The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Sunday, November 26, 2006
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Friday, November 24, 2006
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FASHION TO DIE FOR: I’m the kind of guy who lives in his head most of the time. But for better or for worse, I’m not completely immune to the whims of fashion. I’ve worn glasses for most of my life, and I very much like the round ones or the plain square ones. But to keep up with fashion, my current glasses are thin rectangles. It’s just where the fashion is these days. In another five years, who know?

(Some stuff I do hold out on. Like three button suits and jackets. Sorry, but I’m sticking with two buttons. I just like the look of two button jackets better.)

I’ve talked a bit here about the elderly women (over 60) who sit near my desk at work. Since I’m pretty far down on the pecking order, I get to sit in the “steno pool”; I guess I really didn’t belong anywhere so they stuck me with the “old girls” in the steno pool. Anyway, one of my office mates is extremely fashion conscious, noticeably more so than the others. She’s frequently on the phone ordering new clothes during work time (but yea, I goof around a lot too, surfing the web quite a bit). Thankfully, she does appreciate the fact that she’s “a woman of a certain age”; she strives more for elegance than for revealing flesh.

But during the summer, my office mate decided to catch up with the current preference among younger woman for fashionable sandals (I believe they call them “slides”). Unfortunately, she paid a price for it. One Monday she came in with a nasty little bruise on her face. Being the vocal extrovert that she is (with a very loud voice to match), I heard the story of what happened, more than once again that day. She and her boyfriend went to a wedding reception, and she was trying out a new pair of formal sandals. As part of the architectural fashion at the catering hall, the plaza in front of the main entrance was paved with something like cobblestones or brick. So, of course, her heel got caught. With the total lack of ankle support that such shoes provide, down she went. She wasn’t badly hurt, though, and she managed to joke about the fact that she hadn’t even had her first drink yet. After that, it was back to more age-appropriate shoes for her.

What was more ironic was that my office mate recently lost her mother. On the face of it, her mother died from a stroke at the age of 90. But the story turned out to be a bit more involved than that. I know that I should mind my own business at work; but again, my office mate has a very loud voice and spends much of the day talking about her life with anyone who will listen; it would be almost impossible for me (and anyone else who spends time within earshot of my desk) NOT to know more than you want to know about her.

Anyway, my office mate often talked of her mother; it soon became quite apparent where my office mate got her fashion sense. Even though her mom had recently joined the “ninetegarian club”, she was still independent and active. She went thru the motions of primping herself any time she had to leave her home; fixing her hair, putting on lipstick and makeup, selecting stylish outerwear; no jogging suits for her. Unfortunately, she recently made a trip to a local supermarket in a pair of formal shoes; they may have been quite sensible for a thirty year old, but weren’t what a ninety year old woman should have been wearing. She was pushing a cart across the parking lot, and one of the wheels hit a rut in the pavement. The unexpected resistance threw her off balance, and she couldn’t regain her step; down she went, landing head-first.

My office mate first indicated that her mother received a bump on her head, but was generally all right. But then the mother was taken to the hospital after having speech and vision problems, and had to have an operation to drain fluid pressure in the brain. But even then, she seemed on the path to full recovery, being quickly placed in a rehabilitation center. My office mate reported that her mother was demanding lipstick and hairspray at the center, a hopeful sign. But the aging body houses a thousand ironies, and one Friday afternoon the word came in that the mother had died quite suddenly from a stroke.

So, was this death by fashion? Might my office mate’s mother have still been alive and living a relatively happy life had she used walking shoes with soft and wide soles? Obviously I can’t say for sure. But it is definitely a possibility. So it does make me wonder, what are the goods and bads regarding the social phenomenon of the human species known as dressing ones self according to “fashion”? What are the pros and cons of “social pressure”, however subtle, to prefer certain ways of outfitting the body, and to avoid certain others?

There certainly are pros to it all; most “fashion”, admittedly, does have a good look to it. I can think of many exceptions, but most fashionable clothes are like a painting done by a true artist (versus something shlopped together by an untalented nerd like me). Fashion in many ways is art; it is a method by which art finds its way out of the galleries and into the nooks and crannies of our daily life. It is a celebration of the aesthetic of the human body, and of the many colors and textures of nature. It can make you feel better about yourself. Fashion is also an expression of the mood of the times. When things change a lot, fashion also changes a lot. I lived through the late 1960s and I can remember all the crazy fashion innovations when the Baby Boom was coming of age, and sought to distinguish itself from the suburban style of life from the 1950s. But things kept on changing, and what was “hip” in 1969 became totally “out” by 1976.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have some regard for the aesthetic functions of fashion. I feel good about going to work in a decent suit with a nicely matching tie. I like the look, and I know that others like the look. It’s a good thing. But still, when it’s cold, when it rains, when it’s snowy and icy, I want to ditch the suit and the slippery leather-soled shoes (which a vegetarian like me shouldn’t be wearing anyway; more and more of my shoes these days are cheap-o leatherless specials from PayLess). The fashion feeling fades quickly for me when the world turns nasty. Which it so often does.

