The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Saturday, July 29, 2006
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A NEW JESUS FOR ISLAM?: Here’s a line for a short story. This is pure fiction, but here goes. Somewhere in the Middle East, there arises a charismatic apocalyptic preacher brought up by a Sunni Moslem father and a Shia mother (or vice versa), who wanders about the poor villages of Pakistan and Egypt and the West Bank. Let’s suppose that this prophet gathers a following by performing “great works of faith” and preaching that Allah would soon arrive in person to give the poor of the world their due. What if this prophet was a man or woman of great wisdom, who told the poor what they wanted to hear, but told most everyone else what they didn’t? Next, imagine that this prophet claimed to somehow be of blood lineage to Mohammed (and people actually believed it). What if this prophet told the jihadists to put their swords and guns away, stop trying to be little Mohammeds (really little Napoleons), and trust that Allah could put all things right without their help? What if he or she insisted that the US and Israel would get their due, but only in Allah’s good time?

Well, you know that this New Prophet wouldn’t be long for the world. But he or she might get a few good years in before someone got him. Who would finally do the dirty work? It could be most anyone involved in the Middle East. Could be the Saudi government, or the Syrians, or the Israelis, or the CIA, or Al Qaeda . . . . . or some unholy alliance of several such players.

Let’s take the story even further. Suppose that the New Prophet was attacked by an assassin, was seen being taken away lifeless in a van, and was thoroughly mourned by his group of loving followers. Let’s also say that this Prophet somehow cheated death, but was held by some militant group that may or may not have need for his existence. And somehow, during the confusing days and weeks following the New Prophet’s death scene, a handful of followers actually did manage to see the Prophet, perhaps even got a wave from him from a distance. It was all quite hazy. But the witnesses swore to the faithful that the New Son of Muhammad was still alive, praise Allah.

Then more and more ironies follow. His captors finally decide him to be of no more use, and a quick shot to the head ends the matter. No one ever finds out what really happened. But a small band of faithful Muslims decide to risk their own lives by betraying their imams and mullahs and asserting that the New Prophet lives and will come back soon to announce the arrival of Allah’s Kingdom. Until then, they pledged to lead righteous lives of peaceful martyrdom. For each one executed in town squares by the Sunni and Shia establishment, ten new followers were found. After a few decades, this fervent movement somehow made its way to the cities and universities, which co-opted it as a relief from the intellectual and cultural oppression of fundamentalist Islam. There would still be many decades of blood and suffering, and no help or support from Israel or the west; but somehow this strange Muslim parallel to what Christianity did to Judaism and the Roman Empire would not be stopped.

Yea, it’s just a day dream. But history does repeat itself sometimes. Would this be a better form of Islam? In some ways yes, in some ways no. Right now, Islam, despite being a relatively young religion, is very much an “old” religion, an eye-for-an-eye religion close to the deserts and teeming ghettos of the world, a religion about secular survival in arid conditions — just as Judaism was in Jesus’ time. Although the trend for most religions over time is toward increased secularization, sometimes they experience a spontaneous “re-spiritualization”, a sudden return to other-worldly (metaphysical) values. It might be good for Islam to go through such a process right about now. But it would be just as good for Christianity and Judaism to look unto the heavens themselves. We could all use a bit more divine inspiration these days.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:34 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
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HEY DAWKINS, THANKS FOR THE MEMES: I saw an article in the NY Times about Richard Dawkins’ soon to be released book “The God Delusion”. You might remember Dawkins for his concept of the “meme”. He explains it in his earlier book “The Selfish Gene”. Basically, a “meme” is something like a social version of a human gene. Instead of being an actual strand of molecules that determines our physical features, such as a DNA gene is, a “meme” is a social idea that helps to determine our mental features, e.g. our beliefs, our wants, our cultural tastes, our sense of humor, etc. A “meme” starts out with one person or a small group of people who think up something clever; or at least they find it clever. It can be a joke, a song, a poem, an ad jingle, a magazine article, an opinion, an idea about parenting, a positive or negative review of a restaurant, etc. This “clever thing” can be about big ideas (e.g., Plato’s theory of the forms) or about little stuff (an opinion about a certain kind of mouthwash).

A meme starts out with one or two people, but it soon gets passed on to other people (word of mouth, publication, paid advertisement, etc.). And that’s where it gets put to the test. Just as a species of flora or fauna is tested by the environment it faces, a meme competes for people’s attention. If a lot of people find the “meme” useful or interesting or edifying, it gets passed on. If not, it dies out quickly (or has but a brief season in the sun, like hula hoops and mood rings did). So, the “meme” goes through a Darwinian evolutionary process, where it’s the survival of the fittest (or most popular).

