Monday, January 25, 2010

Loving Atheists

I seem to remember that it was in the late 70s that the “families that pray together stay together” add campaign insulted airwaves and billboards across the country. When the numbers were run the campaign faded into obscurity. Apparently families that pray together are half again as likely not to stay together as those that do not pray at all. This is a good example of knowing the answer to something and then having difficulty making the data fit the previously decided correct answer. I should write a couple of entries on this sort of faulty reasoning. This post is more about the families staying together than on polishing reasoning skills.

So, do atheists get divorced?

Unfortunately they do. In fact over half of the marriages with at least one self identified atheist or agnostic will end in divorce within five years. It is just that this is a significantly smaller large number than the divorce rate for marriages with one or more self identified evangelical (or orthodox or fundamentalist or Mormon) in it.

Those of you with a statistical bent (and I feel your pain, really I do) are probably thinking about the synergies and instabilities caused by mixed faith marriages. Some are wondering how many of the atheist divorces are occurring in marriages where the other partner is a firm believer in an interventionist god. I will not disturb your wonderings by injecting any more poorly referenced statistics here.

I am more interested in what the above referenced data might mean in terms of what can be done to increase the level of stability. In other words; the atheists appear to be doing something right so how can we do more of it more often?

Many who stumble upon an internet site that speaks of atheists and marriage will be thinking of natural selection and sex. It is probably true that passionate sexually self-aware (even studly) people tend to be atheists. This would mean that marriages with at least one atheist would be less likely to have a frustrated partner. I do not have any data on this. As an experimental scientist I see this as an exciting and stimulating field of research (Especially if you are not stuck with the control group.).

All joking aside, the major predictive factor in marriages lasting is effective communication. Couples who have participated in communication effectiveness coding studies have been tracked for marriage longevity. The results were astounding. There were almost perfect levels of correlation between utilizing positive communication skills and relationship longevity. This correlation was independent of belief system, sexual orientation, frequency of sexual activity, income level, race, and almost any other identified variable. It was even mostly independent of how much each partner thought they loved the other partner.

There are two important points made in the last paragraph. First that being an atheist has little primary effect on the factors that make for a lasting relationship. Second is that love is not a deciding factor either. Effective positive communication trumps everything.

For those of you who have read this far wondering when I will jump the rails and go from describing information to wildly hypothesizing I will do it in the next paragraph.

Love clouds the mind and it is too easy for people under the powerful influence of love to believe that it exists in some magical dimension. Some even speak of love as being a shared emotion. The idea of a simultaneous emotional event actually obviates the need for any communication. If you can “feel in your heart” what is going on with your partner why communicate? Some of the very immature might even test the extent of love by seeing how well it substitutes for communication. In this way a spiritually-based knowledge of magical love actually impedes the development of a relationship where love can be mutually experienced by both partners.

In case you did not see where I went off the rails let me assure you that the next paragraph starts off the rails and continues on a tangent.

Love, though a singularly individual phenomenon, occurs as a result of human interaction. The use of effective communication and the continued self referential refinement of communication in a relationship increases the resolution of the human interaction. There are more triggers, more reinforcement, more about the situation to fall in love with. Communication sounds like only talking, and words are powerful to a lover, but at the level of love physical intimacy is powerful communication too. Identifying each interactive action as a loving gesture and consciously making the effort to engage one’s lover requires clarity and reason. Far from weakening love by removing its magic the atheist is uniquely positioned to love more and to love more fully.

We need to increase the amount of love in the world. The world will be a better place for it.

The part of loving communication easiest to control is listening. I hope that each person reading this will find something written to them (An old e-mail, a forgotten love letter, if nothing else this very blog post) and realize that it was a gesture of love. Feel the neurochemicals flooding the brain. Feel the heightened sense of awareness. Try re-reading the message (or this blog) and realize a more intense and intricate perspective on everything.

You love. You are human. Together we are humanity. We can make this a loving world together.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Updates 1.0

The problem with writing anything about ongoing events is that what one writes becomes quickly outdated. I’ve even had entries become obsolete between their being written and publishing them.

When things I have written become outdated by more recent events I could:
     1) Ignore them
     2) Delete the refereeing entry
     3) Publish an update
Of these three approaches number one is the most appealing although that is just because I am lazy. Number three is a little 1984ish. Number two remains as the last best choice.

So I am going to write this update on a couple of things I wrote about earlier.

Some of you are thinking “AOA never writes about current events. In the last post he did not even quote anyone who was alive in the last century.”

It is true that I am very effective at avoiding current events in this blog. I did slip at least four times. Twice I wrote about global climate-change meetings in Utah. Twice I wrote about the local paper’s response to an editorial questioning god in public schools. The status on all these issues has changed. I will more diligently avoid current events, and updates, in the future.

The first issue to update is the local paper’s satus. They have broken their blockage of Mr. Kline’s editorials. They missed a few before they published one. The one they did published was very non-inflamatory.

I should re-sate that my observations are not the result of any in-depth investigation into the local paper. Frankly the foibles of a small town Utah non-daily paper are not strongly motivating. I saw the original letters and response as more of an indicator of the community’s tolerance than as an attack on free expression by the newspaper. I think my original observations are still valid. Certainly my placement of the Scarlett letter on my blog still appears to be a good thing. My take on the paper’s response must be updated.

Firstly they began publishing some of Kline’s work. I’m not a big fan of Kline so this does not generate a giant “Yipeeee!” from me. It does, however, show that the paper is not categorically censoring his work just because he may have had bad thoughts once. They may be more carefully reading his work and only using it when copy is sparse. This is probably the best approach to Kline’s work that any paper could take. I do worry that the local paper will specifically be looking for anything that hints at being non-theist so that they can block it. I do not know.

The second local paper update is that there was a letter that supported kline’s no god in public school piece.

They did it in the middle of a letter about something else. They did not mention Kline or his piece by name. They did address the central controversy. Here is what they wrote about the pledge of allegiance:

was written by a socialist minister and published in a children’s magazine roughly 120 years ago. The words “under God” were added in 1954.
Barbara Vogel, Tooele

Which is something.

So the local situation for atheism is somewhat less unambiguously hostile than it appeared.

The other current event issue has also become more ambiguous. When I wrote about global warming and our new governor it appeared as if he was riding a wave of LDS driven GCC denial. In my naiveté I actually attributed several things that politicians said to their actual positions on a mater or (in the most naïve cases) the truth. I grew up in the Washington DC area, I should know better.

Environmental issues fascinate me. There appears to be a side discussion going on in America that has gained center stage. Pictures of ill informed environmentalists arguing with agenda-driven lobbyists have become the standard images of the GCC debate. How we transition from science to emotional bloodletting is a modern tale that repeatedly grips us. If decisions cannot be better informed by science, without going through the emotional census taking, we will eventually be hurt in profound and widespread ways. There is undeniably a point at which decisions need to be made based on what we know and how well we know it.

I am a scientist, but not a climate scientist. I shy away from climate science because of its enormous complexity. Just because I am not willing to go to the lengths necessary to ferret out the transition from raw data to postulated effect does not mean I put my brain on standby. The loudest source of information on this subject is a shrill collection of environmentalist gadflies.

I do not mean the Al Gore type GCC stumble. There is a great need to get processed information out to the public on GCC. Al Gore made some mistakes in his presentation entitled “an inconvenient truth”. These mistakes were identifiable and addressable. One could even access the effect removal or correction of the mistakes would have on the presentation. Mistakes like those in “An inconvenient truth” and similar presentations are expected when large amounts of data are used to make a point. The presentation of the information can be refined. The depth of the presentation can be enhanced.

I run into problems with activists who feel their way through information instead of understanding it. When a writer, like Chip Ward, suggests that scientists should be viewed as presenting information only because they are paid to argue a point of view on an issue he poisons the only well of verifiable information.

Who are we to believe? Someone like Terry Tempest Williams who wrote in Refuge of the plight of cormorants caused by human encroachment on a wetland? Since when do cormorants and people not coexist well? Look at the LA docks. Read the children’s story Ping. Someone Bill McKibben who I once heard tell an audience that “the AIDS epidemic in Africa is largely over due to NGOs giving more power to women”.

There are many GCC deniers that do not irritate me as much as the science and information denying GCC responders. The main reason for this is that I agree with the basic conclusions purported by the environmental activists. When I listen to some of their approaches, some of their made-up points, some of their ignorant prioritizations I feel stupid for agreeing with them. The issue remains as clear as ever but my feelings towards a stand on it become muddled.

This update has to do with more muddling. I could have written it earlier but I was unclear on how I wanted to approach this.

Because of various statements I had begun viewing the GCC in Utah debate as one with a religious tie-in. Therefore talking about it would be appropriate for this blog. There is still rhetoric that suggests that there is a link between certain religious groups and denial of GCC. The unity of voice for that rhetoric is weaker than I had originally thought.

Shortly after I wrote the second GCC piece a quiver of professors from BYU presented Governor Garry H with a letter decrying his GCC denier stand and stating that action to address GCC needed to be taken. BYU is THE private religious college for the LDS church. If the church significantly disagrees with one’s position at the school they can have one thrown out. Official LDS church positions are often formed as a result of activities at BYU.

The public letter contrasted with Governor Gary H’s stand showed that there was no clear church position on this issue. I did not want to investigate or write much on what portions of the positions were less unclear.

GCC is an important issue. From what I’ve ascertained there needs to be a response to this threat. My motivation for lending a voice to the response is equivocal. I no longer believe that this blog is a good place for GCC related rants.

I may change my mind at any time.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Love Poetry

One of the most pernicious proofs of god's existence is the proof from love.
God is love (1 John 4:8)
Love exists
Therefore god exists.
This proof is not very convincing logically. All one has really done is redefined god to be love. One can go through the entire dictionary oversubscribing words to god in order to prove god's existence. God is chair, chair exists, therefore god exists. God is yellow, yellow exists, therefore god exists. This line of reasoning gets one no nearer any ideas and the absurd conclusion is a one word dictionary. The only reason that this proof is compelling is because of love. God does nothing to help us understand love.

If reason is the highest visible achievement of adaptive evolution then the portion of the iceberg under water is love. As much as thought, as much as wonder, humanity is love. We can look at the stars and wonder at the limits of practical infinity but the depth of a lovers eyes remain unfathomable. The very mechanisms we use to think have evolved to love at a level as basic as perception itself.

The use of love to “prove” that god exists leverages the apparently unknowable. Love appears close to magic in that it gains precedence over the thought mechanisms that would be used to understand it. A good analogy is trying to look at ones own eyes. No matter how hard you stare into space the eyes see and are not seen. Since you are looking with the eyes you cannot see them. Since you are loving with your mind you cannot understand love.

Of course we can see our own eyes. A simple mirror can give us a good view of our eyes. They can be photographed and imaged in greater detail than the eye alone is capable of resolving. We can create models of them and visualize their workings in our mind's eye. We can see our eyes very well indeed, just not by staring out into space.

Thinking about god is thinking in the wrong direction to understand love.

Some people might state, mistakenly I believe, that mystery makes love more interesting. Some may say that dissolving the magic shroud that conceals the operation of love in the mind would weaken love. As if reason could break the bonds evolution has constrained it with and throttle its emotional overlord. We have discovered ways to effect the action of love in the mind, but with chemistry rather than with understanding. The application of reason to love is more likely to wax romantic poetry than to eclipse the effects of love. Rather than antagonistic, reason and love are practiced bedfellows.

Few who have read this far believe that the love I'm talking about is anything other than love between two people; two lovers. The love that motivates bonding. Perhaps in another piece I will outline the evolutionary advantages that love affords. To most the advantages are obvious. It is easy to draw very attractive lines of reason that would blame much of the more laudable features of civilization on love.

Some would dilute the concept of love by dividing it into a million tiny scraps. Love is inexorably tied to attraction. The brain is like a chemical difference engine many of whose inputs are tied to the means of perception, which like thought, have evolved to service love before reason.

Plato, to whom “platonic love” (love without attraction) is blamed, recognized that attraction was a human imperative:

Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet. 

Everyone becomes a poet, and there are a LOT of unfortunate poets. The cacophony of discordant rhyme is just proof to the universality of love. Who has not caught themselves singing a line from a bad song just a little farther out of key and a little more off beat?

I have written earlier about flow. I have written about using the language of spirituality to create mechanisms of action where reason is the wrong tool to use. I have suggested that many of the constructs of human knowledge are useful regardless of the unfortunate terminology they have been transcribed using. This is true for nothing so much as love.

More than most I have proclaimed love. I have been guilty of bad verse proclaimed to closed walls, to open vistas, face to face with lovers. There is something about the touch of a lovers hand beneath a sunset that creates poetry from fractured words and phrases. Luckily love has a small effect on the hearing of poetry as well. I'm not sure civilization would have survived without that later effect.

Away with your fictions of flimsy romance,
Those tissues of falsehood which folly has wove !
Give me the mild beam of the soul-breathing glance,
Or the rapture which dwells on the first kiss of love.
Lord George Byron (The first kiss of love)

Of the aspects of humanity few things are as defining as love. Even for the most introspective of us love can short-circuit the patterns of self reference that are critical to defining personality. This may sound like obfuscated romantic poetry, though I am certainly not above that diversion, this statement arises from modern neuroscience not Yeats.

When people fall in love the body is awash in neuroactive chemicals. For up to a year NGF (nerve growth factor) is elevated. Testosterone and esterogen are realeased at the meare suggestion of the lover. Each of these chemicals can acctually cause long-term physiological changes in an individual. Increases in hormone-responsive tissue and potential nerve pathway reinforcement permanently change the person in response to their lover.

Each neurotansmitter associated with mood (serotoninn, dopamine, melotonin....) are modulated in response to love. Drugs that can down-regulate these chemicals have been shown to down-regulate the capacity for romantic love more effectively than they have been shown to treat the illnesses for which they are prescribed.

God is not love - you are. You become love when you become a lover. The transformation is saturating and undeniable. It can, however, be stopped and reversed.

Why would one want to though? What is humanity without love?

Love is a canvas furnished by Nature and embroidered by imagination.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Go with the flow

Once, when I was much younger, I overheard a conversation about baseball and Calculus.  The conversation basically centered around the question of whether baseball players were just innately good at solving Calculus problems on the fly.  

The proposition being debated was this:
“Calculus is the best way to solve the intercepting trajectory problems needed to compete favorably in baseball.  The baseball players perform as if they know the answers that would be generated by multivariable calculus. The baseball players must be calculating the answers to these complex problems in a subtle and profound way.”

The proposition stems from the idea that once you have a "best" way of doing something the way to do it faster is to simply be faster at doing it.  Listening to this statement with 21st century ears paints it a special brand of absurdity.  Picture someone saying that the fastest way to get from one coast to another is to walk as fast as you can!?  Why not get in a car, or a train, or a plane?  Walking may be a "best" way of betting from point A to point B but it is not the fastest in most circumstances.  The method dictates both the skillset needed to perform the activity and the way we measure success in the activity. 

Do the same rules apply when discussing thought?  Of course they do.  The method used to tackle a problem defines how we look at the answer and how we learn to achieve the answer.  A child may learn to add by counting their fingers and toes.  This works to develop an answering strategy.  The child may then memorize a set of addition tables.  This provides a larger set of answers faster, but does not provide the visual verification that the physical toe/finger  sum provides. 

One of the more emotional sources of resistance to the transition to atheist life is the silly notion that all thinking must be done using reason, specifically scientific reason.  The baseball player the elders argued about would be forced to do Calculus.  Playing “by feel” would be too spiritual.  If the players used some sort of visualization device like chi or guiding forces they might as well set up to begin a proof of some theist god's existence, wouldn't they?  Of course not!

The scientific method is an approach to reasoning that plods through information.  It is extremely good at establishing baseline information but it cannot be used to apply baseline information to actually doing much of anything.  

The next leap of reasoning is that of the engineering method.  Science establishes principles; mix these principles with some materials, and you have engineering.  With engineering you can build and design and do stuff, but it takes time.  There is a rich history of people using engineering principles to establish baseline knowledge.  The results have sometimes been wacky and wildly inaccurate theories.  There is little historical evidence of people using science to create great tangible things.  

Reason is diluted even more in the performance of most human activities.  It is easier to just know, or better yet just feel, when time is of the essence. 

When driving a car on a wet road it is possible to feel how well the tires are gripping the road simply by comparing the handling of the car with a memory of how the car handled on a dry road.  A very experienced driver anticipates the movement of the vehicle based on a series of instantaneous comparisons to a multitude of similar experiences.  In traffic a driver anticipates other drivers as well as the road melding a multitude of physical experiential memories to create a subliminally self referential method for driving.

If a person is as unidimensional as to only perform a single demanding function in their life it is fully conceivable that there would be no need for them to create a device to categorize their experiential methods for acting.  For someone who only drives all the time driving would only be driving.  Driving in the rain would only be driving in the rain. 

For most people there is much to be gained by creating categorizing tools that assist us when we apply patterns of experiential memory to a disparate things.  We can tell ourselves that doing something new is “just like” doing something we are familiar with. 

An advanced form of this is the use of a generalized feeling with a visual or tactile set of cues.  “feel the energy flowing through your body” or “see the lines of force connecting you to the intended action”.  Because these methods are used in the absence of reasoned verification they are often cited as examples of faith working.  If they are examples of faith working then the definition of faith that is used provides no evidence of anything supernatural.  I am describing the mind working without reason to perform actions for which the time lag imposed by reasoning impairs performing the action. 

Why, you might ask, am I going to such trouble to define the importance of types of thought that are entirely unscientific and, worse yet, steeped in the language of mumbo-jumbo? The answer is that in order to do anything cool one must first learn how to do cool stuff.  The algorithmic shortcuts that have been developed through thousands of years of human experience are described in an unfortunate language, but it is a language that can be understood.

Since I have a hard enough time doing things I am in no position to re-write the way masters have described doing them.  Instead I apply the knowledge of the 21st century to interpret these mechanistic descriptions.  This frees me from the need to appease spirits and daemons when doing anything that I must use “shortcut reasoning” to do well at.  It also allows me to get a more complete feel for the activity that I find enjoyable.

When balancing I am told to visualize the flow of energy called “chi”.  I avoid tensing my muscles and dampen overcorrection to minor perturbations in the balanced state.  I visualize a massless liquid that flows and sloshes. Each muscle is controlled, not in isolation, but as systems that respond to the flow of the imaginary liquid.  I do not have to calculate or postulate, the response is immediate.  What I use is akin to an applet called “balance”.

The thinking centers running the balance applet are the cerebellum and the cerebrum.  The reptilian brain perched on the brain stem can dictate actions quickly and efficiently but does so in an utterly unreasoning way.  In order to provide direction to the cerebellum the cerebrum must provide simple instructions.  Creating a virtual model of the instruction set (the visualization of liquid chi energy) facilitates the rapid indexing of the instructions.  When the cerebellum wants to know what to do next the answer is there.  The cerebellum does not care if the cerebrum is making logical sense.  It will twitch a muscle to respond to imaginary liquid energy as quickly as to the solution of a complex multivariate equation. 

The more that neural patterns of communication are used in the brain the stronger and more efficient they become.  The actual structure of the brain responds to the ways in which we think.  In this way the simple applet goes from software to firmware as it is used.  As one becomes better at visualizing the activity the more the visualization becomes unnecessary and we can become even more unthinking and automatic in our actions. 

Once the mental applet, described in the language of magic and superstition, is uploaded the need to describe it in supernatural terms disappears.  We can now identify the actions and describe them in terms of their effect.  Very complex actions are possible.  Identifying the process of learning them in an objective and nonmagical way only makes them a more powerful tool.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Evangelical atheist

I like the idea of an “evangelical atheist”.  There is worthy irony in using evangelical in this context.

I use the latest definition of evangelical which is: “marked by militant or crusading zeal”. However, it is impossible to use the word without traces of its origin clinging to it like a odor.  The original Evangelical churches (In the early part of the last century) were, along with some Lutheran churches, part of the Landeskirchen (state run churches) in Germany.  The Evangelical churches lobbied unsuccessfully to be the official church for the National Socialists in the early 1930s.  It was partially due to the zeal of that sales attempt that the term evangelical was resurrected in the 1970's as a descriptor that some conservative Christians began using to distinguish themselves from Fundamentalists.  The definition I use comes from describing zeal as being like that of members of the evangelical groups that arose in the 1970s.

The god of the evangelical Christian churches is very interventionist. Want a truly awkward god? The evangelical Christian churches have one for you.

In addition to an interventionist god the evangelicals believe in being quite interventionist themselves.  The evangelical wants to convert you to their belief.  Since I have said I like the idea of being an evangelical atheist does this mean I want you to be an atheist?  Yes it does actually.

Why do I care if you are an atheist? I care because I think you can use the tools of reason to make a happier life for yourself. Just as with suffering there is no shortage of potential happiness. Why don't you pick up a little more happiness for yourself?

Since I have gone to the trouble of usurping a definition I think it only proper that I steal a few other things.

David Bebbington has deffined a “quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism”which he says are:
conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism
I plan on stealing all of the useful bits from this quadrilateral of made up words.

Firstly I should point out that I use the term quadrilateral in the disjointedly stilted way that Bebbington does. It looks to me like he stole the word from the Wesleyans who used the term to define an approach to their religious method (they are often called methodists). The Wesleyan quadrilateral is scripture, tradition, experience and reason. Why the Wesleyans took a name for a four-sided polygon to desribe their set of principles is beyond me. Why Bebbington would steal the poorly thought out Wesleyan term to describe his set of concepts is even more strange. Did anyone stop and think “does this make sense”. Perhaps they did and arrived at the same conclusion I did. The conclusion that it does not make sense and is therefore more humorous to use.

As mentioned earlier the idea of Conversionism helps make the term evangelical worth taking in the first place. I want YOU to join in the new atheist movement.

Activism is pretty self explanatory. Get active, write down what the new atheism means to you and share it. Let your representatives know that you are an atheist and you vote. Let people know that atheists are people with faces and not evil forces plotting to destroy humanity.

Biblicism sounds made up, and probably is. The idea that perfect knowledge comes from the bible is difficult to adapt directly to an atheist “quadrilateral of priorities”. I will adroitly sidestep this problem by simply spelling this wrong and giving it a new meaning. “Biblioism” is also a made up word but it looks similar and and since it doesn't look like it has officially been invented before I can define it. I define it to mean “Leveraging the property of human knowledge wherein every human idea can be written down so that others can read and understand it”. This is obviously an important concept. It means that people can comprehensively communicate everything they think with one another in a archival format and that there is a now named pursuit of accomplishing just that. There are many facets to this activity. This is an ambitious enterprise worthy of being one of the four elements of the quadrilateral of an evangelical movement.

Crucicentism is also a made up word. It means that mutilation of somebody centuries ago is important to you after you die. All the elements of this concept are difficult to examine. As an atheist I find the concept described by this word as vapid as it is ephemeral. We need a better word, and a better more substantial concept. I propose the word “Amorism”. This is a word with at least a century of re-deffinition behind it. I think it is time to define it again. I define it as “Loving and finding ways and means to love more”. I have obviously saved the best concept of my evangelical Atheist quadrilateral for last. We are more than just atheists, we are human atheists. We want you to be part of our world because we love you and shedding the vestiges of guilt-driven vengeful iron-age theist gods frees us to love even more.

Conversionism, Activism, Biblioism, and Amorism.  
Join, Do, Read, Love.

Without anything to really sign up for the Conversionism will have to be more virtual. Perhaps you can click on the scarlet A on the upper right hand side of my blog and get some ideas on how to display your conversion from the OUT campaign. The Activism might be better served if I had a list of things to do but I'm not really good at to-do lists so that will have to wait. I'm writing some stuff so perhaps you can read my blog and understand it. Biblioism, thats one out of four. For the final one (Amorism) I simply need to find ways of loving people even more than I do now. That one sounds as easy as sleeping in on a lazy Sunday morning.

As practiced by me the atheist quadrilateral may actually be an atheist line segment. A line segment is better than a point. 

We can do this.
Better yet, I can do this.
Let's get it on.

Evangelist, n., A bearer of good tidings, particularly (in a religious sense) such as assure us of our own salvation and the damnation of our neighbors.
-- Ambrose Bierce

Monday, January 4, 2010

Brown goo

Ever since I discovered the difference a small package of goo would bring to my long weekend bike-rides I have been a rabid advocate for the stuff. All the manufacturers I have tried (Powergel, Gu, Clif-shots) appear to make both palatable and hideous concoctions of this wonder-glue. None of the flavors I have tried are particularly great. Some are very industrial and have an aftertaste that, in California, must require a warning for pregnant mothers.

The commercial packages are interesting also. The act of squeezing out the sticky substance while pedaling hard and steering usually makes for some spillage. The spillage gets on the handlebars and onto your face and everywhere. Sometimes bits of road flotsam sticks to the primed surfaces. It is hard to look dashing with leaves or candy wrappers stuck to ones face.

The worst part about them is their price. These wonder packets run almost a dollar apiece in quantity. If you do not buy up a rack of the stuff you might be lucky not to be left with some baby vomit flavor on the shelf leading up to a major event.

So I decided to make my own.

There are many on-line homemade gel recipes. They range from the marvelous, like mine, to the absolutely horrid. One of the more thoughtful approaches to gel recipes I found was done by some fellow called Jim Ley and can be found on his website.

My recipe requires espresso.  Fresh espresso.  Fresh espresso made with distilled water, though other purification techniques or even fresh spring water should work well.  I use an Italian stove-top espresso maker. 

To the hot espresso I add about 1/8 tsp of salt per 2 cup2.  This is about 4X the amount of salt that would be recommended if you used some commercial salt suppliment like lava salts.  I sometimes use lavasalts to good effect. 

Fresh Honey is then added to taste.  About 1 TBSP offsets the salt taste enough to make the espresso drinkable again.  Sometimes I use up to 3 TBSP to make it extra sweet.

Next comes the process of making the goo gooey.  Maltodextrin is available from many sources.  I was lucky enough to get a multi-pound bottle in a clearance bin of a supermarket.  I have recently run out and I am shopping for a good price on some.  This material is an oligosaccharide.  Chemically it is not quite a starch and a whole lot more than a simple sugar.  This changes the glycemic index of the material.  The calories are still readily available but they do not cause the sugar crash that simple candies can cause.  I have also not suffered stomach issues though I could probably eat anchovy pizza an my long rides and be OK.

Maltodextrin is added until the material reaches a consistency of thin syrup. The kind of syrup they serve at IHOP.  This is almost two cups per two cup batch.  Since the maltodextrin settles this should be done by feel rather than by rote addition.  Also, add the maltodextrin slowly while stirring.  I have done this over low heat on the stove but have found this unnecessary when I make sure the espresso is hot and fresh.  You can tell that the viscosity is building up but it still flows well.  When the material cools the viscosity will go up significantly.  If you try and add maltodextrin until you reach a goo-like viscosity you will begin to get clumping of the maltodextrin. 

Finally I add a TBSP per two cup batch of modified corn starch.  There are several types this material that work well and are readily available.  I have used bot "Wonder starch" from the supermarket bakery section and "ThickIt" which I got from the pharmacy section of WalMart.  The modified cornstarch dissolves easily and gives the material an extra gooeyness.  The starch is quite effective an if you do not want paste instead of goo use it sparingly.

