The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Sunday, January 30, 2005
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WAITIN’ FOR THE END OF THE WORLD: Remember that tune from Elvis Costello? Remember Elvis Costello? OK, so I’m showing my age.

Nonetheless, I thought of that song the other day after listening to some CD lectures about Jesus. The Historical Jesus, that is. If you’ve been reading my web log, you know that I’m a sucker for those “Great Courses” from the Teaching Company. (No, this is not a paid ad!! Being an eternal student, I just happen to like them!) Since I have a deep interest in the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, the course about The Historical Jesus was a must for me. It’s by Prof. Bart Ehrman, a scholar who is trying to give John Crossnan a run for the money in terms of public popularity.

I haven’t seen Ehrman on TV yet (although I have seen Prof. Crossnan interviewed on various documentaries about Jesus and First Century Palestine, e.g. From Jesus to Christ; then there’s Prof. Paula Fredriksen, who I think gets on these shows mostly because she’s a babe). However, it probably won’t be long before Ehrman faces the camera, as he has a number of books that you can now find at the local Barnes & Noble. His magnus opus would be Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium, published in 1999.

Well anyway, Ehrman’s big idea is this: the main, primary, numero uno thing about Jesus is that he was an apocalypticist. Jesus definitely believed that the world as he knew it was coming to an end. He really thought that the day of reckoning was imminent. He wasn’t making any plans for retirement. He was totally serious in what he said in the Bible about God coming into the world and establishing His Kingdom on Earth, gathering forth the elect to live in a real living Paradise while casting the evil ones into some kind of fiery realm. Jesus was totally convinced that his disciples and followers were going to live to see it. He wasn’t just saying that to get attention, or referring to some cosmic after-life event or something that might happen thousands of years in the future, or what you might experience during meditation. Jesus actually figured that the mighty, haughty Romans and the corrupt Jews who ran the Temple Establishment of his day had finally gotten God’s dander up beyond the boiling point, and it was up to him to sound the alarm.

I’ve read quite a number of books about the various viewpoints that different scholars have about Jesus. Some say he was a liberation theologist, some say he was a proto-feminist, some paint him as an anti-establishment hippie, others say he was a Buddha-like spiritual wise man. I myself pictured Jesus as a religious reformer who wanted to universalize Judaism and turn the struggle for the Promised Land into a quest for inner peace. As Ehrman says, we all would like to believe that Jesus was thinking of us and our modern world. But no, sez Ehrman, actually he wasn’t. He was doing something that we’d now throw you in an institution for . . . . i.e., going around telling people to repent, for the Day of Judgement is near!

I hate to say it, but Ehrman makes an awfully good case about that. His theory seems to snugly fit around the factual and conceptual structure that surrounds what is known about Jesus and the world he lived in. Ehrman seems to explain a lot more things than most of the other pop scholars do. He puts a trunk load of things into perspective and gives you a whole rash of “ah-ha!” moments.

Well, I’m not finished with the lectures yet, but I’m already thinking that I may have to change my web site article about Jesus. I may have to see Jesus in a somewhat different light. Not that the apocalypse stuff makes Jesus totally irrelevant to us. But it does limit just how seriously we should take some of his words (and also justifies the fact that we never really took his words all that seriously anyway). I mean, if God is not gonna be taking charge of things next week, then maybe you can’t just give all you own to the poor. If Jesus and his followers really did believe that the time had come, then doing radical stuff like that wasn’t so crazy or difficult for them. But if the world is gonna just keep schleping on pretty much the same as it always has, then maybe we shouldn’t feel so guilty about not living up to Jesus’ lofty ideals. Those ideals have made a lot of people feel guilt over the past 20 centuries, including myself. But if Jesus really thought that it was only a matter of months until Utopia arrived, then maybe we’ve been too hard on ourselves.

The thing that gets me is, how did so many people in ancient Palestine come to literally accept and believe in what Jesus was saying about the upcoming Parousia? We know that it wasn’t just Jesus and his followers. The idea of apocalypse was in the air throughout Jesus’ ministry, and had been for some time. There were other prophets of the apocalypse in the region, both before and after Jesus – John the Baptist was one, but then there was also Theudius, and the Egyptian, and probably lots of others who were never mentioned on a written scroll that survived to the modern era. And then of course, there was the Essene community at Qumran. They were expecting an apocalypse big time; but unlike John and Jesus they just huddled together in the desert and didn’t go around preaching about it. How did such an idea, which today we’d call “wishful thinking”, come to be accepted as fact by so many people?

