The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
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Sunday, April 29, 2007
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Uncategorized ...

Time for a picture. Here’s a shot I took on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, looking up at some buildings (including the Chrysler Building) on a sunny March afternoon.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:20 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, April 27, 2007
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I took a look at the New York Times bestsellers list the other day to see who is winning the day in the showdown between religious faith and “the new atheism” (which cites and interprets biological evidence to show that widespread human faith in a deity of one kind or another is just an evolutionary misfire). Right now, it looks as though faith is winning. Coming in at number 4 on the non-fiction hardcover list is “Grace Eventually” by Anne Lamott. Back at 13th place is “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins. Nothing too much after that, except down at number 29 there is “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief”, by Francis S. Collins (who made his name as a leader of one the two teams that fully mapped the human genome).

A spoiler, though, is Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “Infidel”, coming in at number 5. Ms. Hirsi Ali was formerly a devout Muslim, and is now a pro-western atheist. But I’m not sure if I would count this book as a true commentary on faith. It may be more of a politicized reaction to politicized situation (i.e., radical Islam). God may have never had a chance in this case.

I noticed that the NY Times chose to review the Dawkins book and the Hirsi Ali book, but ignored the other two. I guess that the old-tyme religion just isn’t good enough for the Times anymore.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:26 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, April 22, 2007
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I have to take my hat off to Wired Magazine. I don’t have a subscription yet, but in doing internet research on a variety of topics, I’m often led to articles in Wired. If it’s about science or technology and its going to make a mark on the way we live, those Wired folk seem to be on it. Anyway, here’s a link to an article on “The Big Unanswered Questions”. Quite interesting. (No, I wasn’t paid to put this up. Just thought I’d give them a plug for making some good content available for free on the net.)

Another interesting magazine article: in the May Atlantic, there’s an article about homosexuality in Saudi Arabia. Actually, what I just said is not fully accurate. In fact, the article tells you about the many heterosexuals doing the homosexual thing in the desert kingdom. It sounds like what went on in the ancient Greco-Roman world, back in the time of the Bible; other than Mohammad and petrochemicals, things probably haven’t changed much in Arabia since then. So, if you want to know what St. Paul was ranting about with regard to same-sex perversions, read that article. More evidence that the anti-gay Bible thumpers are just plain wrong.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:14 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, April 20, 2007
Brain / Mind ...

There’s an interesting little technology quirk coming over the hill called “transcranial magnetic stimulation” (TMS). I’ve read a few things about how neuroscientists are using it to study the brain. Basically, it shoots a pulsating electro-magnetic inductance field through your skull and into your gray matter, where it can mess around with the electrical signals flowing through your neurons. That’s the stuff that makes your mind work and forms your consciousness.

TMS has been around for some time now, but with all the brain research going on these days, it has been put to much use lately. Aside from brain function experiments, it is now being tested as a therapy for depression and migraine headaches. And one scientist, Dr. Michael Persinger in Canada, is using it to generate mystical states of consciousness, akin to religious experiences. He’s been rather successful at it. Other scientists think that it unlocks many different types of creative mind abilities.

So, the TMS technique is starting to sound like a drug, something that can have a profound effect on consciousness. And it’s not illegal. And furthermore, it’s not all that high-tech. It lends itself to an electrical handyman’s basement project. In fact, there’s a wiki web site for those interested in do-it-yourself TMS. It’s a bit uncertain what power levels are going to be needed to get results. Most TMS researchers use high-powered electromagnets outputting 1 to 1.5 Tesla of field strength for short bursts. That sort of machine would require at least 120 V power and some heavy capacitors. But Persinger’s research alleges that weak fields, down in the microtesla range, can have noticeable effects. That would be more in the battery or 12V converter range, where nobody could get badly hurt. Let’s hope that the Popular Science crowd and the new age electro-stoners stay away from the industrial equipment. If it can be done outside the lab, it can be abused, and someone’s gonna get hurt.

And there are indications that this technology can hurt as well as heal. If the pulses hit the wrong areas of the brain, there is the possibility of seizures, or interference with autonomic brain stem processes (like breathing and heartbeat). So yes, the military has become interested in TMS. At minimum, the University of South Carolina is working on a device to put in soldiers’ helmets that would counter the effects of exhaustion and sleeplessness. But there might also be negative effects that can be guided towards the enemy, as the technology develops. One can also imagine TMS as a future domestic homicide tool, if they can miniaturize the technology. A disgruntled spouse charges up his or her TMS-stun gun, then while the unfaithful partner is asleep, just a few zaps to the back of the neck, and . . . . no bullets, no poison, no blood, pretty much no evidence.

Well, I’m not in any hurry to fry my brain circuits with the equivalent of a nuclear electro-magnetic pulse (those of you who watch Jericho know what that can do). But then again, I can’t help but wonder if waving a magnet back and forth over the right ear might bring inner peace after all.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:23 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, April 15, 2007
◊  BIRD BLOG
Nature ... Photo ...

A couple of weeks ago, I put a little bird feeder on my window, just above the air conditioner. It took a while, but the feeder is now quite popular amidst the local avian population. The regular customers include a flock of mourning doves, numerous house sparrows, some white-throated sparrows, a pair of cardinals, a blue jay (that barely seems able to balance itself on the air conditioner ledge), and an occasional visit from a tufted titmouse. I believe that the juncos that winter in the local backyards also stopped by, but with spring finally arriving, they are now headed back to the woods. There are occasional raids by bands of starlings (although we don’t have any that live nearby). The noticeable absentees are a pair of northern mockingbirds, and the local robins. Give those robins credit: they are purists. They stick to their worms and bugs. They don’t want to mess with grains and carbs; they stick with high-protein.

So it’s an interesting little nature show going on outside my window. It gets pretty wild some days; these little birdies like to fight over food. It’s every bird for him or herself. Even though I keep the feeder stocked, they have a hoarding mentality. Peck, peck, push, push, get out of my way. I’ve even seem little birds fighting while flapping their wings in mid-air. And the mourning doves . . . . they may seem meek and mellow, but I saw one stare down a blue jay, and win! It’s a bit depressing sometimes; but then again, it all makes me feel a little bit better about the human race. We don’t behave all that much better than these birdbrains, but we are still better (if not by much).

When all the bird aggression gets me down, I look for the cardinal pair. The bright red male has a habit of giving food from its beak to its brownish mate. No “wham, bam, thank you mam” for these guys, despite their stylish crimson plumage and black masks. They’re committed to a long-term relationship. They’re obviously gonna keep momma fed while she tends to the nest and the youngins’. Ah, family values.

Here are two shots of some mourning doves chowing down.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:50 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, April 12, 2007
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Uncategorized ...

The Wisdom of the East: Here in the USA and also in Europe, it’s been rather fashionable over the past 10 to 20 years for “enlightened spiritual seekers” like myself to explore the ways of the East. I’m thinking here about Zen, Taoism, Nikkei Buddhism and Soka Gakkai, maybe a few other movements. The question is, if we think those easterners are so wise about the soul, do we agree with their wisdom about the body? And yes, I’m alluding here to sex. Just how does the far East feel about sex? Does their (alleged) cosmic wisdom translate into a body appreciation and a sexual openness that will appeal to sex-fixated westerners?

I saw a little article on the NPR web site about a worldwide study of people over 40 years old, comparing attitudes about sex between various nations(in the comparative sense, NOT the literal sense — for those of you with dirty minds!). The bottom line is that the USA seems to give high regard to sex, whereas Japan and China like it the least. And by quite a wide margin! There were three main questions in the survey. The first question was about the physical pleasure derived from sex. In the USA, 73% of men and 65% of women gave positive responses. In China, the comparative numbers were 25% and 24%; and worse yet was Japan, coming in at 18% and 10%, respectively.

So OK, the far East doesn’t get much of a shiver out of it. But maybe they still find it emotionally satisfying. But no, alas. Regarding the emotional pleasure of sexuality, 77% of men in the USA gave it a thumbs up, and 68% of women did the same. In China, the male and female numbers were 36% and 33%. Once again, Japan was even less impressed: only 24% of men and 16% of women had positive attitudes about the emotional side of sex.

The third question regarded the overall important to life of sex. And the pattern is quite predictable, although somewhat lower in the USA than you might think. In the US, 37% of men and 28% of women said that sex was either extremely important or very important. In China, the numbers were 29% and 18%. And of course, those sexually cynical Japanese had to go even lower, 28% and 12%. As a footnote, Israelis seems to have the most positive attitudes toward sex; their male / female numbers are 64% and 53%, respectively. Brazilian men hit 75%, but their women are comparative prudes at 46%.

This survey focused on people 40 and above, and those folk are not the ones knocking out the babies, for the most part. To get a sense of whether younger Japanese and Chinese enjoy their sex, I took a look at comparative birth rates per 1000. In the USA, the rate is 14.14%. Japan clearly comes in lower, at 9.37%. China isn’t far behind the USA, at 13.25%. However, the Chinese birth rate probably reflects the whole country better than the survey does. I would suspect that a sex satisfaction survey in China focused disproportionately on the cities and wealthier regions, not on the farms way out in the hinterlands. In those regions, they still need to knock out kids as farm hands and to compensate for shorter life spans. To get a better sense of what goes on in urbanized China, we can look to the stats for Hong Kong and Macau: 7.3% and 8.5%, respectively.

So yea, it does appear that when far Easterners live in a socio-economic environment similar to what Americans are used to, sex isn’t quite the big deal that it is in “the States”. And I can’t help but wonder if that might be a good thing. I myself get tired of all the childish sexual innuendoes in American entertainment, all the sexual enticements in commercial advertisements, and the strong assumption here that if a man and woman are left alone, they’re gonna do it. Perhaps the prudish social assumptions of the 1950’s were unrealistic. But the pendulum shot too far the other way during the American cultural revolution of the late 60’s, fueled by a demographic bulge of horny teens and 20-somethings (i.e., the Baby Boom). Since then, America has gotten older, but the culture and entertainment makers seem to think that we’re still in the summer of love (or the boy’s locker room). What a yucky thought: graying baby-boom people stuck in a cotton candy paradise, thinking that they’re still sexy, thinking that sex is (still) what life is all about.

Perhaps it’s time to throw some far-Eastern cold water on to that notion. Perhaps Zen and the Tao are part of an overall presumption that sees sexuality for what it really is: a very mixed blessing, something that can be very good in certain settings, and yet can very bad in others; something that can deliver you to the gates of heaven, but also to the shackles of boredom; something that can heal, but which all too often hurts; something that can be truth, but is more often a delusion. As with all things, wisdom is the key to breaking the paradox. But here in America, wisdom is at a low ebb right now.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:31 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, April 8, 2007
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Uncategorized ...

I was updating the consciousness section of my website over the weekend, and I got to thinking about how we actually experience death most every day. Death in the sense of no consciousness, not in the sense of no living body. But hey, if you had a living body and no consciousness, then what good would it do you? The point is, every night when we sleep, we’re completely gone for a few hours (the other slumbering hours are spent dreaming, which is a form of consciousness). And if we need to go under anesthesia for a medical procedure, same deal. For a few hours, we just aren’t.

But we come back from these mini-deaths when our body awakens and the neuron structures critical to consciousness start firing again. Every night when we go to sleep, we trust that our memory structures will properly restore us intact, with the same personality and the same personal history and the same personal qualities, by the time that morning light shines (or even before, during our dreaming phases). Pretty amazing when you think about it. We give in to a death-like state, with the hope that a physical structure (i.e., that comprising our bodies and brains) is ready and waiting to re-activate our conscious lives in a few hours.

This also makes me think about the Star Trek Transporter scenario. What if, while you were in “dead sleep”, your body was destroyed, but replaced by an exact copy, all charged up and ready to go, but in a completely different place? Or even worse – what if your original body was intact, but there was also a copy? Would you split into two? Two human beings with exactly the same memories and experiences up to a certain point in time (i.e., the date of the copy)?

Right now, this is not a problem. There is no practical way of gaining all the information needed from your existing body, then using it as a blueprint to build a “new you”. Information has a cost, and the cost right now is way too high; it’s beyond what our science can do. But that doesn’t mean that it’s completely impossible, that it will never be possible.

