Friendship and Wisdom

I've been thinking a lot about friendships and relationships lately. When you're young, you just sort of assume people will stay around until catastrophic actions happen. As you get older, you realize this is not the case. Sometimes we hurt each other, intentionally or unintentionally. I definitely have made mistakes with people; mistakes that I may not have even realized I committed, but saw later. Sometimes we are hurt by others. Sometimes it happens repeatedly. And sometimes, we just grow apart, as our goals and personalities and interests change.

In my youth, I genuinely felt people had the best intentions for me, as I did for them, unless they blatantly told me otherwise. I've fortunately moved on from that painful innocence, and realized that plenty of people can act kindly to our faces, but the buck stops there. I still try to do my best to help others whenever I can. If someone is acting in a bad way, I try to see what pain they may be moving through that is causing it. But I no longer allow myself to be stepped on for the betterment of others.  Sometimes people can be false friends because of their own jealousies. Sometimes they keep you around to feel better about themselves, but then if they feel that they no longer have the upper hand, they no longer want the friendship.

One of my most important friendships ended in an incredibly painful way, out of seemingly nowhere, due to this. Sometimes they subconsciously don't feel they deserve a true friendship, and will sabotage it because they feel that's what they deserve. I've seen that happen too. Sometimes they are selfish and put themselves first; looking back, I can see that I've done this before, though I try my best to make sure not to be that person any more. And sometimes things end for reasons we will never be able to rationalize. We are long lived, and that's just how it goes.

Eventually you find out...and it's a tough realization, but honestly not everyone is good for you. Not everyone can deserve friendship. They can always deserve love, and caring, and for your best hopes. But you can't always let them into your circle. You don't have the time, or the energy, because eventually putting yourself out there for everyone will consume you. Some people will try to take all of you. I've learned to curate my friendships. I've learned that I no longer have a wide sphere; I have a close circle.

But here's what I have found to be a silver lining, because with age comes wisdom (even for someone as stubborn as me). Sometimes people stick with you, and give you more chances than you deserve. And sometimes you do the same for others. And as time goes on, and you assess people around you and your own goals, I realize something.  I am closest to people who are trying to do their best. They are setting goals, and sometimes missing them, but always trying for them. The more I have surrounded myself with people of strong moral code and ambition, the more I have found, you really ARE more like the people you spend time with. And I find that the spaces that were filled by those with bad, or mediocre, feeling for me, are now filled by those who genuinely care for, and inspire me. I've replaced what used to be a crystal necklace of friendship, with a bracelet of diamonds. And that can only come with time and age, and it is one of the sweetest parts of getting older that I've found.

I have friends now from every stage of my life, and we have all changed and adapted and learned, but we have stuck together. The wisdom to be discerning in who I let into my heart, is a lesson that hurt to learn, but was worth learning. And to those of you here, who have stuck with me through my trials, through my darkest days and years, I raise my glass to you. Thank you for being here for me, and I am here for you.

Happy New Year!

It's a popular idea to hate 2016, but personally for me it was a good year. If you follow my favorite advice and pay attention to the things that happen in your day to day life, instead of what the 24 hours news cycle media monster wants you to believe, maybe your year wasn't all bad either. Business wise this year was a big success for me, my family is happy and healthy, and I learned all kinds of new things. I hope yours was similar. Here's to a brand new year full of new ideas, learning, loving our neighbors, friends and family, and doing the best we can. 

 

 

Part like a Viking.  

Part like a Viking.  

Goodnight, Princess

Yesterday, Carrie Fisher died. She'd had a massive heart attack on Christmas Eve, and succumbed on December 27. She was 60 years old.

I'm still sort of in shock about it. Considering the fact that I never even saw Carrie in real life, let alone know her, she had a large impact on me. I hadn't even really considered it, until suddenly she wasn't here anymore.

As with so many other people born in the 80s, I was a huge Star Wars fan. Still am, in fact. (LOVED Rogue One, in case you're wondering). Obviously Leia was one of the main characters, and since she's really the only female of note in the original trilogy, she was the one I gravitated to. That fancy hair, those flowing white robes. Sassy, smart, fierce, and still gorgeous. Some people found her too prickly; I say that's a good thing for a girl in a man's world. 

For a little girl growing up just after the blatant sexploitation era, it was a great thing to have a strong female role model in such a popular series. I know Wonder Woman existed as well, but I was a bit too young to get into that. As far as sci-fi women went, she was really in a league of her own. Think of how recently Barbarella had been the most famous sci-fi female. I'm not knocking her; it takes all kinds to make a world (although I've got some thoughts on Jane Fonda herself) and she's definitely entertaining. But as the mother of a tiny little Shieldmaiden, I can tell you hands down Leia is the one I want to be an influence, any day. 

Carrie was smart and witty, and you can clearly see that in the way she played Leia. She was imperfect and feisty, and still came off as feminine. What a great thing for little girls to see. A few years ago there was a tempest in a teapot where a male said, "What am I supposed to tell my daughter?" About why there were slave leia action figures. Carrie's response: 

"The father who flipped out about it, 'What am I going to tell my kid about why she’s in that outfit?' Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it. And then I took it off. Backstage."

I feel that's such a perfect response. It states that bad things can happen to women, but it's up to us to control what occurs after. What an important, and realistic, lesson for little girls. Don't deny the facts of the world; teach our little ones how to handle them instead. 

I believe women deserve the chance to try to be whatever we want, but I equally believe we can't all fit into every role. Leia was a representation of doing the best with what we have in bad circumstances, and excelling at it. As General Organa, she reached the ultimate role of wisdom and power. I hope my little girl looks up to her as I did, and I hope that later she learns about the smart, witty, honest woman who played her. The Star Wars world lost a bright star unexpectedly, and it's a sad thing. But at least we will have Leia and General Organa for our little girls for years to come.

Winter Solstice and the Doldrums

Hello, dear readers. It's December 21st, officially the longest night (or shortest day) of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. As with so many other denizens of this planet, current and past, I mark this day strongly in my personal calendar. In my head, as autumn closes and it gets harder to be motivated to do things, I keep track of how close we are to the solstice. Because it always feels to me, after Christmas has passed, that January and February seem unduly long. It's a long, dark, cold plain. But I remind myself of this: the solstice has passed. The days ARE getting longer, even if it doesn't feel like it. We turn our faces, so slowly, back to the sun.

It used to bother me a lot more, to have so much time in the darkness and cold. Now I try to embrace it; "embrace every season" is a phrase I say to myself quite a bit, and in a variety of applications. But I started saying it for winter.

No matter how positive I try to make my attitude, the lack of sunlight still does get me down at some point. But I don't mind it nearly as much as I did ten years ago. And this is what I try to do to embrace the winter.

I fully throw myself into my Christmas preparations, especially since I have two very small children. I make cookies, send out cards, make gifts, sing the songs, watch the movies, and eat all the comfort foods. After all, they are named that for a reason. We've been celebrating the solstice season the same way for thousands of years here in the northern reaches of the planet: feasts, company, wearing the little bits of green and red we can find in the grays and browns of winter.

But I don't stop there. Because I think that's a trap I used to fall into. I'd enjoy the heck out of Christmas; even as a kid. My parents were amazing at making Christmas magical for us kids, and I feel safe in saying that feeling hasn't left us as adults. But I used to get to January 2 and think, "now what?" All that society tells us we have to look forward to then is the inevitable disappointment of making and breaking New Year's resolutions. Heck, no wonder we get so sad at this point! So, I've thrown the resolutions out the window. 

But I have accepted that I'm really not going to hold myself to a high standard between Thanksgiving and New Years on many goals. I'm not going to exercise as much as normal, I'm going to indulge more than I should in delicious sugary and unhealthy treats (and more than a couple libations), and I'm going to buy some presents for myself while I buy presents for others. And I'm not going to have resolutions for the New Year. But I DO recognize that I am cyclical, just like the length of days and nights on this planet, and I embrace that. I allow myself to go into what I think of as "hibernation" mode during this time. I rest more, I'm easier on myself, and I let more of my defenses down and let a bit more gentleness out. But this is all in recognition that after the days start to get longer, so will my own personal regimen.

As the year begins, I recognize that I can't keep my own personal December soma holiday going. Slowly, I start working on myself again. I don't tie it to one day, but I know that it feels right within the first couple weeks of the year. I realize that I can't eat treats as much, I make myself move more again. And I start to work on welcoming the sun back into my life. It feels healthy to me this way. Even though the days are cold, I do keep the cozy feeling going. I've taken pages from the Norwegian book on this, and I embrace the idea of "koselig" (which basically means coziness). In the evenings I light candles and make warm teas and drinks. I invite people over to chat even though it's dark and cold. I make warm food, but less cookies. I have come to embrace the idea of "there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear", and so I dress my children and I warmly and we go enjoy the fact that we don't have to worry about sunstroke or mosquitoes or ticks. I even enjoy shoveling snow (for a while, at least).

So many people in the US find it so hard to shake off the doldrums in the winter months. I understand that; I've struggled with it too. But adapting my behavior to embrace the negatives and find the positives within them, has made winter something I look forward to now. And here's the thing about "the doldrums". That term is a nautical one that has become part of the common lexicon. The doldrums are areas in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans that are usually areas of low pressure. As such, for hundreds of miles, there is barely any wind. That's not a big deal now, because of course we don't depend on wind for most ship transport. But when sailing was nearly the only way to travel, hitting the doldrums was a big deal. You'd be becalmed for potentially weeks, working through rations, sitting bored in still heat. Most likely on a ship with at least one person you couldn't stand (let's be honest here). So no one looked forward to it, but eventually, they DO end. And the same is true of our winter doldrums. Make a plan, embrace the potential suck, and realize that this too shall pass. And soon enough you'll get more sunlight, so then you should embrace that, and move your body and love the breeze. But for now, embrace the warm cuddly silence of winter, let yourself relax a bit, and remember that the doldrums end.

Welfare, and the Relevant Conversation We Need to Prepare Ourselves For

I like to try to approach things with an open mind, and learn and adapt when confronted with new data. It's a human foible to want to cling steadfastly to an idea, and I try to release myself from it whenever possible. In the last few years, I've realized that I need to adapt my way of thinking for a different human scenario that we are likely to be confronted with sooner than we think. And that has to do with the welfare state, and, as so much that I talk about, technology.

