The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
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Uncategorized ...

What we have here is a recently abandoned car dealership. It’s a slightly eeerie sight. Not too long ago, this place was alive with shiny new SUVs and pickups and vans and sedans. There were real live salesmen preying on the vanity of real live customers, recommending package options that included 8-way power seats, cruise control, lumbar adjustment, performance suspension, power sunroof, alloy wheels, all the stuff you really do need. They were there to talk about trade-in value, financing terms, sound systems, matching floor rugs, “get you a special deal with my manager”, and on and on. Now the manager is gone, the service bay is empty, the lot is desolate, and the phones ring no more. The last shiny new Explorer and Mustang and Ranger have been driven off the lot (this was a Ford dealer). It almost seems as though a bit of the American dream has died.

Well, actually not. This isn’t the start of a social revolution; gasoline hasn’t hit $10 a gallon yet. This was one of the last of the small, in-town car dealerships that were typical back in the 1950s. The trend today is toward big mega-auto malls out on the highways along the suburban fringes. (Their locations are very inconvenient for most people to go to for service — which is just fine with the dealers, as they don’t want to hear about your problems once you’ve signed the dotted line; the days of the local merchant who stands by his product and is there for you is a thing of the distant past, with cars and with most everything else).

But let me dream for a moment. What if American decided to finally bite the bullet and end its century-old love affair with the car. What if we decided to set up a high-quality public transport system with plenty of busses and trains and computer-assisted paratransit systems that could respond to your pick-up requests within a half hour. What if we perfected some kind of rechargeable electric-assist motorized bicycles for short trips, and allowed you to bring them on board all the new busses and trains that you would now depend on (with recharging outlets)? Yea, I can hear the objections — what about the snowy winters, especially up north? And on rainy days? And do you want to ride a bike three miles on a humid 100 degree day in Florida or Texas? (And yet, people still buy motorcycles). What about the elderly? Or pregnant women? What about people who live way out in the middle of nowhere, in the Kentucky hollows or Nevada desert or in the wheatfields of South Dakota?

Yes, leaving the auto (and its small-truck cousins) behind is a whole lot more complex that it sounds at first, just because over the past century our way of life has been built up around it. But someday the oil that all of this depends on may not be there, not in sufficient quantities anyway. And hydrogen and battery power (or hybrids) may not come to the rescue either, at least not at the volume and price levels that are necessary to keep the party going. So perhaps it isn’t too early to ponder the sight of this abandoned car dealership and consider what a world without autos (or with fewer and much smaller autos) would be like.

A lot would have to change here in America, and some people would suffer for it. But with enough Yankee ingenuity, I think it would eventually be all right. There would be some major changes; some towns would shrink or disappear, others would grow. Life would be different. But it might be healthy and even pleasant to use your own muscles to get around again along streets filled with pedestrians and bikes, mostly free of cars and trucks (other than occasional paratransit buses and delivery vehicles). No more 8 mile traffic jams, no more horrible high-speed collisions out on icy Interstates, no more road rage, no more drunk driving tragedies, no more honking and flipping the bird at the guy who just cut you off, less smog and less global warming . . . . and no more car dealerships and “I’ll talk to the manager.”

Really now, just why are we fighting to preserve all of this?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:57 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, June 24, 2006
Foreign Relations/World Affairs ... Politics ...

The other night I watched that show on PBS about Dick Cheney and how he jockeyed the American response to 9-11, thru Afghanistan and into Iraq (i.e., The Dark Side). The show was extremely powerful and compelling. The people doing the talking were the people who were there at the CIA and State Department. Bottom line: had we stayed out of Iraq and continued going after al Qaeda following our initial successes in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein might still be in power in Iraq right now, but he’d probably be no closer to having the bomb. His nuclear program was in shambles after the 1992 Iraqi War and never got going again due to the UN economic sanctions (despite their being criticized for their ineffectiveness). On the other side of the coin, al Qaeda would arguably have been mostly deflated by this time. We would have impressed any and all would-be terrorists of the future that messing with the big Eagle is a fatal enterprise.

But instead, thanks to Mr. Cheney, we are bogged down in a civil war in Iraq; Iran is hell-bent on getting the bomb because of all those American flags on its border (and unlike Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Iran has the economy and infrastructure to support a nuclear program); and al Qaeda and its figurehead (Osama Bin Laden) are injured but still very much alive and intent on further mayhem. But to be fair: yes, Saddam Hussein is finally facing justice; and we did get a Bin Laden wanna-be (al Zarqari) recently, a guy who was making big trouble for the moderate government in Jordan (in addition to all the harm he was doing in Iraq). Nevertheless, there’s a compelling argument that America would be safer right now had Mr. Bush listened to the CIA and not to Cheney and his friends.

What if that’s the way the historical picture really develops? What if, in 20 years or so, historians look back on the 2001-2006 period and conclude, based on the way that things turn out, that the Bush Administration made a bad choice in focusing its anti-terrorism energy on Iraq after stomping (but not completely eradicating) the Taliban in Afghanistan? How do we judge Mr. Cheney? Was there an argument for his view that Iraq was the biggest long-term threat to the west in the post-911 world? Or was he on a power trip that distorted his mind? Was it reasonable to believe that Saddam Hussein still had the bomb within his reach, and would have given it to al Qaeda or whomever had succeeded them as the number 1 snake-in-the-grass? Or did Chaney figure that George W Bush, on top of being a rube, had an exploitable psychological vulnerability about Iraq given that his father didn’t finish the job in 1992? Was Cheney’s mind ultimately creating its own rationalizations to allow him to become (de facto) the most powerful man in the USA, arguably the world?

Frontline did point out that Cheney had reason to be suspicious of the CIA’s doubts about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear capacity and its connections to al Qaeda. In 1992, the CIA failed to identify a fairly significant Iraqi nuclear development facility, and thus our forces ironically left it alone during Desert Storm. So, when the CIA again claimed not to see anything indicating that a Saddam bomb was imminent, Cheney was perhaps entitled to his reservations. (And I suppose that he never trusted the UN weapons inspectors, even after they finally took a closer look in 2003; I can’t imagine Dick Cheney ever having a nice thing to say about Hans Blix.) The Clinton Administration pretty clearly did become too easy about Iraq by 1998 or so. So yea, perhaps in his heart of hearts, Cheney did believe he was like Churchill in 1939, swimming valiantly against the tide of pacifist denial, with the fate of civilization dependent upon on his contrarian nature.

But back to that “fate of civilization” thing. Yes, Churchill used it to good advantage against Hitler and against the Neville Chamberland crowd, i.e. those Englishmen who wishfully thought that the Nazis could be accommodated. Churchill was certainly vindicated by placing the fate of the world on his shoulders. But still, you have to be careful; that can do funny things to your mind, especially if you are in the position to do something about it. Recall that Churchill, unlike Cheney, was not in a politically advantageous position in 1939. It would be another year or so until Hitler had clearly proved himself unstoppable (invading Poland and then France and Russia), and Churchill’s eventual ascent was clearly a public affirmation of his hawkish stance.

Cheney’s suspicions about Iraq were not put to public referendum and were not affirmed by definitive events (although Condi did have a good point about the undesirability of finding about Iraq’s capacity through a mushroom cloud). And Cheney’s words weren’t all that different in nature from the self-sustaining rationales that Lyndon Johnson built up around the Vietnam situation, the anti-Communist rationales that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Americans to almost no advantage in the late 60s and early 70s. In the passions of 9-11, our nation totally forgot that lesson.

So, how do we stop reasonable doubt on the part of our leaders from becoming a self-defining, power-grabbing monomania? I hope that those historians of the year 2026 have a good answer to that.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:50 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, June 22, 2006
Politics ... Society ...

Race Matters . . . . In Politics Anyway: Working in a prosecutor’s office, I get to see pictures of people convicted of murder. Since my county has a significant black population, a lot of its convicted murders are black. Very black. I haven’t done a controlled study, but it looks to me as though many African-American males convicted of murder have very dark skin tones and prominent African facial features.

Compare that with the present-day African-American movers and shakers on the political scene. I can think of Barak Obama, Condi Rice, Corry Booker, and Harold Ford. And not so long ago, Colin Powell. All of these people have fairly light complexions and noticeable European facial features. If you did a controlled, objective study, I think you would find a significant difference in tone and facial structure between black homicide convicts and successful black politicians (at least on the state or national level).

