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Shards of Reason May 12, 2009

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Emotion vs Reason….

Maybe even as Jean Paul Sarte’s character in “Nausea” sat in a bar listening to each note of his favorite song flicker into existence and then die almost in the same instance it was born. 

Or is it more like Emenim rapping on stage, trying to seize the moment, freeze it and own it, squeeze it and hold it.

I think of the proletariat chanting “Workers of the Word – Unite”, as that spectre continued to haunt Europe, but back before the spit and bloodshed, when equality was a dream only the most audacious dared to have.

And then there were the beatniks- those holy bhikhus – crazy zen poets – those angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.

Because you see all of time is a wave of emotion rushing past the generations of crying mamas and stern papas tucking their innocent children in at night. Huddled in the warm corners of homes dotted all throughout this giant lonely world.

And shards of reason – or maybe just pop culture flood my mind like the crowds at a Phish concert.

So you ask me, what wins emotion or reason? 

And I think of those quiet times, those sad somber lonely times spent is solitude and tears, and like God breathes life into Adam, I breathe life into the dusty pages of dead Dada poets. And I drink from the spirit of their lives, and my sadness becomes a holy sadness connecting me with the spirits of jolly old men living in caves laughing as their bodies grew old and their minds grew dull and then finally they vanished into that great Sunyata- the smiling Buddha in the sky.

Isn’t the spirit of anything just the spirit of Dada?

So emotions wins every time, and afterall isn’t reason just another smirking face of emotion?

Interconnectedness May 8, 2009

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Scientists and other academic types often wonder why so many people won’t just give up God already. Any rational human being with even the slightest ability for critical thinking that has been exposed to even the tiniest amount of information about the natural world should just connect the dots already. We are the product of millions of years of evolution – no God needed. 

Well I don’t think that it really is that much of a mystery why people don’t leave the church pews in droves. It isn’t an issue that can be won by a rational argument – religion is too deeply integrated into the human consciousness to let it go after a quick read of the “God Delusion.”

People want to be part of something larger than themselves, something that will outlast them when they die – a purpose and reason for their existence. Ernest Becker describes this basic human need in his book, “Denial of Death”, he calls it “cosmic significance”. Many people find this need fulfilled in religion, but others find it elsewhere. The activist finds it in the cause that they fight for, the soldier finds it in their undying patriotism, even the die hard sports fan can find it in the allegiance to their team.

I think that if you analyze your life honestly and carefully, you’ll find a belief system there that endows your life with meaning.

This is why when the outspoken scientist tells people that they should just grow up already and mature past God, he becomes hated for it. He isn’t just asking people to give up their irrational thoughts, he is asking them to give up the whole system that gives value and meaning to their lives.  This same scientist doesn’t even recognize the slight hypocrisy in his request, because his life already has meaning. The scholar is immortalized by his writings and his contributions to the advancement of human knowledge, he doesn’t need a church to worship in because he has his universities instead. Even the student that maybe doens’t carry the same prestige still has his love for learning and finds pleasure and wonder and meaning in his academic field.

But what about the farmer, the policeman, the baker, the accountant, the great majority of people that have lived their lives with the idea of the Divine being the God of the Bible. See when you ask them to give up God, you are not just asking them to forsake irrationality, but you are asking them to give up their whole system of cosmic significance.

Imagine from the creationist’s perspective how terribly cruel the idea of a lifeless indifferent universe is – to think that we evolved just to become smart enough to realize how small and inconsequential our lives are – this must be a very terrifying idea.

So when we become champions of reason, we not only have to sell rationality and critical thinking to the masses, but we also need to provide a new sense of wonder. A new sense of cosmic significance.

Maybe one of the ideas that can fill this void is the idea of inerconnectedness. We are all in this life together. We each affect eachother’s lives in deep meaningful ways. Everything about us is tied to the vastness all around us, from the food we eat, to the books we read, to the friends we have, and the television shows we watch. All of it dancing together in a complex web of interconnectedness. 

This idea is expressed in John Donne famous meditation:

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Or from one of my favorite Buddhist poems “Call me by my true names” by Thich Nhat Hanh:

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

Just Being is Enough May 6, 2009

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When I was younger I was so hungry – desperately hungry. I wanted so badly – so terribly, and for what exactly? I didn’t even  know. 

