The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Food / Drink ... Health / Nutrition ...

An article in this past Sunday’s NY Times Magazine by Michael Pollen almost made me cry. Mr. Pollen’s article is called “Unhappy Meals”, but it actually made me very happy. It’s about something that concerns me a lot – the connection between eating and health. Over the past 10 or 15 years, there has been a lot of confusion about whether we humans, especially those of us here in the rich western world, can live longer and healthier lives by eating the right things in the right amounts. Being a vegetarian and a healthy-eating advocate, I believe that it can be done. Being a rationalist and a son of the Enlightenment, I believe that we can use our brains to turn away from impulsive, immediate – gratification eating habits and learn to shovel the right stuff down our throats. And that we can do it while still maintaining respect for flavor and satisfaction, thus obtaining the best long-term outcome.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t think it can be done. Most disappointingly, a lot of scientists have been adding on to this theme lately. Within the past year or two, a bunch of studies have come out implying that nothing works; you can’t prevent cancer or heart disease or anything else by eating more broccoli and fewer bacon and cheese omelets. All the theories regarding the benefits of low-fat, high fiber, highly diverse diets have been cast in doubt. Might as well pile up on the fried chicken and ice cream.

Mr. Pollen acknowledges all of that, and then fires a heavy salvo of common sense back at it. He turns the tide back toward the obvious: Americans generally eat a lousy diet, and are paying the price in poor health. Oh sure, you can come up with all kinds of statistics about how healthy and long-lived Americans are. But that’s because capitalism is so good at coming up with fixes for all the bad stuff we do to our bodies by chowing down on the junk. We have heart by-passes, insulin pumps, statins, chemotherapy, all kinds of stuff to keep our messed-up bodies alive. But is that really the life we want to be living? And isn’t it catching up with us – the rising costs of health care are a big threat to the economic well being of our nation. If things keep going as they are, at some point it’s going to come down to triage; some people are going to get health care, and others are going to be left in the gutter.

Well, me and my little blog here aren’t going to change all of that. But maybe Mr. Pollen has a shot. His article is that good. It’s really worth a read. It reminds me of a line or two from a 1980’s song by Asia: “and now, the tears are in my eyes, the sound you can’t disguise, the truth comes back from lies”. (I think this was from Voice of America). The light of truth is finally reaching the dark recesses of Republican-era dieting fads like Atkins (although Atkins was right about one thing: protein makes you eat less, and eating less is good; however, you can still be a veg-head like me and get enough protein to control your calories).

I might disagree with Mr. Pollen on a couple of points. He says that eating meat in small quantities is OK. Well, it may not have any terrible health consequences if people truly would learn to use meat only as a seasoning and cut out the fat. But there are still lots of social and even moral benefits to going “cold tofu turkey” with meat (e.g., less production of greenhouse gasses). Also, Mr. Pollen says to avoid all processed food, i.e. all modern ménages of food ingredients like Cool Whip or breakfast bars. Well, I mostly agree; however, there may be a good innovation here or there that should not be thrown out. My favorite candidate: soy yogart (unpaid-for plug here for White Wave Silk; I like it, and I think it’s a health food – I want to see it catch on).

But still, the point remains: we know what a good overall mix of foods looks like, and in what amounts. A diet based on such a mix would most likely make a whole lot of people healthier. And it wouldn’t taste all that bad either, although it wouldn’t deliver the immediate gratification that our overly-sweet and salty and fatty fare does today.

Big business has turned America into a nation of junkies for sugar, salt and fat – and for all sorts of medicines and medical treatments. Some folk are getting rich off of this, but a whole lot of people are doing poorly, just as any other sort of junkie does — be they a heroin junkie, a crack junkie, a booze junkie or a cigarette junkie. Mr. Pollen is the voice of culinary reason crying in the wilderness: America, break the habit, and pass the kale and the asparagus.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:43 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, January 28, 2007
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Here’s another bad sign in Iraq: the Sufis have taken up guns. The Sufis are the mystical Muslims, an old faction of Islam which isn’t entirely trusted and accepted by the mainstream Sunnis and Shia. They represent a kind-of “third way” in Islam, an interpretation of the Koran that seems more interested in spiritual exercises and the veneration of the saints than in spreading the sharia (Islamic law) throughout the world by geo-political methods. They interpret the concept of jihad as the fight against one’s own defects in the quest for spiritual perfection, and not as the fight against the infidels without. They’re our kind of Muslims (in a way; actually, the westernized Muslims who have gained a taste for Enlightment ideals are my favorite). Unfortunately they’re a small minority group, albeit one with staying power. The Sufis are most famous for their “whirling dervishes”, those who occasionally dance and spin in spiritual ecstasy during their prayer services.

(Worthless trivia break: wasn’t there an indie band called The Whirling Dervishes? Didn’t they do “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch”?)

The Sufis have historically been more prevalent in Iraq than in other Islamic countries. Up to now, they’ve kept away from all the armed violence going on in the name of either democracy or oil or Allah. They even cooperated with U.S. forces, up to a point. But no more Mister Nice Guy. They now have an armed brigade. Reportedly, they are doing this for self-defense against sectarian violence, not to take pot-shots against the Euro-American crusaders. They haven’t given in to Al Qaeda or the Madhi Army; they want to stay alive.

Things must be pretty bad in Iraq for the dervishes to stop their whirling and pick up M-1’s or AK-47’s and RPG’s. It’s just another sign that Mr. Bush’s great initiative in Iraq has turned into a Greek tragedy, and the furies have been set loose.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:21 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, January 26, 2007
Current Affairs ... Politics ...

I wouldn’t want to be a kid growing up these days. There’s a fairly good chance that the world is going to get worse over the next 50 to 100 years. The two things that scare me most are global warming and nuclear proliferation. We’re now starting to see that all the concern expressed about these two issues over the past 10 years is turning out to be justified. What’s worse is that there’s going to be synergy between them — global warming is going to encourage the use of nukes, and nuke use is going to make global warming worse. If global warming causes starvation and refugee movements, and nuclear weapons are a dime a dozen, then someone’s gonna be desperate enough to use them. It ain’t gonna be pretty.

Obviously, the brainy people at The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists are rather worried too. About 10 days ago, they moved the minute hand on their “Doomsday Clock” two minutes closer to midnight; it now reads five minutes to midnight, just about as bad as back in the early 1960s, when atomic missiles were arriving in Cuba. The sign next to the clock says: “The threat of a second nuclear age and the expected consequences of climate change push the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight”.

One more bit of pessimism, if I may. President Bush asked the Democrats in Congress to give his new plan for Iraq a chance. So, in effect, GWB and Condi are taking that good old John Lennon / Yoko Ono tune from the late 60s and twisting the refrain a bit: ALL WE ARE SAYING – IS GIVE WAR A CHANCE. I’m sure that someone is doing a comedy skit about that somewhere. Just too bad that people have to die in order to prove that the failed policy of a failed presidency really has failed.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:47 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, January 20, 2007
Personal Reflections ... Society ...

VERY SUPERSTITIOUS: When I was a kid, I was a bit superstitious. Maybe I still am, despite my life-long efforts to be a man of reason, a Renaissance man, a man of the Enlightenment. One of the most spooky (and thus effective) superstitions that I know of came from my cousin Mike at around the age of 11 or 12. Mike told me that it was bad luck to count the number of cars in a funeral procession. He said that he once did it, and a day later he got hit in the head with a pipe. So ever since then, I always did my best not to start counting when a funeral procession was driving past me. I would look away, or start humming the national anthem, or do something to distract myself. And it seemed to work, as I haven’t been hit in the head with a pipe yet (although I’ve had many other forms of “bad luck” in my life, as has everyone else).

On another day long ago, the same cousin and I pondered the fact that superstitions aren’t entirely irrational. The one about walking under ladders is obvious. Because mirrors were once hugely expensive, the superstition about cracks in the looking glass encouraged good care of them. As to black cats, well, that one is more Freudian in nature. However, the superstition against counting cars in a funeral procession does in fact make a point, maybe an important point. When you see a funeral procession going by, something important is happening. Instead of counting cars (or trying to avoid counting cars, as I have done for so many years), it might do everyone on the sidelines some good to ponder the question of human mortality. We might extend a bit of sympathy in our hearts to those in that procession who will miss the decedent, whether emotionally or financially (or both, as is often the case). We might hold solemn the end of another human life, the finishing of another story in the book of humankind. We probably don’t know the person who died, but hey – for whom do the bells toll, anyway?

A person might also be tempted to count the cars in a funeral so as to gauge the decedent’s importance. If there were just a few cars, the deceased man or woman was probably just another schmuck. If there are 30 cars or so and they’re mostly big and expensive – well then, maybe we have a bigshot funeral going by, a corporate president or a politician.

Again, though, such thinking deserves a pipe to the head. Saints often die lonely deaths, and people who did a lot of harm in this world are often well celebrated upon their passing (celebrated with acclaim, that is, not with raw truth). If “the other side” truly exists and there are hosts of angels waiting at the gates, hopefully they do a better job of gaging the worth of a person when she or he enters their realm, than we do when they pass from us.

