The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
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Saturday, June 30, 2007
Current Affairs ... Religion ... Society ...

I just read an article about secularism and atheism in Europe. Religion and belief in God is not very popular amidst the native populations of western Europe these days. However, it’s still pretty popular amidst the Muslims, whose numbers are growing a lot faster than the natives. As far as the Catholics go, Pope Benedict is on a mission to “re-Christianize” Europe. I’m sure he’d like to get those heathen French and Belgian folk back into the old cathedrals, but it looks as though his new Euro-Christian army is going to be comprised mostly of African and South American immigrants. Like the Arabs and Turks, they also embrace the old-tyme religion and have a lot of babies.

So, it looks like the European scene is in for some conflict in the coming decades. If the script from the past is followed, the Christians and the Muslims will resort to violence in competing for the right to show the faithless the error of their ways. And the atheists will just write more books about the stupidity and hypocrisy of it all. But you never know – history does have its twists. Perhaps Benedict and the sheiks will find common cause in the campaign (dare I say “crusade”) against modern Godlessness in Europe. Perhaps they will unite in various political campaigns to outlaw abortion, women’s equality, stem-cell research and academic freedom. That will go a long way to cast Europe back into the middle ages.

I think it’s a terrible shame that the Catholic faith, which for a short time back in the 1960s seemed ready to make peace with the modern world, is now on a campaign to bring back the past. Obviously, I’d much rather see Rome engage the secularists instead of going head-to-head with them (just what we criticize the Islamics for doing). But the much-acclaimed Pope John Paul II wasn’t in the mood for accommodating the secularists, and they went their own way. Now his right-hand man is finishing the job. JP2 is still celebrated for helping to reclaim eastern Europe from Communism; but he also has to take the blame for losing western Europe to atheism. It happened on his watch. As with President Ronald Reagan, I think JP2 is over-rated. They were both very good at leadership; the fall of communism made it look as though they were leading in the right direction. But just because you avoid one dead end, doesn’t mean that you know the right way. In the end, both Ronnie and JP found other wrong directions to take their flocks.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:02 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, June 25, 2007
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Uncategorized ...

FRACTALED FERRY TALES: I’ve read various accounts regarding the mathematical concept of “fractals”, and what a big deal it is. In a nutshell, fractals represent a mathematical situation where there exist patterns within patterns within patterns within patterns . . . . on and on. So, no matter whether you are looking at something from space or thru a microscope, the fractal pattern would be the same (give or take some random factors). A fractal surface area is kind of like a sponge, with lots of surface area in a small space. A good practical example of fractality is provided by aluminum foil. When you first cut a piece of foil from the roll, it’s nice and flat and shiny. Maybe you use it to wrap up a pound cake or something like that. After the pound cake has been eaten, many people throw the foil out. But if you’re a cheapskate like me, you save the foil and use it for something else, perhaps a muffin. After about the fourth or fifth time reusing foil, you see that it has become all scrunchy and shrunken, and isn’t much good anymore for wrapping stuff. That piece of foil was once flat, but has now become fractal, with lots of little folds and jags.

My point here is to ask what the big deal is about fractals. Mathematicians talk like they had found the holy grail. And they had some good examples, here and there. E.g., compare a shot from a space satellite of the middle of the USA, with the Mississippi River branching out into all sorts of twisty, smaller rivers, which in turn branch out into smaller rivers. on down to little creeks and brooks. Compare that with a shot of a tree. And then a close-up shot of a leaf. And then with a shot of the tiny blood vessels in your own skin. OK, so there are some recurring patterns to nature; give the math guys credit for being able to formally describe it.

But on a bigger level, the fractal idea is a big flop. I’m thinking here about the quantum world of fundamental particles, versus the bigger worlds of molecules and living beings and planets and solar systems and galaxies. There’s a huge disconnect in the way that tiny stuff acts versus bigger stuff; i.e. quantum physics versus the relativistic world of gravity. A long time ago, the atom seemed like a little solar system, with electrons revolving around the proton-neutron nucleus just as the planets revolved around the sun. (And on a higher level, billions of solar systems revolved around a black hole at the core of most galaxies). Now, if that were true, the cosmos would truly be fractal. But in fact, the atom is nothing like a mini-solar system. And the galaxy itself acts differently from a solar system because of “dark matter” (stuff we still don’t understand).

So, things do change fundamentally, depending on what level you look at them from. Aside from old aluminum foil, perhaps fractals still amount to an interesting idea that is useful in certain contexts. But sorry, mathematicians; you haven’t found the key to reality. So get back to your theorems and axioms, and call us in a few years to let us know how you’re doing.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:01 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, June 23, 2007
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SAFE LANDING: In the world of criminal justice bureaucracy, you’ve got to put up with some shrewd and aggressive people. My latest little encounter regarded a federal grant opportunity that we had hardly an icicle’s chance in hell of getting. Still, one of the shrewd higher-ups (a trial attorney by trade) decided that we had to go for it, mostly to impress the big boss (the County Prosecutor). And since I’m the “grants guy”, that meant that I’d have to catch the hot potato here. I’d be the guy to take the blame if we didn’t submit the application, or catch hell if we submitted something really junky, despite the fact that our proposal clearly wasn’t what the feds were looking for. The blame-game will start once we got the rejection notice.

OK, so I played the game. The grant was due yesterday (Friday), via GRANTS.GOV (all federal grants are now submitted electronically). On Thursday evening, I got a few pages of materials from someone who had no idea what a grant application looked like, so on Friday I had to massage that fluff into something that at least looked like a decent submission. The thing that annoyed me about it was that I was working at the same time on another federal grant application, one that we do in fact have a shot at (due Monday). Oh well, that’s life. Nothing at all happens, or everything happens at once.

I had the fluff lady, who was supposed to have prepared the application, come in on Friday despite her having the day off. Well hey, this grant was her boss’s idea, so she needed to bear some of the brunt too. I gave her the federal checklist and told her what we needed. She was good-natured enough about it. Still, had she bothered to look at the grant punchlist a week ago, she might had been able to have stayed home. But some people, despite being smart (she’s another trial attorney), just don’t know how to follow instructions.

Anyway, by 5 PM on Friday, we at least had enough stuff to say that we addressed every point in the proposal request; not very well, but at least there were no obvious omissions. Our proposal was still way off-base and will clearly be rejected, given the extreme competition for federal grants these days. But at least I had my own butt covered. