The word Nirvana means “extinction” and it means the eradication of all evil desires, of all passions, of all egotism, so that the flame of envy, hatred, and lust will have nothing to feed upon. This is the negative side of Nirvana.

The positive side of Nirvana consists in the recognition of truth. The destruction of evil desires, of envy, hatred, and extinction of selfishness implies charity, compassion with all suffering, and a love that is unbounded and infinite. Nirvana means extinction of lust, not of love; craving, not of life. The eradication of all that is evil in man’s heart will set all his energies free for good deeds. He is no genuine Buddhist who would not devote his life to active work and a usefulness which would refuse neither his friends nor strangers, nor even his very enemies.

The above was written by Zen master Soyen Shaku in 1896.  He was Abbot of a Zen monastery in Japan and in 1905-1906 toured the United States giving lectures about Buddhism.  His lectures and other writings were collected in the book Zen For Americans.  I first read this book when I was in undergrad and was captivated by it.


Israel, Palestine, and BDS – Part 2

Screen shot from Tony Bourdain’s show – Parts Unknown – S02E01

In my last post, I emphasized the need to speak up about injustice, focusing on Israel-Palestine and the boycott, divest, sanction (BDS) movement.  I was explicit that speaking up about injustice often creates or increases controversy but that this is necessary.

Yet even in controversial topics, how do we have good conversation and try to find common ground?  It’s easier said than done. It seems like some people don’t even value that anymore. It’s more about winning, being right, or discharging righteous anger.

Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio published a piece in the NYT on Feb 6 critical of the BDS movement.  That’s fine and I was curious to see what he had to say.  For instance, I’m not immediately dismissive of examples of over the in boycotts of Israel.  As a thought experiment or extreme example, does boycotting every business that happens to be in Israel necessarily advance justice?  No. I think it’s important to have an open mind and be open to any criticism that is founded.

That said, I was disappointed that Rubio broadly painted the BDS movement as aiming “to eliminate any Jewish state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”  First off, I had to look up those boundaries, well, because I’m American and I suck at geography. But having done that, it’s an absurd statement. Can’t we have facts here, Senator Rubio?

His self-proclaimed “cursory” look at evidence that BDS proponents want an end to Israel itself falls short. This website lists statements from only a handful of people – many quoted several times – who are BDS supporters.  Some of the statements are pro-BDS and reasonable, while other statements are blatantly anti-Israel. But are these handful of people truly representative of the broad, complex, and diverse BDS movement?  Is it fair to just slap a person’s anti-Israel quote on there and list them as a “BDS supporter” and therefore dismiss the BDS movement?

Unfortunately, there are a small number of cruel or fringe people people in any movement or demographic group.  That does not automatically discredit the movement or reflect on the group as a whole. There is a small number of women out there who espouse violence against men and call themselves feminist.  Is feminism therefore violent? No. Many men are jerks toward women. Are all men evil? Of course not. (Do more men need to embrace feminism? Yes!!) There are people in the Green Party who believe in Chem Trails.  Is the Green Party therefore ridiculous? Maybe. Ha, just kidding. No, that one fact does not make the Green Party ridiculous.

Anyway, Rubio’s reasoning is frustrating, and is clearly more polarizing than useful. He gives another example that does have potential to be a reasonable critique of BDS. The SodaStream company makes little home kits that allow you to carbonate any home beverage.  The company was apparently driven out of areas of Palestine. I couldn’t tell from the article if the company actually set up its factory in disputed territory or within illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine.  Is it possible that the factory wasn’t in these locations (the article says “near” them) and that activists may have overreacted in the case of SodaStream? Sure, it’s possible. I don’t know enough, unfortunately.  But it does often happen that when we have a strong position on a topic and read something that seems to fit within our sense of injustice on that topic it is possible to react strongly without all the facts.

Overall, the point I want to make is that even “the other side” can have pieces of the truth.  Sometimes they are only very tiny pieces of the truth – almost inconsequential. But it can still help to recognize the pieces because that decreases frustration, polarization, and is just a very human way to build trust and have a conversation.  I do believe peace and goodwill can come out of controversy, but it is all too rare these days.


Israel-Palestine, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jesus


Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, wrote an excellent piece for the New York Times on the need to speak out about Israel-Palestine. Drawing parallels to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s very unpopular stand against the Vietnam War, she argues that we can’t remain silent on the apartheid, discrimination, and violence being perpetrated against the Palestinian people today. We can’t let a preference for order, calmness, or the status quo blind us from seeing injustice and doing something about it.

In this post, I discuss Michelle Alexander’s piece and reflect on a difficult statement of Dr. King’s about white moderates. I then relate this to the teachings of Jesus, which we know inspired and helped form Dr. King’s stance on justice and nonviolence.     

Israel, Palestine, and BDS

One of the movements protesting Israel’s treatment of Palestine is known as the BDS movement, which stands for boycott, divest, and sanctions. It draws inspiration from a successful BDS campaign which helped end apartheid in South Africa.  Alexander’s piece highlights examples of people who have faced repercussions for boycotting Israel or for simply refusing to sign a statement saying they won’t participate in a boycott of Israel. She highlights that anti-Semitism is still a very real and disturbing problem today, but that opposing policies of the current Israeli government is not in and of itself anti-Semitic. Quoting Alexander’s examples of retribution for the BDS stance:

Bahia Amawi, an American speech pathologist of Palestinian descent, was recently terminated for refusing to sign a contract that contains an anti-boycott pledge stating that she does not, and will not, participate in boycotting the State of Israel. In November, Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN for giving a speech in support of Palestinian rights that was grossly misinterpreted as expressing support for violence. The website Canary Mission –  which compiles dossiers on Palestinian rights advocates and labels them racists, anti-Semites, and supporters of terrorism – continues to pose a serious threat to student activists.

And just over a week ago, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, apparently under pressure mainly from segments of the Jewish community and others, rescinded an honor it bestowed upon the civil rights icon Angela Davis, who has been a vocal critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and supports B.D.S.

But that attack backfired. Within 48 hours, academics and activists had mobilized in response. The mayor of Birmingham, Randall Woodfin, as well as the Birmingham School Board and the City Council, expressed outrage at the institute’s decision. The council unanimously passed a resolution in Davis’ honor, and an alternative event is being organized to celebrate her decades-long commitment to liberation for all.

I highlighted in a previous post a Mennonite mathematics teacher who was denied a state contract to help train other math teachers. The reason was that she refused to sign a statement required by Kansas state law saying she wouldn’t participate in BDS. She teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to sue, and in January 2018 a federal judge overturned the Kansas law as a violation of free speech. The state tried to narrow its anti-BDS restrictions, but this, too, was overturned in July 2018.  

Even though the courts are starting to rule on the right side on this, I’m bewildered that people face serious consequences for a BDS stance or refusing to give up their option of boycotting Israel. Shouldn’t any person have the choice whether to buy products from Israel or from companies that play a large role in Israel’s illegal settlements in occupied territory? How is this position viable in an America that prides itself on choice and freedom??

The White Moderate

One of King’s more challenging statements is that white moderates and even liberals present more of a challenge to the liberation and economic emancipation of people of color than the KKK. This is because too often, white folks aren’t willing to personally risk anything to help change the rules that are stacked against people of color. Although there is white poverty and challenges for whites as well, the system isn’t systemically stacked against them the way it is for people of color or even for women. For many whites, this leads to a somewhat natural and understandable preference for order and calmness. But this has a dark side. This preference for order and calmness often means that many white folks – even with seemingly good intentions – oppose direct action and protest of injustice. All too often, this only leads to no change. The pot must be stirred, and discomfort is worth the price of change. After all, discomfort can lead to personal growth and a better understanding of the viewpoints of others.

I think of Jesus’ statement “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). This statement stands out from the multitudes which establish his support for nonviolence, call him the prince of peace, and so forth. So what is going on here?

The verse comes from Matthew 10, where Jesus sends out the disciples to go and change the world. They are to announce that the kingdom of heaven is near and to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, and drive out demons.” The disciples are to go with minimal possessions, rely on the hospitality of those they meet in their journeys, and are not to judge or be angry at anyone who refuses them kindness or hospitality.  Jesus says they will be like sheep among wolves and should be shrewd but also innocent as doves. They will be brought before the religious and national authorities and will be beaten. And they will even be betrayed by their own family members and by the family members of the friends and allies they make on their journeys. “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another” (Matthew 10:23).

Jesus’ statement about the sword comes in this context of the disciples as a force for good in the world, confronting the evils of humanity and its systems. Everything related to the disciples and their actions is nonviolent. The verses immediately after (Matthew 10:35-39) explain what he means by the sword: he has come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter in law against her mother in law. He says that a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household, and that anyone who loves their father or mother more than Jesus is not worthy of him. “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:39). Jesus is saying that his message of love, liberation, and justice is itself very controversial.

