The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Saturday, January 28, 2006
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ROAD TRIP: The other night, I had to drive up Route 21 from Newark, and it reminded me that I always liked that road. Twenty-one is a three-lane road built to modern interstate standards, and winds along the banks of the Passaic River. They started building it in the 1960s and finally finished it sometime in the 80s. So, Route 21’s construction more or less overlapped my teen and young adult years; it grew as I grew.

I remember the first time I went north on 21 from Newark; I was about 14 and my father was driving. It was night, and something about the winding turns and the orange lights and the shimmering waters of the river seemed mesmerizing. Well, it fascinated me, anyway; my father just wanted to get home and my brother was distracted by other things.

Later on I regularly used Route 21 to get to school and to work, so I pretty much learned to take it for granted. But I’ve been away from it for a while now, just long enough to bring back the magic (well, something like magic, anyway).

I decided to take a follow-up spin today on 21 and arranged to have some pictures taken. This isn’t exactly like driving along the California coast or through the Continental Divide, but I still like it.

We’re bumping our way along the potholed approach ramp in north Newark, enjoying the lovely sights.

Now we’re on 21, cruising at 55 through Belleville. My cheapo camera distorts the light pole, but it looks kind of cool.

Here’s the Passaic River on the right, with a bridge carrying a local road into North Arlington.

OK, we’re in Nutley, soon to cross into Clifton, with Lyndhurst across the river on the right.

Now we’re coming into Passaic, where my mother grew up. The old downtown area is off to the left; similar to all modern highways, Route 21 avoids it.

Here’s the former US Rubber factory along the river. Obviously the plant contributed greatly to the pollution that still keeps anyone from fishing or swimming. Mom and the grandparents lived right up the street from here, in the Dundee neighborhood.

We get a nice peek here at the ethnic / industrial neighborhoods near Botany Village.

Now we’re up in north Clifton, and the sign says “END 21”. Well, that’s too bad, because it’s an interesting road. Hope you enjoyed the trip.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:01 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
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The UN recently issued a “big think” report about the ecology and the future of the world. This report is called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and it sets out four different scenarios for the next 50 years, explaining what will happen to the environment and to the world economy given each particular set of assumptions.

Three of these scenarios are very nice. The first one is called Global Orchestration, and it assumes that all the nations of the world will agree to a socially-conscious globalization scheme that emphasizes equity, economic growth, and public goods, reacting to ecosystem problems when they reach critical stages (but before disaster ensues). Basically, that one would be “UN on steroids”, the George W. Bush nightmare. It would make the Kyoto protocol look like a Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Next is the Adapting Mosaic, a regionalized approach that emphasizes proactive management of ecosystems, local adaptation, and flexible governance. I guess that the anti-world trade “Seattle Movement” would like this one; it protects indigenous culture while implementing a lot of groovy things. Then there is the TechnoGarden, a globalized approach with an emphasis on green technology and a proactive approach to managing ecosystems. It’s high-tech with a social conscience and a world viewpoint; what could be nicer?

Bless the UN’s heart. After all these years, they still dream the one-world dream. But they aren’t completely blind to reality, either. The fourth scenario is called “Order from Strength”, and it represents a regionalized approach with primary emphasis on security and economic growth, reacting to ecosystem problems only as they arise. I took a quick look through the scenarios section, and guess what? The Order From Strength scenario is the only realistic one. It describes what’s happening now and what is going to keep on happening unless or until there’s some huge calamity. If Hobbes were still around, I think that he would agree (and perhaps the tiger from Calvin and Hobbes would also concur!).

Sad to say, but O.F.S. reflects the way that human beings really are. When I was young, I honestly believed that we could have a Global Orchestration world or at least an Adapting Mosaic. But in my old age, I realize that any Adapting Mosaics are going to be extremely local (village size) and secondary to the multinational business interests that will hold the real power. America will keep on electing presidents and congressmen to dismantle the federal government as a protector of the people; however, it will keep just enough (i.e., the military and the justice system) to serve the needs of the multinational corporations. To the degree that there is any Global Orchestration, it’s going to be on terms set by Exxon Mobil and General Electric and Samsung and Toyota. And the Techno world isn’t going to be a community garden, not if Microsoft and Sun and Oracle can help it.