Superstition ain’t the way, as Stevie Wonder sang. But with regard to superstitions about funerals, perhaps there is a point to be made – i.e., if you can get beyond counting or trying not to count.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:09 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, January 18, 2007
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WHOOPS …did they pull the plug on Terry Schiavo too quickly? I recently came across the following quote about vegetative states from a Scientific American article:

in a persistent vegetative state . . . . patients show no sign of recognizing or interacting with their surroundings . . . [however] . . . [s]cientists at the University of Cambridge and the University of Liège in Belgium reported that they had used MRI brain-imaging technology to detect signs of awareness in a 23-year-old woman who had been in a vegetative state for five months. ‘The brain scan showed us that not only was she able to understand speech, she was able to follow simple instructions,’ says Adrian M. Owen, lead author of the study.

So, was Terry Schiavo still conscious when they took her off the feeding tube? The problem is that we still don’t know exactly what consciousness is. How do we judge consciousness? How would we know if a super-sophisticated computer system gains consciousness sometime in the future? You know when you are conscious . . . . but you need to be conscious to know that you are conscious. You think that you know when another human being is conscious; but since you cannot directly share that person’s consciousness, you can’t really know for sure. There may well be twilight zones, and Terry Schiavo may or may not have been in such a zone when they pulled the plug.

The vegetative patient’s response to speech, as indicated by the MRI tests, may indicate some form of consciousness. But then again, these brain responses could also be occurring solely at a sub-conscious level, where much of our day-to-day waking activity is directed from. For you baseball or softball players who might doubt that half of what we do each day comes from the “zombie” part of us, think about this — could you consciously hit a fastball? If you were to concentrate intensely as the pitcher winds up and think the whole thing through as the ball approaches, you would never get to first. You absolutely need to put your mind on automatic. You let your motor coordination mechanisms in the sub-conscious brain guide your arms as you take the swing. If you have very good brain mechanisms to coordinate your muscles, you will get a hit maybe 1 in 3 times at bat. If not, then you’re not an athlete (as I’m not), so forget about sports. Take up another interest.

One of my main interests is the topic of human consciousness. And right now, a lot of thinking and research is being done on it. But there is still a whole lot of uncertainty left. Actually, the more that scientists and psychologists and philosophers talk about consciousness, the more uncertainty there seems to be. The Terry Schiavo case came down smack-dab in the middle of that uncertainty. There were many people on either side of the issue who seemed quite sure of themselves — i.e that Ms. Schiavo was still consciousness and thus should have been kept alive, or that she was clearly not conscious and should have been left to die.

They were all fooling themselves. The nasty truth is that we just don’t know all that much about human consciousness at present. Maybe Ms. Schiavo should have been left alive, as a gesture of humility in the face of the great uncertainties we have regarding our own minds. Or maybe she should have been unplugged, given that we live in a world of limitations; the world is one big emergency ward, where triage is the name of the game. That was what the issue really came down to – two very unsatisfying alternatives. But hardly anyone seemed to grasp this. And once the politicians got involved, the whole thing was a melt down. Let’s hope that more honest thinking and discussion can prevail the next time that a case like Terry Schiavo hits the media.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:58 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Economics/Business ... Outer Space ...

Jeff Bezos is famous as the Amazon.com venture capitalist, the guy who made billions off a good e-commerce web site. Jeff is now taking another big bet on, regarding the space race. A lot of venture capital is now going into space launch services. The government monopoly on the launching of commercial satellites has already been broken, and more and more people are putting real money on the line in order to become the WalMart of earth orbit and beyond. An offshoot of all this is space tourism, the anticipated development of a relatively safe rocket that could take ordinary people up maybe 60 or 70 miles (like the original Mercury space shots in the early 1960s), for a view from the edge of space. Actually, these ordinary people would not be entirely ordinary; they’d have to have a lot of money to afford the ticket for such a thrill ride. But the capitalists obviously see a market and smell an opportunity to get rich.

Jeff’s venture is called Blue Origin, and is aimed primarily at the sub-orbital space tourism market. He’s putting his money on the Delta Clipper rocket, which was designed and tested by the US military under the Star Wars initiative in the 1980s (the space-based missile defense system that President Reagan dreamed of). The Clipper, known as the DC-X during the tests, looks like a huge nose cone with some struts at the bottom. The Star Wars folk hoped it would turn out to be a good design for a cheap, quickly re-usable “single stage to orbit” rocket, something that could ferry a canister of supplies into orbit, then come back down, land, and be re-launched within a day or two.

Unfortunately, the basic physics and chemistry of rocketry worked against the Delta Clipper concept. Given all of the weight factors, the Clipper couldn’t take very much into orbit; it turned out to be more expensive than the regular old multi-stage, throw-away rockets. That’s what NASA and our military has returned to, after several decades of trying to get the Space Shuttle concept of re-usability to work. The Constellation project to return human beings to the Moon and eventually go to Mars is going to use regular old rockets and manned capsules just like the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo rockets of the 1960s. These will mostly be advanced versions of the Delta and Atlas designs used today, which were originally designed to lob H-bombs at Russia in the 1950s.

But hey — just because concepts like the Shuttle and the Clipper didn’t work as cost-effective ways to get stuff and people up into earth orbit, that doesn’t mean that they’re worthless. The “magic of the market” is back, taking government-reject science and finding a niche where it might still be useful. I have a lot of socialism in my blood, but sometimes I tip my hat to capitalism. The idiots who drool to get rich do, in fact, help society in some instances, despite their mindless greed. Maybe the sub-orbital joy-ride purveyors will find an engineering tweek or two that will eventually make a Shuttle or Clipper-like rocket work as a low-cost orbital ferry. So, one cheer for Jeff Bezos and capitalism.

But remember — capitalism has also left us with assorted goodies like broken-down urban centers rife with poverty, murder and drugs; industrial workplaces that sometimes maim and kill their workers; gated communities for the rich; workers with promising career tracks being relegated to the unemployment line because of foreign outsourcing; and global warming. As a social system, capitalism lavishly rewards the winners and tolerates a lot of lackeys (i.e., the American and European middle class); but it really treats the losers quite badly. And when they turn to religious fanaticism and violence, capitalism has no better answer than high-tech homeland security. Such security has made air travel the joyful experience that it now is.

As the ancient wise men (like Aristotle) had said for eons, this world needs a balance of rugged individualism and collectivism. Socialism and capitalism form an antagonistic but necessary yin and yang. Ever since the election of President Ronald Reagan back in 1980, America has been feeding its capitalism/individualism side and starving its socialism/collectivism side. And we’re starting to really feel the effects of things being out of kilter.

I believe that our successful capitalists should start speaking up for the shrinking socialist / collectivist side of our economy and society. Jeff Bezos, for instance. He made his billions on the Internet, but if government hadn’t laid the engineering groundwork for digital packet-switching networks in the 1960s, there wouldn’t have been an Internet to get rich off of. It was government that helped build the railroads, that dug the canals, that laid down the Interstate Highway system and the airports that our economy now depends on. It was our government that got us into space, that came up with the rocket designs that people like Mr. Bezos now hope to exploit for money-making upper-atmospheric joy rides. The radical capitalists want to kill the governmental goose that lays the eggs — eggs that people like them later turn into gold. That all seems a bit short-sighted.

Unfortunately, capitalists are not known for taking the long-term view. But they really should, or else the bearded outcasts may eventually take to the streets once more. Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, please tell me that there’s a better choice than the one between Lenin, Robbespierre, and Chairman Mao versus Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Krupp. Or between Hitler and Howard Dean. Where is wisdom, where is balance? Is it available on Amazon?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:11 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, January 11, 2007
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BARBER SHOP MURDER? About a week ago, an old guy who owned and operated a small video store in Orange, New Jersey was beaten to death with a hammer during a store robbery. Orange is an old urban area that has seen better days. It’s really just an extension of Newark. The old guy and his family had operated the store for years and years, back before there even were videos (it was originally some kind of electric repair shop). They moved out to the suburbs, but the guy still kept the old store opened and tried to stay involved in Orange.

Another urban tragedy. But here’s the urban sociology twist to it. I was sitting at my desk at work today, listening to some assistant prosecutors shooting the breeze. (Recall that I work in a county prosecutor’s office, and Orange is located within our county – so this murder is “one of ours”). One of the big wigs said that a barber shop had recently opened near the video store, and was attracting “the wrong element”. Arguably, it was someone from this “element” who did the old guy in (my inference, not an official statement of my office).

Wow, I didn’t know that barber shops were becoming hang-outs for the bad guys. Back in my day, barber shops were mostly for clean-cut guys. Criminals didn’t get their hair cut very much. I guess that things in the city have taken a turnabout. For a while, there hardly seemed to be any barber shops left – they had been replaced by “salons”. But now, barber shops are back – but they may not be the safe and stodgy kind of place that they used to be. Barbershop harmony has a very different beat today.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:21 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, January 8, 2007
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It feels like a night for random thoughts, so here are three:

First, a memory from last week. I was walking out to my car at 7am one day, getting ready to go to work, when I noticed the full moon setting in the west just as the dawn was breaking in the east. Ah yes, one of those perfect transitional moments in nature. The Queen of the Night was leaving, and the King of the Day was drawing near. It was like some kind of old German clock, where a figurine is leaving thru one door as another comes out of the opposite side.

