Friday, July 14, 2017

Why are you here? ... On Training and Teaching (Part IIX) (7/14/2017)

I finished with the development of a new class about six weeks ago, before I went on vacation.  So it had been sitting on the shelf for that long before I finally was able to pull it off and teach it this week.  Boy, lesson learned; although I did review it a few times in the past week, it still felt foreign at certain points.  It definitively had its rough edges.  The reviews were kind, but I am my harshest critic, I can do better.  I asked them shred me, to be brutally honest, but they were too nice.

Fascinating isn’t it, we live in a strange society where if you want critique and ask for it you can barely get it.  Really, I thought it was not that polished and flowing well.  On the other hand we have a person at the helm of this country who will try to squash you like a bug if you give him the slightest little bit of critique.  You’ll be at the mercy of what his little fingers can type out in his twitter account.  It is such a strange world out there.  I am not that way; I really would like to learn from my mistakes and screw ups; although I am far from perfect (although I may come over as too arrogant in one or two of my posts).

This week I received a survey from the National Science Foundation that was sent to people with Ph.D.’s (I wonder under what rock they found me).  One of the questions was interesting.  It asked me what was important in my job (I am paraphrasing here); was it:
  • Money
  • Benefits
  • Freedom
  • Research
  • Teaching
  • Perceived contribution to society

I needed to say yes or no.  Well, the state does not pay much of anything, so that wasn’t it, I do not do research, so we can scratch that one as well.  So I choose the remaining ones.  But after I had to rank them, and there came the rub, to me it still is my perceived contribution to society.

A few weeks ago I was part of a meeting/survey that was conducted by the Virginia Institute for Marine Science on their service to local communities.  People that were asked to attend were all (volunteer) members of local boards that deal with wetlands and coastal issues.  The first question there was: “Why do you volunteer.”  My simple answer was: “To give back to the community that is willing to put up with me.”

There you have it.  It reminds of those cliffs full of gannets, murres or puffins that we saw in Newfoundland, and the story of the people from (coastal) communities in Newfoundland that pulled sailors from ships that hit those rocks and took care of them.  In my previous post I spoke about two of them, but another example is the S.S. Ethie.  This ship perished December 11, 1919 and here again, the kind people that lived along the shore helped to save the crew and passengers (including a baby) and took care of them once they were on shore.
Remnants of the SS. Ethie that shipwrecked in 1919.
So yes I want to contribute to society.  It was Henry David Thoreau (who just celebrated his 200 birthday this week) who encouraged "Civil Disobedience."  I would like to advocate contributing to society instead.  If we all contribute a little, the world would be a better place.  That is why I still teach, and still enjoy it, even though the pay sucks!  That is also why I encourage feedback, improve my classes and myself in general.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Newfoundland "bathing" (7/9/2017)

Back from vacation already for about three weeks and Newfoundland feels worlds away.  It was such a different world.  I’m not sure if it was the news blackout we gave ourselves, the relaxed atmosphere, the constant supply of seafood, the great people, the cool temperatures, nature, or what it was.  Life had slowed down, I felt so relaxed. 

I took this picture at sunset along the west coast of the island just outside Rocky Harbor
I want to bet it was a combination of a lot of these things. But one thing I am for sure, I was constantly reminded about some of the things I wrote in my posts about “forest bathing”; the smell of the balsam fir in the forest was overwhelming. As I mentioned in that post, Japanese researchers found that the smell, fragrance or volatile substances called phytoncides that these and many conifers give off have a property of reducing stress levels and increasing killer cells, cells that kill tumor cells, in your body. They also lower your blood pressure. This effect seems to last a couple of weeks. Well darn it, it must have worn off in me by now, especially after being confronted by our life back here in the U.S.A., including nasty tweets!