Despite the stolid, scientific air to it, the Millennium report valiantly tries to point out the advantages of “anything but more free markets and U.S. dominance”. The Order From Strength scenario gives the worst overall economic growth results and the worst distribution of income. Obviously the US and maybe Europe will do OK under it, and China and India will muscle their way into the big time, but everyone else (Africa, Latin America, even the Arabs once their oil runs out) will be cast back into the Middle Ages. Everyone, including the USA, would experience more economic growth under the other scenarios. World population will grow fastest under O.F.S., but life will be brutish and short for the majority. There will be plenty of terrorism and plagues. And of course the environment is in for a much rougher ride than under the other three scenarios (a.k.a. pipe dreams). The authors don’t say that things are headed for disaster by 2050 under Order From Strength, but they hint that the 2051-2100 period will be up for grabs after the planet is treated so roughly for so long. The Millennium Assessment authors are doing their best to say that it doesn’t have to be this way. Regrettably, however, it does.

But then again, I don’t really know. If you’re young enough to plan on being around in 2050 and beyond, then check out the scenarios and see what you think. See what kind of world you want to live in. It would be awfully difficult, but if you were willing to live in a smaller house and drive a smaller car than your parents had — and didn’t slide back into bigness by the age of 40 — and you weren’t afraid to live amidst many different types of people speaking many different languages (immigration into the US would skyrocket under the “nice” scenarios), then maybe you could change things. My generation said that it would “change the world, rearrange the world” (I’m thinking of some old Crosby, Stills and Nash song; I never really did like their harmony). But in the end it went for big cars (SUVs), big houses, and Order From Strength. Will your generation do better?

If you care, then check it out: MILLENIUM ASSESSMENT

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:23 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, January 22, 2006
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R.I.P., CLASS OF ’71? I was in the local supermarket the other night gathering my weekly provisions, not paying any attention to the piped-in “lite FM” music playing in the background. Hey, why start listening to a song when half-way through it the assistant manager is going to interrupt, “can we have a porter report with a mop to aisle 14”. But I couldn’t help but take notice when an old Carpenter’s tune came on as I ambled past the juices and sodas. The song was “We’ve Only Just Begun To Live”, which happened to be the theme song from my high school graduation way back in 1971. I never did really like that song, and it definitely wouldn’t have been my pick. But I wasn’t popular with the “in crowd” back in high school (or anytime since!), and thus I wasn’t consulted.

Well, here we are 35 years later. Theoretically there should be some kind of reunion this year, but my class hasn’t done well in that regard. Every five or ten years I get something in the mail about a planned reunion, but it never seems to come off. And I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not contributing any enthusiasm to the cause. Being an arch-introvert, I didn’t make a lot of friends in high school, and the handful that I might like to talk with probably wouldn’t go themselves.

I do peek in on Classmates.com now and then, as to see who is listed for my year and what is being said on the message board. Actually, hardly anyone from my class is talking these days. There was a brief flurry of messages back around 2001, but since 2003 the board has been pretty quiet.

However, there have been a fair number of entries on the obituaries board. At least 10% of my class is now gone! That really surprised me, because there haven’t been any wars or other disasters in the area. Vietnam was over by the time we reached draft age. And this isn’t a coal mining town, where you’d expect a steady attrition over the years. My class just hasn’t been terribly lucky. We had a rising basketball star, a tall kid who was a great center who led the school team to a championship back in 71. He had his pick of college athletic scholarships. But he wound up on the streets of New York City, a drug addict who eventually caught the virus. He died in 1997.

And of course, our class-song chanteuse, Karen Carpenter, also decided it was all too much and “punched out early” back in 1983.

But I’m still here, hanging in there by my fingernails. More than half of my life is gone, most definitely. The “best years”, i.e. my twenties, thirties and forties have vanished. I don’t have too much to show for them, just a bunch of false starts and meltdowns. But I’d like to think that something intense and fulfilling could still come along, a situation that could translate my natural talents and strengths into something that would change the world for the better. I.e., something that would do good, and at the same time do good for me — something to serve my ego, but more importantly, slake my unmet need for self-actualization. Until then I’ll go on working as a glorified file clerk and go on reading and thinking and having thoughts and insights that interest no one much. And my (very) small group of supporters will go on telling me that I’m a good guy and that I am living a worthwhile life. Such consolation sometimes just makes it seem worse (but I thank them anyway for trying).

I’d like to think that life doesn’t always go according to schedule, and that you can live the equivalent of a full life in the course of a few intense years. (Let me make it clear here that I’m not talking about the mistake that people my age sometimes make, i.e. going on a spending / vacation spree, hoping to find meaning in their lives by buying a sports car or a yacht or by touring India.) For me, those years haven’t arrived yet (although there were a few months here and there in my past that provided a taste of it). But I’m still out there looking for them. I’d like to think that it’s still possible to “just begin to live” even at an advanced age, even if the earlier years didn’t go so well.

