The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Monday, October 31, 2005
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Halloween has become a lot like Christmas. When I was a kid, there was plenty of trick-or-treating. But other than having some candy at the ready on the big day, parents didn’t make such a big deal about Halloween back then. Other than an occasional pumpkin on the porch here or a cardboard window print of a witch or a ghost there, we didn’t have much preparation for “spooky season”. Today, houses are decorated in early October with orange and purple lights, along with figurines of skeletons and spiders and tombstones. Much like Christmas, just different colors and symbols.

Halloween has become more like Christmas over the years, and at the same time Christmas has become more like Halloween. As with trick-or-treat day, Christmas is now mostly a children’s holiday. It’s something that adults do for kids, not something that has any other meaning to them (not that doing something for kids is such a bad thing; I can understand that children are a very big part of many adults’ lives). To the degree that adults do celebrate “the season”, it’s mostly thru drunkeness and maybe even lust (think about the sterotypical office party; I can almost see the Christmas episode of The Office right now). In other words, it’s the worst of both childhood and adulthood.

Both Christmas and Halloween are now secularized versions of what were once major Christian religious holidays. And in turn, both of these Christian holidays were co-options of ancient pagan festivals. The early Christian church set Christ’s birthday in late December so as to coincide with the Roman winter solstice festivals; and All Saints Day (called “All-Hallows Day” in olde English, the eve of which became “Halloween”) replaced the Celtic new year of November 1, when the worlds of the living and the dead were said to temporarily blur together (giving people the creeps). I’m surprised that the religious groups that urge us to keep Christ in Christmas haven’t started running ad campaigns about “putting the Hallows back in Halloween”.

As an aging adult, Halloween seems more and more ironic each year. At least Christmas offers adults the ideal (however unfulfilled) of peace on earth and goodwill towards men (yea, it’s sexist, I know). But I really can’t share the kiddies’ delight in all the fake cobwebs and gravestones and skeletons and all the other cute little reminders of death. I can get all the fright I need and more these days by going to the doctor’s office and talking about biopsies and colonoscopies and blood test results and HMO coverage policies. I hope that the medical establishment becomes a bit kinder and gentler by the time the little trick-or-treaters of today have to start worrying about their cholesterol count.

I saw a lot of kids out with their treat bags during my ride home from work today. That was nice. Nonetheless, I always feel better once Halloween is over. Thanksgiving is coming soon, but it ain’t such a big deal. Thankfully, Christmas and New Years are still a ways off, along with the miserable cold and snow of January and February. For about 3 or 4 weeks, it’s back to just plain weather and just plain life. And that’s just fine with me.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:26 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, October 29, 2005
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TOUCHING THE PAST: I’ve been studying the history of the Roman Empire a bit lately. In a lot of ways, it was the United States of two thousand years ago. There were plenty of great empires that came and went after Rome fell in the Fifth Century. One was the great Islamic caliphate of the 11th and 12th centuries, which inherited the southern and eastern part of the Roman Empire and merged it with the former Persian Empire. Al Qaeda and its imitators draw much of their inspiration from this, just as we here in the USA unconsciously draw inspiration from Rome. Maybe that’s why we can’t get along with the new Islamic imperialists; deep down, we’re just too much alike.

But in the west, there really wasn’t anything like Rome until the USA conquered the Pacific frontier in the 19th Century. Sure, there was the British Empire and the other European colonial expansions. But they were mostly inspired by trade and by natural resources, by the establishment of an exclusive right to exploit the timber, minerals and people of far-off lands in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Like the United States, Rome didn’t just want your copper and gold and frankincense; they wanted your soul. They wanted to turn all the barbarians into good Romans, not simply into slaves (although that was certainly part of it too).

That’s still our policy today; consider the situation in Iraq. We could leave right now and declare victory, having successfully deposed a vicious dictator. But no, we want to turn the Iraqis into responsible voters. Is that good or bad? As with Roman assimilation, it’s a mix of both. Rome started going downhill when it lost the strength to keep forcing the tribes beyond the borders into the Roman mold (mostly because of all the civil wars it fought in selecting new Emperors). It’s uncertain whether America has the strength to stay in Iraq long enough until everyone gets to like our way of doing things.

Thus my interest in the ancient Romans. I was surfing thru eBay the other day and I checked out the ancient coins section. It turns out that old Roman coins are pretty common, and thus you can pick them up for between 5 and 10 dollars. I decided to buy one, given my interest. It turns out that the bidding is rather competitive; you’ve got to be a little Roman yourself to avoid getting outbid. But I finally managed to win this provincial bronze coin with a portrait of emperor Severus Alexander, from about 225 AD. You see it below in the palm of my hand.

It’s pretty neat to touch something that was actually a small part of what you are studying. That coin was used day to day by common people, folk who were depending upon the Roman system for their jobs, their food, their security — just as we depend upon the United States of America today to provide us with civil order and economic opportunity. The Roman system would continue to work for another 200 years after my coin was minted. When I look at those nifty quarters that our government mints today with tributes to the provinces (the newest one I’ve seen is Kansas), I can’t help but wonder, how much longer does our empire have?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:50 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
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Now that I’m deep into the second half of my career life and it’s crystal clear that I’m never gonna be much more than an all-star paper pusher / major-league bureaucrat, I often think about what could have been. When I was young and in college, I had a pretty good mind I’ll have you know, sonny boy. I pulled down a 3.89 GPA, which might have been a 3.91 if I hadn’t got caught in a senior year feud between a prof. and the department head. Thus, I wonder if things would have been more challenging and more rewarding had I gone the ivory tower route. When I was young, I wanted to stay out of the protected environs of academia and get out there into the real world. Academians seemed like a bunch of wooses. But in doing so, I found out that real world people consider guys like me to be wonderful candidates for paper-pushing bureaucrats. In other words, I couldn’t escape woosdom. But hey, somebody’s gotta dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s while the policy guys and the movers and shakers get all the glory and do all the interesting stuff.

Yea, so maybe I should have stayed in school and gotten a PhD (instead of a law degree). Maybe I would have gotten involved in some really interesting research, and would have been one of those guys who get interviewed on NOVA. Sometimes I almost see myself on TV explaining some new kind of mathematical concept or expounding upon the inner programming structure of the brain or laying out the implications of string theory for the interference of gravitational waves. Yea, that might have been fun.

But then again, there was a reason why I didn’t go into academia. I was aware that a whole lot of academians are in the pocket of the military, especially those like me who had good quantitative skills. Lately I’ve been interested in the subject of consciousness and the interaction of the brain and the mind. Well, guess who’s also interested in such research? DARPA, the Pentagon’s technology wizards. There was an article in the local paper the other day about how DARPA is sprinkling some big bucks on the college campuses (including my alma mata, Rutgers) to study human thinking and awareness. They’re trying to come up with weapons that work more like the flexible, teachable human mind, and less like structured robots. As with the military’s co-option of atomic energy, I’m sure that ain’t going to lead to kinder and gentler warfare.

Yea, maybe it’s just as well that I’m spending my life popping out cost reports and chasing down purchase orders in a county office. It ain’t much, but at least I’m not channeling my technical fascinations to make the world an even crueler, deadlier place than it already is.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:41 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, October 23, 2005
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I think that everyone in America would start to feel better if the stock market started going up again. (Yes, this is the materialistic side of me talking; I’d also like to see a spiritual enlightenment here, but so would conservative Christians and Islamic jihadists …. one person’s enlightenment is another person’s apostasy, so we will let that go for now). No, not the crazy returns of the 1990s, but maybe 6 to 10 percent per year. I’d feel a little bit better myself given that I have retirement funds invested in stocks (albeit through social responsibility funds). I know that people still feel wealthy here because of the housing price boom, which kicked in after stocks stopped rising in 1999. But that’s probably a bubble waiting to break.

Back to the stock market, I heard a report on NPR the other day saying that on average, the stock market does quite a bit better in years following National League victories in the World Series. Here’s a good link from Shaeffer Investment Research. (Ah, I remember the days when Shaeffer meant beer, not investment advice. They had some great jingles. I can still remember: “Shaeffer is the one beer to have when you’re having more than one . . . . .” A great beer to watch the World Series with, once upon a time.) Well, I’d like to see the White Sox get the flag this year, but I hope that won’t bring on a market crash.

It probably won’t. This is probably a spurious correlation, something that doesn’t mean anything. The largest gains since 1951 (over 25%) are split evenly, 5 each. Also, the largest of all gains (45% in 1954) came after an American League victory. And the best gain since 1958 came in the year after there was no World Series (34% in 1995). So enjoy the games, and root for whoever you want, no matter where your money is (or isn’t). But as to why the market isn’t going anywhere when America is supposedly in the middle of an economic boom, well . . . . that is something to think about. While watching the games, will Mr. Bush wonder why his Social Security privitization plan isn’t exactly setting America on fire? He will obviously be rooting for the Astros, for more reasons than one. (Darn, I tried to relate that line back to the old Shaeffer jingle …. just couldn’t get it to work).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:24 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, October 22, 2005
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I was in the doctor’s office a few days ago for a physical. I was past the usual 30 minutes in the waiting room, and was in the second phase of delay, linger & wait, i.e. in the examining room. My blood and urine test results had arrived, so in addition to the usual thump and jab and cough and drop your pants and grimace, the doc was going to review the numbers with me. Twenty years ago I seldom went in for check-ups. On the few occasions when I did, it was a snap. They didn’t test for all that much back then, and I knew that I was plenty healthy enough to get past anything that they did test. But now, at age 52 and carrying a set of questionable family genetics, everything is in the lurch. Sitting on the examining table, I could imagine it: “I’m a little worried about this, I think we’re going to have to . . . ”

I wish he would just come in already and get it over with. But no, the wait drags on. After my twentieth time scanning the boring little white room that I’m cooped up in, my mind starts getting rather philosophical, perhaps even a bit spiritual. I start wondering about my life. Has it been worth anything? Have the good and positive things that I’ve contributed to this world even slightly outweighed the bads? (I know that my fan club has told me a number of times that I’m clearly in the plus column, but it sure doesn’t feel that way). What’s left to live for? Why does the future seem just like a big blank? How did I wind up making a living doing things that really don’t interest me much, amidst a group of people that I have little in common with? Just when did the old days, when I looked at the future with excitement and hope, come to an end? They obviously did come to an end, but I can’t quite remember the morning when I woke up and the excitement was gone.

Still no doctor. I look at the floor. I want it to feel like it’s all part of something that’s right and true, no matter how dismal the immediate circumstances seem. I want to know that there’s some bigger meaning to it all, even if the doctor tells me that I’m going to spend the rest of my life engaged in a pitiful, ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the white hell that is the medical establishment to fight off some unfortunate condition in my body. I want to know that it will yet translate into something bigger; not just me and my little life, but all the people who died ungloriously amidst the confusion and chaos of the hurricane in Louisiana and Mississippi, or the sudden earthquake in Pakistan, or in front of a car bomb in Iraq, or from the tsunami in Indonesia, or in the World Trade Center four years ago . . .

If only there was a God. If only we could somehow know . . . . if only we knew it in our hearts, even if we can’t know it in our heads . . . . it would all definitely be better. There could still be music to existence even in the worst of circumstances, even when human life is treated like worthless trash by mother nature, or even worse, by humans themselves. I used to be quite sure about God. When did that also drift away? What catastrophe or absurdity or bit of human stupidity convinced me that there probably isn’t a conscious and caring presence behind the wheel of the universe?

But then again, something hasn’t drifted away. I still want there to be a God. I want it even if God can’t promise me or anyone else a happy ending anytime soon. Even if that God can’t send me out of this doctor’s office feeling like a new man, and not the old man that I am rapidly becoming.

They say that true religion is experienced in a battle trench, not in a church. I’ve never been in the military, so waiting alone in a doctor’s office with a sputtering middle-aged body and a doubtful, cynical mind is about as close as I can come. But after that little moment of intense reflection, I do feel, down inside, that the God question is still open. For now, that’s about as close to faith as I can get. But it’s probably better than nothing.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:18 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, October 16, 2005
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NASTY BY NATURE: The other day I saw a TV commercial encouraging people to help old folk understand the new Medicare drug benefits. The spot begins with scenes of not-so-old folk being nice to one another; the announcer says that helping each other is “what we do” here in America.

Hmmm. I suppose that there is a lot of niceness and good deeds. But when push starts coming to shove, people put the niceness aside pretty quickly. Just get in your car and you’ll see how quickly courtesy and patience disappear amidst people trying to get somewhere. I’ll admit that I’m not much better; I try to be a safe driver, but only occasionally do I give other people a break (e.g., let somebody pull out from a side street onto a crowded road, or stop to let a pedestrian cross). The thin veneer of niceness washes away pretty quickly once traffic builds up a bit.

The bare truth appears to be that we’ve got selfishness in our genes. Biologist Richard Dawkins published a book in 1976 called The Selfish Gene, which postulates that the process of evolution could care less about the good of the species. The bottom line is whether or not a particular set of genes is good at survival and replication. Since selfishness and aggression frequently provide an animal with the best opportunity to mate and have children in a challenging environment, selfishness and aggression have become common animal traits; and that includes the human animal too. Dawkins’ theory does allow for some cooperative and altruistic behaviors to evolve too, if they help to promote survival and reproduction in a particular environment. But given that the world is a tough place to survive in, selfishness and aggression are stronger instincts than niceness. Or at least that’s what it looks like here in Northern New Jersey.

But then again — we do have brains. We are not completely locked in by our genes and our instincts. We can “do the hard thing” and go against our selfish nature if we can convince ourselves that civilization and cooperation are the better part. I recall a debate from years ago where some people thought that humankind’s only hope lie in intellect and rationality. Obviously, some other people thought that thinking too much was the root of all evil and that humans needed to get back in touch with their basic instincts, which were fundamentally good. (Obviously this implied our “getting back to nature” to learn the ways of proper living, something like the way Native Americans lived before the Euro invasion). From what I know now about the “selfish gene” hypothesis, I’ll have to stick with the rationalists. Yes, the rationalists did invent the H-bomb, but they also determined that it was wrong to use it. And Native Americans scalped each other long before they did it to land-hungry white people.

Avoiding nuclear warfare and scalpings — it’s what we do. Let’s hope.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:34 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, October 15, 2005
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Being an eternal student, I should report in every now and then as to what I’m currently studying. Recall that I’m an old guy, long out of school. I study things simply for the beauty of it. I’m not taking a course; I’m not going to be graded; I’m not going to get a new job from it. It makes absolutely no difference to anyone or anything that my brain is still stuck in school. Except maybe to me, because I like to do it. So here’s what I’m doing in terms of learning these days:

1.) The Roman Empire

Course Material: CD lecture series “Rome and the Barbarians” by The Great Courses; The Immense Majesty: A History of Rome and the Roman Empire, Thomas Africa; Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, Lesley Adkins and Roy Adkins.

Initial Impressions: This is where civilization came from? This great empire was built on the subjugation of independent peoples and cultures surrounding the Mediterranean Sea through military aggressiveness. Well, I guess you can’t make an omelet without cracking some eggs; look at what had to be done to native Americans and African slaves in order to build the American empire. If I could make but one suggestion for future generations, it would be “no more empires”. Instead, let’s have a world full of little nation-states about 200 miles wide, tops. They can still build coalitions to do interesting things like explore space or find cures for cancer. But let’s get rid of the big, militarily dominating empires. The break-up of the Soviet Union was a step in the right direction. The European Union, luckily, doesn’t seem destined to become much more than a trade block. And hey, what would be so wrong with Iraq breaking up into three mini-nations?

One good thing about studying the Roman Empire: it helps you to understand science fiction, especially the Star Trek / Star Wars kind. Almost all of the “space invasion” movies (e.g., Fourth of July) and TV shows (isn’t there a new one on ABC these days?) are based on the fear that someday, some Romans from another Galaxy are going to come along and decide that our planet would make a good addition to their empire. In the process, they would do to us what Rome did to Gaul, Spain, Carthage, Greece, Israel, Dacia, Armenia, etc. Or what the early American state did to the Cherokees, Choctaws, Seminoles, Navajo, Mohawk, Sioux, Apache, Crow, etc. Oh dear, a taste of our own medicine. How bitter.

2.) Quantum Theory

Course Material: Introducing Quantum Theory, J.P. McEvoy and Oscan Zarate; Quantum Reality, Nick Herbert.

Initial Impressions: My initial impressions of Quantum Theory were formed long ago. I’ve been trying to figure out just what all the fuss is about since I was in college. Only now am I beginning to realize just how weird the micro-world really is. Only in my old age can I grasp just why the results of the double-slit electron experiment are so strange. Electrons and light particles are really something like traveling blurs or blobs that cover an area much larger than the particle itself, with the particle sort-of existing everywhere in the blob, but nowhere in particular; not until some act of measurement takes place. This blurry blob has wave-like properties; sort-of, anyway. Also, when this blob comes upon a fork in the road, it goes both ways — sort-of. Yup, definitely pretty weird.

3.) Human Consciousness

Course Material: Consciousness, An Introduction, Susan Blackmore; Introducing Consciousness, D. Papineau, H. Selina; The Mystery of Consciousness, John R. Searle.

Initial Impressions: Consciousness at first seems rather obvious. But try to explain it, and it gets kind-of like quantum theory. Eventually, you start talking about a little person in your head watching a screen. And what is inside that little person’s head? Another little person, ad infinitem like Russian dolls? Ultimately, about the only thing we can say about what consciousness is like, is that it’s like being conscious. We more-or-less hit a dead end, maybe a limit of knowledge (just as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle acts as a dead-end to knowledge in the quantum world).

I personally think that a lot can be said about consciousness and its place in our experience by studying human evolution and the development of the mind in a child. Compared with other species, we humans have the ability to think abstractly. We use language as the way to memorialize (and share) our abstractions. One of our biggest abstractions is the concept of ourselves. And once we grasp that concept, we start having emotions about it. That’s what consciousness is ultimately all about, an on-going emotional reaction to a jumbled mix of what’s presently coming thru our senses, what we remember, what we believe, what we hope for and fear (consciously and sub-consciously), and what we had for breakfast. Emotions evolved in animal species so as to increase the brain’s activity in response to exceptional conditions (proximity of food, perception of danger, opportunity for sex). Humans turned this higher level of brain processing into an almost constant thing (although we still have increased brain activity during times of danger or sexual arousal; we never completely leave the jungle).

But — nice as all that sounds, it still doesn’t solve the “hard problem”, which is “just what IS this consciousness of feelings???” A lot of consciousness scientists say that we will someday understand the ultimate nature of conscious experience, but the more I study it, the more I have my doubts. Psychologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists are coming up with all kinds of interesting observations about the workings of the brain and the mind; unlike my evolutionary abstraction and “reflective emotions” hypothesis, theirs are carefully specified and supported by empirical evidence (my idea is mostly SWAG, stupid wild-ass guessing). A handful of them seem to think that they’ve said enough, and that the “hard problem” is (or will soon be) satisfactorily resolved. But my impression is that they’ve hardly scratched the surface, and a consensus of experts appears to agree. I personally don’ t believe that such a consensus will ever evolve, unless a wave of mass delusion overtakes the academic world (which does occasionally happen).

Over the past 400 years or so, science has pushed back the shroud of mystery through which humankind once looked upon the world. Earthquakes and lightening and other mighty phenomenon are now explainable and predictable things. At present, the Big Bang remains a bit of a mystery, but superstring theory may eventually explain it. Quantum phenomenon cannot be understood in the way that everyday events in our world are, but we do have scientific and mathematical tools that elucidate the micro-world. They may even make practical use of strange quantum events (e.g., the development of quantum computing). But as to whether or not the mystery of human consciousness will ever yield to mathematical models or computer analysis, that’s the BIG BIG question of the 21st Century (and maybe even the 22nd and 23rd).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:54 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, October 9, 2005
Personal Reflections ... Society ...

There are several “Rocky” legends out there in popular culture today. There’s Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stalone’s underdog prizefighter from Philadelphia; there’s Rocky and Bullwinkle of cartoon fame; and then there’s the Rocky Horror Show (less said the better). But I have another Rocky story, and this one is true. It’s about a guy named Rocky Locarro who was the janitor in the public elementary school that I went to.

My own “Rocky story” isn’t much of a story at all, actually. Rocky didn’t do anything that captured the attention of the local newspaper, much less the national media. He didn’t commit any horrendous crimes against the children who were around him all day; he wasn’t a brilliant scholar or musician making a living mopping up classroom floors; and he wasn’t the chieftain of some crime syndicate working undercover. He didn’t even drink or fall asleep while on the job. Rocky was just another working class guy of Italian ethnic heritage who lived in town, had a home, raised a family, did his job, and died rather quietly a few years after retiring.

What made Rocky special wasn’t something that you could see back when you knew him. He was definitely the kind of guy that you took for granted. He was always there, emptying the class trash baskets, moping up puke, cleaning the boy’s urinals, keeping an eye on the boiler so that the classrooms were always warm in January and February (and they always were). He didn’t take many days off. If you needed something from your desk during Christmas or Spring break, all you had to do was to go down to the school and bang on the door around 10 am. Rocky would let you in and you would soon have what you needed.

