The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Monday, June 28, 2004
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DRAFT BEER, DRAFT STUDENTS: There’s been talk lately of bringing back the military draft. So far, talk is all it is. Some Democratic congressmen, including Charles Rangel of New York, have introduced legislation (S89 / HR163) that would require all men and women between 19 and 26 to perform two years of national service, which would be in the military or possibly in some form of domestic service work. The Republicans aren’t getting behind these bills (that would be suicide just before a big election), so for now it’s little more than a publicity stunt.

Rangel, as a Democrat, seems at first like an unlikely sponsor of a pro-military bill. However, as a black legislator with enough stomach for racial politics, Rangel wants to put more white skin in the game, so as to give our leadership pause the next time they decide to send the boys overseas. (And girls. Rangel’s bill won’t let them off as in the past). The next “Operation Freedom” would thus mix sophomores from Yale and Harvard in with the brothers and sisters from Newark and Oakland. In theory, anyway.

It’s pretty clear that the U.S. military is smaller than it’s been in the past, and is taking a lot of wear and tear from the Iraq situation. The Rumsfeld concept of a fast shock-and-awe operation that relies heavily on high tech equipment was successful in gaining ground, but not in holding it. We really wouldn’t be ready today if a lot of troops were suddenly needed somewhere else (say, Korea?). If Bush is still in the White House come late January, fear of the D-word might well diminish once it was recaptured from the Democratic rogues. And hey, the Democrats also have a history as happy warriors; a veteran like Kerry might also claim a need to call upon our young men and women to help our nation meet its international responsibilities.

My first instinct is to oppose a return of the draft and let our young people have their lives (as I was lucky enough to have had; the Vietnam draft ended just as I reached the age). But then again, perhaps Congressman Rangel has a point. If our leaders, Republican or Democrat, actually had to think about their own children and nephews (and now, even nieces) when considering future Iraq-like operations, their thinking process might become that much more focused. Maybe the USA would then avoid getting stupid and thinking that we can run the world without the consensus and support of our major allies. (That is, if we have any left).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:30 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, June 24, 2004
Society ... Socrates Cafe ...

I was at the Montclair Socrates Café meeting the other night. The topic for discussion was “what is wealth”. The discussion started out pretty lame, but after a while it got me thinking about the correlation between money and happiness. I came to two conclusions. First, the biggest impediment to happiness is uncertainty — the lurking possibility that you’re gonna go broke or have a nasty experience or gonna get sick and suffer quite unexpectedly. Second, there probably isn’t a very strong correlation, in the long run, between wealth (or income level) and happiness. It seems to me that people who are “working poor” are just about as likely to be happy or unhappy (or somewhere in the middle) as people who are in the middle class, and ditto for people who are rich.

Again, the biggest problem with poverty is the increased possibility of a big nasty change, of getting sick suddenly or losing your job or becoming homeless or being a victim of crime or falling victim to depression and substance abuse. If it were just a case of low but reliable income, with a lack of amenities but just enough resources to meet the basic needs, then I think that most people could adjust. From what I can tell, low-income groups tend to form strong family and social bonds. They seem to appreciate the fact that they need one another, more than middle class or rich folk do. Sure, plenty of them are unhappy, but you could certainly say that about the middle class too. And statistics bear out the fact that the richest, most exclusive towns have the highest suicide rates.

Hey, I’m not out to idealize poverty. I’d still rather be rich. But mostly because rich means a better cushion against sickness and homelessness and crime and other unpleasantness. Rich can also be alienating, however. I myself still think that the best place is somewhere in the middle.

P.S.: The discussion group didn’t seem to agree with me on this (even though they didn’t want to say that money buys happiness either). One guy even implied that my theory that the poor are just as likely to be happy as the rich shows that I’m a racist!

INTERESTING FACT: T’was reading an article in Scientific American about the renewed interest in Freud on the part of modern neuroscientists, i.e. the guys who call the tunes that the shrinks will ultimately dance to. The article made the point that subconscious mind works by a whole different set of rules than the reality-based conscious ego. The subconscious is a wonderful realm of wishful thinking, of grand plans and beautiful dreams and happy delusions. The normal mind does its best to keep this “pleasure principle” in check so that you don’t get hurt too badly in your dealings with the real world. The neuroscientists have corroborated Freud’s concept by observing people with brain injuries that knock out their reality functioning, leaving them with exaggerated and inaccurate notions about their own importance and circumstances in life.

I guess that I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve always been very dreamy and ultimately hopeful that the world and humankind (and myself) are all ultimately good and worthy of great acclaim. And I’ve somehow kept my belief that God is real, even if incompletely or inaccurately described by the world’s major religions. Now, after reading that article, it seems that this is simply the expected outcome of the Freudian mind at work.

But then again — the human mind evolved over thousands and millions of years into what it is for some good reason. Can it be that our subconscious’s credulity represents Nature’s means of giving a name to its ultimate author? Or should an existentialist version of Ronald Reagan just stop me right here and say “there you go again”?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:50 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, June 18, 2004
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TWO STRANGE PHENOMENA: Number 1: Madonna in her Jewish phase. “Esther”, as she would have it. The Material Girl as Queen of Kabbalah. Far out.

Number 2: Cosmic strings. Even farther out. These aren’t your usual superstrings. Many cosmologists think that the universe went thru some heavy changes during the first minute of its existence, changes that included phase transition and symmetry breaking. When things goes thru phase transitions, they often develop topological defects; sort of like the cracks that develop when water turns to ice. Some of these defects in the Universe may turn out to be huge strings of pure energy that warp the fabric of spacetime. If you were to get caught between one of these strings and a black hole, you might even get transported into the past (if you could survive the crushing gravity force).

Next year, the LIGO project to detect gravity waves will become operational. If there are cosmic strings out there, this may be the thing that will pick them up. But whatever the LIGO scientists detect, the observation of gravity waves will open up a whole new way of looking at space; it will probably be responsible for some really important discoveries over the next couple of decades. Definitely far out. Check out http://archive.ncsa.uiuc.edu/Cyberia/NumRel/LIGO.html

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:07 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, June 15, 2004
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Yes, they do look a lot alike. But some of you may not remember the guy on the right. OK, I’ll explain. He’s a former U.S. senator from Maine by the name of Edmund Muskie. He ran as Hubert Humphrey’s VP candidate in the 1968 election and lost to the Nixon ticket. Then in 1976 he ran for the Democratic nomination, but his campaign fell apart after he started crying when asked about his wife taking hits from the mud-slinging political journalists up in New Hampshire. He finished up his career as Secretary of State for Jimmy Carter, and was around to watch Carter go down in flames against the Gipper (R.I.P.) in 80. Yea, Edumund Muskie was a decent man who had a hard luck political career.

I can’t help but wonder if John Kerry was born under the same crossed star. The last hope: a VP candidate with a more lucky disposition. Namely, John Edwards.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:16 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, June 10, 2004
Personal Reflections ... Society ...

Sorry to hear about the passing of Ray Charles. Ain’t gonna be another one like Ray. He finally hit the road, Jack, and won’t be comin’ back no more, no more, no more, no more … and that’s a big loss for this planet.

GOOD ONE, N.O.W.: The Director of the State of New Jersey’s Division on Civil Rights, Frank Vespa-Palaleo, recently issued a ruling saying that clubs which offer ladies-night specials on drinks and cover fees violate the anti-discrimination laws. Various parties, including the NJ Governor, have been critical of Mr. Vespa-Palaleo’s ruling, saying that the government should apply its social justice energies to more important matters. Not only did the National Organization of Women agree, but they allowed a bit of levity. Said Rita Haley, president of the New York City chapter of N.O.W.: “I am concerned that he is looking for discrimination in all the wrong places.”

MY KIND OF WOMAN: I haven’t read much classic literature in my life, being the kind of guy who focuses mainly on non-fiction. However, many years after college  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:09 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, June 6, 2004
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My father served in the US Navy toward the end of World War 2. He lucked out by being assigned to the Naval Air Station in Pearl Harbor (about two years after the Japanese attack there on December 7, 1941). Obviously, had he been assigned to a ship somewhere in the western Pacific, he could have been taken down by a torpedo or some kamikaze, and I wouldn’t be here writing this blog today. My belated thanks to the underling lieutenant who reviewed my father’s papers and decided that he’d make a good airplane mechanic in the Pearl Harbor backshop. You never know who you owe your life to.

Even though my dad passed away many years ago, you can still find some Naval paraphernalia in the nooks and cubbyholes around my mother’s house. While doing my wash over there, I sometimes browse through my father’s Bluejackets’ Manual. This is “the bible” on how to be a sailor. Contained within its 784 pages is all kinds of info, including how to sail a ship by wind, how to row oars, how to swim, how to apply first aid, how to salute, how a lifting tackle works, how various types of knots and splices are tied, how to fire a handgun and a rifle, how to march in formation, what the colors of various kinds of mortar shells are, and on and on. There’s a Q&A; section that tells you about bilge keels, scuppers, the break of the forecastle, deadlights, taffrails, bucklers, fish booms, and hawse plugs. It also offers the wisdom that “keeping a warship in first-class condition means a constant battle against rust”. Hmm, wonder if that still applies in this era of aluminum and composites.

Towards the beginning of the Manual, there is a basic description of what the US Navy is all about, at least as of 1940. Since the Navy is mainly about ships, the book contains a list of the major warships of the time and some pictures (my favorite part). It’s slightly ironic to review the specifications for the USS Arizona and Oklahoma, which would be lost at Pearl Harbor just over a year after the Handbook was issued in June, 1940. Also, the pictured aircraft carrier (the USS Lexington) went down a few months thereafter at Coral Sea.

You might have thought that a new Handbook would have been issued by late 1943 when my father enlisted. (Actually there was a 1943 version, but it was probably still coming off the press). I suppose the Navy had a lot on its mind, such as battles at Midway and Leyte Gulf, not to mention Nazi U-Boats. Actually, it looks as though the 1940 Bluejacket’s Manual was pretty well prepared, and probably didn’t need to be redone once the torpedos and bombs started flying. Most likely it was one of those unheralded little things that some long forgotten group of people put a lot of energy into, which in the end allowed something big to happen – in this case, America’s military success against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

The first couple of chapters of the Manual were written, appropriately enough, with the raw young recruit in mind. These chapters basically amount to a sales brochure for the sailor’s life, and at the same time they dispense some fatherly wisdom aimed at the scared and bewildered 18 year olds who were soon gonna be fodder for Axis ordnance. I found the language to be quite interesting – obviously, some of the vernacular is now outdated. But it assumes a certain credulity and respect for governmental authority that I’m not sure still exists. I really wonder if the average teenager of today could take seriously what was said in the Manual. Anyway, here are some excerpts with a few of my own comments.

PLEASE NOTE: I’m not trying to depreciate the bravery of our veterans or the sincere efforts that military people still make for the nation. Admittedly, I was never in the military, so I can’t completely understand the context involved. I’m mainly examining the manly tone of language used, and wondering how much the world has changed since it was more-or-less appropriately spoken some sixty odd years ago.

Fighting spirit – you know what this is. Without it, you are only a human biped who wears pants. With it, you are a live, red-blooded go-getter . . .

(I’ll let someone else comment on the correlation, or lack thereof, between wearing pants and red-blooded fighting spirit)

Be peppy. Put some drive into things. Carry a self-starter. Don’t have to be cranked everytime to get started.

(Cars stopped using starting cranks by 1930, but interestingly, the expression lingered).

Be square. Give a square deal to others and expect one in return.

(Of course, by the 1950s, being “square” was a little bit too pro-establishment; the age of the beatniks was yet to come in 1940).

Act so that your home folks will be proud of you . . .

(Ah, the days when the home folk were counting on young soldiers and sailors; then came Vietnam, unfortunately . . . )

No man ever succeeded by hanging on to his mother’s apron strings all his life.

(Back when mothers wore aprons)

A letter from home will buck you up more than anything else.

(I guess that people today don’t speak about getting “bucked up” because it sounds too much like something else . . . )

. . . you will find that you will have more liberties than you really want.

(sorry, but I have to question how many sailors would ultimately agree with that)

Admit your mistakes frankly and take your medicine.

(And take it like a man!)

The government educates and trains you, and then gives you a fine position for life, for which, in turn, you agree to do whatever the government demands.

(this sounds a little bit Orwellian …)

Always boost. If you cannot boost, at least do not knock.

(OK, good basic advice.)

To live a clean, wholesome life, you must think clearly and wholesomely. When you find your mind wandering on unwholesome subjects, snap out of it and turn your mind to clean thoughts. Get interested in clean, manly subjects, such as good books, athletics, shows, etc.

(Most books, athletics and shows today aren’t 100% clean and wholesome …)

See the really worth-while sights in the towns you visit. Do not hang around the dirty places that are always handy and which are always waiting to prey on you.

(Maybe this is reverse advertising – imagine being some kid from a farm in Iowa on his first Navy voyage, about to dock in France or Italy – wow, dirty places, can’t wait!!!)

Your best friends are your company commander and the officers on your station. They are trying to make a real man of you.

(Well, I’ll bet that they honestly wanted raw recruits to have a chance to live once the bullets started to fly, so they did all they could to toughen them up; a form of tough love, I guess).

You will develop friends rapidly with your new shipmates. Be careful, however, that you do not pick the occasional shirk, piker, or fourflusher for your friend, as such a man will invariably get you into trouble in time.