Personally, I’ve had a lot of meme ideas, and they’ve all bombed out. I just can’t seem to “touch the nerve” of the public. (The blogosphere is a good example of a competitive “meme” environment. A handful of blogs — even some non-pornographic ones — get thousands of hits each day. And yet many, like mine, are lucky to get a handful a week. They just never catch on.)

Anyway, Dawkins obviously has some opinions about religion’s status as a meme (or more accurately, as a “memeplex”, a complex system of inter-related memes). I haven’t read his new book yet, but according to the reviews and his other writings and interviews, Dawkins feels that religious faith is a bad meme, something like a gene that causes cancer. According to the Times article, Dawkins feels that God and religion are evolutionary defects that will eventually be eliminated as humankind progresses. In fact, he says that this is already happening in one place — western Europe. He seems quite enthusiastic about this brave new Euroworld.

The idea of God is indeed a meme (or memeplex). It seems to me that it’s a meme that has done pretty well over the centuries, survival-wise. And as with living creatures, you can argue that the idea of God has evolved so as to get better and more intelligent every so many centuries. It took quite a while for a kinder and gentler God, a wiser and unified God to emerge from the many concepts of spirits and multiple gods that have been bandied about across the many cultures of the world over the past — what? — three thousand years? As to religions, admittedly, they still have a long ways to go. Some of them are still quite crude, and all of them are very crude in certain ways. Dawkins spends a lot of time in his book outlining this. As with Dawkins, none of the religions inspire me to get up early on a Sunday morning. But I have faith that some day, we may see the evolution of a better religion, one with greater wisdom, one that makes its peace with science and individuality. That is, if the world doesn’t blow itself back into the Stone Age (through science and individuality).

I obviously see God and religion as being similar to imperfect living creatures that are, in fact, slowly improving over time through evolutionary processes, i.e. by responding to varying environmental challenges. As with most creatures, they can sometimes be dangerous to intelligent life, although they are more often beneficial. Dawkins and a variety of other modern thinkers (most notoriously philosopher Daniel Dennett) find religion to be an unfortunate and pernicious “memenic” accident, something like a deadly virus. Obviously, they feel it has little to offer to the cause of intelligent enlightenment, and much to harm it.

Well, Mr. Dawkins. If the memes of God and religion are like harmful microbes, they certainly have infected a large swath of humanity. And they have done so for a long, long time. How many biological diseases or pathological conditions can you compare that with? Despite continued belief in God and participation in religion, humankind continues to develop such things as human rights, democracy, critical thinking, artistic culture, philosophy, science and technology. In some cases, religion (or a certain form of it) even assisted the emergence of these things.

And as to western Europe — their secular orientation is something relatively new, something that developed over the past 40 years or so. And just what has western Europe contributed, “meme-wise”, to the human condition during this time? Well, let’s consider some things: Techno-trance; Europop; Spaghetti Funk; Abba. Well OK, the Scorpions, admittedly; but also Eiffel 65 and Turbo-Folk. If that is what the future of culture is going to be like once secularism reigns supreme, then give me that old-tyme religion!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:11 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, July 23, 2006
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MY BROTHER THE PRIEST? My brother has been in touch with a middle aged guy who was recently ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. He knew this guy back in his youth, when they were both altar boys at the local parish. Despite being quite a lady’s man in his early adulthood, my brother has long pondered whether he might be called to the priesthood himself. Over the past 6 years he’s devoted a whole lot of time and energy to taking care of my mother, and has been singularly unimpressed by the unwillingness of women he has dated during this time to support him (and not expect too much from him given my mother’s need). I guess he just hasn’t met the right one. And if he doesn’t meet her soon, he might well start talking with the monsignors and assistant bishops who oversee the “priestly formation” process in the local Archdiocese.

I think he could make a good priest, if he falls into the right situation (but given the state of the Catholic Church these days, that’s a dicey proposition). He has a relatively simple and robust faith in God and in the basic myths of Roman Christianity. He’d like to see the Church pull out of it’s 40 year drift toward conservatism following that bright, brief moment in the early 1960’s defined by Bishop Roncelli (Pope John the 23rd) and the Vatican Council. My brother likes people and can charm them. He would be a good youth minister, as he’s still in good shape and has a flair for grooming that would get the attention of high schoolers and college kids (who generally accept substance only if it is presented with style). He would have to watch the alcohol temptation that brings down so many good clerics during their times of doubt and stress. However, most neurotic priests and nuns drink alone, while my brother wants a group around him when he gets smashed. If he could just find the right company and comradeship, he might not need to have another drink in the morning, as the true alcoholics do.