Too bad that Karen Carpenter couldn’t believe in this; she got her taste of fame and fortune early on. People told her “it don’t get better than this”, but she in fact was looking for something better (just listen to her haunting rendition of “Ave Maria”, a Carpenters song that never made it to the top 10 radio charts). Karen eventually decided that it just wasn’t here. As to that tall kid from my class who knew how to handle a basketball, darn if I know what he was looking for; but it was something, something he never found. As for me — I’m gonna keep on looking, looking amidst the aisles of the supermarket, looking in the books that I read, looking on the Internet, looking in the people that I work with. Ah, had only my graduating class been able to select a 1988 tune by the Moody Blues: “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:39 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, January 19, 2006
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ANNOUNCEMENT – GRAND OPENING!!! No, there’s not a new Wal-Mart coming to my home town . . . . . thank goodness. But there is a new section on my web site devoted to the science and mystery of human consciousness. Here’s the link:

WHENCE CONSCIOUSNESS

Many people today are fascinated by the question of just how our lives and our feelings and our perceptions and our theories and our dreams and such take place in a 8 by 6 inch shell full of wet, gray, squishy stuff. Just what is it about that squishy stuff (a.k.a. “the brain”) that makes it so special?

The more that neuroscientists look at the brain, the more they say that there’s nothing terribly special about it at all. It is highly complex and extremely organized, having many times the data storage and computing capacity of the largest supercomputer now in existence. We still can’t build a machine that nearly does what the brain does in terms of input / output signal processing (it takes in a whole lot of signals from all over the body, and puts out a whole lot of commands telling the various muscles and glands and organs what to do and how to do it all in near-perfect coordination). But the brain runs according to ordinary physical and chemical laws, and programming routines that aren’t all that different from our computer software (especially the newer generation of object-oriented programming). And it’s similar to what a whole lot of other living critters have behind their eyes.

But for whatever reason, the human brain seems to have crossed some kind of a threshold. It seems to inspire behavior reflecting belief in the possession of a transcendent soul and in an ontological purpose beyond food and safety and mating (the big three for most animals). We look at animals and see a blank stare most of the time. Then we look at ourselves and see a festival of ever-changing emotions; every micro-second of consciousness (including our dreams) invokes a felt response to our current state of sensory inputs and “inner processing”, e.g. imagination, impressions, ideas, brainstorms, delusions, hallucinations, etc. Animals also have emotions that are triggered and monitored by their gray matter; so why does our gray matter seem to take our emotions so personally? Just why does a machine following the normal rules of physics (that’s all that the brain scientists see when they study the brain; there ain’t no magic, no unheard-of forces and effects from some unknown dimension of reality) have such a vivid inner life?

I find it very fascinating; there’s a whole lot more to be said about consciousness. I really wonder, however, if there are ultimate answers. Perhaps this subject lies at the threshold of knowledge. Or maybe it is just a grand delusion, as some philosophers and psychologists and neuroscientists are arguing. Maybe there really is no surprise that a machine creates what we experience in our minds. Maybe when you break it down bit by bit, tackle the small problems and then put it all back together, it will seem entirely possible that science has all the answers. Maybe the grand question of consciousness (the “hard question”, as the experts call it) will just fade away, just as the sacred and extra-worldly nature of thunder and lightening faded away once we learned about electricity and sound waves and weather. Some people have had that “revelation” about consciousness, but the consensus doesn’t seem to have reached that point yet.

My pages on consciousness will be a work in progress. Hopefully they will improve as I learn more. If you are a true expert on the subject, you can probably pick out faulty thinking and dubious assumptions amidst my words. But at least you will appreciate that I’m trying to keep it mostly in the realm of plain language. Yes, I realize that plain language has its limitations; NASA could never have built an interplanetary rocket ship with plain language instructions. They clearly needed specialized mathematical, scientific and engineering symbols and syntax. The academic philosophers seem to think that a special language is also needed to truly plumb the depths of consciousness. Maybe they are correct; I’m still in the early stages of trying to learn their language. Nonetheless, I’d like to offer some technical quotes about consciousness from a smart fellow named Uriah Kriegel. Dr. Kriegel is a well accomplished scholar who is very involved in the consciousness field. He is kind enough to offer much of his work for free on the Internet (Dr. Kriegel’s Web Site). But unless you know philosophical techno-speak, be ready for some tough sledding. Try this, from his summary regarding consciousness:

“A mental state is phenomenally conscious iff it has phenomenal character . . . . phenomenal character is just the compresence of qualitative and subjective character . . . .
My theory of phenomenal consciousness revolves around the idea that conscious experiences have qualitative character in virtue of representing environmental features and have subjective character in virtue of representing themselves . . . . A mental state of mine is conscious only if it is for me, not only in me. (That is what gives it a subjective character.) This requires that I be aware of the state (in the right way). Awareness of something requires representation of it. Therefore, my state is conscious only if I represent it (in the right way).”