I had tried so-called gel-flasks a couple of times and found that they worked well enough. Each flask carries about 4 ounces of gel. This is about 4 packets give-or-take. It is easiest to dispense the material into the flasks while it is still hot.

Once in the gelflasks the goo can be frozen for future use.  I have frozen the material for up to five months and had it thaw out to be almost as good as new.

Each flask provides around 300 calories of pure carbohydrate fuel.

There you have my brown goo recipe.  Use it well if you use it.

Friday, January 1, 2010


New years is, by definition, one of the best documented and most anticipated calendar-driven holidays of the year. It is a celebration of dis-ambiguity. Although New Years Eve is associated with drunkenness and confusion, the first day of the calendar bring sobriety and purpose. That the timing of the holiday is arbitrary and it occurs in winter are two big pluses.

The most conspicuous element of the celebration of clarity is the New Year's resolution. People will suddenly see their way into gyms and exercise plans at rates that exceed any other week of the year. People will understand how to glean willpower enough to stop doing things like drinking or gambling or staring at the sun. Although these lofty goals are worthy I think they miss the true value of this date-driven celebration of disambiguity.

Making a new years resolution about something that has been nagging at the stem of your brain for months or years is hardly the stuff of revelation. “I can see clearly now what has been bothering me for some time?” is hardly the sort of statement that convinces the listener of the speaker's stability of purpose.

If something is important give it the attention it deserves. There is no reason to wait for a arbitrary holiday to act.

However, things that appear unimportant or whose context is star-crossed can blossom in the light of accidental holiday-induced attention. New Years is a great time to ask “what is awesome and how can I be a part of it?” Or, more pragmatically, “what is kinda cool and how can I go about doing it?”

I apply several constraints to my New Years resolutions.

First, they must be measurable. “I want to be happier” is nice but trying to asses the overall success in achieving this is more dependent on how I feel the day I do the assessment than the total happiness I may or may not have achieved. Severe subjectivity should also be avoided. Since I expect to change my point of view during the year what I may mean by a New Years Resolution might be very different from the standards I apply when assessing it.

Secondly it should not be too complex or overreaching. Changing everything about myself is a project that should be the product of multiple activities. Even lesser re-workings require a plan and a schedule and tools that are beyond the scope of a holiday-driven pronouncement. These projects are often done best as a continuous activity spanning a lifetime. The goals and methods for the large activities of life change and mutate as the life is lived. Very small portions of grand plans might be useful New Years Resolution fodder, the big plans themselves are not.

Thirdly they should be positive. “I will stop telling the greeter at WallMart that his fly is undone so often” is a goal begging for failure. “I will look at fresh produce and recite romantic poetry” is positive (And delightfully achievable I might add). “I have done this” is a success. “I have avoided doing this” is a lack of failure. Go for the brass ring.

Finally, they should be fun. “I am going to loose 300 pounds” may appear like it would set you up for fun but it is really just another way of saying “I've got 300 pounds to loose”. What would be fun to do? Since I like to eat I often use food-related goals. “I will try fresh durian” or “I will sample 12 different types of Korean pickled foodstuffs”.

Make it as fun as possible. You can add a bit of mystery. One year I resolved to “Try at least three really new caffeinated drinks” I found seven. Some of them were awful (like the stale Matte) but they were each a culinary adventure.

I find privacy is nice. Although something is gained by proclaiming a resolution on high the response of many is to judge, or worse, offer helpful advice. I personally do not discus specifics of my resolutions much until I have achieved them or another year's calendar has come off the wall. If pressed I lie about the specifics.

It is amazing how little detail people will want to know about your New Years Resolution when you tell them it is to “Be much nicer to the toothless lady at Jiffy Lube without actually French kissing her.” You, intrepid readers, would immediately see that this resolution violates several resolution guidelines. However, each of you is too well mannered to press further.

BTW one of my resolutions last year was to start this new blog and post into it at least four times.