So, the winners from the African-American culture arguably look somewhat Caucasian, while the losers look more like their ancestors from Africa. You could come up with two theories about that. The first one, based on the Hernstein-Murray “Bell Curve” rationale, is that African genetics don’t foster the intellectual capabilities that are critical to success in America today, at least not to the degree that European (and Asian) genetics do. The other rationale is that American culture is still not color blind. People who look more European are received better than people who look African. (And perhaps people who are very black are more subject to police attention and arrest — although many of the police who arrest black murder suspects and the juries who convict them are also black). Despite banishing overt racism, America is still covertly, perhaps unconsciously, racist.

I myself think that the second rationale makes more sense. America likes to think of itself as an open society, welcoming all comers without stuffy European attitudes about class. But as most any sociologist will tell you, no human society can completely purify itself of its unspoken assumptions; it hardly knows that it has any! Subtle notions get passed from generation to generation without ever being put into words. If you happen to be on the wrong side of those unspoken assumptions — well, then, good luck.

Unfortunately, America and Americans have more yet to do on the topic of racism. And Euro-Americans have to do the heavy lifting here. But there is a footnote to that, too. Black counter-racism against whites also exists. Perhaps it can be sympathized with, given the history of racial relationships over the past 500 years; but it still isn’t right, either. We all have some growing up to do.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:19 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, June 17, 2006
Personal Reflections ...

About 12 years ago, I had a thing for monasteries. And so did a lot of other people. Monks and monasteries had recently attained the status of “groovy stuff” amidst the spiritual seekers of the post-war generation. Thinking Christians of the 1950s and 1960s turned to Thomas Merton, a famous Trappist writer and apologist for the “quiet way” of monasticism. Now the beautiful people of the 1980s and 1990s, the maturing baby boomers, had re-discovered the monastic institution. Various writers decided to ride the wave for fame and book sales, most notably Kathleen Norris.

I bought and read Norris’ magnus opus on monasticism (“The Cloister Walk”) soon after it came out. This book was and is a good source of information about monastery life. Norris received a lot of good reviews for it. But as for me, “The Walk” was a rather annoying exercise in self-indulgence and self-celebration by Ms. Norris. In the end, it wasn’t about the monks and nuns and their ancient traditions; it was all about thoroughly-modern Kathleen, a totally with-it author who had the vision to rediscover what these (usually) old men and women were doing in their old churches and farms, despite their seeming irrelevance to the flower-power generation. The stories in Cloister Walk of Ms. Norris’ interactions with various monks and nuns and their communities were quite interesting; but she also just has to let you know about her reaction to an LSD trip, about how a local farm-hand brought a bucket of newly-removed bull’s testicles over to her house one morning (something of a local delicacy out in South Dakota, I think she was trying to say), and various other experiences far from the cloister. I wasn’t quite sure what her point was, other than “oh, my life is so interesting, including how I dug up these places where people still do what they did in the Middle Ages; so aren’t you so glad you paid the $15 or whatever to allow fascinating little me to tell you all about it?”

Last night, while in the supermarket, I was reminded of another disedifying line from Cloister Walk. In describing her life as a famous author, Norris talks about a late evening in Oklahoma City or some such place when she was coming back to a hotel to meet up with her husband after doing a local media interview. Even though it was late and her hubby had turned in, she was all charged up; she wanted something modestly stimulating and satisfying, like fresh strawberries and cream, or a swim in the pool. But it just wasn’t gonna happen that night. So poor, groovy Kathleen wasn’t going to get her berries on. What a tragedy.

I don’t know why, but I felt like that while walking up the cereal aisle. I had just concluded another blah week at work, but strangely enough I still had some restless energy left over. Nonetheless, there wasn’t anything worthwhile to burn it on. So I tried to do what Ms. Norris forgot about out there on the celebrity circuit. I tried to relate to what lies at the heart of monasticism, the raison de etre for every monk and contemplative nun: i.e., contemplation. I.e., the turning inward, the embracing of the darkness and emptiness inside ourselves in the search for the ultimate brightness without. I tried to “calm the monkey mind”, as the Buddhists say (with much admiration from the Cistercians [Trappists] and other highly contemplative Christian orders). I heard the Buddha’s call to extinguish desire.

That pretty much explains why I felt let down by Ms. Norris. She got close to the monks and got deep inside their monasteries. They actually talked to her, and that made me jealous. They never seemed very talkative with me when I visited their retreat centers. Actually, there was one guy, Father Albert at the local Benedictine High School [technically still a monastery, albeit in the middle of urban Newark, NJ] who exchanged correspondence with Ms. Norris and wrote a few books himself, but was still willing to give me a few minutes of his time. But back to the main problem: the monastic way just didn’t seem to rub off on Ms. Norris, despite her may words about the wisdom behind the Rule of Benedict. I.e. the inner pathway to sanctity and personal “imitation of Christ”. She just didn’t seem to take it personally; or if she did, she just wasn’t willing to share what it meant to her (other than her surface fascination with the details of an ancient way of life, e.g. the chanting of the “O Canticles” during Advent). She didn’t seem able to hue to the “quiet path” of inner peace when the urge for earthly gratification blossomed and (as usual) quickly shriveled into frustration and disappointment. She didn’t seem to even know that it was available. Just what were those monks teaching her?

So, did I get back on the Zen level despite my existential urge for adventure at the supermarket last night? Yes, for a while. As the daylight faded in the west, I felt at peace with my loneliness and failures and disappointments as I left the Shop Rite and drove over to Whole Foods to pick up some soy yogart. But then something unexpected happened, something that actually did gratify the earlier urge for a “memorable experience”. The checkout woman at Whole Foods was rather young and pretty, and she was very nice to me (rare here in northern New Jersey, rarer still for schmucks like me). We got into a pleasant little conversation about the bottle of blackstrap molasses that I was buying with my yogart. I guess she was also interested in “whole foods”.

Well no, it didn’t lead to anything. Sorry, but this is New Jersey, not a fairy tale or a romantic comedy. I don’t go to Whole Foods very often and the staff there turns over very quickly. I’ll probably never see her again, and even if I did, she was too young for me (and is probably hooked up anyway). But that little tete a tete and the little smiles we exchanged as I carried my bags away were just enough to satisfy my earlier restlessness. It was an interesting day after all. I had found both inner peace and a bit of ego gratification.

(If you read my entry from earlier this week, you might ask why I liked this little bit of attention so much better than the occasional condescending and teasing smiles from the married chicks at work? Well . . . . maybe I’m just in a better mood when I’m away from work.)

(As to the local Whole Foods, business was booming last night, despite their announcement that they will no longer sell live lobsters. Actually I don’t remember even seeing a lobster tank there.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:12 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
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Uncategorized ...

OFFICE SPOUSES AND GHOSTLY SIGNALS: I heard a lady talking this morning on the local NPR radio station about “office marriages”. These are close, somewhat flirtatious friendships between a man and a woman in the workplace, where both (hopefully) are otherwise committed. According to the rules of the game, as spelled out this morning, office spouses know enough not to overstep the boundaries of propriety, but crowd the line nonetheless. They go out to lunch sometimes, exchange gossip regularly, and maybe even share ‘innocent’ innuendoes of sexual interest now and then, so long as these are made in good taste and are not acted upon (but are simply greeted by a sly and understanding smile). According to the NPR report, such office relationships are a dime a dozen.

Hmm. Can’t say that I’ve been in any such relationships. Nor that I want to be. But now that you mention it, I can think of some happily married women at work who seem to want to be my friend. To a guy like me, whose brain was never wired to “read the signals” that most people recognize instinctively, such approaches are usually confusing. At first I wonder, are these chicks interested in dating? (I’m not very nosy, so I don’t keep track of who is “available” and who is not). Then I see the ring (or rings, in many cases) on the left hand, so I wonder, what the hell — is this an invitation to adultery? Oh goody, that’s all I need; a jealous hubby coming after me following a rushed and probably not very satisfying little attempt at orgasmic exchange somewhere.

But now that it’s all been explained, it makes more sense. Nonetheless, I still very much dislike it. I hate all the “unspoken rules” and complex signals that go on between people, especially men and women. I believe in denotation, not connotation. Basically I don’t pick up on subtle signals that people send my way; and as far as I’m concerned, that’s all for the best. It’s a “fail-safe” situation; i.e., nothing happens (other than my reputation as a dork grows).

But then again, I’m not a total reptile. I still try to be nice to people who are nice to me. So, there are some married women who keep flitting around the edges of my radar screen at work. Just today, one of my “clients” came over to my cubicle to borrow a pen so as to correct something on a document, then stood next to me as she made her corrections on my desk, chatting pleasantly all along. Then about an hour later, she and her hubby (who works for the same agency as I do; luckily he’s usually assigned to a different location, as he carries a gun!) were near by, discussing things in the manner that definitely-married couples do.

Well, OK. So now I know. But still, I wake up some mornings and say, just how the heck did I get stuck on this planet?

I’d rather have talked here about quantum theory and how a non-mathematician like me can best understand it. After reading about 10 different books on quantum theory over the past 20 years, I’ve finally formed my own way of thinking about quantum particles and their weird, weird behavior. In a nutshell, I think of them as mixtures of particles, little spaces where the particle can jump around in, and waves. The wave defines probability zones within the little space where the particle jumps, defining where it should be more frequently and less frequently, on average.

For the next big insight, you need to use what you remember regarding the concepts behind differential calculus to understand how the particle jumps around within the little space. I.e., it sits still for an infinitely small differential in time, then moves at random to another point within the little space over an infinitely small differential in time, at an infinitely high speed (yes, faster than light speed), then repeats the process over and over. What happens? The system becomes a cloud, a “superposition” where the quantum particle appears at least once (and in the high-probability areas, much more than once) everywhere within the little space, during any finite interval in time. The particle is smeared over the little space, which can travel thru the air like a ghost. In fact, the beam of electrons in your TV or CRT is like a conga-line of ghosts, flying across the tube.

The final concept is that this wave, and the little space around the particle that the wave governs, can get warped and twisted when it slams into something substantial (i.e., meets up with a high-energy situation or a wall of many, many quantum particles organized together into atoms and molecules). This sometimes causes “wavefunction collapse”, where the ghost wave shrinks into a tiny particle at a definite location, e.g. a little dot on that TV or CRT screen.

Well, I’ll stop here, but I hope to post a page on my site in the near future to flesh out my “rough” way of thinking about the quantum particle. I think that it helps explain (to the non-scientist mind) all the weird stuff like interference, Young’s double slit experiment, Schrodinger’s Cat, decoherence, faster-than-light speed quantum travel, quantum tunneling past a barrier that particles should not otherwise be able to get through, etc.

And it does all this without totally abandoning “realism”, without getting lost in the abstractions of universes that split up each time a particle comes to a fork in its pathway (such that all possibilities are realized) and other way-out-there explanations that physicists and philosophers offer. I don’t claim this to be a 100% accurate view of quantum mechanics (or even as accurate and precise as presently possible). But it’s still a whole lot better for the average Joe than going on Wikipedia and looking up the various articles about quantum physics, reading stuff written by young grad students who discuss eigenvectors and Hilbert spaces and tensor operations with glee (knowing full well that the average person reading the article has no idea what that gibberish is all about). They’re just being show-offs.

But nonetheless, sometimes I wish I was in back in their nerdy world (I went to engineering school and learned a fair amount about basic physics), dealing with those obtuse but ultimately rational mathematical concepts and symbols. As opposed to my little office environment of today, with its even more confusing realm of ghostly and slightly dangerous signals from married women.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:18 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, June 11, 2006
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Uncategorized ...

What’s this? A hurricane-season weather map of the Caribbean under LSD? Microbes under magnification? A barnyard floor after a goat gets sick? Or maybe just a really poor attempt at computer art? Well, my blog as been criticized as being overly “word-driven”, so I’m just trying to get in touch with the other side of the brain, with the visual side of human experience. Yea, I know what you’re probably thinking: stick with the left side. Get back to word abstractions, not abstract art (or whatever the heck this is). OK, fine.

