The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Saturday, August 30, 2003
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“Never doubt that a small group of highly committed individuals can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

That’s a good quote. You see it used by a lot of advocacy groups, especially the nice ones that espouse causes like children’s health and women’s rights and ecological protection. It’s so groovy that Martin Sheen used it during a West Wing episode recently to summarize the whole premise behind the show (i.e., a liberal Democratic President and his inner staff battling for truth, justice and the American way in a confused and greedy world filled with terrorists and Republicans).

But Dr. Mead was really talking about something that goes beyond the realm of suburban liberal niceness. Her theory is complex and even has a dark side. It rests on several motivating principles, including: “small group”; “highly committed”; and “change the world”. Yea, those are potent ideas all right. Not the ingredients of your usual boring day-to-day life. Also not your falsely stimulated existence fueled by some combination of youth, violence, drugs, gratuitous sex, thrill-seeking and money, a life headed for some sort of burn out or bad ending. Maggie Mead seems to be talking about something deeper and more sustaining. Something closer to what life and existence is all about, the primal force that underlies it all.

How does this all work? Is there a common blueprint that applies to small dynamic groups regardless of the subject matter, be it a community group working to revive a neighborhood, or an underdog sports team that innovates a bit and suddenly gets red hot, or a group of scientists who start thinking “outside the box” and come up with new ways of understanding things (perhaps like the Santa Fe Institute), a group of AIDS victims fighting for better care options, or a bunch of young nerds forming a company to sell an innovative computer device that they put together with soldering guns in a basement? One common element is that the group has to be small. The people involved have to know each other, they can’t be strangers. They have to communicate a lot. This can’t be a bureaucracy. Communications have to be quick and trust has to be high. Perhaps the biggest requirement is that the group has to be committed. Not just interested, but ready to make real sacrifices for the cause.

When you bring together these elements, magic occurs. The people involved suddenly wake up and feel alive. They walk taller, breathe deeper, laugh harder, stay up later. Life is more intense, more worth living. It’s almost like a drug.

But it ain’t easy to find your way into such a group. Yes, if you look around, there are plenty of small groups out there that are open to new recruits. But you’ve got to believe in them and commit yourself to them, sort of like a cult. So you have to be careful. Do you really believe in what they are all about? Or are you bending your own beliefs and values so as to be accepted? Most groups have a leader, someone with a lot of charisma, the spark plug, the person who got things going and is recognized as the boss. Is that person misusing the power that she or he has gained? Is it going to his or her head? Or are they staying humble and trying to keep things as democratic and open as possible?

These dynamic small groups come in a lot of different flavors. They might be out to make money; they might be out to get someone elected; they might be out to change a larger group or organization. They might be out to promote a new idea. They might religious or spiritual. They might be trying to make the world better, or they might be concentrating on a small chunk of it, say a neighborhood or a housing complex. Sometimes they are open to the big picture, and sometimes they focus so narrowly that they disregard the side-effects of what they do (e.g., a group trying to stop a factory from polluting at all costs might cause a lot of people to lose their jobs, probably people who sorely need them). And, to be honest, there have been and probably still are some dynamic groups that are doing the wrong things. The Ku Klux Klan probably started out meeting Dr. Mead’s definition, as did the Nazis and the Bolsheviks. And let’s not forget Al Qaeda. Human enthusiasm sometimes takes a wrong turn. But the thrill of being part of a dynamic group often keeps its participants from seeing the mistake.

Whether such groups wind up changing the world in a good or bad way, they are indeed very effective. Most historical revolutions probably start out in the context of a small movement where everyone knows each other. The American Revolution would qualify. Microsoft and many other big corporations were also once just a handful of people working day and night to make money off of some idea or vision. But once the group succeeds, things change. The group eventually expands into a bureaucracy. Things get formalized. Lawyers and accountants get involved. Perhaps the original firebrands are still around, but they are outnumbered by scores of people who are 9 to 5 employees, people who just want a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work. Eventually, the dreamers disappear and the organization becomes just another agency or non-profit or school or corporation or religion. And that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. Stability is also good. And it’s not impossible for a new group to form within a stuffy organization with the aim of bringing about change internally. But after a few years or decades, most successful movements settle down, get old, and become stodgy and close-minded.

I myself worked in an organization that had been formed about 30 years ago by a motivated group looking to better the lives of poor people within a certain city in the Eastern US. Unfortunately, the group was too successful and their movement grew up into a large bureaucracy. The “big daddy” of the group is still around, and he expects you to act like you’re still one of his original “highly committed individuals”, even though he treats you like a slave employee. So, it wasn’t exactly an edifying experience. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there back in the 70’s when things were smaller and more exciting (and big daddy wasn’t such a tyrant). They certainly did change the world, probably for the better. But many of us who got involved after the charismatic flames died out wonder if the big bloated bureaucracy that resulted from it is still serving the world in a net positive manner.