The woods of Gros Morne National Park, a mixture of peat lands with balsam fir, larches, black fir, pitcher plants, and some other really cool plants.  It is especially the fragrance of the balsam fir trees that is so good for you! 
Nature in Newfoundland was amazing.  From some of the historical photographs and documents we saw, the island was quite forested and loggers cleared it over the years.  It looks like nature has not yet recovered from all that logging.  Newfoundland has a harsh environment, say the least, but wonderful.  I was amazed that on parts of the island, the deciduous trees had not yet broken bud and the larches had had just started in early June.  The ferns were in their fiddle stage.  Even the evergreens appeared to have just started their annual growth spurt.  This means that the growing season in these parts of the island is not more than about 4 or five months each year, and those cleared forests have a difficult time growing back.  Combine that with moose browsing and you know the results in some areas.  Still it kind of looks like what I would expect (tundra like).

This and many of the ferns in this area were finally sticking their head above the sphagnum moss.  Other plants that were growing here included pitcher plants and alder. 
Then there is this amazing variety in a small area. I am referring to an area called the “Table Lands” from which you can hike the Green Gardens Trail in Gros Morne National Park. In that area you go from a region that literally looks like Mars in a few miles to the Garden of Eden. It is a 8 mile hike (4 miles each way) but a crazy experience.

While not exactly the "Table Lands", this is an extension or the bottom of it.  There is little plant growth because of certain toxicities.  This is where the "Green Gardens" hike starts, and there is not much green here.  Actually the story goes that the Mars Rover was tested near here on the Table Lands.  How appropriate.

But then you come over the ridge and after a gorgeous hike you get in the "Green Garden."  Wild sheep graze here and there is some amazing scenery.  This hike will stay with me for a long time, because it was so beautiful, but also because my phone was stolen here (my only bad experience on the island ... see my previous post <here>).

Being out there in the Atlantic Ocean, close to Greenland and Iceland; right there where the cold Labrador Current runs into the Gulf Stream, near the Grand Banks one of the richest fishing grounds in the world, you can expect that Newfoundland is a seabird paradise.  It is therefore also a birdwatcher's paradise.  There are some colonies of birds that you only find here in North America.  One of themy are the puffins.  Other colonies we visited were those of the Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve, which were just absolutely unbelievable.  

Suffice it to say, we need to go back!  We did not get to see it all.  We need to hike more, go whale watching, see more moose, caribou, and visit areas we did not have the time for.

Puffin rock near Elliston.  During our visit is was around 38 degrees Fahrenheit (4 C), the wind was whipping (more than 20 mph) and it was drizzling.  When we got off the rock someone told us that last year a lady was blown off the rock to her death under very similar climatic conditions.  

The Murres of Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve.  These guys are sitting on eggs.

Gannets, gannets and gannets everywhere at Cape St. Mary's.  From a distance it looked like the rocks were snow covered, but they were brooding gannets.  And it smelled like their food ... fish.  

More gannets.

Need I say more?

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Hello darling and other observations about Newfoundland (6/29/2017)

It has been a while since I've written.  I have somewhat hinted at it in my last post, we were on vacation and too busy for some serious writing.  But it is time.  It was a great vacation, with great impressions; we experienced a lot and I have a lot to share.

In my previous blog I somewhat hinted at it, but we left the country and traveled to Canada; to Newfoundland to be exact.  There are so many impressions to report without making this a travelogue that I foresee that two or more postings will be on this subject.

So what are my impressions?  I really don’t know where to start, but for sure, the people in Newfoundland are among the friendliest people I have met.  That it what the title of this post implies.  Everyone is a “darling” to them, and they genuinely mean it!  The one disappointment I had was when my cellphone was stolen, but that was my own fault and it was on the trail and I suspect it was a tourist; actually I know exactly who it was.  But as they say hind sight is 20-20 and I could not have confronted him about it anyway.  It is only a phone and I am not going to let it spoil one of the best vacations I’ve had.

