The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Thursday, July 29, 2004
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THE BANALITY OF EVIL: I’ve heard that phrase used by various world-weary authors, although I’ve never completely understood it. Evil as banal and boring? Don’t most of the more interesting things and people in this world have at least a touch of evil in them?



Yea, they probably do. But true evil does tend to get a bit repetitious, in fact. I noticed that yesterday while I was working on a routine press release regarding homicide case indictments (I work at a local district attorney’s office). I’ve been doing indictment press releases for about two years now, and the homicide incidents are starting to blur together. It’s gotten to the point where I use a template and simply change the defendant’s name and the date of the killing. Most of the cases happen in three cities in the county. Mostly the weapon is a handgun. Sometimes robbery is involved, sometimes a conspiracy charge is thrown in, occasionally there’s jury tampering or eluding arrest. But a whole lot of murder indictments are simple “1-2-3” affairs. I.e., first degree murder, second degree possession of a handgun for an illegal purpose, and third degree illegal possession of a weapon. Yawn.



Today I had three 1-2-3’s in a row, all in the same city, all by young men between 18 and 20. Three wasted lives . . . three other lives violently terminated. Sad to say, but in the end, evil is rather boring. And this IS true evil, although I’m loathe to condemn the defendants as evil people. I’d like to look at them the way that Jesus did, believing that all people are inherently good, but are subject to invasion by evil spirits. Perhaps the (alleged) urban murderers that I write of ultimately suffer from social evil, not personal evil. But even if that were true, I’ll be darned if I know how to exorcise such a spirit.



For now, the best we can do is to give the accused their due process. Once found guilty, we must get them away from those who aren’t so badly infected by evil. And that means jail. But as to capital punishment … no, I can’t go that far. I know that people act in evil ways, and I believe that some people are filled with evil (and that none of us are entirely free of evil). But I can’t believe that anyone is inherently evil. By killing those who kill, the government contracts the same infection that the murders possess. At some point, in order to remain civilized, we must be able to subsume the ugly without becoming ugly ourselves.

You may have noticed that despite my objection to capital punishment, I work for an organization that helps to carry it out (I work in a state where capital punishment can be imposed). If your standards are so high as to find my situation hypocritical, then more power to you; high standards and principles are a good thing, an un-boring thing (as opposed to the banality of evil!). But as to me, well … I help to maintain a necessary but imperfect social function, and I occasionally use my first amendment rights after work to lobby against the imperfect aspects of that system (such as capital punishment).

Hey, at the moment, it’s the best I can do. But yea, admittedly, there is a touch of evil in my equivocal stance. You can tell, because it’s rather boring. You shall know them by their banality.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:59 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, July 25, 2004
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WELL … a deep subject. I often use the word “well” in speech and in informal writings such as this blog. Perhaps I overuse it, but it does come in handy when you need to shift your line of thought and a better segue isn’t apparent. Anyway (another breaking device), thinking about my “wells” inspired me to show a picture of a real well. This one is owned by a local water company, and pulls drinking water up from the deep. Which is just what a well is supposed to do. It’s just another bit of infrastructure that most people take for granted, so long as it’s doing its job right.

Hey, perhaps you too feel taken for granted. If so, don’t feel so bad. You never realize the good that you do by just doing the basics (e.g., doing your job right, not cheating others, driving considerately, helping others whenever you can, voting, being good to your family). Just like this well. Well, well.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:55 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, July 23, 2004
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MID SUMMER LULL: I’ve been at a loss for inspiration lately with regard to this blog. Some days, my mind just bubbles over with fascinating ideas (well, they seem fascinating at first); at other times, nothin’s cookin. Maybe it’s just a mid-summer lull.

Mid-summer does bring something to mind, however . . . thunderstorms. Ah yes, Mother Nature’s fireworks show, with its dark, dramatic build-up, its thundering crescendo, and its fade-out on the far horizon. As Matthew 24 says, “the coming of the Son of Man will be like lightning striking in the east and flashing far into the west”. Or as AC/DC sings (in Hell’s Bells), “the white light flashing gonna split the night”. And then there’s Eddie Rabbit: “I love to hear the thunder, watch the lightening as it lights up the sky, you know it makes me high”. (That lyric was later changed, substituting “feel good” for “high“, so as to avoid corrupting America’s youth … like they’re listening to his music.)

I really enjoy a good thunderstorm, so long as I’m watching it from inside a building or a car (preferably a parked car, where one can sit back and enjoy the drumming of the rain on the roof). Up here in New Jersey, we don’t get too many really good thunderstorms; this summer we’ve gotten even fewer than usual. Down south the storms are stronger; ditto for the plains states where cold fronts down from Canada crash into stifling humid air masses, causing all kinds of commotion (including hail and tornadoes). Once in a while I go on the government weather site (www.weather.gov) in the evening and look at the radar for Kansas or Nebraska or such. I watch those red and purple storm blobs bearing down on places like Marysville and Boone Valley, and I imagine end-of-the-world scenes of black clouds, bolts flashing across the sky, driving winds, and rains pelting the cornfields and the prairies and those lonely two-lane blacktops. (Yea, I know, one day I’ve gotta get a life).

The thing about thunderstorms is that they have a real element of danger to them. Often this makes you feel more alive while riding one out. Today I read about a fellow in Maine who just got hit by lightening and lived (which is relatively common; most people hit by lightening don’t die, but they often experience chronic health symptoms afterward). He was doing some work outside on his house but stopped while a thunderstorm passed through. He thought the storm was over and went back on a ladder or something, and ZAP, a leftover bolt hit him. They took him to the hospital but didn’t find much wrong with him, despite his having a heart condition. Now he claims to feel revitalized, with more energy then he’s had in many years. (Being from Maine, he didn’t put a metaphysical or spiritual spin on his experience; he just says that he feels better).

Maybe that’s why I feel a little bit blah right now. There hasn’t been much thunder and lightening around here lately. Perhaps thunderstorms are nature’s anti-depressant (which would explain why they are more common in the plains and in the south – that’s where they’re needed!). Like any drug, thunderstorms are dangerous. But if you use them properly, they might make you feel better.

I’m looking out the bedroom window, but there’s nothing but darkness out there on the horizon; all is still. Dang!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:42 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, July 18, 2004
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Well, it’s picture time. But first, a call to political action, albeit some really lame political action.

As you know, really nasty stuff is going on right now over in Sudan. Genocide, pure and simple. So far, the USA ain’t doing too much about it. I haven’t heard the President make any speeches about butchery in Sudan, as he did in regard to Iraq. If that unsettles you, there’s probably a lot you can do to get involved. But if you’re like me, too burnt out and tired to get involved, then at least you can send out a couple of e-mails to your federal officials. I did that, for what little good it might do.

Actually, it’s quite easy. For your Senators, find their sites at www.senate.gov As to your Congressman, find him or her at www.house.gov And as to the Big W, he’s at president@whitehouse.gov If you’re really at a loss for words, here’s what I wrote:

Dear [Congressman XXXX] [Senator XXXX] [President Bush],

I’d like to inform you [and my other Congressional representatives] of my attention and concern regarding genocide in Sudan. I support American action to rally world opinion, enforce international treaties and conventions regarding genocide, provide aid to Chad to assist the refugees, and to provide military support to an international intervention effort to end the activities of the Janjaweed militia. I hope that our nation will not turn its back as it did 10 years ago with regard to genocide in Rwanda.

Thank you.

OK, as to the picture . . . it was taken from the parking lot of the former Prentice-Hall Info Services office in Paramus, where I worked many years ago. All you see are some bare trees. Bare trees usually don’t make much of a picture. But with the early morning sun and the late autumn fog, it seemed interesting enough. Also, I was in love at the time. And as you probably know, when you’re in love you like to do creative things like take pictures of trees in the fog at dawn.