I’m taking a “wait and see” attitude about his current aspirations. It’s not a great time to be a progressive minister in the Big Roman Church. In electing Cardinal Ratzinger as the successor to John Paul 2, the cardinals of the world seemed to sense the need for the Church to “round up the wagons”. They smell something in the winds, something of a danger to the world; i.e. that science, political freedom, economic liberalism and the spirit of the Enlightenment is failing. Despite the great wealth and incredible progress experienced in the west over the past 200 years, they seem dubious as to whether this trend can be replicated in the three-fifths of the world still shackled in poverty. Sure, India and China are making progress; look at the miracles in Japan and Korea. Still, so many other places are going nowhere, even backwards; and in those places, another conservative religion, Islam, is growing rapidly. The Roman Church, admittedly, has a long institutional memory. Its leadership maintains an awareness of the fall of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages that followed. They know that history repeats itself.

After Benedict VI, the Seat of Peter may well go to a brown-skinned man from the underdeveloped world. But that will not bode well for those like my brother who want to see the Church focus once again on modern concerns like personal fulfillment. The Church may well continue its militarization trend. Forget about “finding God on your own path” and “accommodating individuality”; it will be “onward Christian soldiers” instead. The world is growing cold, the lights are going out, and we will all have to fall in line and listen to our leaders if the human race is going to get thru this. Sorry if that doesn’t sound too nice, but if you don’t want to listen to the Bishop of Rome, you’re going to have to listen to someone else; and the alternatives, you will find, will be so much worse.

If you’ve read my blog or my website, you might know my sentiments about religion. I’ve gone beyond liberal re-interpretation. I’d like to see the organized religions put it all on the table, every myth and doctrine, so as to challenge their relevance in an age of science and rationality. That certainly doesn’t mean that God’s existence would not be proclaimed; science clearly cannot prove that God does NOT exist, despite the doubts of many of its luminaries. However, we CAN say with a fair amount of certainty just where the Bible came from, what Jesus was about, how Mohammed’s writings evolved, what the Buddha assumed, and how the convoluted myths of Hinduism emerged over the centuries. I’d like to think that we can find ways of belief and spiritual fulfillment, complete with positive morals and ethics, which are fully consistent with the strange and beautiful revelations that modern science and critical thinking have brought forth. To me, THAT is the challenge for religion in the 21st Century.

But then again. In a recent blog, I said that the civilized world as we know it may be in big trouble over the next 100 years. We may be in a situation not that much different from what Rome encountered around 350 AD. Our civilization has had a few really great centuries when we accomplished all sorts of amazing things. Despite our mixed motivations, we developed all sorts of wonderful things for humankind, things like democracy, human rights, economic opportunity, art, modern medicine, science and critical thought. But despite all these good things, the rest of the world eventually came to resent us more than admire us. Instead of seeking to imitate us, they more and more wish to humiliate and plunder us. And when we look within, we see that maybe we deserve it. We talked a lot about virtue, but in the end we couldn’t find meaningful ways to share our accumulations of great wealth, not even with those in need within our own borders. We’ve taken our “cruel to be kind” economic doctrine just a bit too far, and now those on the other end of that equation are ready to reverse it on us by force.

If that is the way that our world is going, then I can understand why perhaps the cardinals are right. The Church got the western world thru the Dark Ages, and may be needed to do it again. An age of science and enlightenment and individuality may again give way to an age of pandemic and militarism and crude survival. If it came down to a choice of following a Roman Catholic dictator, a secular political dictator, or a trans-national corporation dictator in the midst of a Great World Depression, I’d certainly choose the Catholic one, on a “least of evils” basis.

I wish my brother the best if he does enter the seminary, and I know that he will do the Church much good. He may not formally join the Franciscans, but he certainly has a Franciscan spirit within him. Let’s hope that the Church can preserve something of that spirit if the winds of change for civilization are indeed starting to blow cold.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:24 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, July 20, 2006
Current Affairs ... Personal Reflections ... Philosophy ...

