23 October 2011

Christian vs. christian

What exactly constitutes being a Christian? In 1982 the "Christian" Phalange militia in Lebanon massacred every man, woman, and child in the Palestinian Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Christian?

When I was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, my Jewish-atheist roommate at Berkeley expressed disbelief and surprise. "There's something to this, you know. You ought to investigate it yourself," I replied. He turned on me and for the only time I ever remember, I saw anger in his face:

"Do you have any idea how many of my ancestors were KILLED in the name of Christ?!??"

I have had various reactions, ranging from polite curiosity to dislike, suspicion, and even contempt aimed at me for being a Mormon (world's term) or LDS (preferred term). This has been brought to my awareness almost daily through most of my adult life since I stopped being an atheist and chose to be baptized.  Presidential candidate Rick Perry's pastor is the current source of anti-Mormon hate, but just one of many. Polls suggest that fully 25% of this country will never vote for a "Mormon" for president. I suspect that this is in the same ballpark as anti-Semites, but likely quite a bit higher than the percentage of the population who are skin-color racist types.

The other night I went with my Bishop to visit a friend in our ward whose son had been found dead of acute Oxycontin poisoning. He had been living with back pain; a doctor prescribed Oxycontin, he got hooked, and had been fighting addiction for years since then. That young man's wife had just given birth three weeks earlier to a baby daughter. It is incredibly sad. However, the wife will not have anything to do with any "Mormons" - something she learned from her dad. This has estranged her husband from his parents, and has made the funeral arrangements even harder on my friend. It was made even worse by a former band-member of the deceased asking people on his Facebook page to come to the funeral and try to "save" the parents - my LDS friend and his wife. Ken told me this was like the knife in his heart was now being twisted.

A scientist in my research team in the USGS National Center in Northern Virginia was constantly making fun of me when I was still resident there, typically making snarky comments about me at the group table in the cafeteria. He is from a narrow Protestant group in the upper Midwest. He told me when I asked him about it that there are about 200,000 of them, and they are the only ones that will "make it into Heaven" - the rest of us all being "damned to Hell".  I was amazed; he's a senior scientist with a PhD, which at least implies some thoughtfulness. I quietly took this abuse at lunch and in the hallways for a long time. Finally one day, as I was helping him with his desktop computer, he did it again - only half-jokingly told me I would be damned to Hell. I asked him why he was being so overtly offensive? He told me that my particular LDS belief was "not Christian", and was particularly anathema to him and his small sect, worse even than if I were a Moslem. I told him (very mildly I think) that his behavior struck me as startlingly un-Christlike, and asked him if he had read the New Testament recently? He stared at me. I pointed out that I was the only person in the team who would help him when he had computer problems, that despite the rude and contemptuous treatment leveled at me, I felt it was expected of me as a follower of Christ. He didn't say a word, just stared, so after fixing his problem I went back to my office. About 10am the following morning, he leaned into my office doorway and said, very awkwardly, that he had been thinking all night about what I had said, and had concluded that I was right. He said that he was not acting like a follower of Christ, and that he would stop saying things that caused me discomfort. I believe he still did so behind my back, but I thanked him anyway.

My perception of MY responsibilities, as a follower of Christ, includes being patient with abuse like this. If an opportunity avails itself, I believe I'm allowed to raise the obvious contrary-to-Christ's-teachings behavior.

How many times must you turn the other cheek to this sort of abuse? Probably forever ("seven times seven" said Christ). Where do you draw the line between abuse and deadly threat? Is it Christ-like to defend yourself against almost certain physical damage or death? The head of our local YWCA is wheel-chair-bound, a devout pacifist, and took exception to me and my family teaching women how to defend themselves against physical assault. I never had an opportunity to talk with her about this - she just made it clear that we were not welcome to teach there again. Every one of the students, however, thanked us - some with hugs.

No one can honestly deny that there is evil in this world. 

And everyone has the right to choose if they want to return home to their families from wherever they may be. I do not believe the Christ requires of us to permit others to stomp our brains out in a drunken rage on a parking lot, or to submit to a brutal sexual assault with life-long consequences. On the contrary, I feel strongly that everyone deserves the opportunity to live their life on this Earth to its fullest, and that violation of this right puts the attacker at immeasurable, eternal risk.  The attacker is also a child of the same God - and I think God would prefer the attack be stopped before irreversible consequences happen - for BOTH of His children's sake. We teach our students that a proportional response to an attack is for their own and the attacker's long-term benefit. We just give them the tools to have a say in the matter.

Back to the self-styled "Christians" out there: did any of these people read the New Testament? Really read it? Why do they assume that they are uniquely God's chosen? Especially: why do they assume that God only loves a few of His children?