As to the second part of fashion, “mood of the times”, I don’t have much time for that. Very often I disagree with what the herd is thinking; in fact, my general rule is to distrust any notion or thing that seems right to a majority of the public (case in point: George W. Bush). But yes, I am not immune to public opinion. So if bowties become hot next year, I’ll probably put a few bowties into my wardrobe (actually I have some bowties and I rather like them; they seem to make more sense than having a long tie hanging from your neck to your belly. But I never get around to wearing them, because no one else does).

Well, I guess we all strike a different balance between fashion and practicality, between worrying about how others view us versus how comfortable and warm (and safe) we are. I appreciate what a complex issue fashion is, especially for women. Personally, I have much regard for “different drummers” and those who march to them. But admittedly I do think that women sometimes look pretty in clothes that must obviously be uncomfortable. The ultimate point here is that everyone should reflect on the presence of fashion and decide for themselves how to settle with it. For too many people, fashion and its demands are like water is to a fish; you don’t think about it, you take it for granted, you go with its flow. Just a little more breathing room between ourselves and the strong currents of fashion is what we all probably need.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:23 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, November 19, 2006
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Oh well, another November has come and is more than half gone. This Monday (tomorrow) is my 5th anniversary at work. Whoppee. Can’t say that I exactly love my job. I’m not even sure that I know exactly how to do it. Somehow I’ve gotten enough done and avoided most trouble over the past 5 years. But the rules can change overnight in the crazy world of urban law enforcement. For now, it pays the bills. It’s all somewhat like a song by Steely Dan – a bit dark and cynical, but with a good beat to it. In fact, a line from a Dan song sums the whole situation up quite nicely: “I don’t really care if it’s wrong or if it’s right, but until my ship comes in, I’ll live night by night”. (I work a regular day job, but there ain’t many windows in the whole place, none near my desk; so it might just as well be night while I’m there.)

I still listen to a rock radio station most days, but I can’t say that it’s like radio was when I was a kid. Back then, there was almost always a song that you had to hear, that you could hardly wait until they played it again. But now, hardly any new tunes get my attention. I did experience an exception to that last week, when WDHA started playing “How Long” by Hinder; it’s a new song and a new group. It has a driving sound and angst-filled vocals, with dark choral harmonies in the background. But I had no idea what the song was about. So I looked up the lyrics on a web site, and here’s what it’s about: boy loses girlfriend to a guy he knows. Boy gets very upset about it. Ex-girlfriend tells ex-boyfriend that she still wants to be friends. Ex-boyfriend gives ex-girlfriend the finger. End of story.

Well now . . . . . there’s a new idea for a song. I guess that the standards are lower these days. But to be honest, a whole lot of guys can probably relate to it. It never quite happened to me, but millions of girls have told ex-boyfriends who they dumped that they want to be friends. And most ex-boyfriends play by the rules and say “sure, we can still be friends”. But deep down inside, the animal in you wants to make a disrespectful gesture. So Hinder is probably going to sell a lot of records with this one (oh, yea, wait . . . . . they don’t sell records anymore; it’s CDs and downloads).

On the more civilized topic of scientific research, I read this week that new astrological observations tend to confirm the notion that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. These observations also indicate that the mechanism through which this is occurring is a mysterious force that somehow increases as the universe expands. The more space there is, the more repulsion there is between anything within that space. Eventually that repulsion overcomes the attracting force of gravity, and things start flying apart. If this theory is correct, then eventually the universe will expand itself into nothing but a fine thin dust. Everything that happens now – the shining of stars, the formation of planets, the emergence of life, the recording of songs about ex-girlfriends – is all just a temporary effect on the way to the big rip. It’s up to us, and to maybe a handful of other planets where sentient life has emerged, to give the Universe any meaning it might ever have. Let’s hope that the other planets are off to a better start on that than we are!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:07 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, November 17, 2006
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END GAME IRAQ: I read the news today about President Bush visiting Vietnam. After arriving, he replied to a reporter’s question about the lessons of the Vietnam War for today’s War in Iraq, and concluded that the lesson from Vietnam is to stick it out. What? Where the heck was he at the time? Buzzing the Texas pinelands in an outdated fighter jet, actually. There wasn’t much chance that a boy from the Bush family would be sent into the treacherous jungles of Vietnam. So I guess he never had to think too much about ‘the Nam’ and what it all meant. (And it shows.)

So now Mr. Bush is sacrificing young American lives once more, unintentionally teaching us about the limits of our power. Bottom line, there ain’t much we can do to stop a civil war. This past week, NPR radio interviewed a series of experts with different opinions as to what to do about Iraq. One guy made a very incisive comment: history shows that civil wars only stop after a whole lot of blood has been spilled. It certainly took a lot of blood to settle the American Civil War, more than any other conflict that American has been involved in.

As with the American Civil War, the conflict in Iraq involves one group that wants a unified nation (the Sunnis) and one group that ultimately does not (the Shiites). Without a unified Iraq, the Sunnis aren’t going to get any oil revenues, and are going to live a dirt poor existence. But the Shiites remember only too well the previous unified Iraqi government, and its tyrannical rule by a Sunni faction. For now, the Shiites dominate the national government structure that the USA helped to set up. But they don’t seem to be acting as though they believe in it – they just want to make sure that the Sunni Baathists don’t make a comeback.

From a practical perspective, I don’t think that the USA can completely withdraw from Iraq. We probably need to keep our special forces in Anbar and anywhere else where anti-western terrorist groups are active. But as to the dream of establishing a unified Iraq, I don’t think that even 500,000 American troops on the ground could do that. Once we get out of Iraq, there will probably be an even worse bloodbath than today; and the ultimate victor may be those trouble-making Iranians. But will there be any less net bloodletting if US troops remain in Iraq? The evidence on that is unclear, either way. Perhaps the best we can do is to take the consolation prize, i.e. a reasonably free and democratic Kurdistan. We can help set up a model nation state within the Islamic heartland after all, but only about 1/3 the size we had in mind. Nevertheless, the Kurdish north is where we can get something done.

Back to the Vietnam War days: we knew darn well that pulling out of Vietnam would mean a lot of bad stuff for our former friends over there. But it just wasn’t worth continuing a war against an enemy that we didn’t know how to beat (and still wouldn’t). Today, in Iraq, we have another situation that we don’t know how to beat. Time doesn’t seem to be on our side. There’s no good evidence of progress. Once we leave Iraq, there may be a horrendous escalation of violence. Or there may not be. Circumstances have proven that we did not understand the situation there when we got in, and we probably still don’t really understand it. It seems clear that there are better places and causes for us to use our military and our many other strengths.

But OK, I do write this with somewhat of a bias. Had Mr. Bush’s brand of thinking held sway in 1972 and 73, I might well have been drafted and could have been sent to Vietnam. I only missed it by about a year. So yes, I am biased against Mr. Bush’s rationale (but the latest election results would indicate that I’m not alone these days). Still, would Vietnam and America have been better places today if people like me continued to die in the jungles and mountains of Southeast Asia? And will Iraq and America be better in 10 years if our men and women over there continue to sacrifice themselves? When the answer is not too clear, then it’s probably not worth the price.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:46 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Brain / Mind ... Psychology ...

People seem fascinated by what other people fear the most. This is a fairly common theme in psycho-drama, and it’s been picked-up lately by some of the reality TV shows, e.g. “The Fear Factor”.

Our world definitely has a sadistic side to it. There are thousands and thousands of awful things that can happen to a person; sometimes death is involved, and sometimes death is spared, just to prolong the torture. And on top of that, there’s a market for Gothic fiction writers who think of tortures and torments that don’t even exist yet. Low-budget science fiction has taken this into new realms, e.g. people being eaten by huge insects or being turned into huge insects. Yea, the human race definitely has a fetish for the torture and degradation of our fellow man, and a corresponding fear that such fetish will be unleashed on ones’ self.

So where do I stand with this? What torment am I most afraid of? Well, I remember a reading assignment back in college regarding Gothic fiction. I had to slog through some crummy story about old backwoods Europe; I’m not sure if it was written by Poe or Baudelaire or whoever. The author started talking about people who have been accidentally buried alive. Not the landslide kind of burial where a person is covered by a huge wave of dirt or rubble, but the proper funeral kind. I.e., the person who wakes up in a buried coffin.