Hmm, I’m not sure yet just what that “right way” is. But seriously, Dr. Kriegel’s words are valuable and insightful; it’s just that you need to have all the background knowledge regarding philosophical abstractions and terms of art to appreciate what he’s talking about. For example, the terms “representing” and “representation” are loaded here. To lay people like me, representation isn’t such a big deal; a politician represents me in Congress, so what? But to the good Doctor and his like, “representation” is a big deal, with a very specific and important meaning.

If you’re up for it, then check out Dr. Kreigel’s consciousness stuff. But if you’re still floundering around with it all, then have a look at my pages and let’s compare our floundering notes. I’m not saying that stupid wild-ass guesses are better than well-structured thoughts; but stupid guesses are a starting point (for me, anyway), and I hope to progress from there. So if you’d like to visit my starting point, here’s the link again:

WHENCE CONSCIOUSNESS

(And hey, if Uriah Kreigel or any of his ‘homies’ [his word] ever read this, then no hard feelings; if you would like to enlighten me and help me make my stupid guesses slightly less stupid, the e-mail “shout out” button is up top.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:05 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, January 15, 2006
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I was in my apartment yesterday looking out the side window and saw some birds sitting in the bushes. There were some juncos, which are common this time of year. They spend their spring and summer seasons up on the hilltop wilderness preserve just west of here, then come down into the ‘burbs for the winter. But there were also a couple of visitors — some kind of capped sparrow along with a tufted titmouse. Not exactly very exotic sightings for experienced birdwatchers (which I’m not), but somewhat unusual for a crowded human habitat. It was nice to see them; it brightened up an otherwise usual winter’s day.

Ah, winter. During the short daytime, it’s either dark overcast or bright sun not far over the horizon, casting long shadows. I’m not sure which is more depressing. Thank goodness it doesn’t last forever. I don’t know what I’d do in northern Maine or upper Canada, where it actually does last forever (except for a brief warm season plagued by hoards of black flies)!

Yea, Mother Nature is often overrated, but birds are one of her consolations. When I was growing up, we had a lot of factories in my town, and only the toughest of birds could stand it — pigeons, starlings, sparrows and bluejays. In the 1980s, the factories started shutting down, and we finally saw some other kinds of birds, such as cardinals, northern mockingbirds, catbirds, and house finches. You knew that the pollution was finally abating, but it was too bad about the human effects; a lot of people from the cities lost their union jobs and probably never found anything equivalent. A lot more guys are in jail these days.

I don’t have a good theme tonight, just a couple of scattered observations from a mid-January day. Sometimes life has no grand themes, just a matter of survival. Survival and faith. Faith that sooner or later, the gray will give way to something nicer. But for now . . . . .

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:58 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, January 12, 2006
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Republican politicians love to talk about what a wonderful and miraculous health care system we have here in the USA. And in a lot of ways, that is true. But in a lot of ways it’s not. First of all, access to the miracle of modern medicine in America is certainly very unequal. There’s that huge chunk of the population without health insurance (around 16%). Yes, there’s still Medicare and Medicaid assistance available, but the Republicans are cutting it way back so as to pay for war, tax cuts, and damage from hurricanes that have become very destructive because of pollution from SUVs and coal power plants (more long-time GOP favorites).

But there’s another thing about the American health care system that irks me. It’s extremely biased against education and prevention. Doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies love to do thing for you when you’re sick, but they don’t seem very interested in preventing you from getting sick. This is not too surprising; not too many big businesses (and that’s what medicine in America is) will voluntarily attempt to shrink the demand for its product. Businesses generally act to increase demand, rationally or more often, irrationally. And that’s just what appears to be happening among all the players in the modern health care system.