I wanted to own my own business, and make lots of money and everyone would be so jealous of my success. I wanted to travel the world and explore the most remote corners and take pictures that I could send to my friends. I wanted to become a scientist and make breaking discoveries and documentaries would be made about me on PBS. I wanted to work on wall street and get chauffeured to work every morning in a big black limo. I wanted to be in a rock band where I would sleep through a hangover every morning and then party all night. I wanted to run for public office and change the world. I wanted to live in remote island in the pacific with only the natives to keep me company. I wanted to write a book about life and become famous and do interviews on the Today show. 

Strangely all these desires were never articulated. I never wrote them down and focused in on one, there were too many, but they hung vaguely in the back of my mind, haunting me. I always felt, and still do at times, like my life wasn’t interesting enough, important enough, that I wasn’t really living. 

As I’ve got older, I have done some pretty exciting things, but probably like most people my life hasn’t met the wild expectations of my hungry youth. 

I read “Dharma Bums” by Jack Kerouac a few years back, and I remember how Jack would play jokes on his friends like when they were all talking about something serious he would through mud in someone’s face and yell “Instant Enlightenment”, or do something equally absurd and inconsistent with mood of the moment. As I sit here and think about all the things life could have been, all the things I wanted life to be and then look around me and see what life actually is, I feel like one of Jack Kerouac’s friends with mud on my face and him yelling, “Instant Enlightenment”

The point is that I am here right now, that I am alive right now, that this is my experience right now. I could be hovering over a spaceship starring down at the blue oceans and giant mountains of Earth, or I could be sitting in a cold damp cave somewhere with the hard rock against my back, or I could be sitting in my office at work answering emails.  It is all the same. The richness of the moment is infinite, the possibilities of what are to come are endless, and my capacity to be engaged and integrated and focused is increasing.

So as I look back, and with a little bit of perspective, I am not sure that being so hungry brought me much more than anguish over what never was. It is not that I think that ambition only leads to heartache, but there is a real comfort in accepting life for what it is, and sometimes just being is enough.

What do I want out of Life… May 5, 2009

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Most of the time I run around so quickly from distraction to distraction, I am at work, then I come home and turn on the television, or cook something to eat, or I worry about something I forgot to do, or something that I want to get done.

Seldom do I sit down and think, “Am I living the life that I want to live?” It is such a difficult and usually disappointing question. That is probably the reason it is so easy to find something to distract me from thinking about it.

But really what question is more important?

With my relentlessly hypercritical mind, I think just because on the surface I might want something does that mean that I should actually strive to obtain it? The root of the desire is probably from some deep biological impulse forged from millenia of evolution, or perhaps it is just social conditioning. And if this is the case, what nobility is there in striving for some desire that was in a sense forced on me anyway.

Then I think about evolution itself, the incredible complex process that forged this beautiful thing we call life. It didn’t have any goals, it wasn’t trying to “create” humans. Molecules just did what molecules do, and what do you know a few billion years later here I am, thinking, and typing, and blogging. 

So if the most creative power I know of in the universe can function without goals and desires, why should I be so attached to having and obtaining my goals?

Even as I write that last sentence though, I know it isn’t right. I have spent days in bed before lying on a pile of dirty laundry because I was too lazy to get up and pick up my room, and I don’t need to tell you that I felt like crap. That isn’t right. That is no way to live.

It appears anyway, that just living a life of doing “whatever I want, whenever I want” doesn’t hold the same satisfaction of working towards a goal, and trying to live a fulfilling life. 

Then it must be fulfillment, I should try to live a life full of fulfillment. But that is just playing with words, what is fulfillment anyway, and how do I get it?

So I started reading up on psychology a little bit, and as people have been interviewed the ones that are the most happy are the ones that have the following things in their lives:

1. Relationships. We need close intimate relationships, and we need even broader ones. We need to feel like we are part of a group, part of something bigger. Maybe even something divine. This “need” must have evolved as our ancestors stood huddled in cold lonely corners of the African savannas and the ones that learned to rely on eachother stood a better chance of survival.

