The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Personal Reflections ... Religion ...

I actually attended an Episcopalian “Eucharist Service” this past Sunday, for the first time since 2000. I grew up as a Roman Catholic, but I converted to Anglicanism in 1988. At the time, it seemed like a really groovy thing to do. And for a while, I tried to make a go of it. But in the end . . . . . well, Christianity in general just didn’t seem to be my bag. And Episcopalianism in general didn’t seem as dynamic as it was cracked up to be. It really didn’t seem all that . . . . healthy (not intended as a criticism of their pro-gay philosophies, which I still give them credit for). There’s an underlying neurosis of some kind in that church; they just can’t seem to decide what they stand for – English cultural tradition? the Enlightenment? the establishment? the anti-establishment? core Christian doctrines? red doors on old stone buildings?

Nonetheless, I wanted to catch up with a guy who worked at one of the non-profit agencies formerly affiliated with New Community Corp., my former employer. I helped this guy get the job way back in ‘92, back when I was a newly-minted Episcopalian. My friend was still a devoted if liberal Roman Catholic at the time. So it surprised me to learn a few months ago that he was now involved with an Episcopal parish.

Thus, I made the trip across the Hudson River to St. Bart’s in Manhattan, for the 11 AM Eucharist, where my friend was helping out as an usher. Bottom line: it was good to catch up with a former associate, but as to the church stuff – well, it was the same stuff as before. They say you can’t go home again, ‘cause the old home just ain’t home no more. That’s pretty much how I felt.

Afterwards, I was pondering the fact that Christian tradition is so ingrained within our Euro-American “daily culture”, while the tradition of ancient Greek philosophy was reduced to an appendage within our academic institutions. I’ve heard some philosophers talk about “Jerusalem and Athens” being the two legs of our modern ethos. But it seems to me that Jerusalem certainly won a much bigger share of social recognition, although it did so by conquering Rome (and Constantinople). There are Christian churches all over the American landscape. On any Sunday morning in most any town with a population of over 100, you have your choice of congregations praising the risen lord in a variety of styles. And yet, if you want an intelligent conversation about how to live in an increasingly crazy world, perhaps guided by the wise men and women of the past, well . . . that’s rather hard to find.

I myself regret that Athens lost out to Jerusalem and Rome. Why, one might ask, did people come together on those Greek isles long ago to ponder what life means; what our obligations are as humans; how are we to govern and be governed; what is our relationship to the divine; etc. When did that lose popularity? When was it relegated to a course or two that you take in school when you’re 18 or 20? When did philosophy become so shrunken, so dried-out, so esoteric, so hidden away, so irrelevant? Where are the successors to Socrates, Aristotle, Kant and Kierkegaard in a world of techno-terrorism, zenophobic globalism, interconnected loneliness, and transitory family values? When leadership is bought and sold, when children are pre-designed, when morals and human rights are used to sell cars and soap (along with immorals and human wrongs)? Why aren’t people demanding philosophic wisdom in the face of all this confusion?

I know that there have been recent attempts to popularize philosophy. In fact, I attended a local chapter of the Socrates Cafe movement for a number of months. The concept sounded great, but the execution left me somewhat disappointed. There was almost no reference to what Socrates, nor any other philosophers ever said or taught. It was generally a 15 or 20 person bull session / group therapy exercise, which broke by 9pm so that the younger crowd could get to the local pub for a nightcap or two. No one seemed very inspired afterwards; no one wanted to keep the discussion going. By 8:45, everyone seemed antsy to get back to socializing and chit-chat; the group leader became anxious to keep the conversation from veering off in new directions. I never came away with any great insights.