What really made Rocky special was that he was a consistently nice guy. He sometimes had to yell at kids when they “got stupid”; i.e., when they started manifesting that charming combination of poor judgment and petty malevolence that’s inherent to youth (especially youth from ethnic working-class towns back in the unenlightened early 1960s). He didn’t push his niceness on anyone; he wasn’t trying to prove his virtue at every little opportunity. He didn’t have a big bright smile or an outgoing personality. He had a small, almost odd looking little body, not exactly the kind of person you’d want to hug. But he had a certain combination of empathy and sympathy for every kid, along with a lot of patience. You knew that Rocky would not hassle you any more that he had to. If he could give you a break, he would. By fourth or fifth grade, when you started to “turn cool”, he’d go along with your desire to assert your status (however undeserved) by calling an adult by his first name. If he was coming down the hall and you and your 10 year old friends said “hi, Rocky”, it was no problem; he’d give you a nod or a quick “hi” in return. Try that with a teacher or principal and you were in for some major blah-blah; it was MISTER, MISSUS, or MISS (no “MS” back in those days).

Back in my elementary school years, they didn’t have Ritalin or mandatory special education programs. Nonetheless, we did have a troubled, hyperactive student who bounced back and forth between grades and was occasionally referred to some special school in a distant town. There were a couple of other tough-guy troublemakers who didn’t get along well with the teachers. Rocky seemed to be the one guy who could talk to these unsettled kids (even though he had to chide them about smoking in the boy’s room). I can’t say if Rocky changed their lives. Some of them settled down and had productive adulthoods, and some didn’t. But Rocky was the only adult that they could talk to. He was also nice to the weaker, nerdy kids (like me). And to the average kids. Rocky was basically nice to everyone.

In addressing the economic problems and segregation awareness of American blacks in the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that even if a man is just a street sweeper, he should push himself to be the best street sweeper possible. As with so much of what Dr. King said, this injunction can now be interpreted more broadly across all of humankind. Rocky Locarro was just an elementary school janitor, and yet he was also the best school janitor possible. To a large degree, he would be commended for what he was not: he wasn’t a child molester, a drunk, a slacker, or a tyrant. But he is also forgotten for what he wasn’t: he wasn’t a man of ideas, he wasn’t an entrepreneur, he wasn’t a politician, he wasn’t rich, he wasn’t a world-class athlete, he wasn’t a major artist, he wasn’t a “mover and a shaker”. And that’s a shame, because Rocky was one of those rare people who made life easier for most everyone around him. If there were more like him, there would surely be fewer wars, less crime, fewer lawsuits, better government, and a whole lot more trust and cooperation between people.

They say that capitalism, with all of its wondrous by-products (high tech gadgets, entertaining athletics and culture, sexy fashions, etc.), requires egocentric greed to function. If everyone were like Rocky Locarro in terms of ego, then maybe we wouldn’t have miniature cell phones and wide screen TVs and the Super Bowl and negative political ads and JenLo or Beyonce whomever the pop queen is at present. We’d have a plainer, more dowdy world where everyone was a whole lot more decent and respectful to one another. I, for one, would be willing to trade some consumer electronics and some entertainment culture for a few million more people like Rocky. “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.” That seems like a trite statement, but if you knew a guy like Rocky Locarro, you’d realize that it’s a radical formula for a better world.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:59 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, October 7, 2005
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Two articles in the papers caught my eye recently.

1.) Last Thursday, the Washington post ran an editorial about proposed federal legislation to water down federal “habeas corpus” protections for criminals facing the death penalty. The bill is called the Streamlined Procedures Act, and its now in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Within the past few years, DNA evidence has shown that a handful of innocent people have probably been executed in capital cases since Gary Gilmore went down in ’78. Therefore, it doesn’t seem like a good time to handcuff the feds, who are often the only hope for the victim of an aggressive prosecutor looking to close a high-profile murder case and show the press that he or she has exacted justice for a heinous crime.

Too often, local prosecutors have their eyes on other prizes — e.g. mayor, governor, senator, etc. It doesn’t happen much, but there are times when a poor person without access to effective legal counsel (the quality of public defenders and the resources available to them vary greatly from state to state) is picked out because a nice-looking case can be made against him, and exonerating evidence can be conveniently discounted. Yes, that person is often guilty of other crimes such as robbery or assault. That only makes the person a juicier target for a chief of detectives or a prosecutor frustrated by the lack of any solid leads. Again, it doesn’t happen much. But the criminal justice system is far from perfect, and if we are going to let it have to power to kill people, we need to make it harder and more strictly controlled, not easier.

The Streamlined Procedures Act is just another manifestation of the conservative revolution of the GWB years. Interestingly enough, the Republicans want to proclaim that Jesus is Lord and Savior in our schools and city halls, and at the same time they want to go back to the eye-for-an-eye philosophy of the Old Testament (something Jesus wasn’t too big on). I myself believe that although murderers have to account for their acts and thus be seperated from the society that they have attacked, until they are too old or feeble to do any more harm, the state should avoid doing that which it seeks to sanction. Although stopping the Streamlined Procedures Act would not eliminate the death penalty, it would at least make it harder to kill an innocent person. I suggest that you locate your Representative and Senators on the web and drop them an e-mail asking them to administer the death penalty to the Streamlined Procedures Act.

2.) The SUV, the roadway monster of the Republican era of laissez-faire excess (including the Clinton crypto-Republican years), is finally under attack. Higher fuel prices have caused SUV sales to decline. According to an article in the NY Times this past Monday, sales of large S.U.V.’s in September were down 43 percent from a year earlier. Over the past 15 years, Ford and GM have put most of their efforts into building and selling huge SUVs; so it’s not too surprising that G.M.’s overall sales fell 24.2 percent and Ford’s declined 20.3 percent, compared with the same month a year earlier. The Japanese car companies, which have focused on passenger cars and smaller S.U.V.’s, are doing well. Toyota’s sales rose 10.3 percent, Honda’s increased 11.7 percent and Nissan’s, 16.4 percent in September from a year ago.

Gas prices are coming down again; I saw regular going for $2.69 today. But the glory days of $1.50 gas is probably over. I’m hoping that $75 fill-ups will make Americans realize that the days of “every man and woman for themselves” is coming to an end, and an era of cooperation and maybe even a little sacrifice for the greater good might not be such a bad thing at this point; it’s worth a try, anyway.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:24 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, October 2, 2005
Uncategorized ...

Here are a couple of interesting articles that I recently came across.

1.) Viewpoint: The cult of ‘People Power’, Mark Almond (Oxford University)
This one is on the BBC web site. Professor Almond assesses the myth and reality of “People Power”, i.e. what happens after the people triumph over tyranny through revolution. Sometimes it works out (as in the US back in 1776, Hungary and Poland in 1979, etc.), and sometimes it turns into a mess (as in France in 1789, Russia in 1917, Iran in 1979, etc.). Professor Almond reviews some recent revolutions, including the Orange movement in the Ukraine. He concludes that popular victories are great until they’re over and someone has to set up a stable, honest government. That’s where things so often backfire. The Who said it all back in ’71: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss (from “Won’t Get Fooled Again”).

2.) How to Win in Iraq, Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr.
This is the semi-famous “Oil Spots” article in Foreign Affairs, which lots of people are now talking about. Mr. Krepinevich thinks that the US military is going about the Iraq campaign all wrong. They need to concentrate on securing a few small areas from the insurgents, bolstering the Iraqi military and police forces within those zones, then spreading out from there (just as an oil spot grows). Krepinevich says that we could get the job done with fewer troops, but they would have to stay longer (maybe 10 to 15 years), and there would ultimately be more Americans killed.

My take on this article is that it’s built on a string of “best case” assumptions. Mr. Krepinevich doesn’t leave much room for things to go wrong, and doesn’t say what will happen if they do. I’m not an expert on counter-insurgency tactics, but I wonder how he would keep suicide bombers from infiltrating his “oil spots” when Israel has such poor luck in doing something similar. Other people say that the US military is already doing most of what he suggests. To be honest, I’m not sure why Foreign Affairs is wasting its space on this guy. The big question in Iraq right now is whether the average Sunni supports the insurgency or the constitutional process. A detailed article about the current status of Iraq’s Sunni population would be much more useful.

As the first article said, it’s great to throw out tyrants (like Saddam Hussein). But once you do, you may have a Pandora’s Box to deal with. Iraq is sure turning out that way.


◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:21 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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