Under modern conditions, this couldn’t happen. But go back a hundred years or so, before medical science had rigorous ways to determine death, and before the custom of embalming a corpse became universal even in the backwoods, it wasn’t impossible that someone could appear dead and be put in a coffin. They could then theoretically wake up and regain their senses in the dark, claustrophobic silence of that coffin, deep underground. The novelist I was reading claimed that there were various cases in France where a grave digger was putting the last shovelfuls over a coffin after a funeral ceremony, and stopped when he thought he heard muffled cries coming from down below. Those were the lucky ones. The Gothic novelist then kicked it up a notch, telling of instances where coffins had to be disinterred and opened years later, only to reveal that the cloth lining inside the box had been torn to shreds.

Not a pleasant thought. Quite Euro-Gothic.

Anyway, I was reminded of this recently while reading a book about the neurological foundations of human consciousness (The Feeling of What Happens, by Dr. Anthony Damasio). Dr. Damasio was discussing something called “locked-in syndrome”, which I have seen in other books referred to as Guillain-Barre syndrome. It’s actually not that much different from being buried alive. Under “lock-in/G-B”, a person remains conscious, and can still see, hear and feel things. However, they lose just about all control over their body. They can’t move a muscle (with one exception, to be discussed). To doctors and anyone else, they seem to be in a deep coma or a permanent vegetative state. But they are still quite aware of their circumstances. Obviously there is much fear and angst; probably even terror. Your body becomes a coffin, and no body knows you’re in there.

But actually, that’s not 100% true. The only reason we know about this condition is that there usually is one last way for these unfortunate people to communicate with the world. They can still move their eyeballs, just a bit. So you can ask them questions, and they can say yes or no by moving their eyes. That’s if you know enough to look for a meaningful flinch of the eye.

Obviously there have been locked-in people who never got thru to the outside world, and had to live in total isolation for however long their bodies last. And even for those who do manage to get thru, it’s not much of a consolation prize. You’d think that such people would still suffer greatly in terms of angst and depression. And yet, Dr. Damasio says that they probably don’t. He says that somehow, the angst factor in their brains and minds is turned off. They find a kind of inner peace. Zen meditation, without even trying.

Well, I hope never to wake up in a buried coffin, or in a body that’s for all practical purposes dead. But it’s nice to know, at least in the second case, that nature isn’t quite the sadist that human beings are.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:35 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, November 9, 2006
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Two quick notes from the news. First off, the theory of greenhouse gasses and global warming is definitely getting traction these days. Everyone is taking it seriously. The electrical power industry now accepts the fact that it will soon be required to take steps to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions, especially from coal-fired power plants. And it’s taking steps right now to get ahead of this, by building coal power plants as fast as possible with the hope that any new laws regulating carbon dioxide emissions will “grandfather” existing coal plants. So they want to build a batch of coal plants now, and then stop building them for 20 or 30 years after the greenhouse gas laws are finally enacted. Some huge coal plants are now under construction in Texas with this in mind; they will probably contribute massively to global warming for the next 30 to 40 years. Here’s the article.

Well, looks like the Democrats are finally back in the saddle in Washington. Do you think they will have the guts to pass some legislation putting a halt to these shenanigans, when the future of civilization as we know it is at stake? All I would say is, don’t hold your breath. By the time the Dems finally get around to doing anything progressive and foresighted, you would have died by choking on – guess what – carbon dioxide.

The second bit of news is that scientists now think that in the early days of humankind, around 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, some homo sapiens still mated with Neanderthals. And thus, we still have some Neanderthal influence floating around in our gene pool. Well, that doesn’t surprise me one bit. There are plenty of guys out there who still look and act like Neanderthals.

And what about those women from back in the early days of modern man who decided to cross the line and date those crude guys with the flat heads? Ah, not much different from today. There are still plenty of women who complain about guys acting like animals and yet fall for the crudest ones of the bunch. They think that the Neanderthal’s strength will make him a good provider and protector for their children. They think they can civilize the beast. Yea, right. Guys definitely need to take responsibility for their poor behavior, but women are the ones who keep that kind of behavior in the gene pool. That’s a thought to keep in mind next time you hear a bunch of women taking a break at work, talking (and complaining) about men.

Oh, here’s the article cite.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:18 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, November 5, 2006
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AN AUTUMN SATURDAY AFTERNOON in the suburbs isn’t complete unless you can hear the sound of a marching band playing at a high school football game in the distance. It can be a classic fall day, bright, sunny, just a few puffy clouds in the blue sky, crisp temperatures, yellow and red leaves tumbling to the ground. But unless you come within a half mile or so of a local stadium during halftime, it isn’t 100% autumn. Not in my book, anyway. I grew up about a half-mile away from a football field (actually in the next town over, but so what), and I always remember the sounds of brass and percussion coming up from the south, fading in and out as the breezes shifted. There’s something unique about the distinctive, off-tune notes from those gridiron trumpets, as their sound waves bounce along the streets and off the buildings and get out of phase with themselves. Not being much of a sportsman and not having any kids, I hardly ever go to a high school football game. But those blustery, discordant tones from the marching band still make me smile.