And I didn’t come away from St. Barts this past Sunday with any great insights either, except that it’s always good to catch up with a friend. And that the Episcopal Church hasn’t changed so much since I left. Oh well, maybe that’s for the best. Long may they pay, pray, and pretend not to obey. And yes, I’ll probably stop by again to see my newly Anglicized friend. But what would really impress me is if St. Bart’s started their own Socrates Cafe — and did some real philosophy with it.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:07 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, March 24, 2007
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I was swapping thoughts the other day with my correspondent from Illinois (Dr. Mary S.) regarding paranormal psychic powers like clairvoyance, telepathy and precognition. (Let’s not even get into spoon bending and out-of-body experiences right now, OK?). Do they really exist? Well, attempts to scientifically document such abilities have generally failed. Research psychologist Susan Blackmore, who spent a lot of time studying the paranormal, concludes that there probably are no paranormal phenomena.

As a guy with much regard for the scientific approach, I give a lot of credence to Dr. Blackmore. She allegedly started her career with a positive mindset towards ESP and its like, and hoped that she might actually settle the question in a positive fashion. But she eventually concluded that it just wasn’t meant to be.

I myself think that ESP and mindreading and clairvoyance are mostly a matter of people seeking attention or trying to hustle a few bucks. I remember Jeane Dixon, who was popular when I was still a kid; the local paper ran a weekly column with her cryptic predictions. She got lucky about JFK’s assassination, but after that she forecast that Jesus Christ was coming back in the 1980s, somewhere in India or the Middle East. Well, still no sign of that big reunion tour taking place. So, for the most part I don’t take claims of paranormal abilities too seriously.

However . . . . I’m not 100% sure that there’s absolutely nothing to it. As Mary and I concluded, it is possible that some as yet undocumented phenomenon of nature could occur very randomly and sporadically, and thus be impossible to capture by scientific method. We pondered the Flatland scenario (recall Edward Abbot’s classic book) of a 2-dimensional world with living beings having different geometric shapes (circles, squares, triangles, hexagons, etc.). Suppose their flat world occasionally encountered our 3-D world? Well, stuff would appear to them, then disappear, then magically reappear somewhere else. They wouldn’t have the means to document and understand what was happening; it couldn’t be reliably reproduced or observed by them. Thus, the more scientific Flatlanders would conclude that these disappearing and reappearing things weren’t real; they were just someone’s hallucinations.

So what if psychic phenomenon (or some of them, anyway) are actually like that – caused by some unreliable, rare, randomly occurring interaction between our known world, and some physical laws we haven’t yet come to grips with? This is a far-fetched thought. But actually, you can’t completely dismiss it. The reason that I give it any regard is that I‘ve had 3 or 4 “funny feelings” myself over the course of my life. I knew something was going to happen and it turned out to be right. These weren’t very profound predictions on my part. Just simple stuff, like “my cousin and his parents are coming over to visit us right now”. These mostly happened when I was younger. Can’t say I’ve had such a feeling in the last 5 or 6 years.

Well, skeptics would ask me, how often did you have such a feeling and it turned out to be wrong? Yea, good point. I honestly don’t remember having a “funny feeling in the mind” and then being wrong about it. But I probably wouldn’t remember it, unless it were vindicated. We tend to remember the successes, not the failures.

Mary suggested that perhaps a new idea from physics about the universe being “holographic” in nature would support ESP, given that it more-or-less ties everything in the universe together. OK, here’s what I’ve heard about that, mostly from a Scientific American article. Basically, the hologram idea / hypothesis arose from the study of black holes, including Stephen Hawking’s work. It turns out that the entropy (i.e., state of organization versus decay and randomness) of black holes depends more closely on the surface area of the black hole, versus its volume as originally expected. Entropy is tied at the hip to the more formal, scientific definitions of “information”. Information is the opposite of entropy – organization can carry information, while disorganization cannot. E.g., a metal key is organized in such a way that it can open a lock. A pile of rust cannot do that. The key carries information, the disorganized rust does not. When the key rusts, its entropy increases, and its information decreases. Eventually it can no longer open the lock, as its information is gone.

Where does the hologram analogy to a black hole come from? Well, a hologram is a special 2-dimensional surface that has certain added information, such that when light is reflected from it to an “interacting system”, say a human being with normal eyesight, the added information gives the impression that the image is actually of a 3D object, not of a flat plane. The hologram’s “extra dimension” information is packed into its flat surface area.

Well, for a black hole, the maximum amount of organization it can have (versus a state of random decay; like rust compared against a metal key), is tied to how much surface area it has. However, the information conveyed through this “organization” relates to all 3 dimensions of the black hole. Thus, 2 dimensions tell you about all 3 dimensions. I don’t totally understand it, but the ultimate idea is that information may be a fundamental characteristic of the universe, as much as space, matter, energy and time are.

It’s thus imaginable that information (as the basic stuff of reality) is painted on a 3-dimentional “surface membrane” (I use the word “membrane” to mean any boundary to a multi-dimensional reality; the membrane boundary of a 2D plane is a set of 1D lines; the boundary of a 3D object is a set of 2D planes; thus, a 4D reality has a 3D “membrane”; etc.). As such, 3 dimensions would then give us the experience of our familiar 4-dimensional spacetime. But, even more exciting: the “holograph equivalence” theorists note that the 4-dimensional reality we know of, plus “information”, may in fact be the stage for a 5 dimensional reality. In such a model, the lower-dimensional world has particles and forces and all kinds of perturbations, whereas the higher-dimensional side of reality is symmetric and undisturbed. Could ESP and such be, in certain instances, just another 4-D information disturbance that a 5-dimension “background reality” can cause or be caused by? Just remember, a lot can be done with an extra dimension . . . .

To go out on a limb even further: a thinker named Ed Fredkin has been saying something similar about the centrality of information, though not from the perspective of black holes. Fredkin says that the Universe, at bottom, is a computer; like a computer, the most important thing is information, i.e. the program that makes a computer run. At bottom, the deepest level of reality is information – for both computers, in an operational sense, and for our universe, in an ontological sense, if Fredkin is right.

I could thus imagine (on a good day) a connection between a “holographic reality” and paranormal mind abilities – since the ultimate question of psychic powers is information conveyance (the spoon benders notwithstanding). But this would be very, very speculative; way out there beyond accepted science. Nonetheless, perhaps there are information conveyance mechanisms other than length, depth, width and time – the barriers of those dimensions could possibly be transcended if the
holograph equivalence hypothesis were pushed to the limit. And from Fredkin’s view, perhaps the usual restriction that signals need to cross length, depth, width and time is not as impermeable as we now think, since these dimensions are arguably just illusions. They are illusions controlled by information; as such, the barrier is one that information could possibly overcome. Perhaps the “core reality of information” is written so as to flow according to what appears to be time / space restrictions, but occasionally “hiccups” and jumps over the normal barriers (maybe thru some random quantum fluctuation that occasionally gets magnified into the macroworld?). This arguably might allow a small part of the future to wind up in your mind at an odd time. But it’s like an intermittent short-circuit in your car’s dashboard. It only happens when you least expect it, never in the repair shop.

This all sounds wonderful, but it would all go better with some psychedelic music from the late 1960s. It’s way out there, on an EXTREMELY thin reed of quasi-understanding. For now, I’ll take my working reality to be the Fab Four – time, depth, length, and width. And as to my cousin and Mary – well, I can just e-mail them, don’t need ESP or clairvoyance to keep in touch.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:06 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
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Before I get back to my usual mental machinations, I need to congratulate my long-time correspondent from Illinois, Mary S., on being awarded a doctorate in patristic studies from the St. Elias School of Orthodox Theology. Mary retired a while back from a 36 year teaching career, at both the high school and college level. Mary has dual masters’ degrees, but she decided to finally go for the PhD. After some years of study and a thesis, she’s now a Doctor. She is also a true eternal student. Young graduate students jokingly refer to themselves as “eternal students” (here’s another one ); ‘like wow, I’ve been in school so long it seems like forever . . . . .’ But after you get past 50 and then 60, it’s no longer a joke. Some of us finally realize that learning and preserving the mind is quite a noble thing. These are the REAL eternal students. And Mary is a prime example. Here’s one of her recent articles on gnostic influences in John’s Gospel. WRITE ON, Mary.