I’m sitting at my computer after having dinner, sipping a little glass of B&B.; I listened to a CD lecture on Nietzsche while preparing my stir-fry, and two points got stuck in my mind. First off was Nietzsche’s disdain for the desire shared by so many people to have a predictable and comfortable life, to avoid tumult and surprise. Well, two nights ago here in my over-rated little town of Montclair, New Jersey, a macho thunderstorm came roaring thru. Nothing that you southerners couldn’t ride out on the porch, but a bit much for our precious little community. It knocked down a lot of trees, blew out the power, and caused some property damage.

I went without power for 24 hours, and had to put up with some traffic jams on the way to and from work; the town had to temporarily close various roads to clean up the damage. It wasn’t really much, but the locals seemed shell-shocked. You can read about their angst on the Barristanet blog. If that sort of thing interests you. The power goes out fairly frequently here (well, not quite like in Baghdad or Khartoum; maybe every two months or so). And they favor tall old trees in Monty Clair, so the city won’t cut them down before they fall down. Thus, seeing tree trunks and limbs blown on to the road is not exactly a new thing.

My point is, if a few wind gusts and lightning bolts could cause such consternation, what would we Montclairians do if we had to face what the people of southern Lebanon and northern Israel are now going thru, i.e. war? Or suppose we were in New Orleans at about this time last year (reminder, we’re coming up on the 1 year anniversary of Katrina)? Going back to Nietzsche, the boring and routine way of life starts looking pretty good pretty quickly, once it’s taken away.

But I know what the great madman was getting at. He was urging us to find a cause in our lives, find a passion to follow. Find something that makes living on the edge fulfilling, makes taking a few bruises and losses all worth while. This makes me think of the Phil Collins / Genesis song “Land of Confusion” aka “This Is The World We Live In”. It’s a good song which tries to be an inspirational song. An interesting cover was recently released by Disturbed.

One line in the song goes “I won’t be coming home tonight; my generation is going to put things right.” At the age of 20, I would have been elated by that sentiment. Nietzsche would have applauded. Who cares if you’re going to sleep in a smelly cellar instead of your own comfortable bed, so long as you’re out there with your peers changing the world?

At age 53, however, I’m less than impressed. The world we live in is a rather tough nut to crack. Not to say that you can’t do any good; not to say that it’s not worthwhile to try. But don’t expect to find any one theory or political doctrine or manifesto or religion (or special concert produced by Bob Geldoff) that is going to make us all act as responsible, cooperative world citizens. The human brain is hard-wired to be tribal. That ain’t gonna go away any time soon, unfortunately. The Israelis and Hezbollah are now vigorously adding another chapter to the thousands and thousands of chapters in that litany of proof.

One other interesting thing about Neitzsche; he more or less came up with the idea for the movie “Groundhog Day” (which I still need to see). His doctrine of eternal recurrence asks whether it would be worthwhile if all you had to look forward to was an afterlife EXACTLY the same as your current life. I won’t go thru all the philosophical ramifications of that question, but it certainly is very good food for thought.

As to check up on how old and behind the times my observation linking Neitzsche with Groundhog Day is, I did a search on Google and some other search engines. And yea, “eternal recurrence” is hooked up with Groundhog Day all over the web. My blog is maybe the 10,000th site to make the point. Oh well. Eternal recurrence, indeed. Trees are toppling in Montclair, and Israel is at war again. It’s just another Groundhog Day, unfortunately. And yet, if I had to do it all over again, Friedrich, . . . .

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:51 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, July 16, 2006
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ONE MORE SUV: There’s a young guy who lives upstairs from me, a handsome dude who is in good shape. He seems like a true outdoorsman; you often see him heading out with his skis in the winter and with his mountain bike in the summer. He would be quite a fine catch for a young lady. And in fact, about a year ago he was frequently seen with a fine young lady. I would see her car parked in our backyard lot in the mornings. She must have been interested in the great outdoors too, judging by the stickers attached to her vehicle (e.g., Sierra Club). She also had her environmental sentiments, given the little “One Less SUV” sticker on her bumper. Before long, there was a similar sticker on the bumper of my neighbor’s Mazda 3. Ah yes, love was in the air.

But after a while, I saw neither her car nor her anymore. Oh well, romance is often a fleeting thing. But the anti-SUV sticker remained on my neighbor’s bumper. I had a quick chat with him not long ago, and he casually mentioned that he was selling his car. A few days later, the Mazda 3 was gone, replaced by a used Nissan Pathfinder (a fairly large-sized SUV; he probably got a great deal, with the price of gas now over $3). I guess this guy needs a woman who is willing to experience the great outdoors without worrying about fuel efficiency and global warming.