Yes, Dr. Mead is right. Small groups do change the world. The question that needs to be asked is, in the long run, do they always change it for the better?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:48 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, August 26, 2003
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Do you ever ponder the ultimate questions, such as what life is all about? What is the worth of an individual human being? Does it all really matter? Why are we doing this?

Most of the time I don’t wrestle with such humongous issues. Got enough other stuff to think about. But over the past week or so, those questions have trampled their way into my mind. And I haven’t come up with any good answers.

One thing that caused me to think about this is my mother. She’s in her eighties now, and has entered the “really old” stage of life. She can’t walk anymore, her memory fades in and out, one of her eyes is going, and she sleeps more than half the day. Every month or so she gets a little bit weaker, needs more help, and can no longer do something that we take for granted. You can just see her life being taken away in little pieces, bit by bit. And yet she doesn’t seem ready to quit yet. She gets cranky, but she’s not depressed. That in itself amazes me sometimes.

Another thing that inspired such weighty thoughts in me was a recent visit I made during work hours to the Homicide Unit. I had to talk with a chief assistant attorney about something, and since I’m not a prosecutor but just a lowly administrative munchkin, I had to wait 10 minutes while the attorney in question jabbered on the phone with someone, partly talking about murder cases, partly about the furniture in her living room. I spent my waiting time just looking around the room, watching detectives and attorneys and clerks working and wandering about and drinking coffee. The Homicide Unit can be a pretty intense place, but I found it in a relatively peaceful state that afternoon, with the sun shining in through the windows. And for a moment or two I got that feeling, that sensation that you get when you’re on the edge of a cliff staring down into the chasm. What is a life? What does it mean? Why do we feel this way about it?

Well, I caught my balance and the attorney finally talked to me. It wasn’t too important, so I was out of there pretty quickly. She got on to the next murder file and I got on to the next monthly cost report. What is it all about? I still don’t know. But it has something to do with our ability to ponder such questions and to feel dizzy when on the boundary of life and death. If you’ve never thought about it, you’ve never really lived. “Study death, learn to live” — I saw that line in a New York Times movie review the other day. The movie in question was “The Battle of Shaker Heights”. The reviewer didn’t really like the movie. Wonder how the Times would review a movie about our Homicide Unit, were someone to make such a movie?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:29 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, August 23, 2003
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ANOTHER INTERESTING THING: I haven’t done all that much yet with the StarLogo simulation program that I downloaded (available to all on the MIT web site). I did get a chance to look at some of the example programs they give you. It is amazing what those little pre-programmed independent agents can do. Organized behavior appears to just happen out of nowhere, even though all of the little things are acting on their own, totally disorganized.

But what if you try to program StarLogo to simulate intentional cooperation? I tried something fairly simple — I set loose a bunch of independent little boxes (“Turtles”, as they call them) to drift around randomly. Each box has a certain assigned characteristic, really just a number from 1 to 8. However, each box wants to be close to another box with the same number. If a box bumps into another one having that characteristic, the two boxes will “fall in love” and will randomly drift as one, till death do them part. I allowed for chaining, i.e. couples could become threesomes, threesomes could become foursomes, etc. The immediate results weren’t all that interesting — things eventually clump together into a handful of big groups. What was interesting was what happens to the program itself. StarLogo itself starts getting tapped out by all this love. The program gets slow and can’t keep up, such that the groups are constantly spreading out and trying to regroup. Sometimes strange things happen that shouldn’t, like a member on one end of a group “falls in love” with a member on the other end, and starts the group moving in a constant direction, chasing its tail in effect. The problem is that the program is being overwhelmed and isn’t calculating fast enough. Thus, important steps sometimes happen out of sequence. If you put in additional programming steps to insure that things happen in the proper sequence, it eats up even more program power, and things get really slow.

What does this all mean? Well, perhaps it shows that love isn’t easy. You can see why nature depends on getting organized results from disorganized agents who just follow rules and stick to their own little zones and don’t look at the big picture. When you start thinking about what a loved one is doing and you try to coordinate with that, and they in turn try to coordinate with you, and back and forth like that, it burns up a whole lot of energy. At some point the coordination process drains the both of you, and things just don’t go right.

Anyone who is or has been married knows what’s up with that.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:59 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, August 19, 2003
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Well, the other day I printed out the Web version of that recent article regarding “Zenos Paradox” and the nature of time by Peter Lynds, the college dropout who’s got a lot of physicists and philosophers all riled up these days. (Sorry, I forget the site, you can find it by doing a Google on Peter Lynds). Some people call Lynds a modern Einstein, and some say he’s just restating the obvious. My old mind can’t quite keep up with either physicists or the philosophers any more, but they still interest me. So I tried to read the “lite version” of Lynds paper (you have to buy a copy of some physics journal to see the long version).

