Robert M. Pirsig Dies

NPR reports that Robert M Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintanence and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals has died at age 88.

Zen was eye opening and life changing, each time I read it. Lila felt like a work of obligation. While Lila had moments where the third person was used more powerfully than I had ever encountered it before, on the whole I found to book maddening. The quickest way to describe it is the difference between Socrates and Plato. In fact I would Liken Zen to the Apology and Lila to the Republic in regard to their approach to establishing ideas. I was over 10% younger than I am now when I read it and think I might take a gentler view should I read it again.

He was the first person to introduce me to the non-rational foundations of our value systems, every single one. I am grateful for this.

I hope he found the Quality he was looking for.

Rest In Peace Mr. Pirsig.

Specialization is for insects

Eric Shelton (AKA The Shelton) recently shared a post, Heinlein was wrong. The post appears to be an excerpt from Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. The excerpt refers to the following from Robert Heinlein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I don’t want to re-quote Eric’s post here but the excerpt makes the following points:

  • Heinlein is telling us that truly capable human beings, should be able to do almost anything
  • The quote is a noble sentiment, it celebrates human adaptability and resilience, but it’s wrong.
  • A homesteader making his own house and the materials to assemble it was inefficient and produced only “rudimentary housing.”
  • No one expects metallurgy, architecture, and glazing in a skyscraper to be executed by the same person.
  • The workers in a skyscraper possess some overlapping knowledge but respect the professional abilities of many others and concentrate on doing what he or she knows best.
  • We cannot function without admitting the limits of our knowledge and trusting in the expertise of others

The Life Judo slogan is taken from this quote so it is not surprising I think the above is well meant nonsense. Heinlein wrote a “human being” should be able to do his list, not a remarkable person. It is not a noble sentiment but a specific point. Rudimentary housing is far better than freezing your ass off, and if you can’t make rudimentary shelter you are relying on our modern support system to function flawlessly and relying on yourself to have flawless judgement and knowledge of the future. The last three points made by Mr. Nichols can be addressed completely by Heinlein’s requirement to take orders, give orders, cooperate, and act alone.

Making the claim that specialization is for insects is not a call for isolation and rugged individualism. It is a call to be useful and of value to the people around you. Are people in need? Can you be of assistance? What if you are separated from the group? Do they need to mobilize resources and take on new risks to save you or can they count on you to find your way back more or less on your own?

Heinlein is placing a list of skills in your mind and letting you have a response. Are you energized at the prospect of becoming better rounded or do you shrink away from exposing yourself to the inevitable failure of learning?

We don’t need to achieve unparalleled levels of excellence in all facets of our life. It has been well said that perfect is the enemy of good enough. Rather than be excellent, can you do these and other things at all? My observation in the world and my own experience indicates the expanding of one’s skill set expands one’s freedom. It’s also a lot of fun.

But Mr. Nichols was applying his point more to society than to the individual! My point still stands. Have you ever noticed that biology involves chemistry and that chemistry involves physics and that physics involves math and that communicating mathematical concepts in relation to real world issues involves good writing skills? Do you recall that the information about the 9/11 attacks was known to the government but the compartmentalization of the information prevented the whole picture emerging?

When we specialize we are putting our understanding in silos. Are you in the foreign policy silo or steel worker silo or the management silo? This does not serve our society, our industry, nor our science. Nowhere in Heinlein’s quote are we admonished against achieving excellence. In fact his reference to giving and receiving orders and acting cooperatively implies strongly that there are to be people expert enough to clearly be in charge.

If I need brain surgery or an engine block blueprinted I want the operator to be an expert and truly fantastic at the task. However, it does not follow that I want or need the surgeon or machinist to be ignorant of how to cook a meal, write a sonnet, or build a wall.

Mr Nichols may well have a valid point to make but he has chosen the wrong context to make it. I cannot think of a better thing for any society of humans than that they should all strive to live the terms Heinlein lays out for us.

Muslims & Terrorists

Link: Zinc Video Muslim Terrorist Statistics

Apparently the folks at Zinc only upload videos to FB. It’s a short video (1:13).

Let’s lead with the fact that banning people because of their religion is quintessentially unAmerican.

Just like Trump, but to a different direction, this video misses the point. The Muslims killing Muslims e.g. ISIS, would claim those being killed are not Muslims.

