Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanksgiving Thoughts

I love Thanksgiving.  I always have, and I think it's one of the few holidays I enjoy as much or even more than when I was a kid.  As I kid, I always loved watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV, and of course, I loved all the food and the time off from school.  As I'm older now, I haven't watched the parade in years, lately because I don't have live TV anymore.  Also, as an adult, I've probably worked on Thanksgiving as often as I've had the day off.  As for the food, well, I do like it, but these days it seems like I have to make a conscious effort to just enjoy food and not worry about whether it's keeping me fat or clogging my heart or speeding me towards diabetes. 

So why do I say I love Thanksgiving?  I love it because it seems almost immune to all the things that detract from the other holidays. 

First of all, Thanksgiving seems almost immune to commercialism.  I say almost because people do spend a lot on food for Thanksgiving, and of course, every grocery store takes advantage of that fact for specials and sales, but for the most part those are low key and more like a bonus for shopping with a given merchant, rather than an enticement to buy things you weren't already shopping for.  There are displays of decorations for sale, too, but they are usually relegated to a small shelf in the back of the store, vaguely near the Christmas decorations.  I have noticed in the last couple of years that the companies who sell Christmas lights have been marketing lights for other holidays.  I just saw a yard with several turkeys built out of strings of autumn-colored lights on plastic frames.  I doubt those will catch on, though.  Only the most die-hard yard exhibitionist is likely to go for those.  The rest of us probably welcome a brief respite between taking down the Halloween decorations and putting up the Christmas ones.  Additionally, aside from perhaps a host or hostess gift, there's none of the gift-giving pressure some feel at Christmas time.

Also, Thanksgiving is non-denominational.  In fact, although it's a time many people thank their respective gods for their "blessings", you don't have to be religious at all to express thankfulness, or at least reflect on your good fortune.  Also, unlike "Merry Christmas" these days, you can wish a "Happy Thanksgiving" to just about anyone without fear of offense.  Gratitude is universal. 

Finally, although most people probably do still spend the holiday with some combination of relatives, Thanksgiving is very accomodating of last minute guests and ad-hoc groups.  With the tendency for extended families to become more and more spread out across the country though, it's not always practical to get everyone together for Thanksgiving.  I've spent many Thanksgivings overseas, or far from family with little money or vacation time for travel.  Perhaps because it's a simpler holiday than say, Christmas, it's easier to celebrate in ad-hoc groups.  It's easy for friends who can't (or don't want to) be with relatives to get together and share a meal in celebration.  It's usually pretty easy to add a last minute guest or two as well.  I've never been to a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't accomodate a few unexpected plates and still have plenty of left-overs.  Also, last minute guests usually don't have to worry about intruding on a family gift exchange. 

Don't get me wrong.  I enjoy most holidays, and I'm always up for a chance to celebrate with friends and family.  To me, though, the heart the holiday season is spending time with people you love.  As much as I enjoy Christmas, it's the simple spirit of Thanksgiving that I grow to appreciate more and more each year. 

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sci-Fi I Want to See As Sci-Fact (Part 2)

More things often addressed in science fiction that I would like to see as science fact in my lifetime:

True Fully Immersive Virtual Reality

Whether it's a "holodeck" on the Enterprise, or the X-Men's "Danger Room", or even virtual reality piped directly into our brains a la The Matrix, truly immersive virtual reality has long been a sci-fi writers dream.  Who wouldn't love an environment where you could create an entire world from scratch, or modify the one you know into a place where you are only limited by your own imagination?  I certainly would. 

I imagine the technology that will bring this idea to us first will be some sort of direct brain interface.  It seems likely that decoding the way our brains receive information from our senses and learning to simulate those signals will be much easier to acheive than learning how to manipulate actual matter, as would be required to create a "holodeck" or the like, not to mention the enormous amount of power required for matter manipulation.  Of course, I don't think I'd be the first to volunteer for the clinical trails of early brain/computer interfacing.  First I'd have to see the technology refined and be sure I'm not likely to "download" a virus into my brain or short circuit myself or something perhaps even worse.  Given adequate safety assurances, though, I'd love to be able to enter a fantasy world at will, or meet up with internet friends in a virtual space of our own collaborative design. 