A theme that I harp on quite a bit is trying to live a balanced life in a world that is increasingly aslant. I've written several posts that revolve around that idea, and I'm sure I'm not done yet. Give me a topic and I'll yammer on, trust me. But essentially a few of the ideas for leading a fulfilling life in a world that is doing everything it can to distract us from that are: 

  • Try to move around every day. Depression hates a moving target. Do some pushups, do some squats, walk and run, jump rope. Any motion is better than no motion.
  • Create something physical whenever possible. You don't have to make a masterpiece, and as any artist can tell you, creation is mostly about failures. But the satisfaction of having something tangible will satisfy something in you that nothing else will. Hence my candle business for example.
  • Avoid creating an echo chamber that reinforces your own opinions. Seek conflicting information and try to learn. 
  • Read! It doesn't matter what. Read cookbooks if you want. Read science fiction (we all know I love it), find history books that engage you. Just read. It engages your mind, as does exercise, and helps fight off mental apathy.
  • Keep moving forward! Set goals and work towards them. If you don't, all of a sudden you'll realize 20 years passed without accomplishing anything. It's never to late to start making goals and growing. Make sure not to only set large ones, either. Set small ones as well so you are always seeing progress somewhere; that way you don't get frustrated and bored on the way to meeting large ones.
  • Move with kindness and compassion. Stand for your convictions, but remember everyone has arrived at different points in life due to a lot of circumstances, and be compassionate. No one ever looked good by berating someone who was in pain. Help others whenever possible, both through charity contribution and through charitable acts.
  • Surround yourself with intelligent people who motivate you and do good things. Understand that no one is perfect, but having people that inspire you to live a better life will help insure that you live a better life. I'm blessed to know some of the most inspiring people on this planet, and I'm not being hyperbolic. 

That's just a partial list, but it's a good starting place. It doesn't take a lot of reading between the lines to see that I'm someone who believes in working towards things. And as such, as you might imagine, I believe that government handouts and welfare are a two-edged sword. I absolutely understand that there are circumstances in which people are thrown off-kilter and can't get back on their feet alone. This life is not easy on any of us, but it's also harder on some. While I believe that it's essential to help others and be compassionate, I also think that large government offices established to fulfill that role are not ideal. First of all, I've been working in the government for the last decade, and can fully reinforce how much waste of funding there is when there's no capitalism involved. I've seen plenty of chairs filled for the sake of securing funding. 

The other problem with large government offices doling out....well, the dole...is the atrophy to the recipients over time. It's a truism of human nature that if we don't have to work for something, eventually, we don't appreciate it. Even if at the beginning we did. We start to see it as something that we deserve, and desire to give nothing back. That feeling is really a poisonous one, and I'm not blaming the people who fall into it. I'm not shirking the responsibility of the receiver here, but I really think it's just a symptom of depression, when we don't feel we're contributing. And it can make us selfish and petty. So I'm a big fan of welfare programs that also give the recipients a purpose. The New Deal building programs changed over time into something that I applaud less, but the initial programs that gave us dams, parks, schools, and much more, built by citizens who were crushed beneath the Great Depression, had a lot that I liked. People didn't atrophy due to lack of motivation; they could see that they were doing something for their community while they got off their feet. That was huge.

So where am I going with this? Well, I've realized something. I'm not the first or only person to think about it, but I like to talk here about things that are rattling around my brain. The last several years have had extremely heated conversations about "handouts" and welfare state behaviors. Belief that work and the feeling of contribution is essential to mental well-being obviously puts me on a certain side in the current conversation. But that conversation is about to go through a fundamental change. 

Within the next decade or so, humanity is going to go through another fundamental upheaval. The population of the earth has ballooned since the 1730s from less than 1 billion to more than 8 billion. As that change has occurred, simultaneously there has been a huge leap forward in nearly every aspect of life due to technology changes. We are quickly approaching a nexus yet again. Within the next one to two decades, most jobs are going to be able to be taken over by AI programs or robots of some kind. That's not just true of the assembly line and customer service jobs that we already see (and as we talk about raising the minimum wage, the rush is coming faster to replace lower skill jobs with cheaper robots that don't require things like healthcare). That also applies to many of the higher level jobs too. Drones will soon be in everything from package delivery, piloting aircraft, driving trains and our own cars. Even now programs are intelligent enough to write NEW programs that can outperform programs written by humans. There are programs that are intelligent enough to design and create music, too. AI is going to be able to out-human us in nearly every human endeavor. That's frightening, but quickly coming closer. Brave New World, indeed. Although a perk that I see is that the outsourcing problem America has had will most likely quickly go away. While human personnel in India and China have taken many production jobs from the US, that will become an obsolete problem. While currently paying an overseas worker much less to than an American to do a job has undoubtedly affected production stateside, the price difference between an overseas robot and a US based robot likely won't be much different (at least not for long), so perhaps we'll see a lot of production return home. I hope so anyway.

So the "welfare" conversation is about to change. Suddenly, instead of requiring people to "find work", even those who would seek work of their own volition, are going to have a hard time finding a role. And in that scenario, we can't just allow millions of displaced workers to starve to death because they refuse to find a job. There just literally won't be enough jobs. It won't be a matter of cross training or getting a new field. Workers won't be needed. So what do we do? Humanity will fundamentally change. It will be necessary to have a basic universal wage for all the displaced people.

What I HOPE is that we will essentially end up in a "post-economy economy", of sorts. In the utopian view, it would be a situation in which people figure out how to adapt and happily live when their work isn't "necessary". My recommendation is that we all look into how the nobility of England occupied themselves in the 18th century. Learn languages, learn to draw, take exercise...maybe the waters at Bath, haha....read and write. Engage ourselves. But what I worry about is that we'll basically just stay heads down and argue on the internet even more. 

The stigma of "not having a job" is going to be much more universal before we know it. And we'd better learn how to adequately prepare ourselves for that era. Learn to be happy and make work for ourselves that doesn't result in wage, but satisfaction in other ways. Because those days are coming. Hopefully we can adapt and become more balanced, rounded, and embrace that change. The conversation will need to.

 

Post script for further reading: If you'd like an interesting book to read about rapid technology change and its implications for what it means to be human, I highly recommend "Future Shock" by Alvin Toffler. It was written in 1970 so it's not 100% accurate anymore (there have been even more leaps since then), but it's a good jumping off point for contemplation. "Brave New World" is a good cautionary tale about how to be the wrong sort of leisure class, but it is disconcertingly easy to think about it going that way.

Stuxnet and a Discussion about Weapons Responsibility

Have you heard of Stuxnet? If you haven't, you're in luck, because I'm a defense industry programming geek, and I'm about to give you a little bit of enlightenment. If you have, stick around anyway, because you'll get to hear me gush about it, and then get a little bit of my thoughts about weapons responsibility in the current technology age, and where I think it's going.

So, here's a 10,000 foot view of Stuxnet. Stuxnet was a computer virus that was uncovered in 2010 after shutting computers down at offices in Iran.  A Belarussian security company with business in Iran was notified of the technical problems with their clients, and discovered the virus was responsible. They quickly realized that they had a special circumstance was on their hands, and the entire cyber security industry was soon slack jawed with amazement at what they found.

A team of programmers at Symantec quickly started unraveling the code line by line, and found that they were dealing with something the likes of which had never been seen before. Most malware is made quickly and imperfectly, to snipe financial information from people, or in some cases to wreak havoc for havocs sake. The average worm is usually a small program that simple in its execution; millions of them are deployed a year. Stuxnet was 20-30 times larger than the average virus, and truly written as perfect code. It was real-life James Bond level sabotage, and it quickly was becoming apparent that it must have been sponsored by a state.

A couple of the things that make Stuxnet so unique were first of all in its delivery system. A computer virus has a couple of parallels to a conventional missile. It both needs a delivery system (the thing that powers it to get to the destination), and it needs the actual warhead, or weapons payload, that either steals, corrupts, or destroys data. In the STUXNET virus, there was a very rare exploit called a zero day vulnerability. These are really unicorns in the cyber security realm. A zero day vulnerability is an undisclosed security vulnerability (in this case in the Windows OS, although they can affect systems, browsers, or other programs); they go for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the black and gray markets, because as soon as they are discovered they are patched. There are also bounties by many of the large computer and developer companies, so if a bug is discovered, the person who sends it to the company can get paid. Not only did Stuxnet use one zero day, it had FOUR. Just paying for the exploits alone could cost nearly a million dollars in the black market. Clearly the average teenage hacker trying to skim money for Pokemon cards would not be able to afford this level of investment. To blow all four exploits simultaneously was another curious event; clearly wherever the creators wanted to attack, they were willing to pay very high stakes to get there.

The second part of a virus after the delivery system, is the payload. In this case, there was another first time situation. After lots of research and work, they discovered that Stuxnet was targeting a very specific set of machines made by Siemens. They are a type of industrial computer called a "Programmable Logic Controller", or PLC. PLCs are used to control industrial processes, and are used in applications from power plants, to assembly line production, water purification plants, or....nuclear power plants. Further digging (I'm skipping a lot here) revealed that Stuxnet was specifically targeting PLCs that were in nuclear sites in Iran. The virus was discovered on millions of machines around the world, but didn't do anything except lie dormant and spread itself....until it hit the uranium enrichment facilities in Iran.

So what happened once it was there? Well, this exceptional piece of perfect sabotage, after establishing it was on the exact machines it needed to be, slipped into the controls for the centrifuges to make nuclear material. It would lie dormant for 13 days and record the behavior of the centrifuge monitors. Centrifuges enrich uranium in "cascades"; they spin the uranium at very specific and delicate speeds to mesh the atoms into a stronger material. Most nuclear power plants use 3% enriched uranium; weapons grade is above 70%. The Iranian materiel was at well above those levels when the centrifuges were working. What Stuxnet did to the centrifuges was adjust the RPM levels from 1,064 hertz for to 1,410 hertz for 15 minutes. The process is so delicate that this was enough to throw the centrifuges off center and ruin them. While the engineers were hearing the changes (the affected centrifuges were clearly making a loud sound they were NOT supposed to make), the virus was replaying the recorded data from the previous 13 days on the monitoring displays. A few days later, it would do the opposite, and slow the revolutions of the centrifuge down to a few hundred RPMs. And this went on for a few YEARS without being uncovered.

Stuxnet perfectly covered its tracks so that it was nearly impossible to find it at first. It hid itself from programmers, and spread its attack thin enough that no one was quite sure what was responsible.

What was ultimately the tipoff was that whoever made Stuxnet got impatient and put the four zero days in, ensuring widespread dissemination, and therefore a high likelihood of discovery. And discovery happened.

When it was discovered, it was discovered on PLCs all over the world, and made the cyber security industry work itself into an awed tizzy while they tried to figure out what it was for. It's hard to quickly state how perfect the software was, but it was akin to an SR-71 doing a low flyby on the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. But now it was out there, and known, and the revolutionary theories that made it work were, for better or worse, in the hands of the worldwide community.