Well OK, it was a pre-scientific era, when myth and magic were the main events. Life was very different then. And so, I guess, were the minds of people. Does this mean that Jesus is totally irrelevant to modern times as a moral and spiritual guide? No, of course not. Even if Jesus had died for a mistaken cause, the fact remains that he died out of love for his people. He gave up what may have been a relatively comfortable life as a village craftsman for an uncertain and ultimately fatal mission to save people from doom once the Son of Man appeared in the clouds. He did what he did out of love and passion. I don’t think that even the most skeptical of academians and rationalists (like myself) can ever take that away from Jesus.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:47 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, January 27, 2005
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CRAWLIN’ FROM THE WRECKAGE: I usually don’t share the daily events of my life on this blog, because they ain’t all that interesting. I prefer to tell you about the book or the article that I’m reading, rather than describe how I’m sitting in my living room doing some reading. But once in a great while, something happens in my life that merits mention.

Last Sunday afternoon, something like that happened. I’d like to tell you that I fell in love with the woman of my dreams or that I found the path to world peace. But I’m afraid that just wasn’t in the cards last Sunday. Nope, instead it was a 20 year old woman behind the wheel of a Mitsubishi sports car and a patch of snow and ice that caused her to crash into my car. Yea, I’ve finally been in a serious car accident. My car was totaled.

And me? Well, I walked away from it. (Little Ms. G also walked away from her skidding Mitsubishi, although she complained of some dizziness.) But now I’m faced with an assortment of big hassles, like buying another car and trying to keep the insurance company from pinning part of the blame on me (thus increasing my rates). And it’s definitely a financial setback; a 6 year old car like mine isn’t worth much in an insurance settlement. Had it lived, it might have worked for another 6 years. (Oh sure, theoretically I could use the settlement and buy an equivalent 6 year old car; but in the real world, there are no equivalents. You buy an old car and you don’t know what you’re getting, other than someone else’s problems. At least with your own junker, you know what to expect.)

But mostly I’m just plain sad about losing the car. I’m one of those guys who gets emotionally involved with his car. To see it just taken away in a split second like that is rather traumatic.

How was it, you ask, i.e. the moment of impact? Well, actually it wasn’t all that bad. It wasn’t any worse than being yelled at by your boss. At first I really didn’t think that all that much damage had been done. But the next day, when I went to clean the car out at the towing place, I saw what really happened. Glass was broken, metal was twisted, wires and switch boxes were hanging out of the hood, and the front end was just totally mashed in. I could hardly believe it. And then I had a thought . . . . it looked as though my car had died so that I could live. It absorbed the energy of the impact so that I could walk away with nothing much more than a bruised knee. And that made me feel even sadder.

Another Sunday memory: after the cop came and made out his report, little Ms. G got out her cell phone and called up her parents, who came to get her in their SUV. The best I could do was to convince the cop to give me a ride to the town border (although in the end, he took me to within a few blocks of my apartment). Yea, being in your 50’s means no more mommy and daddy to call when you screw up. You’re on your own buddy, out in the cold (and it was quite cold that day, in the mid-20s).

Oh well. At least I was a gentleman. I didn’t yell at little Ms. G or threaten to sue her. And just for the record, she did apologize (not that that’s gonna get me anything more from the insurance company). So, I can be proud of maintaining and encouraging civility in the midst of very uncivilized circumstances. Hopefully, Ms. G will learn how to control a skid and grow up to be a good wife and mother, and will someday teach her kids the value of civilized behavior. Well, I can dream, can’t I???

But too bad about the car (a Chevy Prizm). It had some quirks, but it was generally a good car. I’ll miss it. I would hum a few bars from Neil Young’s “Long May You Run” in tribute, but that baby’s running days are over. All I can say now is “rust in peace”.

1998 – 2005
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Saturday, January 22, 2005
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BLOG FOR ADAM: I used to work with a young guy named Adam. Adam was a construction guy thru and thru. He did his time out in the cold swinging hammers and saws and paint buckets and all that stuff, and was mostly a foreman by the time I met him. Adam was a leader of men — construction men, real men. I was the grant writer for a non-profit group that had a lot of low-income housing, and Adam kept the properties from falling apart. Even though I wasn’t quite as much of a “real man” as Adam and his cronies, we still got along pretty well.

Adam was quite outgoing and had a lot of interesting things to say about the construction trades and the world in general. One interesting Adamism was that you could never trust a contractor whose name started with “Garden State”; e.g., Garden State Excavation, Garden State Tile and Marble, Garden State Heating and Cooling, Garden State Whatever. I’m not sure what his logic was there, but the day went faster when Adam was around, sharing his pearls of construction wisdom.

I’ve made Adam sound like the stereotypical lug. But in fact, Adam came from a rich family and had a college degree. He could be tasteful and classy when he wanted to be. And he was high tech; he taught me how to use the web, how to use search engines, how to use FTP, etc. Adam was both a stereotype and a stereotype breaker. But aren’t we all these days.

And then there was this guy Rudy, another construction guy I remember from the non-profit. Rudy was an older guy, but he also broke the mold a bit (and sometimes, he and Adam almost broke each other’s heads). But that’s another story for another day.

ONE LAST THING: If you like old TV show theme songs, here’s a page where you can download some free (albeit low quality) mp3’s from classic shows. I don’t guarantee that it’s legal; you’re on your own in that regard. But the selection is quite good. I especially liked the theme from the Green Hornet, a jazzy trumpet version of “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Al Hirt. I don’t recall what an episode of the Green Hornet was like (I was drawn more to the Man From Uncle), but I clearly remember that dynamic song at the start of the show. I didn’t see the Kill Bill movies (too dark for me), but I read somewhere that they used “Flight of the Green Hornet” for one scene. Yea, nice to know that a cool song from 1967 can still be considered cool today. (I mean, back in 1967, which I remember only too well, a song from 1930 could definitely NOT be considered cool — or was it just that the recording equipment was so crappy back then?).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:53 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, January 19, 2005
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KOJAK: GREEK MYTHOLOGY. Back in the mid-1970s, I was a big fan of Kojak, a cop show on CBS. Not that I was a big cop show fan, nor was I a big Telly Savalas fan. But there was something about the character that Mr. Savalas portrayed, i.e. Theo Kojak. If you don’t recall the show, or wasn’t even born at the time, Kojak was a fictional New York Police lieutenant assigned to the Manhattan South district. Kojak was far from a “Dirty Harry” kind of cop, but he wasn’t exactly by-the-book either. His former partner, Frank McNeil, knew how to play Department politics, and thus became Captain of Investigations and Kojak’s boss. Obviously, Kojak wasn’t into political correctness. He was on a mission to get the bad guys and help the good people, even when the Department got in the way.

That was the true charm of Kojak. The NYPD was not portrayed as totally evil, but you were made aware of the political maneuvering and the occasional corruption of its members. I’ve read that a lot of real cops thought Kojak was one of the most realistic cop shows ever. Sometimes, Lieutenant Kojak’s biggest foil was the internal friction of working with his supervisors and co-workers. And yet, he never gave in to it. He approached each murder or robbery with the same “do or die” attitude. It wasn’t just his job. It was his life. Theo Kojak was portrayed as a middle-aged bachelor, assumedly without kids. Although he dated women (so as to keep the gay faction from claiming him) and knew how to have a good time, there really wasn’t anything else in his life but the Force. And there he made his stand. Everything else probably went wrong for him, but this he would do right. He would go after the bad guys, not just enough to make it to retirement, but enough to make a difference in the world.

It must have been a tough role for Telly Savalas, portraying a noble loser who never gave in. And yet, he did it beautifully. Sure, his gruff coolness, his lollipops and his “who loves ya baby” attitude masked the usual pallor that losers carry. And on most nights, Kojak got his man, although not without some ironies. But ultimately, Kojak was a Greek myth, the Sisyphus who kept rolling the rock up the mountain even if it would come right down again. On one episode, I remember him lecturing a cop gone bad, “yea, it’s a tough job, but ya gotta keep trying”. Ah, the noble irony, the fire that can’t be extinguished, the last man at his post on the night the world ended.

These days, I work for an urban law enforcement agency, though not in a very exciting role. I’m not at all like Kojak. But still, I face many of the same depressing realities that were admitted to in that show. And yes, it does get to me some days. Perhaps I need to do what the ancient Greeks did. Perhaps I need to turn to a myth. The Kojak myth.

(It’s just too darn bad that you can’t find old episodes being played anywhere, not even here in the NY area where the myth was born. And no, NYPD Blue is not a good substitute. Dennis Franz as Andy Sipowitz could never recreate the spirit of Lieutenant Theo Kojak. Just not Greek enough.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:56 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, January 16, 2005
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THE BAD BOYS OF COMPLEXITY AND EMERGENCE: I’ve taken some interest in the scientific discussion regarding complexity and emergence over the past few years. It’s interesting, because it might be one of those “paradigm shifts” that philosopher Thomas Kuhn speaks of. It could be one of those revolutions of thought, like what Newton did to classical thinking in the 16th Century, and what Einstein did to Newtonian physics in the early 20th Century. If you’re not familiar with complexity and emergence, there are plenty of books about it written at the layman’s level (the only level that I can understand it). If you don’t want to shell out for the books, you can still find various web sites that give you a “Complexity 101” summary (hmmm, Complexity 101, sort of an oxymoron). Just do a search on . . . complexity and emergence.

In a nutshell, the “complexity and emergence” movement started out with computer simulations of reality. These computer runs showed that a relatively simple set of calculation rules carried out by large number of interacting agents (a.k.a. “cellular autonoma”) can produce very complex results that sometimes look amazingly like real life. For example, with some fairly simple programming, most any high school geek can easily simulate a flight of geese or the growth of a tree or a traffic jam right there on the screen.

This gave scientists new insights about how to do things; instead of designing machines and systems that take their commands from a centralized brain that is supposed to have all the answers (and goes tilt when it actually doesn’t), we can instead design things that are broken up into simple and decentralized components. If designed right, those components will inter-act in a way that unintentionally gets the job done. Imagine trying to run a symphony orchestra without a conductor. If every musician had only a simple piece to play and only had to coordinate with the three or four musicians nearest to him or her, well . . . OK, maybe this wouldn’t work for an orchestra. But as to mining minerals under the sea, or cleaning up a major oil spill, it could well be the better mousetrap. (If you saw the robot guy in the movie Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, you know what I mean).

Most of the scientists and mathematicians in the complexity field have been fairly modest and reasonable about just what their “thought revolution” can or can’t do. Complexity may well give us some profound insights as to how life emerged in the universe, but it can’t explain where the Big Bang came from, nor can it untie the knots that quantum theory and gravitational physics get themselves into. Or can it? There are a couple of guys who are making noises in that direction. Their names are Edward Fredkin and Stephen Wolfram. They both seem to think that complexity and digital analysis is the best way to look at life, the universe and everything. They want to throw out empirical science as we know it, and understand everything thru “object-oriented” computer simulations.

Well, obviously the mainstream scientists don’t think this is such a good idea. And to be honest, I don’t think we’re ready for it either. It’s awfully interesting to come up with computer programs that do things on the screen which look like real life. But it’s a whole ‘nuther thing to conclude that real life operates the way that you’ve programmed your computer. Can we really feel comfortable deciding what to do about AIDS or cancer or war based on a computer simulation that appears to mimic these things? What if there are several possible ways to simulate a complex real-life phenomenon on a computer; how would we know that we’ve got the right one, and that it accurately predicts how that phenomenon will respond to changes?

Nonetheless, Fredkin and Wolfram can’t be swept away and forgotten. They’re awfully smart cookies, and they got rich using their smarts. You’ve got to respect that. Maybe in a hundred years or two, this is the way that the world is going to think. For now, I’ll stick with the continuous and fuzzy view of reality that I was born with (which gets fuzzier and fuzzier every year as my eyes get worse). But I’ll be keeping a myopic eye on the complexity thing, and I’ll also keep the names Fredkin and Wolfram in the back of my mind. I’d recommend you doing the same.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:28 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, January 14, 2005
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Just a picture of a tree in late autumn, for your contemplation.

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Saturday, January 8, 2005
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The tsunami disaster in Southern Asia makes it quite difficult to believe in God. Well, at least in the kind of God that we liberals would like God to be. I use the word “liberal” in the sense that philosopher Richard Rorty uses it, i.e. someone concerned about cruelty, humiliation and human suffering. And let’s face it, that wave inflicted a whole lot of cruelty, humiliation and human suffering . . . ironically, on the day after a major religious celebration. Sure, I wouldn’t expect an all-knowing God to give us life without challenges, but to just crush and destroy so many lives, to just toss them about like pieces of trash . . . . what kind of God can that be?