Did things work out, you ask? Well, we eventually got married, but a few years later we went our own ways and got divorced. Guess she became bored with a guy who won’t do anything more than write an e-mail to stop genocide. (Actually, we didn’t have e-mail back then!) Such is life, and death. But hey, at least I’ve still got the picture.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:18 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, July 16, 2004
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There appears to be a micro-trend emerging in the book world regarding pessimism about humanity’s future. Sure, there have always been doomsday predictions by cranks and charlatans looking for some attention and a fast buck. But within the past two years, three respected authors have published titles that question whether civilization can overcome the negative trends that appear to threaten continued progress. Each of them basically brings it down to a coin-toss; 50-50 odds against some kind of collapse during the 21st Century that will return us to the Dark Ages, if not to outright extinction.

You can probably guess what worries these folk. The usual suspects: pollution, overpopulation, unfair distribution of wealth and power, the collapse of the family, terrorism, climate change, an “I don’t care” attitude on the part of the well-off, species extinction, etc. But there are also some exotic fears too, including the gray-goo scenario from nanotechnology and the runaway negative-strangelet scenario from heavy-ion research. Interestingly, this renewed doomsday pondering is happening despite the end of the Cold War and the unlikeliness of an all-out nuclear war between the United States and Russia. I still remember a pop hit song from the 60s inspired by that fear, i.e. “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire (who turned out to be a one-hit wonder; not much to sing about after you’ve blow up the world). And then of course there were the nuclear movies, including Doctor Strangelove and Fail Safe.

Well, the big nuclear war never came (although some say that we are now in more danger of seeing a city nuked, due to terrorism and proliferation to smaller countries such as Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, maybe Iran too). But hey, you can only get away with de-bunking the pessimists for so long. Sooner or later, one of their concerns is going to come true (though perhaps not exactly as they might have anticipated). So, if you’re in a pessimistic mood and want to catch up on some of today’s bigger problems, here are three respected authors and their recent works:

1.) Sir Martin Rees (British Royal Astronomer), “Our Final Hour”

2.) Jane Jacobs (noted urbanologist and social observer), “Dark Age Ahead”

3.) Edward O. Wilson (Harvard biologist), “The Future of Life”.

Enjoy!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:06 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, July 11, 2004
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ... Food / Drink ...

COKE . . . REAL: I read an article the other day about the Coca-Cola corporation. It seems that there’s been a whole lot of infighting about who should be the emperor of the Cokean Empire since the death of CEO Roberto Goizueta in 1997. Two guys have come and gone since then, and a third guy was recently pulled out of retirement to get things back on track. Not that Coke is losing money, mind you. It’s just not growing as fast as in the mid 90s, and stock prices have come down a bit from the high point of $88 in 1998. (But hey – a whole lot of stock prices have come down since then; it’s pretty clear that the stock market was riding a bubble of speculation in the late 1990’s, and the bubble finally burst in 2000). Still, the big money people got spoiled by Coke’s rapid stock price increases in the mid-1990s, and thus they’re behaving badly under the present circumstances.

I won’t recap the story, you can check out the May 31, 2004 edition of Fortune if you’re interested. Still, it’s a pretty good read. It reminds me a lot of the Roman Empire and how they selected their emperors (thus my allusion to the “Cokean Empire” above). Which was through a lot of intrigue and backstabbing (literal backstabbing, as opposed to the metaphoric kind in the modern corporate world – most of the time, anyway!). I really think that Rome’s biggest flaw was its lack of a stable system for the selection of leadership. It seems to me that the Roman Empire put a whole lot of energy into fighting amidst themselves over who should run the place, and those internal battles gave a leg up to all of the barbaric groups waiting in the hinterlands to breech the borders and pillage the wealthy cities. Eventually they had their day, and the Dark Ages followed.

Well, the Coke situation certainly won’t trigger a new Dark Age (unless you’re totally hooked on the stuff, which I’m not; I gave up drinking Coke before I turned 25, as it’s just so sticky and sweet; ditto for Pepsi). Still, you’ve got to wonder about the social waste caused by all that political fighting in the corporate world. And in the governmental sector too. And the military is far from immune from it also. Ditto for the non-profit sector. But hey, I’m not Polyanna; I know that the social and economic alternatives (socialism and communism) turn out to be much worse. Nevertheless, I can’t help wonder what would happen if the human race turned it’s ego and greed settings down just a little, so that people could learn to cooperate a bit more. Yea, wouldn’t that be nice. Oops, wrong planet!

WMMT 88.7 . . . REALER: As you might guess, I’m also quite disaffected by modern day entertainment, especially radio. It’s just about totally profit-oriented, all wrapped around advertising and sales (except for public radio, but that’s not all that entertaining). The recording artists themselves sometimes lament the end of fun radio because of profit-maximizing investors; e.g., Radio by Elvis Costello, The Last DJ by Tom Petty, and Round The Dial by the Kinks. But I just found a radio station where the fun still reigns. It’s called WMMT, a listener-supported station way out in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

What kind of stuff do they play? All kinds of stuff! As you would expect for southern Kentucky, there’s a good bit of blue grass and country, including a dose of the religious stuff (like “There’s No Back Door To Heaven” and “If You Can’t Walk on Water, Get In The Boat”). But they also mix in rock oldies (lots of Elvis, of course), classic rock, new rock, ska, folk, jazz, and who knows what else. And don’t worry, there’s a weekly show for feminist and gay perspectives too. WMMT’s variety makes it a rarity in this age of strict radio playlists written by the Marketing Department. Since they’re not a commercial station, the DJ’s at WMMT don’t have to account for every micro-second of air time. Thus, they often leave dead space between songs and between their own comments. Once you get used to it,though, it’s rather quaint. But with those totally authentic mountain drawls, you’re not always sure what they’re saying when they do talk!

Still, I find WMMT extremely refreshing after the hyper-commercialized radio formats that we’re constantly fed here on the East Coast. The DJ’s out in Whitesburg seem to be having fun, taking their time, and sometimes even injecting a thought that comes to mind while a tune is playing. And the web site invites anyone passing through lovely Whitesburg to drop in for a friendly visit! Try that at your local Clear Channel affiliate.

If you want to check it out, their web site is www.appalshop.org/wmmt/. I suggest that you get the live broadcast stream via www.radio-locator.com. Don’t go thru www.live365.com (which handles the stream for WMMT), which has become another hard-sell advertising site, the kind I definitely avoid. Otherwise you have to register with live365 (and thus add to your daily spam quotient), and they want you to download their special media player (which might come with adware and data-collection software). In other words, back in corporation city.

WMMT . . . “The Voice of the Mountains”. A bracing wind blowing in from way out yonder, through the magic of the Internet.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:05 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, July 9, 2004
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There was an article by Tom Carson in the July/August Atlantic Monthly about teenagers and high school. Carson starts his article with the proposition that high school is the quintessential American experience, our truest common denominator. He then gives a few examples of how other writers have used high school as a reference point. One of those examples regards politics: “high school with power”. It was his follow-up observation, however, that captured my interest. Here it is: “and man, could Grover Norquist use a wedgie”.

Well, I’m not all that savvy on politics, so I had to look Mr. Norquist up. It turns out that he’s a top Republican political strategist, one of those smart guys behind the scenes. Tax issues and economics appear to be Mr. Norquist’s forte; he is credited as the genius behind Mr. Bush’s successful effort last year to cut taxes mostly for the rich (and thus swell our national deficit, all for the sake of our wealthiest 1%).

I found a picture of Mr. Norquist on his foundation’s web site. Here it is. Does this look like a guy who should have his britches violently upended on the way to history class?

Definitely.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:51 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, July 5, 2004
Current Affairs ... History ...

One does have to wonder sometimes whether the whole al Qaeda campaign against the West is in fact a holy war inspired by early Islamic tradition. War and conquest was a part of Mohammed’s life; war and conquest inspires a significant portion of the Koran; and war and conquest is integral to the early history of Islam. For a few centuries during the European Middle Ages, Islamic culture flourished. During those years, peace, tolerance and moderation were achievable by the followers of the Prophet; the need to proselytize with the tip of the sword seemed to have passed. However things haven’t gone so well for most of the Islamic nations in modern times. Despite all the oil money that the Persian Gulf states reel in, countries like Egypt and Pakistan and Indonesia and Somalia and Tunisia and Bangladesh remain quite poor. And even in Saudi Arabia and the other oil states, most people remain poor with little prospect of improvement.

Not that there aren’t a whole lot of other poor places in the world with little prospect for improvement, e.g. central Africa and much of South America. But there’s something about Islam and its culture that seems to inspire unrest and active resentment of poverty, especially when viewed in light of the growing wealth of the West. Thus, many of the Islamic nations now breed a dangerous strain of international terrorism, one that has already changed daily life here in America … and not for the better. Despite our emphasis on homeland security, it’s certainly possible that things are going to get worse.

[Please note, I’m not trying to condemn Islam, a religion which is to be admired for inspiring a fervent faith in God amidst its participants; and I realize that most modern followers of the Prophet have accepted the more civilized and tolerant traditions that have developed within Islam over the centuries.]

I recently heard a lecture about Giambattista Vico, an Italian thinker and writer from the early 18th Century. Vico thought a lot about history and government, and looked for cycles in the lives of nations and cultures. He claimed to have found a three-stage process of history. The first stage represents a culture’s days of energy and formation, fueled by strong beliefs in the mandate of a divine power. The second stage is the time of patriarchs, a time of strong centralized government, e.g. monarchies. The third stage responds to growing wealth, growing knowledge, and the revolt of the common man, whereby democratic republics are formed. Unfortunately, this stage degenerates into an overly comfortable and cynical “me generation”, leading eventually to disorder and breakdown from social decay or by attack from without … often both.

I hate to say it, but al Qaeda and its imitators appear to be riding the crest of Vico’s stage 1, whereby the United States and Europe show signs of stage 3 decay. I myself don’t like the ancient notions of an angry and extremely judgmental God that seem to fuel the terrorist mindset. Again, I don’t believe these notions are consistent with the moderate interpretations of Islam that hold in most places today. Nonetheless, you have to admit that this “angry God” mindset is very powerful – and dangerous. America and Europe possibly face the same dilemma that Byzantium faced some 800 years ago, an aging but still mighty civilization, pitted against a young spiritual movement from the cruel deserts and impoverished shores of the near east.

Well, history doesn’t repeat itself exactly; we aren’t quite in the same boat as the Eastern Roman Empire was around 1200 or so. We aren’t facing organized armies fielded by increasingly powerful Arab and Turkish nations. But history often mixes themes from the past, i.e. some from menu A and some from menu B. America may be a rich and aging empire facing a quasi-Islamic warrior spirit, as with the Byzantines, and yet our threat actually come from a multitude of loosely organized tribes, as with the Western Roman Empire. In other words, al Qaeda and its imitators appear to represent the worst of both worlds: a mix of the most potent factors behind the Western Empire’s fall and the Eastern Empire’s contraction. And then throw in the modern possibility of atomic, biological and chemical weapons . . .

Can we hold it together? What is the magic glue? The next lecture, which was on Montesquieu, provided a possible answer. For a democracy to survive in the face of danger, Montesquieu said there must be public virtue. And just what is that? Well, I’m not exactly sure … but I strongly suspect that our hyper-capitalist, fast-money-and-out economy, and our win-at-any-expense style of politics, aren’t very good examples of whatever public virtue really might be. And then there is our army of lawyers, showing corporations and rich people how to get away with as much as possible. (Of course, once in a while things go astray for a WorldCom or a Martha Stewart, but that’s just the unlucky 1% who get caught). Then throw in corporate media and the political spin doctors, with their slick sound bites and 30 second opinion-makers. And furthermore, I can tell you from experience that “me first-ism” has filtered its way down to the smallest and most seemingly worthy non-profit agencies.