I was trained in basic calculus and physics long ago, so at first I couldn’t really see what the problem behind Zenos Paradox is. Zeno himself obviously didn’t know calculus; they didn’t have it when he came up with the problem. But if he did know calculus and the concept behind it, i.e. that time and space can be cut into infinitesimally tiny segments, usually called “dx” and “dt”, his problem would drop away.

(Zeno’s paradox involves the logic of motion and how it relates to time. It’s a thought experiment about a tortoise and a fast guy who decide to run a race. The tortoise is promised a head start, and thus accepts the challenge. This is a thinking man’s tortoise, but he still doesn’t know calculus. He figures that the runner will never catch him. Why not? Because by the time the runner reaches where Mr. Turtle was when the starting gun went off, Mr. Turtle will have moved forward an inch or so. By the time the runner closes that inch, Mr. Turtle will have moved another eighth of an inch. By the time the runner closes that eighth of an inch, … and so forth. In sum, the runner will get closer and closer, but will never pass the struggling terrapin.) (This reminds me of those brain-puzzler things, which usually start off like this: Three guys are looking for a hotel room one night, and finally find a place. The guy at the desk says $31 for the night. One guy puts in $11, the second guy ….)

In the lite article, Lynds explains Zeno and gives the calculus answer to his paradox. But then Lynds says that there’s still a problem. And that’s when he loses me. Actually, it seems as though he knows that he will lose me, because after that he keeps on repeating his conclusion. (When you hear the punch line repeated, you know the joke wasn’t all that good). The Internet article was supposedly meant to be a “Lynds’ Time for Dummies”, but it actually doesn’t do a very good job of explaining things. In one of the footnotes on the article, Lynds in effect tells you to shell out a few bucks and buy the main article if you don’t get it … another 21st Century huckster.

Just what is Lynds’ conclusion? That there does not exist an exact instant in time, e.g. precisely 10:00 PM. In reality, Lynd sez, all that exists are little intervals. Just how little are the intervals? Well, that depends on what you are using to measure time with. With a good watch, maybe you know time down to the hundredth of a second. With an atomic clock, maybe it get it down to a billionth or something. But you never get the uncertainty down to zero. Why? Well, Lynds doesn’t say this, and at one point even seems to deny it, but the ultimate limitation appears to be related to quantum mechanics. At some incredibly tiny point, you can’t split a particle any further. There is a fundamental quantum length, below which you can’t go. Since measuring anything is a function of seeing it (whether by regular light or by some other electromagnetic force), at some point you can’t get any more accurate than to say that there was an event that triggered a photon to be shot out, that the photon reached you, and you saw a little flash from it.

Let’s say that your eyes let you know exactly where this photon hit you, but because of Heisenberg and his darn Uncertainty Principle, you can’t perfectly know both the exact position and exact momentum of the photon. In our case, you know position, and thus you are a bit unsure about momentum; momentum is proportionate to wavelength, and wavelength determines what color you see. Thus you aren’t 100% sure about the photon’s wavelength. You think you know, but any good quantum physicist would tell you that you can’t be 100% sure that the color isn’t really off a little. Thus you don’t know exactly how long the waves are.

Therefore you are a little bit unsure as to exactly where that photon was sent from and thus how far it traveled. (I believe that you can tell where the photon was along the wave when it hit your eye based on how bright it seemed – thus the “wave phase” of the photon is not the problem; the problem is that you can’t know the exact wavelength, which you need given that the distance to the starting point is some multiple of it, with a slight adjustment for the “wave phase” of the photon when when it hit your eye). You can take measurements and narrow this down, but there is still a range of possible places, however tiny that range is, where the event took place that launched the photon (remember, you need other photons to make those measurements – they also have uncertainty). You know the speed of light for sure, but you don’t know exactly how far the photon went before it hit your eye. Using statistical techniques, you can get a 99% range, or even 99.999% range of distances. But that means that you will get an earliest time and a latest time when the event took place, relative to your seeing the photon that it launched. You’re stuck with an interval, in other words. You can’t do any better than that. Just no way.

Another approach to this is to remember that a photon acts according to a probability wave (under the wave-particle duality theories), which means you could have seen the photon in a different place, even given identical starting conditions; and conversely, that different starting conditions could have sent a photon with the same wavelength to the same spot where it hit your eye. You could never know for sure. The event could actually have happened a little bit earlier or a bit later, given the differences in distances that would have been covered, and you wouldn’t have known the difference. Thus, you’re a bit uncertain as to when or where the event actually took place. And you can never do any better, no matter how hard you try.