In my neighbor’s defense, the former owner of the Pathfinder may well have replaced it with a more fuel efficient vehicle; but his erstwhile girlfriend would probably say that by buying it he just kept a fuel hog on the road longer. It should have gone to the junkyard. Well, what can I say except that I hope he enjoys paying $50 a week for gas. And I wish him better luck with love next time.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:19 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, July 14, 2006
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WHY WORRY? There’s an interesting debate going on about the world’s future. On the one side are those who say that the world, or at least civilization as we know it, is in big trouble and may not survive the next 100 years. In 1972, a think tank called “The Club Of Rome” published a book called “Limits To Growth” which predicted that the world would be in really bad shape by the mid-1990s. Obviously, it didn’t happen. The pessimists say that we got some lucky breaks, but the trends are still in place for a big collapse, akin to what happened to the western Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th Centuries.

On the other hand are the optimists, the intellectuals who say that the Club of Rome / Collapse of Rome scenario ain’t gonna happen at all, period. They say that technology and other corrective forces are in place and are working appropriately. So, they argue, instead of getting upset about global warming and peak oil, we should use whatever extra money and resources are available so as to deal with immediate needs in the undeveloped world, e.g. health care, nutrition, water and sanitation, and education.

One of the pretty-boys of the optimistic crowd is Bjorn Lomborg. (Check out his web site to see why I call him a “pretty boy”; arg, looks like he could have toured with Abba!) There have been various articles about Dr. Lomborg in The Economist, almost all positive. The latest article is about how UN Ambassador John Bolton became a Lomborg acolyte, and is now using his theories to deflect world-wide attention from global warming to things like AIDS, starvation and underdevelopment in Africa. I.e., now that global warming is an undeniable fact, the Bush administration has found a new tactic to divert attention from it, thanks to Dr. Lomborg.

I’ve read some articles explaining Lomborg’s position. When you read his logic, it sounds pretty good. He takes the issues apart piece-by-piece. Natural resources running out? Most commodities (nickel, iron, copper, concrete, foods) are cheaper now than they were 25 years ago. Even oil and gas are mostly a problem of politics; there’s still plenty of oil and gas, they’re just in unstable places (e.g. Venezuela, Iran, Niger, etc.). But once those places settle down, things should be just fine.

Next problem — population growth. Yes, the world’s population is growing. But the UN seems to decrease its estimate of the population growth rate every five years. If things go OK, we shouldn’t go over 9 billion in this century, and at worst will top out at 10 billion in the 22nd century. Next — species becoming extinct, fisheries collapsing, forests disappearing. Yes, some of this is happening, but much more slowly than previously thought; furthermore, these resources often snap right back after a while. Next — pollution and climate change. Well, the facts show that air and water quality overall have improved quite a bit in the past 100 years. And global warming, although undeniable, is still mostly a future problem, and it may not be as bad as some people predict. And anyway, the ways to deal with it are incredibly expensive.

Before I take this on, let me agree with Dr. Lomborg on one important concept. Our world only has so much money and so many resources available to make things better. We can’t assume that there’s enough economic power to fix all problems (unless all the nations of the world would give up their military forces; oh, right, this is planet Earth, not Utopia). So we do have to make careful decisions on how to use what is available in foreign aid and such. If we put everything on global warming, then we won’t be able to do much about the AIDS crisis in Africa, or setting up tsunami warning systems, or building schools in Latin America. But if we totally disregard the long-term problems . . .

Here’s why I think that we actually do need to spend more on the macro problems like global warming, population control and alternate energy. Lomborg looks at the big problems one-by-one, and finds enough to belittle each one. But he doesn’t look at the overall picture. He doesn’t ask whether these trends interact with each other in ways that might make the overall situation much more dangerous. I think that they do. Here is what I’m wary of:

1.) Population Growth: Even if the number of people on the planet isn’t growing as fast as previously thought, it is still growing — and almost all of that growth is happening in the least developed, most impoverished places. UN stats show that population in the “high standard of living” zones (America, Western Europe, Japan) has and will remain fixed at around 1.2 billion. The world has the capacity to support more people, but not to give them relatively secure and prosperous lives, as I enjoy. Most people remain on the edge of starvation, disease and disaster, and their numbers are growing.

