Thursday, October 29, 2009

Snow has come...

again. And again the world is changed, united in monochrome beauty. It reminds me of my pastor in Minneapolis and the verse from Isaiah 1:18:
"Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD.  "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow."
The meaning is plain and as I gaze at the snow I ought to be reminded that my sins shall be forgotten. However, I actually think of my pastor who despised this simile. To him snow has to be shoveled and moved and disposed of so that you can go about your business. Snow is cold and annoying and a big pain in the butt.

My pastor lives in Minnesota.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Jeremiah 35:19

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Jonadab son of Rechab shall not lack a descendant to stand before me for all time.
I wonder if any of Jonadab's descendants are aware of this story and their heritage? Do they wonder why they keep having kids? (What!?! Again?) Do they feel part of a bigger story? Do they think about God? Does God ever think, "Boy, what a mistake, those Jonadab people are just a pain in the butt. Only if their line would dwindle...sheesh..."

The Bible's strange.


"Somewhere is better than anywhere." Flannery O'Conner

Monday, October 26, 2009

Map of the Day

As some may know, I'm a bit of map man. Do I read my atlas with my morning cereal? Yes. Will I flip open a road atlas for some easy causal reading? You betcha! With that said, I'm introducing your map of the day.

From some European researches, via Fast Company, comes this nifty map that details how far you are from a city of at least 50,000 people. Needless to say, the farther a person is from "civilization" the darker an area--the closer, the brighter. As reported by the New Scientist:
Plotted onto a map, the results throw up surprises. First, less than 10% of the world's land is more than 48 hours of ground-based travel from the nearest city. What's more, many areas considered remote and inaccessible are not as far from civilization as you might think. In the Amazon, for example, extensive river networks and an increasing number of roads mean that only 20% of the land is more than two days from a city--around the same proportion as Canada's Quebec province.
Mind melting.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I sit on a cliff face. It is late October and though brown leaves remain, snow has already come and gone. Two hundred feet below the creek flow small and thin, yet still noisy. In a surprise I find cacti in 35 degree weather, tucked between the cliff rocks. Though misplaced in my, they are at home, content to absorb a weak sun and resist a breezy wind. Like sheep in a storm, the cacti huddle together. My lack of knowledge once again brings a smile to my face. For what I do not know, I cannot expect, and thus will not presume. And when what I see confounds, I smile, recognizing my incompleteness.

Copyright: Heidi Birkley

Thursday, October 22, 2009

We landed on the moon 40 years ago...

...and soon we are going to retire a 30 year old shuttle with nothing to replace it. NASA and the American space program is living on the fumes of old glory. Alas, the grand old Augustine commission* has just issued a report that rings the death bell for the Constellation Program, the shuttle replacement. Folks, the U.S. Government's space glory days are over. We do lots of great robot work, but have dropped the ball with human spaceflight. Sending people to space is expensive and right now America doesn't want to fott the bill.

*Not the actual name. Since this is a government bureaucracy its actually called, "The Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee."

Note: This is a drawing. Never be seduced by NASA's pretty drawings. Just cause it's a realistic picture doesn't mean it actually exists.
Note, Note: This also applies to Department of Defense procurement.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Incurably Eternal

“By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat unit you return to the ground from which you were made. For you made from dust, and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:19

In a manner of speaking I work in the construction business and for a variety of reasons I’ve been ruminating upon this verse. As we construct houses, putting forth extraordinary efforts, I’m reminded that these houses will decay, rot, and fall down. The homeowners will move on, this city will grow and fail, and I will die. Even in the next twenty years, effort will be necessary to keep a house in good working order, for the laws of thermodynamics are always on the move. The work of our hands turns to dust. And with enough perspective it seems that all is for naught. We are truly part of nature, becoming the dust of the earth.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Religion and Politics: Part II

Religion and politics, as we know, don’t mix in polite company. A discussion will quickly become heated as we hear what we want to hear, rather than actually engaging the debate. One of the *many* problems is a simple definition of terms. What are we actually talking about when we say religion and politics? Religion, as expressed as Christianity, seems rather straightforward—the teachings of the Bible through Jesus as experienced by the church and ultimately individual believers—though the expression explodes into a cacophony of voices. Politics may be cause more problems with a clear discussion, because we often confuse politics with policy.

Let me sum up. Like any factor—race, gender, geographic location, etc—my Christian faith may influence my politics. But when I’m talking politics, am I talking my political orientation (liberal/conservative, Republican/Democrat) or am I talking about specific policy (abortion, tax policy, farm subsidies)? The role that my, or anybody’s faith, may play, depends upon what we are talking about—political orientation or policy.

That then leads to two questions: 
     1. Is there a Christian political orientation?
     2. For a specific policy, is there a Christian position?

Within the American liberal democracy framework I would argue no (with caveats) to the first question and maybe to the second question.

The obvious answer to a Christian political orientation is that there ain’t one. A good, faithful Christian may be a liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, libertarian or Green. And in each of those cases a faithful Christian has Christian reasons for that orientation. Nevertheless, our religion (if it means anything) ought to impact how we see and experience the world. In this our religion is like other factors—geography (north/south, urban/rural), sex, occupation, martial status, income—that affects political orientation. This does not degrade the importance of religion; rather it recognizes that great truth that all politics is local. To me religion in this context provides a framework for understanding both the goal of politics and its importance.

In a Christian sense our faith in Jesus ought to direct our political orientation to humility, grace, mercy, justice, and love.* We ought to understand that our politics begins with the simple statement to love our neighbor as ourselves, and love God with all body, mind, and soul. My religion guides me in how to approach politics (which, if anything, is the ordering of human relationships), but does not prescribe how I ought to pursue justice in a political context.

Additionally, my Christian faith ought to put politics in context. Simply put, politics is not salvation. And though politicians trade in hope, it is not the hope. And even for those who care little for religion you don’t change society through politicians and new laws, but through influencing/affecting/moving the American people. Politics is important and fun to follow, but it is not a leading indicator…

(We’ll tackle religion and policy in a later post.)

*I am emphatically not implying that only Christians or other religious believers approach their politics in this manner.

Religion and Politics: Part I

On a both personal and general level I’ve been thinking about Religion (specifically Christianity) and Politics over the last few weeks. What role should religion play in politics? How does Christianity influence my public policy views? What’s best for Christianity (or any other religion) vis a vis politics?

This is a touchy subject with a roomful of caveats. For one it is hard to pin the nebulous word “influence.” What does influence actually mean? For second it really matters what type of political system we are addressing. For example, religion’s proper role in a liberal democracy like America will and should look a lot different than religion’s role under an apartheid regime like South Africa or an oligarchy dictatorship like Communist Eastern Europe. Christianity’s role in a political system of oppression is much clearer—a voice calling out in the wilderness. The trouble comes in a liberal democracy where the issues aren’t nearly straightforward as justice and life and death (I know, many people see issues in America as life and death). Other posts to follow will address religion in a liberal democracy, specifically Christianity’s role in the American political process. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Oh, what a waste...

My wife was flipping through the tv channels and settled upon ABC Family for moment. On the tube was an episode of Full House. Within a minute I remembered the ending of this episode. Yet, ask me to give a few lines of poetry and my mind is blank. Alas.

Rapid City and Weather

When I told folks in DC that I was moving to Rapid City, they told me how cold it was going to be. I'd then explain to them, that no, Rapid City is in a little Banana Belt and that the weather varies considerably. So it may be cold for a few days, but then the sun would shine and the snow would melt. The folks didn't believe me. To them, I say, Hah!

Highs over the last three weeks:
Saturday, September 26: 83 degrees Fahrenheit
Saturday, October 3: 50 degrees
Saturday, October 10: 20 degrees (and snow)
Saturday, October 17: 71 degrees


Thursday, October 15, 2009


The World Cup qualifying just finished up (mostly) and the USA won the North American/Caribbean region. Over at Pandas whb has an excellent round up.  The only thing I have to add is that Portugal could make a run. The country chokes in big tourneys, but they got a talented group of players and it will be interesting to see what run, if any, they make.

Also, for those football starved fans, check out:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

GAO Report of the Week

As absolutely everybody who is anybody knows, GAO or Government Accountability Office--the investigative and auditing arm of Congress--publishes reports nearly every day of the year. In true bureaucratic fashion the reports are dry, sanitized, and full lots of nifty information (as long as you are into that sort of thing). So, I'm beginning an on again, off again tradition of highlighting an interesting GAO report.

Today's Report: Biofuels: Potential Effects and Challenges of Required Increases in Production and Use

In 186 pages the report addresses the challenges meeting the Renewable Fuel Standard set by Congress, especially when it comes to non-corn ethanol. As some may know, a little bugaboo of mine is the inanity of ethanol subsidies. As noted in the report (according to experts) the ethanol subsidies raise crop prices (and thus food prices on nearly everything, since nearly everything has corn, but that is for a different post) while doing little to actually offset the power of foreign oil countries. Furthermore, the environmental problems caused by ethanol through changing land use and (little mentioned) the massive amounts of water needed to turn corn/cellulose to ethanol is rarely discussed. Alas, in the name of the farmer, job creation, and all that is good and right in the world politicians have decided that subsidizing ethanol is worth the billions of taxpayer's dollars.

Take it away GAO:
The RFS allows the use of up to 15 billion gallons per year of conventional biofuel by 2015 and requires at least 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels—with at least 16 billion gallons of this amount coming from cellulosic feedstocks—in 2022. Yet, at present, the distribution infrastructure and vehicle types necessary to transport and use increased ethanol production do not exist. In addition, the United States will reach the blend wall limit as early as 2011 solely with existing ethanol production from corn starch, which could greatly restrict the growth of the cellulosic biofuels industry. Thermochemical processing technologies such as pyrolysis, have the potential to produce advanced biofuels that can be used in the nation’s existing fuel distribution and vehicle infrastructure and therefore avoid future blend wall issues. However, DOE and USDA have not focused substantial R&D resources on developing these technologies. Furthermore, EISA and the 2008 Farm Bill define renewable biomass differently regarding feedstocks and land eligibility, creating difficulties for agencies to formulate rules, implement program activities, and effectively execute the interagency National Biofuels Action Plan. This may also create uncertainty for biofuels producers and could potentially reduce the nation’s ability to increase advanced biofuels feedstock production and realize their benefits.

Bringing it Baby!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Space: The Final Frontier

In the 21st Century it is easy to dismiss space travel as a 20th Century phenomenon. We get blase about the launching of the space shuttle or just another space probe. In the space community this attitude causes lots of hand-wringing. Like a 3 year old kid swimming, they want lots of attention, "Look at ME. I'm launching a rocket!" Personally, I don't think it is much of a problem. Folks have a blase attitude because we are able to launch rockets all the time. Sure its cool and it costs lots of money, but it is routine. And it is that "routine" nature of space flights that is so amazing to me.

HT:; larger version

Monday, October 12, 2009

The United States Navy

Happy Birthday!

The United States Navy is one of the great American institutions. It has done more for world commerce and globalization than even Thomas Friedman. It won us the Pacific Theatre in WWII and ensured that Confederacy didn't get foreign support from the Brits or French. When the Tsunami of 2004 hit Indonesia the USN was there. America's dominance is directly a result of the Navy's ability to project power anywhere in the world.


I need to remember to smell, because I live in a place with subtle changes of smell. In the Black Hills it is easy to look and point and see. I saw a deer out my window or past my car. There, there, a big horn sheep on the side of the road. Look! a bird whirling through the canyon. Ah…see the sun on the cliff face. It is great to see in the hills, but we sometimes forget to smell. Often we only smell in that transition between the car—with its air-conditioned, dried out smell, mixing with the scent of chemicals leeching from the seats and a pair of shoes left in the back seat—and the outdoors. And then it hits us—a deep breath—and then we go inside, to that other place of manufactured smell. But I need to stop and smell, because the smells change as the sun rises and the dew disappears. The smells move with the seasons, with new growth smelling quite different than a coming Fall day. The bottom of the canyon, with its deciduous trees smells warm and fresh when compared to the ponderosa pine trees clinging to a cliff face. And then that transition smell between the protective hills and the opening plains that changes with the shifts in the wind. Take a deep breath and smell that dried out grass or the cow a mile upwind. Smell the dirt. I have many senses. I need to make sure I use them.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Dead or Reason #97 I Became an English Lit Major

From James Joyce: "The Dead"
         An appropriate word for this snowy day in the Black Hills.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

My Brother

My brother had his birthday yesterday. My brother was cool. Not cool in a he-was-popular-which-means-he-was-cool. Rather, he was cool, as-in-he-was-the-first-person-in-his-high-school-to-wear-tevas-even-though-idiots-called-them-Jesus-shoes. He wore Vuarnet sunglasses. In short, he was his own man—a rare thing in high school. I looked up to my brother, much more than he probably realizes. I tried to make sure my hair wave matched his and thought, if my big brother thinks it's okay, than it probably is okay. So on this day I want to wish him a happy, belated birthday.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Church and Language

In the church we use metaphors and similes and analogies to approach the indescribable. In that practice we are following a long tradition that began in the Pentateuch, used by Jesus, and maintained by the church. A problem with this approach is that the church gets stuck using language that has little meaning. So people are then in a position where they need to give context to the metaphor before the metaphor makes sense: “you need to remember this was a herder culture…to have a king meant…” And in doing that the metaphor loses its power. Like a joke that needs to be explained, explaining a metaphor takes it out of its moment of Ah-hah! We understand, but its ability to reveal truth is lessened.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fact of the Day

"In 1816, it cost as much to move goods 32 miles over land as to ship across the Atlantic." (From economix and various books I've read.)

One really can't imagine a world where this is true because we take high speed transportation as a fact of life. In that 1816 world, 106 Atlantic miles equals 1 land mile.


My mother has an English painter friend whose advice in walking the streets of the great cities is, "Look up." You look up to see the architectural details of the buildings you glide by. It's a good idea, because in London or Paris the McDonald's you ignore may be just the first floor of an 19th Century mansion.

The same can be said for the Black Hills. While walking through the woods or up the mountain it is easy to stay focused just on the next step. You may pause and see the trees and look at nature. But it behooves you to look up. For one of the beauties of the Black Hills are the clouds. The clouds in the Black Hills create stunning pictures. It may be the interplay between the hills and the mountains, but everyday the clouds put on a gorgeous display.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nature and Man

I went to the creek and on it rushed, oblivious to my existence. The water flowed with determination: I must move, I must fall over this rock, I must wait in this pool until I can go go go. The rock across this creek leaned over, full of strata and thus memory. It has felt the creek for thousands of years as the water has come and gone and worn down the stone, imperceptibly to human eye (though not to human imagination). Thirty feet away birds are awaking with the dawn and squawk: good morning, or stay away from my morning breakfast, or maybe just a good, Hey You! Three female mallard birds land in creek. Their brown and gray forms blend into the rock as they scoot through the water. I sit in this small bend of a small creek apart and a part of nature.

I am apart because I am man, and I can create these distinctions called nature and name the birds and the rock and put myself in a proper place in relation to the to the tadpoles swimming and the pine trees and the deer drinking. My naming and categorizing abstracts the action before me. The movement of the water is part of gravity and the “water cycle.” The rock face, in its stubbornness, may be read by educated eyes to deduce the story of erosion and movement. I sit on a picnic table, created by others (but by humans!) and it doesn’t belong to this scene. Nor should the grass it rests upon be this short, so unnaturally mowed.

Yet, of course, I am a part of nature because I am man. I am a species in genus. I am in relation to these birds that sing and the water that flows, always finding a way down. Nature includes man, and it includes me. Sure, I can alter the landscape and block a creek and create a small lake. But so could an industrious beaver. My decisions, though more altering than other species, may affect nature, but they do not change the fact that I have a relationship to the earth and its inhabitants. This interaction of all species creates change in nature, for the very definition of nature is change in the context of relationship between the land and fire and water and air. The pine bark beetle destroys millions of trees as it fulfills its purpose, and that is nature. It is only in our arrogance to we think that we control nature. That what we alter we can bring back to some perfect state.

It is a quest for Eden, for the perfect place where all beings where in harmony and man was not present. But remember Tennyson, harmony exists only in “nature, red in tooth and claw.”

Monday, October 5, 2009

Vikings Win!

Painfully. You can never turn off the tv, cause you never know when the vikings are going to let the game go.

BTW: For all those historical persnickety types, yes, I know, the Vikings helmets didn't have horns. And no, they weren't just stealing gold. And yes, they did settle many of the areas they so called sacked (Northern France, Iceland, parts of Ireland, England, and Russia, and of course, that island in the Med, Sicily).

The Cabin

I woke up early this morning to post a nice little something on this nice little blog. However, the sleet from the night before turned into snow and the power was off. And with the power gone, so is the internet (along with the coffee). I live in a cabin. In the woods. It ain't DC anymore.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Private Life

Two weeks ago my wife came home from the library with a bbc show: The Private Life of a Masterpiece. The show dissects the author, the piece, the reaction, and how the work became a masterpiece. It's a fascinating look at art. Of particular interest is how these paintings became famous because most of the paintings were painted for a private audience. It makes me wonder what masterpieces we claim today will fade into the background. Anyway, go netflix it.
The Night Watch by Rembrandt 

Friday, October 2, 2009

It's complicated

That's my politics. That's what my years at grad school and working for the federal government taught me. cop out? Probably.

A Comic Story: Cul de Sac

A new comic has weaseled its way into my heart. As some may know, I've been a newspaper comic guy ever since I was a wee little tike. My pops and I maintained a beneficial symbiotic relationship when it came to the paper. In the morning I reached for the comics, while he started his paper reading with either the sports section or the front page.*

*If he happened to choose the front page it was always a race to the sports page, which, unfortunately, at times distracted from the pleasure of reading the comics page.

And over those many years of newspaper reading (I think it started in 2nd grade) one comic was always my favorite. And ever since Calvin and Hobbes sledded into the sunset, the comics haven't held the same place. I still read the comics, I still liked the comics, but nothing quite worked for me like Calvin and Hobbes.

Fortunately, during my time in DC I came across a local comic called Cul de Sac.

And [click on image for full comic]
It's top-notch. Read it.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


October seems to me to be a self-satisfied month. October knows what season it belongs to. It stands with dignity, not relying on any foofy holidays to give it meaning. No last gasps occur in October, or even worst, new beginnings. So, welcome October. May we enjoy your presence.