Therefore, you don’t and can’t exactly know anything. If you fire a cannon, your physics professor could give you some equations that will tell you how far away the cannonball will be at, say, 5 seconds after you shoot. But Lynds would say THERE IS NO “FIVE SECOND POINT”. Depending on how good your watch is, you DO know something about a little time interval that surrounds that hypothetical 5 second point. Therefore, all you can know about the cannonball is that it is somewhere between the two points where the physics equations say that the cannonball should be at the lower and upper limits of the 5 second mark (e.g., 4.999 and 5.001 seconds from shooting, if your watch is that accurate). If you can somehow come up with a quantum watch, your interval is a whole lot smaller — but there’s still an interval, not a perfect instant in time.

In sum, motion is really a blur, as any photographer suspects. Take a picture of anything moving, and the thing is a little blurry. Use a 1/30th shutter time and you really notice the blur. Set the shutter to 1/1000th and it looks a lot better. But there is still a little bit of blur. That’s just the way things are, if I read Lynds correctly.

Or maybe it’s just that Lynds is himself a bit blurry (it ain’t easy to think in his terms; but philosophers and physicists sometimes demand that we think in ways that hurt). Well, this all doesn’t mean that you can throw out your calculus and differentiation and integration lessons. You still gotta do your homework. Calculus is still a darn good and useful approximation of how things work. But at some point, reality is lumpy and bumpy. And I think that this is what Lynds is ultimately getting at. Now, as to whether that’s a better way to deal with Zeno and all that, I’m not sure. Calculus ultimately agrees with Zeno’s presumptions that you can keep dividing up a space into an infinite number of pieces (but then says that Zeno got the rules of calculus wrong). Lynds seems to say that you can’t keep on dividing time or space into smaller and smaller bits; at some point you can’t go any smaller, you have to use the smallest “mosaic piece”, and that piece puts the runner out in front of the turtle. And the race is won!

But of course, I could be wrong here.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:43 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, August 17, 2003
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BLACKOUT SERMON: It’s Sunday morning, and being a former churchgoer, that puts me in the mood for a sermon. So that’s what I’m gonna write today. A sermon about the Blackout of 2003.

It’s pretty clear now that the Blackout is related to DEREGULATION. Ah yes, deregulation, one of the pillars of the modern Republican world that we’ve been in since 1968. (Jimmy Carter? A temporary aberration. Bill Clinton? A Republican in drag.) Since the 1970s, the free-market business Republicans have convinced us that regulation of key industries like communications, finance, transportation and power are no longer needed. They gave plenty of reasons why deregulation would benefit the common man, but in the end they were trying to line their own pockets. And line them they did. Isn’t it time to turn the tide a bit?

In the power industry, the government regulators (FERC and the state commissions) once sought to maintain high levels of reliability by granting the power companies limited monopolies and in return requiring them to act nice — i.e., don’t gouge the public so as to make outrageous profits. Part of this agreement meant that the power companies would set up very reliable systems to generate and distribute electric power, so as to avoid all of the chaos that a big power outage causes. Who gets socked with the bill for all the added power lines and equipment that sit idle most of the time but come in handy when Murphy’s Law comes calling? The consumer, through higher electric bills. But, again, under regulation, the power companies only get to tack on enough profit on their investment to raise capital. And the consumer gets to avoid the fun of being stranded when the power goes down, and paying higher taxes to cover all the police overtime and other emergency costs needed to avoid looting and such. So, your electricity bill goes up a buck or two a month, but maybe it’s worth it.

BY COMPARISON: under DEREGULATION, as we have it today, the consumer pays a little bit less, and the rich people who are the biggest corporate investors make a whole lot more. Any wonder why they vote Republican and send big checks to support Republican political candidates? The deregulated power companies, acting on behalf of their investors, buy just enough power lines and equipment to maximize their profits. If that means a big blackout every so many months, well, that’s not their problem. They don’t pay the bill caused by civic chaos and having the rest of the economy shut down for a day or two. Economists call this the “internal versus external cost” problem.

Another problem with DEREGULATION is instability. Even if power company investors decide to take a long-term view and do the right thing, they may not be able to raise the money to buy the stuff that will avoid the next big blackout. Why not? Because the bankers and investors are still all freaked out about some big bankruptcy or something. Something like ENRON. (Financial deregulation doesn’t help either.)

I’m not a socialist; I know that free markets promote innovation and when they work correctly, pass the benefits on to the consumer. But dang, there are just too many times when they don’t work right. And that’s when government needs to get involved. But over the past 30 years, the Republicans have told the little folk that all government is bad and the little folk have swallowed it, hook, line and sinker. The Republicans have given the little folk their cell phones and $100 tax rebates in return for their votes, and have retreated to their mansions to call their accountants and watch the profits roll in. We are clearly living in an era of entrenched wealth once again, something like the “Roaring 20’s” (and you know where that led). It’s the little people who went along with it all by electing Nixon and Reagan and Bush and Bush (and Clinton — let’s be honest about the honorary Republican category).

And they are the ones who now have to deal with the mess left behind by this deregulated, small-government world. They are the ones who often can’t get proper health coverage, they are the ones who spend hours trying to get through an automated answering system to straighten out some important thing and avoid being thrown in to bankruptcy and becoming homeless, they are the ones who can’t get proper help if they have a retarded child or a crippled grandparent. They are the ones who swim in polluted public beaches, while the rich folk jet off to pristine shores in the western Pacific. The world is great if you’re healthy and attractive and have a good job that pays. But let just one or two little things go wrong, let your bank account get drawn down and your credit card accounts puffed up, and you’re thrown to the dogs.

Really, does it have to be this way? DEREGULATION and lack of good health insurance is a big part of the whole Republican scheme, but I’ve noticed a whole lot of other little things that go with the flow. One little example: credit cards. I’ve almost always paid my credit card bills on time. In 25 years, I had two late payments, both just by a few days because of a vacation or a delay in the US Mail. One was about 20 years ago, back in the early 80s. I got hit with a small interest charge, maybe a dollar or two. My second one was last month. I got hit with about the same small interest charge, maybe two dollars, PLUS a $30 LATE FEE. Now when was that policy started? Another little example: trying to renew my anti-virus updates, I noticed that if you want to order it by phone, you get hit with a $10 FEE, because you have to talk to somebody.

And don’t even get me started about the way that people drive these days. I’m old enough to know that it wasn’t always so aggressive. Once upon a time, cooperation and tolerance were the norm when people got in their cars.

This world is really starting to get UGLY. Should we go back to the old Democrat days of the ‘40s and 60s when labor unions had a lot of power and there were lots of government regulations and not as many people were rich or near-rich? Yea, there were plenty of bad things about those days, including stupid, greedy labor unions that caused a lot of American jobs to go overseas because of their inflexibility. Today we have a lot more consumer choices, things that couldn’t even be dreamed of back then (like laptops and hand-helds and portable mp3 players and DVDs and air-conditioning everywhere). But we also had people who answered the phone when you called the bank or doctors office or insurance company or motor vehicles bureau. The average slob seemed to get a little more respect. Finding a job wasn’t such a horrendous process (and you didn’t lose your old one so quickly). You didn’t seem to fall off the edge so fast when something bad happened to you.

It’s a question of balance, obviously. Maybe the pendulum did swing too far towards socialism and economic stagnation in the 60s. And a lot of people got scared when the Democrats got too aggressive about civil rights (NOT to the credit of those people) and started moving away from “old fashioned Christian values”. But can’t we see that it’s time to move a little bit back towards the center, towards the middle ground, a middle ground where government would do a lot, but not too much. Taxes might be higher, but you’d be sure that Social Security was there when you need it. Where being rich isn’t the answer to everything, and isn’t seen as the only way to live a good life?

Most people today seem absolutely convinced that you’ve got to struggle fiercely to get all you can economically, even if you have to cut some throats, because otherwise you’re gonna get thrown into the gutter. Can’t we put some safety nets back into the system, so that we can all calm down a bit, and maybe get back to acting human towards each other? Can’t we make a decent middle-class life the standard to shoot for, instead of shooting for a McMansion up in the woods? Can’t we start driving sensible and efficient cars again instead of huge monster trucks, even if that means that we might have to sit home for a few hours during a snowstorm while the government gets the roads plowed? Can’t we stop the trucking industry from taking over the Interstates with huge high-speed trucks that crash big time and usually take a few average motorists down with them? (A lot of the railroad lines that once hauled the freight are now abandoned — guess why? — yep, deregulation). Can’t we start trusting in the commonweal a little more?

Think about it during the next blackout or terrorist attack. (The next blackout may be both).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:21 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, August 14, 2003
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Yes, I just experienced the great eastern blackout of 2003. My first inkling of the problem came when I talking with my boss at around 4 and the lights started blinking on and off. When I got outside, I saw that the traffic lights weren’t working. I took the train to work today, as I do once a week, and wouldn’t you know, no train service home — I walked up to the station and it was quieter than a New Years morning. But there is a bus that goes near my house, so I went over to the stop and waited for about a half hour amidst a nervous crowd. After two of those busses passed without stopping, I opted for third best, a bus that gets within 2 miles of home. The ride was slow and the walk was long and hot, but I made it.

It looked like it was going to be a candle-light evening without the Internet, but just after9 pm the refrigerator started rumbling and all the little red lights on my consumer electronics lit up. Twenty-first century techno-civilization was back in my neighborhood. Cool. But let this be a reminder. 21st century techno-civilization is still a very frail thing, something that can disappear in the blink of an eye. This time it was just a lightening bolt in Niagara Falls, but next time it could be a rocket-propelled grenade launched by a terrorist. The deep, terrible dark night, which I saw along my street just a half hour ago, is never all that far away. (And the lights are still flickering a bit here).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:44 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, August 12, 2003
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Here’s a quick follow-up to last Sunday’s thoughts on the African-American culture. I recently read a book by Bertice Berry called “The Haunting of Hip Hop”. Ms. Berry is a black author and PhD in sociology who writes from a black perspective, or more accurately, from her own version of a black perspective. And hey, that’s fine by me. The “Hip Hop” story revolves around a successful rap music producer in Manhattan who becomes haunted by the ghosts of African-American history. As a rationalistic white guy, I found it all a bit over the top. Nevertheless, Berry was out to make some valid points. She doesn’t exactly give white folk much slack, but then again, what the heck. The book was not written for me, but for African American youth who need a stronger sense of their ethnic heritage and a greater pride in even the more eccentric features of it.

Even if this wasn’t the most edifying book I’ve ever read, there were still some pearls of wisdom to be found in it. For example: “by the time you know how to spend your years, you find that you done already wasted them.” So true. Another one: “what don’t work out for you in this life will have to work out in someone else’s”. Hmm, there’s something to ponder.

The book comes with a set of 15 discussion questions at the end. They are aimed at inquiring young minds, and that’s a good thing. Maybe this book ain’t exactly for me, but it will help a lot of others. More power to ya, Dr. Berry.

But next time, back to the un-real world: that recent article on the nature of time by Peter Lynds, a college drop-out from New Zealand who has the world of academic physics buzzing. Did this guy really say anything new? Stay tuned.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:41 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, August 10, 2003
Current Affairs ... Society ...

Once upon a time, a lot of people thought of America as a sociological “melting pot”, a place where everyone could easily gave up the language and heritage of their ancestors and became red-blooded Americans. This really isn’t (or wasn’t) such a new idea. As with many things about America, this was tried many centuries ago in the Roman Empire. Back in the second and third centuries, you could relinquish your past, whether as an Egyptian, a Syrian, a Turk, a Greek, an Algerian, a Spaniard, a Brit, or even a Frenchman, and simply be a Roman. Even though you’d still look like someone from Africa or England or the Middle East, the powers that be in Rome would treat you like one of them, so long as you wanted to be one of them, and would speak their language (good old Latin).

Of course, most Americans today don’t have much regard for the Roman Empire or Greek Civilization, even though those things are the blueprints for America, like it or not. Until the late 1950s, the education system made sure that everyone knew something about the ancient Romans and Greeks. However, by 1960, the focus in the schools shifted to math and science. Why teach kids about the past, when America’s future lies in the miracle of science and technology?

Yea, we now see how far that idea got us; we have a world with plenty of information technology, but not much wisdom. I think it’s time to start learning something about the ancient Romans and Greeks again. Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it. We sure seem to be going down the road of repetition these days.

Nevertheless, let’s go back to the American melting pot theory. A lot of immigrant groups have gone along with the cultural melting process, but some just didn’t. Or not to the same degree, anyway. Perhaps the biggest example is the African-American culture. Despite the fact that many or perhaps even most African-Americans today just want to live normal American middle-class lives, African-Americans are still recognized as a very distinctive component of American culture. And yes, I know that there is a long history of oppression and injustice involved with that. But for now, I’m just looking at the surface. If you came from Pluto as an interplanetary Alexis de Tocqueville to do a study on America in the early 21st Century, you’d keep hearing a lot about “blacks” or African Americans. You’d get more buzz about them more than about Irish-Americans or Chinese-Americans or German-Americans or even Hispanic-Americans (although Hispanics also maintain a distinct and noticeable cultural identity).

In a lot of ways, the continuing cultural distinctiveness of Black America reflects continued injustice and closed-mindedness on the part of the majority cultures. And that’s something to be regretted. Having said that, let me say that I myself rather enjoy the ongoing cultural distinctiveness that African-Americans maintain. Sure, it’s too bad about all the frictions and bad feelings that result sometimes because of this, but there’s something about being black that’s just too good to be melted away into the American soup. I have heard stories about white people (like myself) who have left the highly integrated east coast urban areas to live out in Indiana or Wyoming, so that they won’t have any blacks around them. That makes me cringe. No African-Americans around? Sounds extremely bland.

Yes, I know that certain African-American leaders might criticize what I say here as a form of plantation mentality, like the old notion that “darkies are very entertaining, just so long as we keep them in their place”. Sort of an Amos and Andy thing. To which I reply, I think that blacks have just as much of a place at Yale, Princeton, Microsoft, the Senate and the Space Shuttle as anyone of my ancestral culture. But despite continuing progress and achievement, the African-American culture is still maintaining a cultural distinctiveness, and I like it.

Here’s an example. This past week I went to a funeral service for the father of an African-American executive from my workplace. The deceased was an attorney who served as a municipal judge, worked for several years with Thurgood Marshall (first black US Supreme Court Judge) in desegregation efforts, and was generally a pillar of his community. The officiates of the funeral were, not surprisingly, black. And actually, most of the service wasn’t all that different from any of the white funerals I’ve been to. But at one point, actually two, a handsome man with a good voice went to the podium to sing a gospel song (one was Amazing Grace, I forget the other). He did it with a mixture of flair and dignity, adding an occasional smile and even a gesture at the decedent lying there in the coffin. Perhaps the Rev. Al Green got started like that. But hey, I thought, there’s an interesting idea — a bit of entertainment during a funeral. It made the whole thing, well, not so funereal. It was just another one of those little ways that blacks sometimes and somehow touch something fundamental about life, in a way that no one else seems able to.

Let me offer one more funeral-based example, courtesy of Flannery O’Connor, the southern short story writer from the 1950s. O’Connor was very white, and strangely enough for a southerner, a Roman Catholic. You’d wonder how a Roman Catholic could touch the essence of the American South such as Faulkner could. And yet she did. Part of her charm was her Roman Catholicness and the odd contrast between her spirituality and the Baptist and Pentecostal spirit of those around her. But what really made her stories effective were blacks. Here’s a quick taste from “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead”, one of O’Connor’s typically weird plots about a teenage white boy who lived out in some southern tarshack with his uncle. The uncle dies one hot day, and the kid didn’t want to dig the hole to properly bury his uncle; instead he went to a still and got drunk. An old black man who happened along the way saw this and finished the internment. The man later confronted the drunken kid, saying: “This ain’t no way for you to act. Old man don’t deserve this … he was deep in this life, he was deep in Jesus’ misery.”

Am I saying that whites should uncritically embrace all that is “black”, including 50 Cent and other expressions of irresponsible sexuality and violence? No, I’m not. Probably more than 50% of blacks don’t embrace that stuff either. Am I saying that informed and concerned whites should practice a form of hyper-political correctness and never bring up statistics about continuing problems within the African-American culture, e.g. high rates of male incarceration and one-parent families despite much government assistance over the past 40 years? No, the truth must be dealt with. But I am promoting open-mindedness, and I am saying that my own open-mindedness to the African-American culture (which is very imperfect and late-blooming) has been mostly a good thing, something I’d heartily recommend to all my fellow Americans of European heritage (or any heritage, for that matter).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:38 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, August 3, 2003
Personal Reflections ...

People have various different theories about what life is all about. Some say it’s love. Some say it’s family. Some say it’s fun. Some say it’s money. Some say it’s power. Some say it’s beauty. Some seek “inner peace”. Philosophers come up with various other words and phrases based up various intellectual abstractions, like Pirsig‘s “quality”. Some philosophers say life is really out there, while others say it’s all in the mind. Psychologists agree with the latter, but want to know what the mind is getting at. And scientists, well, they’ll tell you about DNA and emergent self-organizing phenomenon and organic chemistry and evolutionary dynamics. So, life must be a pretty big thing, sort of like the elephant that 10 blind men touch and describe as 10 different things (none of them an elephant; e.g. the guy who grips the tail thinks it’s a snake, the guy with the ear thinks it’s a bird, etc.).

The word about life that works best for me is “intensity”. That word comes closest to summing up all of my longings and desires and frustrations in life. It seems able to corral most of the things that have been good for me and hold out most of the things that have been bad over the past 50 years. So yes, I’m an intensity junkie. In different ways, I think that we all are. Intensity for women often isn’t intensity for men, and vice versa. But both want to feel intense. For many women, intensity can be found in hearth and home and kinder. A lot of men get intense about sports, career achievement and status. Oh yea, and sometimes mechanical stuff, like cars or boats or stereos. Of course, there is some common ground. Like music. Both men and women get intense vibes when good music is being played. And money — although men alone seem to get satisfaction from the mere presence of dinero. Women generally seem to get intense about money only when it’s being traded for stuff, preferably stuff they like. And then there’s books and ideas and thinking. Certain men and women can get into that (but not enough, in my opinion).