Speaking of the brain, I’ve been continuing my readings on the topic of human consciousness. The latest read is A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness by V.S. Ramachandran. Dr. Ramachandran (aka “Rama”) is a neuroscientist, and this is definitely a nuts-and-bolts approach to the brain and how consciousness is created within it. Not that Dr. Rama, or anyone else, quite knows yet just how consciousness is in fact created amidst all those squishy neurons and electric pulses residing up above your eyebrows. But the good doctor can and does take a lot of interesting guesses.

One point that Ramachandran makes is that experimental evidence shows that conscious decisions to move some part of the body (the finger, the arm, the mouth, etc.) are actually set in place in the brain before we become aware of it. Well OK, that makes sense in a highly instinctual situation like eating, fighting or sex. But even in a calm mood, the decision to get up out of a chair or reach for a telephone is already in motion by the time that you think you are deciding to do such a thing. It’s almost as if there is a “zombie self”, a machine up there in the head, which really decides what to do. The conscious part thinks it is calling the shots, but in reality it is simply watching. (This is called epiphenomenalism). A lot of consciousness scholars would say that it’s even worse than this; my whole description here is totally wrong, as it still assumes “the little man within”. They say that we have to get used to a whole new way of thinking about what we really are.

These are Alice-In-Wonderland times we are living in. Is anything really as it seems to be?

One more bumpy segue here: A guy at work who knows some Middle-Eastern Arab people said that his friends believe that al-Zarqawi’s death was something like an old-fashioned Mafia rub-out. They postulate that there are ongoing arguments and power struggles between the various factions within the Iraqi insurgency, and that some factions recently decided that al-Zarqawi had gotten a little too big for his britches. So they got in touch with the United States military, and we agreed to do their dirty work. It keeps them from walking down the “Arab street” with Arab blood on their hands (especially since it’s an intra-Sunni thing).

Hmmm, something to think about. It’s possible that the local Iraqi insurgency factions, with their Baathist / Saddam Hussein roots, decided that the al Qaeda outsiders represented by al-Zarqawi and their pan-Sunni Arabist theologies were no longer useful and desirable. If so, I see two implications: first the local insurgency in Iraq now feels strong enough and confident enough to work alone; not an indication that the US will successfully establish a stable democratic government in Iraq. But second, the al Qaeda idea of uniting the Islamic world against the west is thus not catching fire. Anti-westernism is still a strong and dangerous current in that world, and the risk of terrorism is going to be with us for a long, long time. But as to the al Qaeda ideology fostering a war of the empires, akin to our rivalry with the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s . . . . that probably ain’t going to happen.

Which is still a bad thing for us, as the USA knows what to do against other empires, being an empire ourselves. We don’t do as well when a set of unaffiliated but similarly motivated tribes peck at us from a variety of directions. Throughout the history of the great empires (Chinese, Indian, Roman, Ottoman, British, American), that has often been the beginning of the end. Can American ingenuity keep history from repeating itself? Stay tuned; our accustomed way of life here in Rome, err, America, is riding on this one.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:33 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, June 8, 2006
Current Affairs ... Food / Drink ...

HEADLINE FROM IRAQ: head-chopper al Zarqawi finally got a taste of his own poison, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. Nice work, dart-drivers (i.e., F-16 pilots) and spooks (intelligence people). Enjoy your post-mission beers.

Z’s death is certainly front-page news, but is it cause for joy and celebration? Not really. Not that the guy didn’t deserve it. But in the end, it’s just another facet of war. They kill our guys, we kill their guys. Nothing really new here. If we someday figure out how to change our genetics in a way that eliminates the drive to go to war, now THAT would be front-page news. The world would then become a truly different place. But until then, it’s just the same old world as it has been for what, oh, maybe 5000 years.

WHEN THE DOG BITES, WHEN THE BEE STINGS, WHEN I’M FEELING SAD, I SIMPLY REMEMBER MY FAVORITE BEERS AND THEN I DON’T FEEEEEL — SOOOOO — BAAAAAD: Despite war and all the other horrible things, beer makes the world almost worth living for. Here’s a list of some of my favorite beers, in no particular order:

Stoney Creek Vanilla Porter
Molson Golden Ale
Dixie Blackened Voodoo
Victory Storm King Imperial Stout
Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat
Wyerbacher Raspberry Imperial Stout
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Lancaster Four-Grain Ale
Shipyard Export Ale
Alaskan Oatmeal Stout
Buffalo Bill Pumpkin Ale
Dogfish Head Raison D’Etre
Lancaster Milk Stout
Genesee Cream Ale
Otter Creek Stovepipe Porter