(Ok, sorry for the weak pun from the ’70s; hearty congratulations to Mary, nonetheless.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:33 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, March 18, 2007
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I wrote up a long essay about ESP and psychic phenomenon for today’s posting. I thought it was pretty interesting. But as I was walking from my car this afternoon, I noticed some rabbit tracks in the snow. And I decided that Mother Nature in her simplicity can be just as interesting as my theories about her. So, for now, here’s a pic of the rabbit tracks. The ESP essay is on tap for later this week.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:17 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, March 15, 2007
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There’s a pretty good article to be read in the latest Atlantic Monthly. It’s about who the winners and losers will be as global warming makes its presence increasingly felt over the next few generations. You’d think that the fossil fuel energy companies (the big oil and coal companies) wouldn’t do so well, since their main product is causing the problem. Besides, by 2040 or so, some analysts think that world oil production will level off and even start going down, no matter what the market demands. But guess what? Global warming will probably open up new coal and oil fields in areas now covered by snow and ice, including Siberia, Greenland, and Antarctica (and will make undersea oil in the Arctic Sea accessible). So, the supply of oil and coal might actually increase, and drive the production cost of these fuels down, for a few decades anyway.

Will the world (and especially the industrialized nations) have the discipline to use this “last hurrah” for fossil fuels wisely (and at greater expense), applying carbon sequestering technologies and maintaining economic supports for alternative energy sources? (Those should include, for better and for worse, improved nuclear power; but only as a part of a bigger mixture including wind, solar, hydro, local generation, improved efficiency, conservation, etc.) Or, as I suspect, will Russia, India, the US, Europe and China throw caution to the wind and go for one last blast of polluting prosperity, before the approaching dark ages really take hold?

Sorry, but I’m a pessimist. I’d like to think that the next generation will learn from my generation’s mistakes. We listened to lovely songs about global brotherhood (remember “We Are The World” from 1985 — you don’t hear that one much anymore, probably as much because of embarrassment as musical mediocrity). But in the end, we allowed the big moneymen to define and shape our world. The problem for the future is that global warming is going to have different affects, based on where you now live and how much you now have. Other than Europe, where things might get very cold very quickly (strangely enough — global warming will have some surprising effects), the farther north you are and the more you now have, the better you will do.

As Greg Easterbrook points out in the Atlantic, some people (or even relatively large populations) are actually going to be better off because of global warming (while most people on this planet today, or their children, are going to be worse off — mostly those who are pretty marginal already). A lot of the people who could do the most to control greenhouse gasses are not going to have much personal incentive to make the needed sacrifices. Just the opposite, actually. You will certainly see plenty of public relations on the part of the big, mostly northern-based world conglomerates about how they are addressing famine, rising sea levels, and increasingly powerful storms lashing the central and southern parts of the planet. But it sounds to me like a formula for more of the same of what we’ve had here in the USA over the past 30 years. More free-market capitalism, more Republicanism, more “too bad if you’re not rich” social policy, more lottery tickets and rags-to-riches stories to keep the disenfranchised hopeful. Things will get worse and worse for them on average, but a handful of struggling families will be given a ticket to the good life. Just enough to keep the masses hoping that they will be next; just enough to keep them from getting crazy or going Bolshevik on us.

Oh, speaking of dark futures, I was watching Jericho last night, and it brought back a memory from the 1980s. The fictional little town of Jericho, isolated out there on the Great Plains after a terrorist nuclear apocalypse, thought that the Calvary was finally coming to its rescue. A band of grifters somehow got some Marine uniforms and an M-1 tank, and were looting towns like Jericho by pretending to be the vanguard of a federal re-building effort. One character, Mimi (an IRS agent on business in Jericho when the bombs went off), was extremely happy to think that her former employer was back in business. She looked forward to getting back to New York City — which, according to the plot of Jericho, was one of the few major cities that somehow escaped the nukes. She swelled with pleasure at the thought that she would soon walk Central Park instead of the cornfields of Kansas.