2.) Technology Side-Effects: One side-effect of cheap technology is that even in the poorest slums or the most remote farming villages, someone has a radio or TV or video player. And since America and Europe dominate the entertainment media throughout the world, that means that the poor are very aware these days that some people are living much better than they are. Years ago, families in the Andes Mountains or along the lower Nile had no idea of what life in America was like. Now they do. So the possibility for resentment is there and may well be growing.

3.) Peak Oil and Gas: A lot of reasonable analysts are saying that worldwide oil and gas production will peak around 2030. Alternative sources of energy, such as hydrogen and biomass, may take several more decades to become economically viable and available in sufficient quantities; engineering and infrastructure doesn’t happen overnight. So, the price of oil and gas will continue to march upward, creating increased pressure to burn coal. (In China, they’re already burning more and more of it with little regard for environmental effects).

4.) Global Warming: As energy prices increase, there will be enormous political pressure from the business sector to allow coal to be burned, as to avoid a major economic depression. Unfortunately, that’s the worst thing that could happen with regard to global warming. We now know that global warming is real, and that it is going to eventually flood coastlands (where almost 50% of the world’s population reside) and change where crops can be grown. But with the help of people like Lomborg, and with some vague promises about how technology will soon solve the coal-emissions problem, the energy interests will probably get away with burning cheaper, dirtier fuels as oil and gas become increasingly scarce (hydrogen probably won’t be ready yet, and nuclear power will remain expensive and problematic).

5.) Back to Population Growth: The population is growing in the areas that are going to be hit first and eventually be hit hardest by global warming. There’s going to be a lot of angst in poor nations as arable land turns to desert, and waters rise in coastal cities. There will be huge flows of refugees crossing borders, searching for dry land and food. That’s going to create a lot of political tension in a lot of different places (French President Chirac just made a speech about how Africa will “flood the world” with refugees if it continues to collapse economically; he wasn’t even considering the potential effects of global warming).

6.) Back to Technology: Another side-effect of technology is that nuclear weapons are becoming widely available. Despite the commendable efforts of the USA and Western Europe to avoid nuclear proliferation, we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, as A. Q. Khan from Pakistan has proven. By 2030, just about every nation, and many “pan-national” interest groups (patterned after al Qaeda), will have access to crude nuclear weapons at reasonable prices.

7.) So What? Well, if these trends collide, we
could have a whole lot of disgruntled and desperate nations with huge masses of people facing very major changes regarding issues such as where to find food and shelter, forget about jobs and commerce. A confluence of bad luck could push things to a “tipping point”; there may not be enough time to set up new farmlands and new cities with all the new infrastructure needed to support them. People are known to do desperate things under such circumstances. And these people may well have nukes. They’re going to be mad at each other as they struggle for what resources remain available, and they’re going to be mad at the USA and Europe for being rich enough to ride out all the changes. We could see a decade or two of low-intensity / slow-motion nuclear war, with a few bursts from a local war here, a few bursts set off by terrorists in major Western cities there . . .

I can’t help but wonder if 9-11 and the present crisis along the US-Mexican border are just the opening songs in a great tragic opera that will unfold throughout the world over the next 50 to 100 years. Humankind would certainly not come to an end. But as to whether civilization will continue to advance, or will it take a nuclear setback that will require four or five centuries to make up for (akin to the Dark Ages), that is an awfully good question. One that Mr. Lomborg and Mr. Bolton would do well to ponder.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:08 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
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We Are Family: I read today that the Prime Minister of Poland resigned after a political tiff, and the President, Lech Kaczynski, appointed his identical twin brother Jaroslaw to take his place. So, the government of Poland has become a family affair. Poland is now being run by biological clones. It should be interesting to see how that works out.

But lest you think they’re completely nuts over there, sixty percent of Poles think that having brothers in the top two government jobs is bad for the country, according to a PBS Center survey.

Let’s hope that these guys aren’t in any way related to Ted Kaczynski, the American “Unibomber”.

We Are Family, Part II: In Newark the other day, police arrested a man while he was attending his father’s funeral. The cops received a tip that the guy had shot and killed the old man a few days before, and would be at the church. Allegedly, Bernard Hoover, age 21, shot his father, 51 year old Earnest Hoover, after the senior Mr. Hoover got involved in a fight between his son and his son’s girlfriend. Hmmm, that would not have been a great idea on a hot summer night (admittedly, that’s said with 20-20 hindsight).

Nonetheless, I take my hat off to whoever dropped the dime on the younger Mr. Hoover. Ratting-out is not a popular thing to do in Newark these days. But the cheekiness of mourning your own father’s death in church after you killed him (assuming that the story holds up in a court of law) obviously violates even the most cynical standards of life and death in the nastiest of neighborhoods. So, they’re not completely nuts over there either.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:28 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, July 6, 2006
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In trying to get a better grip on quantum physics, the average Joe or Josephine would do well to also acquaint him or herself with Nietzsche. One of Nietzsche’s major tenants is that there is no “core of reality” which lies behind our perceptions, i.e. what exists “out there” beyond our minds. Well, maybe there is something, but it’s not like anything we’ve ever known.

Yea, this sounds like the quantum world already. Nietzsche called his own metaphysical view “perspectivism”: there is no singular truth or truths about “life, the universe and everything”. There is no one ultimate, objective truth that is the same for everyone. Everything depends upon perspective. Indeed, this sounds a lot like quantum physics, where measurement is everything; you see what you set out to see, e.g. wave or particle, momentum or position, spin or whatever. You don’t get to the core of it, because . . . . well, maybe there is no core! There is no “God’s eye view”, because, as Nietzsche famously said: God is dead.

In 1900, God turned the tables, and Nietzsche was dead. But ironically, 1900 was also the year that quantum theory was born, when Max Planck presented a paper before the Berlin Physical Society showing how the concept of non-divisible “energy packets” or “quanta” solved a bunch of conceptual problems regarding energy radiation. So, quantum theory was born right there in Nietzsche’s German fatherland, just as he died. After a few more decades of research and conceptualization, scientists found out that the quantum micro-world of electrons and photons and quarks was a very un-Godlike place, where things happen for no reason whatsoever. But luckily for us, when billions and billions of random, meaningless events team up in certain ways, meaning and lawfulness emerges (good old “quantum decoherence”, and it’s conceptual cousin “emergent phenomenon”).

And yet, on the personal, conscious level, our lives often seem like a meaningless, random string of events. Let’s hope that a metaphysical anology follows — that even though our day-to-day experiences can be cold, cruel and random, the big picture that eventually emerges from all of them in fact DOES have a theme and does have meaning behind it. Allow me to repeat that Zen-like line from The Man From UNCLE that I so often use: “if you’re nowhere, then you ARE somewhere” (spoken by Robert Vaughn, aka agent Napolean Solo). That’s what wisdom and faith are all about. Even Fredrich Nietzsche could probably dig that. (Cut to “Man From UNCLE” theme song.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:04 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, July 4, 2006
Personal Reflections ...

Well, actually, I only knew one. As a Polish-American guy who grew up in a working class town in New Jersey, and who never really got out of “kielbasa world” (even though I’m now a vegetarian, thank goodness), you wouldn’t expect that I’d have met too many Daughters of the American Revolution. But I actually did have an acquaintance with one. This being Independence Day here in the USA, it seems the patriotic thing to do to reminisce a bit about her.

Her name was Celeste Underhill, of Shelter Island, New York (a ritzy little island off the far northern tip of Long Island). To me, she was “Aunt Celeste”, even though she obviously wasn’t in any way related to me. She was the great aunt of a guy who I worked with back in the mid-1980s, and with whom I struck up a friendship (we’re still friends today, pleasantly enough). Anyway, Ed and his wife Jane were quite close with Aunt Celeste, and used to visit her little estate out on Shelter Island (in the “heights” section) quite regularly. And I had the honor and pleasure of accompanying them on two or three of those weekend trips (my memory isn’t that good anymore; I know I was there at least twice).

I don’t think that Aunt Celeste was spectacularly rich, but she was well enough off,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:45 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, July 1, 2006
◊ 
Uncategorized ...

AH, LOOK AT ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE: There were some articles in the local newspapers and the weekly news magazines recently about a study published in the June, 2006 American Sociological Review regarding friendship. Based on nationwide surveys done in 1985 and 2004, the study indicated that Americans now have fewer friends and fewer people that they can talk face-to-face with about their problems.

And I thought it was just me.

The poll indicated that the average number of close friends that people have declined from three to two between ’85 and ’04. Furthermore, the proportion of folk who don’t have anyone around to discuss personal stuff with went from 1 in 8 to 1 in 4. Great news for shrinks, but not for those “seeking community”. As social isolation increases, fewer people get involved with things like volunteer fire departments and the Red Cross. If you get sick or old and have to go to the hospital or a nursing home, don’t count on having many visitors. And if there’s a disaster like Hurricane Katrina in your hometown, don’t count on getting a ride if you don’t have a car, or even if you do, you may not have anyone to stay with.

Alienation does have its costs. I would postulate that it contributes to the study findings showing that Americans are generally less healthy than the British and most Europeans, despite much greater spending on health care here. When one is alone a lot, food often becomes one’s solace. That would contribute to the high obesity rate here in America, which eventually contributes to many diseases (diabetes, heart problems, stroke).

So how did we get here? The study authors (Laurie Thorner and Lynn Smith-Lovin) blame the fact that people work longer hours, commute longer distances to work, and also that more women forsake housewife status for careers; this makes it harder to maintain ties with neighbors and even family. They also cite technology changes, i.e. more TV viewing and computer use.

I myself would agree with that, but I think there’s something more fundamental going on. I’m an economist at heart, so I think it’s tied to wealth and money. Despite all our complaints, America is the richest nation in the world. Even though wealth is getting more and more concentrated over time, most people in America have at least some discretionary income at most points in their life, and thus have a lot more opportunity to do what they want versus most anywhere else in the world.

Being able to do what you want is great; I love it. You can study what you want while in college or trade school, have a career in the field of your choice, move to the part of the country that you like, take up any number of different hobbies and interests, enjoy a wide choice of music and entertainment, select from a wide range of political views and social causes and religions (or not). And then throw in the great mixture of races and ethnicities and nationalities and immigrants here in America; and the fact that they increasingly fight to maintain their identity, versus blending-in as “average Americans”.

But guess what? The side-effect is that we all become one-of-a-kind. It’s hard to find anything to talk about other than the weather. Back when I was a kid, and even in college in the early 1970s, there were only three television stations to watch, and maybe four or five radio stations that were popular. You got a car from either GM or Ford or Chrysler, either a sedan, compact or mid-size. There were only so many movies to go see — at the local movie house, because video and DVD did not yet exist. Middle class life had a familiar pattern to it. Most people in my area were second or third generation Euro-ethnics. I know that this was not paradise; I agree that segregation and closed-mindedness are bad things. But it was a lot easier to relate to people around you when there was more common ground. For example, there seemed to be more civility on the roads and highways; I don’t remember all this ‘road rage’, with people willing to cut you off and run a yellow light to get to their destination 30 seconds faster.

[And then there’s blogging, of which I am also guilty. There are a million blogs out there. But how many of those does any one person find interesting? One, two, maybe three if you’re lucky?]

Is this really a problem, or is it just another nostalgic lament about how we lost something when we went from rags to riches? Technology and wealth make it easier to stay in touch with people from our past. We live in a mobile society today; those friends we do find are likely to move eventually. But with e-mail and telephone and cheap air-fares, it’s easier to stay in touch. If I had to answer the study survey, I’d say that I don’t have any close friends within 20 miles. But there is still a handful of people who I could talk with on a deeper level, in various parts of the country. Nevertheless, it’s extremely hard these days for me to make new friends, especially on the level of sharing one’s most important concerns and interests. Maybe it’s an aging Baby Boomer thing; maybe this survey just reflects the fact that there are more people in their 50s and 60s these days, and older people generally have a harder time making new friends.

I guess I’ll have to leave it to the sociologists to figure out what’s going on here. But it does help to know that I’m not the only one having a hard time “finding community” these days. I’ve heard a lot of people, especially the idealist kind, talk about community, about living in a place where people sit on porches and stop and talk on the streets and in the local stores. But now I know why they talk about community so much; because it just doesn’t exist anymore!

One final example: a few years back, my apartment building (a house divided up into six dwelling units) was sold. We have a porch in front, but under the old owner (who lived here), no one ever used it; the owner and his family came from Italy, and this is an extremely non-Italian neighborhood. So he pretty much discouraged anyone from hanging out on the porch, afraid perhaps of attracting “the wrong element”. The new owner is a bit younger, and seems a bit more “communitarian”. Even though he doesn’t live here, he put out a swing and a bench and table with chairs around it. For a while there, some of the tenants tried it out. But now we’ve pretty much gone back to an empty porch. We just don’t have much to talk to each other about; we all have other things to do with our spare time. You just can’t change the flow of American social trends with a swing and a few chairs and a romantic vision of the past.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:13 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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