21 October 2011

Skewed History, False History

This will be old hat to professional historians out there, but the old saying goes that “history is written by the victors.” Truth is rather often not the truth in verbal form, but often not the truth even in the written format - at least the complete truth.  It’s simply the opinion of the most articulate (or loudest) person on the block... and they ALL have an agenda. That's close to saying that all truth is subjective - but not quite.

Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death-March were held up to me as a child in school as examples of Japanese war-time evil and perfidy. The Allies were the Good Guys - the saviors of civilization. However, my uncle was a personal witness to the Dresden fire-bombing of February 1945, where virtually all of the victims were civilians, deliberately massacred to demoralize a combatant nation. THAT was not discussed in MY history classes.

Ramesses The Great (Ramesses II) lost the battle of Kadesh-Barnea to Hittite forces that cleverly baited him and the Egyptian army he “led” into attacking a small Hittite force, thereby exposing him and his army to a devastating ambush. He suffered a tactical and strategic defeat that he barely survived - by abandoning his personal "Ra" Division troops to the mercies of the Hittites. You would never know this from the victory monuments that Ramesses later erected in Egypt, however. According to those monuments, Ramesses was the great victor, the father of over 100 children... and the one who wrote HIS version of history into monumental stone.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is another example.  These hideous documents have been proven repeatedly to be fraudulent - a clumsy anti-Semitic propaganda effort put to rest and then later resurrected and propagated by Nazi Germany.  With each new generation of anti-Semites, this thing has taken on a multi-generational life of its own. As Josef Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda chief famously said:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. ”  

The full Goebbels quote is even more appalling.

Depending on who you listen to, Joseph Smith was a charlatan and a conjuror - or he was a prophet. He dictated the Book of Mormon by staring at two stones in the bottom of a hat, or he actually did translate ~30 kg of golden, minutely-inscribed plates seen and hefted by 13 people. Which version of history is correct?

I automatically discount anything written by people like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, as they have a transparent agenda to uphold - and have shown no qualms about writing things about the LDS Church that I know from personal experience have long since been disproved. Other things they have each written about other people and other issues are contested by scholars as dishonest at best, fraudulent at worst.

So: what history can you trust?

I've thought a lot about this. I finally concluded that only something I could see supporting (first- or second-hand) evidence for could be considered reasonably reliable. My Uncle James’ account of Dresden is one: I know him personally to be an individual of very high personal integrity. What about supportive evidence for Joseph Smith? Journals of individuals who viewed the Gold Plates describe leafing through the pages; at least one journal describes the 8" (cubed) block of plates as weighing 60 lbs. With slight variations they all agree on details.  Besides never recanting their affidavit, there is one ancillary piece of logic we could apply. Could YOU get 11 people to sign affidavits that they saw and held gold plates - and never reneged from those statements - from your own neighborhood? We could also append to this the rapid and steady growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; it would be hard for that to happen if the premise was based on a string of lies. There are a rather high percentage of Latter-Day Saints with advanced degrees - the faith actively encourages advanced education, something inconsistent with a structure based on lies and deceit. Some people would count this, others perhaps not.

I’ve also considered my own personal experiences. As a physical scientist, I have accumulated in my personal journals a rather large series of small but cumulative evidences that ALL tell me that I’m not following a lie.  There are others that are somewhat harder to easily document, such as the strong internal self-consistency, and the utterly pragmatic doctrinal-philosophical framework underlying my faith. I still am astounded with its consistency in explaining personally-observed phenomena and the broader life-experiences of the human species. When I want answers to specific things - in Church history or in my own research efforts - I can always get them, though sometimes the answers arrive in full only years after I began searching.

Years ago I had a friend in Virginia who was troubled by certain anti-LDS writings. There seems to be a  small but focused sub-culture of people who accumulate and publish these sorts of things. I agree this isn't very logical - I mean, why would they even care?. Mike would bring one to my attention and challenge me. I would dutifully research the issue, and it was always something said by one person, perhaps two - and always arrived third or fourth hand. After a significant amount of effort I would satisfy myself that someone - for whatever suspect personal reasons - was simply out to cause damage, creating their own small Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

After awhile I concluded that this debunking effort was a huge waste of time. I suppose everyone should go through this at some time just to satisfy themselves. However, I concluded that from the cumulative evidence that I can see, particularly in my own life, that I need not bother anymore to even pursue these ugly things. I'm too busy cataloging my own supportive personal experiences - the things I know firsthand that attest that I'm really on the Shining Path.

