lb challenge.  After looking at a variety of approaches, he designed his own.  He doesn’t restrict food types (except for dessert items), but he carefully controls portions, eating only a single reasonable portion of foods in a balanced meal three times daily.  His portions are close to the way they are defined by the USDA, not what you see in a restaurant.  He does not eat between meals and he never eats dessert items, candy, or treats.

My friend says that he has been pretty much continuously hungry for more than two years now.  But he did lose the excess weight and can wear clothes that he used to wear years ago.  Although he looks frail and old to some people, he feels more vital than he has felt in years.  He boasts that he recently hiked to Angel’s Landing — a very serious hike — without breaking a sweat.  I doubt I could stick with a diet that left me continually hungry.

A local woman lost 56 lbs over the space of the year to return to normal weight.  She didn’t change her physical activity level.  The only thing she changed in her diet was that she quit drinking soda pop (both regular and diet) and drank water instead.

What I am saying is that it may take some serious work and even trial and error to find a dietary program that works for you both physically and psychologically.  When it comes to diets, one size does not fit all.  Yet there’s nobody that can say for sure what will work for you — except you.

So, what role does exercise play?
If most weight is lost through diet and weight is not significantly affected by exercise, why should anyone exercise?

The simple answer is that there’s more to health and fitness than weight.  I have had a serious daily workout program for about 23 years now.  That program has evolved over time, going from only aerobic workouts to multi-faceted strength and cardio training.  My workouts are not mindless.  They require serious mental focus, which I believe improves brain function.

I have Multiple Sclerosis.  I have no solid evidence that my exercise program has positively affected the disease progression, but I believe it has.  I am in pretty good shape.  Since muscle dysfunction is a common feature of MS, I figure that anything I can do to maintain good muscle tone will likely help counteract, reduce the severity of, and/or somewhat compensate for any such dysfunction I might experience.

Just being in relatively good shape provides valuable psychological benefits.  Moreover, it enables me to serve others when physical work is required.  While weight control is also an important part of this, muscle capacity plays an important role as well.  Given the history of heart disease among older members of my family, I hope to maintain the best cardiovascular health I can as the years go by.

Most (not all) people could benefit in some way from undertaking a more disciplined approach to their physical health, regardless of their age and current health condition.  I think that more of us would do so if we did not have systems in place that subsidize poor health choices.

But I am not so foolish as to believe that we will ever be successful in motivating most to undertake serious health improvement efforts, either by coercion or invitation.  Human nature dictates otherwise.  (Even thinking about forced exercise conjures up the creepy scene in Orwell’s novel 1984 where Winston is working out under surveillance in front of the telescreen in his apartment.)  Since individual health approaches require time and work, they necessarily limit other activities.  Many will judge other activities to be of more personal value to them than the hard work of diet and exercise.

The hardest part of liberty is allowing others to choose alternatives to what we think is best for them, believing that the overall benefits of human freedom outweigh what might be lost through what looks like inferior behavior to us.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tron: Legacy Shows How Good Intentions Go Bad

Last summer, my oldest son showed me a trailer on the Internet for movie Tron: Legacy. As with most trailers, it made the movie look pretty awesome.

Seeing the trailer caused me to hearken back to the original Tron movie that was released in 1982. The first time I saw Tron was on video at a friend’s house. There were a lot of distractions going on, so it was difficult to grasp what was happening. Once Flynn was on the grid, there were many places where I couldn’t tell what was going on. The sets were dark and I couldn’t always tell which character was which.

I came away from viewing the video thinking that the plot for Tron was pretty thin, but that the film had achieved a whole new level of special effects technology. Still, it seemed to me that the technology was in its infancy and had a long way to go before it provided a less distractive movie viewing experience.

Sometime later I saw Tron on video again. This time it was in a much quieter setting. A friend that was familiar with the film occasionally interjected brief explanations that helped bridge some of the plot gaps. After that viewing, I didn’t consider Tron to be great cinema, but it somehow captured a piece of my imagination.

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to buy the original Tron movie on DVD for a reduced price. Some of my family members sat down and watched it with me. The plot was thinner than I had remembered. Some actors’ performances were groan worthy at times.

The real shocker was the special effects technology. After 28 years, it was like stepping back into another era. Some of the sets reminded me of high school stage productions. I kept reminding myself that the movie had raised filmmaking technology to a whole new level for its time and that it provided the basis for many of the special effects we have today.

Over the holidays, my oldest son went with me to see Tron: Legacy. Like its predecessor, it is not great cinema. But it is entertaining cinema. It’s a guy’s film with lots of fast moving action. The actors’ performances and the plot are decidedly better than those of the first Tron movie. We saw the film in 2D because my son gets nauseous when seeing 3D movies. After seeing the 2D version, I thought that the 3D version might push over the border into sensory overload.

It was far easier for me to understand what was going on in Tron: Legacy than it was for me to grasp what was happening in Tron. Many of the grid sets are still dark, but filmmaking has come a long way since 1982. It was relatively easy for me to follow characters, movements, and intent. Still, I wouldn’t want to see Legacy without first viewing Tron. There isn’t enough background in Legacy to provide the necessary continuity.

The character CLU has Jeff Bridges’ face, but the face is done in CG to give CLU the appearance of Jeff Bridges 20 years younger than he is today. This is probably the best effort I have yet seen of such a CG adaptation. It’s far better than what you see in the 2004 film Polar Express, but it still doesn’t completely overcome the uncanny valley phenomenon — where people automatically respond with revulsion to non-human facsimiles that look and act almost human.

SPOILER ALERT: The following paragraphs expose the movie’s plot and climax.

At its core Tron: Legacy is a story about the attempt to create utopia: a perfect world devoid of crime, illness, poverty, war, greed, hunger, etc. Flynn believes he is creating a new world from the ground up. It becomes clear, however, that — as with nearly all utopian efforts — the world is really being created from the top down. Of course, as with many notable utopian experiments, the answer to system imperfections is coercion and ultimately elimination by violence.

Flynn pulls away from his perfectionist goals when new electronic beings evolve on the grid without anyone specifically designing them. While he sees these beings as a miracle, they are all flawed in various ways. Flynn has programmed CLU to build the perfect system. To CLU, the only logical response to the blemished beings that he can’t control is to annihilate them.

Flynn has also programmed CLU to be powerful enough to do whatever it takes to achieve his programmed goals. Many real life utopian experiments result in extensive power being given to an individual or a small group, because it is felt that only by doing so can the goal of perfection be achieved. When Flynn reacts with revulsion to CLU’s genocidal purges, Flynn and CLU become enemies.

Flynn’s adult son Sam enters the grid as an angry young man that also has utopian tendencies but without any real direction or plan. When he meets up with his father, he is disgusted with what he sees as Flynn’s sit-back-and-do-nothing attitude. Sam might be projecting his disappointment with his own unwillingness to step up to the plate and fill his role in the real world.

In reality, Flynn knows that he must sacrifice himself to destroy CLU, but he is reluctant to do so. He hasn’t had a good enough reason to go ahead with such nasty business. That motivation comes when he discovers that CLU has found a way to port his electronic army into the real (and very imperfect) world, upon which CLU would wreak destruction. Still, Flynn tries to avoid doing what must be done until his son is at stake. Then he destroys CLU, but perishes while doing so.

In the end, Sam makes it back into the real world along with the single remaining imperfect electronic being, who fortunately has been Flynn’s protégé. Sam, who has been spending his time throwing barbs at an imperfect society from the outside, realizes that he must engage society on its own terms to achieve whatever limited improvements are possible. He has to integrate with society to actually do good.

The grid has been running on super computers for 20 years. Sam downloads the whole thing onto a tiny device that he hangs from a chain about his neck. That’s obviously a potential segway to a sequel.

The main message of Tron: Legacy is that human attempts to create heaven on earth end up producing hell instead. There are so many unpredictable moving parts that no entity can successfully force utopia to develop.