2. Work. We have to feel engaged. I read the book “Flow” by Mihay Csikszentmihayli. They did a study where they placed beepers on people. These beepers would go off randomly, sometimes when the person was at work, and sometimes when they were at home. The point was that the person wouldn’t know when it would go off, but the instant it did they were supposed to write down what they were doing and how fulfilled they felt at the moment. The strange part was that people, although they said that they wanted to be home more often, were actually more fulfilled at work. The book argues that this is because people usually just sit and watch TV, or do something else that doesn’t challenge and engage them. He wasn’t necesarily saying that people need to work more, but at least they should choose leasure activities that are more challenging.

I think both of these things, must be vitally important, written deeply into our DNA. I think they open up a hole lot of more questions?

Like who and what types of relationships should I have? What type of work and play should I be involved in to make sure I am feeling sufficiently engaged? Maybe these are too individual of questions and cannot be generalized, but at the least I think they provide the framework for a more fulfilled life.

Then, once you decide how you want to live, you have to figure out how to get from where you are to where you want to be. Maybe that question is even more difficult that the original one.

Who is the “Self” May 3, 2009

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The self is an illusion.

At least in the sense that it can act independently from the rest of the universe. This idea of an independent “self”  implies a spirit or soul that is driving the body. When I imagine this perspective, I think of that character in the movie “Men in Black” where they open his head up and they find a tiny alien pulling levers and pushing buttons and controlling the person. This little alien is the man behind the scenes, it is the “self”, it is the one making the decisions and the body is just machinery – some machines operate better than other machines and so don’t have to deal with annoying passion like anger, irrationality, and sexual drive, but in the end it is still the little alien making the decisions and driving the machine. Obviously this is inaccurate,  nobody has ever been able to find this metaphysical “self”, and even if they did, who then is controlling that self?

This perspective of mind separate than body is called Cartesian Dualism, and is probably the most natural way of thinking about the mind. This is because we do feel like we are in complete control of what we are doing. We feel as though we are acting independent of anything and anybody else. This illusion leads to a very funny language. We have words like “free will”, “spirit” and “independant” which immediately have all kinds of deep connotation conjuring up deep emotions and biases about what the self is. I think they just complicate the argument though, because thinly veiled behind each of those words is the assumption of this metaphysical self living somewhere deep in the brain pulling levers and controlling what the body is doing. 

Language is a funny thing. It is the tool we use to reason. Each word is a symbol that has deep feelings and beliefs attached to it. But they don’t necesarily correspond with reality. For example, I use the word “my car” to represent the real physical car in my driveway. Using that word I can imagine its interiour what it feels like to drive it, and so on. However that car might in the real world have been stolen and actually is somewhere far from my driveway right now. My mind doesn’t know this (at least not yet) and it is comfortable associating that word with the a car safe and sound sitting on my driveway. The idea of “self” is similiar, I use that world to summarize all the things I think about myself, my hopes, my dreams, my greatest ambitions, my sorrows, and everything else I consider part of me.  Yet that doesn’t mean that my idea of “self” corresponds to how my brain and body operate in reality.

The same hold true with “free will.” Without thinking about it too deeply we associate “free will” with this idea of “self”, and this idea of the “self” making decisions independant of anything else emerges. This is entirely an illusion, propped up by the shortcomings in our language.

People want there to be “free will” because it makes them feel empowered to ignore their more visceral impulses and choose what they consider the more noble choices. But just because you didn’t eat that cheeseburger that was staring you down, doesn’t mean that you have magical “free will” that you used to overcome your gluttonous desires. It just means that the decision making process you used was more sophisticated. You can reason and realize that the cheesburger will make you fatter, and you don’t want to be fatter. 

All this is complicated by our language, we use words like “you chose” and “your decision” when really more accurate, but probably more detailed than needed, would be a sentence about which nuerons were firing when the decision was made. There is also the problem that some of us have such a deep negative connotation with reduction theory. We think at times that because something can be reduced and explained that lowers the importance and beauty of that process. People say well if the self doesn’t exist then we are just zombies or a collection of chemicals. I think the answer to that is so what? It is just different words used to describe the same thing. I could also say how beautifully complex people are, the sum of a millions of years of evolution, and inside my head lives the words of a thousand poems that I have read. Both descriptions equally valid.

