The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Sunday, June 26, 2005
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BEARLY TOLERABLE: Being a son of the great state of New Jersey, I’ve been reading about the species rivalry that is developing up in the northern counties: the bears versus the humans. Over the past 30 years or so, a whole lot of people – especially the Baby Boom people – have left the more crowded suburbs surrounding New York and Newark, for the great undeveloped expanses of the northwestern realms. They wanted trees and mountains and big plots of land, and they got it. But now they’re complaining because they got something else – too many bears. The bear population has shot way up — and guess why? Because people bring with them lots of tasty and nutritious garbage, a reliable year-round food source. So the bears are mixing it up with the noveau locals . . . big time. No one has gotten killed yet, but some scary bear-human encounters have occurred. Bears have crashed into kitchens and raided the fridge, have killed dogs and other small pets, and have even cornered children (luckily, they’ve always retreated when an incensed human mother arrived on the scene).

So, the locals are calling on government to do something (ironic, in that one of the big reasons why many people moved way out to the sticks was their dislike of government). Most specifically, they want the State to organize and allow bear hunting seasons, as to thin out those nasty bruins. But, there is also a pro-bear faction (who generally don’t live out in bear country) that is against any violence against the big brown things. They say that people out in the sticks should be more careful about storing their garbage and protecting their pets. Hey, they reason, the bears were there first. When you squat on someone else’s property, you can’t complain about their bad habits.

I sort-of agree with this point of view. A lot of people from my generation had this dream about moving close to nature when they were young. Once they made it in the world, they decided to act out that fantasy. But the law of unintended consequences bit them in the behind. Their accumulated presence messed up the balance of life out in the forests. Bears, just like any other form of life, have taken advantage of a change in the environment that gives them more reliable access to calories, and they are thus raising more children as a result. Humanity isn’t the only species that believes deep down inside that the world needs more of it. Mosquitos and cockroaches clearly strive to flood every nook and cranny of the planet with its members, and now bears are doing the same thing.

Because no one thought what the side effects might be of thousands of families moving into new homes up in the wooded highlands, the burgeoning bear population is sending intrepid wanders out into the older suburbs, and people are seeing bears where they haven’t been sighted for a hundred years. We might soon have to watch out for bears here in suburban Essex County, just a few miles from Newark. Hey, thanks all you former yuppies who needed to get away from it all. Now we have to watch out for renegade muggers and house thieves from the city, and renegade bears from the sticks.

Personally, I’m a vegetarian, and I believe in leaving animals alone if at all possible. But if a hunt would put some fear back into the species and avoid having a child get mauled, then maybe it should be allowed. I have been face-to-face with bears on their turf only once, while hiking up in Wawayanda Park. I was pretty scared after seeing the third one, but luckily I met up with a park ranger and some other hikers who I convoyed with back to the parking lot. The three bears that I inadvertently got close to were pretty mellow. None of them came after me. They looked at me, but didn’t do anything as I turned and speed-walked away from them. But these were probably wilderness bears; supposedly the ones that live near houses learn that people often carry food with them, and thus become more aggressive. Ah yes, they pick up our own bad habits.

The New Jersey bear crisis is just another fine mess that humans have created. Even with occasional hunts and better garbage enclosures and fences (ha, move from the city to get away from security fences against crooks, and you have to put up security fences against bears), most likely there will still be a lot more bears around than there used to be. People living in their rural dream homes are just gonna have to get used to it. Bears are the cockroaches of the exurbs. Maybe someday humankind will learn to think ahead about the side effects of a big change in living arrangements.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:30 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, June 24, 2005
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WHAT THE MIRROR SEES: I was looking at some digital photos from my office’s most recent Christmas Party (I didn’t go). There was a picture of some pretty women in formal party attire that caught my eye. But what caught my fancy was a mirror in the picture, where a mini-image of the women facing the flash of the camera could be seen. So I ran the shot through Photoshop and enlarged / enhanced the mirror segment. And I thought I’d share it with the world at large. Enjoy.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:56 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, June 19, 2005
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I was listening the other night to an NPR interview of Judge Richard Posner, the reigning “authority on everything”. Posner, a noted lawyer and economist, was talking about intelligence reform and preventing terrorism; he’s got a book out now called Preventing Surprise Attacks: Intelligence Reform in the Wake of 9/11. The Judge is famous for his applications of cost-benefit economic analysis to almost every possible subject and issue. He wrote a book not long ago about possible mega-catastrophes (the end-of-the-world-kind, not your garden variety catastrophe) and what the cost-benefit perspective would be towards them. E.g., should we let physicists continue to perform research that has a tiny, tiny, tiny chance of causing a runaway physical reaction that might end the world (i.e., the “stragelet” scenario)? Not an easy one to answer, and maybe not even answerable with the mathematics and reason of cost-benefit assessment. So Posner is now focusing on somewhat smaller but still very nasty catastrophes, e.g. repeats of 9-11.

Posner’s equation-like thinking doesn’t play so well when you’re talking about the end of everything; pretty hard to put a price on that. But as to terrorism, he’s on somewhat firmer ground, although there’s still a huge psychological factor that’s hard to put a price on (that huge psychological factor is terror, not surprisingly).

The Judge does make some good points, even if they seem a bit sad and fatalistic. The most important one is that you cannot eliminate surprise. You just can’t be ready for everything, because there are just too many things out there that could happen. There’s gonna be a Pearl Harbor every now and then. If you tried to be ready for everything, you could never live your life. Likewise, if our nation tries to become ready for every possible threat, it will collapse from a martial-law environment that would make the old Soviet Union seem like July 4, 1776, and from the economic burden of enforcing such a militarized system. Posner is right, in that we have to ask whether we spend too much time and money building a wall against the last tragedy, based on our emotional response to its horror. The next punch may be nothing like the last one (although admittedly, you don’t want to make it easy for your opponent by doing nothing at all to stop a repeat attack — it’s a question of balance).

So, bad stuff will happen again, eventually. And you probably can’t imagine right now what it will be, although once it happens we all will say “why didn’t we think of that?” As Judge Posner points out, the Air Force once did a study on the possibility of hi-jacked airliners being crashed into buildings. They were going to put together a response exercise, but there were a million other things to do, so they never got around to it. Posner is NOT saying that we should make no effort to prevent terrorism or other forms of attack. But we can only do so much to detect and prevent them; we just don’t have the resources to put up a perfect shield.

So, under the Posner paradigm, we should also put a fair chunk of our limited resources have into disaster response systems, and make them flexible, portable and “modular” so that they can be quickly mixed and matched to meet whatever comes our way, be it a nuclear explosion or a series of small nerve-gas attacks or a major computer attack (e.g., at some point, a computer virus attack transmitted by wi-fi or cell phones might make huge numbers of autos unstartable or make them stall while driving; now there’s an interesting nightmare – the day that every car stopped, except for a few old junkers that had obsolete microchips – perhaps next summer’s disaster movie plot?).

The other thing our nation can do according to Posner –- sounds very Old Testament-like, but unfortunately we still live in an Old Testament world — is to retaliate against whoever hits us, and hit ‘em back hard. Eye for an eye, that sort of thing. Today I saw a bumper sticker today with a drawing of Gandhi on it, saying “an eye for an eye makes the world blind”. But the hard-core realists say that an eye for an eye saves the other eye.

One thing that Posner didn’t suggest, but I think is relevant, is to try to cool down all the discontent out there. Yea, there will always be some nuts out there, but you don’t get a big movement like Al Qaeda without some widespread resentment against the U.S. Maybe we’ve got to be a bit more generous with the poorest nations, and stop flaunting our wealth so much. I still think some of it is a reaction to current American cultural attitudes about wealth. The attitude is that wealth is everything; the more money you have, the more human you are; if you’re poor, then you’re poor in every way possible. Oh yea, there’s also God and prayer, all that value stuff; but at day’s end, cash is king.

I can’t help but wonder if that GOP / conservative attitude, which shows up on our TV shows, on the Internet, on our commercials, on just about everything that America does, triggers a lot of resentment in various places. (Admittedly it does win us friends in others, such as in Poland. My ethnic background is 100% Polish, but I never really liked the Polish culture, and the more I read about it’s current pro-American materialistic stance, the less I wonder why I never clicked with my ancestral heritage). I can’t help but wonder if a little less attitude and a little more humility (and charity) would also help buy some security.

But yea, I know it’s more complex that just being nice. The whole issue of supporting Israel is a big factor in the overseas threat, and if it’s right to support Israel, we probably have to do it even if it causes an increased risk of terrorism. But the whole Israel thing is incredibly complex, so I’m gonna cut it right here. Sorry, I can’t solve the whole world’s problems in one sitting. Only Richard Posner can do that . . . . . or so he would tell you.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:41 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, June 16, 2005
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Progress, Sisyphus . . . . or the Blow Monkeys? I was “chewing the fat” one night a few months ago with the Montclair Socrates Café group, where the subject de jour (actually, “de la soiree”) was whether evil was essential to humankind. As is typical for the group, we kind of danced around the topic, not following any cohesive line of thinking but instead presenting a cloud of dots. But actually, that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe that’s just what the master himself (i.e., Socrates) would have wanted.

For me, it all boiled down to another question: has humanity made things better (e.g., reducing the amount of overall pain and suffering in the world), or does the balance between good and evil stay the same no matter how much things change? Can there be real progress, or like Sisyphus, are we only rolling stones up a hill just to see them roll back down? Can we make a difference with our lives, or in the end does the good and bad that we do just balance out? Or if one person manages to accomplish some net good, is there another person who accomplishes just as much evil?

I used to honestly believe that “it doesn’t have to be this way”. And today I still want to believe it. But it’s so difficult; when I was young we had Communists and nuclear missiles and Vietnam to worry about. Now we have Al Qaeda and suicide bombers and Iraq to worry about. It’s different, but is it really any different?

Well ….. some days you’ve got to take refuge in the little things that make you smile. I did a Google search on the phrase “it doesn’t have to be this way”, and was surprised to find that there are plenty of songs that use this line. I always liked the Roger Waters song (Keep Talking, from the Division Bell album) where the lecturer chants this line in the background. Well, actually he says “it doesn’t have to be like this” … hey, close enough. But then I found out about a song from an 80’s band called the Blow Monkeys, entitled “It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way”. The Blow Monkeys — never heard of ‘em, but definitely a cool name . . . maybe even worth a smile!

As to the Montclair Socrates Café . . . . . . I’ve hit the road. Taken a pass on them. More on that next time, perhaps.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:33 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, June 12, 2005
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THE COUNTRY BOY KING: Speaking of those WMA music files that I bought and downloaded the other day, one of my selections was a tune by Elvis Presley. I was never a big fan of The King. The whole legend about Graceland and Colonel Parker and Blue Hawaii just never got me going. And even though I consider myself to be a disciple of rock music, I never considered Elvis to be one of the gods. Elvis may well have been The King, but not of rock and roll as I know it. Perhaps he was a predecessor, a step in the evolution of true rock, but he was not a rock musician per se. At heart, Elvis was still a country boy.

Despite being a city boy, I shelled out $0.99 for the rights to listen to a song by Elvis. I picked out the one and only tune from the huge Elvis Presley collection that hits a nerve in me. That tune would be “Kentucky Rain”. “Rain” was a ballad, almost a country-and-western ditty. It’s the perfect story-telling song. You listen to it and you say yea, I just heard a story. A story about some guy who had a woman he deeply loved, and one day she just split, so he’s out there wandering the back roads of Kentucky during the autumn rainy season, trying to find her. It’s a story without an ending; at the finish, all you get is a power-refrain and a fade-out. But the two story fragments in the song are entirely worth the price of admission.

In the first fragment, Elvis is at a general store in a little Kentucky town, talking with some old guys who, frustratingly, have seen his woman but can’t quite remember when she was there. In the second, Elvis is walking along the road with his thumb out on a cold and rainy day, and some big car driven by a preacher-man (in a black overcoat, no doubt) pulls over and lets him in. Elvis explains his quandary to the preacher-man, no doubt with much sincerity. They arrive in the town where Elvis is headed, and the preacher man leaves him with a prayer, a prayer that country boy Elvis might find his girl.

Ah, now that was Elvis in his true element, in the world of back roads and hollers and general stores and preacher-men offering prayers. No doubt that’s why the song was so good. You didn’t need a happy ending. Country boy Elvis was home, and that’s all you needed to know. In my mind, the King ain’t dead; his spirit is still wandering all those back roads down South.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:02 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, June 11, 2005
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MUSICAL MUSINGS: You know you’re getting old when you just can’t relate to popular music anymore. This week, the best-selling British group Coldplay released a new album called “X and Y”, which has caused quite a stir. I listened to some clips from it on Amazon, and it leaves me cold. I grew up with rock music, and I followed it over the years as it morphed into various forms. But now the music charts are dominated by new influences, including hip-hop and techno-trance. Coldplay’s sounds are arguably a “light-FM” version of the latter school. Ugh. At least the original stuff by Radiohead and their genre had a certain quality to it, even if I couldn’t listen for more than 30 seconds. Coldplay is definitely low-carb music. You get less, and you pay for it. But hey, if that’s what the kids of today want, well, fine. Old fossils like me will retreat back to our caves with our Van Halen and Aerosmith and Pearl Jam and Three Doors Down.

Speaking about music and being old, I recently bought some music downloads from Tunegenie. This was my first venture into the brave new world of protected WMA files. It seemed to go OK, though; I got the files, used my credit card, and managed to open up and play the tunes on Media Player 7.1. So I started looking around at other music download sites, including Walmart, Rhapsody, Yahoo, Napster and MSN. And what I saw truly frightens me. Unless you have broadband, use Internet Explorer with Active X turned on, and manage your music with Media Player 9 or 10, you’re generally shut out of the game (other than Tunegenie, which doesn’t have as big a song collection as the others). Oh, not to mention the “special software” that you have to download for some of these music download sites. (Anytime you have to download and install “special software” to “take advantage of” some wonderful service on the net, think “TROJAN HORSE”).

I’m perfectly happy with my only-on-when-I-say-so dial-up service, with my Firefox browser, and with old Media Player 7.1. I don’t like Player 9 with it’s “let me look at your entire computer” approach to managing media files; it seems like a convenience, but I believe that it’s really Microsoft’s way of policing your music and video collection. Call me paranoid, but I suspect that Media Player will soon (if it doesn’t already) send Internet messages back to Microsoft headquarters without your permission, reporting on what kind of files you have on your computer and whether they might violate copyrights. Then MS can give such info over to the music industry and you will soon get registered letters from lawyers demanding that you explain why there’s an old mp3 on a folder somewhere on your hard drive that perhaps was taken from copyrighted material – and maybe you get sued for big bucks in damages. (As though BMG and Sony and the other music companies aren’t making enough money already.)

With Internet Explorer, Active X, and a broadband hook-up that’s always turned on, it’s all technically feasible. BIG BROTHER IS HERE, and millions of computer users think that it’s just a wonderful way to enjoy music and video entertainment. Hey, I’m perfectly willing to pay for music files; the days of freely available mp3s for most any tune out there were in fact immoral. But what’s going on now as a condition for the right to buy music files at a reasonable price DEFINITELY looks to me like a Trojan horse from BIG BUSINESS. It goes way beyond the licensing protections built into today’s WMA downloads.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t want BMG, Microsoft, Walmart, Yahoo and Sony rummaging around on my hard drive, even though I have nothing illegal there. If that means that I can’t get 99 cent downloads (or 88 cents at Walmart), so be it. Besides, if new music is anything like Coldplay, then who needs it. I’ll stick with my old CD collection and my classic-rock radio stations.

Wake up people. Big business is watching you, 24-7. (As is government with the PatAct; big business and the feds are working together quite closely now.) You are letting them see everything you do on your computer, in return for a zillion songs for your iPod (and the false security that if there is some nut out there planning a terror assault on his computer, the authorities will be able to stop him; if you really want to cause mayhem, you don’t need the Internet). Is it really worth giving up what the founding fathers worked so hard to give our nation, i.e. a bit of freedom and privacy ?????

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:00 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, June 5, 2005
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Religion seems to have two possible purposes. One is personal salvation. The other is “the achievement of a society which puts into practice God’s desires for the human race” (from Karen Armstrong’s 2000 book “Islam, A Short History”). Lets call it “social salvation”, for short. I don’t know which one is worse.

Personal salvation makes religion seem rather trite. The achievement of a God-like society sounds a lot more desirable and powerful. But it all runs into so many problems. The biggest problems regard “God’s desires for the human race” and how to put them into practice. Over the course of history, a lot of people have been pretty sure that they knew what God’s desires were and how those desires should be put into practice. But someone else always disagrees, and people end up getting hurt — when they’re luck. Usually, people wind up getting killed when a group attempts to achieve God’s social desires. Could that really be what God intended?

For most Christians, Christianity has been mostly about personal salvation. However, there are Christians who still have visions of “Christendom”, which in ancient centuries caused a lot of fighting and grief. The founder of Christianity, Jesus, was definitely looking for the formation of a God-like society. However, he had the good sense to tell his followers not to try to bring it on themselves; wait until God does it, he said. Jesus thought that God was due any day. His followers kept that faith for a few decades after he died. But once it was clear that God wasn’t coming to establish a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth anytime soon, the early Christians decided to flip over to personal salvation. That would have been OK, but the whole movement got co-opted by the Roman Empire and the kings and nations who would follow the great Emperors. Unfortunately, some of those powers decided to bring back the idea of Heaven on Earth, but contra Jesus, thought that their swords could make it happen. And a whole lot of nasty history ensued.

I think that religion can still be a good thing, and that planning for a better world can still be a good thing too (despite all the lazziez-fairre worship of market capitalism going around these days). And the two of them can go together. But the guiding principle should always be gentleness, not force. And if that means that nothing can change right now, then so be it. Personal salvation can be had all at once. Social salvation is a long-term, slow-burn kind of thing. Which is why impatient firebrands always mess it up so much, despite all their good intentions.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:53 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, June 2, 2005
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This was an illustration in one of my kiddie books. Obviously, the book was about weather. I liked this picture when I was a kid; still do. It basically said to me that the world wasn’t such a bad place after all. There are natural cycles that keep things going. The sun evaporates water from lakes and rivers, which causes clouds, which causes rain, which puts the water back in the lakes and rivers. In between all that, crops and animals grew, people ate the crops and animals, and life went on.

(Later on I would become a vegetarian. Let the animals enjoy the cycle too.)

For a while there as a kid, I considered becoming a weatherman (no, not the radical kind). I always drawn by the idea of changing weather. As my kiddie book showed, it’s all part of life here on earth. Well, too bad that I took a different career path. I still have a spot in my heart for “WX”, even on the cold and grungy days of winter (or the hot, steamy days of August). It’s still nice to think that somehow, some way, it all fits in.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:39 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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