The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Saturday, February 24, 2007
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I was just reading that Nietzsche’s two favorite historical figures were Socrates and Jesus. Nietzsche wasn’t a big fan of Christianity or religion in general. But he admired the fact that Jesus, like Socrates, went down for a vision and a cause.

Nietzsche also wondered why Jesus got a religion, one that has has lasted thousands of years, and Socrates didn’t. (Well, actually there was an attempt back in 2005 to get a Neoplatonic Church going; but their web site, www.neoplato.org, seems to be out of service these days). I guess it’s all in who picks up your cause. In Jesus’ case, it was Paul. Paul was hard-wired to start a new religion (obviously I disagree with those scholars who say that he was just as faithful a Jew as Jesus was). With Socrates, it was Plato. Another brilliant dude, but not a guy who warmed a lot of hearts. So, despite Socrates’ courage, integrity and wisdom, he remains mostly an academic subject, whereas Paul’s concept of “Jesus the Christ” was taken to heart by the masses. Paul and Plato were both brilliant, but in different kinds of ways.

You have to wonder how Jesus and Socrates would feel if you could bring them both back today and let them know the aftermath of their lives. I’m sure that they’d both be thrilled that they made such a huge dent in history, and that their names are still in common usage some 2,000 to 2,500 years later. But who would feel that their message got thru the centuries with the least distortion? I get the feeling that it would be Socrates.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:34 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, February 22, 2007
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Ya know what a lot of people say about me? They say that I’m different. The first person who said that to me was my second grade teacher, Mrs. LaGreca. Well, Mrs. LaGreca, I’ve found some statistical evidence backing up your theory about me.

Not long ago, I registered with www.librarything.com and cataloged 200 books from my collection. That’s the maximum number you can put up for free (you can put up more for a one-shot fee of $25; I may eventually do that). It represents about 2/3 of my overall book collection; I tried to select a representative sample, that reflects my reading interests and tastes.

Well, the “profile page” on librarything gives you a list of 50 or so other users whose library is most similar to your own (here’s the link to my page). It tells you how many books you share with those other users, and how many books they have total. I wanted to know what was the maximum amount of books that I shared with another person who has a library around my size, i.e. 200 books. The maximum number for that is 12, or 6% of my library (I share 33 books with one person, but they have 5,279 books!).

So I wondered how this compares with other people. To get a sense about that, I decided to look up about 25 or 30 other users with libraries around my size, i.e. 200, and see what their “maximum share” percentages are with other similarly sized collections. I tried to select these other users as randomly as possible, making sure that I didn’t overemphasize people having one particular predominant type of readership interest (e.g., religious books, adventure stories, romance novels, etc.). You’d expect them to have a lot of books in common with others like them. Well, I basically saw maximum overlaps in my selected sample of around 10 to 20%, with some going up to around 1/3 (again, between two collections each around 200 books). I didn’t do the math, but I’d guess that the average is around 15%. That would probably yield a statistically significant difference from my 6% maximum overlap with a similarly sized collection.

So there it is, folks. Mathematical proof that I’m a little more individualistic, a little more eclectic, a little weirder than most. And dang proud of it!

One final thing about books: I’m giving a free plug here to Better World Books. I bought a couple of former library books from them, pretty cheaply. They give good service, they give money away to support literacy campaigns, and they use low-carbon packaging to lessen their impact on global warming. I was quite happy to give some orphaned library books a home, via Better World.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:02 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, February 18, 2007
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Waiting On Godel: I’ve been reading and thinking about the nature of human consciousness lately. I’ve found out that anyone seriously interested in the subject must sooner or later face the question of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Godel was a mathematician from the early part of the 20th Century. He was one of those brilliant guys who wondered what was behind mathematics. They call it “meta-mathematics”: it asks, what are the most basic ground rules behind the world of math. Whatever they are, they should be expressible as a system of axioms and associated rules. An “axiom plus rules” system should be compact and yet powerful, such that when you “unfold” it, it explains everything about how we do math. And if you take it further, it can explain all of logic, and ultimately, all of rational thinking in general. And maybe even all of our not-so-rational thinking too. Maybe it can explain everything about how our brains and minds work.