So when people say, if you deny the “self” you deny “liberty”, “responsibility”, “pain”, “love”, “hate” or whatever other complex emotion. My response is that all I deny is the simplicity behind those ideas. They can be deconstructed just like everything else and you will find they are illusions too built up on complex emergeant properties. At the same time I think they are useful ideas though, otherwise we would have to constantly refer to their endless contributing factors. This would be far too complex to think about. In other words, all these things are convenient shorthand for what is really happening. But what we shouldn’t do is forget that we drew up these neat boundaries around these ideas only for simplicity’s sake, and so we must be careful about the conclusions we reach when we use these ideas.

The “self” doesn’t exist at least not in the way that we normally think of it, more accurately the “self” is a complex process emerging from the complexity of the natural universe. Nothing we do wasn’t preceded by countless different causes and also everything we do will be followed by countless different affects.  To me this is more  beautiful and amazing than thinking that there is a magic man somewhere pulling all the strings.

Who are we? May 2, 2009

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People are so arrogant…

Every one of us bustling around, completely immersed in our own world, and mostly deaf to the infinity that is unfolding all around them.

A person lives for maybe 100 years and then he dies. All his hopes and dreams, every drama, every relationship, everything that meant the world to him – all those ideas wrapped up in his head – gone. 

The earth is older 4.5 billion years. It was enough time for microbial life to develop and then that life to evolve complexity and eventually into the world that we now see. The universe is even at 13 billion years. 

The famous quote by Carl Sagan

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

When I really understand how vanishingly small I am, when I really let go of my imagined self importance, and when I finally quit pretending that the universe rotates around me. When I finally accept the fact that my ideas, my writing, my words are just tiny shattered fractions of the entirety of the universe, and that they play such a small role. A smaller role than I can ever even imagine – a vanishingly small role. 

That is spirituality – to accept the reality of things as they are, and learn to find beauty in it. To accept death, and be somberly happy about it. To look up in the night sky and realize how small and insignificant the self really is, and be perfectly content with that.

Values and Religion May 1, 2009

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Perhaps my last post implied that religion is needed for values to flourish. I need to clarify this point because I think that the reverse is more likely true – religions flourish because people have values. 

And in fact, often times it is the atheists and non-religion people among us that have the most well thought out value system. This is probably because they were forced to think long and hard about each of their values, instead of just inheriting a value system from their religious tradition.

However what I do believe is that as religion’s role as a cultural force erodes from our lives it won’t vanish and the hole it once occupied just be left gapingly wide open. Instead new ideas and new cultural forces will ruch to fill in the void. People will find new centers of focus, new values, and new meaning. What I fear tends to fill this “spiritual vacuum” is the greedy consumeristic attitude that is only growing stronger. We see this all around us, people defining themselves by their cars, their clothes, their homes, anything that can be bought and sold. Walmart, Ikea, even the latest craze for organic food is fueled in part by people choosing to define themselves by what they purchase. Values become commodities defined only by market forces. Now of course there will always be the more thoughtful among us that will reject this shallow culture, and forge their own path in search of meaning. But what religion could provide is a culture where those that choose not to concede themselves to a shallow life of searching for bargains at the local strip mall won’t be regarded at as strange hermits leaving on the fringes of society, but instead their drive and passion for life could viewed as something noble – a quality worthy of emulation. 

The irony in all of this is that even the modern religious right have completely bought into this consumeristic life style. They teach it from the pulpet, greed is good, greed is American. They drive big SUVs and are proud of how much oil and energy they consume, and if anyone challenges them on this they are quickly dismissed as socialists. What this underscores is how easily religion can be hijacked. That is why this new religious movement must never become afraid of constant questioning. Instead of a meek congregation, the new congregation would never stop probing, constantly suspicious, and forever vigiliant.

The Case for Religion April 29, 2009

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Okay so we all know (at least the people that would read this blog) why we should be super critical of religion. 

Here are two of those reasons. 

– Religions makes truth claims about things that they know absolutely nothing about, the nature of God, the origin of the universe, the afterlife, etc. The ridiculous part is that they do this so confidently and so arrogantly that it is an embarrassment to anybody the least bit educated on the topics.

– Religion are often oppressive, telling people how they should live, what they can wear, what they can say, even who they can marry. 

And there are probably many more problems that you can find with religion.

But there are a few things that religion does give us.

At this point I should probably come totally clean on where I am coming from. I have been attending my own favorite religious group, the Unitarian Universalists,  also my own personal life philosophy was influenced a great deal by reading Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis. But maybe even deeper there is some troubled corner of my own inner psyche that refuses to let go of religion. Most of my life I was deeply involved in the LDS faith, and I have to imagine that has affected my word view in a very profound way.