This nation really needs a vigorous discussion of what virtue means to it, something much bigger and more open-minded than the conservative talk-radio rant you sometimes hear regarding “virtue”. And fast.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:28 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, July 1, 2004
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DREAM SEQUENCE: Freud and his followers say that dreams are loaded with hidden and not-so-hidden meanings. I really wonder just how true that is. I know that some people have vivid dreams with intricate plot lines ripe for psychoanalysis. As to me, I seldom have dreams with any discernable theme to them. Most days I wake up with no memory of dreaming at all. And even when I do, my dreams aren’t very memorable. They mostly seem like fleeting, mundane images; e.g., I may be walking in a park for a second or two, then outside a warehouse, then in a car. On those rare occasions when my somnolent impressions have any discernable significance, their meaning is usually quite obvious; e.g., my anxiety that my new landlord is going to disrupt my peace and quiet by rebuilding the house (and then raise my rent!). In other words, my sleeping mind doesn’t seem to put a lot of energy into devising clever and symbolic ways of expressing my deepest desires and taboos. It just tries to get some rest.

The other night, though, I had a weird dream, weird enough to remember. In this dream, I was outdoors on a city street (could have been anywhere, the landscape wasn’t very memorable), and it was night. I was looking up at the dark sky and I could see a strange, glowing patch, bigger than a full moon, partly blocked by some buildings. This glowing area was brighter than a cluster of stars but not as bright as the moon, and had a strange swirly shape to it. I remember walking around to see it better from behind the buildings. A stranger said that it was from two different things way out in space. Then a little later, someone else said no, it’s only one thing, a ghost cloud. This wasn’t your ordinary cloud; it was way out there. It seemed uncanny and vaguely threatening, but not immediately dangerous. No need to run, but no cause to relax either.

Well, the dream could have ended right there, but then came act II. Still late at night in a city, like some scene from a Batman movie. Still a strange glowing cloud up in the skyline. But now, this guy that I used to know and haven’t seen for five years shows up. Marty is his name. Nice enough fellow, I helped him to get his job as an administrator at a social service agency. Now, before you Freudians start postulating some repressed homoerotic attraction on my part, let me tell the rest of the story. Marty comes over and looks at the cloud with me. He doesn’t seem afraid of it at all. He seems to think that it has some wondrous, mystical meaning behind it. He tells me that we just don’t know what that cloud is. I ask him, is that mostly because we haven’t sent any spaceships out to explore it yet? Marty then says no, we can never know what that celestial cloud is. Heavy, man!

Then I woke up and looked at the clock. 12:45 AM. Yea, not surprising. If I’m gonna have a weird dream, it’s usually early in the night, right around 1. No big deal, I usually get back to sleep pretty easily when I have them. I just rolled over and told myself that there is no “ghost cloud” out there; NASA and NORAD have got the heavens covered. Then it’s 5:30, no more ghost cloud dreams (or any other dreams), and it’s time to get up. All is normal.

Next morning, I thought about it some more. What did I eat that might have triggered all that? And where did Marty come from? Well, I didn’t eat anything funny that night, but just before going to bed I listened to a CD lecture about 18th Century philosopher David Hume and how he debunked the attempts of 17th Century thinkers who postulated that we can come to know God through the beautiful design of our Universe. OK, my subconscious was probably having some indigestion over that, given that I’ve also put some stock in the “natural theology” approach. And Marty? Oh, yea, I recall him having a simple albeit intelligent faith in the ultimate goodness of his employer, his Catholic religion, and his overall place in the world. As opposed to my existential skepticism regarding all of those things. Yea, Marty would be the guy who would have faith in the ultimate goodness of the unknown and the unknowable.

What is the ultimate lesson here? Hmmm … I’m not sure. But from now on, I’m gonna avoid both pizza and those Teaching Company lectures just before bedtime!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:22 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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