But maybe not. Godel showed that for any system of axioms and rules, no matter how powerful and brilliant, you can formulate a clever proposition that trips the whole system up. Such a proposition is usually self-referential; something like “I will never say that I am true”. Is that proposition true or false? If true, there’s a problem, since you then say that “I am true”, right after saying that “I am false”. If false, then “I” will say that I am true; but didn’t we just say that I is false? There’s a contradiction either way you cut it. In contradictions, the rules of logic tell you to do nothing; no answer is given; you tilt. But if so, then . . . . . well, then the proposition was right, wasn’t it? Even though the system for answering it (based on axioms and rules) couldn’t give an answer. (You had to “look above” the system of axioms and rules to see the ultimate outcome.)

Ultimately, Godel proves that we can never know if a “computational system” gives fully consistent and valid results in all instances, even if that system is in fact fully consistent – unless we can somehow get outside of it, use a bigger paradigm. This all sounds like a lot of mental masturbation, until you realize that the brain is probably a system that is ultimately reducible to axioms and rules. The interactions of atoms and molecules within the brain is complex, but ultimately is predictable. Ultimately there are only so many ways that any two atoms can interact. As for molecules, there are a lot more ways of interaction, but ultimately it’s a finite set. Our brain is the stage for a hugely complex set of molecular interactions. There may be billions or trillions of interaction pathways; but ultimately it is finite. It could ultimately be reduced to a set of axioms and rules, although an incredibly huge set, something beyond human comprehension.

So, our brain is felt by many scholars to ultimately be governed by a set (however huge and complex) of axioms and rules. If so, then Godel’s theories kick in. We cannot know for sure that our brains work according to a “sound” set of rules (fully consistent, no contradictory results), even if it does. At some point, our minds (the conscious workings of our brain) are going to tilt for us; they’re not going to be able to figure something out; not because we didn’t have our coffee this morning, but because of an inherent limitation in the brain’s algorithm” (the set of axioms and rules laid out by nature). If it’s a “performance” problem (our minds are just not up to it at the time), then eventually things will click for someone, and a good, solid answer will appear in lieu of the inconsistency that Godel talks about. But if it’s something inherent, if it’s a question from the outer limits, then the problem will go on and on, really getting philosophers and anyone else interested really ticked off.

I myself can’t help but wonder if the whole question of consciousness and “do I really exist, or am I just an illusion created by the workings of my body” (really the same question) are in fact Godelian questions. Human beings have been working on this issue for a long, long time now. No one yet has been able to crack it. Back in the late 1980s, scientists and philosophers and psychologists and computer people got interested in human consciousness once again, after a few decades of just ignoring the topic (in favor of stimulus-response behavioralism; i.e., just study what people do, don’t worry what does or doesn’t go on in their heads). Go back a hundred years or so, however, and people did talk about consciousness (most notably philosopher-psychologist William James). Go back many, many centuries to the days of Plato and Aristotle, and ditto.

Well, our modern minds and computers have been going at it full tilt now for about 20 years, and nothing much has been accomplished, in terms of an accepted, unquestionable theory regarding human consciousness. Some of the great minds say that human consciousness isn’t anything more than the physical workings of the brain. According to them, we THINK that there’s something more; it certainly FEELS like there’s a “little man” (or woman) in our heads who is ultimately the conscious being behind our existence. But these scientists say that this represents a mistake on every level (it certainly is on the immediate physical level; surgeons have cut working brains open, and there are no “little people” or ghosts roaming around inside the skull). From the Godel viewpoint, these great minds may be saying that this is just the result of lazy, superstitious thinking encouraged by ancient religious myths (i.e., it’s a question of poor mental performance). But they might also be implying that something is ultimately unsound with the program behind our mental workings, and that’s what causes the unenlightened masses to feel that we all have an “inner identity”. Let’s call that possibility number one. Something in the process of evolution came out a little quirky, making our minds crank out bogus results with regard to mental ontology.

Possibility number two, according to Godel, is that the background system works just fine, but we humans, who are trapped within the overall system (can’t see the ‘bigger picture’), will at some point perceive an unresolvable paradox, nonetheless. Godel hints that the paradox will have something to do with a self-referential proposition. Well, the question of whether we really exist looks to me a lot like the ultimate self-referential question. We only know things through our consciousness. Our conscious mind is “the observer”, the most sacred entity in empirical science. How can you observe the observer? How can you get a frame of reference to put it into?

As philosopher John Searle and others say, if “consciousness” really does exist, it’s not a question of God doing something outside the boundaries of our physics (by the way: Searle, like most consciousness researchers, proclaims himself to be an atheist; it’s quite the fashion). It’s most likely something within our physics, but something that we just don’t know yet; just as scientists in the 1800’s didn’t know about quarks and anti-protons and E = M x (C squared). Some people think it will ultimately be knowable (if it does indeed exist; if the cynical philosophers like Daniel Dennett are wrong about “possibility one”). And some others don’t. If the Godel “grey zone” is at work here, and we can’t figure out a way to “see behind the seeing eye of consciousness”, the
n maybe it will forever remain a frustrating mystery.

Well then, if there is a God, and that’s the way that such a God works . . . . . hey, then who am I to complain, so long as I get to enjoy the experience of having human consciousness? That would all be nice – but Godel would say “sorry, can’t take you there; the possibility of an unsound mind algorithm causing the delusion that consciousness has its own ‘being’ is just as strong”. So, we remain on the fence, despite some interesting thought experiments.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:39 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
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PICTURE TIME: Not too long ago, a friend from the past had occasion to look at my blog and he called it “word-driven”. Well, I must admit, it probably is time now for some “image-driving”. So here’s a pic I took last night, as it started to rain and sleet. It’s a lonely scene; no one wants to be out in the wet, bone-chilling cold. It’s also black and white; I took it in color, but somehow, b&w; expresses the mood better.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:05 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, February 11, 2007
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After I got divorced back in 1988, I figured it would be nice to get married again. I really didn’t mind the marital lifestyle so much; the problem was mostly with the person that I married. She turned out to be, well, less than an ideal companion for such a lifestyle (with me, anyway). So I decided to get back out there and try again.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a truckload of good looks and smooth manners about me. And I was working in a place where there weren’t a whole lot of eligible women my age (as in my former job, where I had met my ex-wife; darn, I had my choice and I picked the wrong one!). Furthermore, I don’t possess a very common mix of interests, values and temperaments; finding another “bird of a feather” wouldn’t be easy. So I decided to turn to the personal ads. It seemed like a good way to jump-start my romantic life.

By 1995 or so, it was pretty apparent that the personal ad thing just wasn’t working for me (and neither was real-life, i.e. meeting someone at a job or at a volunteer activity or at church — back when I was involved with such things). I felt kind-of bad about it. I figured that perhaps I’m just a freak, maybe I’m just not meant to find romantic involvement.

Well, I’m still rather pessimistic about the whole romantic fulfillment thing. But as to being a freak just because I bombed out with the personal ads, I’ve since learned that bombing out is quite common. So I guess that I’m not such a freak after all. A recent article in Scientific American Mind about on-line dating indicates that dating-via-advertising is NOT a highly successful means of establishing long-term relationships. I myself did most of my personal ad dating via newspapers or newsletters; I only dabbled in internet dating towards the end. But there really isn’t much difference. In fact, you’d think that the ease of communication via e-mail would be an advantage over the old method of answering printed ads and exchanging letters and then talking on the phone. With e-mail, you can easily and quickly exchange photos to see if the all-important “body chemistry” factor works out. (But, as the SciAm article points out, a whole lot of people send pictures that mis-represent what they currently look like.)