You see, unlike a conventional weapon that destroys itself upon detonation, the entire blueprint of a virus is retained in its full form wherever it goes. Especially when it's made for wide dissemination...even if it doesn't deploy its warhead. 

So now the worldwide cyber community had a blueprint for a perfect cyber weapon. And in fact, we've already seen several of the features used in attacks since then. So the question that is now asked between the world powers is, "Should we have a cyber weapons treaty?" 

And that's what I find really interesting. Because I think it's a question that is coming from the wrong perspective, in a way. I do think there's room for cyber weapons treaties, as we have nuclear treaties and bioweapons treaties. But I also think the conversation is sort of missing the point. Because nuclear and bioweapons DO have similarities to cyber weapons, in that it can affect human populations on a  total warfare scale. A city or country can be decimated by cyber sabotage of critical systems like the power grid, communications, and water systems. Absolutely. But the difference between a cyber weapon and nuclear or biological weapons (or any other weapon in history) is that, also in the realm of "total warfare", a cyber weapon that can affect millions does not need to be deployed by a nation state. For the first time, an individual with technical acumen and a dearth of compassion could act with the power of a state. What I mean by this is that an individual (or handful of individuals) with the right skill set and knowledge is very closely coming to the point where they can affect the same amount of people as a conventional weapon, thereby having state level power....with just a laptop and internet connection. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when.

As we increasingly see botnets interacting with the "internet of things" (i.e. common devices like washing machines, refrigerators, printers, and so on, with wifi networks), we are rapidly seeing the horizon line drawing closer on the tipping point between convenience and losing it all. The solution is increased security, of course, but no one likes to pay more for security, so it gets left behind. The more our lives intertwine, the more vulnerable we are to this sort of attack. And a cyber weapons treaty isn't enough to prevent it from happening, when in the near future individuals will have more power than states in certain circumstances.

PLCs are a great thing, but if we don't close the gap as quickly as possible between security and vulnerability, someone somewhere will pay the cost. Thank goodness the first true cyber weapon was perfectly created and resulted in no collateral damage in its first attacks. It's too bad the intelligence is now out there for others with less good intentions to hone and redeploy.

So the next time you hear someone complaining about the overreach of the NSA or cyber government programs, don't forget the overreach of individuals that they are trying to protect us from. I'm all for Iranian centrifuges getting shut down, but I shudder to think of PLCs getting affected in civilian areas. Thank you to the watchers and the guardians in the cyber wars, because without them we are truly alone in a dark night, and the wolves are always at the door.

Pearl Harbor 75th Anniversary: A perspective from a "millennial"

75 years ago today Pearl Harbor happened. It's been on my mind all day, although I'm just now putting pen to page. The shock of that morning has always brought me to tears, though I wasn't even born for another 41 years. I try to place myself into the shoes of people on that day, and I find myself shaken.

In a world already wrought with unrest, and America caught between two warring fronts of terrifying proportion and building terror. To be someone who was all too familiar with the horrors of war; after all just 23 years before the horrors of World War I had concluded, and many people were still scarred and maimed, spiritually, mentally, and physically, from that experience. Now the same power was raising its head in the East (and being terrifyingly successful); to the West, the atrocities and whispers of acts like the Rape of Nanking were creeping in. The Germans and the Japanese were knocking, and we were hoping to find a clear path without being frayed by warfare again so soon. The country was only just over 150 years old, and there had already been so much exhaustion.

Just crawling from beneath the wreckage of the dust bowl and the great depression, and now the storms on every horizon. Can you imagine the oppression on the hearts of the average American at that time? No wonder Americana was such a large cultural force: cling to each other, cling to our history, and think about baseball, movies, and dancing as much as possible. It was a terrifying time. And that was what it would have felt like on December 6, 1941.

Now picture the morning of December 7. A shocking attack out of nowhere (to most citizens, though the signs were there for leadership in retrospect, but the pieces put together too slowly to prevent the attack). That morning it must have felt like a lightning bolt that struck right in the stomach....but you knew the bolt would come sometime. Maybe there was a feeling of sick inevitability, in a world so topsy-turvy and so recently cruel. We knew we'd get pulled in, but not like this, not NOW. A shock attack, cowardly and early in the morning on a Sunday, perfectly calculated to maximize the carnage of those simply trying to rest. Right before Christmas, on a beautiful Sunday morning, before church. 

2,403 military men were killed that morning; many of them drowned in the hulls of the ships they slept on, in a force at peace. Men like people we know now, who surround us every day. People who had children, who wanted children. There must have been someone who died that loved reading too much, and his brothers teased him for having his nose in a book all the time. There must have been someone who died that took care of every stray animal who came his way. Another who wrote home to his little brothers and sisters every week, and sent them his pay, to help, since the farm still hadn't recovered. There must have been someone who hated to talk, but had a sweet smile if you caught it. They loved, they laughed, they hoped, and they dreamed. They knew they were in a world at war, and they would be pulled into it...but they didn't even get the chance. The horror of that morning resonates today just as strongly as it did then, because our clothes and styles change, but humans don't. They were the same as us. 

And thus they were pulled into the war, and our country was pulled into the war, and our world was never the same. And we learned once again through tribulation who we were and what mattered, and did what we needed to do to make it as right as we could. The sleeping dragon was awoken, and didn't sleep again until after Jimmy Doolittle had his raid, and bombs were dropped, and millions of lives were irrevocably changed. But things were still better than they would have been if we had turned our cheek the other way.

So now, it is 75 years later. And to many it feels as though it's ancient history, and eventually it will be. But to me it feels like it could have happened yesterday, and every year I cry on this day in remembrance of those who were lost, and thank them for their sacrifice. Because the world is still made up of people, just as it was then, and that shock feels just as real now as it did to people then. We try to do the best we can, but sometimes someone decides they need to try to take it. And then we have to fight.

Why I'm so excited about General Mattis as Secretary of Defense

I have been very excited about the possibility of General Mattis as potential Secretary of Defense in the new administration, and the closer we get to an official announcement, the more my excitement increases. In fact I've been buzzing like a school girl about it, and an old friend the other day asked me why. That's when I was once again reminded that not everyone automatically has the same knowledge as me, and that sometimes I need to explain myself rather than just flamboyantly tap dance around waving a flag and yelling "Whoo hoo!"

So I'll use part of my response to her here, and I'll flesh it out a bit more as well, about why I (and many other members of the Defense community) are acting like kids on Christmas morning about this possible pick:

General Mattis is renowned throughout the Marine Corps (and the military community in general) as being a very pragmatic man, who knows how to get things done, has the best interest of the country and his people at heart, and isn't afraid to step on bureaucratic toes. He embodies the "warrior scholar" ideal, he is well read and very intelligent. He doesn't have any interest in anything but doing the job the right way, and is seen as a leader who will make good decisions even if they are politically unfavorable (a big deal in an era when many members of the flag ranks are seen as being willing to sacrifice ideals for politics in order to secure a civilian job after they retire). He is (as far as I can tell) universally respected, and a very rare man. He also has an amazing sense of humor and is known for his non sequiturs. A great leader and man. Here is an article that has an email he wrote in response to someone asking what to do when they said their officers didn't have time to read. 

I love the fact that he is so well read and employs his knowledge of history handily and without pretense, and travels with a library of books. He fully appreciates the importance of history in warfare, and in human nature. I feel that we haven't had the best luck in Defense Secretaries for having their fingers on the pulse of the military, and he would definitely not have that problem. He fully understands all levels of military life (check out one of my favorite stories about him) and hasn't let his position ever erode his humanity. He also has a fundamental understanding of the enemy, and I absolutely love how candid he is about it.

In an era of people saying whatever it takes to get the job, no matter their true beliefs and with nary a care for hypocrisy, General Mattis is a true throwback in his honesty. He knows his job, he loves it to his core, and he won't mince words about it. He's so good at being in Command that he rose to the top despite this time being one that mostly rewards people for checking boxes and glad-handing even in the highest levels, and he never let go of the truth to do it. That is a very large breath of fresh air. We've had several SecDefs who were definitely more political than actual, and while I usually like balance (a civilian SECDEF is in many ways a good thing, to balance out the bias that can come from a military background), in this case I'm sure he will do such a good job that I don't mind having a fully military person in the position. He's so informed, well-read and well-rounded that he has a pocketful of invisible civilian advisors riding on his shoulder at all times (as long as you are willing to listen to the wisdom of greats like Marcus Aurelius and Gertrude Bell). It's so refreshing to have someone who understands the importance of classical thought and teaching, instead of a MBA from an ivy league university.

I know I'm gushing here, but I can't help it. I've followed his career for years, and was very sad when he retired and wasn't made Commandant. This development is unforeseen and even better, so I'm on cloud nine. I've managed to get this far without stating the fact that he's a very formidable enemy to anyone who would go against us on his watch, but the man is known for his tenacity and true embodiment of the "devil dog" spirit. I can't hide my enthusiasm for this pick, and I figured I'd flesh it out a bit for those who might not have known more detail. 

In parting, here's a list of some of his best quotes, which cut straight through bs and right to the heart of every matter they are addressing: 

“Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”

-Gen. Mattis gave this piece of advice to Marines in Iraq, as quoted in “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq”

In a similar vein, Mattis has also said:  

“There are some people who think you have to hate them in order to shoot them. I don’t think you do. It’s just business.”

“There is nothing better than getting shot at and missed. It’s really great.”

On the flip side, the general would rather not be on the receiving end of it. 

“You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people.” 

Mattis said this during a 2005 panel in San Diego, California, according to a CNN transcript. Later, his boss Gen. Hagee chastised his frank speech, saying Mattis “should have chosen his words more carefully.”

“The first time you blow someone away is not an insignificant event. That said, there are some a**holes in the world that just need to be shot.”

This was a line in a motivational address to his Marines at Ayn al-Asad Airbase, an Iraqi Armed Forces and U.S. armed forces base located in western Iraq.

“I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you f*** with me, I’ll kill you all.”

Mattis reportedly said this to Iraqi tribal leaders. 

“PowerPoint makes us stupid.” 

Mattis, then Joint Forces commander, said this at a military conference in North Carolina, April 2010.

 

 

 

Society's shift away from forgiveness, and its repercussion on human interaction

Gonna get a little bit hairy in here today. Of course, if you get down to it, it's a hairy era in general, so I'm really just blending in.

There's plenty in the news these days to aggravate and inflame people, and it sure seems to be doing its job. Every other person I interact with is desolated, and the ones in between are enraged. It's a rough time for humanity. Not in the creature comforts, survival sense. Plenty of studies back up the fact that overall, violence and sickness and every other awful way of dying are on the decline. I'm speaking of our spiritual, cerebral facets. 

It's such a confusing time for Americans. In the last few centuries, the entire scope of culture has been flipped upside down. What are we here for? Who do we claim fealty to? And in the next few decades, this will likely get worse, as more of our life becomes automated, and more of us are left with too much time on our hands to spin ourselves up in a tizzy.

So what do we turn to in order to blow of our steam? It used to be family, God, the church, and hobbies/making things. But those are becoming more scarce as outlets, and we don't know how to deal with it. So we apparently turn to allowing our Id out online, with nary a Superego in sight. Hopefully this is just a growing pain (and everything feels permanent when you're in the middle of it), but it's hard to tell.

Here's what I do know: Bullying, hatred, and judgement are the order of the day right now. Particularly in the social media realm. And I think the biggest red flag I see is the total lack of forgiveness.

In Western society, Christianity has been the moral compass for most of the last couple thousand years. There have been missteps and miscalculations and errors along the way, but essentially it was the law of the land. As we move further and further into the "Science as a God" era, the human morality tenets of Christianity are being left behind. Obviously there are plenty of implications and discussions to be had with that little thesis statement, but I'm going to leave much of that to other posts and focus on the compassion, hypocrisy, and forgiveness areas. (And before you get worked up, I absolutely endorse science most of the time. I just don't find it provides all the answers for me, and that's where my religion steps in). 

Now I don't automatically accept the thought that all Christians are the good ones, and all non-Christians are bad. There's plenty of nastiness to go all over the place, trust me. After all we are all flawed humans fighting battles; some winning, some losing. But I will say that the basic premise of "Love one another", and "forgive", are really being lost when we have no outer moral code to help guide our consciences. 

Every day I am seeing the mob of online thought drag humans through the mud for missteps, some of them decades old. I do believe that some crimes are offenses that shouldn't be forgotten (murder, rape, crimes against children etc etc), but that's not what I'm talking about. It's not decades old grievous crimes. It's decades old "things said in passing", or decades old opinions, or things of that nature. And the online mobs are completely prepared to pillory anyone for something said in the past, wrecking lives and families and livelihoods, oftentimes for statements that have been disavowed. And this really bothers me.

I am not sure if students are still encouraged to read 1984 or Brave New World, but it sure doesn't seem as though enough people have taken lessons from those books to heart. As we grow ever closer to every single moment of our lives being captured by technology and stored, and our lifespans are already being predicted to reach 150 years before too much longer, I just wonder what traps we as a society are setting for ourselves. "Thought crimes" are very much a reality these days; perhaps the government isn't very much into prosecuting them yet, but the individual has so much power that the judicial system can be totally sidestepped for punishment, and the lynch mobs are more than ready to take it over.

I'm not saying people should be allowed to say awful things; if you hear someone say something terrible, call them on it, right then. But I don't understand how in an age where we are meant to accept plenty of things that were taboo before, all of a sudden for a misquoted phrase, we expect the speaker to take a long walk off a short plank. Why? And who made us all such moral superiors? 

Humility was something that used to be taken as something commonplace, a virtue that we were expected to uphold. I recently visited the Midwest and was reminded of how nice it is to be around people who are "down to earth". People who do their jobs, live their lives, and are pragmatic. That is definitely NOT something you see often in the DC area, and it's something I most miss about home. The ability to own mistakes, the ability of others to forgive, and the ability of all parties involved to move on. I never hear this promoted any more. These days so much is about self promotion, envy, and the tearing down of someone on the other side. 
 

The internet has done many great things (I just had Christmas presents delivered to my house on a very windy and chilly day, thank you Amazon), but it sure hasn't done much for human interaction. Echo chambers and self-righteousness are detrimental and exhausting, unless you're online where they are commonplace.

I think it would be good if we tried to remember that just because someone says something we disagree with, doesn't mean we should never forgive someone in a spirit of contrition. I know the First Amendment is meant to protect free speech from government interference, but I'm starting to feel it isn't enough anymore. The largest threat to the individual and their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness is no longer the government overreach. It's been supplanted by neighborly overreach. Next time you see an online effort to totally wreck someone from holding different beliefs than you, try to remember that that person is a human who has foibles and should be forgiven. We shouldn't have the power as individuals to decide whether someone is guilty of a crime. That momentary feeling of purposeful elation, isn't really worth it. When the mob moves on to its next over-righteous lynching, the wreckage of a life will be left behind, and we all forget about it.

We can do better. Think of the worst things you've done, or said, or felt. I know I've had plenty of opinions over the years that have been annealed and changed over time. I'm grateful that they are mostly lost to antiquity, but that won't be the case for much longer.  I know I'm in no position to judge anyone for any statement they made decades ago, particularly if they don't hold those opinions now. Are you above that self-judgement? We are all flawed and imperfect, and most of us try to do better tomorrow than we did today. So let's try together.

Veteran's Day

Hello everyone. I'm going to take a break from my usual scheduled program of addressing fear mongering (or at least, that's been the recent theme), and instead I'm going to write about Veterans, since today is Veteran's Day.

My life is full of Veterans. I'm married to a Marine, my brother is in the Air Force. I'm hugely proud of both of them, and will brag all day about it if you give me the chance. My uncle was in the Air National Guard, and if you go back a bit further my grandfather was in the Army Air Corps in World War II. We have veterans in every generation, including the current one. 

Outside of family relationships, I'm in the unique position to have the bulk of people I associate with be either current or former military. Most of my coworkers have been or are military, and many of my friends as well. This is a pretty unique position in the United States today. It turns out,  roughly around 1% of the current population is actively serving, and 13% overall have ever served. If you live in the south you're more likely to have spent ample time around active military.

I remember growing up not knowing many active military. I knew of one Marine, a fireman in my town. Being from the Midwest, most people went Army or Air Force. I knew a handful of other veterans, but in classic Midwest fashion, they didn't talk about it a lot. My grandfather passed when I was 14, so I didn't get to talk to him much about his service. I was always avidly interested in military history, even as a very little girl. I was fascinated by strategy and tactics, though I grew up in a very liberal college town. It's what I gravitated to, and still do. I always had a very strong respect for the military (as do the rest of my family), but not a lot of one on one interaction.

After graduating from high school, I immediately went to Chicago to get my art degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As you can imagine, there weren't a ton of veterans in that environment, although I did have the pleasure of making one former sailor's acquaintance, a friendship which I still treasure. My interest in military history, strategy, and tactics never waned, and in a surprise to no one, I became a defense contractor after graduating. I moved to North Carolina for a job, and have been in the defense/contracting world ever since. 

Since making that move, the last 10 years have been filled with experiences with veterans. I got married to one, of course. But I've spent much of that time working with military personnel in tough environments. Frequently I was the only female on my team, and might go days without seeing another female in a professional capacity. So what did I learn?

This is how I'd characterize my experiences, for those who don't know. The military people I have had the pleasure of working with have come from across the US. They have been male and female, gone to military academies or enlisted straight out of high school. They have been Native American, White, Latino, Black, Middle Eastern and Philippino, and that's just a smattering. Jewish, Atheist, Christian, Asatru, and Muslim. Some enlisted after 9/11, some before, and some since while we've been at war. And they are even more varied than I've been able to describe.

But they've had more in common than they have had differences. With very few exceptions, the people I've known to wear uniforms to defend this country have been absolutely some of the best people I've ever known. They know how to work hard; they know how to work hard on a project that they don't believe is a good idea. They work with people who they don't agree with, or necessarily like. They have a fierce and true love of this country. They are opinionated, and brave. They are selfless, and when complimented on their service, seem to feel as though they don't deserve the praise, it's just what they're supposed to do. They don't give up, they will tell you what they think with unvarnished opinion, and they keep their feet solidly on the ground. They talk a lot more about "Honor" than any other group I know of, and they try their best to uphold it. They have a high personal moral code, for themselves and their brothers and sisters. 

They may not always agree with reasons that they are going to war, but they understand that they signed up for it, and it's their job. But even if they disagree, they stay because if the threat comes to our shores, they want to be first to defend us.

In all my time working with veterans, the only time I ever had anyone "sexually harass" me, or give me a hard time for being female, was a male contractor who had never served in the military (though he'd be quick to tell you that he ALMOST did). Beyond that, everyone I have worked with has just assumed I was there to do my best and do my job, and treated me like a comrade. The workplace was full of off-color humor, good natured complaining and teasing, and people who wouldn't hesitate to tell you if you were fucking it up. And that is the best way to work, as far as I'm concerned. 

If I were to hire someone for a position tomorrow, and one of the applicants was a veteran, I would likely hire them on the spot. Because I've seen veterans in tough times and easy times, and I think they are made of the best things about America. Acceptance, tolerance, good humor, and a sardonic grin. God bless our veterans, and God bless America. I am honored to spend so much time in your company, and I raise my glass to you.

The blind push for biometric security, and the very real repercussions that we don't talk about

Last week, Apple announced their debut of biometric, chip-based security on their laptops. This joins the biometric, chip-based security that is already present in their iPhones. Now I'm a big Apple person; I work on a macbook pro and an iPad pro, I have an iPhone and an Apple watch. I'm not an early adopter, but I'm an adopter. I enjoy how their stuff meshes well together, and how  it supports my graphic software seamlessly.

But I do not like the biometric laptop security. And I'll tell you why.

I've heard this refrain become more and more common in recent years: "Well we should just move to biometric security!" You hear this every time there's a hacking scandal at a big bank or another huge data dump of compromised passwords. You hear this whenever we are pushed to make another strong password; you hear it in reference to the fact that strong passwords aren't as secure as we would think. And I understand the drive for it, and the desire for more security. Trust me, security is my life! 

Not kidding.

Not kidding.

I'm very security conscious. I applaud the use of the stronger passphrase passwords than randomly generated passwords with special characters. I change my passwords frequently, I avoid the use of passwords keychain programs because they often have backdoors, and I use more secure browsers and different sessions for important things like finances. So you would think I'd be all over the use of my fingerprints as a security measure, right? Well, no. Even though I do use it on my phone. 

The reasons I use the iphone biometrics are as follows:

1. It's securely stored inside the chip on my device, and not kept in the cloud or offsite in a database. 

2. My phone is rarely out of my sight, or off my person. There's very little chance for someone, besides my 2 year old and 4 year old, to compromise the device. (Though they do try their best)

3. As far as security measures go, Apple is pretty good about safeguarding theirs. It's not infallible, but they do care a lot more about security than a lot of other companies seem to, and invest in it accordingly.

So why do the new apple TouchID measures on the laptop make me nervous? Reason number 2, for one. I commonly leave my laptop (in comparatively safe places, but still) and it's therefore susceptible to compromise. It doesn't exactly fit in my pocket, after all. And I'd venture to say most people are like me in that.

The fact that touch security can be foiled by false fingerprints is a big deal (it happened in 2014, just after touch id came out. It's a lot easier to find a way to defeat security than it is to safeguard it, after all. It's commonly said that offense only has to succeed once, and defense has to keep it together 100% of the time, and it's as true in biometrics as it is anywhere else in security/defense).

The concern that's utmost on my list is that while there are already ways around biometric security in fingerprints, there's no way to get new biometrics if yours are compromised. If someone is able to get your biometric data, you can't have new fingerprints or a new cornea issued. The bad guys will have your private biometric data forever. It's bad enough if they get your sensitive question answers, but having a copy of your biometrics is infinitely worse. 

As the technology becomes more widespread, the relatively high level of security will not be maintained by all vendors. They WILL get sloppy, they always do. It's a sad truism that in business, security is often more lax than it should be because it's expensive to do right, and there's usually no one willing to pay the premium over the bottom line. It's even true in government.

I think the best way around it (though I am no expert by any means), is to have a combination of biological keys and behavioral adaptation. As sensors get more advanced they'll be more sensitive to individual movement signatures. So as some devices already allow pressure patterns to unlock, the combination of a memorization device that is customizable as needed (such as six gestures that must be repeated correctly), with the individual movement idiosyncrasies of the user, will help make a more secure logon that doesn't require a device that can be left/forgotten (such as chip cards or tokens). This way there is nothing that will be permanently forever compromised if compromised once (as biometric maps are), but it will be tailored to each person specifically and won't allow someone to just repeat the sequence. 

My point is, there are more solutions between "come up with a secure password", and "use your most specific biological data to secure", that don't require the risks of biometrics. So anyway, thanks for reading this week's edition of, "What's rattling around in Phaedra's noggin." Take care, and as always, have a plan, have a kit, live your life to the fullest and for heaven's sake get some fresh air.

Crazy Ivan

This post is about (as you might have guessed), Russia. The title "Crazy Ivan" is from a maneuver that Russian submarines would use to clear their baffles with a hard turn, and abruptly place themselves in a position to attack anyone who was following them. It'll be pretty apparent why I'm using that particular title shortly, but I wanted to quickly clear any confusion.

I've had several questions in recent days about the Russians and their actions as of late, and most of the questions have boiled down to, "Are we at war with Russia? Should I be scared?" The reason these questions have arisen is because a few publications started publishing "TENSIONS ARE RISING!" articles. Particularly a couple that stated that Putin had given an order for all Russians to come home that had extra-panicky tones. Daily Mail was the beast that started that particular pearl-clutching event, and they cited this article at Znak (which is in Russian, so, sorry) titled "HOME!" and while it DOES say that there was an informal order to bring home Russians studying abroad, it had nothing to do with rising tensions with the west, and more to do with perception of Russians being taught abroad, and a Russian feeling that it was bad PR for RUSSIAN schools for that to be done. Daily Mail took it, twisted it, and freaked the f*ck out. And here we are, following along and giving them clicks for it. Which drives me nuts. So just to be clear, the big thing that most people are panicking about is, as usual, clickbait from the jerk media AGAIN. You know how I feel about that.

Now, does that mean I don't think there's a war of sorts going on with Russia? Well, no. It doesn't. It just means that I've been looking at askance for Russia for the past several years, and am smirking that the news finally caught on to it. Just the wrong way. Russia has been upping the tensions through the last 8 or so years, by doing things like flyovers on our ships, going all freaking Top Gun with unsafe flight maneuvers over our jets, and in general just sort of biting their thumb in our direction more and more. Let alone the allegations (I'll leave the veracity of this up to you, but you know where there's smoke there's fire) by President Obama of Russians hacking us. So yes, I've been worried and keeping an eye on Russia for quite a while. But before we all go panic and clear the grocery stores of bread and milk and put our gas masks on, let's think for a moment about Russian culture. 

Here in America, it's easy to think of Russia as a sort of Russian-speaking, fur hat wearing, colder weather version of America. As far as strength goes, we are both world powers. And our human nature allows us to assume that most people are generally like us, particular in the Western World where we are groomed to look past (and in many cases, ignore) differences. But if you really think about the Russian culture, it's fairly vastly different from our own. Whereas here in the good ol' USA, there's a push towards acceptance and moderation in many discussions, in Russia, most weight is put on strength. Masculinity and power are still very large drivers of the culture there. So when you hear stories about Putin hunting bears, or riding horses with no shirt on, or fist-fighting with Hercules, it's not just him being a weirdo: it's a calculated cultural move for his people. Particularly after the fall of the USSR, there was a large identity crisis in Russia. In response to that internal wishy-washiness, Putin stepped in and took charge by relying on the mystique of the Russian male as something to cling to. To remind his people of who they are and where they came from, he went the route of RUSSIA THE GREAT, and so he tries his best to embody that image.

There's been quite a bit of internal strife in Russia in recent years. The post-USSR identity crisis, the struggle for power between the Russian government and organized crime, and things like in recent years the drop of the value of oil (one of Russia's main sources of income), have all made for tough times. There's a good amount of government corruption in Russia, and the people know it. So what's rule one for a company that has lots of personal strife and has a hard time finding its direction? Find an enemy outside to distract the populace from the enemies within. So that's what's happening. If Russia makes its people think we are the big enemy, they forget to look at the enemies within their gates. If the US is having to focus on Russia being a problem, it also makes Russia look stronger. So that's a win-win. Increased flyovers and political standoffishness validate Russian standing as a world power, and they also remind the Russian populace that there is a true, real, Russian MALE in charge, just like the tsars were. So they think, eh maybe it's not so bad. That's the idea, anyway, although of course the Russian people see through plenty of it.

Another reason Russia has been in the news lately where it concerns the US is rising tensions in Aleppo (since the large-scale bombing runs recently) and Syria in general, and the quagmire that has developed there. Again, this has been happening for years, and it IS a mess. So yes, there are definitely rising tensions between the United States and Russia, but they aren't to the point where I'm freaking out about a nuclear war. I'm not saying it couldn't happen, but if it looks as though all of a sudden this came out of nowhere, here's two things to keep in mind: 

1. It hasn't. It's been building.

2. It looks like it came out of nowhere because the media has been under-reporting, decided to catch up, and then mis-reported things to get us to click on their links and make the dirty pigs richer. Again, we are all pawns of the media, and I think THAT is the biggest worry. Because of that, there has been MORE tension than their should be, and honestly I'm sure both the US governments and the Russian governments are upset. This is all a dance, and the Daily Mail decided to do a bit of freestyle break dancing, threw down the cardboard, and broke up the careful (but tense) waltz between Lady Liberty and Ivan. 

So what should you do? Well, as always, we never know what's coming. So please do what I always say: Have a go bag in your car, have a kit in your house, and have an emergency plan. But I ALWAYS say that, because you always should. Beyond that, don't worry too much. There are plenty of people out there working to make sure the tensions don't rise to dangerous levels, and if the media would quit click baiting, we would be much better off. 

The eternal quest for happiness and balance: 8 billion of us are on it. Here's my strategy.

All of us on this small, spinning sphere full of humans are seeking happiness in one way or another. It's an elusive things to find, and the distractions and noisy filler of the modern age don't do anything to help us hear the inner silence that helps us on the path.

I really do feel that this age is harder to feel calm and happy in than any other. There are a million distractions out there, and multitasking (which has been heavily lauded as a modern desirable trait) actually makes us feel more frenzied and less capable. Every time we get on social media or turn on our televisions, we can easily see what appears to be thousands of other people who have nailed this whole happiness thing, and it makes us feel worse. Or, conversely, we see thousands of people in dire straits, and feel guilty and helpless, which also makes us feel worse. So what do we do? Well, I'll share a few snippets of wisdom and pebbles I've picked up along the trail, through plenty of trial and error. I'm not saying I have all the answers, and of course YMMV, but maybe some insights will give some of you a bit of help along the way.

Phaedra's Guide to Finding Happiness and Maintaining Sanity in the Modern Age

RULE 1: Depression has a hard time hitting a moving target.

This is a multi-faceted thing rule, because I mean "moving" both physically and emotionally. Through my life I've had times of stillness and times of motion, and it's finally stuck with me. If I am physically active, I really do feel much happier and in control of my life. Turns out those scientists ain't lying. Endorphins are a real thing, and they are your friend. 

The trick to getting this rule right for me has been forgiveness. I've tailored a workout plan to what I can realistically do, and I stick to it as well as I can, but I no longer give up when I fall off the bandwagon. I have two small children under the age of five, and I am alone with them a lot. So that means I can no longer do distance running, which is what I used to do. So I adapted: Now I work out in my garage. We got a rowing machine (which I am a hugely avid fan of) and some weights, and jump ropes. So as much as I can, I take a half hour or so to work out. This plan has been working great for me, and I've discovered something. No matter how alone I feel, or stressed, or how many of my favorite things my little angels have broken that morning, if I get out there and move around for a while as hard as I can, magic happens. I feel better afterward, EVERY time. Suddenly I feel powerful and strong and capable and in control. And things really ARE better. 

Having a strict plan doesn't work for me. I get bored if I do the same thing every day. So I vary it in HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) format. Usually I start of by rowing for 20 minutes, then for the next 10-20 minutes I do one minute intervals of the most intense work I can do. I'll sprint as fast as I can down my block, jump rope, do kettle bell swings, push-ups, pull-ups, weighted squats. The goal is that I do them as hard as I can. I also have a Tabata timer that I'll use some days as well (8 rounds of 20 seconds intense work, 10 seconds rest). And I love it. I find I'm working so hard during my exercise that I can't think about anything but the work. If worries or stresses start to creep in, that means I'm not doing it hard enough. I essentially get a meditative state going on, so my exercise ends up being beneficial mentally as well.

I went into a lot of detail there, but I get asked quite a bit what my exercise plan is. And that's the answer, but it's also what works for ME. I'm not trying to force it on anyone else, because I find that's when the plan breaks down. If I miss a day or two, I don't beat myself up about it. One of the keys to my success has been allowing myself to fall off the horse without judgement.

The other part of RULE 1 is staying active mentally as well. I always have a lot of things I'm doing, because if I'm bored, I get upset. I am creatively driven, and while I know in many ways it's a blessing, it's also a double-edged sword. Part of being a creative person is that I feel a NEED to make things. If I go too long without creating something, I am unhappy. That took me a while to identify, but now I know that's part of how I work. I need to make things, sometimes just to feel productive, sometimes to bleed poison, and sometimes just to show love. So that's what I do, and it fights off the blue devils. Stay busy, stay happy, is how I operate. 

RULE 2: Stay In Your Lane

We humans are very social animals. We are tribe driven and socially adapted, particularly females. While the males would go out and hunt in silence, we stayed home with small children and talked. I think this was likely to teach our offspring the rudimentary elements of speech...and here we are, all talking it up. So while communication is a positive and essential part of our lives, it's easy to take it to excess. There's the keeping up with the Joneses element that happens, there's the gossip and judgement. It's very easy to fall into these traps. There's also the "Everyone seems happier than me" factor, which is a particularly nasty one. So what are we to do? Take it in moderation. Stay in your lane, focus on your life as much as possible, and try to be forgiving of those around us and their choices. It's much too easy these days to feel as though we are just part of an audience when we see the lives of others playing out online; remember, these are real people we care about. It's not just entertainment. Every single person is struggling with something, so step back a bit. If your friend is posting overmuch about politics, particularly the name calling kind, try to remind yourself that they aren't a caricature; maybe they're angry at other things in life and blowing off steam. Try to focus on your life rather than holding up yardsticks to those around you. 

Rule 3: Stick to your expertise

Another factor of the modern age that is a happiness leech is how easy it is to get sucked into every possible tizzy that the internet latches onto. What do we do? Remember that usually, we aren't experts, and there's nothing really to do, so stay the heck out of it. How many times do we spin cycles and wring our hands over issues that happen to people who are far away and won't affect us, and then we argue about it. Remember Harambe? Remember how suddenly everyone on the planet was not only an expert parenting advice sage, but they were also completely informed on the behavior patterns and social mores of adult male gorillas? More so than the actual experts that were involved in that tough event? Well, I remember it. Made me want to throw up. So let's all just collectively decide to remember what we actually know about, and what we are expert on, and reserve our pointed criticism for what we know. Every other week the internet is deciding that every issue is a black and white, clearcut decision that should have been made with calm, perfect, clinical analysis. Guess what? Humans are still in charge of their imperfect lives, all around this planet, and as such, human foible and imperfection will be at play in nearly everything that happens. Life isn't an oscar-worthy movie just begging us to go point out logical continuity issues. Let's try remembering our own imperfection before grr facing everyone else all the time. 

RULE 4: If it's out of your circle of control, it's out of your circle of concern

Everyone has things they can realistically affect in their lives. If you aren't happy with your haircut, you can change it. That's in your circle of control. If you don't like your stamina, you can move more. If you don't like the laws where you live, you can move to a place of likeminded people with laws that follow your belief system. That is in your circle of control, albeit with a bit more legwork. Those are valid things to think of, and plan about, and worry about to a certain extent. But what if you find yourself worrying about other things? If I find I'm working myself into a tizzy mentally over something, I ask myself, "Is this in my circle of control?" if it is, I try to come up with a realistic solution and goal, and move towards it. If it is within my circle of control, it's also within my circle of concern, because I can take action to remedy it. However, if it is NOT something that's within my circle of control, then I try to place it outside my circle of concern, because that's just useless worry. And life is too short for that. I can't control the fact that we are stuck with Trump and Hillary as our presidential candidates, I can't control the fact that an enormous earthquake could happen, I can't control the fact that I don't like the vulnerabilities of our powergrid....so, I try my best to put them out of my circle of concern. And actively reminding myself of the circles really does help me mentally shut off those voices.

RULE 5: If it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing.

Self explanatory, but I always feel better knowing I've done the best I possibly can in any given task. 

RULE 6: Accomplish at least one thing every day. Don't let your day just happen to you.

I try, at the end of every day, to make sure that I've created or accomplished at least one thing. It varies on what it is. Some days it's just getting laundry done. Some days it's making a few batches of candles. It can be finishing a drawing, or working out. But I try to make sure that my day doesn't finish with me thinking, "What did I even do today?" That way I make sure I'm not heads down all day and letting my life pass me by.

RULE 7: Project the life you aim for

If I were to describe life in one word, it would be: setbacks. Because they are a constant. Every single person has them, and every single person seems to forget we all have them. I think at some point, most everyone feels as though they are the only person who is struggling. But we all are. The trick is to not allow the setbacks to define an experience. Learn, move on, adapt and grow. Put forth the best thing face you can. If you force yourself to smile, soon you'll find you actually do feel happier. So fake it till you make it.

RULE 8: Keep moving forward.

Make goals, beat them, make goals, if you get defeated....keep moving forward.

RULE 9: Surround yourself with people who have similar drive.

I'm not saying to stop associating with people if they don't want what you want. But really analyze why people are in your life, and if you have similar interests. Sometimes relationships aren't totally healthy, and sometimes people are there to be tourists. Measure who you give thought cycles and bandwidth to, and figure out if its healthy. Don't waste your time on dingleberries. I'd also say, make sure to do what truly makes you happy, and don't waste time on people who are going to judge you for it. There's well-natured ribbing, then there's active judgement. Ain't nobody got time for that.

RULE 10: Don't complain unless you're doing something to fix the problem.

If you aren't taking action to fix something, don't waste the time of those around you by complaining about it. Now I DO think you can complain if you're actually taking steps to fix the problem, because that's just venting steam. But someone who is still complaining about the same issue years after it arose, becomes a bore. If you hate your job, get a new one. If you can't stand your house, move. But don't make people listen to the choices you've decided to stick with. Besides, the longer you allow angry or sad thoughts to float around you, the harder it is to break away from them. Just keep moving forward.

A Man Said to the Universe

Today I'm doing something that I don't think I've done before, outside of required essays when I was in school: I'm going to write about a poem.

Admittedly I'm not largely into poetry. Some of it I find hard to get into, much of it I don't understand, and sometimes I feel as though it smacks too much of pretentiousness; all these are arguably problems with me, and not poems. But then every once in a while I find a poem that speaks to me on a very visceral level, and the scales fall from my eyes, and I see what all those poetry fans are going on about.

One of the very first poems that stuck with me is this one, by Stephen Crane. It was written in 1899, and was included in a volume called "War is Kind". Here it is:

A Man Said to the Universe BY STEPHEN CRANE

A man said to the universe: 

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe, 

“The fact has not created in me 

A sense of obligation.”

 

 

And that's it. The whole thing. Five sweet lines that have resonated in my heart for a few decades now. I find myself recalling these words frequently, and in fact this poem has become, to me, sort of a mantra.

I'm sure there are plenty of analyses and wordy papers written about this poem. But I haven't read any of them. Honestly I don't want to hear someone else's interpretation and find out they've come to a different conclusion, because the interpretation I have and the sweet words that stay with me have come to mean so much in my life.

To me, this poem is about humility. It's about fighting off the hubris that comes so naturally to us, and reminding us to stay grounded. Just because we are here, does not mean anyone owes us a thing. It doesn't mean someone has to take an action on our behalf.

It means that we need to stand on our own feet, make our own lives, and that there is no universal promise that just because we feel important, others should automatically deem us so. Because just the fact that we exist and realize it, doesn't mean that anything or anyone else is automatically required to assign us esteem based on no merit.

In an age where there are more people than ever before sharing this sphere with us, and there is social (and traditional) media proclaiming at all times stories of petty offenses and disproportionate outcry, I think this message just continues to resonate deeper with me. It's as though a pebble got dropped in my subconscious, and these rings continue to expand in the pond of my heart.

Perhaps partially because we are more aware of our own tininess now than we ever have been in human history, we are rebelling against it. We know for a FACT that there are millions of stars out there, and millions of planets. We now know that there has been water on two other celestial bodies in our own solar system (Mars and Jupiter's moon Europa, which was just confirmed in the last week). At any given time, every single person in America can access millions of other voices online, informed or uninformed, as the case may frequently be. Never have we felt so insignificant. With the wane of religion as a universal status quo and to reinforce our importance as individuals in Western society, we are becoming ever more swept up in this existential maelstrom.

That's my theory, anyway, on modern trends of behavior that drive me nuts. And I find it a lot more easy to swallow than the alternative: that humans are devolving into childish, selfish, vapid idiots who jump on any bandwagon that gives them 10 second accolades, no matter their basis in logic or morality.

I prefer to think of our ridiculous modern behaviors as a rebellion at this abyss we feel we are lost in, and we are trying to grasp at straws of meaning on some level. In many ways it's the best time to be alive. As far as variety of experience, medical care, food, and safety are concerned, it's absolutely true. But as far as soul and sanity are concerned, I feel its one of the worst.

We are chasing our own tails in search of meaning, and identity. We are crucifying any meaning or identity that we can draw on from the past, partially I think to cut ourselves off from rules that we now prefer to find archaic, and partially to justify our own actions in the future in abandoning human rules that large parts of society have followed for millennia. In an era in which ancestral memory has been scientifically proven to be a DNA-based fact, I find it amazing how much certain quarters want to throw the baby out with the bath water. I think there's a lot of inner conflict on this, and it manifests itself in loud and illogical ways. 

Hence people asking for others constantly to "not judge" the decisions of others (which in many ways I agree with), but out the other side of their mouth choosing to use mob-rule internet justice to ruin the livelihoods of people who make personal decisions of a type they don't agree with. In some cases I feel it's a positive idea initially, but then taken to a lynch-mob like response that entirely obliterates innocent people and their family....and then they flock on to the next thing. For an era that asks constantly for total acceptance for all decisions, there sure is a lack of proportional response when it comes to other, less popular, ideas.

And this all comes back to Stephen Crane's poem, for me. "Sir, I exist". Yes, good, identify yourself and define yourself and be strong. "However, the fact has not created in me, a sense of obligation." But that doesn't mean that everyone is required to think your existence is more valuable than anyone else's. A valuable mantra to remind ourselves of when we feel too large for our britches. 

 

Dark Net, human frailty, and the race towards making ourselves obsolete

I just read a really great article at Vanity Fair. Much of their content is drivel (I'm not huge into what the robber barons of the age are wearing or eating, so I skip those parts) but I find that I'll unexpectedly run into very well-researched and thought provoking articles on issues that fascinate me. In this case, the article that excitedly jumped into my lap like an enthusiastic puppy is Welcome to the Dark Net, a Wilderness Where Invisible Wars are Fought and Hackers Roam Free.

In the very beginning of the article is this quote from the main interviewee (a hacker who is amusingly referred to as "Opsec"): 

"He is a fast talker when he’s onto a subject. His mind seems to race most of the time. Currently he is designing an autonomous system for detecting network attacks and taking action in response. The system is based on machine learning and artificial intelligence. In a typical burst of words, he said, “But the automation itself might be hacked. Is the A.I. being gamed? Are you teaching the computer, or is it learning on its own? If it’s learning on its own, it can be gamed. If you are teaching it, then how clean is your data set? Are you pulling it off a network that has already been compromised? Because if I’m an attacker and I’m coming in against an A.I.-defended system, if I can get into the baseline and insert attacker traffic into the learning phase, then the computer begins to think that those things are normal and accepted. I’m teaching a robot that ‘It’s O.K.! I’m not really an attacker, even though I’m carrying an AK-47 and firing on the troops.’ And what happens when a machine becomes so smart it decides to betray you and switch sides?”

The entire article is well worth a read if you're into Information Security, threats, or learning about those parts of society that still operate like the Wild West. Spoiler alert: I am fascinated by all those areas, so I think this is one of the best articles I've read this year. The blurb above sucked me in hook line and sinker. It tickled the part of my brain that enjoys these future foe tangents, because I think what he's talking about directly addresses one of the factors that we seem to avoid allowing our collective consciousness to linger on too long. 

If you're a regular follower of my blog, you may have surmised that I am basically governed by two large parts of my personality: misanthropic Luddite, and social technophile. Yes, that's conflicting. Yes, I'm aware of that, and I'm also comfortable with duality. It allows me to evaluate and contrast a lot of arguments in my head, and that's one of my favorite past-times. You never know what you'll find kicking around this old noggin.

The quote about AI sentinels, and AI sentience, articulated a very interesting modern problem. We love relinquishing power to technology, as a species. That's what originally set us apart from the animals. There is evidence of the use of tools from tens of thousands of years ago, and we haven't stopped with that innovation since. Clearly there was a large leap forward during the Industrial Revolution, and it's just continued on an upward trajectory ever since.

What's frightening is that we are quickly closing on the nexus of when we will be able to accurately control those tools, and when they make us obsolete. In a Genesis way, we have created AI in our image, and our child is rapidly moving towards establishing its own predestination. It's no secret that I actively fear AI overtaking us, because in a binary, numbers and logic way, it's not too hard to see that in the very near future machines with no God given conscience would be able to come up with cold logical reasons that we don't really need to be here. We take a lot of energy, we are messy, and we are frequently inconvenient and illogical. In a world of machines, it's easy to see how they would write us out of the equation. Is that an alarmist idea? Well, sure. But if you want to be prepared for the future, you need to look at all possibilities....even the dark and uncomfortable ones. In a system meant to adapt and learn to evolve efficiencies, we are most likely to be the least efficient part of the system. Already ghostst in the machines have evolved to make their own logical leaps in different lab tests. When we relinquish too much power, what's the end game?

In the Vanity Fair article, I particularly enjoyed the CURRENT projection that he comes up with. I've done quite a bit of speculation in my head about what's going to happen in the 5-10 year range, but I enjoyed having the real-time mirror held up in this illustration. In the last several years there have been numerous, very terrifying security breaches in the shadow world. The average person probably doesn't think about them too much, because the data breaches are so large and so frequent, and there's also that good old "This is scary on a huge level so I better not think about it" response. Usually we just see it as a news blip, and maybe a prompt to change passwords. But what has happened is there have been several large breaches on a level that could really be devastating to a lot of American citizenry. Between the health industry breaches, the OPM breaches of the government on its most secretive workers with all their most sensitive data, and the frequent hacks of financial institutions....and those are just the ones we've actually heard about...someone is amassing a lot of data for a lot of nefarious reasons. It's not a big leap to assume that there is some sort of dossier being compiled on most people, and that data isn't being kept to safeguard us. (Since I am already at tinfoil hat level here, I'll throw out my favorite advice: always have a kit, always have a plan, and always be ready).

The AI drones that Opsec speaks of as being the sentinels of the systems, and their fluid moral codes (if interfered with at the proper time in the learning process) are exactly the sort of moral gray area in our AI work force that I'm talking about. When we are creating our own little bot armies of white knights, but they themselves have no sense of light or dark, that sword can easily and nefariously be turned against us by the wrong people. And they are. Stuxnet is one of my all time favorite intelligence stories, and that was assumably executed by white knights. But now what are the black knights doing? And when the soldiers that we send out into the battlefield are no longer flesh and blood with some sort of assumed shared moral code...but instead hackable bots...that changes the battlefield entirely.

As the world of AI and computers has become more global, the control of who owns the top players has quickly changed. And as we here in the US focus more and more on the media game of misdirection (insert your pet #HASHTAGSOCIALFRENZYCAUSE), we get more muddled and forget what we are doing. It's easy to form our own echo chambers and ignore the world at our doorstep, and there's solace in pretending the wolves are at the door. The more we shout at each other about manufactured crises inside our warm homes, the more we can try to block the howling of the wolves outside. But when a bit of silence falls in our lives, when we are alone falling asleep, when our batteries on our devices have died or there's not a game or reality show flickering to put us into soma relief, we know deep down that someone somewhere is amassing to take things from us. As much as we pretend like it, most of the world is not like us. Most of the world has vastly different moral codes than what moves us in the US, and there are plenty who want what we have. Particularly as weather patterns and things like water availability affect other players in the big scary human survival game, like disease and food. No matter how accepting we want to be to each other (which I support) there are going to be nation states that will not EVER accept us. And while they may or may not be able to get warheads or fighter jets or thousands of soldiers....they likely CAN get access to the internet. And they'll fight that way. Look at the cyber caliphate army, ISIS hacking division. The battlefield continues to evolve. And we need to be aware of that.

So, what is there to do? After all, we are all just players in this game at the most basic level, when it gets down to it. I think one of the biggest things is to be aware. Look the wolves in the eye and make sure you're aware of their existence. Can you do anything about financial monoliths or energy companies getting hacked? Most likely, no. But you CAN be a good steward of your own information. You can make sure to know how to handle yourself in an emergency. You CAN make a plan to make sure loved ones know where to go if there's a power blackout or the cell networks go down. And finally, try to take time to unplug on your own sometimes, and remember that we don't need technology to handle all things in life. People don't need to get a hold of your every minute. Step away and remember how to be a full human, and get used to that idea. Appreciate what we have and the experiences that we are getting, because we are lucky to be here. 

The birth of the American noble class

All day, I tried to fight writing this post. I tried not to pay too much attention to the news, even though I knew what had happened with the FBI declining to press charges against Hillary Clinton. I thought, it doesn't really affect my life, I don't need to get stressed out about it, I'll just move on. As the day moved on, and the sun set, I finally realized I wasn't going to be able to avoid commenting on what has happened. I need to vent, to bleed the poison of the anger I feel at this huge lapse in judgement from the government.

So here I go.

I admit that I am biased against the Clintons. I've worked in the government for a decade now, and when you work in the intelligence or defense communities in DC, you end up hearing interesting stories. It's not a big town, and when it comes to our leadership, it's a really tiny one. So I know people who worked for the Clintons their first time in the White House (and God willing, their only time), and so I'd heard plenty of nasty stories about Hillary in particular. How they stole furniture and art when they left, and vandalized the White House. First hand accounts of how mean she was to her Secret Service detail. Whispered stories about the trail of bodies that was left behind, which is now common knowledge thanks to the internet. Bill was a decent guy, but I never heard one GOOD story about anyone who dealt face to face with Hillary. The stories and their nature didn't change when I heard them trickle down from people who worked for her at Department of State, either. 

Now that's all well and good, and I know enough to understand that nearly any politician is going to be pretty nasty in a lot of ways when you get them out from in front of the camera. To be a modern day politician takes so much ego, to want to have that kind of scrutiny and invasion of personal life, that I really just don't feel like people who sign up for the job are very good people in a lot of ways anymore. And that's fine (well, no it's not, but it's the world we live in, and I'm a pragmatist). But this goes deeper than that. Hillary Clinton just seems to be a hollow automaton of lies and selfish intent, happy to walk on the faces of whatever people stand in her way, to get what she wants. Which, as far as I can tell, is just power. Ugly, nasty, sweaty, leering power. What she wants to do when she has as large a monopoly on the stuff as she can get, I don't know. But that's apparently the creature she is.

Here's what REALLY upsets me though. Power hungry black-hearted sociopaths exist, and always have. But what's meant to protect the populace from these people, particularly in the United States, is the law. I think you could argue, if there is ONE thing this country was meant to protect its people against (and I'd argue that the one true function of government is to protect its people; it's where it STOPS protecting them that the arguments come in), it's allowing there to be multiple sets of laws for different people. If you murder someone, or steal, or even just run a red light, whether you are rich or of good family or poor or have no idea who your family is, the punishment for the crime should be the same. And today, in the biggest possible neon letters that could be seen from every corner of this globe (and there were people in every single corner watching, I am sure), the American government spelled out that AMERICA HAS A NOBLE CLASS.

I'll be the first to admit, that with my background, I take this decision much more to heart than many citizens in the country. I know just how seriously the oaths to protect classified information are meant to be taken, and, in the case of anyone who is not Hillary Clinton, ARE taken. General Petraeus had a hugely successful military career completely sacrificed because of it (due in no small part to the political machine we currently have). I didn't like that, because I hold him in esteem and had personal opinions on his breaches, but at the same time I understood what I had thought to be a truth: The law is the law, and if you are in violation of the law, you have to pay the price. And so he did. Just as many other people who have committed accidental or intentional breaches of classified information, have also paid the price. EXCEPT for this one time. And it just makes me sick.

No longer is American governed by balance or logic. It never has been PERFECTLY governed by those things; things slip through the cracks in any imperfect system run by imperfect humans. That's why I don't get super upset generally when one person commits a crime in California and gets a certain sentence, and another person commits a similar crime in Maine and gets a different sentence. I understand the system is run by humans, and in tiny little courts across the country run by different judges, there will be variances. But that law of scale does not apply to this circumstance. In this circumstance, the voices of the public have been loud on this topic, and loud for a long time. Every bit of evidence about Hillary's email server has been even more damning than the last, and as each swing of the pendulum allowed the blade to arc further, the voices of humans across the country demanding justice got louder. And in this age, you cannot avoid the roaring of the crowd. It's everywhere you look. But, the tone deaf stuffed shirts in DC did exactly that. They spelled out the fact that there IS NO JUSTICE in DC. Not if you're rich enough, not if you're part of the right family, not if you are the soul-sucking dead-eyed anointed one of the fallen order. And so here she is, getting her blessing to run for President.

This is injustice writ large, and one of the most disturbing decisions I've seen in my life by people in power. It's so huge, that it's hard to know where to go from here. But we always figure out a way to adapt and learn, and make our country stronger. So that's what we'll need to do now. Remind the people in power who they need to answer to, and vote to keep those who only serve the American nobility out. And we will move on. The only way people who have a moral vacuum are able to get power is because good people allow them to get there. Remember that this November.

Remember the Fallen

Here we are, on our way into Memorial Day weekend. I don't know how it is where you are, but here in Maryland it's bright, sunny, hot, humid, and exactly as Memorial Day Weekend should be (we had nearly a month of record setting rain, so I'm enjoying the change!)