"Brothers and sisters, this is a divine work in process, with the manifestations and blessings of it abounding in every direction, so please don’t hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood, and resolved. They do and they will. In this Church, what we know will always trump what we do not know. And remember, in this world, everyone is to walk by faith....So be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work.I know that Joseph Smith, who acknowledged that he wasn’t perfect, was nevertheless the chosen instrument in God’s hand to restore the everlasting gospel to the earth. " --Jeffrey R Holland, April 2013 General Conference.

Joseph Smith readily admitted to being imperfect - just like Moses did, like Peter and Paul did. Only Christ is perfect.

One final thing to consider: At the time Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844, the population of Nauvoo was roughly 12,000 souls, rivaling Chicago at the time. In the terrible confusion and sadness that followed Joseph's death, Brigham Young took charge as the presiding authority - the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In the bitter winter of 1846-47 almost the entire population decamped for Iowa, to live in misery for several months, then they moved westward in a long overland trek to the Great Salt Lake Basin to establish their new Zion. Everyone in that population knew what had gone on with Joseph - gossip in a small community moves quickly, especially when the community is without televisions, the internet, computer games, or air conditioning to keep them indoors. If their prophet had been doing bad things, everyone would have known about it. Yet some 12,000 people gave up their comfortable homes and marched into the dangerous, largely unknown western wilderness together.

I consider that the strongest vote you could possibly make about the character of Joseph Smith, and the door to truth that he opened with the Restoration. 12,000 people voted with their feet - 12,000 people who all personally knew Joseph Smith. That simple historical fact speaks volumes.

I’m satisfied that I've found the truth, and am happy to just follow it. The plan now is just to endure to the end.


12 October 2011

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

This sentence is attributed to the brilliant philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 - 1951).

I had seen this before and commented on the un-measurable and un-testable theory of a Multiverse (many parallel universes, of which ours is the lucky one with physical parameters finely-tuned enough to allow it to host thinking life).

I encountered the Wittgenstein quote again in a fascinating (and very nearly complete) summary of current cosmological knowledge assembled by UCLA Astronomer Ned Wright (which I highly recommend - it's short, readable, and largely non-technical).

The point that Wright was making was that if you can't ever test a theory to see if it's even true (like the Multiverse), then wisdom would suggest you don't talk about it.

Makes sense: don't talk about something you know nothing about.

I could suggest that to a number of outspoken opinionaivers who think they "know Mormonism" (sic).

Back to Wright's FAQ: it's refreshing to see this level of humility and honesty in a scientist (yes, despite what science is supposed to seek, the level of honesty among scientists is about the same as found in the general population).

However, it is just basic human nature - perhaps it's a distinguishing characteristic of human nature - to want to know more.

And actually, there IS a way to know more, much more.  Dallin H. Oaks, in an article titled "Knowledge encourages obedience, and obedience enhances knowledge." points out (a bit indirectly) that scientific testing and analysis will only work in a fairly narrow sphere of Knowledge (capital K).  He reminds us that there are other pathways to gain information over a wide range of things important to me - important to you. (Mor 10:5 and D&C 8:1-2 come to mind). The secular (narrowly-focused) world would call this sort of approach "inspiration" - such as the famous "Eureka moment" of the philosopher-scientist Archimedes.  People who have lots of these inspirations (or a few that shift paradigms significantly) are sometimes called geniuses. It does NOT mean that they are smarter than their peers - I am myself proof of that lack of correlation (I just have an unfair advantage over my secular peers). In the official story, Watson and Crick earned the Nobel Prize when they came up with the structure of DNA in 1953. Truth is, they had a lot of unacknowledged help from Rosalind Franklin. Without making a moral judgement here - the full story is probably not known to anyone living - I will just say that there are many avenues to knowledge, some more acknowledged than others (pun intended).

I have garnered an immense amount of knowledge in my life, both in my search for things of personal interest, and in my professional scientific career. The "secret" has helped me avoid years mining scientific dead ends, and has guided me past numerous research blocks. An example: I was able to finally get a marine induced polarization system operational - and earn two patents for it - by developing optical isolation and a floating ground, among other things.

The "secret"? Live your life in such a way as to open the door to these understandings coming to you. Even purely secular scientists understand most of these principles. This means being obedient to a number of "rules": (a) live a life of honesty and service to others, and (b) conduct your physical life wisely, availing yourself of existing scientific knowledge. A cynic would say that (a) is why others will often offer to help you with figuring out certain things, making certain types of necessary measurements, etc., while (b) is now established as fundamental requirements for the full functioning of the human brain. Incidentally, this particular knowledge-set was available to Latter-Day Saints in 1835, about 130 years before the Surgeon General's famous 1964 report.

There are other, even more direct sources of understanding and knowledge.

The take-home here: you can get an answer to whatever is important to you - if you are patient enough, if you are obedient enough - and if you are humble enough. For starters, do not ever consider the science you now understand as the final answer. The history of science itself will immediately paint you the fool.


