The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Sunday, February 27, 2005
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SILENCE IS GOLDEN: As a former Roman Catholic, I took some interest in the news this week about Pope John Paul II’s tracheotomy and his failing health. Even though it won’t make much difference to me what happens to “The Church” given my basic disagreement with their teachings about Jesus, I’d still like to see the Catholics make some progress. And John Paul II has not been a man of progress, not in the sense by which I judge that word. So obviously, I’d like to see a new pope who might bring about the kind of progress that I’d sympathize with.

Over the past quarter century, I think that JP2 has broadened the scope of the Church in the world, but he’s done nothing to deepen it. I myself would like to see a Church in substantial agreement with the Enlightenment project of increasing human maturity and freedom via the facilities of rationality and understanding and communication. I.e., I’d like to see a Church that endorses the ideals of western modernity (at least in their purest forms). Pope John the 23rd started the Church in that direction back in the early 60s, and a whole lot of people got very excited about it at the time. But after the good Angelo Roncelli died (and a good man and pope he was), the momentum was lost. Under JP2’s reign, it all pretty much ground to a halt.

I do realize, however, that John Paul 2 has done a lot to broaden the Church’s relevance throughout the world. His brand of Catholicism has played well in a lot of “third world” nations, especially in Africa. That style of religion seems pretty immature to students of the great western thinkers (of which I’d like to think of myself as a member, or an aspirant anyway). But the great thinkers of the Enlightenment weren’t thinking about villages in Nigeria or Vietnam. In those kinds of places, the Church’s basic myths and tenants represent a big step forward in terms of establishing human dignity and meaningfulness of life. Despite the many flaws, I’d be the first to admit that John Paul’s form of regimented Catholicism is an improvement over crude animism, cynical Buddhism, and hard-ball Islam, both spiritually and socially. Fifth grade is still better than second grade, even if it ain’t PhD-level. (To be fair, I must say that the purer forms of Buddhism and the more spiritualized manifestations of Islam are quite deep and beautiful; but what those traditions actually practice out in the run-down farms and urban slums ain’t too pretty).

Nevertheless, I still hope that the pendulum in the Church will swing back toward “depth”, even if at the expense of breadth. So, even though I’m not rooting for the Pope to hurry up and die, I do agree with those who say that he should step aside.

BUT . . . . . and there’s always a BUT with me . . . . . . there may be something quite good resulting from JP2’s long dotage. The fact that the Church has put up with a sick old man for so long does make a statement about the dignity of humankind. What other big organization would tolerate such a display of human weakness and decline in its leader? Sure, the Church’s spokesmen try to spin it just as skillfully as anyone in the White House would, but in the end the cameras don’t lie. The world is getting to see just what the end years of life look like, unvarnished. And it ain’t pretty. But the old man is still the boss, and he’s still fighting for every new day.

Hmmm. Perhaps heaven can wait, and so can we progress-sympathizers. John Paul and his Church are finally doing something to impress me (especially since I’m getting up there in years myself, and am feeling the weakness of old-age coming on). Hey guys, I still think you’re getting it all wrong on the whole Jesus thing, but maybe there’s something deeper where we still share some common ground. Now that the Pope can no longer preach about how Jesus died for our sins and was raised up on the third day (given his tracheotomy), perhaps his mere presence will speak the most fundamental truth to the world. Sometimes silence conveys the truest of truths.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:26 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, February 24, 2005
Philosophy ... Society ...

I was reading a few lines from the Enneads the other day, which were written by the Roman philosopher Plotnius. What caught my attention was the way that this great Neoplatonist from the Third Century summarized how I myself relate to feminine beauty. Hey, I’ll admit it; I’m not gay. Just like any other hetero guy, my brain was wired to enjoy the things that advertise a woman’s fertility: i.e., the blush of youth, ample hip and breast structures, and a body mass that’s not too great nor too small.

But I also give a lot of weight to the other features of a woman, those that don’t necessarily relate to baby-making. I try to see the entire picture, top to bottom. From what I’ve seen and heard over the years, a lot of guys, perhaps most guys, don’t focus all that much on the overall image that a woman conveys. They seem stuck on the first three things that I mentioned. I myself like to contemplate the geometry of a woman’s hairdo, how the pendant around her neck outlines the shape of her face and the lines of her neck, her how the color of her shoes complements the rest of her outfit. According to the dirty minds of America, I must therefore have a hair, neck and shoe fetish. It seems that if a guy gives attention to anything other than a woman’s breast and crotch, he must be a freak.

And yet I also know that the beautiful image of a woman is but an illusion, much like a rainbow. As with rainbows, when you chase after the source, you just wind up in the fog. Despite the spells that females cast with their pretty hairstyles and perfume, behind it all is just another imperfect human being, just another mixture of goods and bads, strengths and needs, sublimity and stupidity.

I think that Plotnius summed up what I’m saying here quite well. Here’s what he had to say about bodies and the vision of beauty:

When he sees the beauty in bodies he must not run after them; we must know that they are [only] images, traces, shadows . . . . For if a man runs to the image and wants to seize it as if it was the reality (like a beautiful reflection on the water, of which a story is told of a man who went to catch it and sank down and disappeared), then this man who clings to beautiful bodies . . . will, like the man in the story, sink down into the dark depths . . .

BUT THEN AGAIN: I must admit that my index finger and my ring finger are almost exactly the same length. There’s been a lot of research lately about what the ratio between the length of the index finger (the one you point with) and the ring finger (the one between the pinky and the insult finger) might mean. It’s pretty clear that women generally have equal lengths, or their index finger is longer, while guys generally have longer ring fingers. Legitimate scientists are saying that finger length relationships reflect the mix of hormones that a person was exposed to in their mother’s womb. Testosterone and androgen might cause longer ring fingers, while estrogen might correspond with longer index fingers. So, maybe I’m a bit of a “girly man”, who looks at a woman in the manner that woman look at each other (up to a point, anyway). They say that women dress for each other as much as for men; so maybe that’s why I look at them from both the male (caveman) and female (aesthetic) viewpoints.

So you ask, am I really gay? Nah. I don’t find any beauty or excitement in tendons and square bones and locker rooms; never did, never will. Homosexuals are not necessarily guys with too much woman-stuff inside (or women with too much guy-stuff in them). A lesbian isn’t a woman who was inadvertently programmed with male sexuality software, and vice versa for gay men. Gay people seem to have a whole different kind of software when it comes to sex. The finger ratio studies bear out the fact that homosexuality is a complex phenomenon. Guys with woman-like ratios and women with man-like ratios are not more likely to be gay. (However, there are some weak trends that can be identified, e.g. that “butch lesbians” have more male-like finger ratios than feminine lesbians).

I must say, though, that some days I get very tired of the whole subject of sex. I think that for most people, sex is the only pathway to transcendent experience — and that’s unfortunate. That’s why our society is so incredibly (and childishly) fixated on sex. And also so frustrated with it. As with any rainbow illusion, the more you run after it and the harder you strive for it, the less satisfying it becomes. (And that’s why stuff like Viagra is ultimately like any other narcotic; at first the thrill is huge, but then it fades away, so then you take more, but the thrill keeps fading, so you try even stronger stuff like Cialis, on and on . . . . they call that “addiction”).

Plotnius and the other great mystics (Jesus included) seemed to know that there were other pathways to the transcendent. Think about Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell”, and how Juan walked away from the once-again young and beautiful Ana, whom he ravished while on Earth. While in a hell of eternal sensual pleasure, Juan had a vision, a conversion experience, a desire to contemplate the eternal while providing service to life. As Plotnius said,

When he comes down from his vision, he can awaken the virtue that is in him . . . such is the life of gods and of godlike and blessed men; a liberation from all earthly bonds, a life that takes no pleasure in earthy things, a flight of the alone to the Alone.

Well, unfortunately I’m not one of the great mystics. But at least I have enough inner peace not to worry about what the Governor of California (Arnold S.) would call me if he knew just how I appreciate beautiful woman, i.e. in a way that doesn’t involve immediate fantasies of getting them into bed.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:58 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, February 20, 2005
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THE TRUTH VERSUS TV NEWS: I’m not one of those conservative people who whine all day about liberal bias in the news media. Nor do I lose sleep about all the conservative talk shows on the radio today (although I regret it, because for me, radio was made for music and not for blather). But I am concerned about how the press sometimes twists a story around to make it seem more juicy than it really is (and thus sell more ads and maximize profits – ah yes, good old capitalism at work once again). Why is this a problem? Because most of us get our info about what’s happening in the world from the news media, and we expect that it’s pretty much the truth. But what if something other than the truth is coming through, so as to maximize profits?

I saw a clear example of this recently where I work. The local affiliate of a “big three” TV network ran a story on the evening news about a police incident where an unarmed 20 year old was shot and killed by a policeman at a fast food place. My employer, the local district attorney’s office, is in charge of conducting the investigation of that case. If warranted, we will refer the case to a grand jury as to decide whether homicide charges against the cop are appropriate. From what little I’ve heard, the case is tricky and time is needed to check out all possible leads. The guy who was shot and his friend (who was there) aren’t exactly model citizens; both have been in trouble, and one recently got out of prison.

Nevertheless, the local TV station decided to sic its investigative reporters on us and run a story about how we’re covering things up so as to let the cop get away with murder. Interestingly enough, the victim’s family is represented by a semi-famous activist lawyer who does a daily talk show on the radio affiliate of this station. So, by sensationalizing the case, the station can increase ad revenues on both the TV side and the radio side! Anyway, the TV reporter interviewed the main witness to the shooting (the victim’s friend), and got him to say that our office never contacted him. Ergo, we must be trying to cover the whole thing up to protect the police officer in question. Scandal uncovered!

Well, on the afternoon before that story was broadcast, the boss district attorney gave an interview to the TV station. She told them various things that were quoted verbatim on the news that night, i.e. about the medical examiner’s report, about the officer in question’s present status, and about when the case could be expected to go to the grand jury. She also told them that our Office had interviewed the main witness on the night of the shooting, and had a statement in writing that he signed that night. Hmmm, somehow the TV news people forgot to mention that inconvenient little fact. Why? Because it would blow their main piece of evidence against us to shreds.

The next day, the station ran a follow-up story. This time they did in fact mention that we had talked with the main witness – sort of. What the “news team” did was have their reporter ask an attorney from the activist lawyer’s office to comment on our claim. The reporter set the tone: “they say there was someone from the AG’s office there that night”. Oh yea, this is grilling, get-to-the-bottom investigative questioning at its best. Of course, the guy hits a soft pitch like this right out of the park: “WHO???? No prosecuting attorney has contacted the witness!!! Your station is doing much more than the DA’s Office in investigating this case!!!”

Gee, that makes sense if you don’t think about it. But guess what? My boss never said that a PROSECUTING ATTORNEY took the statement; we said that an INVESTIGATOR (a sworn police officer) took that statement — which is what investigators get paid to do. And we gave the TV station that fact in writing. But nevertheless, the impression that our Office is doing something evil was maintained, thanks to some shrewd news editing.

And just what can our Office do to help get the truth out to the public? Pretty much nothing. Back in the 50s and 60s, there was something called the federal fairness doctrine, whereby TV and radio stations were held to certain fairness standards. The federal law said that you could request air time to present your side of the story. If the issue was important enough, they had to give you some air time (even though it would probably be on Monday morning at 3 AM). But, good old Ronald Reagan and his friends at the FCC decided to ditch the fairness doctrine. So now the broadcast media can pretty much do what it wants with the facts, so long as it avoids Howard Stern language or Janet Jackson-style wardrobe failures.

So . . . . don’t believe everything you see or read on the news. The news media ain’t all that much different from a car dealership. Money talks, but as to TRUTH . . . . well, if the customer thinks he or she is happy, they they’ve done their job. Don’t let them. All news media is suspect, but the TV stuff is especially vulnerable to distortion. BOYCOTT FOR-PROFIT TV NEWS!!!

(And see ya, Dan R. What’s the frequency anyway, Kenneth?)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:02 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, February 17, 2005
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A DEVIL OF A TIME: I just read an article about a new college course that the Vatican offers to Roman Catholic priests regarding exorcism and the devil. The Roman Pontifical Academy recently set up this course in response to the big “devil problem” they’re having over in Italy. A lot of kids have been tuning in to “Satanism” there lately. This new interest in Beelzebub supposedly encouraged the stabbing death of a 19 year old girl in Italy a few years ago. The accused are all members of a metal band called “The Beasts of Satan”, and they allegedly believed the girl to have been the next Virgin Mary.

Hello, what millennium is this? Have we zoomed back to 1005 AD? Have we traded the legacy of the Enlightenment for a return to the Dark Ages? I agree that Satan worship amidst the young isn’t a good thing, especially if it leads the metal-gothic crowd to start acting out their bizarre fantasies. But I mostly blame the Catholic Church for keeping the idea of Satan alive and well for all these centuries.

When, may I ask, is the “BIG C” church going to grow up? Pope John Paul II still gives sermons denouncing the devil as “a cosmic liar and murderer”. But it’s clear that the Church also lies and maybe even murders (e.g., through its regressive policies regarding AIDS prevention, and through its homophobic attitudes). So, can you really blame a disturbed kid who sees hypocrisy under the cross and thus runs to what the Church deems to be its polar opposite?

Not that things here in the good old USA are all that peachy either. Our recent presidential election showed that old-time religion is alive and well, and that plenty of people toy with the notion of trading our rights and our individual freedoms for a righteous kingdom. OK, folks, so Locke and Rousseau and Jefferson and the rest of the Enlightenment crowd didn’t bring us Heaven on Earth. Sure, the ideals of science and rationality don’t fulfill every human need; there’s still a dark and mysterious corner of the mind and the soul that needs to be reckoned with. There’s still a deep need for art, for prayer, for song, and for a pathway to the eternal.

But at least the Enlightenment (when truly enlightened) offers a way to acknowledge and explore those needs in a respectful and civilized fashion. The Catholic Church, along with its fundamentalist imitators, never made peace with the Enlightenment (which admittedly inspired the very shabby treatment of religious types in the 18th Century, e.g. during the French Revolution). Today, the Lord Jesus people finally have the philosophes and the libertines on the ropes, only to find that the Church’s own worst nightmares have arisen in their place. Hey, the followers of Freud were able to show that in the end, a nightmare is just a dream. What happens when the Freudians are gone and the Satanic nightmares become real once more? Can all the exorcists in the world make you sleep well at night?

I’m still looking for a magnetic bow for my car that says “SAVE THE ENLIGHTEMENT”. As with democracy, the Enlightenment is a faulty ideal; but the others are so much worse.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:37 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, February 12, 2005
Uncategorized ...

Down By the Erie Station

The summer evenings of youth
Were they all just a dream?
Now only weeds and dead leaves
Blowing in the cold wind . . .

(with apologies to Saigyo).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:12 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, February 9, 2005
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Education and the 2004 Election:

No High School Degree
High School Degree
Some College
College Degree
Post Graduate Work

What do these numbers tell us? Well, Bush had solid support amidst the great wide swath of voters who earned high school degrees and have zero to four years of college. Kerry found his support at the extremes; voters without high school degrees broke slightly for him, and people with post-graduate educations were fairly enthusiastic supporters.

My guess is that the drop-out crowd knows that they’re not appreciated by today’s economy, and hoped that the Democrats might show them some mercy. The post graduate crowd, by contrast, shouldn’t have much to worry about. They have the luxury to vote according to their progressive and idealistic beliefs. The great middle class, by contrast, believes they’re still in the game, but it’s a struggle. They can still make it on their own — maybe even make it big. But they live in constant fear of losing their good life due to a bad break; e.g., a corporate merger causes layoffs, their job is outsourced to India, they get hit with uninsured health costs, etc. They could either look at the government as their friend, a force to protect them from the extreme uncertainties of our modern techno-society; or they can see it as an enemy, something that drags them down with high taxes that go to support the unworthy.

The 2004 election results indicate that they generally take the enemy viewpoint. Yea, there is a “values gap” in America involving religion, marriage and property; the southern states and the land-locked states (red America) believe these things to be sacred, while northern states with shorelines (blue America) usually take a more nuanced and tolerant approach. But this values gap also extends to government. The blues and the post-grad people see government as necessary for a better life and a better world, even if they don’t always love it. The red folk seem to want government “off their backs”. They appear to think that America and its economy are rolling along just fine, if a bit unpredictably, and that they could deal with the unpredictability if they didn’t have to pay taxes.

This is the debate that America needs to have right now. Government — to be or not to be. If it is to be, then just how much? Why have a government? What good can it do? What bad side effects does it have? What does it cost? Is it worth the cost? In the past, philosophers justified the downsides of government thru the theory of social contract; we put on the yoke of laws and taxes in exchange for order and predictability (with certain protection mechanisms to avoid abuse of power, e.g. voting, constitutions and separations of power). Have things changed so much in our high-tech, interconnected world as to make that idea irrelevant? Can we all get in synch with each other without a king and a police force and a tax collector and a department of [fill in the blank] to boss us around? Can we do “long term best interest” by ourselves? Issue in focus: do we need government to support us once we can’t work (traditional Social Security), or should we keep the tax money and invest it ourselves (the new Bush proposal)?

The average American seems to think we don’t have much need for government (or at least not as much government). The most educated and the worst off seem to disagree. For now, let’s forget about biscotti versus blueberry pie with lard crust, and NASCAR versus the Sunday New York Times. Let’s even put the abortion and gay marriage stuff aside. Let’s go back to the drawing board regarding the institution of government. Let the red folk think about how they benefit from roads, schools, unemployment benefits, police protection, care for the injured and elderly, flood relief, farm insurance, etc.; then let them ponder where these things would come from without government.

At the same time, let the blue folk be honest about how government sometimes irks them, e.g. lavish subsidies for rich agri-business owners and military contractors. What is government doing that modern conditions no longer require? And what modern conditions require new forms of government involvement? How much government inefficiency and unfairness is inevitable, and how much can we tolerate? How can we encourage greater citizen trust and empowerment in government in today’s world? It’s a discussion worth having — a discussion that should interest high school drop-outs, PhDs, and everyone in between.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:20 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, February 6, 2005
Current Affairs ... Personal Reflections ...

If you read my entry from Jan. 27, you know that I’m in the market for a car, since my previous car was recently totaled. I’m considering buying a new one, even though I’m only getting about $5,000 from the insurance company. I like to get a car new and hold on to it for ten or twelve years. At least you know where the problems are. You build a relationship with your machinery.

So, I’ve been researching the 2005 compact cars, and I’ve not been very impressed with what’s out there. I’ve still got my notes from 1999 when I bought the last one, so I was able to do some comparisons. You’d think that cars would get better gas mileage and have more standard safety features after six years. But what’s actually happened is that they’ve gotten bigger, heavier and come with more frills. And if you go back to the Sentras, Civics and Corollas of the late 80s, the size contrast is stunning.

Some compact models (e.g. from Saturn, Mazda, Ford, and Mitshubishi) now get worse gas mileage than six years ago. Honda and Toyota pretty much held even, balancing off greater weight with better engine technology (e.g., variable valve timing). As to safety features, a lot more good stuff is now available (e.g., anti-skid control, head protection airbags), but they’re usually optional for compact cars (and expensive). However, as to frills such as CD players, motorized mirrors and other stuff, a lot more of that is now standard equipment on small cars . . . even the base models (which is what I always buy, being a base kind of guy).

In sum, both car manufacturers and car buyers (yes, that means you!) continue to push for bigger, fancier and less efficient vehicles. That’s the magic of unregulated, laissez-faire Republican capitalism at work. Duhhh, can I ask a silly question . . . . . did it occur to anyone that America’s dependence on oil imported from the Persian Gulf area is a key factor in our vulnerability to terrorism? Is it going to take another nine-eleven to make us think seriously about this?

But hey, other than griping here on my blog, I’m not going to do anything about it. If I had a lot of cash sitting around, I could buy a Civic hybrid or a Prius and get 50 to 60 miles per gallon, and order up all the safety features. If I was a “poor green”, I could go tiny and get an Echo or an Accent, which have higher MPG ratings (35 for the Echo, 29 for the Accent); but they get questionable ratings on stability, workmanship and acceleration. And after the accident, the thought of cruising the highways in a tiny car gives me a queasy feeling in the stomach. There are just too many Expeditions and Yukons and Hummers out there on the road; even an out-of-control Ford Escape or Subaru Forester could take you down.

I’m probably gonna get a base model Corolla or Civic off the lot, with the adequate gas mileage (around 30 or 31 mpg) and the frills and without the safety enhancements that I’d really like. And hope for the best. For both myself, and for our nation.

I’ll be sure to post a pic of the new cruiser. And I’ll feel a twinge of pain and hypocrisy thinking about you intrepid people who get around on bicycles and mass transit. Vanguards of a brave new world, indeed!

Enjoy the big football game tonight, sports fans, and get ready to shift into college basketball mode. Ah, when Dick Vitale (who coached at my high school during my youth) hits the airwaves, can Spring be far behind?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:00 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, February 2, 2005
Uncategorized ...

Some notes from an article entitled “Massless Media” in the February, 2005 Atlantic: America is getting “niched”. Back in the very old days of the 50s and early 60s, we suburbanites pretty much watched the same TV shows, bought the same cars, listened to the same music, went to see the same movies, read the same books, had the same kind of furniture, etc. However, in our modern economy, with all of its technology and innovations, the range of consumer choices set before us has greatly expanded. Thus, we’re now encouraged to have differing, individualized tastes. A top marketing guy at McDonalds was quoted as saying that “we’ve had a change from ‘I want to be normal’ to ‘I want to be special’”.

OK then, is Mickey D’s gonna expand its menu as to offer some real choices, like maybe healthy meals made from fresh, local ingredients? There certainly is a niche of people (including myself) who would like to see that. But don’t hold your breath. What the Mickey D guy wants to do is to use advertising to make you feel special; he’s not talking about actually changing the product. And, I suspect, most of the other “specializing” of America is also just a surface phenomenon. Beneath the skin, most people in middle America are still pretty much the same. They all want their SUVs, McMansions and McDonalds, whether or not they can afford the first two.

A few lines later, the author of that article asks, “what is blogging if not a celebration of the self?” Hmmm. I suppose that a lot of blogs are awfully self-indulgent. And even the more though-oriented bloggers (like yours truly) have our “hey look at me” moments. But a lot of blogs are actually oriented toward ideas, same as the article where that quote came from. Even more blogs focus on a specific interest or hobby. So no, I don’t agree that blogging reflects a growing narcissism in America. Bloggers are definitely another “niche market”, but I think we blog mainly to share stuff with others, and not to show off. I think that bloggers contribute to, instead of take away from, the notion of “community” in a digital world.

Oh, one more thing about the February Atlantic (aside from that scary cover and the scary story by Richard Clarke about the future of terrorism in America). There’s a really good fiction story that exemplifies what eternal studentdom is all about (“Lost in the Meritocracy” by Walter Kirn, on page 142). The guy in the story is a brilliant anti-student, but in the end he sees the light. Sort of like a religious conversion. “I no longer cared about advancement. I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to read. I wanted to find out what others thought.” Ah, I love stories with happy endings.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:00 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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