People here and in Newfoundland asked us: why visit Newfoundland?  The answer is not so clear cut.  We wanted to do something special for our 40th wedding anniversary.  Looking through one of my sailing magazines I ran into an article from someone who sailed around the island and along the Labrador coast.  Photos from that article combined with photos from our daughter’s trip to Nova Scotia and a past trip to Scotland convinced us that the Canadian Maritime was in order.  Pictures of puffins, iceberg, the colorful houses in St. Johns and Gros Morne National Park did the rest.  Simple as that!

Oops, I actually meant a different iceberg, but the Iceberg berg beer made from real iceberg water was mightily tasty and went great with this outstanding seafood chowder! 
  • At a gas station, you can fill up fill up your car first and then pay.  It took me to the last day of our 14 day visit and I was still not used to it.  What, you did not have to pre-pay or stick your credit card into the pump?  No!
  • Everybody wanted to talk to you; they wanted to know where you were from, why the heck you wanted to come to Newfoundland, how long you were staying, where you had been and where you were going.
  • In one of the national parks I had a fun and interesting discussion with a park ranger on empathy.  On his computer he pulled up stories on how local fishermen saved U.S. sailors from two navy ships (USS Pollux and Truxtun) that sank off the coast of Newfoundland, which he shared with me.  Yes it was a quiet morning, but he could have ignored us too.  This just sets the tone for the entire vacation: relaxed, fun, educational, and recharging.  I have never experienced this anywhere else.
  • We absolutely could not find one person who supported our current president.  One was lukewarm, but his wife kept rolling her eyes.   Most people expressed how sorry they felt for us about what we had to go through during and after the elections and our choice of president.  They went even further after the shooting on the baseball field, when many actually gave us their condolences.  We tried to give ourselves a complete news blackout, but that obviously did not work.  Many people did tell us that while in previous years they vacationed in the U.S., they were now actively looking for other places to vacation and avoiding coming to the U.S. (Florida, Arizona) in winter.  This was not because of fear for terrorism, but because of the political climate.  So much for being on vacation and trying to avoid politics for two weeks.
  • Newfoundland has a lot of potholes in the road, some of which can swallow a car (yes I am exaggerating).  At times it felt like I was back in Scotland, driving on the left side of the road (avoiding potholes).  We just used every part of the road that was available at the time.  Surprisingly, the sections of road through the national parks were in the best shape!
  • We experienced global warming as it happened.  Predictions are that this part of the world might actually get colder as part of global warming, which might have been what we saw.  So what did we see?  In a normal year, the glaciers in Greenland calf off and pieces float down the Labrador Current and you can see them from various points in Newfoundland.  The best time to view these appears to be late May and early June.  This year, for the first time since 1974 (according to the locals) the polar ice cap broke up (global warming caused?), and the Labrador Current combined with the north winds pushed it all south against the island.  The entire north shore was covered with sea ice, with large icebergs embedded in it.  It was so bad that tourist boats could not go out, the ferry to Labrador was stopped and fishing boats were stuck at their moorings.  One fishing boat that made an attempt while we were there was actually crushed and sank.  The crew got off and needed to be pulled of a sheet of sea ice by helicopter.  But as a result when the wind was from the north, is was damn cold along the coast.
  • It appears that cars and moose don’t mix.  Everywhere there are signs that if you should call a certain number when you see a moose near the road.  I guess they chase them off, turn them into moose burgers or moose sausages, or whatever they do to them, but they do not want them near the road.  We actually only saw one moose (near the road) and one bear, also near the road.  Both were in Gros Morne National Park, and no we did not call them in.
The view from the French Beach trail on Twillingate Island.  Here you can really see the sea ice and the icebergs that came down with the Labrador Current. 
For right now, these are some random impressions that have come up in my mind of my visit.  Probably not very philosophical or educational today, but fun to share.  I will do some more in the future.  One thing is for sure: go explore, experience different places, different cultures; broaden your horizon.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

I’ll stop learning when I’m dead

So here I am doing one of the more stressful parts of my job: auditing the courses people submit to us as part of their recertification requirements.  I wrote about it before <here>, but when a course does not qualify, I contact them and tell them that I will be removing it from their record and that they will need to take another class.