Another of the movie’s morals is that man’s perception of utopia is faulty. In an explanation to CLU, Flynn says in that perfection isn’t a recognizable destination that can be defined by the lack of certain negative elements; it is a process that is happening spontaneously all around us constantly. He admits that the assumptions about perfection he used in CLU’s programming were fundamentally flawed. He has discovered that there is great beauty and wonder in the spontaneous patterns of life.

The movie also asserts that trying to effect positive change in society as a rebellious outsider is a fool’s game. The only way to really improve society is by working from within.

This sequel to the 1982 Tron movie has far more meat than did the original. There are some messages that are worth thinking about. From my perspective, the second movie also far more entertaining to watch.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ward Conference Season

Among my several church callings is an assignment as a counselor in our stake Sunday school presidency.

When I told my brother about the calling, he said that he would love to serve in such a “peripheral” calling. He currently serves as a counselor in his ward bishopric, which is a fairly demanding position. He said that he joked with his stake president that he’d pay double tithing if he could be a counselor in the stake Sunday school presidency. Church service would be a breeze if that were indeed my only calling.

At any rate, as a stake official, I am currently in a season of attending the annual conferences of each ward in our stake. In my stake, this means visiting other wards most Sundays during the first two months of the year. Other than being apart from my family during worship services, this is actually a fairly pleasant experience. I really don’t have to do anything except be there. Unlike some other stake officers, I have no speaking, teaching, or support assignments.

While attending ward conferences, I become acquainted with wonderful people in my stake that I usually only see from a distance. Yesterday I visited a Sunday school class filled with 12-year-old boys. Apparently the birth pattern in that ward included no female children in 1998.

The class was taught by a mother that has four young children of her own. I knew from hearing this woman speak in a meeting last year that she and her husband had both been members of the church since childhood, but had never been active. They didn’t really care to know the doctrines.

Then a couple of years ago, this couple decided they needed help beyond themselves in raising their family, so they turned to prayer, to the scriptures, and eventually back to the church. In the meeting where this sister and her husband spoke, they told of their conversion. You could tell that it was a very real and powerful force in their lives.

I was pleased to see that this sister had carefully prepared the Sunday school lesson to engage the target audience. Although some of the boys started out as relatively passive listeners, they were all quite involved by the end of the lesson. I could see that these boys could tell that this sister really cared about them. It was plain that she had a personally powerful witness in her soul that seeped out at every opportunity.

Our Sunday school presidency spends time dealing with and focusing on problems in church classes and teaching engagements. It is really nice to visit a class and see something very close to the ideal. You come away without having a problem to deal with. Perhaps that sense of relief allows one to feel uplifted.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Work of Marriage

“Dad, why do people get divorced?” asked one of my younger children recently. The question was particularly poignant in light of news we lately received of the dissolution of a family member’s multi-decade marriage. I pondered whether to give the simple answer or to delve into the complexities of marital relationships. “How much can this child handle?” I thought to myself.

I was reminded of a friend who was asked by his young son where babies came from. The nervous young father dove into a somewhat complex biological explanation. When he was finished, his son looked more confused than ever. The boy said, “I mean do babies come from home or from the hospital? You and Mom said that I was born at the hospital, but a friend at school said that he was born at home.”

Answering my child too simplistically might convey the perception that everything can be neatly divided between good and bad. It might also suggest that all divorced people are bad, which is clearly not true. But a parent also needs to remember that the brains of children are not yet developed to the point that they can comprehend many of life’s intricacies.

I uttered a brief silent prayer for help and forged ahead. I started simply and then gently probed for understanding. In general, divorce is bad. It often stems from selfishness on the part of one or both partners, I explained. Every marriage takes a lot of hard work by both partners. If one partner at some point becomes unwilling to do what it takes to maintain the marriage, it is unlikely that the other partner will be able to do enough work to keep the couple together.

This turned into a discussion about what kind of work is entailed. I explained some of the rituals that my wife and I go through, including continued courting and dating, dividing up family duties, looking for the good in each other, and stepping in to help whenever needed.