In a way, Jesus’ message stirs up violence, but only because it exposes the violence in our hearts, societies, and systems. This is also the cure if only we can face it and stick with it. So what Jesus means is that he is aware that his message divides and can stir up violent reactions, even though it’s absolutely clear that his followers are only to be innocent, peaceful, and kind.

While Martin Luther King, Jr. was in jail for his civil disobedience, he responded to critics who were against his policies of direct action, protest, and outspokenness about injustice. They wanted him to be quiet, to be patient, to let justice work itself out on its own slower pace. Just like Jesus, King responded that he had to speak out and that his message would indeed divide.  This was necessary for goodness to increase.

I think this is part of why King considered himself a Christian. He understood Jesus’ message, applied it to his own day and time, and knew that this was a dangerous course of action. True nonviolence disturbs the status quo and puts a spotlight on injustice, racism, hatred, and nationalism.  For many, it would feel more comfortable to ignore these and to simply accept the system as it is, hoping that change will come.

Jesus said that his message would divide families and that people should choose his message over family allegiance. Consider that today, a parallel to family is race. Ideally, we feel comfortable and safe with our family, and we look a lot like members of our family.  In the same way, many of us often feel more comfortable around people of our own race and look somewhat similar to people of our own race, at least in terms of our skin color. But if Jesus’ message will disturb the comfort and peace of family, Jesus’ message will also disturb the comfort of staying within the perspectives of our own race and shying away from racial justice.  

Dialogue and Debate


A local interfaith group called Interfaith Works is putting on a series of dinner dialogues in which folks of all sorts of religious and spiritual backgrounds get together for an evening of sharing and exploration over a meal at a host’s home.  I believe that somewhere around 13 dinners will be happening tomorrow night, and I’m a facilitator for one!  At a training event for hosts and facilitators we discussed (among other things) this wonderful chart highlighting differences between Debate and Dialogue.

I found this interesting because I have both a dialogue (interfaith event) and a debate (on nuclear energy and climate change) coming up.  Although I hope that there are elements of dialogue in the debate, it’s just the nature of the beast that there is a concrete set of points and arguments you’re trying to convince the other side (and more to the point, the audience) of.  In the back of my mind, I do envision both sides of the debate forming a dialogue of sorts with the audience, and am curious how the audience will respond and what questions they have, which then potentially turns it into more of a dialogue as well.

Intro to my Book Proposal

I’ve been working away at my book proposal lately.  Trying to get a draft done by the end of August or so.

Curious at all about the whole process of getting a book published?  It’s a fascinating process.  Basically if you hope that your book could have a wide and large audience, you don’t want to self-publish.  You don’t want to write the book first.  You need to write what’s known as a book proposal, which follows a set form.

You then want to find a literary agent who will take your book proposal and shop it around to different publishers.  Those publishers will all bid on your book – what kind of monetary advance will they provide to the author, and how much effort will they put in to advertising and promotion?   Then you choose it and go from there.  Your agent gets a cut of what you make, but it’s well worth it because then your success is their success.  They also help you edit your proposal and handle all the meetings and networking with publishers.  Sam Harris wrote a good summary of the process here: How to Get your Book Published in 6 (Painful) Steps.  Yup, it’s painful but I’m trying to just stick with it!

A proposal has 3 parts.  The first part is what you’d think of as a proposal.  You try to hook a publisher company with your idea/book and why you just have to write this book.  Second, there’s a detailed table of contents.  And third, there’s a sample chapter.  This doesn’t have to be an actual chapter but can be parts of the best of your writing and best bits of your book.  It’s meant to show publishers what your writing style is like.  So I’m being sure to have a mix of storytelling and “serious non-fiction” type writing in mine.

Here’s the first couple of pages from the first section of my proposal!

When I was a kid, two seemingly tiny experiences planted seeds in my mind and heart that would later grow to shape the whole course of my life.  

An educational banner ran along the perimeter of my 3rd grade classroom, just below the ceiling.  It was a hierarchy of learning and knowledge, progressing from rote memorization to the pinnacle, synthesis.  As a young budding perfectionist, but not knowing what “synthesis” actually meant, the word got filed away in the back of my mind under the following labels: important, big, best, wow.

