Stuff Ya Gotta Know

Burning fossil fuels harms others.

"Burning fossil fuels warms the planet, which harms others. It’s that simple. Although the processes involved are distributed globally, accrue over decades, and are statistical in nature— and therefore difficult for our brains to connect directly back to our individual actions— the harm is nonetheless real.

"Burning fossil fuels should be unacceptable socially, the way physical assault is unacceptable. The harm it does is less immediate, but just as real. We need to start speaking this truth— burning fossil fuels harms others— so that society can begin realizing it." — Peter Kalmus [emphasis added]

Now that I'm approaching "old" I realize there are some things that I think are important for my children and grandchildren to think about, that we haven't yet discussed. Some of them will show up here, at various times and in various states of (dis)order.

Do Your Job!

Your job, from the moment you were born (and maybe even before), is to figure out how the world works. Why? Because your life depends upon it. Think about the first few weeks of your life — okay, you won't remember the details but most of us have been around babies enough to know the basics of how their world works: when I'm uncomfortable for some reason I cry and someone will come and do stuff to make me feel better. It's a pretty limited existence but you've got to start somewhere.

As the days and weeks pass we learn more and more about the world around us, and we learn that we can act in certain ways to influence the environment we live in. Our parents learn too: when she cries like that it means she's hungry, that cry means she's hurt or frightened, and that kind of crying says she's uncomfortable (wet clothing, too hot, or too cold).

This process continues for the rest of your life: you are constantly figuring out how the world works so you can, by your own actions, get what you need and hopefully some of what you want. As children grow and play and develop this process is constantly happening, they are learning how the world works, what its rules are, what is my place within it, and how I can get the things I need and want. The amazing thing is that it all happens automatically, even if we had no schools, even in the case of children who are abandoned while they are young, we still all do this. We must do this in order to survive: we must learn how things work in the environment which surrounds us.

We also learn that things change. The sun rises and sets each day, it is warmer and drier in the summer than during winter (at least in all the places I've ever lived), and living things tend to look and work differently when they are young than when they are old — so many things in the world around us change in a variety of ways and for a wide range of reasons. But it is not only the world around us that changes, we ourselves are constantly changing — that's what living things do.

But more importantly, our perception and understanding of our environment changes as well. Who has not thought that they saw some certain thing and then discovered when they stood somewhere else and looked it was obviously something different? Or we've seen something in a dark room that was not at all what we saw when the room is well-lit. It is not just additional information that causes us to modify our understanding of how the world works, sometimes we realize that although we've got our facts right we may have been drawing the wrong conclusion (see "Lincoln's funniest jokes (4)" if you're not familiar with this problem).

As we make our way through life we are constantly building and adjusting our model or collection of stories or scripts that explains (for our own internal purposes) how the world works. Much of this happens without any effort or thought or even awareness on our part; it is likely that a good deal of this is done during our nightly dreams. We've taken in a collection of experiences throughout the day and spend our night sifting and sorting the new among the old.

I imagine a giant jigsaw puzzle and each day we are given a few more puzzle pieces. Some of these pieces are identical to pieces we already have plenty of and we discard them. Some pieces may seem new or different or important or potentially useful so we keep them, even if we aren't sure yet whether or how they will fit. The often bizarre events we encounter in our dreams are to be expected as we take up each new piece and try it in various places to see where it best fits.

As we fit new pieces in sometimes they fit best in a sparsely populated area of the puzzle, other times they might provide new detail in an area that's nearly complete that causes us to see something we hadn't even suspected before. We may even realize that this new piece is actually a better fit than what we had put there before. In this way we are constantly integrating what's-happening-now into our (hopefully) ever-improving story or model of how the world works.

Actually, a jigsaw puzzle is both too limiting and too refined — I think of our personal how-the-world-works models as being more multidemensional, having length and width and height, unbounded by the confines of tidy edges, and consisting of movable parts that themselves may change in shape, size, or consistency. They are probably not highly refined engineering models, rather they are more likely to be messy, and sort of cobbled together — perhaps like the machine seen in this video. (10:05)

Everything is Incredible, Film About a Disabled Honduran Man Who Has Been Building A Homemade Helicopter from Tyler Bastian on Vimeo at

This isn't to say that our jigsaw puzzle or working model is worthless or that it won't work: our efforts to understand and make sense of the world around us do work for us: for the unique person that you are, custom tailored for your unique personality and built from the parts that your unique life experiences have provided. Could it work better? Absolutely yes! Is it wrong? Perhaps in some ways it doesn't work as well for us as we'd like, but that doesn't mean that it's wrong in any sense.

I don't imagine that all of this happens only in our largely uncontrollable dream states. We can and do, to some extent, examine and influence how that model works, how well our story works to help us get what we need and want. We can seek more information, we can re-evaluate our assumptions, we can abandon habits that aren't helpful and build new ones. We see what others do and think and say that seems to work well for them (or the opposite, we see what causes problems for others) and use that to restructure our own story about how the world works.

We can gain great comfort and efficiency by developing a set of rules that we follow — often without even being aware of them — based upon our understanding of how the world works. These include what we may informally refer to as habits or rituals, and psychologists may discuss them using terms such as behavioral scripts or automaticity.

One can spend a great deal of time and effort studying behavioral scripts, schema, automaticity, volition and a whole bunch of other psychological research — and you might even want to do that. I am not an expert (nor even a competent student) in any of these areas. I am simply sharing a portion of my personal understanding of how the world works, in the hope that it may help others further develop their own.

However, there are dangers involved. If your understanding of how the world works doesn't match somewhat closely the realities of the physical environment you may be headed for problems. A couple of examples may help here: if you've figured out how birds fly and for months you've been eating only what you've seen birds eat, and you make yourself a suit of clothes that consists of thousands of feathers, you're still likely to suffer serious injuries if you jump with arms outstretched from a very high place; on the other hand, people were quite successful for thousands of years at growing various crops in the right seasons although they didn't understand that the earth is round, rotates daily on its axis and travels round the sun (rather than the sun moving through our sky). Our personal model of how the world works may make perfect sense to us, but it won't be very useful to us if it is wildly inconsistent with our external environment. It doesn't have to be a perfect understanding but the better it accounts for external constraints the more useful your story will be for you.

Another danger we face in building our story of how the world works is overgeneralizing. Recognize that even if 95% of Americans love "baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie" that does not mean that all Americans love them. What is generally true of a group is not necessarily true of every individual member of the group. The habits we develop and the rules we use to simplify our routine interactions with the world around us must be flexible and must recognize that what works most of the time may not work all the time; that this situation may be different in some small but important way from the hundreds of other times we've done this.

The rules we develop and the habits we build as tools to simplify our lives can become a trap for us. Relying on these shortcuts in situations where they are maladaptive (not the best choice for the current task) can lead to inefficiencies or mild frustrations in many cases. The more extreme forms of this problem may be characterized as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In recognizing these dangers — that your model doesn't match the realities of your environment very well, that you've overgeneralized in significant areas, or that you're relying on them too much or in situations where they're ill-suited — we are not saying that we should avoid using habits and rules to simplify our lives. They are very useful to us, probably even essential. If we are aware, first that we are and have been for our whole lives building this story about how the world works, and second that we have also built these habits, rituals, and rules to help us, we can modify all of those to improve our chances of obtaining what we need and want.

Now, in reading back through all of this, I am reminded of a song that I learned from a record album I had about 50 years ago. Regretfully I don't remember the whole song, and I can't find any trace of it using online search tools. It begins "Some people live in the darkest night, so black they can't see. They live in world they made up themselves, the world according to me." It certainly seems obvious that we each, to some extent, do live in a world we made up ourself. Yet it is equally obvious that we share this world with others, and that our shared environment and experiences, and our perceptions of them and interpretations of them will — at the same time — have very much in common with our neighbors and still be unique to each individual.

Knowing all of this, then — that we are all, each one of us, constantly building and modifying and using our own personalized model of how the world works — should not only help us understand ourselves and our actions better, but it should also help us better understand, accept, tolerate, encourage, and nurture the people around us. That, after all, is what we should be doing. If we help our neighbors to be strong and healthy and they do likewise we will all benefit. To live at peace with your own self and with those around you is one of the greatest blessings of life.

Papa's School

When my grandchildren were young I had a routine with them each day when I dropped them off at school: we repeated my Rules for School. It did not take long for them to remember and repeat the eight-word long list: learn a lot, be a friend, have fun. I realized recently that the same three rules could be expanded and updated to cover their adult lives as well.

Learn a Lot

Keep in mind why you are here. In the school setting my intent was to encourage them not just to be diligent in completing the assigned curriculum, but to learn even more. Be curious! Ask "why?", ask "then what?" and "what else?", seek more, look beyond the obvious and the immediate.

Look Beyond

We see what is in front of us, we hear what happens in the here and now — and these things will naturally dominate our thoughts. But these things are not all that matter. Dangers and opportunities may lie around the next corner. Look beyond what occupies your immediate environment: what might be over that hill? is that small problem a symptom of a much larger one? are those people likely to perceive this in a different way? How might this situation be different tomorrow or next week or next year?


When we are in school our purpose and goals are, to great extent, provided for (or imposed upon?) us by our parents and the society in which we live. When we leave school behind what then is our purpose? how do we establish goals for ourselves? Will we find what makes us happy and seek our own pleasure? Yes, we all tend to do that naturally. But seeking only my personal gain is not a good idea if I want to live in the company of others.

Be a Friend

We live in society with others (unless you are willing and able to live the life of a hermit). Societies work because we cooperate with others, not seeking only our own interests all the time. Compromise will be necessary as we seek the common good.

Don't wait for others to be friendly toward you. Assume that those around you are your friends (unless they prove otherwise) and offer your help and friendship.

Have Fun

Why do I say this? We can live out the details of our day-to-day lives as if it were some punishment imposed upon us, or we can accept what comes our way with a determination to find joy in even painful circumstances, and to work to overcome the challenges we encounter along the way.

Life is full of little annoyances, get used to it. Do not expect that everything will always be just as you would prefer. The corollary to that is that life is also full of little pleasures, treasure them and take pleasure in small victories even as you face big challenges.

Proverbs and Aphorisms

If you want a better tomorrow, do something about it today.

When I first wrote this I was thinking about our actions within the economy as consumers and as producers, and how important it is to produce more than you consume in order to meet your own needs during the times you cannot be productive, and to meet the needs of others like children, aged parents, and neighbors in need.

Now I think it is most imperative in regard to our changing weather patterns. We can complain about our problems, but it is far more effective to do something about them. You might start here:

There is nothing glorious or noble about war.
All acts of war are crimes against humanity, indeed against life itself. Our laws and our cultural and social norms and structures at all levels from the family to the community to the state and the nation and especially our international organizations must prohibit the production, sale or transfer, or possession of any implement of warfare by any person at any time or place regardless of circumstance, and impose a duty upon each and every person with knowledge of the existence of such implement to ensure its destruction. The existence of weapons should be universally abhorrent to all persons.
Universal disarmament may seem hopelessly out of reach But wouldn't it be nice? as Amazing Grace Smith says in the movie "Amazing Grace and Chuck". The movie is available to view or download at Internet Archive. What would become of the unemployed warriors, arms manufacturers, and arms dealers? How would Daddy Warbucks survive? It would certainly be an improvement over a society that is so "free" it provides enough weapons for two firearms for each adult — with so many weapons in circulation it is nearly inevitable that we'd see increasing numbers of mass shootings.
The world does owe you a living, but you'll have to work awfully hard to collect it.
I've repeated this saying numerous times and cannot begin to recall where I first heard it. The closest I've come to identifying a source is in this advertisement titled "The Price of Blood" by The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York in a Good Housekeeping magazine from 1885.
Good Housekeeping magazine from 1885.
"The world owes nobody a living except as the individual collects it by work;"
I've heard folks say, when describing someone who would rather rely on charity than hard work to ensure their daily needs are met, that "he must think the world owes him a living". I suggest that there is an element of truth in the idea that the world owes you a living, at least in that you are as deserving as any other person to breathe its air and drink its water and seek a share of its food, shelter, and other amenities. It is also true that relying on the charity of others can be a precarious existence and comes with its own costs and hardships. Of course we've also heard "the good Lord helps those who help themselves", and "Lord help those who get caught helping themselves!" (and no, neither one of those statements is in the Bible).
Success follows Patience, Persistence, and Perseverance.

Success is not guaranteed to always arise from these, but you will find it often does. Many of the things we need or desire are not available instantly or immediately, patience will help you save the money or follow the steps of the process to get there; active waiting (taking whatever steps you can now toward reaching your desired but distant goal) helps maintain your sense of calm expectation.

When I was young my mother helped me learn to bake cakes. The recipes we used often included an instruction to beat the batter for 300 (or more) strokes (before electric mixers were common household appliances) rather than the "mix at medium speed for three minutes" we see in more recent recipes. There I was with a mixing bowl full of goopy cake batter and a mixing spoon in my hand, counting out the number of times that spoon made its cycle through the bowl. There were no shortcuts, the cake wouldn't bake properly if you didn't take the time to beat it properly, so I counted each stroke, persisting until the full number was reached. Many times we must keep working at something until we finally achieve it. Don't give up until you've reached your goal. Another word related to persistence is practice, we know that many of the skills that enrich our lives are perfected only through much repetitive refinement.

You may encounter obstacles or opposition as you pursue your version of success. Perseverance is the determination and bravery to continue on in the face of difficulties and overcome whatever obstacles you may encounter. Strategic adjustment of goals might be required but perseverance does not abandon hope. It is perseverance that is spoken of in this chorus sometimes used in The Salvation Army: "And in the battle's blazing heat, When flesh and blood would quail, I'll fight and trust, and still repeat, That Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus cannot fail!" (Apparently the chorus is derived from the second half of the third verse of Oft have I heard thy tender voice.) Note that it might also involve pain.

But, you might say, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Patience, persistence, and perseverance go far but don't forget another "P" word: Possibility. Is it realistically possible? Is it worth the effort it will require?

Violence against persons or property is not the best choice.
Not even in response to violence perpetrated by others. Violence is not the right choice. Violence is not a just choice. Do not commit commit acts of violence.
Money is not speech and a corporation is not a person.
Overturn the Citizens United decision. This will require a constitutional amendment.
Life is messy.
Don't think that there is one underlying unifying principle or some absolute truth that simplifies and organizes all else. Often you must balance seemingly contradictory ideas to navigate your way though the minefields of politics, economic survival, and even your love life.
Fight entropy.
We'll ignore all the various technical definitions of entropy and use a simplified synonym: "disorder", and perhaps we should include "decay". Anyone who has been responsible for the care and upkeep of a piece of property will recognize that as time passes various forms of decay and disorder occur: the roof needs to be repaired or replaced, the walls need to be painted, the landscaping gets overgrown with weeds, the water heater breaks and must be replaced. Even our own bodies, as they age, are subject to these processes. Constant care is required to keep the physical parts of our existence functioning as desired.
While it's true that life is messy, we (at least most of the people I know) are happier when our lives are less chaotic, more structured, more orderly. This is exemplified in the "General Order" that I posted in our house when our youngest grandchild visited recently: Tidy Up Before You Leave. It is a general principle that I try to follow, and a habit that I try to build in various parts of my life. In recent years I have tried to follow a pattern each day: before I leave my bedroom in the morning I make up my bed, ensure that yesterday's garments are in the laundry bin, my clothes for today are laid out and ready, and that any books or other personal effects that I've used are stored in their appropriate places; then to the bathroom to shave and wash, and again before leaving the room, clean the sink and toilet and make sure that any other things I've used are returned to their proper places; back to the bedroom to dress, then on to the kitchen where the general pattern is to clean up as I go along so that I'm not faced with a pile of dishes, pots, and utensils to be cleaned after the meal. Enjoy the meal, put away the dishes I used to prepare it (which have now had time to dry), wash up the dishes I used at the table, wipe down the countertops and appliances as needed, and then I'm ready to leave the kitchen and enjoy the rest of the day. There is nothing praiseworthy or laudable about this plan, I imagine that many of us were trained by our parents (or drill sergeants) to organize our lives in a similar manner. (It took me many years to build these habits, my younger days were less structured.)
In thinking recently about the contrast between consuming and producing, the effects of entropy again came into focus. I have been trained throughout my life to be a consumer: buy something, use it up or wear it out, and then buy again. I have tended to treat even houses and cars this way, use it until it breaks then replace it. My grandparents, and even my parents, who lived through the Great Depression had a different view of things: beyond the "use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without" ethos of that time, they generally expected to not only maintain but to make improvements to their property. They understood that consumption can only come after production -- and this is true not just of agricultural goods -- and that one must produce more than you consume in order to overcome the effects of entropy: inevitable waste, friction, and inefficiency. Don't forget that in some parts of your life (when you were very young, when you are afflicted with illness, and when are old, as examples) your capacity to produce is likely to be diminished, so when you are able you must produce more than enough to satisfy your immediate needs — store some away as savings and in building good relationships with your family, friends, and neighbors.
Often there are several ways to understand a given set of facts; some of them may be more useful than others.