Here is a response I received: “That is very disappointing to hear.  I will be sure not to attend any future presentations by Mr. B…”  Suffice it to say we had a big laugh about this one in our office; what a baby.  It was only one hour of the 18 hours this person needed to accumulate over 3 years.  When I teach a whole day class they get 6 hours.

But then it struck me, how sad!  These are those people that I talk about in some of my my posts (and what I hint at in the title of this post); they come to my classes, sit in the back and either constantly browse on their phone (Facebook, porn?), or have their sunglasses on so you can’t see that they are actually sleeping.  These are those people that go home after a day’s of work grab a six pack of bud light out of the fridge and plop themselves in front of the TV and pass out, even before going to bed.  Their wives (spouses) either have affairs or have gained so much weight because their sex lives have gone to hell anyway, that it does not matter anymore.  This is what a couple of six packs, ESPN, FOX news and maybe a few porn sites during my classes do for them.  Figuratively these people are already dead, but they don’t know it yet, but mentally they are, they stopped learning.

That’s what the title of this blog refers to.  A lot of people that I encounter in my profession sit through my classes but they do not want to learn.  They have no interest in being educated.  They go through the motions.  I wish that I could kick them out, deny them their certificate, but I can’t.  I mention in one of my posts, that the thought that I may educate one or two persons in a class of forty is enough.  Even here that serenity prayer that I introduced in my previous post is applicable:  “Please give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I am finishing this post on a well deserved vacation to Newfoundland.  I took this photograph of an iceberg floating off the east coast.  This is what is so important and frustrating to me: global warming, environmental issues, and the "I don't give a damn" attitude of some of my students. 
I may be a dilatant, but it is better than being ignorant.  When I went to graduate school, I did not only take courses that applied to my degree; I went berserk trying to get an education.  This was probably to my detriment, I did not graduate with a 4.0.  My class load was always too heavy, but I wanted to learn as much as I could.  That was important to me, learning!  Getting older, after a full day of work and two and a half hour total commuting I am tired when I come home.  But the least thing I can do is watch a YouTube video here or there about growing or taking care of Bonsais, which is one of my hobbies.  I am trying to learn something there.  I read when my eyes and brain can handle it.  I usually read non-fiction, I want to learn!  At home we rarely watch TV; maybe the news and a cooking or a home show so now and then, but that’s it.  This summer we’ll watch the Tour de France.

It is absolutely amazing that the country where everybody used to look up to for its education, its research and modernity is now cutting education, making fun of people who are educated and is in a race to the bottom, for the lowest common denominator.  A university education was affordable when I came to the U.S. in 1979 to study.  Now they have raised the cost of university education so high that it is out of reach of the common man.  We are creating a tremendous class system in this country between the wealthy educated upper middle class and not so wealthy lower middle class and the working class.  No wonder some talk about “the educational elite” as if it is a stigma.  No wonder we want to go back to burning coal for energy as opposed to developing high-tech means of generating energy.   

Sir Francis Bacon is commonly quoted of first saying that “Knowledge is Power.”  Bacon who lived from 1561 to 1626 is considered the father of scientific method.  For example Thomas Jefferson, himself a(n amateur) scientist, considered Bacon one of the greatest men that had ever lived.  I think it is true that knowledge is important and power.  One of the things I treasure most is learning and knowledge.  When I cannot learn I would die or be dead.  During my commute I listen to Doctor Radio on Sirius-XM, I need to learn; I often joke that by now I could sit for my medical boards and pass them, except I never dissected a cadaver.

All my bitching and moaning aside, learning and knowledge is not only good for you mentally.  It has been shown to slows down our mental decline in old age, helps us socially and may even help us financially.  Finally, when we are all educated, society will benefit as well, only then can we change the world for the better for all and eliminate the great divide between people.  