10 October 2011

7 June 1995

That's a very important date to me and to my family.

But first, some history. I grew up during the height of the Cold War. I still remember crouching under my desk during bomb drills in elementary school (as if...). With this terrifying threat drummed in your mind long enough - not a day seemed to go by without a short film clip of a nuclear test - it's not surprising that many people of my generation worried a lot about a nuclear holocaust. When the US and the USSR between them (mid 1970's) had sufficient nuclear devices to turn this entire planet into a cinder many times over, well, it can color your thinking.

I mostly got over it, but it started worrying me a lot again after my children were born. Should we even have children? While pondering and praying about this in 1979, a startling understanding burst into my mind. I can't articulate it better than this, but the understanding was instantaneous, and it was not in English. I had to convert it to English to share it with my wife. In short: "Don't worry. There will not be a nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR. There will be a nuclear exchange in the future, but in another, narrower venue." I was told where that other venue would be, but can only share it with my family for reasons that I need not explain to a Latter-Day Saint.

Fast forward to 1989: the USSR crumbled almost overnight after being one pole of a bipolar world (pun intended) for over 70 years. The START treaty and START II led to (by comparison, at least) dramatic reductions in nuclear stockpiles.

Fast Forward to 2004: evil incarnate, in the form of A.Q. Khan of Pakistan, stole the hardest part of nuclear weapons development - isotopic separation technology - from the Netherlands. He then shared it for huge personal bribes with Libya, Iran, and North Korea. Until they perish from this, the Pakistani people will continue to revere Khan as the Father of the Islamic Bomb. Indeed. However make no mistake about it: Khan couldn't do any of this by himself - he had nowhere near enough jets to swing it. He received nearly unlimited money for bribes and purchases from the Pakistani military, used outright theft, and voila, we have another nuclear Sword of Damocles - this time in South Asia... and in the Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean... and the South China Sea.

Flash backward to 1995: For a long time I have tried to disentangle myself from my position as deputy chief of the USGS Saudi Arabian mission. For over 30 years the Saudis have paid the USGS to map their country and do a mineral resource assessment.  For the previous four years I have been living in Jeddah, on the Red Sea, while my children have been attending boarding school in Switzerland or college in Spain and Montreal. My wife, however, has seen a steady drop in her physical health. If we go to Ireland for 10 days to do the diplomatic-passport-required annual R&R trip out of the country, her health pops back to normal. Return to the Magic Kingdom and it starts rapidly spiraling downward. I research the water supply: reverse-osmosis filtered. I check the house for mold - humidity is too low. We restrict the food to only what the US military provides through their imports at the PX in Arabian Homes - no change. I talk repeatedly to the USGS mission chief: "Jeff, we can't do without you. You are the deputy chief for science, the chief geophysicist, and head of the remote sensing section - it will take three people to replace you."

The mission chief retires in early 1995. The Saudis reject PhD scientist after PhD scientist offered by the USGS, and insist instead that the mission's finance officer - with a BA in accounting - become the next USGS mission chief. The USGS meekly complies - the Saudis have poured over $10 Billion into the US Treasury over the previous 30 years as "overhead" for the mission. George's selection may have a lot to to do with the fact that the Saudis can count on anything they ask for from him. This includes up to six pink Cadillacs (I'm not making this up) per year from him, which then disappear from both the USGS and the host agency car-pool lots. Our French counterparts are even more open about the corruption: they have hired an architect whose sole job is to design the 2nd and 3rd villas for the Assistant Deputy Minister and the Deputy Minister, so they can acquire their 2nd and 3rd co-wives respectively.

This stinks. I begin to worry that just be being a deputy mission chief, I am somehow becoming an accessory to a huge criminal enterprise. And my best friend's health is going down the tubes.

At 10:30am on 7 June 1995, I am sitting in on a nasty bureaucratic fight in the Ministry building in Jeddah. The Saudis, ever paranoid, have decided that the USGS and the BRGM are HOARDING SAUDI DATA. This first cropped up several days earlier. Understanding immediately what is happening, I call in one of the several spies assigned to my geophysics section. How do I know they are spies? They speak excellent English, have no other apparent skill set - and want to talk all the time and ask me questions. I ask Hani to go through my computer with me, and then go through every other computer in the section. I instruct him to extract all the geophysical data he can find onto floppy disks and deliver the stack to the Ministry. My French BRGM counterparts, however, are very western and are being stubbornly rational: "What?!?? Archiving IBM PC 8-bit data onto obsolete DEC-10 computer tapes, with a different OS, will jumble the bit-order and will be forever unusable. This is an exercise in stupidity!" "But Jeff Wynn did it in less than a day! What is YOUR problem?" yell back the angry Saudis.