To begin, see above comments about point of view.

The mark of the educated man is not in his boast that he has built his mountain of facts and stood on the top of it, but in his admission that there may be other peaks in the same range with men on the top of them, and that, though their views of the landscape may be different from his, they are nonetheless legitimate. — E.J. Pratt, poet (4 Feb 1882-1964)
Smile! It makes people wonder what you're up to.
Wanna waste some time? See if you can discover who first said that.
You can smile when you can't say a word. The first thought I had when I started thinking about smiling is this song (more details). I'm certain my children will remember it, though I'm guessing the grandchildren will not.
You'd better smile when you say that. When I started looking for the source of this oft-repeated warning I had little success. There are several places where people use the line: "You'd better smile when you say that, pardner. Them's fightin' words where I come from." — Robusto, which is exactly the way I remember it. But they all seem to be repeating the same line they've heard from someone else. It seemed to me that I might have encountered it in an old movie, but this is the closest I've come in that direction:

The movie was adapted from the novel "The Virginian" by Owen Wister, which includes the phrase "You want to call me that, smile!". This seems to be the source of the version I remember, as well as a variety of others.
Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards. — Vernon Sanders Law
There are at least two ways to think about this statement. First, it may be less painful to learn from the experiences of others, for example if I see you burn your hand by touching a hot stove I can avoid making the same mistake. Second, when you do experience some pain or difficulty in your life — as you inevitably will — look for the lessons you can learn from it.

Hard Questions

This section is where I pretend to be a philosopher. Or, at least it's stuff I started to work on but haven't yet decided to abandon.

  1. Given

    There are some ideas that form the foundation or the background of our discussion. We have to start somewhere, with some sort of "first principles" or basic assumptions.

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
    This encapsulates much of what I feel is important to hold as "given" or "stipulated" as we discuss the material below. Note well that some of the ideas included in the Declaration may or may not conflict with conclusions we reach during our discussion. See also Daily Bread regarding the duties associated with those rights.
    Waging Nonviolence
    Nonviolent Peaceforce
    Christian Ideals
    It is not my intent to base our arguments upon holy scriptures, except to the extent that we can agree that they may contain, in some way, "wisdom of the elders". This is here primarily to make plain my background in the Christian church and the influence that has in my thinking.
  2. Questions!

    Stuff we want to think about.

    Who should benefit from your labor?
    [Insert link to my (curently unfinished) essay on Freedom here?]
    What sort of future do you fear? hope for?
    What are you willing to work for?
    How should we allocate scarce reources?
  3. Answers?

    There may be things we agree on; they'll end up here.