Friday, May 12, 2017

On Environmental Ethics (5/12/2017)

In a LinkedIn group I am a member of the question came up: “Can an environmental consultant who works for industrial companies or land developers be ethical?”  My answer was a resounding yes. 
In my classes I use an example that goes like this:

During my consultant years, I was sitting behind my desk and Mike the head of our planning group walked into my office.  “Jan, can you attend a meeting next week with a client?  We are going to show him this new sub-division we have designed for him here in Virginia Beach.”  “Sure Mike, can I see the plans, so I can prepare myself a bit?”  Mike returns to my office in a few minutes with the plan.  “Mike, I have been on the property next door, and it has a lot of wetlands.  I want to bet this property probably has wetlands, as well.  I have not done a wetland delineation for this site, shouldn’t we do one?”  “Oops ...  OK Jan, why don’t you go and take a look.”  I go out the next day with my equipment and GPS, find a lot of wetlands on the site, survey them and stick them on a map.  The next day I walk into Mikes office.  Mike goes: “Oops.  Can you make them go away?”  I say: “Sure Mike, lots of money.”  At this point light bulbs go on above the heads of the students in my class.  They are paying attention now, I teach mostly government officials and I now work for the government.  He is finally going to expose the non-ethical corrupt industry of land development that he used to be part of, here it comes, they think!  But I tell my class: “No, when you are working with wetlands, the permitting and mitigation process is time consuming and very expensive and it is better to avoid it.  But if they want to build it the way Mike wants to propose it, the process will cost a lot of money for mitigation and permitting”  That is also what I tell Mike.  And the story continues from there, there was nothing unethical in my proposal.  Mike calls the client, asks for a a for more weeks of time and redesigns the site to avoid the wetlands.

I am proud to say that I have always been ethical in the work I have done.  Often my clients have done a little bit more for the environment than the laws and regulations required they should (thanks to me).  I have tried to show them the beauty and the importance of the resources.  In one case, I found the largest water oak in Virginia on a client's property.  A photo of my client under the tree made it in the local newspaper.  You bet that oak and the surroundings was saved, whether that client was ethical or not.

Ethics is defined as the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.  As a study it is the discipline that deals with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation (Merriam Webster Online Dictionary).  That is a mouth full, isn’t it?  Here you get to the argument of what is is!  Or what some people think is good or bad may differ from other people.  

There is a whole branch of philosophy devoted to ethics so it is not something I can contribute to; I am just a naturalist, biologist and trainer.  But I can try to live ethical or at least as ethical as possible.  This is what ethics studies:  "What would a person do or how would she/he react under a specific circumstance?"    

But I want to get back to environmental ethics and my job.  An argument can be made that I helped my clients check that box either on an application for a permit or maybe in the back of their conscious saying: "Yes, they have done their environmental due diligence."  I am not even talking about the best thing for the environment.  Like with Mike in that example above, I may have saved a few wetlands, but that subdivision still got build, birds, snakes, and turtles lost their home, the environment was still impacted.  As a consultant with sincere love for the environment the Serenity prayer was my escape hatch:

"Please give me the SERENITY to accept the things I cannot change, the COURAGE to change the things I can and the WISDOM to know the difference!"

That Serenity prayer kept me going, I could not change the outcome, but I had the courage to make a little bit of difference.  That made me feel better.

Even in my current job; I teach people and companies to follow the laws and the regulations.  It makes me feel good, when I get back to my motel room or back home, I feel satisfied; I ticked off those boxes of being a environmental steward, good for the environment.  But does it really help what I do?  I don't know.  I have often said and written that I would feel great that on any specific day in one of my classes of 40 individuals I have 1 or 2 people either change their attitude towards nature or actually become enlightened.  That's when I feel successful.

Often this is what we in the environmental movement need to look for.  No, we cannot stop a project but we can make reduce or minimize the environmental impact of these projects.  Those are our small ethical victories, save the world one turtle at a time.

We cannot stop development and that is not what my job is about.  We just need to make sure that it is done sustainable, responsibly and according to the laws and regulations.  Here my colleague Don and I are inspecting a building site.  We did not find much wrong here.