Now that I have all my cards on the table, I hope even the most neo-atheists among us will be sympathetic to my perspective-

It appears than in prehistoric times out in the Savannas of Africa there was a competitive advantage for groups of people to care for one another, and in those ancient days morality was born. This morality enabled larger groups of people to live together successfully, and over time people enjoyed seeing themselves not just as unique individuals but as part of something much grander than themselves. This new human quality propelled human civilization. Fast forward a few hundred thousand years and you have religion, political parties, even die hard Yankee fans – all because people enjoy belonging.

That basically is the crux of the argument. 

Humans have an innate need for religious involvement, it is not something that we can just discard as an evolutionary byproduct. Religion is too far interwoven into our common humanity. I think that is why despite the overwhelming evidence against many religious teachings people still cling to their religion. That is why I don’t think religion should be eradicated it just needs be redefined. Here are a few ways that religion can help humanity.

– Be a place to develop relationships and become a citizen. Be part of a community with shared values. 

– Preserve a common culture: A culture that unites us, without being oppressive, but teaching us to have values to strive for. A community that promotes equality and opportunity and social justice. 

– Be a place to experience divinity. This is a touchy one, because what is divinity? I think that if we define it as the interconnectedness that we all share in, the beauty and wonder of the world that surrounds us, or the capacity of humanity to care for one another, or the deep mystery of the universe that we are all a part of. Any one of those definitions offers even the most skeptical among us a chance to enjoy a feeling of awe and transcendence.

– Be a place where people can discover a path of growth and self-cultivation, where people are challenged to be better, to question their beliefs and live a fuller life. Of course it wouldn’t mandate exactly how this should be done, because we all are free to chose our own path, but it would be supportive without being overbearing.

– And finally teach peace, inner peace, interpersonal peace, societal peace, and international peace. 

To the extent that a religion follows those rough rules, and rejects teaching dogma and being oppressive and exclusive. I think that religion can be a very positive force in the world.

But the bottom line is that religion is simply not going to disappear, people will continue to find new religions as old ones are discarded – it is human nature. So why not take an active role in defining the next generation of religion.

Changing Religions April 27, 2009

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I read some new today that cheered me up:

Survey: Half of U.S. adults have switched religions

Check it out –


This is great, it shows people are becoming less inclined to just believe whatever they were taught. People are less afraid of questioning and are bold enough to follow new paths.

I read once that the reason that US people still remain relatively religious, where in other developed countries (Europe) people have pretty much abandoned their churches altogether is because of the religious diversity in the US. What happens is that in the US churches need to evolve. They need to provide something useful to their congregations otherwise people just go somewhere else.  Basically there are market pressures to increase the relevancy of US religions. So European churches just grew old and stale, when US churches changed with the times and doing so brought in new converts.

I don’t know how true that is, but I like it. Churches that reject evolution, or ones that become too overbearing will die away slowly, simply because they don’t provide anything useful to their congregations.

Just starting out April 26, 2009

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There are so many blogs out there and so many people writing different things with vastly different opinions. So the question is obvious, even for the most confident among us. 

Why blog? What do I have to add to the ever expanding noise of the self proclaimed experts of the blogosphere?

I get so quickly annoyed by all the know-it-alls that think their opinion is the answer to everything, but yet they appear to be so frightfully uninformed on even the most basic subjects. So I have to honestly ask myself. Am I one of these obnoxious know-it-alls? 

After careful and sobering consideration the answer is probably yes. I do think that I know more than the average person, and even more sobering is the fact that my writing is probably not terribly gripping. I havent published books that really explore intimately the human psyche. There is nothing that really sets me apart from the rest of the herd of people pecking away at their keyboards on a cheap laptop on their kitchen counter.

However, I am still choosing to write.

Partly because I do believe that the world needs more people that have a respect for science and critical thinking, but yet feel reluctant to competely throw spirituality away. But also I do it for myself – to explore my own ideas in a public forum where they can be criticized some and hopefully complemented as well.  Maybe this will make me feel part of this movement of humanity toward a broader understanding of who we are.  

In any case, I am here. Adding my voice to the ever expanding blogoshpere.