I grew up Presbyterian, in a very loving and both politically and religiously conservative family.  We went to church every week, and I always had to dress up in black slacks and a white collared button-up shirt; my dad would brush my and my older brother’s hair with a very stiff brush to make our typically-unkempt selves presentable before the Lord.  I enjoyed going to church, “big” church, that is, which is what we called the church service for adults.  I didn’t really like Sunday School because the kids weren’t very nice. I had big glasses, braces (orthodontics), and it didn’t help that I was the only kid dressed up.  I generally understood from “big” church that important and profound things were discussed there, and I wondered how and if people at church might live differently than my family based on this profundity.

In high school, I decided to give youth group a try even though almost all of the kids were from a rival high school since our church was in a different school district.  Youth group was actually fine; kids were neither nice nor mean. I was just there, but maybe that meant I paid more attention to what was actually being said, or sung, as is often the case in youth groups.

Words from one song in particular etched themselves deep inside me, a mystery that would take some serious synthesis to solve.  The song went like this: “God’s gonna move in this pla-a-a-ce, God’s gonna move in this pla-a-a-ce, God’s gonna turn the world, oh-oh upside down.”  Then if that wasn’t paradoxical enough, the next line was “One name under Heaven, whereby we must be saved.” What the heck does it mean that the world will be turned upside down, for God to move in a place, and why is there only one name under which we must be saved?  These two experiences – a fascination with synthesis as the highest form of knowledge and the youth group lyrics hinting at the transformative power of religion yet causing dogmatic discomfort – would set me on a journey full of ups and downs, mistakes and successes, being judged and feeling free.  At the time, these were only vague, unformed questions and seeds taking root in the back of my mind but in college they slowly came to forefront and were watered and fertilized.

Monks and Mennonites – my story of “discovering” the Mennonite church

Amish carriage

In the Fall of 2003, I was in the first semester of my senior year studying Engineering at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California.  It was a crazy busy time, finishing up coursework, doing my senior project, and applying for graduate schools.  I was so eager for the semester to end that at the end of each day, I’d cross off that day on my calendar, hoping and waiting for the relief of Christmas break.

In the spring of 2004 I found out I’d been accepted to graduate school at the North Carolina State University Department of Nuclear Engineering in Raleigh.  They flew me out for an interview and to finalize which professor would be my adviser.  I’d never been to North Carolina before, having only lived in Arizona and California. Flying into the airport, I remember being amazed at how green and lush the landscape was.

My interview at NC State went well, and I decided I’d go there.  I’d previously found the school’s automatic deferral policy online so I knew I’d be able pursue my plans to take a year off to live in monasteries but still have a guaranteed spot at NC State when I returned.  I let them know I’d be deferring, to start in Fall 2005 instead of Fall 2004.  For my year off, I was going to stay 3 months at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA and 6 months at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, CO, near the skiing town of Aspen.  I wanted to do this because I had been working so hard at school and wanted to “work” equally as hard to answer some burning religious questions I had and to delve deep into the contemplative prayer and spirituality that the Trappist monks were teaching.  I knew that some of the monks at Snowmass had been involved in monastic interreligious dialog and that the famous Trappist monk from a generation earlier, Thomas Merton, also recognized the spiritual depth in the deepest forms or manifestations of other religions.

Happy that the interview went so well at NC State, I returned to the airport in Raleigh to fly back to college in California.  I was puzzled when I saw a few people inside the airport who looked to me like they were Amish.  I didn’t know much at all about the Amish then, but I knew they don’t use automobiles, much less airplanes!  I was curious and asked a person nearby, “Who are those people?  Are they Amish??”  The answer I got back was that they are Mennonite.  Huh!  I’d never heard of that – what are Mennonites?  I didn’t look into it any further.

After my 3 months at St. Joseph’s Abbey I went home for Christmas and then went off to Snowmass.  I continued devouring books on religion and spirituality, and one book I came across was part of a series covering the whole panopoly of western spiritual traditions.  The book was Early Anabaptist Spirituality, and it turns out that the Anabaptists are the pre-cursors or ancestors of the Mennonites and Amish.  The term “Mennonite” came from the name of an early Anabaptist leader, Menno Simons.

Coming across this book felt auspicious because I wasn’t sure what sort of religious community or denomination I could belong to after the monasteries.  The monasteries gave me a deep appreciation of the best of Catholicism, but I didn’t think that becoming Catholic was right for me.  One of the other burning questions I’d wanted to explore in the monasteries was that of nonviolence.  After reading the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (he wrote extensively about religion and was an interfaith pioneer!), Thomas Merton, Walter Wink, Dorothy Day, and taking a harder look at the New Testament I was convinced that nonviolence is at the core of the Gospel and is a deep principle that is the best way to fight and resist evil.  It turns out the Anabaptists also believe that Jesus taught an active nonviolence based on love and overcoming or transforming evil.

