The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Tuesday, February 25, 2003
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I just read some reviews of a new book called “A Box of Matches” by Nicholson Baker. In a way, the book is a lot like most blogs — basically a lot of rambling about nothing, just the details of daily life with some occasional insights thrown in. As with most things on the Internet, however, the blogs belong mainly to the younger generation, while “Box of Matches” is the voice of an aging Baby Boomer. The major book reviewers (in the New York Times, Atlantic Magazine, Washington Post, Salon, etc.) have taken “BOM” quite seriously despite its lightweight content, e.g., a pet duck named Gertrude, a piece of lint found in narrator Emmitt’s navel, changes over the years in the patterns used on paper towels, etc. Some of the reviewers even seem a bit haunted by the book. And I think I know why, given that I’m in the same boat, the S.S. Mid-Life Crisis.

Unlike Emmett the narrator, I’m not married (divorced), don’t have a house, don’t have kids, don’t have a duck, and never saw lint in my navel. And yet, as with Emmett, I have an education, an unexciting semi-professional job, and a life that is more than half gone with nothing all that much to show for it. Emmett tries to focus on the little things and keeps on telling us how nice they are, but you know it’s mostly bogus because he also admits to suicidal fantasies and a lingering feeling that life is just passing him by. The book is divided into 33 chapters based upon the contents of a matchbox, one match for each morning when Emmett gets up early and starts the fireplace in his living room. And then the matches run out and the book just ends, without any hint of resolution. Talk about life as quiet desperation. One day it’s just over.

(SIDENOTE: With the wintertime blues and the Orange Alert, I was getting up myself around 3 am every day for about 30 days, ruminating in the dark over the meaning and meaninglessness of life. Wonder if I could write a book about it?)

Ten or twenty years ago, BOM wouldn’t have made it much farther then the junior manuscript editor’s REJECT stamp. And ten years from now it will probably be forgotten. But right now, there’s an opportunity to hit the nerves of the many graying Baby Boomers who are getting a little scared. What happened to the great expectations of our youth? What happened to all the campus protests and the Age of Aquarius and the song lyrics by Crosby, Stills and Nash, i.e. “we can change the world, rearrange the world”? Did we really think that we could put an end to war, that Vietnam would be the last? How many wars have we been involved in since then? (Looks like the next big one in Iraq is just about to get going).

Ah, we were a generation that dared to dream big in our youth. And thus we’re now getting disappointed big time in our old age. We thought that greatness was everyone’s birthright. But once the dust settled, we found out that only maybe one in ten were going to do something really interesting and engrossing, like being an astronaut or a major league baseball player or a senator or a movie producer or the founder of a high-tech company or an astrophysicist who helped to discover dark energy and the universe’s acceleration. To some degree, those who did make it were the best and the brightest, but to a larger degree they were just plain lucky. The rest of us have to make our peace with getting by, with bringing up kids and keeping our flower gardens and listening to our primary care physicians and seeing a movie during the weekend and changing our socks when they get holes in them (one of Emmett’s major themes). And reading books that describe boxes of matches.

Most of the reviewers of BOM just don’t seem honest. They just don’t say what I think we really want to say in response to it. Which is this: “rage, rage against the dying of the light; do not go gentle into that good night” (Dylan Thomas, of course, who died in the year I was born).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:45 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, February 20, 2003
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I’ve decided that it’s time to learn more about al Qaeda. A lot of people made a similar decision on September 12, 2001; so I’m a little slow. But better late than never, let’s hope.

Al Qaeda is definitely a scary thing, even scarier than what we’ve seen so far, i.e. a foreign organization able to destroy prime American real estate. It’s right up there with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in terms of threat to the well being of our nation and the world as a whole. But the worst thing is that it’s not at all like the enemies of old. Al Qaeda (“the base”) is a thoroughly modern enemy, something from left field, something that’s taken us by surprise. In our nation’s 225 year history, we’ve encountered many nation-states that didn’t like us, and crossed paths with various terrorist / revolutionary cults that have brought us trouble. Nation-states generally possess much more artillery and economic resources than the typical liberation army, but they have to play by certain rules. The revolutionaries play without rules, but up to now haven’t had all that much firepower and support.

Osama Bin Laden, however, has recognized an opportunity to change all that. Bin Laden has seemingly found a way to harvest the winds of anti-American resentment that are blowing through the Islamic lands, and combine that with seed money drawn ironically from western trade (especially from the sale of oil), and then bind it all together with fundamentalist Islamic religious sentiments. His rhetoric emphasizes historic oppression from the west (starting from the Crusades and working its way to economic exploitation in the 19th and 20th centuries) and the extremist interpretation of jihad from the Koran, in order to germinate a movement that could overtake the entire strategic alleyway extending from the nose of Africa through Eastern and Southern Asia on down to Timor.

Think about what is at stake: the western entrance to the Mediterranean and its entire southern coast; the Suez Canal; Israel; the northern shore of the Indian Ocean; and the world’s primary sources of crude oil. These were and still are some of the world’s busiest trade routes. Incredible flows of world commerce pass through or along the shores of the Moslem world each and every day. However, the people within that world have not been able to capitalize on the vast sums of wealth that pass over their seas or through their villages. Nor have their vast oil resources been used to foster widespread economic development; only a small handful of royal family members in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the like have reaped the benefits of America’s insatiable thirst for the sacred black liquid.

America has not been content to reflect on all of this from the safety of its own purple mountains and fruited plains. The United States has had an active presence in the Moslem world for over 50 years now, sending businessmen, diplomats, soldiers and warships to these lands in order to make sure that the trade routes and oilfields stay open and that the U.S. keeps its share of the action.

And then of course, there’s Israel. Within the past century, a savvy people from Europe came back to the land of their ancestors, retook it from Moslem hands, and make that land bloom. These industrious people prospered while their Islamic neighbors remain poor — but not without huge amounts of continuing U.S. aid. You’ve got to believe that after a while, the average peasants of Egypt or Pakistan start feeling a certain amount of resentment when seeing all of the economic wealth that passes by their doors, escorted by America and its friends, while they continue to live in conditions of desperate poverty and backwardness.

Within the past two decades, various attempts have been made in the Islamic world to exploit that resentment. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was a key event. However, even though it inspired Islamic rule in a few other nations, it was mostly a local event. But now comes Osama Bin Laden, a high-tech 21st Century man connected to the world with laptops and cell phones and satellite dishes, a graduate of a successful effort to build a pan-Islamic resistance movement (in Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion of 1978), a man who recognizes the common threads of abject poverty dwelling within sight of tremendous wealth, insensitive American involvements meant to exploit those assets, and the ferverent nature of Islamic tradition and worship (a religion still in a relatively young, activist stage of its history) that run through Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Yemen, Oman, Kuwait, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Indonesia. He has figured out a way to weave these threads into a plan for his own aggrandizement and immortalization (which is basically the plan of all political figures; every politico, even the town dog-catcher, sub-consciously wants to be remembered as the next earth-shaker in the same league with Alexander the Great or Napoleon or Julius Caesar).

If Bin Laden carries out his plan, there will be an “Islamic Union” living under fundamentalist rule stretching from western Africa to the Java Sea, a union which will control the bulk of the world’s oil reserves, oversee the most strategic waterways and trade routes, and have deliverable nuclear weapons (thanks to Pakistan). This union will surround Israel and at the very least make the situation even more uncomfortable there (i.e., constant bombings and terror attacks). But the ultimate aim is to put America over a barrel; Bin Laden’s grand vision intends to improve the economic lot of Moslems at the direct expense of the United States (e.g., oil at $120 a barrel, $5 a gallon gasoline). As with all geopolitical issues, in the end, after all the cultural and religious detritus has settled, it’s the economy that matters.

Bin Laden’s economic program is basically the same as Robin Hood’s. What’s really scary is that this guy is smart and seemingly has a chance to pull it off. The governments in most of the Moslem nations have condemned al Qaeda, but the masses in Cairo and Amman and Tunis and Karachi and Basra are giving him an awful lot of credence. He proved his power to them on September 11th, thanks in large part to the vigorous coverage of the western media (and now, of course, there’s al Jazeera). The anawim are starting to believe that this guy really can deliver them from their plight and improve their lives and their economic conditions.

So what does America do in response to such a serious threat to its economy and overall strength? Well, if we had lots of time, the answer would be to change our ways, to be more sensitive to the plight of the poor, to admit our past sins in the Moslem world and offer it significantly more developmental aid and assistance worldwide (while at the same time breaking free of our addiction to oil). But we do not appear to have the luxury of a long-term context in which to work in. As Thomas Friedman says in his NY Times column, there is an immediate need for a reform movement in the Moslem lands, one that veers away from clericism, anti-intellectualism, female oppression and closed economies, one that opens itself to enlightenment, fair investment, distribution of natural resource wealth and opportunity for all to participate within the modern world economy. Otherwise, per Friedman, there is going to be a “civilizational war” with the U.S., one that will send all of us back quite a few decades (maybe even centuries) in terms of economic and social progress. If al Qaeda somehow achieves its version of an Islamic Union, I don’t think that cataclysmic war with America would be long in coming. (The only thing that buys us time is the famous propensity for internal division amidst the Moslem peoples; al Qaeda is a Sunni-affiliated movement, and may not gain the support of the Shi’a factions, nor of the wary ethnic / tribal movements amidst the Kurds, Pashtuns, etc.).

Friedman sees Iraq as an opportunity to start an emergency-turn maneuver in the Islamic world. If President Bush could somehow inspire Europe, China and Russia into a united front, then perhaps we could replace Saddam Hussein with a model republic that, together with Turkey, Egypt and the new Afghanistan (tenuous examples of “modern Islamic nations” under construction), might inspire reform throughout the Arab and Islamic world. And you know what? If our President had the boldness and audacity to turn this war from a defensive action into something with a cause, akin to what Abraham Lincoln did with the War of the States, maybe we’d have a shot. If we could somehow convert Iraq into a model nation that combines democracy, peace and progress within the context of its Islamic heritage and culture, where the lives of poor families get better over time because of their participation in the world economy (a la China) and not through economic plunder (a la al Qaeda), then George W. Bush would indeed go down as the Abraham Lincoln of the 21st Century. But as Friedman points out, so far Mr. Bush just doesn’t seem to get it.

If President Bush did see the light and if he could somehow convince the world that a government change in Iraq provides us with the last and best hope to prevent the Moslem lands from falling like dominos into an al Qaeda black hole, then we might have a flag to unite under. Osama Bin Laden’s vision is being taken very seriously in those lands, and thus represents a vision that threatens the well-being of all nations of the world due to its ultimate economic stupidity. Whether or not al Qaeda presents some grains of truth in its litany of Islamic suffering at the hands of powerful western interests and its reference to American social decadence, its economic vision is ultimately that of the parasite. Parasites weaken and eventually kill their hosts after coming to depend upon them; they thus end up dying themselves. This is the ultimate triumph of stupidity. Our western economic models leave a lot to be desired in terms of social justice and long-term sustainability, but at least they base their premises upon the creation of new wealth, and not upon the stealing of old wealth. (Even though the avoidance of national plundering has often been honored in the breach, as the former colonies of Western powers can testify — the same form of Western economic exploitation caused much of our current unpopularity within the Moslem lands).

But as with the American Civil War, a war with a cause in Iraq would not resemble the low-casualty surgical action that Mr. Bush currently envisions (and that our populace would tolerate). We’d be in for years of bloody battles and lost American lives, possibly spreading out beyond the borders of Iraq (given that al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists are going to get in on the action, and that Israel would be a natural target for their rabble-rousing). And who knows if and when we’d be able to capture the “hearts and minds” of the average Moslem family living in Casablanca or Jakarta or anywhere in between. Could we yet convince enough of them that the U.S. is leading a worldwide rally for the good of all concerned? Or will they see it as just another Crusade of the infidels, thus speeding the realization of al Qaeda’s unfortunate version of Moslem unity?

The only way to convince the masses of the Islamic crescent would be to offer tangible proof of a nation of Islamic heritage where lives are getting better, where people are living longer, where children are gaining more education and having more opportunity for work, where health care, personal freedom and self-respect are widely available. Can we deliver that in time to thwart the al Qaeda infection? Or has the infection spread so far that we can no longer avoid the fever, such that Mr. Bush’s currently planned Iraqi campaign will only make it worse? This is the debate we must now have in our country. Because the real enemy is not Saddam Hussein, who has almost no support left in the Moslem world and who will eventually self-destruct with or without our intervention. The real enemy is the perverted economic ideology of al Qaeda and the powerful religious and social sentiments that it exploits in order to forward that threatening ideology. Let us not take our eyes off the real enemy.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:35 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, February 17, 2003
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Well, it’s still the dead of Winter here in the northeastern USA; in fact, we’ve just had a blizzard. Spring is about 5 weeks away. It’s hard to even think about right now. But somehow it will get here. And then things will look very different. For a few wonderful weeks, the smell of hope and possibility will be back in the air. And then, that too will pass. All Spring seasons are temporary. Physicists are quite sure that entropy is the prevailing trend in our universe, the inexorable increase in messyness and disorganization. Spring is only a spit against the wind.

But hey, I’m writing tonight from a mid-winter perspective. The good thing is that even though Spring seasons are only temporary, and cannot break the Universe’s grand slide into coldness and darkness, they somehow keep on happening. So even if things don’t seem to be going so well in your life, or in mine, and if you haven’t had a Spring season in quite a while, don’t think that it can’t happen again. But if you’re in a Spring season right now, say if you’re in love or climbing the success-ladder where you work — well, I’ve got to let you know that it ain’t gonna last. But by the same token, it probably won’t be your last season of joy either. So rock on, come what may.

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Saturday, February 15, 2003
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TRIBALISM: I was thinking the other day during my drive to work (when I get a lot of my thinking done) that humankind’s biggest challenge right now is to change its mindset from a tribal perspective to a one-world perspective. A few weeks ago on The West Wing TV show, President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) asked the new White House speech writer why saving the life of an African citizen was not as important to him as saving an American’s. Will, the new guy, said that’s just the way it is, politics being what they are. However, there is a word for the phenomenon that Will and Jed were discussing. And that word is tribalism. In this instance, American tribalism, but tribalism nonetheless.

The human species found out only recently that we live on a globe populated by people of many different colors and languages. For most of human history, people presumed that everyone looked and acted pretty much like themselves. Only for the past 400 years or so has it been common knowledge that a whole lot of noticeable variations in the way that people look, act, speak and think crop up when you go a few thousand miles or so. And only for the past 100 years has it been common for most people to live and work and interact with different-looking and different-thinking people on a daily basis. So, it’s not all that surprising that most of us feel discomfort with this and quietly continue to seek the company of those who look and act most like us (even though our law and our science say that everyone is the same on the most fundamental levels).

Social customs and subconscious notions built up over many thousands of years do not stop on a dime. We are in a time of transition, somewhere between the tribal exclusivity that worked for us in the past and the post-nationalism that must kick-in if the planet is going to sustain 10 billion people in any sort of decent manner. Times of transition are quite uncomfortable, and I will admit to feeling some discomfort myself.

I don’t know anyone who wants to hear the Disney theme song “Small World After All” played since September 11th. But there’s no going back. As an eternal student, I will keep trying to learn more about people of all races and creeds and nationalities, and understand why we are different. Hopefully that will help me to realize what is incidental and what is fundamental. I still believe, based on what I’ve seen so far, that we are all pretty much alike on most things. Gotta keep the faith. And pass the duct tape.

WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KIDS TODAY: Although this isn’t news to you parents out there, I recently discovered that suburban kids today don’t just go out and play anymore. They have play dates booked weeks in advance. I guess that you need a Palm Pilot to be a suburban kid these days. Back when I was a kid, we went down by the tracks or out behind the factories after school and threw rocks and bottles around, without any formal schedule. Someone would occasionally bring firecrackers, and on a really special day somebody would show up with an ash can, so we could blow something to hell. I once read an article by humorist Frank Gannon, who has to be the most underrated humor writer out there today, about the explosive escapades that he and his buddies pulled off as kids. When they blew something up, they used to call it “Rat Patrol”, after a short-lived TV show on ABC back in the late 60s. Lousy show, but cool name. I would have liked to have had some “play dates” with Gannon and his friends back when I was growing up. However, the only place I’d ever heard the words “play” and “date” together back then was on New York pop-radio station WABC, which once upon a time was THE pop-radio station (now it’s just another talk station, dominated as usual by angry conservatives; why are conservatives always so angry?). When a DJ on ABC was introducing an oldie but goodie, say from 1970, he used a recorded jingle that went: “WABC play date, ninteen seventy.” (Dan Ingrim, the afternoon man and the best DJ that WABC ever had, used to then say “ah yes, solid gold from 1917”).

That’s what a “play date” was back then. Ah, you suburban kids today, you have so much more than we had, and yet you missed out on all the good stuff.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:35 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, February 11, 2003
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“Knowledge is endless; life is limited. To pursue the endless with the limited is dangerous.”

          Zhuangzi

“Live dangerously.”

          Jim G.

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Saturday, February 8, 2003
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BIRDS and POETRY: I was watching some sparrows on the porch this morning. Two of them landed on the railing and just stood there for a few minutes, basking in the low winter sunlight. Sparrows must have a busy life, especially during mid-winter. Finding food on a short, cold February day when everything is covered with snow can’t be easy. So it’s nice when a few busy birds like that take a quick break outside my humble abode.

Those sparrows brought back a childhood memory. I was about 12 or so, and I was with my father and brother in Nationals, one of those big, dumpy, low-budget general stores something like the Odd Lots and Family Dollars of today. I pretty much grew up in stores like that. We were just looking around one weekend afternoon and came across some cheap birdfeeders made of molded plastic, not terribly attractive. Each birdfeeder had a little paper card attached with a drawing of birds on it, as you might expect. But the marketing people for this cheap-o birdfeeder used a sales ploy that I’ve never seen anywhere before or since, and which almost worked on us.

On the birdfeeder card, there was a short four-line poem. I don’t remember the exact words of that poem, but the gist of it was that hungry birds appreciate a good source of food, and in return will reward you with their song every morning. After the three of us perused the poem, we just stood there. No one in my family was particularly poetic, especially not my father, an instrument technician who helped build guidance devices for NASA and military rockets. And yet, somehow we had all fallen prey to the words of some frustrated poet making a few bucks writing ad copy for some flimsy plastic household items. I could feel the emotion well up in my throat. My father asked me if I thought we should buy it. Being at the age when a boy has to prove his toughness, I said no. He asked me if I was sure, and I said yea, so we moved on.

Despite my masculine boyhood coldness, the birds in the neighborhood kept on singing every morning. So today, after I saw those sparrows, I threw some breadcrumbs out on the porch. Come to think of it, my brother has some kind of birdfeeder at his house too. Hey, better late than never.

You know, it might be a better world if advertisers used a little more poetry.

BELIEF IN GOD: I wonder how many people settle their belief or non-belief in God early in life, and how many (like me) waffle back and forth? I read a quote a few weeks ago that still bothers me a little. It was by some European firebrand from many years ago, the kind of bearded, radical guy who took Marx and socialism seriously. The fellow was expressing his disdain for the average family, who dutifully shuffled down to the village church every week to praise God despite the misery of their circumstances. The firebrand in question said that he would not join them, as he would not stoop to “licking the boots” of a cruel eschatological master; instead, he was going to devote all his attention to building a utopia in the here and now.

If you really believed that this world could be turned into a utopia, I suppose this fellow would have a point. But our world seems rather utopia-resistant. Therefore, spiritual awareness and “otherworldliness” is perhaps not such a bad idea. Nevertheless, there remains the age-old “problem of pain” to deal with. How do you cozy up to a God who put us into such a utopia-proof world? I guess that all you can do is hope that there is something better after death, that our present world is mostly a kind of training ground, some sort of big classroom where the lessons are painful because the outcomes really do matter. (Being an “eternal student”, that is an appropriate metaphysical perspective for me). Or let’s hope, anyway.

Oh, by the way, that doesn’t mean that we can just let this world go to hell. Even if it is just a classroom, we will get graded on our classroom projects. And the best class project is the one about making things better for the poor and the oppressed, and preserving the beauty of nature through environmental protection.

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Thursday, February 6, 2003
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SCI-FI AND THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY: Despite being a “semi-techie”, I was never much of a science fiction reader. Maybe that was because most of the science fiction on TV left a bad taste in my mouth. It was generally quite negative: unstoppable aliens, nasty monsters, unexplainable horrors, death and destruction on a massive scale. The one exception was Star Trek; the Enterprise still encountered plenty of war and weirdness, but there was also a positive vision weaved into the plot. I didn’t take the original Trek too seriously back in ’65, but I later became a devoted fan of The Next Generation, mostly because of the gravitas that Patrick Stewart lent it. Stewart’s Captain Picard conveyed the sense that humanity finally stood united behind its better values and its notions of decency, and was out to spread them throughout the galaxy. (Star Wars by contrast was pretty schmaltzy, but there was still something appealing about the notion of “The Force”.)

I’ve been told that certain science fiction writings present grand visions of humankind’s future. Writers like Asimov and Bradbury sometimes envision tremendous technical accomplishments and utopian social arrangements unfolding over centuries and millenniums. That’s the beauty of science fiction: the sky’s the limit. Through science fiction, a writer can ask some of the biggest questions, such as where humankind is going and how long civilization will last.

Our present form of civilization is a rather energy-intensive proposition, burning up the earth’s resources at an alarming rate. Sometimes it looks to me as though we’re gonna lose the battle against entropy, i.e. the natural trend towards increasing disorder in the universe. It seems as though we’re headed pell-mell for a new (and maybe permanent) dark age, during which the human species will slowly fade away. However, such a dark view does not account for the progressive effects of organized intelligence. It seems to me that shared intelligence is some sort of anti-entropic force, something that might keep humankind in the game despite declining sources of easily-derived energy (e.g. petroleum).

So, the question is, will entropy win the day such that the human experiment with civilization, and possibly humankind itself, will terminate within next few millennium? Or will our advancing science and technology allow humanity a limitless future out amidst the stars? Will our species still be kicking around somewhere in the galaxy a millions years hence? Will our progeny go on to grander and grander accomplishments, such that if human intelligence still exists billions of years from now, when the universe itself has either gone cold or is heading back into a “big crunch”, we will harness the forces of nature to create a whole new universe for ourselves? In effect, will our legacy of intelligence, however it might be hosted in the impossible-to-imagine future, in itself become God? (I would have to guess that if humans survive that long, our bodies will have been modified and evolved into complex machines that wouldn’t have much resemblance to our skinny-gorilla bodies of today — maybe our consciousness won’t even be limited to any one “body”, we will all be spread across some sort of hyper-network).

Sounds great, but when I flip the coin as to humanity’s future, it lands on the edge. From what I’ve seen and know about humans, I suspect it can go either way. We are incredibly smart, as can be seen through our science and technology; and yet we’re incredibly dumb, as can be seen through our wars and self-inflicted wounds. We just keep on fighting each other and worrying too much about the short term, about our immediate comfort and entertainment. Cooperation and social progress requires that everyone trust that the next guy will also do the right thing, and right now we seem to be running on the fumes in that regard. Technology seems mostly to be speeding up our efforts at self-eradication.

I’d like to think that the cornucopia of wealth that technology provides allows people to get over their fear of resource shortage and thus encourages them to take more risks in the social cooperation arena. While that has arguably happened to some degree, at the same time it has inspired fantastic greed, manifesting itself in an incredible concentration of wealth amidst a tiny fraction of our population. Just why do families with $5 million need to become families with $50 million, a not-uncommon event during the 1990s?

Well, I’d like to stick around for the next 500 years or so to see just how this neck-and-neck horse race is going to turn out. But that just ain’t gonna happen. So, I just hope that the generations that will follow mine will keep on cheering the horse of cooperation and civil conduct, and lose their fascination with the deceptively beautiful horse of greed, conflict and personal aggrandizement.

WEB SITES AS WORKS OF ART: I’d like to think that my web site, along with this blog, is a work of art of sorts, a deeply personal statement of my being. Is there anyone else out there with a web site like that? Right now I don’t have any links, but I’m thinking of putting together a list of “life-work sites” like my own. One qualification I’m going to impose: the site doesn’t offer anything except ideas and feelings. Any significant advertising is a deal-breaker (yea, I know, I’m shilling for Blogger below in exchange for their services, it ain’t a perfect world admittedly). I’m on the lookout for sites like that, but I’m also open to any suggestions from my audience (assuming that I have an audience!).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:10 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, February 4, 2003
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SPACE SHUTTLE: I just read that the Space Shuttle fleet was originally supposed to fly up to 50 times a year. (In actuality, it has been limited to about 4 or 5 flights per annum.) Wow, imagine if that had happened — one would just about always be up in the sky, sometimes two. The other two would be getting prepped to go. That really would have been something. But the technology and the economics just didn’t work out. It was a lot harder than they thought to turn a firecracker into a delivery van with quarters for 7 people. Maybe the Shuttle is an idea whose time has not yet come. For now, the sad words of a James Taylor song seem most appropriate: sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.

MYERS-BRIGGS: I myself put a lot of stock in the Myers-Briggs human temperament sorting scheme (if you aren’t familiar with it, you can get a primer at www.personalitypage.com, www.keirsey.com, or punch Myers Briggs into Google for a long list of resources on the Web). Admittedly, there have been scores of different theories and ways of classifying people and their behaviors. But Myers-Briggs makes a lot of sense to me. Like any scheme, it can be used to split people apart based upon real differences, or it can help bring them together through understanding and tolerance. I’m trying to encourage the latter.

I find it interesting, though, that people’s responses to the Myers-Briggs system in itself seem quite predictable based on how they come out in the classification system. My unscientific sample of 10 or 12 people tends to indicate that type “N” intuitive people, especially the “I-N” introvert-intuitives, seem to naturally embrace Myers-Briggs. It just appeals to them right from the start. They wear their own temperament category as a badge of honor, e.g. “I am an INFP”. (Could one imagine a twist on a John F. Kennedy speech, i.e. “I am a Berliner”?). I’ve noticed that when a person volunteers their Myers-Briggs temperament, e.g. in the listings on a pen-pals site, it’s usually a type N category, not a type S.

By contrast, most of the type S “sensibles” I know seem to take Myers-Briggs very differently. A lot of them just don’t buy it. I’ve gotten looks as though I had four heads after trying to explain the system to them. Others just politely ignore you. I’ve known some S’s who become fascinated with it for a day or two, but they soon move on to the next item in the magazine. My experience with most type S’s is that they just don’t get it, whereas a lot more type N’s do (it’s not a question of stupidity; most of the S’s in my sample had graduate degrees).

I realize that people do not fall perfectly into the 16 Myers-Briggs temperament categories. I myself am a bit of a Myers-Briggs mongrel, being an INFJ with strong INTJ overtones. Research indicates that temperament has a strong genetic component, but is also influenced by the environment and thus can shift around a bit with the changes of life. Still, at bottom I find the Myers-Briggs system extremely useful in understanding people. But then again, I would, given that I am an “I-N” type.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:09 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, February 1, 2003
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I would like to join thousands of other bloggers right now in offering a tribute to the crew of the Columbia, and to all astronauts, and to the thousands of dedicated men and women who support our manned space exploration programs, both here, in Russia, and soon in China too. Seven more of your brave comrades have fallen, and we mourn their passing. They were true pioneers, people who risked their lives to stretch the envelope of human endeavor. They won’t be forgotten.

Let me throw out a few random thoughts about what happened, however. A few years after the Challenger explosion, I recall reading an analysis in the NY Times saying that although the O-ring problem had been fixed, the Shuttle remains an extremely complex machine working in an extremely hostile environment, and the chances are quite high that there would be other disastrous events. In that light, what happened to Columbia this morning is not all that surprising. Space shuttles are like commercial airplanes in a way; no matter how hard you try, you can’t entirely eliminate the chances of a crash. As with a 747 or 767, the most dangerous times are on takeoff (recall the Challenger) and landing (now the Columbia); that is when the machine is stressed the most. Things happen very quickly under those conditions, often too quickly for humans or even computers to react to. By contrast, problems that arise in mid-flight are generally slower, giving you time to find a solution. Apollo 13 was the prime example of that, although the crew and the ground people had to work frantically to stay ahead of the problem and bring the crew back alive. (Great movie by the way, but I think that Kevin Costner would have been a much more convincing Jim Lovell; Tom Hanks didn’t look like him at all).

NASA has had about 140 manned space missions so far, with two disasters in the air, one on the ground, and another very-near miss. The Russians have had some fatal missions too. It looks like the fatal incident rate is about 1 in 50 (for commercial flights, the rate is closer to 1 in 2,000,000). Manned spaceflight is not a walk in the park. The public really needs to think about when the risk is worth it and when it is not. I’m certainly not saying that we should ban all manned spaceflight, and I agree that the more we develop it, the safer it will become. But the Shuttle is turning into an old buggy (how many of us still ride around in a 1978 automobile? Or would want to?), but NASA just keeps patching it up instead of sinking the money into a newer and safer manned space vehicle. Why? Because developing a new space vehicle will cost BIG TAX BUCKS, and US taxpayers want tax cuts, not tax increases.

I think that the US should start limiting the use of the Shuttle, and should split the cost with Europe, Russia, China, Japan and India (all involved in space exploration) to develop a new generation of safer and more versatile manned space vehicles (for example, the Shuttle can’t go up much higher than 200 miles, whereby the most important satellites are up at around 20,000 miles). The US just can’t do it alone anymore. We need to end the “space race” and work with the world in order to develop a more reasonable and useful manned space vehicle, one that would eventually lead to commercial space travel.

One last thought: it’s ironic that both Shuttle disasters involved African-American astronauts. I don’t have the stats, but I’d have to guess that the fatality rate for black astronauts is way higher than for whites. Not that I’m saying that this is somehow a function of racism; mechanical disaster knows no color. It’s just an existential irony that even in the space program, the African-American culture is shouldering a disproportionate share of our tragedy. (Not to belittle the Jews, who have also known tragedy and were represented on the Columbia; nor the children of India; nor any culture.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:51 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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