As you can see, I have a thing for flavored beers and heavy ales (porters and stouts). Also I don’t include any German beers or Belgian ales. I appreciate the German purity law, and a fine Belgian (like Chimay) can be a real treat. But those beers just don’t seem like home to me. Oh, I didn’t include any IPA’s; sorry, but all those hops get on my nerves after a while. That’s just me. And the light, high-production American lagers don’t make the cut, although Yuengling Lager on tap sometimes has a nice, nutty flavor to it. So maybe it should make the list (but in bottles, I’d go with Yuengling Premium first).

So, here’s to good beer drinking. At my age, you don’t want to drink much, so you might as well drink quality (even if quality for you is meibocks or extra special bitters or pilsners).

AND FINALLY: In War and Peace, Tolstoy argues that the great men of history were actually powerless to change the course of history. They were simply the puppets of their times. By contrast, Tolstoy praises people who learn to make the best of things by going with the flow, such as Commander Mikhail Kutuzov. Tolstoy is very Taoist in this regard. In contrast to Tolstoy is Hegel, who says that the “great men of history”, driven by a will to change things, pull the right levers at the right time and in fact do change things (if they’re at the right place at the right time). This change is not necessarily for the better; but certainly things do change. E.g., Julius Caesar in the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. Was al-Zarqawi a man of history, or just a chump? Something to think about, is all I’m saying . . . . . while drinking a Stout’s Fat Dog.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:22 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, June 4, 2006
Personal Reflections ... Web Site/Blog ...

BY DEFINITION: There seems to be some confusion on the Web about who is an “eternal student” and what it means to be one. As to relieve some of that confusion, or at least acknowledge it, I propose the following dictionary definition:

E • ter • nal Stu • dent • dom 1.) The state that young grad students often find themselves in when it seems to take forever to get their classes finished and get a grip on their thesis. This state relates to the state of despair, especially when the graduate student is married and has a child and sees his or her friends with regular jobs buying houses and taking vacation trips while the “eternal” graduate student suffers relative deprivation because of the high cost of postgraduate education these days. However, this form of eternal studentdom eventually comes to an end when the grad student finally gets the doctorate and finds a job, or gives up and becomes a stockbroker or something. 2.) The state that certain older people, who are long out of college, find themselves in when they look back and realize that their college and/or graduate school days were probably the best days of their lives, and then realize that the spirit of those times can be continued despite the lack of teachers and classrooms and registrars offices about them. I.e., the older “eternal student” dedicates him or herself to continuing study, mostly self-guided but sometimes in conjunction with others, occasionally utilizing formal curricula but mostly improvised, by continuing their readings in selected topics of interest; by writing and thinking and discussing what they’ve learned, challenging the accepted paradigms of the chosen field of learning, and by maintaining their curiosity and thirst for greater understanding and wisdom. Some observers relate this condition to pre-operational delay theory, contending that “eternal student” types had, as children, stalled neurologically at Piaget’s pre-operational stage of cognitive development, where much of information processing is at a holistic-visual level and is largely musical and non-verbal, and there is not yet a decentralization from egocentrism. In other words, because of some glitch in childhood mental development, some people arguably want to stay in school and learn, and forget about the joys of wheeling and dealing as adults in society. Either because such people are egocentric, or because learning has a musical quality to it.

Obviously, this blog and the person behind it — sweet, wonderful me — have everything to do with the second definition and nothing to do with the first. As to Piaget and pre-operational developmental delays, I don’t necessarily agree. But even if so, then so what? It takes all kinds to run this world. We need wheelers and dealers and we also need eternal students. If we can all work together and share our strengths to fill in for our weaknesses, then the world could be a better place.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:19 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, June 2, 2006
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I’ve been reading a pretty good book about quantum theory – you know, about the weird way that really tiny particles inside the atom act. Actually, the book is about quantum reality. Thus its title: Quantum Reality, by Nick Herbert. If you really want to get up to speed on quantum stuff and you ain’t got a PhD in physics, this book is a necessity. But it isn’t all you need. I’ve read about 5 or 6 different books dealing with quantum physics, and I’m still not comfortable with it all. It takes a while to wrap your mind around it. Don’t think you can go see What The Bleep (or the new Rabbit Hole version) and know much about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and wave-particle dualisms. Those movies make you think that they’re teaching you all about it, but they really aren’t. Just as The DaVinci Code isn’t going to turn you into a historical Jesus scholar.