Of course, personal amusement is an obvious (and I think, non-trivial) use of such technology.  However, I think there could be many more serious uses.  Imagine being able to design a building (or vehicle, or what have you) simply by summoning the parts you imagine and commanding them into place.  Imagine being able to walk through your design and experience it as if it already existed in the real world before even beginning actual construction?  Of course, if the technology were easily available and sustainable, why build in the real world at all, at least for most things.  I can envision a world where large numbers of people exist primarily in virtual space, especially if it only differs from the "real" world in ways that are actually an improvement.  So many of us spend so much time online now it isn't hard at all to imagine us choosing to spend even more time in a space that could have all the advantages of the world wide web in addition to full sensory experience. 

Granted, we'll want to make sure there's someone or something in real-space keeping the whole system running. 

Human Longivity

Imagine living for 1000 years?  What about 10,000 years?  Scientists are making great strides toward unraveling the mysteries of why our bodies age and fall apart.  It seems reasonable to suspect that once we do understand the things that go wrong, we stand a good chance of fixing them.  I recently watched a TED Talk by a man named Aubrey De Gray, who believes that the first human to live 1000 years is probably alive already.  That may not be all that far-fetched an idea considering how technology seems to be advancing exponentially.  Interestingly, De Gray believes that the first human to live 10,000 years is likely only 10 years younger than the first to live 1000.  His reasoning is that once life expectancy is raised to 1000 years, barring accident, that is roughly 900 years more time for technical advancements to increase lifespan even further, and each increase is even more chance for further increase. 

Personally, I'm trying to live each day to its fullest.  After all, even if expected lifespan is increased to a million years, any one of us could be hit by a bus tomorrow.  Nevertheless, I'd love to know there's a chance I could be around long enough to see how mankind develops over the next millennium or two.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sci-Fi I Want to See As Sci-Fact (Part 1)

When I was a kid, I used to love sci-fi. Movies, books, short stories, it didn't matter. I loved it all. I especially loved stories set in a human future. I loved to dream about what life would be like in 2010 (or even 1999). The kid I was might be a little disappointed how things have turned out. I mean, where's my flying car? Where are the moon bases? How come we still don't have a colony on Mars? Sure, we have cell phones, and the Internet is probably one of the most quickly pervasive and culture altering developments since the automobile, but they seem a little tame when compared to the futures of Space: 1999, or even 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Now that I'm an adult (for the most part), I'm still fascinated by visions of the future, even if I'm a little more critical of the various futuristic visions I come across. Also, my priorities have changed a bit. I'm not all that interested in a flying car, though I would like one that would drive itself, so I could read, nap, surf the net, what have you, during my commute. Nevertheless, there are speculated future developments I yearn for.

First Contact

Probably hundreds, if not thousands of stories have been written about mankind's first contact with an extra-terrestrial civilization. One of the most plausible (to me, at least) is Contact, by Carl Sagan. In it, he imagines a first contact coming in the form of a signal received from outer space. Indeed, there are a number of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) projects going on right now. I even participate in one of them, SETI@home, a project which uses home computers' downtime to analyze radio waves from space, hoping to find a signal amid all that noise. Of course, I'd love to have the home computer that actually found such a signal, but just having it happen would be exciting enough, regardless of who actually found such a signal.

Why does the idea excite me? Haven't I seen Independence Day? Or V, or War of the Worlds? Aren't I afraid of becoming an item on some intergalactic buffet? Quite frankly, no. First of all, the chances that some alien species, evolved on a completely different world, with completely different evironmental factors, would even be able to use us as a food source are likely very small. Second, I think if they've mastered interstellar travel, they've likely solved any problems related to a sustainable food supply. Perhaps I'm overly optimistic, but I think benign curiosity, if not outright benevolence is a more likely motivation for interstellar exploration than conquest.

AI: Artificial Intelligence

Almost as exciting as first contact with an ETI, and perhaps more likely to happen first, is the development of a true artificial intelligence. My excitement for this is two-fold. First, it would be wonderful to be able to interact with computers as naturally as we do with people. I'd love to have a personal artificial secretary who would keep all my appointments straight, scan the web for information I need or simply might like to know, and screen my incoming information such as phone calls, emails, texts, tweets, and whatever other manner we devise to keep ourselves connected. But aside from simple convenience, I think the insights into our own intelligence we will surely gain from the development of an AI will be invaluable. Also, I'm a bit of a singularitarian. I think we should be working to create an AI that will be beneficial to the human race. I believe that we face problems that our own intelligence, unaided, is proving inadequate to solve. Already we have AIs that can devise their own scientific experiments, carry them out, and analyze the results. Can true human-equivalent artificial intelligence be that far behind?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Why I Think What I Think (Part 2)

Continuing my list of people who have greatly influenced my worldview:

Robert T. Carroll

Robert T. Carroll was a teacher in the philosophy department at Sacramento City College until he retired in 2007. I first came across Bob's writings through his website, The Skeptic's Dictionary. This was in the mid 1990's, and his website was much smaller than it is today. The Internet, or at least the WWW part, was still a relatively new phenomenon, and I spent a lot of time surfing the web. It was during a late night surfing session that I stumbled upon The Skeptic's Dictionary, but I don't even remember what the specific topic was that led me there. At any rate, I knew I had stumbled upon a rare gem for that time: a website full of articles on a wide range of subject which were all well written and rational. While I knew what "skeptical" means, this was my first real introduction to skepticism as analytical tool. I enjoyed the first couple of articles I read so much that I started at the beginning and read all of his articles in order. There were probably fewer than a hundred articles when I started, and I've been pretty good at reading new articles as they've been added since.

Many of the articles were about what I expected, and poked holes in ideas that I already was skeptical of myself, like BigFoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Others were more challenging for me because they dealt with things I either hadn't considered from a skeptical perspective (multi-level marketing, false memory), or I had believed (or hoped) were true at some point in my past, (UFOs, god, etc.). It was through these articles, as well as Bob's writings on philosophy and critical thinking, that I learned to apply the same rigorous tools in evaluating things I perhaps even wanted to believe as I did to things I already thought were suspect.

All this came at a time in my life where I had come to reject a lot of things I had been taught growing up and was still searching for the tools to make sense of the world. I sometimes wonder if I would have been receptive to Bob's ideas when I was 15 or even 20. Would I have been able to save myself a lot of stumbling around in the dark had I had access to something like The Skeptic's Dictionary earlier on, or would I have avoided it as something designed to weaken faith. I don't know, but I'm eternally grateful that I came across it when I did.

Carl Sagan

I first really discovered the writings of Carl Sagan in my late twenties as I was rediscovering and reinterpreting the world in non-religious terms. I had known of Sagan from his television series Cosmos, but hadn't really read any of his books. It was largely the respect and admiration that Bob Carroll gave him and his writings that sparked my curiosity. The first Sagan book I read was The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. This book helped me to examine the things I believe and had believed, and taught me how to ask the right questions when it came to claims of the paranormal.

When I find an author I like, I have a tendency to stick with him until I've read as much of his work as I can get my hands on. Sagan was no exception. I read everything I could find, including works he had written with his wife Ann Druyan. They opened my mind to a naturalistic universe, one that did not require an intelligent designer, though it did not exclude one. Suddenly the universe became an enormous place, far larger, and far more fascinating than I had ever imagined. As much as the science and logic of his writings, though, I've been greatly influenced by his optimism. Far from being adrift in a universe where nothing matters, I found in his brand of skepticism and even atheism, a real hope that we, as humans, can work things out for ourselves, and that we still might not be alone in the universe. Through Sagan's writing, in part, I found the naive faith and hopes of my youth replaced with awe and new kinds of hope, and a new kind of comfort about the world around me.

I was greatly saddened when Sagan died in 1996. It was as if I had just met the man and he had been taken away. I wonder what new insights we might have, had he lived through the last decade.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Why I Think What I Think (Pt1)

I've been thinking lately about why I think the way I do. I thought it might be interesting, for myself if no one else, to list some of the people who have influenced my world view. This is probably going to be a multi-post topic and I'm not even going to attempt to list influences in order of importance or anything like that.

Joseph Smith

Regardless of my beliefs about whether he was inspired by God or not, or even my belief about God himself, I can't deny that a large part of who I am is directly a result of the life and works of Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS Church.

One of the most fundamental ideas that has come to me through Joseph Smith is the idea that large numbers of people, however well educated and however sincere in their beliefs, might be dead wrong. As a child, this was introduced to me through the story of "The First Vision", referring of course to the first vision of Joseph Smith, wherein he claims to have seen God and Jesus Christ in the flesh, and upon asking which of all the churches he should join was told to "join none of them, for they were all wrong." From my current persective, this should have been an obvious possibility to me, given that each religion tends to think all the others have gotten at least some portion of "the truth" wrong. As a child, though, one tends to believe as one is taught.

It probably wasn't until I was in my twenties that I gave serious consideration to the idea that maybe Joseph Smith, himself, was wrong, and by extension maybe so were religious people everywhere, insofar as they claimed to know the truth about God, or anything metaphysical. It's a big step in one's philosophical development to accept the idea that maybe everyone is stumbling around in the dark just like everyone else. It's no small thing to consider that most of the people from whom you've received the very foundation of your world view just might be mistaken. It's even harder, once you entertain that possibility, to then reassess all that you think you know and rebuild your philosophy perhaps even from the ground up.

Joseph Smith also emphasized an idea that has become fundamental to Mormon philosophy and is simultaneously it's greatest strength and it's greatest weakness: the idea that if you have doubts, you should as questions. I've grown up always believing that "The Truth" is out there, and will become apparent if you look hard enough. As missionaries, we touted the promise in The Book of Mormon, which was really just a specific application of the teaching of James, to ask and we'd receive answers. That's hard to refute at face value, since any "answer" is open to a myriad of interpretations. I've even been told that the seeming lack of an answer might itself be an answer.

All too often, though, the answers to the hardest questions in religion seems to be "we don't know". Ironically that's often the answer outside of religion as well. The difference, as I see it, is that within religion we're expected to wait and see what the answer is, almost as if by pushing the issue too hard, the wall might break and the whole of our philosophy come crashing down around us. To be fair, that's not exclusive to religion, but is probably a self defense mechanism of most philosophies once they've been sufficiently defined, and the more they become widely subscribed to. At any rate, and perhaps most ironically, it was the idea of really asking questions of God, and the promise that He would answer, that ultimately led me to reject the fundamental underpinnings of the philosophy that gave me that tool in the first place.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Today I had an offsite clinic with school. We were providing free massages to the athletes at the Xterra Triathlon at Snowbasin, near Ogden, Utah. I wasn't particularly looking forward to it today, not because I don't like doing the offsite clinics, I really have enjoyed the ones I've done in the past. It's that I had been up since 2 PM the day before, and had worked the graveyard shift last night. As it turned out, I left home early and got to within 20 minutes of Snowbasin with still over two hours before I had to be there. I pulled into a rest area and took a nap.

I'd never been to Snowbasin before today. It's amazingly beautiful. We couldn't have asked for a nicer day. The air was cool, but the sun was very warm. Snowbasin itself is situated at the base of one of the tallest nearby peaks, but still well above the rest of the valley, if you can technically call it a valley. The view was more of rolling highland hills covered with trees than a proper intermountain valley like Salt Lake or Utah valleys. At any rate, the mountains and rolling hills below were covered in fall colors, which were at their peak of beauty. I'm used to the brilliant fall displays of the East Coast, but these views were breathtaking. I loved how the fall colors I'm used to seeing were sprinkled among dark green pines and white trunks of the aspen trees.

We set up our tables in a shady spot against the main lodge, just as the first runners were coming in. From that point until I took a lunch break, I was giving massage after massage to athletes. These were fairly quick massages, 10 to 15 minutes each, and mostly consisted of compressions along the legs, arms, back, and neck, coupled with some passive range-of-motion and stretching exercises. Everyone seemed really greatful for the massages, and a couple of them even tipped. After lunch (which I took between 3:30 and 4:00) things had started to slow down. We gave massages to the few latecomers, and some of the other volunteer staff, then it was time to go.

Surprisingly, I wasn't tired at all during the event, and even got 3/4 of the way home before I felt like I was going to fall asleep. I called my sister, Kate, and she talked me sober until I got home.

When I walked in the door, I immediately saw that Ninja had gotten into the stash of toy mice. There was a veritable killing field of them all over the front hall. Apparently the closet door hadn't latched after I got my jacket out this morning. It wouldn't have been terribly bad, except we ration them too him because he has a habit of shredding them and eating the skin off the plaster core (then often dropping the plaster core into his food bowl, lord knows why). It's not really a problem according to our PA vet, but we worry about giving him a second mouse before he's properly passed the current one. So, I gathered up all the mice I saw, save one, threw them in the closet, then crashed into bed. I had been awake for 27 hours at that time. I got almost 5 hours sleep before I had to go back in to work the graveyard at the hotel.

Man, I can't wait until I'm licensed. :)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Down to the Wire

Well, today was the last day of week 7 at school. The term is 10 weeks total, so only 3 more weeks then I graduate. There's a lot to be said for the structure of going to school. Right now, busy as I am, at least my weeks are very planned out and I always know what I have to do. Once I graduate, my schedule is going to be largely up to me. For the most part, that's a good thing, but it's also pretty scary.

I'm pretty sure I'll be able to handle being in business for myself again. The issue with the Quiznos wasn't my organizational skills or anything. I just don't think it was the right business model for the time and place. On the other hand, Quiznos was an all consuming venture. I had stuff I had to do every day and every week and every month at very specific times. Procrastination wasn't an issue. With massage therapy, if I really want a day off (or an hour, or a week) I just don't have to schedule appointments. If I get lazy, I can easily fail. The plus side is that this is work I think I will genuinely enjoy. I know the student clinic is just a small taste of what day to day operations will be like, but so far I've loved the work. Even when I feel like I'd like to skip a clinic day, I'm always glad I didn't. I always come out of clinic feeling energized.

I think I'm going to be renting a space from one of the instructors at the school. She's offering me a good deal and the location and space aren't bad at all. On the down side, the location isn't my first choice, and I'd be working in a space that isn't my own. She also expects me to use her logo and business name on my cards, but I think that might be negotiable. There are other options out there, but truthfully, none of them poses as little risk for the benefit, nor as low a cost as this opportunity. And the most I'd be committed for is three months at first. Once I get a clientelle built up, I can always move into a space of my own.

Decisions, decisions. . .

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Utah - Day-tripper's Dream

One thing I want to use my blog for is to keep track of all the day trips I'm able to take living here in Utah. This state is a day-tripper's dream. I live pretty much in the center of the state's largest metropolitan area, and not only can I see mountains in every direction, but within 20 minutes I can be driving or hiking in them.

Since moving here, I've been to Diamond Fork Hot Springs, Grandeur Peak, Ensign Peak, up to the radar stations on the mountains above Farmington, to the world's largest open pit copper mine, to Bridal Veil Falls, Donut Falls, and the Great Salt Lake. I've hiked through City Creek Canyon, driven through Immigration, Parley's, Mill Creek, and Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. I've driven to Park City to the East, and Wendover to the West. I've been North to Logan (home of Cox Honey), and South as far as Spanish Fork Canyon. I've been farther south, but not since moving here last November.

And even after all that, I feel like I've only seen a tiny fraction of what there is to see and do all within a couple of hours drive and all basically free, aside from gas money and snacks. Right now I'm by no means in good shape, yet I've been able to do all only occasionally having to push my limits. I really want to get myself into shape so I can tackle some of the more taxing hikes. My first major goal is to get myself fit enough to hike Mt Timpanogos. It's an imposing mountain ridge overlooking Provo/Orem. Even as late as September this year, there is snow visible on the east face, just under the ridge. It's an all-day hike. I've been told you have to leave around 5 AM if you want to get back by dark in the late summer.

Yeah, I need to get myself into shape!

First Things First


My name is Karl Jennings. I'm a gay, former-Mormon, recently returned to Utah after having lived most of my life in the Eastern US. My family moved East from Utah before I was even a year old, so I don't really remember ever having lived here at that time, but I do remember visits to grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins while I was growing up.

I've been around a bit since then. I've lived in Utah, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, Brazil, Virginia, Texas, California, Texas, Korea, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and now again in Utah, in that order. I've loved most of the places I've lived and I don't really feel like I have a "home town". I have parents in Virginia and Maryland, and brothers and sisters in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, California and Utah. "Home" is where I'm living at any given moment.

Well, more precisely, "home" is where I live with Chris. He's my partner of six-plus years, and the one person who anchors my life and gives me a sense that in all the world, one place is "home". Right now we're sharing an apartment with two cats, Ninja, and Shade.

I've done a variety of things, just as I've lived a variety of places. My earliest memories are living on a farm in North Carolina. At that time, my parents, my older sister, and I were living with my mom's parents in an honest-to-goodness log cabin in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it town of Pilot Mountain. It was a working farm where my grandfather raised pigs and grew corn. I'm sure he did more than that, but that's what I most remember.

While I was still very young, my grandfather abandoned us and moved to Florida "with some floozy", as the grownups said among themselves. I never saw him again, though my mother did before he died. After he left us, the farm basically went to seed. My father wasn't a farmer, though I believe he loved the farm. He worked for the Boy Scouts. To him the farm was a great big toy and he ran it like a scout camp. The pigs all got sold (I guess), and a few acres were lent, or leased, to a neighbor farmer. The rest, outside the log cabin and yard, was a mix of fields gone to weed, a nice size wooded area around a very large pond, several outbuildings in various stages of disuse, and whatever particular scouting related project had my father's attention at the time.

When I was 9, my father got a job transfer to Danville, Kentucky and we moved away. Five years later, we moved again (with another job transfer) to Norfolk, Virginia. It was from Norfolk that I left to go on a two-year mission to Brazil for the LDS Church (the Mormons). Within a year after returning home from Brazil, I joined the Air Force, which took me through Texas for Basic training, California (Monterrey) for language school, back to Texas (San Angelo) for tech. school, to Korea for two years, and finally to Maryland. It was in Korea, and later in Maryland where I came to grips with my sexuality in a long process that ended with me leaving the military (because my commitment was completed) and also leaving the LDS Church (because I no longer believed).

Post Air Force, I ended up living in Baltimore, Maryland with my first partner, Douglas. I was with him for nine years before we ended our relationship by mutual agreement. I worked for a major credit card company during that time, in their call center, at first, and then later as a network analyst.

Chris and I met while I was living in Maryland, and we shared an apartment for a few months before finally buying a house in Pennsylvania. I eventually quit my job with the credit card company and Chris and I opened a restaurant in Pennsylvania. We picked probably the worst year in the last decade to open a business, and had to close our doors after only 11 months in operation. Now we live in Utah and are trying to rebuild our finances. I'm in school for massage therapy, which I love, and Chris is working for a healthcare company. Utah seems to agree with us both, and we have made a lot of friends in the ten and a half months we've lived here. It feels as much like home as anywhere, and more like home than most places.

So that's me in Cliff's Notes. I plan to write here at least weekly. If you find me and like what you read, feel free to leave a comment, or drop me a line. It's all about making connections and shooting for sense.