Friday, August 28, 2009

Stories from the Road -- Tybee Island, GA

Fresh from a week of seminars and posters, colleagues and friends, shrimp on river boats and shrimp in local restaurants, my visit to Savannah last year ended with a short excursion to the Atlantic Coast. In all ways you can imagine, I needed some fresh air. I like talking about meteorology as much as the next of a seemingly infinite number of guys and gals, but there is life outside of work. There is a whole world outside the windows of a confining hotel with mysterious thermostat problems.

My friend Somer, her massive pickup truck (which could be easily confused with a tank), and I decided to ride (plow, run over) US 80 to Tybee Island. On the way, we saw beautiful trees, marshes, and tall grasses signaling the transition from land habitat to sea habitat. Those on the East Coast recognize the transition easily. Thousands of trees dot the landscape, with puddles or swamps of water lying underneath. Suddenly, the trees begin to be replaced with open prairies of what I call "sea grass". The tall browns of grass that look like you could drown yourself in, which (I imagine) is actually possible from time to time. Soon, coves of water appear, transitioning from freshwater to brackish under the camouflage of a deep blue reflection. Marshes, estuaries, and deltas line the landscape, with winding gravel and concrete disappearing into the horizon.

I love these drives. I love the moment of realization, in which you realize that there are no structures behind the ones you see. There is no land. You cannot see the ocean yet, but its presence is already overwhelming. And the smell of the air, itself brackish and raw. The air is cooler, and the sea gulls above fly in dart-like zeal, playing around in the endless sights of clashing blues and browns.

I love the looks of ocean towns. Almost all are run-down, worn by the raw air, the constant fight between continental and marine. The ground is dirty, the roads are rotting, and rust coats the corners of every structure in sight. A light coat of sand can be seen in pockets on sidewalks and rooftops, and people disappear as they walk into a flock of birds competing for the same oceanside pleasures.

Tybee Island is a beautiful place, blessed the day of our visit by a scarcely visited beach. The sky was clear, and the ocean reflected the sunlight in ways I didn't think possible. A pier overlooked the ocean in a pathetically ineffective manner, with the shining waves passing harmlessly underneath. Ah, the sound of the ocean. For me, white noise. Nothing, nothing I can think of, is more pleasing to the ears than the sound of water meeting its end in the sand.

Somer and I walked the beach, sometimes separate, sometimes together, always in silence. Words were not necessary, as nature was doing the talking. I may be described by some as a quiet person with occasional bouts of outspokenness. At the ocean, I am a mute. A delighted one, because talking would only ruin the mood and the scene.

Tybee Island also boasts a beautiful lighthouse. I am a fan of lighthouses, and will someday take a "lighthouse vacation" along each of America's two ocean coasts. In general, I am not a fan of man-made structures, but I have two very big exceptions: bridges and lighthouses. One of my favorite locations in America is the Mackinac Bridge in northern Lower Michigan, basically because it boasts one of the best bridges in the country as well as an absolutely gorgeous lighthouse. In a future post, I will talk about this splendid location.

The lighthouse on Tybee Island is black and white, tall and proud. Its phenomenal contrast with the deep blue sky that day is something I will not forget. I think I like lighthouses because they are so small but so hopeful in their rotating glimmers of hope, and to many, of home. I think they are an artistic way of expressing our rather small presence in a gargantuan world. The lighthouse is a more beautiful pier, still a pathetic attempt at overseeing something much larger than itself. No matter the contender, the ocean is always victorious.

Brackish water near the Atlantic Ocean on US 80 in southeast Georgia.
Tybee Island.
Ah, the Atlantic.
Somer pondering life, or something.
The lonely pier.
Tybee Island's beach.
Look at the beautiful reflection. Superb.
Somer ponders some more.
Tybee Island Lighthouse.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why Reform What's Broken?

I've been asked a couple of times why I've generally stayed out of the health care debate on my blog. There are many reasons. First, I don't feel sufficiently educated to provide a slew of opinions on the matter. Until I feel otherwise, I will remain hesitant to offer much on the subject. Second, what I already have come to decide upon many others have written. These opinions are not that difficult to predict, if you are aware of my political background. I think the disinformation campaign against the proposed health reform is some of the most disgusting propaganda I have ever seen in American politics. (That is not hyperbole. I truly believe that. I believe that this disinformation campaign will be indirectly responsible for the degrading, if not terminating, health of thousands upon thousands of Americans.) Third, I want to see a bill on the table before I comment on it. So far, that hasn't happened.

For what it is worth, here is what I feel about health care today...