Central Park in Manhattan – I’ve been there, at least on the south end. And to be honest, I wasn’t impressed. Back in the mid-80s when I was married (when “We Are The World” first came out), I used to go to Manhattan a lot, because my wife felt at home there (even though she never lived there). What do I remember most about Central Park? The rats. They were bold critters, sneaking in and out of shadowy zones to recover whatever food dropped from the humans eating on the benches. Amazing just how close they would get to people. You’d see some young or middle aged parents, well-off and educated kinds of people, enjoying a sunny afternoon with their kids in the park. And the rats would sneak up to within 3 feet or so of they and their kinder. Yet I never saw anyone notice those furry little things with the long tails, or get panicky about having their kids so close to carriers of rabies. I couldn’t figure out whether New Yorkers, even the hip and well-off crowd from 68th Street or whatever, weren’t very observant, or whether they just took rats in stride as a cost of being part of “the big Apple”. Unlike Mimi, I just never caught Manhattan fever. If rats would make her feel more at home, I’m sure she could find them sneaking around the corn silos out in the heartland. Jericho must certainly have that in common with Central Park.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:52 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, March 11, 2007
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REFLECTIONS ON A BOOK I NEVER READ: A few weeks ago, I finally discovered Douglas Hofstadter. His new book “I Am A Strange Loop” just came out. That sounds like my kind of book! I’m hoping to pick up a copy in the near future. It’s about human consciousness, kind-of; but it’s also about advanced math and computers and the death of Hofstadter’s ex-wife . . . . Hofstadter is hard to put into any one box. He’s one of those expansive thinkers who have developed a cult following of sorts.

Hofstadter came out of nowhere in 1979 with a book called “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”. GEB is about math and physics and consciousness and paradoxes and various quasi-scientific ways of looking at reality. I just picked up a copy of GEB from a used-book web site. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but I plan to put a few chapters of it away before I get to “I Am A Strange Loop”. Reviewers say that GEB is a prerequisite for Strange Loop. On the Amazon web site, one of the customer reviews of GEB says “this is the book that made me weird”. Dang! Must be good. Then why didn’t I hear about GEB back in the 80’s?

At the time it came out, I was finishing up law school. I didn’t get a job with a high-powered law firm, and thus had some time to kill. So, with my increased spare time, I started reading non-legal books, and hanging out with a guy who was kicking around in my brother’s crowd. This guy, Mr. Shortman, was around my age. He also had an undergrad degree in engineering (although he didn’t go to law school). He was a heavy-drinking kind of guy (thus his affiliation with my brother’s friends), but his mind wasn’t totally gone yet either. He still took seriously all the stuff about critical thinking and openness to new ideas, which college profs try to cram you with even in engineering school. Good old Rick still hadn’t lost the habit of reading books.

And at the time, there were a lot of new, off-beat books for guys like Rick and me to read. Robert Pirsig had hit the scene with “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, and then there was Samuel Florman with “Existential Pleasures of Engineering”. Lewis Thomas also presented some “outside the box” reflections in “The Medusa and the Snail” and “Lives of a Cell”. Me and Rick discussed these books over many a glass of beer. Hofstadter’s book would have been right up our alley. But for whatever reason, it never made our list. I can’t figure that out.

On the dedication page of my used copy of GEB, there’s some writing under the author’s tribute to “M. and D.” The writing says “Much love to Dad from Alice, ’82”. Wow — so Alice heard about Hofstadter back then, and obviously so did Dad. It can’t help but make me wonder what happened to Alice and Dad – and who were they? And what ever happened to Rick S? I lost track of him about 10 or 12 years ago. We just both kind of lost interest, I guess. Rick moved to Ohio around ’88. Although for a number of years I made the long drive on Interstate 80 to stay in touch, I guess that I got tired of it, especially since Rick seemed to be losing interest in books and off-beat techno-metaphysical viewpoints. We’d still hit the restaurants and taverns, and wind up late at night in a go-go dancer bar (one of Rick’s key non-technical interests). But without the rambling discussions about weird and potentially brilliant new ways of looking at reality, the girls and the beers just seemed kind of low-life (instead of presenting a charmingly odd setting to discuss recursive feedback systems and quantum decoherence and spacetime topology). The fire in Rick’s mind had gone out. And that was really a shame.