However, recent studies show that internet dating has a terrible track record. The Scientific American article cites a professional analysis of some statistics released by eHarmony.com, which indicates that if a person dated 1 new person every 3 weeks via the site, it would take 19 years of effort to raise their chance of getting married to the 50-50 level. A phone survey of users of other popular dating sites showed that only about 1 in 4 users were satisfied with the site.

Another study, posted at sciencedaily.com, showed that about 90% of people using dating sites had at least one date with “a significant partner”, and of those people, 94% got a second date. Sounds great, but do the multiplication: about 85% get a second date, and 15% don’t. Furthermore, a second date does not a marriage make. The drop-off continues from there. Only about 18% of the 90% who found “significant partners” have a relationship that lasts a year (so we’re down to 16% of the grand total, or 1 in 6). Another source indicates that only about 10% of people using internet dating sites establish a “long-term relationship” via them. Sounds about right.

So, if internet dating is such a train wreck for most people, my negative experiences with its direct predecessor (newspaper ads) aren’t very surprising either. Romance is still a hit or miss thing, despite a lot of modern research and technology. You can’t just make it happen (although, as the shrinks point out, you can make it NOT happen with neurotic attitudes). You might get lucky with the internet ads; just don’t count on it. I’ll be the first to admit that my experiences were interesting, even if not always edifying. They included a long train ride to and from Minneapolis to meet a woman who turned out to be more-or-less crippled, a couple of late-night airplane trips to Florida, a break-up at the end of a Thanksgiving family gathering in South Carolina, a seemingly “hot date” in Arlington, VA, where the girl in effect said “oh, you’re not what I had pictured” . . . . still, it was all probably better than just staying home. It’s worth a chuckle!

After reading these reports, I feel a little more like a normal human being. Although I’m not 100% sure now that I want to be human, after all of the trouble that normal humans need to go thru!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:03 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
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The failure of the US Senate to even consider a proposed bipartisan resolution opposing a troop buildup in Iraq (Levin-Warner) reminds me of an old song. That song is “Eve of Destruction”, written by P. Sloan and made famous by Barry McGuire in 1965. The lines that I’m thinking of go like this:

“I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation
A handful of Senators don’t pass legislation”

That old mock-Dylan protest song is more than 40 years old now, and some of the lines are badly out of date (e.g., Red China isn’t so red anymore and isn’t a bastion of hate, any more than any other nation; 18 year olds now have the vote; Selma, Alabama isn’t any worse on racial issues than the rest of the nation; the “nuclear button” that would start a cataclysmic war between Russia and the USA isn’t likely to be pushed anymore; astronauts stay up in the space station for four months now, versus four days; etc.). But the general themes of that song remain current, quite unfortunately. It’s still a scary world, and even though the “eve of destruction” hasn’t turned into the night of anarchy and terror, we’re still not much better off than in the mid-60s.

P.S.: you could easily update the line in that song about China and Selma as follows: “Imagine all the hate there is in Al Qaeda; then take a look around to Laramie, Wyoming” (where Matthew Shepard was beaten to death).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:08 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, February 4, 2007
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NEW JERSEY POLITICAL RUMOR: Cory Booker has been the mayor of Newark, NJ now for about 8 months. For those of you non-New Jerseyians, Cory is a young reformer from a suburban county who adopted Newark, an old run-down city, as his cause. Cory, who has a Yale law degree, served Newark as a councilman for 4 years, then in 2002 challenged long-time Newark mayor Sharpe James and lost. Sharpe finally called it quits in 06, deciding not to run for a 5th term. The election thus became a slam-dunk for Cory. So he finally got what he fought so long and so hard for.

But there are signs in the wind that Cory is getting a bit frustrated about the limits of his power. There’s a nasty problem with gangs and drugs and fatal shootings in Newark, and Cory is now the man who gets the blame for all that (even if he doesn’t deserve it). He brought in a savvy new police director from New York City, but it could be years until the guy can make a dent in the problem. Cory is taking the heat for other stuff too, including tax increases and accusations of contracting with his cronies. So you couldn’t really blame Cory for wondering if his dream-come-true isn’t so dreamy after all.