And then there’s sexuality, of course. Sex is intensity city, at least when you’re young and full of the hormones that nature gave you in order to encourage your participation in the continuance of the species.

(Yes, I guess I’m not in a romantic mood right now).

So, what else inspires people and how do they relate to “intensity”? Well, political power makes certain people do extreme things. Sure, we all love to have power. How about fame? Oh yea, fame is a big inspiration too. People feel pretty intense when they know that a whole lot of people take them seriously. It’s quite an affirmation when a thousand or a million or a billion people know about you. Me, I’m still struggling in the 30 to 50 people range. I guess that fame is not going to be my path to intensity. For some people, achievement is the thing. Achievement often comes with power and fame and money, but sometimes it doesn’t. I think there are some pure examples of people who have achieved their life’s calling without gaining fame and fortune and power, and still feel pretty intense about it. Perhaps a guy who has managed to collect every baseball card from 1920 to present. He probably has some great stories about how he found that ’52 Duke Snider by accident in a dumpy old book store on the outskirts of Tulsa. It was his life work, even if he never even made the local newspaper.

Intensity doesn’t last. I’d guess that on average, most folk feel intense about life maybe 1 of every 50 hours that they are awake. Maybe some folk do better, and some worse.

Movies are popular because they make people feel intense for a little while. The arts in general are like that. When done well, an artist makes the viewer feel intense for a spell. Maybe the artist feels intense too.

Is there intensity at work? Maybe, but the conditions have to be just right. You have to be challenged, not bored. The task can’t be beyond your abilities, or you’ll get frustrated (I’ve been there). Also, it’s good when you know that what you’re doing is useful, that it’s helping someone somehow. Unfortunately, that right mix of things isn’t guaranteed. Too many people just work for the money, and seldom feel intense about what they’re doing. I’ve had some intense work days, but most of my work life has either been boring or chaotic or otherwise out of whack with regard to intensity.

Can you be sick or in fear or angry or confused and be intense? Well, sickness and fear and anger and confusion are intense experiences, but I sure don’t like them. But for some people, maybe that’s their only road to intensity. I think that one of Warren Zevon’s songs has a line that goes “I’d rather feel bad than feel nothing at all”. I guess it explains all of the gory horror movies that are out there. Some people seem to enjoy the feeling they get by watching other people treated like animals, slaughtered, mutilated, burned, crushed, humiliated, tortured, whatever. I guess it qualifies as a form of intensity, sort of a voyeuristic sadism.

There are short cuts to intensity, and they often aren’t good ones. Addictions are an example of intensity gone awry. Booze and drugs make you feel intense, very intense for a while. But the price you pay is extremely large (I’m not going to say “high” here). Food can also be an addiction. I know people who eat too much because that’s their easiest available source of intensity. The richest, most intense foods are often the most salty and fattening ones. A few moments of intensity are traded for a lifetime of obesity (and all the problems brought on by that). And promiscuous sex also gives you a quick hit of intensity followed by a big let-down. You know it ain’t real, you know it feels less intense each time.

So, wisdom and intensity are not always on the same page. Wisdom, I think, relates to intensity, but from a long-term perspective. It adds in considerations of other people and their access to intensity, e.g. your children, your husband or wife, your relatives, your neighbors, your fellow citizens and fellow planet dwellers.

But the big question for everyone is, just how much do I live for and trust others, whether abstract and organized (e.g., the US Government) or familiar and immediate (e.g. your parents). Does paying your taxes make you feel intense? Probably not. Does helping your child calm down after she or he has fallen and is all upset and crying make you feel intense? Perhaps.

If intensity is the essence of life, then the question remains, how best to get it. Intensity is really a deep philosophic question. It’s actually a rather mysterious thing (just like life itself). Too much of it isn’t good, and too little isn’t good either. You can try to buy it and store it up for the future, but it doesn’t always keep. What was intense for you yesterday may not be intense today; GROWTH and CHANGE must also be factored into the intensity calculation. And of course, relationship must be accounted for; when you experience something good with someone else, the intensity is usually amplified.

Well, so I have my own word for life, and it seems like a pretty good one. If intensity is the true key to life and not money or fame or achievement, then maybe there’s hope for all of us. Finding intensity without much money or fame or achievement doesn’t seem easy. Nonetheless, the search must go on, because maybe only 1 out of 10 people are going to have a whole lot of money or fame or achievement in life. If we can figure out how to have an intense life without all of that stuff, then maybe the billions of us who go to our graves without any great fanfare and are quickly forgotten will, nonetheless, have not lived and died in vain.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:09 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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