Well, hopefully the fire in Dr. Hofstadter’s mind is still burning. I hope that Alice’s dad is still around, and that he gets to read “Strange Loops”. And I’m glad that I finally caught up with Hofstadter. It makes me sad thinking back to Mr. Shortman, though. Someone told me not long ago that he’s still alive, selling RV’s (it’s probably hard to hold a job in quality control engineering in Ohio now, with all the factories being shut; but I’m not doing anything all that earth-shaking with my life either). I can’t help but wonder if Mr. S somehow came across GEB and Strange Loops, would he perhaps pick them up, and maybe get the sense that these were once his kind of book? And maybe read them? Ah, but life buries most of us under so much rubble. To anyone young who might come across my words here (if anyone at all comes across them), I would admonish you to take seriously that line in Pink Floyd’s “Hey You”. The one that goes: “hey you, don’t let them bury the light; don’t give in without a fight”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:30 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, March 10, 2007
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Last October I got addicted to Jericho, the TV show about life in a small town in Kansas after America’s major cities get nuked by some sort of shadowy terrorist cabal. As in 24 and other politically correct political drama-fiction shows and movies, the terrorists are nothing at all like Al Qaeda. No Arab / Islamic stereotyping allowed (and maybe that’s for the best, despite the blandness factor). We Jericho viewers are still not sure just who the bad guys are, but all the clues thus far point to red-blooded American stock behind the effort.

Anyway, my point in bring Jericho up regards how even bad TV can make a valid point. Jericho should make you reconsider any intellectual flirtation you might have ever had with anarchy or radical libertarianism. Admittedly, Jericho is chock full of personal-drama cheese. And the writers of Jericho are not noted for their plot consistency or common sense (after watching a dramatic show-down or narrow escape scene, you often find yourself saying “why didn’t they just ….”). But as with On The Beach, Mad Max and Testament, Jericho does indeed make you think what things would be like if our highly complex economy and civic infrastructure broke down. It could be a libertarian’s dream – no more federal government (or taxes), the state police wouldn’t have the time for small towns, and the local cops would hardly know where to begin. For the most part, you could do what you want.

But – you’d pay the price. No more modern medicine. No reliable electricity or clean water or home heating. Dwindling supplies of gasoline, food, soap, clothing, mouthwash, etc. You would gather and hoard what you could, but little tribes and armed gangs would form, to rob you whenever they could. What you do for a living might now be totally useless. Unless you could chop trees or farm or make pottery or raise horses, you’d be mostly worthless. Your life expectancy would go down to about where it was in the Dark Ages – because you would be in the New Dark Ages.

So, my thanks to CBS and the Jericho team for giving the TV viewing public a little sociology lesson and reality fix. The scenes of ragged refugees and people freezing in homes and armed bands of thugs roving the land are probably “spot-on”, as the Brits would say. As Locke suggested, we trade our absolute freedom for the opportunities and comforts that civilization bring (i.e., the “social contract”). A handful of nukes could give all our freedom in the state of nature back to us. And Jericho shows that we probably wouldn’t want it.

Next, here’s a little science note. I recommend that you invest 5 minutes or so of reading on the topic of “hypercomputation”. At present, all of our computers and machines appear to have an absolute limit as to how quickly they can process information. There’s a hypothetical construct in the field of computation called “the Turing Machine”. I don’t fully understand it, but it somehow limits what any mechanical process can do. Some people think that all of nature and the universe are ultimately limited by “Turing machine equivalence”.

Thus far, every kind of computer that we have come up with have remained within the Turing limits. Some people think it is in effect a law of nature (they call this the “strong Church thesis”, a beefed-up version of a thesis put forth by some guy named Church). But others say that there are processes out there that go beyond the Turing limits, and that somehow, we can exploit these processes. If we did, we’d then have “hypercomputation”, carried out by hyper-computers. Others say no. Still others say maybe it exists in some fashion, but we could never make use of it. I think this is an interesting debate, and I’d like to live a few more decades to find out what becomes of it.