My garden is flourishing, the roses are blooming, my children are loving the cheap pool I got at Target, and it's summertime at its best. I hope you're going into your holiday weekend feeling the same way.

I always see a few struggles people have with Memorial Day, regarding how to honor the fallen, and how others perceive the day (for example, many people thank Veterans for their service on Memorial Day, and that frustrates some people). So I'll go ahead and let you know how I approach the day.

If you've known me less than 5 minutes, you might not realize that I am a huge patriot. I think America is incredible, though not perfect, and is a place to be proud of. And yes, I feel that way even in the midst of this reality show of an election cycle.

We have enormous amounts of freedom here, the country itself is beautiful and unmatched geographically by any other land. Mountains, oceans, deserts, forests, some of the most fertile farming land in the world...we have it all. There are skeletons in our history, but there is no nation that doesn't have that. Because we are all run by humans, and as such, imperfect.

Since I believe in the inherent imperfections of humanity, and I also believe that we have inherent violent natures due to being the top predators on the planet (there are individual exceptions, yes, but I'm speaking of the entire human race), I feel that it is important to defend ourselves. I believe the best way to have peace is to carry a big stick, because no matter how much some of us want peace in our hearts, someone else is ready to take it away. Is that right? No. But I'm also pragmatic.

Since I believe all those things, it makes sense that I am a strong supporter of the military. I have worked in the midst of the defense and intelligence communities for a decade now, and as such, I am mostly surrounded by military men and women, and have the honor of calling many of them my friends (and in one very special case, my husband). This is an inherent part of me now. To have those who choose to live lives of peace, having no part of the military touch them, is a modern luxury due mostly to the fact that America has been so good at defending itself. Even for those who don't realize how many Vandals are at the gates, there is a very strong phalanx of men and women keeping them safe (whether physically, or, in this strange new age, digitally). Because trust me: the wolves ARE howling at the door. It's just a blessing to many that they don't realize how many blood-eyed zombies would take everything we have, if given a chance. Is that hyperbolic? Not as much as you might think.

Hand in hand with those who ARE defending, are those who HAVE. Behind the men and women who serve now, are the long shadows of those who have gone before, and who have paid the price. Now, I don't get offended when people thank veterans for their service on memorial day. I see why it happens, and I think any military appreciation is a good thing. But I do understand why some people get offended. Because by thanking those who stand at the wall, perhaps they feel we aren't recognizing those who have fallen before it, whose blood and bones went into the mortar of the safety we feel today.

The sacrifices of those who have given their lives in service to this country are easy to remember when we are watching something like Band of Brothers, or Saving Private Ryan. But I think it is harder to recognize, for some, that we are losing those around us, still. The controversial wars of the last 15 years haven't been without their toll on those who have been fighting them. I've lost friends, and so have most of the people I know or work with. The sacrifices of those in previous generations still resonate today, as the sacrifices of today will (hopefully) resonate with the generations of tomorrow. Particularly as, in the future, the stories of today lose their tinge of politics and spin, and become what they really are: the stories of those who signed up to confront any danger to this country, no matter what it was, and then went to confront it. We honor the faces that aren't with us at our parties this weekend. We honor those who gave all to make this country, we honor those who defended it, we honor those who are both the sung, and the unsung, heroes. To all who gave their family, their youth, their everything. That's why we CAN celebrate this weekend, and that's why we will. Till Valhalla, fallen warriors. You are not forgotten, and we carry you with us.

 

Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War

It's been busy around the Shieldmaiden Homestead lately (as always, really), but I was happy to get the chance to have a few hours to myself on Mother's Day. Our babysitter came over, and I got to indulge in seeing a chick flick: Captain America: Civil War. Chick flick for this house, anyway. I suspect most readers here are of the same mind.

Chick flick of choice

I'm not really going to go into the intricacies of the plot, although of course there are spoilers below so stop reading if you don't want to find out what happens. Mostly I'm going to just sort of rant about my reaction to the movie. There are probably literally hundreds of thousands of reviews that tell what the plot is, and I'm so fashionably late to the party here that I assume most people who care about seeing the movie (and might be reading this) have already.

It's no secret that I am, and have been for a long time, a comic book fan. By extension, I'm a fan of comic book movies that aren't awful (fortunately this DOES fall in that category). I've been as avid as anyone else out there about the last decade's worth of comic book movies. All the Iron Mans, the Avengers, the Captain Americas, all of them...but I find myself ending up feeling a bit of ennui about the Avengers story line right about now. Hear me out.

I'll give you the secret recipe that keeps me coming back for more: 1 part action sequences with fantastic stuff, 1 part eye candy, 2 parts quippy remarks and smart one-liner jabs while competent superheroes handle stressful circumstances, 3 parts camaraderie and smooth teamwork to save the day/world. So the ration is 1:1:2:3. I felt like this movie came in more 3:1:1:-1. That is not the proper recipe for this viewer.

I'll break it down for you. I knew going into this I'd be Team Cap, because I'm an idealist for many of the mores of past times, and astute student of history. I also have a deep-seated mistrust of international government organizations that are prone to extreme corruption and mishandling of other people's interests and assets (I'm looking at you, UN), and do not believe that bureaucracies do much good beyond increasing the donut count at a meeting. I think Tony Stark is great too, and understand he's got issues, but I watched the movie and turns out, yep I am DEFINITELY Team Cap. Fortunately eventually....so was Tony. So boom, still got it. But that whole "Civil War" thing was going to be ass-burn for me, and I knew it going in...because it's no fun to watch two of your coolest friends go through a divorce. Let alone when they set all their kids against each other. And that's how it felt.

#teamgrrface

 

But beyond that aspect of discomfort, here's what really bugged me about the movie. I'm sick of the newest Avengers plot-line, which seems to be "Insert character whose sister-aunt-dentist got killed by superheroes. Make them all mealy-mouthed about it for the rest of the movie. REPEAT." Look, I know there's been collateral damage in the other Avengers movies. But, there had to be, to save EVERYONE on the planet. I don't think I'd lose a ton of sleep over that choice. Save one person, or everyone else. Everyone wins, everytime. There's too much hand-wringing and soul-searching, not enough teamwork and taking care of business. And that's not what I go to these movies for. Parts of it reminded me of the senate scenes in the Star Wars prequels....do I have to tell you how much that hurt me? A lot. It hurt me a LOT. I thought we'd learned that legalese deliberation via committee does not a good movie make. I hope they relearn the lesson. It seems as though the Batman habit of making every superhero conflicted (which works fantastically for that series, btw) has leached into my marvel universe. And I do not like that.

The scene I'd been looking for.

 

At least by the end, everyone else realized what I already know: All the corrupt governments in the world are not made equal, and shouldn't be given de facto reign to deliberate and take forever to make immediate decisions when humanity is on the line. (What, that's not what you took away? You're just not jaded enough.) I DID like the ensemble cast, although I sort of wish they just would have knocked off Spiderman. Antman was amazing, and the entire airport fight reminded me of why I love these stories in the first place. But I hope we can stop with the soul searching, and get on with the excitement from here on out. No wonder Thor and Loki sat out on it. 

One of my hobbies: Plants that eat bugs.

I've always been fascinated by carnivorous plants. Venus flytraps, sundews, bladderworts, pitcher plants. All of them. The strange behavioral cross between plant and animal, the mysterious fragility, and tons of attitude. I've always thought of it as a pretty amazing thing that these plants exist, I suppose in the same vein as being impressed by jellyfish (they have no brain...but they hunt? what?)

Sundew, venus flytrap, sundew.

It was only in the last few years that I actually started acquiring them. Right now I have two sundews, and 5 venus flytraps. I'm probably about to order a few more sundews, because they're a. gorgeous and b. truly amazing at totally decimating fruit flies in the summer months. Seriously, right now the larger of the sundews has about 20 fruit flies it's eating (thanks to a bad batch of bananas that doubled as a cruise liner for the pests).

particularly villainous sundew, in the colors of house lannister. Not a coincidence, I'm sure.

Sundews manufacture a very sticky dew that entices insects with its sweet smell and taste. They fly in, land for a snack, and are stuck like fly paper. The leaves of the sundew curl around the insect, and bam. Food chain.

Venus flytraps are the most well-known carnivorous plants, with their dramatic jaws and quick closing motion when hapless prey climbs inside. They're really interesting to watch, and all the venus flytraps in existence herald originally from the swamps of Eastern North Carolina. 

Vermillion flytrap! Lovely.

Vermillion flytrap! Lovely.

 

The plants can be tricky to keep alive, being very picky about the quality of their water and soil, but I've had good luck with them fortunately. In keeping with my usual fascination with slightly macabre, predatorial themes, I'm looking forward to getting the newest additions soon.

 

Trying some new things lately: Viking candles

If you follow me on social media at all, you've seen lately that I launched a new line of Viking-inspired candles. I've been making them for several months now, but finally decided it was time to take it public. 

It's not truly "Viking" if there's not a weapon of some sort somewhere.

The official line title is Shieldmaiden Candleworks, so feel free to check it out. I'll post the links to both stores at the end of this article. What I really want to talk about is why I've decided to go in this direction.

I spend quite a bit of time wrangling wee ones, and when I'm not doing that, I'm generally doing something on the computer (most of the time something creative, sometimes not). I enjoy and love both of those facets of my day, but I think there's an essential part of my process that was missing something. 

Freya's Favor

 

That missing ingredient was creating something with my hands. I enjoy painting and drawing, and other creation of that sort; but doing something with our hands that doesn't require such cerebral contemplation is, I think, a pretty important part of being human that it's increasingly easy to miss out on. So I started making candles, and I'm really loving it. 

The more automated our lives get, the harder it is to reconnect with the "maker" facets of our personalities that, until the industrial revolution, were a universal part of the human experience. That need to create and work has stayed dormant within, in my opinion, and I wonder if some of the listlessness many of us feel in the modern age is a result of missing out on that hands-on, physical experience.

Mist on the Fjord

 

I'm not saying doing things on computers isn't important. I'm not saying that people are living their lives wrong, or admonishing. But again, there's so much clutter and chatter to get lost in during the modern age, I think creating physical objects is something that we may not realize we aren't doing, but we can tell we're missing something.

I certainly know it's true of me. Having a craft that requires me to think, that shows me physical accomplishment, that I can share with others, and that I can replicate....well, it's definitely made a part of me that was dormant feel alive. And I'm happy to have the chance to share that with others.

 

If you are interested in seeing the fruits of my labor, go to:

www.shieldmaidencreative.com/shop or www.etsy.com/shop/shieldmaidencandles