My wife has been very patient with me for many years. She has strongly supported me through thick and thin (literally), health and sickness (also literally), ups and downs, triumphs and disasters. She has been my greatest fan. She has helped me believe in myself in the face of challenges. She has helped me venture outside of my comfort zone to achieve goals that would otherwise not have been realized. I would be a very different person without my wife, and it wouldn’t be a ‘good’ different.

All marriages are subject to many stresses. Both partners must be strongly devoted to the marriage to survive the storms through which each marital relationship must pass. Personally, I maintain that making God an integral part of the marital relationship helps the couple weather these storms.

My child expressed understanding of what I was talking about. The discussion then went into why anyone would choose to go through all of the challenges inherent in marriage. What is it about marriage that makes it worth the effort?

I was able to express my conviction that life’s greatest joys come through success in family relationships. Other accomplishments might be wonderful. But I am absolutely certain that none is as fulfilling as familial joy. My own experience tells me that all efforts made to build, strengthen, and maintain healthy family relationships are repaid many times over in “good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over” (Luke 6:38). In other words, I believe that you will be repaid many times over for investments you make in your family relationships.

My child seemed satisfied with our discussion. I thought about our relation whose marriage had ended in divorce. It has been clear to me that there have been some challenges in that marriage for years. But having held it together this long, I had assumed that they would continue doing so. I take this news as a stark warning that even those that believe they have good marital relationships need to continually be working to strengthen their marriage.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Snow Necessitates Snow Removal

In my neighborhood there have been several snow removal opportunities so far this winter.  I used to not mind snow removal so much.  But my duties have expanded in recent years.

We live on a corner lot, so we’ve got a lot of sidewalk.  Our home was built with a double-wide driveway.  Years ago we added a third width.  Although our driveway is not terribly long, you’d be surprised how much work a third width adds.  Snow from the middle part of the driveway must be moved further to get it off the driveway.

The one saving grace is that we have a south facing driveway that is slightly sloped toward the road.  If there’s just a small amount of snow, a small amount of sun will melt it away quite rapidly.

I have found that our children continue to access our rear deck, including using the deck stairs to access the back yard during the winter.  After one child was injured on ice that had built up on the deck a few years back, I started being pretty strict about keeping the deck cleared.

We have a fairly high quality trampoline in the back yard.  I’ve noticed that many of my neighbors either take their trampolines down in the winter or else simply let the snow build up on them, which causes damage.  I don’t let that happen with our trampoline.  I keep a path to it cleared and we clear it off with each snowfall.

In other words, I’ve got plenty of work to do at my own house each time the white stuff falls from the sky.

A few years ago, my neighbor across the street became an empty nester at about the same time that she began experiencing some pretty serious health problems.  So I took to clearing snow from her driveway when I could.  That has kind of morphed into an expectation.  So every time it snows, I first clear the surfaces at our home and then clear her driveway and sidewalk.

After my Dad had a stroke a few years back, he and Mom could no longer clear their driveway.  They contracted the work for a while, but were never satisfied.  Besides, Mom noted, most of the guys that came to do the work seemed to be among the dregs of humanity.  She wondered how many of these people showed up just so they could case the joint.  So last year she declined to contract the snow removal work at her home.

Being the child that lives closest to my Mom, I work to get to her house to clear her driveway as soon as I can after taking care of my place and the neighbor’s place.  Depending on the depth and density of the snow, my snow clearing duties can be quite a bit of work.

I have not had to do a full snow clearing job at my Mom’s yet this season.  Every time it has snowed, someone else has done some or all of it by the time I arrive.  Mom’s benefactors have included her home teacher, a non-religious neighbor, and a couple of neighbors that have health problems of their own.  It is difficult for me to describe how grateful I am for these generous services.

If you’re going to live in a clime where it tends to snow a fair amount during the year, you’re going to have to deal with the snow.  I’ve never quite understood people that live in my area, and yet complain about the snow and cold.  There are lots of other places to live where it seldom or never snows.

While I don’t mind snow in general, I am grateful whenever someone helps relieve my snow removal burdens.