One of the biggest implications of hypercomputation, if it exists would be in regard to what goes on inside our heads. Do our brains turn us into “hyper-computers”? And just what would set off hyper-computability, whether in our brains or elsewhere? Some suggest that quantum processes might; thus the research going on in regard to quantum computing. A researcher named Richard Penrose has written some books saying that the brain in fact runs on quantum computation. But others say that the critical info processing structures (such as neurons) seem to be too big to be effected by tiny little points of quantum weirdness. So just what is it that makes us – and perhaps the Universe as a whole – different from the “Turing machine” family that human beings have come up with over the past 5 or so millennia? Or are we not different after all …. interesting question.

And one more science-y thing: I heard a Marketplace report on NPR the other day saying that the Chicago Mercantile Exchange often does poorly on windy days. A college professor from Texas Christian Univ. claims to have found a statistical correlation showing that prices for pork belly futures and such tend to go down when the wind blows. The professor thinks that positive ions have something to do with that. There have been studies showing that people who live in places where hot, dry winds sometimes blow get a bit surly when they do. Supposedly, crime rates and accidents go up when the hot winds are blowing. That’s because hot, dry winds have a lot of positive ions in them, and positive ions have been shown to mess with people’s bodies, causing lethargy and depression. So, maybe investors get a bit depressed when the ions build up, and keep their money in the bank on those days.

But, this research isn’t entirely conclusive. There are other studies showing that positive ions dissipate quickly, and don’t really have much time to effect people. Also, as to the stock markets: most of the big American cities where stock markets are based aren’t famous for hot, dry winds; however, the cold, dry winds of winter also have a positive ion build-up, although not as much as a hot wind.

Well, I must admit that dry, windy days do in fact get on my nerves. They can be very depressing, even when the sun is shining. Can’t be 100% sure, but maybe it’s the ions! Perhaps ion counts will be the next big thing for meteorologists, right up there with degree days and wind chill factors and pollen counts. Sounds good to me! Stay inside when those positive ions build up, wait until the negative ones come back. (You will have to remember to flip the ion meanings here: positive, bad; negative, good).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:33 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, March 4, 2007
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There are two recording artists that I miss very much: Warren Zevon and Elvis Costello. Both put out intellectually edgy tunes, powered by cynical lyrics that tried to say something profound and yet keep you from getting too comfortable with it. Warren Zevon is dead; and as to Elvis Costello, I saw him on TV the other day singing a duet with Tony Bennett. So Elvis is just as good as dead. (And as to the OTHER Elvis, well, who knows.)

As to Warren Zevon’s songs, I just don’t know where to begin. So I won’t right now. Let’s just say that it isn’t everyone who could get airplay with a song about Phillip Habib, an U.S. State Department career official involved in middle-east negotiations in the 1980s (recall Zevon’s “The Envoy”).

As to Elvis Costello, I DO know where to begin (even if Elvis didn’t, in “Accidents Will Happen”). Let me tell a little story about how one of his songs lifted an emotional burden from my shoulders.

I used to feel a bit guilty whenever I heard John Lennon’s “Imagine”. Especially the part where John wonders if we could even imagine a world with no possessions. Truth be told, I never could. In my opinion, people just aren’t ready for that; no more today than back in the late 1960’s, when such communal sentiment was popular amidst the young. And ditto for 1971, when Imagine was released. People are just too diverse in their thinking. It’s awfully hard for most people to agree about most things. Sharing everything from toothbrushes to shoes to refrigerators to 6-packs of beer just doesn’t seem like a good idea. It’s tough enough for married people to do it; 4 out of 10 couples who try it eventually wind up in divorce court. I couldn’t imagine it working properly for millions and billions throughout the planet.

But still, “Imagine” was an emotional song, a compelling song. So I felt sorry for not being able to imagine the peaceful world that John tried to sell us on. The world would not be one, and maybe it was my fault.