As I tilt my chair back, bemused at this spectacle, a thought enters my mind - and it does so instantaneously. It is so clear and strong that I nearly fall out of my chair.  It is not in English - it is a crisp, diamond-hard, pure understanding : "The time to depart with your family is October. Don't worry. This is in answer to your prayers and worries over the past 18 months." Click, it ends within a microsecond of starting. This did not come from my mind, and I am astounded, shocked. It makes no sense.

90 minutes later I head home for lunch, and share this astounding experience with my wife. What could this mean? The logical time to leave - even if the USGS lets me - is in August, when the kids can start the Fall semester in school. I have another 3 hours to ponder this when the phone in my office rings. George asks if I could come downstairs to his office in the huge USGS complex.

"Jeff, I have a big problem, and don't know what to do."

Tell me. 

"I got a call at noon today from Khabiri, the Deputy Minister - that means I miss my lunch and it is done deliberately to punish me.. I got to his office and he said 'Tell Jeff Wynn to stop practicing his religion.' "I ask him what he meant? Khabiri gestured to his desk and said 'I have report after report from the Mukhabarrat (the Saudi Secret Police) that Jeff Wynn attends Christian meetings at different houses every Friday. Tell him to stop this.' "

My skin runs cold: this means I've been followed. It also means that the Assistant Deputy Minister, who covets the Deputy Minister's job, is about to use me once again with some trumped-up issue, to force the Deputy Minister down to his office during yet another weekend. The Deputy Minister is a lawyer and smart enough to know what is probably coming next. More seriously, it means that the local police are about to raid our LDS Church meeting. The local police are not told that Latter-Day Saints have authorization from Higher Up to meet with up to 35 people per house at one time. No, this is the land of the Haramain - the Two Holy Mosques - a land where theaters or other social/political gatherings of three and more people are absolutely forbidden. I have a diplomatic passport and speak sufficient Arabic to walk away from this, but the German, British, and Filipino guys will all be thrown in jail for up to several months. Their wives if present will be put in a women's prison, and any children will be put into a Saudi orphanage. It will take months to sort out, because the Saudis will not bother to call or notify anyone. The Filipinos will almost certainly be beaten repeatedly and eventually deported - at a huge economic loss to them and to their families. This is how it always happens, at least - I've searched for and found several of them among the seven jails (that we know about) in Jeddah. We routinely go searching to get them out of jail when they don't show up at Church. Usually they haven't eaten for up to 6 days by then, so I would always bring food with me.

All of this pours through my mind, but I've had more than four hours to think about this. "No problem, George, I will resign immediately and return to the domestic USGS program."

"You can't do that! This place will fall apart! I don't know jack about geology or mineral resources! I DEPEND ON YOU!"

"George, no one is irreplaceable. I will personally help the chief geologist to find the replacements. And George - you know very well that if you don't comply with this instruction, your daughter in college will NOT receive the necessary visa to come and spend the summer with you. She'll be stuck looking for a place to stay in the States."

"Oh God, you're right... you would do this for the mission ( = for me)?"

"Sure, George, I'll have the letter in your hands in 10 minutes."

I return to my office and called my former Branch Chief in the USGS Reston, VA, National Center, and explain this to him.

Klaus' reply is telling: "Wow, Jeff, we'd love to get you back - we are desperately short of people with your skill-sets. But whatever you do, delay your return until 15 October at the earliest."

"What? Why?"

"Because we will be having a RIF - a Reduction in Force - and will lose about 1,000 people from the USGS Geologic Division. You have a guaranteed re-employment clause in your Saudi agreement, but if you came back it would knock someone else off the ladder. The RIF notices will be handed out on August 15, 1995. People will have until October 15 to clear out their offices."

I ponder that.

The next day, George shakily tells me that he explained to Khabiri that I have resigned rather than stop practicing my religion. He reports that Khabiri is enraged: Why?!?? George says that, "Well, Jeff can't go to a Church like you can go to a mosque." As Khabiri stares at him, George then said this:  "Despite the teachings of the Qu'ran, no Christian Church can be built in Saudi Arabia." George reports that Khabiri screamed at him "Don't you presume to tell me what the Qu'ran teaches!" - and threw a copy of the Qu'ran at him! George says could think of nothing better to do than to beat a hasty retreat without saying anything more. He is afraid to return to the Ministry... or to answer his phone.

As the summer proceeds I learn that the full $25,000 fee for Cory's senior year at the boarding school in Laysin, Switzerland, must be paid by mid-August. The mission is more than happy to pay this, so Cory finishes his senior year with friends and has the American School in Laysin on his transcript to get into Virginia Tech. Even though his grades are good, he's an exotic - he adds diversity to the student body and is coveted by admissions officials.