The history of the early Anabaptist movement was and is fascinating to me.  They came about at the same time as the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s.  They were a group of people who thought the Reformation did not go far enough and was not being true to Jesus.  Anabaptists read the Bible together and interpreted it as a community, not being held captive to previous interpretations or dogmas.  They recognized that Jesus taught a very different and very powerful way of life, and that the New Testament was consistent in asserting that Jesus was the clearest revelation of who God is within the Bible, and that the Bible should be interpreted first and foremost through Jesus.

Much of the Reformation was literally violent against Catholicism (and vice versa), with both Catholic and Protestant groups eagerly making alliances with princes and territories to set their religion or denomination up as the law of the land.  The Anabaptists, however, refused to take part in this and saw the Kingdom of God that Jesus taught and lived as being above violence, power struggles, and politics.

The word Anabaptist means “baptized again”, based on the Anabaptist practice of adult baptism.  These folks saw that following Jesus took a deep understanding of not only the Bible but also politics and power – summed up in the phrase “be gentle as doves, wise as serpents.”  The decision to be a disciple of Jesus, made explicit in baptism, could not therefore be made as a baby or even as a young child as the Catholics and Protestants practiced.

Tithing to the Church was also mandatory back then, and infant baptism did two things: ensured that everyone was Christian and therefore had to tithe, and also pushed forward a dangerous narrative of a unified “Christian nation”.  This preempted a more genuine spirituality and understanding of Jesus, and gave church and state elites power over religion.  As a result, Anabaptists were persecuted and killed by both Catholics and Protestants, clearly because of the challenge of their beliefs to Catholic and Protestant power and wealth, not merely because of a disagreement in doctrine.

Due to this persecution and the high cost of discipleship to a nonviolent Jesus, Mennonites took refuge in biblical themes of separation from the world: you are in the world but not of the world (John 17:14,16), “do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2); avoid being polluted by the world (James 1:27).  The history is complicated, but over decades and centuries, the lived experience of being separate from society because of persecution combined with increasingly more literal understandings of these verses combined to create groups of Anabaptists – the Amish and some Mennonites – who live very simply and eschew much of technology and the typical ways of modern culture.  Today, there are a range of Mennonites from those who “look” Amish but use cars and can fly in airplanes (Old Order Mennonites), to Mennonites who integrate into modern society (as the original Anabaptists did) and still value simple living as more of a spiritual value in opposition to excessive materialism.  (Quite a challenge in the United States!)

Another aspect of the Anabaptists that really appealed to me was that they did not reject everything Catholicism had to offer like the rest of the Protestants did.  Many of the early Anabaptist leaders were monks or friars disillusioned with the excesses, fraud, and abuse of the Church but were also well versed in and appreciative of the medieval contemplative or mystic threads of Catholic spirituality.  I liked this because I came to the monasteries to learn about and practice contemplative prayer.  It also made me laugh that I happened to discover the Mennonites in a monastery when many of its early leaders left monasteries to start the movement!  Some might say God has a sense of humor!

Needless to say, when I left the monasteries I became a Mennonite.  I’ve had many wonderful experiences as part of the Raleigh Mennonite Church and later the Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship.  I’m grateful for the unique contributions of the Mennonite church and it’s one part of the (complicated) story of why I consider myself a Mennonite Christian atheist.

Divergent Mennonites?

A dove image often used by Mennonites symbolic of its peacemaking and nonviolent theology superimposed over the Divergent novel book cover. The tie-in to this book occurs at the end of the article 🙂

A number of recent articles from The Mennonite, an online publication of Mennonite Church USA, stoked the embers of my love for Mennonites/Anabaptists and the promise I think the movement holds for a transformative Christianity.  I’ll briefly summarize them here and in the next article share my story of finding the Mennonite Church, including some context about Mennonite beliefs.

A Mennonite woman and teacher in the Kansas public school system was required under state law to certify that she is not taking part in any divestment or boycott activities of Israel (usually done in protest of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians).  She worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to fight this in court, and at the time of the article won a court injunction against it.

A black Mennonite man shared some of his story of finding other people of color at a conference in the predominantly white (and might I add, peculiarly ethnic) Mennonite church, coming to a deeper realization that there is room for people like him in this particular Body of Christ.

Jess King, a Mennonite in Lancaster, PA is running for Congress.  She worked in business and sustainable development to help combat poverty but saw that many systemic and policy issues were instead working to increase poverty.  She was motivated by her faith and its focus on love of neighbor to run for office, also saying she “doesn’t fit neatly into one party” and believes that the country’s “two-party system is ineffective.”

Glen Guyton is the new Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA and also wrote a great article about the future of the Mennonite Church based on the Divergent book trilogy.  In the Divergent series, humanity is facing the task of rebuilding after some major un-named catastrophe and has split into five factions each based on a wholesome-sounding character trait.  Yet there is conflict between the factions, and people who manifest multiple traits are labeled “divergent” and dangerous.  Guyton writes that more divergent leaders and less factions are needed for the Mennonite Church. (Amen!)  In my view, Jesus is a shining example of divergence, something the institutional church has failed to grapple with.

Updates on life (including book!) – Part 2

A big part of my motivation for writing is that I really do believe the pen is mightier than the sword. It’s so hard to have deep conversations about complex, difficult, and sensitive topics so I’m just gonna put it all in a book! I know that the book will put me in touch with the right people and give me the platform to engage on issues of science, religion, and spirituality on a level I simply couldn’t otherwise as an engineer.

Previously I posted on my job as a wastewater engineer.  That took up more space than I originally anticipated so I didn’t get to the other things I’ve been up to.

So without further ado:

    1.  I’m working to complete my book proposal package, which you use to woo a literary agent.  The agent helps you tweak your book proposal, and represents it to book publishers to sell. I used this fascinating book about writing book proposals (!) here

      Writing it is a bit of an ordeal and I take comfort knowing that other authors struggle with the process too, for example, New Atheist Sam Harris’ blog post How to Get Your Book Published in 6 (Painful) Steps.  The 3 parts of a proposal are:

      1. The proposal section says what your book is about in story or narrative form, why you want to (or have to!) write it, and highlights interesting bits that stand out.  It includes a section on the book’s competition where you describe other related works and how yours is unique or a needed contribution.

      2. A detailed table of contents to give the publisher and agent a sense of the overall book.

      3. A sample chapter, which doesn’t necessarily have to be an actual chapter.  They say it’s often more effective when it’s a compilation of the most important and interesting stuff in your book.  (No pressure!)

    2. I submitted a 2600 word article about Islam to Free Inquiry, an online secular humanist magazine.  I just heard yesterday (3/14) they didn’t accept it, so I’ll be looking for another outlet to send it to.

      But what exactly did I write about?  Much of the discourse on Islam in the West claims to be based in logic and rationality, but is at a shallow level. Rationality needs depth (and even spirituality!) to be effective and help contribute solutions to complex problems.  Accurate storytelling is one angle, and I tell the story of Muhammad and address many common misconceptions about Islam.  I’d be happy to share it individually if you want to read it, just let me know!

    3. I just ended a stint as a young adult leader in the interfaith non-profit Religions for Peace.  I’m incredibly grateful and honored to have been part of this amazing group and organization.  I’ve had the amazing experience of meeting young adults of many different religions from North America and from around the world.  Working with RfP was an outlet for my intense passions for religion and interfaith work, often the only outlet because I’ve been so heavily steeped in science/engineering graduate school and/or jobs these last years.

      With RfP I have been to the 2015 UN climate change talks in Paris; to the global RfP meeting in Vienna; Tunisia to connect with religious young adults who helped bring about their Arab Spring, and various meetings in the US (St. Louis, Chicago, greater New York City metro area).

    4. Finally, I’m on the executive board of a wonderful group called Uplift Syracuse, which has both an issue-based focus and a political focus.The core issue areas Uplift Syracuse is focusing on are:

      1. Addressing the terrible problem of children’s exposure to lead paint in homes.  Uplift is working with a coalition of groups to address this issue, drawing on a successful example from Rochester, NY.

      2. Municipally owned high speed broadband internet service.  Our city of Syracuse could install its own fiber optic internet lines and offer faster and more reliable service.  Revenue would stay in the City, and the City would be better able to attract and retain businesses and young professionals.

      3. Advocating for the replacement of a short segment of I-81 running through downtown Syracuse that has literally outlived its safe lifespan with a community grid solution.

      4. Advocacy for increased Syracuse school district funding in cooperation with the City’s Commissioner of Education.

That’s it for now!  As always, I appreciate your comments and feedback!

Updates on my life (Part 1)

A large wastewater treatment plant serving 2.3 million people in Florida

Hi everyone!

It’s a familiar chorus on my website to remark on how I haven’t written in a while.  Oh well, c’est la vie!

I wanted to give a few updates on what’s going on in my life.

I’ve been at a new job for a little over 6 months now, finally the type of job I want to be in for my career!  I’m a wastewater engineer in an office that focuses on that, water systems engineering (safely and efficiently delivering drinking water), and solid waste management (composting at a municipal scale).  People who know me and my interests could well imagine why I’d be happy there!  I get to do some awesome stuff designing new sewer collection systems, pump stations, wet wells, and wastewater treatment plant upgrades.  Here’s a quick breakdown of those details:

  • Sewer collection.  Where does a city/town want sewers installed?  How many houses/businesses will connect and contribute to those sewers?  How much wastewater do they produce: maximum, minimum, hourly, monthly, etc?  What size sewer pipes are needed to convey that wastewater?  How much would construction and installation cost for the new sewer system?

  • Pump stations and wet wells.  Sewers that flow by gravity (sloped downhill) are cheapest and easiest, but rarely are all locations between sewers and the final wastewater treatment plant all downhill.  So at some places water has to be pumped up in elevation at a pumping station so it can then keep flowing downhill from there.  Or, wastewater has to be pumped from a pumping station directly through a pipe to a wastewater treatment plant, with the pipe being known as a force main.  Questions to figure out and design: How big do the pumps need to be?  How can we meet minimum velocity requirements so crap doesn’t settle out of the wastewater?  What size force main (pipe) is required, and what material should it be made out of?  How big should the wet well (that collects the wastewater at the pump station) be so it meets regulatory and best practice requirements?

  • Regulations on how much organic matter, nitrogen, chlorine, and other pollutants/constituents are getting tighter, so wastewater treatment plants need to be upgraded so they can better remove these.  Also, treatment plants get old, have equipment nearing the end of their life, or municipalities grow or have new businesses that generate wastewater (breweries, dairies, manufacturing) so treatment plants have to be upgraded to meet higher flows and pollutant loadings.  We evaluate multiple different treatment options and work to keep up with new processes and technologies so we can implement the most effective solutions at lowest cost.

That’s just a little snippet of some of the things we do.

I’m sort of a nerd, so I wanted to go into a little bit of detail about my job.  I think it’s very important what happens to what we flush down our toilets, and that we don’t think about it very often!

One funny story that just made me think of.  My wife was editing a paper for a journal, and it happened to be about wastewater treatment.  She remarked to me, “Gross!  This article talks about [sewage] sludge all the time!”  Which is amusing because she’s completely used to the idea of our composting toilets.  Then I go and tell this story to a few colleagues at work, who are used to the idea of sludge and talk about it and perform calculations related to it every day.  One of them is kind of grossed out about the idea of composting toilets!  To one, composting poo is normal and sludge is gross.  To another, composting poo is gross and sludge is normal!

I really got a kick out of that.

For my next post, I’ll continue updates on life other than work, including what’s going on with my book!  And in case you’re skeptical that I’ll get it done promptly, I’m working on it right now and will set it up to automatically publish a few days after this post!


Mythbust: Dietary Changes to Save the World

Image result for beef emissions image


Every now and then, a fresh new research article comes out saying that if only people became vegetarian, or stopped eating beef, or ate more beans, that we’d take care of climate change.  Granted, agriculture and cattle production do have emissions associated with them and we need reductions everywhere we can get them.  Further, the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change: the hyperlink is to its chapter on Agriculture, a pdf download) warns that large increases in meat consumption, especially of the middle class in China, will increase global emissions by as much as a few percent.

So, the latest such article is in The Atlantic, “If Everyone Ate Beans Instead of Beef” by James Hamblin with the tagline or summary “With one dietary change, the U.S. could almost meet greenhouse-gas emission goals.”  It summarizes a paper by Helen Harwatt and others that makes this argument.

This sounds amazing!  I didn’t know it was so easy!  (Even though it’s really hard to get 300 million people to change their diet.)

But more important, how accurate is this?  It turns out that the tagline is true, but the greenhouse-gas emissions goals it references are so weak this doesn’t turn out to mean much.

Here are a couple of key questions which really reveal that the devil is in the details:

  1. What or which climate goals are these?  The article references Obama’s climate goals for 2020 and says that this dietary change will get us 46% to 74% of the way there.  So what were Obama’s climate goals, how ambitious were they, and therefore how large or significant is a 46% to 74% step to those goals?
  2. How do these emissions due to beef compare to emissions due to fossil fuels?  While all reductions in emissions are great, do we need to focus on creating policies that meaningfully curtail beef production or, for instance, that curtail fossil fuel production and use?  If we answer “both”, what practical steps do we take?

Obama’s Climate Goals
The 2020 Obama pledge is a pledge that he made at the 2009 Copenhagen conference, which was that emissions would be 17% lower in 2020 than in 2005.  The graphic below which visually shows this is from the Climate Action Tracker webpage for the US: the 2 black, round circles in 2020 column, which the first vertical band of colors.  These black dots are located right about at the transition from the red color to the yellow color.  The red color means that emission reduction efforts are absolutely inadequate, yellow that they are medium (not adequate but not completely awful), green that they are adequate, and dark green means that emission reduction efforts are a role model for the world.

These particular climate goals mentioned by the article are completely insufficient.  Further, this report came out in 2017 when emissions are lower than in 2005 (as seen in the article), mostly due to some energy efficiency and the switch from coal to natural gas.  So getting us now from our current emissions to our 2020 emissions goals represents a change in emissions from about 6800 MT eq (metric tons equivalent, which already factors in the fact that methane and other gases are more potent than carbon dioxide) to about 6200 MT eq.  This is a decrease of about 10% in overall emissions, and so if every American stopped eating beef and ate beans instead, we’d get about 46% to 74% of that 10% decrease.  In other words, this colossal dietary switch would reduce our overall emissions by about 5 to 7% overall.

I would celebrate such a reduction for sure, but it’s not the smoking gun or amazing progress the article makes it sound like, huh?  Plenty of people are taking this to mean that if we made this dietary change, we would meet some super aggressive climate goals or would be 60% of the way toward truly doing the US’s part in stopping climate change.  Not so.

Emissions compared to fossil fuels
The true culprit in climate change is fossil fuels.  The US EPA reports the breakdown of US greenhouse gases by economic sector in 2015 in the pie chart below.  Again, this is in units of equivalent emissions, which already factors in the effects of the stronger potency of gases such as methane (CH4) compared to carbon dioxide (CO2).

Pie chart of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector in 2015. 29 percent is from electricity, 27 percent is from transportation, 21 percent is from industry, 12 percent is from commercial and residential, and 9 percent is from agriculture.

Total Emissions in 2015 = 6,587 Million Metric Tons of CO2 equivalent

Almost all of the remaining 91% of the emissions from electricity, industry, transportation, and commercial/residential are from fossil fuels.  So agriculture represents about half the emissions of any one of these categories, but the rest of the categories are linked by having fossil fuels as the root cause.  So clearly, doing something about fossil fuels would be drastically more important and effective than doing something about diet.  (Not to say that doing something about diet isn’t good: I eat very little meat, but this alone isn’t going to solve climate change!)

I applaud anyone who changes their diet for health and/or climate reasons.  Eating less meat helps with both.  But the first graphic shows just how deep our emissions reductions need to be to truly tackle climate change.  We need to be talking much more about that, and way to curb fossil fuels that are politically feasible in this country, such as a revenue neutral carbon fee with rebate, which would create 2.8 million jobs and decrease emissions 50% from 1990 levels within 20 years.

It gets confusing how people reference different years as reference levels, but looking at the first graph we can get a sense of it.  1990 levels were about 6200 metric tons (eek!  we are currently above 1990 levels in 2017!), while 2005 levels were about 7100 metric tons.  So a 50% reduction from 1990 levels within 20 years would have us at about 3000 metric tons of emissions.  Holy cow, what a real step forward!

The good news is that with some political activism and education, this carbon fee is politically feasible because it grows the economy, is not a tax because revenues are returned to households as a rebate, and does not grow the government because the government doesn’t keep the revenue.  Groups like Citizens Climate Lobby are working to educate the public and convince Congress to pass this law, which is simple and is only a few pages long.  Some major gas companies even support the concept in general, as a type of carbon action that is fair and transparent.

We all are passionate about different topics, but if we are serious about wanting to slow or stop climate change, we’ve got to figure out a practical way to curtail fossil fuel use economy-wide!

I worry about articles that make it seem like diet or some other quick fix (which is still quite difficult) will do it.  What does this type of misinformation serve to do?  Divide the climate activist community on the best path forward?  Help people feel proud of themselves for changes they will or already made (becoming vegetarian)?  Distract from the main cause, which is fossil fuels?  Make climate activists seem elitist or disconnected, focusing on peoples’ personal eating habits?  What do you think?  Why might these ideas about diet seem to be so popular and eagerly believed?

As always, I welcome your comments!