Then in 1991, Elvis Costello came along with an angry song entitled “The Other Side of Summer”. One of the most memorable lines in it went like this: “Was it a millionaire who said imagine no possessions?”

Darn, we need singers who know how to cut thru crap just like that. But it’s really tricky for an artist to catch the public’s fancy with a catchy tune that also acts as an intellectual smart bomb. Well, I’m glad that I was there when Warren Zevon and Elvis Costello were given air time on the radio and shelf space in the record stores. It may be a while until we see another one like them.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:57 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, March 2, 2007
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Uncategorized ...

As you go through life and get older, you have to put up with a lot of loss. One thing that you naturally lose over time is your older relatives. Hopefully you won’t lose your younger relatives, because that’s a tragedy. I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard. But I’m now at the point where nature has taken its course with most of my elderly relatives. This morning I found out that my last uncle had passed. My last aunt had died a little more than a year ago. So, no more aunts or uncles, whether by blood or by marriage. The last aunt and uncle that I mention here were both by marriage. But in my family that didn’t matter. They were considered just as good as the blood brothers or sisters of our parents.

Well, to be honest, I wasn’t all that close to the uncle who just died. But that was just as much due to circumstance than to anything else. Whenever I did see him, I always got along with him. The last time I saw him was about 4 or 5 years ago. Well, there won’t be another chance now. And I regret that. One of the nicest things about youth was being able to take people for granted. You figured you’d always bump into the people you knew and liked, sooner or later. Now I’ve reached the age when that doesn’t work anymore.

Whenever someone that I know dies, I try to reflect upon the meaning of life and death. But today I didn’t have much luck with that. My mind has just been a jumble of little things floating in and out of consciousness. One of those things was the door to my uncle’s house. He and my aunt lived there since the late 50’s , but he moved out shortly after she died in 1992. When I was a little kid, the image of that door became etched in my mind. There’s something about the circular windows in it. It didn’t really spook me, but it didn’t make me feel happy either. It just impressed me, for some odd reason. It seems something like a Jungian archetype, some pattern deeply instilled within the mind by eons of nature and time, something you were just born with.

I thought about that door earlier today, but couldn’t attach any cosmic significant to it. It seems as though it reflects an earlier architectural trend, something like art deco and the big band era. Well, my uncle grew up in the 1930’s and was a young dandy in the 1940’s, so I could see how such a design would appeal to him. But that still didn’t explain why it got my attention, since I’m not an art deco or big band aficionado.

Then, later in the day, I read about the lunar eclipse that will be visible over Europe, Africa and the Eastern USA tomorrow evening. Hey, there’s an interesting analogy for the door – three circles – the sun, the earth, and the moon. When they line up as in the door, the moon lies in the shadow of the earth. A lunar eclipse. Hey, eclipses had strong effects on ancient peoples. Modern folk today still like to watch them. The first half of an eclipse makes you think about death – the light being swallowed up by the shadow. But then the second part starts, and the shadow slowly yields back to the light. There’s something metaphysically hopeful about an eclipse. A hint that perhaps the spirit doesn’t really die, despite the lack of objective evidence in that regard.

So, it was interesting timing for my uncle to pass on the day before a lunar eclipse. This is also the last full moon cycle before Easter week. The next full moon will come a few days before the Catholic celebration of Easter – which is just why the Catholics time Easter as they do. They see the full moon as a metaphor for Christ, brightly reflecting the light of the Father to a darkened Earth. (That’s what I read in a Joseph Campbell book, anyway.)

Well, the human mind is known for its powers of confabulation – finding patterns and explanations where none really exist. I.e., retro-fitting an explanation on to a reality without reason. Cognitive psychologists have documented this conclusively. So perhaps I’m just confabulating my initial reactions to my uncle’s death. But still, I refuse to give up on the notion that everyone’s life has some kind of meaning that goes beyond the obvious. I’m just not giving up on that, even if it is unscientific.

So, bye bye Uncle Matt. Perhaps we will, in some unimaginable trans-dimensional fashion, bump into each other again someday. Someday when the shadows are all gone.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:25 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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