(I can imagine the fourflusher – a tall guy with black, slicked back hair and a trimmed little mustache …)

An Army and Navy YMCA is usually near your station, and you should make use of it immediately. It gives you a fine club life which would cost you a small fortune to enjoy in civil life.

(But perhaps not quite the “fine club life” that we would envision today)

[The Chaplain] frequently has additional duties with reference to motion pictures and entertainments and often helps in promoting smokers, parties, and various forms of
athletics.

(Smokers set up by the Chaplain? Cigarettes, booze and dirty movies? Well, one out of three, perhaps …)

. . . the only object of the Navy is to win battles.

(I’ve read that military doctrines are more sophisticated today; recall, most battles in Vietnam were won, but the war was horribly lost)

Wooden ships manned by men of iron will defeat iron ships manned by wooden men.

(That’s an old saw, but it still makes a good point — a point that perhaps applied in Vietnam; not that our guys were inferior, but the other side just wanted it too much).

Many men leave the service by desertion or by bad-conduct discharge and then, after they get outside, they realize that the Navy is a fine place.

(Perhaps this is a bit of advertising exaggeration; you can imagine this being spoken in a burly voice that puts emphasis on the word “fine”).

Do not try to learn by hard knocks and experience alone. That is slow and inefficient. The study of a good textbook for a few hours will probably teach you more electricity than Franklin learned in his whole life.

(Kids today probably know plenty about electricity, but as to Franklin … who’s this Franklin dude?)

Winning or losing, the main thing is to show yourself good and clean sportsmen — modest winners if the breaks are with you and good losers if the breaks are against you.

(Good sports philosophy – it’s all in the breaks, so be a good sport – wonder if the Navy accepts that as a philosophy of military and political outcomes?)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:13 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, June 4, 2004
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There was an article in the December, 2002 Atlantic Magazine about imagination. A lot of research is going on about how the human mind works, and how the chemistry, structure and dynamics of the human brain supports it. Imagination is turning out to be a very important thing in determining people’s actions. Imagination is not just for kids. It’s basically the process by which all personal decisions are made. Whenever we face the future, be it what channel we watch on the tube, or what we do tonight for dinner, or whether we have another child, or whether we apply for a particular job, our imagination sets up a picture of the future, to allow us to evaluate the consequences. Sure, for the important decisions, we do some pondering and analysis. We evaluate the facts, look at the pros and cons, maybe even write up a list of things to consider. But in the end, most decisions aren’t made according to a mathematical outcome from some abstract formula. We make our decisions based upon a picture in our heads. At bottom we ask the following: do we like this picture better than the other possible picture (e.g., we might take a job, even if it’s boring, because it’s better than sitting home on unemployment).

The article points out that in evaluating our “imagination pictures” when making a big choice, sometimes our imagination runs a bit faster than reality. One good example is in the spending of disposible income. Say we have enough cash for basic food and shelter, and then have some extra money. We see an advertisement for something, say a new coat, a new computer, a trip to Europe, whatever. The imagination now has two pictures to compare: in one picture, we sit there as we are, with the money in our wallets or in our bank account, waiting for some future opportunity to purchase something. In the other picture, we have the thing in question, and it’s great. For some reason, our imagination seems to favor doing something versus doing nothing. So, we go ahead and buy the thing, and guess what? Even if it is of reasonable quality and does what it’s supposed to do, we feel a bit disappointed. The glow wares off rather quickly. I’m a sucker myself for books (as an eternal student should be!). I walk thru a bookstore and see something interesting, and immediately I imagine what a great read this book is going to be, what a warm glow I’m going to feel by having it. Then I buy it, take it home, peck through the first chapter, find out that it isn’t all that inspiring after all, and throw it into the growing pile of books waiting for me to get to one day.

The article concludes with an interesting point, which is this: perhaps it is best that our imagination is biased toward action, even if that causes problems with our $budget$ sometimes. If our imaginations presented things as they will most likely turn out, then we would become much lazier creatures, and a lot of personal and social progress would never have happened. Imagination turns us into a world of proactive doers, versus solely reactive survivors. But let’s never forget that imagination, like everything, has its dark side. For example, various terrorist groups looking for suicide volunteers seem to have had success in inspiring potential candidates to imagine the spiritual paradise that awaits them in exchange for their lives (also to imagine the good that will accrue to their own tribe, while disregarding the pain that will be felt by the other tribe). Like yin and yang, perhaps both imagination and cynicism are needed.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:44 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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