In early October, my Saudi, Palestinian, Sudani, Somali, and Filipino staff put on a lavish farewell party for me. Later I realize that you don't cover an acre in the middle of a giant traffic loop with Persian carpets for ordinary parties. They present me with a gorgeous carpet as a gift, which I later learns is worth $2,600. They are quietly trying to convey a message - to me, but also to the Deputy Minister (who is not among the ~200 invited guests). For years afterward, when one of them comes to the States for training, they go out of their way to visit me.

We departed Saudi Arabia on October 9th, and we both looked around and remarked that the lights in the aircraft got suddenly brighter as we cleared Saudi airspace. We spent a paradisaical week in a Mediterranean sea-front hotel in Gammarth, Tripoli, and visited Carthage. We then spent three days in Lisbon - whose history of ocean navigation and exploration has always fascinated me - then flew on to Paris. Our multi-lingual Cory arrived that same day by Bullet Train from Switzerland to spend much of a fun-filled week with us touring the Musee d'Orsay, Montmartre, the Louvre, and the Hotel des Invalides (another special place for me).

On October 22 Cory returned to Leysin, and we flew on to Dulles Airport, where I kissed the ground, so happy to be an American. There we were met by our 22-yr-old Jared, who had just completed his LDS mission in the Czech and Slovak Republics (and now speaks 6 languages), and our 14-yr-old Don, who had flown out of Jeddah two weeks earlier to camp in our house with his older brother. It was camping, too: no furniture, no utensils, no car - just our friends the Willises providing support.  The next day I showed up at work in Reston,VA, and was given the key to a large but utterly filthy office; the previous owner had had little incentive to clean anything. It took me three days to clean it sufficiently to move my stuff in, during which I struck up a friendship with an LDS painting contractor working there. By an interesting (perhaps foreboding) coincidence, the building walls - previously color-coded to help people navigate in a huge building made up of 8 floors of 12-sided stars - was being repainted battleship gray. Government contract: the lowest bidder wins.

I have never forgotten that Bright and Shining - and instantaneous, non-English - message of 7 June 1995.


06 October 2011


For Bilbo Baggins, an Adventure made life worth living. For the rest of his long life he itched for another.

For many human beings, adventure is often just being able to claim you were that first at something: the first on a new pitch at Smith Rocks, Oregon, the first to summit K2 in Nepal, the first to free-climb Half Dome in Yosemite...

There are several books at home that I cherish, including

  • "Undaunted Courage" - the Lewis and Clark expedition,
  • "Sailing Alone Around the World" - Joshua Slocum's first one-man circumnavigation of the Earth,
  • "Tigrero" - Alexander Siemel's hunt for man-eating Jaguars in Brazil's Matto Grosso,
  • "Endurance" - Earnest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition, and Worsely's incredible open-boat navigation across 800 miles of the terrible Southern Ocean to South Georgia Island.
There are others, but these are the ones I re-read every couple of years.

I have pondered a definition of "Adventure."  In my opinion it means going off to someplace where few if any have gone before.  It does NOT mean a day-trip, or going somewhere that a cell-phone can call for help from. Importantly, it means going someplace where you are on your own.  If something goes bad, it's up to you and your expedition members to work out your own survival. Fail, and there is no record of the fact that you perished - or like the Franklin Expedition seeking the Northwest Passage, archeologists reconstruct your grim demise a century later. 

According to this definition, I and many of our family members have had some adventures:
  1. My first, 10-day sojourn in the deep Amazonas forest of eastern Venezuela. It was full of amazing wonders, including falling 50-meter (160-foot) flaming trees and the deadly Cuaima Pina, or Bushmaster snake - but I nearly died of Shigella - from a cook's dirty hands.
  2. Jared, Val, and I hiked to - and summited - Mount Roraima ("The Mother of Waters") on the Venezuelan, Guyana, and Brazilian triple-frontier. The trip covered over 50 kilometers on foot, and the last pitch required climbing a crack up a 700-meter (2,000-foot) cliff to an eerie Moonscape at 3,000 meters (9,600 feet) elevation.  We were promptly engulfed in a sleet-storm. 
  3. Louise and Lisa made that same trip the following year - Lisa wore flip-flops most of the way.
  4. Louise and Val hiked to the great Auyantepuy - the greatest cliff-sided mountain on Earth - and climbed it - and both nearly drowned in Devil's Canyon on the way.
  5. My first trip into the roadless Amazonas Territory of southern Venezuela. I was nearly consumed by insects on this trip, but the real sticker was an encounter with a pair of murderous bandits... who counted us at least three times before they decided there were too many of us (about 20) to cleanly kill. Our Venezuelan counterparts also reminded the bandits that we were American diplomats - and there would certainly be follow-up if we didn't return. 
  6. The first Summer Crossing of the Empty Quarter (there are only a handful of true crossings on record). This required driving 1,700 kilometers (over 1,000 miles) over continuous sand dunes in the hottest desert on earth - even Bedouin only venture into the fringes, and only in winter. Neither fixed-wing nor rotary aircraft can venture into this desolate place; we had only intermittent HF radio contact with the outside world. We camped one night in northern Yemen during its 1994 Civil War - because the Saudi border map placed one guard-post fully 72 kilometers (45 miles) from where it actually was. I completed a magnetic survey over an asteroid-impact site called Wabar when the temperature reached 61 degrees C (142 degrees F) - and according to my companions, was unconscious for 20-30 minutes from heat-stroke afterwards. The next day we visited a "weather station" that was so radioactive that my Geiger Counter went off-scale at its highest setting when my back was against the outside wall.
  7. The first overnight camping expedition inside Mount St Helens volcano, just as the 2004 - 2006 eruption was ending. You have no idea how immense this volcanic edifice is until you find yourself IN it. I did this to help a crew of desperate geophysicists, and unlike them I chose to walk out, and not take the return helicopter. This meant hiking in incredibly-dissected, unconsolidated boulder fields for nearly 20 kilometers with a 30-kg backpack. I lost a toenail and blew out a knee doing it, and no, there was no cell-phone reception. 

I have cherished photos of these trips, and the book Louise and I wrote has 45 photos in it, many from Mount Roraima. The really scary thing about these experiences, however... is that I would go back and do them again in a heartbeat.

I guess it's in my blood.  It's why I accepted the challenge to be the USGS chief scientist for volcano hazards. It's clearly in the family's blood, also. It must be genetic - I'm certain I got it from my wife and kids.

02 October 2011

Inventions and Patents

I realize that it's been awhile since my last entry. During that time I have been unusually busy at work. What follows are two short blogs with a long third one - an explanation of how inventions happen and how patents really work - in between.

I carried out - with the help of five other people, 300 kg of equipment, and a large helicopter - a series of Controlled-Source Audio-Magnetotelluric (CSAMT for obvious reasons) soundings inside and around Mount St Helens. These are geo-electrical soundings that allow me to "see" the conductivity structure beneath the array of equipment down to about 900 meters depth.

We were looking for water. Why? If a volcanic edifice is saturated with water, there is internal pore-pressure pushing outwards, making the volcanic edifice more likely to fall apart with a moderate provocation (a small eruption or earthquake). In April and May 1980, the north face of Mount St Helens volcano bulged northward about 1 meter each day for over a month. But instead of just part of the front (north) face falling off, the largest landslide in recorded human history on 18 May 1980 reached all the way back into the core of the volcano and well beyond, taking out a huge amount of the south side of the volcano with it. To know if Mount Rainier or Mount Hood are truly dangerous - there are huge populations exposed to each - we need to know where the water in them resides.  This is one of the tasks I proposed several years ago to the Volcano Hazards Program as I rotated out of the chief scientist position, and my proposal was accepted. There wasn't much money allocated (we are the USGS, not the Department of Defense, after all), but my salary was funded half-time to work on this problem.


I also prepared for, then traveled to Waikaloa on the Big Island of Hawai'i, to give a talk on my most recent patent application to the Marine Technology Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) annual meeting. They sure picked a nice venue! I was able to show that a subtle physical property discovered in 1912 (and first published by Conrad Schlumberger in 1920) called Induced Polarization ("IP") could be used to:

  • detect disseminated sulfides beneath the Earth's surface - such as huge porphyry copper deposits around the world and Black Smoker sulfide deposits on the seafloor,
  • detect and characterize other minerals, including certain oxides of titanium and Rare Earth Elements,
  • map heavy placer minerals, including these and intimate associations of gold, diamonds, and platinum-group elements beneath the seafloor,
  • map and characterize dangerous and toxic urban human effluent ("anthropogenic waste") in sensitive bays, estuaries, and sounds,
  • map and characterize disseminated oil plumes in the deep ocean.
IP detects minerals because an inducing voltage causes ions from a surrounding electrolyte (on land this is the groundwater) to adsorb onto the mineral surface. Release that inducing voltage, and the ions will re-equilibrate, that is, "bleed off" the mineral surface, giving rise to a small but measurable signal. Understanding this is relatively easy; making it actually work requires a lot of sophisticated electrical engineering.

The first three bullet items above relate to a pair of patents awarded in 2001 to the Department of Interior. These patents are owned by the Secretary of Interior, but are referred to as "the Wynn patents," after the initiating scientist/inventor. The final item on the list above was the subject of my thoughts when I first heard of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. By August 2010, the Macondo Well blowout had poured over 200,000,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf. "How can I help my country at this time of need," I asked myself? My thinking went along these lines: 
  • the IP effect behaves like a capacitance; 
  • a classic capacitor consists of two conductive metal plates separated by a dielectric material, usually in the form of oil; 
  • oil droplets immersed in highly-conductive seawater were topologically equivalent 
  • --> therefore IP should be able to detect that oil.

What followed was yet another education for me: my "technicalese" explanation and diagrams were sent from the USGS Technology Enterprise Office in Reston, VA, to a patent attorney who works for the US Army Redstone Missile Defense office in Birmingham, Alabama. Beginning seven months later, she began to correspond with me about it, using a ".mil" email address. Joan (the attorney) then converted my 21st Century language into an odd, late-18th-Century English ("...a perfect embodiment of which is...") to be acceptable to the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)

Joan also revised my diagrams to remove all text, and added tiny lines attached to numbers for each thing I had explained in the application - and quite a few more that I thought were obvious (my drawing of a boat sure looks like a boat). A good patent attorney usually has, in addition to a law degree, the equivalent of an additional engineering degree.

Joan also patiently explained to me how claims work. Claims are the bulleted elements at the end of a patent description that are usually longer than the patent description itself. This invention claims to do this and that... but if the claim is too general, then competitors can rightly claim that it's simply a tactic to stifle development in a broad range of technology. Apple, for instance, patented "touch screen technology", but ultimately this was thrown out by the courts as being too broad, stifling legitimate creative innovation. If the claims are too specific, on the other hand, then a competitor can make a slight tweak to the invention - a different electrode or cable-type for instance - and then claim that it's something different. This will then by-pass the patent as if it didn't exist. Obtaining a patent in the U.S. does NOT guarantee protection against intellectual thieves in China or India or Japan.

That's why patent attorneys, at lease, exist.

As the patent was submitted to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), Joan warned me: this application now has a provisional number, but it will likely not even be looked at by a patent examiner for at least two years. Such is the huge and growing backlog in the USPTO as new patent applications double and triple each year. It is "just another government agency" that sees no increase in funding year to year, and like others is being asked to do more with less.  

In the meantime, I had initiated a CRADA - a Cooperative Research And Development Agreement - with an ocean engineering firm in Seattle and a geophysical instrumentation firm in Tucson. The agreement is carefully vetted by ethics officers and government lawyers to ensure that everything is done above-board and correctly. The agreement said I would provide technical advice, and my CRADA partners would commercialize the technology I invented. 

Interesting note: they also pay license fees into the US Treasury! They also conduct laboratory measurements under my direction (the USGS can no longer afford to do much laboratory work), and build cables to tow behind ships to prove the technology. Together these two companies carried out the largest IP survey in human history off the coast of South Africa. This survey discovered a huge, previously unknown titanium-sand resource in two immense pockets beneath the seafloor. Everyone was happy about that success.

The CRADA partners also agreed to fund my travel to Waikaloa to represent them and our joint work - so this travel to a paradise world was not done at Taxpayers' expense. By giving the presentation, I was representing the USGS, Williams & Associates, and Zonge International to the rest of the marine technology world. Over 800 people heard me speak about the technology, including my boss' boss' boss' boss: the USGS Director, Dr. Marcia McNutt.  She later sent me an email thanking me for representing the USGS with a major technology breakthrough - she added that "it warmed my heart." 


It seems to be the order of things that the day after I completed the final important element of a series of complicated tasks, I allowed myself to stop and deal with a worsening plumbing problem in our house. At 7:30pm Tuesday, while tired and helping a friend and professional plumber solve a strange blockage in the hot water line of the shower, I stepped out of the bathtub, and ran my bare foot into a length of perfectly-wedged copper tubing leaning against the tub. Because of the way tubing is cut, beveled outside-in, it forms a perfect circular knife. I filetted a chuck the size of my thumb off the sole of my foot in such a way as to expose the most vascular structure possible. Translation: it bled all over me, the carpet, and the tub, and even my utterly calm and efficient wife ("GET your head down on the floor... RAISE your foot HIGH over the edge of the bathrub... HOLD this surgical wrap for me while I open this sterile gauze...") couldn't stop the bleeding. A Kaiser emergency room physician more or less could, but it required four painful injections (not counting the tetanus shot) and 10 stitches. 

At least now there was nothing critically necessary to do, so I took my first sick-leave in 25 years and sat around the house updating websites for two days. I learned a lot this past month... including how capable and loving my wife is.