Unfortunately, my present residence is not within earshot of any football fields. I’ll have to take a walk down by the “Montclair Mounties” field one Saturday before the season is up (guess I need to do that soon!), to hear just a bit of that brassy tribute to budding youth during a melancholy season. It won’t be autumn without it!

A WARNING ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING FROM THE BRITS: I recently discussed the global warming situation on this blog. And with excellent timing, the British Government just released a comprehensive report on what the economic consequences of global warming will likely be, and what should be done to avoid the worst. Senior government economist Sir Nicholas Stern presented the report, which happens to agree with my contention that we need to take big-time action RIGHT NOW or face some really bad consequences in another 50 years. The report strongly concludes that waiting it out (as President Bush is doing), or doing just a little until we’re 1000% sure just how bad the situation will get, is very dumb. Anyway, I commend this report to your attention, if you haven’t already read it or heard about it.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:53 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, November 2, 2006
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PROGRAMMER BLUES: About 6 years ago, I decided that I’d had enough of trying to save the world. I didn’t get any further with that than becoming a lowly grant writer for a non-profit agency that had seen better days. So I figured it was time to go back to my mathematical and engineering heritage, by becoming a computer programmer. I’d still be lowly, but at least I’d be doing something that I was good at. And maybe I’d get to do an honest day’s work; productivity at the non-profit was pretty much a joke. And maybe I’d also get an honest day’s pay. The pay at the non-profit was so-so (a bit better if you were part of the director’s cult, which I had gotten tired of), but the benefits were pretty bad. So I applied to Chubb’s “Top Gun” program, which was supposedly there to teach you how to program in the modern languages, and then get you a year’s internship with a big company. In return, you agreed to work for peanuts during that internship. If you did a good job, you’d become permanent and make a pretty good buck. Most people from the program supposedly did all right.

Well, my class finished just in time for the IT (info tech) crash of 2000. I don’t think that half of the class ever got a placement. Only the younger guys made it, what a surprise. Being an older guy, I had to go crawling back to the world of grant writing and management. This time it would be at a government agency, where the pay wasn’t much better, but at least the benefits were decent. (Unfortunately, the “human atmosphere” isn’t as nice; I do miss the people back at the non-profit).

But who knows, maybe it was all for the best. Back in the 60’s, 70’s and even most of the 80’s, programming was a pretty cushy job. The pay was decent, the job security was good, the work was fairly interesting, and you didn’t break your behind. By the turn of the century, this had all changed. Today, a programmer obviously faces the constant threat of having his or her job outsourced to India. Job security is nil. In fact, regular jobs with health and pension benefits are becoming scarce; more and more programmers need to get by on a short-term contract basis. This might be interesting for you young dudes in your 20s, but for a foggie like me, it just doesn’t work.

So I wasn’t too surprised the other day when I saw an article about “code jams”, another lovely way that modern business minds exploit the geeks. It’s a growing trend in the computer world today. High Tech company XYZ decides to look for programmers by having a “fun event”. You get to compete for the opportunity to get paid for your programming skills. You get an hour or so to solve a hard coding problem. Maybe 100 people get to compete. Maybe 5 get to stay for pay. As to the rest, well, thanks for whatever you got done during the hour or two you were here. We can probably still use it.

Yea, the programming world has become a Hobbsian nightmare. Perhaps the beauty and fun and comradeship of programming still exists, but the business world has certainly ravaged whatever economic dignity it once had. Some people will still make money doing it, but they’d better save up, because there is no security, no reasonable guarantee of income next year. For anyone who isn’t interested in living jam to jam, perhaps the best thing is to do what I did (quite inadvertently). I learned how to program, but I also learned how to do other stuff that arguably has some use (and can’t easily be done by someone in Shanghai). I still get to use my programming skills once in a while, whenever I see a need at my job for a customized computer application (I’ve put together a lot of Access databases for myself and various other people at work).

But, programming is like the icing, not the cake; it’s like the sauce, not the pasta. It’s tasty, but you couldn’t live on it. But it could make you a more valuable employee than if you just did the basic, boring stuff that you were hired for. Yea, the business world still needs men (and women) for all seasons. And programming could be one of those seasons. But the season in which you could make a nice living doing nothing but programming – that season has become a cold and cruel winter, unfortunately.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:45 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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