If anyone could intelligently imagine an afterlife granted by a divine, omnipresent power, this would need to be the scenario or principle by which it would take place. That power would need be able to gather all of the information necessary to build an exact copy of the processes and states in your brain at the time of death (or even before, as the actual brain may have experienced severe decay before death, as with Alzheimer’s Disease). “The power” would then need to use that information to establish a working copy of your brain processes in some energy and information exchange medium. Voila, you would be – resurrected.

OK, it’s a long shot. But given that it’s Easter Sunday, well . . . . . I’ll leave it at that for now.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:53 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, April 6, 2007
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Uncategorized ...

I was listening to a CD lecture about the Old Testament the other day, and the topic was the food and purity laws, in Leviticus and other books. Ugh, booh, thumbs down. That’s how most modern folk feel about ancient purity codes. But to be charitable, we say that perhaps they had a good reason at the time. E.g., don’t eat pigs because they cause trichinosis when not cooked right, or shellfish gets infected by poisonous bacteria very quickly.

But the lecturer made a good counterpoint, by referring to an article written by anthropologist Mary Douglas. Dr. Douglas points out that these ancient codes and rituals cannot be explained as having some practical purpose at the time (even if they incidentally did). No, what was really going on was an ancient culture’s way of dealing with an unpredictable world, dealing with the fact that we don’t fully understand the world. Nothing gets people more upset than strangeness (recall that great song by Jim Morrison and the Doors: “people are strange, when you’re a stranger, faces look ugly when you’re alone”). One way that ancient people dealt with strangeness was to come up with strict laws with strict rules and categories. This is right, anything else is wrong. If it’s not expected, it’s not good, if it doesn’t fit into the way we understand the world, stay away from it. Pigs have cloven hoofs but don’t chew cud, so they’re strange. Shellfish are water creatures without fins. Strange stuff. So don’t mess with it.

[This also explains the Biblical injunctions against homosexuality. It wasn’t what the majority would do, sexually. We now know that about 1 in 25 people have the urge for their own gender. Four percent is definitely a minority. Since ancient people couldn’t understand it, they called it strange and banned it. As though it were in fact bannable.]

In modern times, we have science and know a lot more about stuff. We have much more detailed ways of classifying and understanding things. So we don’t need to adopt such “overspecifications” against things such as shellfish, which might in fact be OK for us (given modern refrigeration). Hopefully, homosexuality is coming out of the social fear zone, and into the “we understand it, nothing to fear” region. But, Dr. Douglas pointed out that we modern folk here in the USA and Western Europe still have some hang-ups about things being in the right place. One example she cited was dirt. Suburban people go out of their way to keep dirt and insects out of their houses. They say this is unhealthy. But actually, most dirt and most insects won’t hurt you (but yes, roaches can spread disease; they remain unwelcome).

So, I was sweeping my kitchen floor this morning, and I pondered the fact that the linoleum is old and is permanently dirty. Most people (including my brother) don’t like this. But hey, so long as there aren’t any mice or black widow spiders around, it’s fine by me. Some dirt, some dust, some leaves, some beetles or grey spiders – what’s the problem?

Well, the ancient closed-mindedness missed a lot of things. The old purity laws didn’t allow the mixing of fabrics, like wool and linen. Today, just about everything we wear is a mix of fabrics. It’s a “best of both worlds” thing to us. But still, I will admit, there are still times and places where categories may be good, and category confusion may be bad. Cops do need to be tough and hard when dealing with bad guys. It’s good for our progeny that women assume nurturing roles with children (although men admittedly also need to help out in that regard). It’s good to teach the 95% of kids who are heterosexual that homosexuality is not evil, but not good to imply that they’re free to experiment with it. Doctors do need to be authoritative (much as I hate that some times), and teachers do need to take the attitude that they know more than their students. Categories still play a role in the functioning of society.

Footnote: I once tried to teach an economic class as a one-day substitute for my boss, who was an adjunct college professor. I totally bombed out. I thought I knew the materials, but when the kids started asking questions, I completely lost my balance and was reduced to a blithering idiot. My boss must have gotten complaints from the kids, as he never had me do that again; and just as well, I figured.