Case in point — the NY Times is currently running a series on the effects of diabetes in the New York area. As in the rest of the nation, people are becoming more and more obese in this region, and that is causing more and more diabetes. But diabetes is a slow disease; it usually gives you a chance to change your ways so as to keep it in control and possibly avoid the nasty side-effects like amputation and blindness and heart disease. A number of hospitals in the region realize that, and tried to open “disease management” centers for diabetics, i.e. programs that focus on education and better living habits (most significantly, more exercise and weight loss). But most of those centers have closed, despite the encouraging results they were getting with their patients. Why? Because the insurance companies were hardly interested in paying for their services, even though they could clearly lower future claim costs due to better health.

The article spells out some rather shocking facts. Insurance companies will pay $30,000 for a foot amputation, but will deny a $150 claim for a podiatrist to help a diabetic avoid foot problems. They will deny an occasional $75 session with a nutritionist for advice on diet, but have no trouble with on-going $350 payments for dialysis. Actually, they would rather not pay anything at all for diabetics; they would rather discourage diabetics from doing business with them. So, they don’t offer “nice services” like foot care and nutrition counseling, for fear of attracting diabetics as customers. So the population gets sicker, health care costs shoot way up (as patients are provided with expensive, high-tech treatments for serious medical conditions that could have been prevented or delayed), and yet the capitalist owners of health care companies get richer. Yes, folks, this is the miracle of American medicine — wait until you get really sick, and then stuff you with complicated chemicals and wire you to robot devices so as to keep you going; alive but not really well. But that’s only IF you have insurance. Otherwise . . . . . it might as well be the Middle Ages.

I studied microeconomics in grad school, and I was certainly bedazzled by the “magic of the market” after the careful exposition the professor gave of efficiencies and rational allocation effects of a competitive economy. But we were also taught that “there are certain exceptions, and the results aren’t necessarily fair”. And the older I get, the more I see of those exceptions and that unfairness. Yes, I realize that socialist medicine is a non-starter. But capitalist medicine ultimately hurts the social corpus. Just as our founding fathers realized that we need mixed government (taking a cue from Aristotle, who said long ago that total monarchy is bad and total democracy is bad, whereas the truth lies in the middle), we need to realize that our nation needs a mixed economy. Over the past 25 years, America has wandered further and further from that ideal (during which time a lot of people have gotten very rich, but many, many more have become quite poor). I hope the pendulum might yet turn.

But for now, a lot of Americans are diabetic or are becoming diabetic, and the health care system that they rely on is certainly a very imperfect and often unfair one, not to mention irrational. Check out the article if you need some proof. And keep exercising and watch your weight!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:38 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, January 8, 2006
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Here’s a neat idea for reducing pollution, a nice little mix of environmental idealism and capitalist realism (plus a dash of liberal guilt). There’s a non-profit group in San Francisco called Drive Neutral, which will buy carbon pollution credits for you on the Chicago Commodity Exchange if you give them a relatively small donation. These pollution credits, once purchased, legally require some industry somewhere in the USA to reduce it’s carbon emissions into the atmosphere (i.e., carbon dioxide pollution, which causes global warming). The industry could be a utility company or a manufacturer or an agricultural company; they can invest in better technology or change their operations to pollute less.

The idea is that you purchase enough carbon emission reductions via Drive Neutral to offset the pollution that you create by driving your car for one year (you can’t buy them directly). Drive Neutral has a little calculator on their web site to help you figure out just how much global warming pollution you created in the past year, and how much it will cost to offset that pollution via the credit purchase system. I just did it, and my fee for 2005 was $17.50. They take credit cards, so I ponied up the money.

Yea, this is just a drop in the bucket, but it is real. Here’s an article about it from the Christian Science Monitor. Unfortunately, most people who participate in Drive Neutral probably drive relatively small cars anyway (or are on the cutting-edge with hybrids). Now, if only we could shame the owners of Suburbans and Hummers and Excursions into doing this!

Drive Neutral is at www.driveneutral.org.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:39 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, January 6, 2006
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THE PROBLEMS OF PARENTHOOD AND KIDLESSNESS: I’ve noticed that one of the great dividing lines between people is parenthood versus non-parenthood. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that people without kids usually aren’t close friends with people with kids; and vice versa. Personally, I’m on the “without kids” side of the fence. Most of the people that I pal with don’t have kids. Most of the people that I did once pal with who now have kids don’t pal with me anymore. I’ve lost a number of good friendships (regrettably) after my erstwhile friends had kids. It didn’t seem to happen all at once; there were never any terrible scenes which ended our friendships. In each case, it all just sort of faded away.

Who was to blame for this? I don’t think that “blame” is really the issue. It’s just that we became different kinds of people after once being quite the same. I guess that having kids puts you into a different reality. Admittedly, in some instances (most memorably Loyd and Eve, who have three kids), married friends and their spouses really did try to integrate me into the fabric of their family life. Problem was, I didn’t want to be integrated into any other kind of fabric but my own. I guess that I just wasn’t and am still not very good with kids. (I wasn’t very good with kids even when I was a kid! Reaching college age was truly a delight). Admittedly, kids can be fun for a while. But after that while is over, I start asking myself, when are they going to grow up? And the answer is, oh, maybe 7 or 10 or 12 years from now. As Cagney used to say in his prisoner movies, regarding his life sentence: “I can’t do it, see”.

Well, just that it’s too bad if it is true that parents and non-parents don’t glue together too well (maybe it’s just me). It probably doesn’t make much difference for people in their 20s, or even early 30s; but by age 40, it becomes one of those unseen but undeniable barriers. Maybe after age 60, it doesn’t make a difference.

If you are a parent, let me say this: I’m not one of those childless people who gets mad at parents whenever their kids make a bit of noise or inconvenience in public. I realize that what you are doing is necessary for the continuance of the human species. I don’t blame you for believing that other people owe you some help or at least some consideration regarding the huge job of guiding your progeny through childhood. But I myself just don’t have the tools to be of much help beyond common courtesy. Interacting positively with kids is just not one of my strengths. I don’t want nor intend to hurt your kids in any way. I think that they are all entitled to as nice a childhood as my own parents provided me with. But I’m just not able to contribute very much to that process, so please don’t be offended if I don’t seem interested in them and generally stay away from them. And if that means not being close friends with you, well that’s regrettable, but I guess that it’s necessary. Perhaps someday, in another life, we’ll all understand each other and can just laugh together about it all.

P.S., I did a search and couldn’t find much on the web on the topic of friendship between parents and childfree people. But I’ll leave you with this, a LINK to a blog article written by Andrea Rubenstein, a childfree woman who calls for reason and understanding between the two factions. From what Ms. Rubenstein says, though, the divisions between kid-lovers and non-kid people are worse than I thought!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:34 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, January 2, 2006
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I just had a rather pleasant week at home from work, skimming thru Doris Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”, her new biography of Abraham Lincoln. I’ve got to return to work tomorrow; what a bummer. But back to Lincoln and the early 1860s. Lincoln had terrible luck in getting good generals in the early part of the Civil War. There was George McClelland, who fought a good defensive battle at Antietam, but otherwise just didn’t want to fight. After Lincoln finally canned McClelland, he went through a couple of other losers – Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker, and George Meade (as with McClelland, Meade fought a great defensive action at Gettysburg; but he failed to go on the offensive against Lee’s weakened forces after that battle, as Lincoln had ordered). Only later in the war did the industrial-strength Union generals finally emerge: Grant, Sherman and Sheridan.

My theory on this is as follows: it was probably apparent to the early Union generals that a full-tilt battle effort against the south was going to be incredibly bloody and inhumane, like no battle in the course of human history. Technology was behind this; there were now railroads to bring lots of troops to the fronts, telegraphs to coordinate their movements, musket rifles that could shoot longer distances with greater accuracy, bigger artillery guns, trench warfare techniques, land mines, crude forms of machine guns — all kinds of stuff that only recently became available to both the north and the south.

It was not far from the quandary that nuclear weapons created in the 1940s and 1950s: the stuff was so deadly that you didn’t want to use it. So I can see why the first Union generals were so squeamish about getting into big battles. They had never been through such kind of warfare, although they could see how bad it would be.

The generals who were finally able to put up with routinely sacrificing 25,000 or more soldiers on each side on a given day came up through the ranks in such battles. They must have gotten hardened to it. And the kid soldiers who would be put through such a meat grinder would probably only respect guys like Grant, Sherman and Sheridan, who had gone through it themselves.

I do thank the heavens that I can have a pleasant week at home reading about this stuff, and not experience it for real. Virtually every human being knows how dreadful war is, but there seems to be very little that we can do to stop it from happening. It’s kind of like the weather; it just happens, it’s too complex to control. The storms of war continue to rage today in places like Iraq and Sudan and the Congo and Bolivia. Thus I can’t help but wonder: in the coming centuries of human history will this peaceful little patch of suburban New Jersey, which I know so well, yet see armed conflict?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:13 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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