To the degree that there can be a God of liberality, such liberalism would best be seen in the humane response that people would have to such tragedy. So, you might ask me, just what the heck am I doing about what happened over there? How can I bitch about God if I’m not helping?

Up to now, I haven’t done a darn thing. My financial situation has a lot of uncertainties these days, so I don’t like to throw my money around if I don’t have to (especially right after the holiday gift rituals). But in thinking about this blog, I realized that I had no right to complain about the lack of a liberal God in the world unless I acted (at least to some small degree) as though there were such a God. So I got out the checkbook last night and scribbled a few buckeroos out to one of the front-line agencies. It’s just a tiny drop in the bucket; but thankfully, there have been a whole lot of other drops in response to this.

I don’t know . . . maybe God is a work in process. The universe is way too grand and beautiful for me to believe that there ain’t something behind it. But when things go as badly as they did in Asia last week, I can’t help but think that God ain’t as Godly as God should be. Perhaps that’s why there are such things as time and process in our universe. Perhaps in some crazy metaphysical way, our positive response to one of God’s imperfections helps to perfect an otherwise imperfect God. Yea, that certainly ain’t orthodox theology. But in the face of a huge disaster like this, it works just about as well.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:05 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, January 5, 2005
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DISINSPIRING: Those air-bag Santas and snowmen out on the lawns of America are nice, but eventually they lose their inflation and start sagging and drooping. Then they look so sad. It’s even worse when they deflate completely. It then looks like a melted snowman (recall the melancholy ending to “Frosty The Snowman”); or even worse, as though someone mugged Santa and left his clothes out by the bushes.

INSPIRING: I saw a short article in a religious magazine about the wonder of the Hubble Deep Field image. Yes, that picture is indeed a wonderful thing. It was taken by the Hubble orbiting observatory back around 1996 and was able to detect over a thousand galaxies, each of which contains billions of stars – – even though the picture only represents a tiny sliver of the sky. Because light takes so long to reach us from the far corners of the universe, some of the galaxies seen on the picture were very young, only around a billion years after the Big Bang (we’re now about 14 billion years from the Bang). Yea, some huge numbers at work here. It’s amazing and quite inspiring what humankind has been able to figure out about the universe . . . even though the astrophysicists say that almost everything they learn points to a new mystery (e.g., the accelerating expansion rate of the universe). Just when they think they understand it pretty well, it turns out to be even more complicated than they first thought. Nonetheless, humankind’s efforts to understand the universe, and indeed the universe itself, are some of the most inspiring things out there these days.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:01 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, January 1, 2005
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It’s time to start a new year; but a “new year” is really an old figment of the imagination. The year 2005, like any other year, is something that exists only in the mind. It’s mainly an accounting convention. Today is hardly any different from yesterday. Despite the new year, it’s just another day.

However, one thing did set today apart for me. The weather here in the northeast was awfully nice. By mid-afternoon, the sun was shining and the temps were pushing 60. People were outside wandering about, as if it were mid-May. A sense of life was in the air.

But death has also been in the air for me lately. Of course, I’ve seen the reports about the terrible tragedy in south Asia where that killer wave hit unexpectedly. Over 100,000 dead, homes and villages washed away. Nature shows once again just how powerful and fickle it can be, despite humankind’s impression that we’ve tamed it, that it’s our kind and gentle friend.

Closer to home, my last living aunt passed away two days ago, at the age of 84. She died more-or-less peacefully after a life that was well lived. Her death, while sad, was not a tragedy at all. Still, for me it was another reminder of the inevitability of life’s decay and ending, the apparent victory of the darkness.

So we’re in a new year, but with the same old struggles between life and death. We face the same fears that death is the ultimate principal of our universe, and we entertain the same hopes that perhaps it is not. It’s as though we are perched on the edge of a fence. But actually, you can’t live your life on the fence. You either give in to one side or the other. “Faith”, in its truest sense, is the act of falling off the fence and onto the side of life. That sounds easy, but it means going the distance to act morally and kindly to everyone and everything that you encounter. Too often, I drift back into the backyard of death. Perhaps the idea of “new” in New Year can have some meaning after all, if it reminds us that it’s never too late to keep struggling to find our way back to the side of life and hope. Where we belong.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:54 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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