The main sin of the ancient Biblical Jews was closed-mindedness. Leviticus assumes that the community leaders know how the world should be broken down, and thus have enough authority to condemn various things (including all homosexuals; women didn’t do so well either, if they went “outside the box” in their behavior). Perhaps today we go too far the other way at times. As various thinkers have said, it’s all in finding the right balance; i.e., Aristotle’s Golden Mean.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:11 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, April 1, 2007
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Uncategorized ...

It’s springtime once again, and it seems like a good time to think about sex. Of course, you young folk out there might say “don’t think about it, just do it!” Yes, however . . . . you’ll be old some day, and you may then come to realize just how much of a delusion sex can be, once you can finally free your mind from the grip of your hormones. As Sophocles said, when age takes the passions away from you, “it is like escaping from the bondage of a raging madman.” But let me be fair about it; if sex leads to true love – and that does occasionally happen – well, then perhaps the charade is worth it. But just as it’s the sun’s rays being reflected, and not the moon itself that lights up the night, the promise of sex is ultimately love. The reality of sex without love is just as barren as the lunar craters.

Anyway, we children of the 1960s turned sex into both a playground and an imagined biological necessity, thanks to the technology and social currents of the times – e.g., birth control, abortion rights and the substitution of psychology for religion. We converted sex into a birthright and a marketing tool. Whooppeeee.

Until perhaps the mid-70s, some old-tyme religion people still lectured that sex was something to be careful with, something that can bring forth the worst of life’s moments as well as the best. But before long, the “free love” ethos had won the day. Not even the most fire-breathing of religious preachers would dare warn their congregations any more about the pitfalls of indiscriminate sexuality. You wouldn’t have a congregation for very long if you did.

The ancient Greeks saw past the thrill (which, as Lord Chesterfield famously noted, is fleeting), in their better moments anyway. They celebrated sex as the source of our species’ renewal, and yet feared it as a source of destruction and death. For example, Sophocles’ fellow tragedian Euripides told a story of Medea and Jason (of Argonauts fame). Medea fell in love with Jason and helped him through his various adventures and battles. Her clairvoyance and herbal potions got him out of some tight situations. And yet, wouldn’t ya know it, Jason decided that trusty old Medea just wasn’t too exciting anymore, and took up with some bimbo (i.e., King Creon’s daughter; ah yes, power and wealth are definitely aphrodisiacs). Well, Medea was still holding the torch for Jason and got into a fit about it. How to avenge such betrayal? She decided to kill their sons. That’ll fix Jason.

The free love people might have responded as follows: “oh come on, that was just an old Greek tale; once we get over our hangups, sex is just as harmless as a teddy bear”. Yea, well – we’re living in a “post-hungup” world, and yet the dark side of sexuality keeps on coming thru (aside from the monkey-wrench that nature threw at “free love”, i.e. AIDS). There’s still way too much rape and domestic violence, mostly perpetrated by men. But even women sometimes show forth their Medea-like qualities. Recently, a jilted woman threatened to kill her rival – which wouldn’t have made the news, but for the setting in which it took place. That setting was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — the bastion of science, rationality and military discipline. Yes, I’m talking about Lisa Nowak, the Space Shuttle veteran who drove 900 miles with a diaper, a knife, a BB gun and some pepper spray, to take on her rival (Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman). When you see the astronauts on TV, floating around up in the heavens, all middle-American and laughing at clean jokes and talking their techie lingo with cool precision, you say wow, this is truly the victory of rationality. These folk are absolutely in control. NASA has obviously picked the coolest of the coolest. Roger that.

But the dark side of sexual passion has finally gotten past the gates of NASA. Bottom line: I think that kids still need to be lectured by adults about that dark side, even though doing so instantly crashes the standing of any such adult in the eyes of today’s youth. It would take guts to speak up, because kids seem to be running the world these days. Their likes and dislikes certainly drive our consumer-oriented economy. And I’ll be the first to admit – I’m not gonna stop the next gaggle of 15 year olds I see walking down my street on a warm spring evening to enlighten them with tales of argonauts and astronauts. No one can do it alone. But parents and teachers and clergypeople who aren’t Christian or Islamic nutcases should really try to explain the two-sidedness of sexuality to young folk. Perhaps a few of them might benefit, even if the majority would just get a laugh out of it.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:09 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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