According to Herbert, the core dilemma of quantum theory is that it gives up on explaining what scientists observe during experiments regarding tiny things like electrons and photons (light) and other elementary particles. It’s all just too weird. There just aren’t any patterns, nothing to grab on to. Science has thus put a little sign on the sub-atomic map, “here be weirdness”. Don’t bang your head trying to figure it out, because it can’t be figured out. Under the “Copenhagen interpretation”, it’s just random variation; all we have is the ghostly probability wave that tells you where (and how often) the little buggers might show up when you disturb them with your measurement apparatus. A few scientists (the “neo-realists”) still try to hold out against this viewpoint (as Albert Einstein did). But it’s been accepted doctrine for almost 100 years now.

Again, I’m no scientist and I don’t really understand the fundamental math and physics behind quantum dynamics. But I can’t help but sympathize with the handful of romantics who refuse to give in to the weirdness. They just aren’t ready to celebrate a dancing universe of virtual bubbles and blips. They aren’t going gently into that good night of fashionable metaphysical anarchy, despite being seen by the majority as Newtonian dinosaurs. They stand their ground despite rude deconstructionists who tease out white-male, Eurocentric racist / sexist / classist agendas from their viewpoints.

I can’t help but wonder if a glimmer of hope for the romantics is starting to appear on the horizons of cutting-edge theoretical physics. If I understand Herbert, the biggest impediment to an explanatory mechanism for quantum behavior is the limitation on the speed of light. A coordinating force for the behavior of tiny particles would have to spread faster than the speed of light. Einstein said you can’t do that, and every experiment thus far has upheld that theory. But there are still some frayed edges in the standard models of the universe, especially involving gravity. So, scientists are now postulating hyper-dimensional models of the universe. Yep, the fifth dimension may someday be more than a late 60’s singing group (remember Age of Aquarius?).

I can’t work out the math, and I know this may be gibberish. But what if there is another spatial dimension, which we can’t perceive for some crazy reason? If our 3D world lies flat in that extra dimension (like a 2D piece of paper lies flat in our 3D world), then the speed of light remains an absolute limit. But just put a little curve in the topography of our world relative to hyperspace, and voila! A force or particle could leave point A on our world, take a shortcut thru hyperspace, and wind up at point B faster than an ordinary light beam could. It wouldn’t have to break the speed limit of light, just so long as it could get into hyperspace and find a shorter pathway than the one that remains in our 3D universe. Some physicists now speculate that a portion of the force of gravity somehow “leaks” into hyperspace. So, maybe forces can duck out into hyperspace — and maybe comeback at another point, faster than light? If so, maybe the door to an explanatory mechanism for “the dance of the quanta” could yet be found?

Well, admittedly I’m a sucker for sentimental stories about those who keep burning a candle throughout the longest and darkest night, and live to see the dawn. I love a good tale of faith. I still remember those cheezy miracle movies that you’d see on regular TV during Holy Week back in the old days, especially the one about the kids in France or some such place, who talked to the Virgin Mary. The local priests and their parents said they were nuts. And then one fine day, the sun got weird and started to swell up in the sky, and all the adults in the village totally freaked out, ducking into any basement or wine cellar they could find (ah, for one last glass of burgundy). But of course, one of the kids who had a chat line going with the BV, a permanently crippled kid with crutches, looks up at the sun and raises his hands, and lo and behold he can walk again. So his father stops in the middle of the turmoil and says “I’ll never give up hope again!” And then you hear the usual ethereal female voices, and the sun gets back in line, and the villagers all look at each other dumbstruck.

Yea, wouldn’t it be great if something like that were to happen with quantum physics. But I’m not holding my breath. Oh me, of so little faith. No doubt I’ll be in that cellar sipping on vino on the day when the hyper-dimensional sun finally breaks into our world!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:57 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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