The second thought is about President Bush’s latest brainstorm about Iraq, i.e. the “surge”. This is a classic example of the stitch that didn’t come in time. Had the US surged its troop strength back when the Iraqis went on their looting binge back in 2003, it might have done some good. But now? It seems to me as though this is a time for biting bullets, for getting real. And getting out, actually. (Although I would support a UN force to occupy the Baghdad area, where there could be a real bloodbath; that is, if a UN force could accept that it might actually need to fire weapons and kill people, and not just hang around with those blue-banded helmets on).

Third thought: I just read that the Mahayan Buddhists believe in a celestial bodhisattva names Manjushri, who cares for learners and students. Being one of this world’s eternal students, I’m glad to learn about Manjushri. I hope that the good Manjushri is looking down right now on me and my messy, book-strewn apartment. And on all those who never gave up on the beautiful act of learning, even when the classroom has been left far behind. Because if you want it, the world can be your classroom. Right, Manjushri?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:16 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, January 6, 2007
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I don’t get out to the movies much anymore. Movies just aren’t a big part of my life these days. But I did make an exception recently for Rocky Balboa. I’m not a boxing fan, not really a sports fan at all. Nonetheless, I’ve seen all the other Rockys, every one from One to Five. So, I figured that I might as well keep my perfect attendance record going with Stallone. (Not that I’ve seen any of his other movies – thank goodness.)

Rocky Balboa isn’t a masterpiece, but if you liked any of the other Rocky movies, you might like Rocky B. It revolves around a big boxing match – the standard Rocky movie scenario. But there are enough twists to it, bittersweet twists that reflect upon the passing of time and the aging of the body and spirit. And he now runs a restaurant, which is kind of neat.

Again, as with all Rocky movies, the fight is the thing. But coming in a strong second is the fact that Adrian, Rocky’s wife, is dead and gone. Nonetheless, Rocky is still devoted to her memory, spending a lot of time sitting at her gravesite and driving around with her brother Paulie, visiting the decrepit old places in Phillie where it all began (way back in Rocky I). Of course, all of this is accompanied by the same old slow piano and French horn score by Bill Conti.

It’s kind of like watching a sunset from an urban neighborhood. Not quite as dramatic as a desert sunset, but you still get the general idea (and the emotional response to it). In the end, Rocky proves his point in the ring, but saves the final scene for Adrian’s grave. After “talking with her” about the fight, he kisses the gravestone and walks away. The camera follows him a bit, then he stops and just disappears. I guess that Stallone is telling us that the Rocky story is finally over. Hard to believe, given that Stallone is such an egoist and since Rocky is the only thing he came up with that might be remembered fifty years from now. But I can’t see how anyone would take a Rocky 7 or 8 seriously. Hopefully, he knows how to finish a good work of art (I wouldn’t say “masterpiece”, but Rocky was good). “Rocky Balboa” is a much better ending to the story than Rocky V was. Just remember Mister Rocky Balboa as the guy who loved Adrian, and who will always love her. Yea, OK . . . that’s a nice way to end the story.

Oh, just how did I get interested in the Rocky movies? Well, my brother got caught up in the enthusiasm for Rocky I just as soon as it came out, way back in 1977. I was living in the Washington DC area at the time, and one weekend I came up to visit my mother and him (a more-or-less monthly thing) and he insisted that we see it. My brother is a physical guy, and he responded to Rocky by taking up boxing himself. Luckily, he didn’t push it too far after a few experiences in the YMCA ring with some tough kids who grew up in nasty urban neighborhoods. I interpreted Rocky in the more generic sense, the idea that a nobody from nowhere (like me) could somehow catch a break and put out his heart and soul and do some great things. At the time, I was planning to apply to law school and was getting ready to take the LSAT. So of course, I saw it all as my own chance to fight the big one. “Gonna Fly Now” and all of that.

Rocky I became a big movie because it sold a dream, a dream that people liked. But most dreams don’t come true, including my own “Rocky” dream. I never got the chance to change the world. I never went the distance. I turned out to be just another kid from the neighborhood. Law school prepared me for an exciting career pushing papers for government and non-profit agencies. I found a woman and married her, but she wasn’t Adrian and I wasn’t Rocky, and we split up within five years. I’m not the one who will always love her.

Oh well. That’s why they don’t make movies about real life. Still, Rocky B is just a step closer to reality than the other Rocky movies were. And that’s why I’ll always like – but not love – the whole Rocky story.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:21 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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