While 106,000 is a small percentage, it is a large number. It looks nice to say 0.006% of Muslims are terrorists and makes a useful point but it is missing the larger point.

Having seen how badly people misinterpret Christianity from the outside, I am reluctant to make any statements about what a religion is or is not. With that understood, it is my understanding that the actions of ISIS are justifiable under the Quran and Sharia law. This not to say it is the only perspective one can take but that it is a perspective ISIS and their supporters can support from text and tradition.

This leads us to the larger point, What is Islam?

What is happening right now is a battle for the meaning of the faith. So when 1.6 billion Muslims are mentioned, what does that mean?

The video also treats Islamism as a spontaneous movement devoid of context. The West (US, UK, et al), Russia, and others have acted to the detriment of people living in areas with high concentrations of Muslims. That is not the sole reason we have our current troubles but it is part of it.

Showing Up

I was driving into my internship when I started thinking about Jiu Jitsu. Specifically I was thinking about the belt system and the way that my school awards them.

Typically you will see five colors awarded: white, blue, purple, brown, and black. Each of these belts receive stripes as the student progresses. In my school they add three belts between white and blue so that the progression is white, yellow, orange, green, and then blue. Stripes on the white belt are each awarded after 10 reasonably consistent days of attendance. Yellow and orange are also awarded based on attendance. It is not until awarding the green belt (the equivalent of a four stripe white belt in many other schools) that my school promotes on skill/understanding.

This is controversial. Some folks would say that promotion based on anything but Jiu Jitsu skill is not legitimate, that this practice is just trying to egg people along and make them feel good. Frankly, I had some misgivings about it as well. I have no misgivings now.

The reason I do not have any misgivings now is I see how much more there is to Jiu Jitsu than Jiu Jitsu. To be successful in this art, one must have personal resources e.g. diligence, humility, and resilience. If a player must possess the skill to execute a technique (e.g. an arm bar) to practice the art, and possessing diligence or humility is also necessary, then why would diligence not be specifically encouraged? If you don’t show up, you can’t learn. Rewarding the new student with promotion based on executing the most important skill, i.e. showing up, is absolutely logical. Once that skill has been largely acquired and demonstrated then the next thing to test is the student’s proficiency in the gentle art.

This is what I was thinking about on my drive in.

One cannot be successful in life if one does not show up. I know for me, I often see only the failed attempt rather than also seeing the fact I was there attempting. No, just trying is not enough but trying is ESSENTIAL. I have found significant objective achievement in the areas where I measure success by how much and how consistently I have engaged the process.

If you are kicking ass focusing on nothing but the goal then keep kicking ass! If that’s not working for you you might want to try committing to diligently showing up and engaging the process. It has done wonders for me.


The next day one of the black belts earned his first stripe. Three years of Jiu Jitsu since his belt. My professor spoke at length about how the black belt had earned this stripe. The way we start is the way we end, showing up.

The Gospel of Powerlessness

Gospel -> Good News
Powerlessness -> Lacking the authority or capacity to act.

Cicle of Interest Influence Control

I have great news for you! You have no power!! I have even better news! No one else has power either!!

If you find yourself speaking to our current president, President Obama, and you are talking to him about The Issue (The Issue is a topic that has impact on people and that only President Obama has power over the outcome) that is a big deal. Let’s say you have the “correct” perspective on The Issue but the president does not. Since you are speaking with THE president you have the opportunity to actually change something. If the president will just not listen to reason it will be frustrating. This has real consequences and the president is not being reasonable!! The Issue is within the president’s circle of control and, for the moment, the president is within your circle of influence. There is a lot riding on that interaction.

Contrast that with a discussion between you and an acquaintance on The Issue. While your acquaintance is within your circle of influence, neither of you have any influence or control over The Issue.

This is good news!! The outcome of that interaction has no importance and will not change what happens with The Issue. Therefore, there is nothing to lose! You have then only an opportunity to share an experience, see if you can learn from the other person, and see if you can communicate your ideas. It is an opportunity to explore The Issue and exercise your brain. And because no one has power, nothing bad will happen if the other person’s perspective remains unchanged.

A word about communication. Communication means that the concept in your head is constructed in the other person’s head. It does not mean that the other person agrees with that concept once it is there.