1) I don't ever want to be in a situation where I need to go to a doctor but feel I cannot afford to go to one. I don't want to think twice about seeing a medical professional to talk about my health because it will cost me money.

2) Without Medicare, my grandmother would very likely be dead.

3) I believe health care is a fundamental right. To even associate health care with the word "privilege" is fundamentally unsound and morally objectionable.

4) Those complaining that the currently proposed proposal would eliminate choice from American citizens appear to be incapable of defining the word "option".

5) Life expectancy in this country is lower than almost all western world countries with universal health care. Although health care differences are undoubtedly not the only explanation for this statistic, it is very likely a major contributing factor. Essentially all industrialized countries have universal health care besides the US.

(See, as a start, Wikipedia for these statistics: and -- there are many good links available from these sites)

6) The idea of euthanasia, death panels, death books, or any other completely nonsensical, doomsday, paranoia-flaming lie regarding public health insurance is out-of-touch, dishonest, and ethically reprehensible.

7) I believe Democrats are not completely forthcoming with the fact that public health insurance would require higher, perhaps much higher, taxes. I'm also uncomfortable solely taxing the wealthy with public health insurance. This is a tax that I would be very willing to pay for and should be willing to pay for, and I think Democrats should stop hiding behind the popularity of "lowering taxes". It's financially unsound to assume that taxes would not be raised in these circumstances.

8) I believe that the optimal solution to the health care problem is, indeed, socialized medicine. However, any quality reform is doubtful since that was not even on the table when the debate began. Obama's, and many Democrats', desires to work with Republicans, despite the obvious political tactics used to undermine any plan, have ensured that very little good will come from any bill passed by Congress. The bitter irony of bipartisanship with this issue is that it will ensure a less effective system that will very likely be considered victories by both parties. Well, as long as they politically look good.

9) I think "the people" have a poor idea of how their beliefs in government interference clash with their favorable attitudes toward public health insurance policies currently in place (e.g., Medicare). Most people shout out against bureaucracy without realizing they're actually very satisfied by it.

10) Corresponding with (9), it amuses me how much "the people" say they do not trust government, but how willing they are to believe whatever people in government positions tell them when what they are saying is what they want to hear. Do you really think people like Sarah Palin and Chuck Grassley are well-informed on the mechanics of health care? Listen to them, and tell me they could answer basic questions on how health care in our country works. Correspondingly, just because a representative was employed in a medical position does not automatically make him/her qualified to speak on the subject. Consider Tom Coburn's ridiculous answer to a very concerned Oklahoma citizen at a town hall meeting recently. Why can't neighbors help a woman and her family cover thousands upon thousands of dollars in medical expenses? (Actually, the public "option" would be a way of doing just that.) Listen to what people say, and see if it makes intuitive sense.

Politicians lie all the time, and that's reprehensible. But, people who trust officials who have been known to lie about issues need to remove the gullibility cloud and the lazy attitude toward believing whatever they hear. And what you want to hear does not make it true. Look things up. Do research. It is not hard to find out what's true and what isn't about our current and our potential future health care systems. Avoid obviously biased websites. Look up the "about us" links and find out for yourself. You may not like what you find, but at least you won't look like an idiot shouting talking points without a shred of evidence to support such positions. (A corollary here is that evidence that supports a position opposite to you does not automatically make the evidence, or the people providing it, biased.)


Finally, I'd just like to mention I join others in commending Sen. Ted Kennedy for his service to this country. He was an incredibly important politician in an incredibly important period of our nation's history. His death will leave a void in our government that I can only hope others will strive to fill.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Life as a Staircase

If you've worked in the field of computer programming, particularly using someone else's computer programming, some days will inevitably feel like an endless staircase. My legs don't handle actual staircases very well. Uphill is the gravity struggle; downhill is the hammer-to-the-knees onslaught. When scripting and programming become a part of your everyday job, the mental staircase is just as trying.

I use the previous paragraph as informational preface to emphasize the fact that it can be easy, temptingly easy, to make life a set of staircases. With days like today, I unfortunately succumbed to this line of thinking. Maybe it's an individual thing, but I think attacking life as a set of staircases is a bad idea. Especially when the steps can be a little overwhelming.

Of course, setting goals for yourself, in the form of achievements, deadlines, or promises, is generally a good thing. However, in my experience, I have found that looking at these goals in the series of small steps can make me obsessed with the steps and not the next floor.

For example, as a grad student, the main goal is to ... graduate. But there are many steps along the way to graduating, all of which can be considered goals. Passing the qualifying exam, passing the general exam, successfully defending the research. However, a major mistake I made regarding the first step was obsessing about it. Now, provided the obvious problems with the current way the qualifying exam is administered by the School of Meteorology, this obsession was not altogether unexpected. However, an approximately two-month period before the exam was devoted entirely to that exam. Although it is true that passing the exam was necessary to achieve the goal of obtaining a Ph.D., so are the other two steps. In a way, I focused too much on one grain of sand that I lost sight of the beach. As a result of this obsession, I delayed obtaining my other goals by a substantial amount, especially given the fallout of the mental strain achieving one of the steps to the main goal.

It can get worse, as it did in my case. If you set predefined goals to pass the qualifying exam, as I did, your whole life becomes focused on that one thing. Four hours studying dynamics, four hours studying thermodynamics, two hours of atmospheric radiation, and sleep. Repeat tomorrow. And so on...

This is what life can become for me when I approach it with the metaphorical staircases. So, instead of approaching the problem differently and perhaps more simply, the obsession of making the next step feeds on itself until the moment of truth arrives. And the time after that moment of truth can be very dramatic. For me, depressing. Have you ever had an occasion where you stop walking up the stairs and wonder why you're there in the first place? That's the problem with staircases. A lot of time to think about the small things on the way to the top (or bottom).

Next time, I will take the elevator.

Monday, August 24, 2009

You'll Know Some Day

The mind plays games with you at certain times of your life. Most of these events are instinctual. The adrenaline rush of a moment of peril, the imagination of realizing the infinitesimal essence of existence, the enhanced ability to sense during instances of extreme complexity. For me, nerves bring about the mind tricks, and the trick is usually related to time.

During the nervousness of public speaking, of which I have been and will always be one of its more vulnerable victims, time begins to fly. I will have said things I have no recollection of saying, I will forget lengthy conversations of passing the time in the buildup to the ultimate public climax, and I will be surprised at how long I've gone talking without breathing. Interestingly, I've adapted to these particularly stressful situations so well that my body has made possible what I wish for: getting it over quickly.

In moments of perceived peril (which rarely in actuality exist), time slows down. This, I gather, is just as natural. The senses become overwhelming. Every movement is observed; every sound is heard. The wind feels particularly warm or cold. It is strange how circumstances that are undesirable can be some of the most invigorating of my life. In my quest for experience in life, it is best absorbed in these situations. Let the involuntary take over, and the mind will do the rest. You will have lived through the very real experience of the survival instinct.

But many times, these survival instincts involve false starts. For me, these instances occur when I'm alone in the wide open spaces of the world. Whoever "they" are, they say you should never hike alone. You should always tell someone where you are and when you plan to return. I suppose for society's benefit, much less your friends and your family, those guidelines are fair enough. However, there are occasions in which I am not fair. My sanity may very well depend on this absolutely necessary alone time. Solitude is my way of experiencing life to its very fullest.

Some people cannot live in solitude for any substantial length of time. I am not sure why. I have always felt the most fulfilled, the most satisfied, when "the world" is simply nature. Land with grasses blowing in the universal breeze, trees creaking back and forth, and a sky endlessly spattered in blues, whites, and grays. A quiet animal's breathing can be heard, creating the knee-jerk response of shifting your head in its direction. A bird chirps, and suddenly you whistle unknowingly with it.

The world is a scary, hauntingly beautiful place. Experiencing the world with others is fun and almost always rewarding in some manner. Observing the cultures, eating the food, and participating in activities completely unrelated to your life can be very moving experiences. There is no question that to experience the world to its fullest, you must take in these other societies and accept, even fight for, these other peoples. And yet...

I keep going alone on a new hike. I climb a new mountain, listen to the white noise of the wind, watch the water dripping from the tree leaves into a tiny puddle below. Time seems to stand still at these moments. The water twinkles in the giving light of the sun. The plants look a little healthier. The bugs fly a little more slowly. Bit by little bit, you experience the paradoxical essence of nature. So simple in its utter complexity. Nirvana may be an ideal state, but you can find it if you know where to look. Maybe all that is needed is the mind to play a trick on you.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Pictures from the Road -- Las Vegas, NV

Here are some photos from my trip to Vegas in January 2009. Enjoy!


The Trump Tower's column of jewels.
Our room. Yes.
A common view of the Strip.
This is not Venice.
Gondola? Vegas?
Caesar's Palace contributes "plenty" to light pollution.
Vegas at night. Gaudy and bawdy.
I hear there's great food there.
Not quite natural.
I'm guessing this decor was pretty cheap, in the scheme of things.

Shameless Sister Plug

No time to write tonight. Instead, read my sister's blog entry on her trip to Belize.