And you (or I, anyway) couldn’t really blame Mayor Booker if the rumor going around in Essex County political circles is true, i.e. that he wants to make a run for the new lieutenant governor seat that New Jersey will establish in 2010 (to be on the ballot in the November, 2009 election). Governor Jon Corzine will most likely run for a second term in 2009, and he would need to choose a running mate. Cory would give the Democratic ticket a shot of youth and lend some racial balance. He’d be a natural for the position. Because he’s still young, he would eventually get his chance at the governor’s mansion.

But that would mean him leaving Newark before the end of his first term as mayor. Cory fought so hard to become mayor, swearing his love and devotion to the city. But perhaps the romance has soured. Reality has hit, and perhaps Cory has seen that the old urban neighborhoods of New Jersey (and everywhere else in the country) can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Cities are strongly tied to their metro regions, and to the greater economy of the state in general. Cory might argue that the only way to truly help the people of Newark and Paterson and Camden is for him to operate on a more regional level, where greater resources and opportunities can be directed. And that would make some sense.

Still, it’s sad to see another youthful dream getting beaten up so badly by political reality.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:10 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, February 2, 2007
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I recently watched a PBS Frontline TV show about a guy from the Boston area who was molested by a Catholic priest as a young teenager (“The Hand of God”). I’m about the same age as the guy in question (Paul Cutela), and I also had a rather traditional Roman Catholic upbringing. Luckily, I wasn’t molested. Actually, I never heard of anyone else being molested in Catholic-land. But that’s not to deny the magnitude of the problem. I’m a northern New Jerseyite, and I’ve heard about some priests in the area who allegedly did abuse children. But I never knew any of them. So, I can’t directly relate to the very unfortunate experience that Mr. Cutela went through. But I can relate to the general attitude and atmosphere of Catholicism which Mr. Cutela’s brother, the producer of the Frontline show, depicts as the ultimate cause of the problem.

I don’t have anything to do with the Roman Catholic Church anymore. I wouldn’t call myself a “fallen-away Catholic”. I’m just not a Catholic at all. Catholicism is a world that I don’t want to be part of. I’d just as soon join the Communist Party or the Polar Bear Club (at 130 lbs, I wouldn’t do very well in those icy waters), as I would a Roman Catholic parish. I don’t hope to see it change someday, so that I could “go home” again. [However, I do know a variety of Roman Catholics who use their faith in positive ways, and I am fully willing to continue associating with such people and respecting their continued relationships with Catholicism.]

My aversion to Catholicism stems from something very “yucky” about Roman Catholicism, as I have known it. And that “yuck” factor extends all the way to the top, right up to Pope Ratzinger (or whatever they’re calling him these days). It’s a certain breed of mental unhealthiness, a form of closed-mindedness, an extreme form of institutional sclerosis.

Back when I was a kid, the winds of change seemed to be blowing in the Church, following the lead of Pope John 23rd and the Vatican Council. There were young priests who didn’t need a church to say mass, who relished guitar accompaniment, who worked for social justice and who talked about bigger changes yet to come (perhaps women priests and married priests and real power being given to the laity in church affairs). It reminded me of those books we read in grammar school about space exploration, promising that we’d all be journeying to the moon by the time we reached middle age. The bees-wax-yellow yuckiness of Roman Catholicism was finally being washed away. But that all got shut down, in due course. So it’s back to pay, pray and obey, back to condescending forms of charity in lieu of social activism, back to philosophies that were crafted in the middle ages. Back to yuck.

I think that the Cutela brothers are right; that sort of thinking does inspire unhealthiness on the part of those who work for the Church, and child abuse is an integral (albeit extreme) aspect of it. The Church fathers have done their best to stop the immediate problem, but won’t – actually can’t – think about changing the underlying sociology. The “yuck” factor remains.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:35 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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