Good News!! You have no power! The pressure is off!

Two Wrong Ideas the Same Way

San Bernadino.

It is the morning after and we already know everything we need to assert the following: this tragedy will be used to justify more restrictive gun laws and this tragedy will also be used to demonize Islam. Both of these perspectives have already come to a conclusion and are looking for evidence to confirm it. This approach to thought has a name. It is called “confirmation bias

Now, it is silly to think that we should wait for all the evidence to come in before we start thinking about it. It is entirely reasonable to see things happening and to get an idea. In some circles this is called forming a hypothesis. You then look to see whether there is further information that supports or undermines that idea.

That is not what we see happening with this. We have people devoted to ideas rather than devoted to the truth. The way things are is the way things are. If we want to change the way things are we need to engage reality as honestly as possible.

The “anti-gun” folks, by and large, want a good thing i.e. let’s not kill each other so much. While the “anti-Islam” folks too want a good thing i.e. let’s not be killed as much.

The problem is that good intentions will not accomplish either of these goals. These problems exist in a system and without changing that system the problems will remain. What folks don’t like about systemic change is that it is often uncomfortable and sometimes takes a while for the change to be visible. Add to this that there are people, bad people in my opinion, who profit from calling for simple linear solutions to these systemic problems (and so look like they are working for improvement but are actually interfering with it and so preserve their jobs while “claiming a halo for their dishonesty”) and people get distracted from meaningful work that will make things better.

There is no easy solution. One thing we can do is ask ourselves when presented with these problems, Are we protecting ourselves from uncomfortable ideas? Are we placing our biases ahead of problem solving? Our ideals inform our objectives but if our beliefs are not subject to change by reality they become dogma and actively interfere with changing our situation for the better.

How I Navigate Backcountry

To me, navigating means knowing where I am, where I want to be, and how I want to get there. The primary system I use is quite simple. A grid is drawn over the paper map and the GPS gives me a number that references a point on that grid. That point is where I am.

Sounds easy? After a little practice, it is.

I’m focusing on the things that I have figured out after implementing what I call the Dick Blust System, so the article may seem incomplete. This article wanted to morph into a navigation how-to but there are already many great resources for learning how to stay found and at best I would only do as well. At the bottom of this article I have included links to the tutorials that got me started and they are the best I know of.


Some folks like to use a mapping GPS or smartphone for everything, the plotting, planning, mapping, etc. I prefer a paper map that is 8.5×11 or 11×17 over a 4×6 screen. Additionally, relying on a single device gives you no redundancy which is a bad move in backcountry. I use a map, GPS, and compass. Each one can help me find my way on its own but when used in concert they make a fantastic system. Let’s look at the paper map first.

I have access to both an 8.5×11 laser printer and an 11×17 inkjet. I have found for both printers that the 1:24,000 and 1:25,000 scales yield the best results. The printer resolution needed to get good detail on smaller scale maps (like 1:50,000 and 1:100,000) is much higher than what these printers can deliver. Fortunately 1:24k and 1:25k scales are convenient for navigation and work with these paper sizes. After printing the map I fold it in half and hold it in place with a clipboard. I use a letter size clipboard for the folded 11×17 maps and a half letter size clipboard for the folded 8.5×11 maps. I use a plastic half letter clipboard like this, it is low profile and water resistant. The clipboard makes writing on the map and plotting points much easier.

I have found the 11×17 size is kind of awkward when on foot in backcountry but when in a vehicle driving down logging roads it is great. At first I thought I could take the 11×17, fold it into quarters, and clip it onto the half letter clipboard but it didn’t work well and the larger size isn’t needed. The 8.5×11 works great for hiking. Printout the maps you need to cover the route or area you intend to travel in and change them out as you move from one map to another.

For my maps I really like to use It is FREE. At first that seems like the coolest feature but mess with it for very long and you will want to start sending donations.

Below is a video of how Caltopo works.

Caltopo is a fantastic service with a myriad of mapping tools and options. You save the maps to a PDF, set the printer to 100% (not shrink to fit), and print out your maps precisely to scale. Here is a tip for printing out overlapping maps. When selecting the amount of overlap for two maps try to ensure that there is enough margin at the edges of both maps so they share an entire grid square. This makes navigating at the edges with the protractor much easier. If that sounds cryptic, check out the Blust tutorials at the end.

All this talk of printing begs the question, What paper to use? The enemy of maps is water. Humidity, condensation, rain and the like can make ink run and paper hard to write on and tear easily. Because my 8.5×11 maps are made on a laser printer I’m not worried about ink running or smearing. I have gone out with unprotected maps (i.e. not in a map pouch or Ziploc bag) made with standard printer paper. These outings were fairly brief (a day or two). However, dropping these maps in a creek or dousing them in rain would quickly turn them into a soggy mess. Putting them in a Ziploc would prevent this but would also make writing on them difficult and I really like writing on my maps and making notes. I have just started using Rite in the Rain copier paper. The first thing I did when I got this paper was to printout a map and then immerse it in a tennis ball can full of water. A day later it was a bit fragile but still usable. On the trail I found the maps on this paper work well. I’m curious how the Rite in the Rain inkjet paper would work. Since I only use my 11×17 maps in the truck I haven’t bothered with getting any. Neither of these papers are cheap but for me they are worth it to have durable maps I can write on.


To plot the point I get from the GPS I use a UTM protractor. Right now I am liking the MapTools Pocket Slot Tool. I run a thin piece of cord through the hole and tie the slot tool off to my kit bag. I’m thinking about tying it off to the clipboard next time out.

For a pencil I use the Koh-i-noor 5201CL lead holder. I tried a 0.5mm mechanical pencil but it tended to gouge the map rather than write smoothly. At first I thought that the fine point of the 0.5mm would increase the precision of my plots but the Koh-i-noor has been more than adequate (especially when I sharpen the tip with the sharpener in the “cap” of the holder). I like its yellow color which makes the pencil easy to find if I drop it. The holder itself is all metal and quite tough so it is unlikely to break.

For my GPS I’m just using an old Garmin eTrex. In the picture up top is an even older Garmin Geko 201 that I carry as a backup. With the Dick Blust System it doesn’t really matter what you use for a GPS. I would recommend getting a GPS with a fast startup that finds satellites quickly and ideally uses the same batteries as your other equipment. I’ve been looking into getting the Garmin Foretrex 401 but there are some serious hikers and hunters who have been using smartphones with GPS receivers. The Foretrex does have a barometric altimeter, an electronic compass, and can be worn on the wrist which would be quite handy but I need to look into using a smart phone (which I already own) before I drop $190 on the Foretrex.


In general a compass is a good idea. I use an older version of the Suunto MC-2/G/6400. I think it is the best version of a mirror style of compass out there. However, it was designed for a different approach to navigation than I use. My style (taken from Dick Blust) appears to be more closely related to a military approach and so it is not surprising that I’m looking into getting a lensatic or prismatic compass. I don’t like trying to line up the needle with the bezel while trying to take a bearing with my Suunto. I want to be able to point the compass at something and get a number. True, you have to account for declination with a lensatic/prismatic compass reading but always adding or subtracting a number is easy. In fact I do that with my present compass anyway and leave the declination adjustment set to 0. I also like the increased accuracy and precision of the lensatic/prismatic compasses over my Suunto.

The way it seems to work in the field is I plot my location about every ten minutes. I leave the GPS on and plot my UTM coordinates when I stop. I circle the point and write the time down near the plot but hopefully not obscuring an important part of the map. I then orient my brain to me being at that point on the map and decide what to do from there. That “orient my brain” instruction might seem silly but not taking that step seriously has taken me off track. If I’m following a trail on the map and the point is on the trail I just keep heading down the trail. If I’m bushwhacking I may measure a heading or see if I can determine my bearing through terrain association. If you are on a well established trail then you’ll likely only really need to plot your location at trail junctions but when off trail I like the ~10 minute plots, especially when I am following sign or terrain features.

Don’t get hung up on doing it just this way or that way or trying to figure out what exactly will work before trying it. The most important thing is to just do it. Try navigating while walking around where you live. Once that feels familiar go take a day hike out on a trail and keep track of your location. After doing it you learn very fast what does and does not work for you. Everyone has his or her own specific requirements and you want to find what system best addresses those needs.

*Dick Blust Jr. wrote a series of outstanding articles that have taught me almost everything I know and use for navigation. They are found on the Kifaru website.

Dick Blust Articles: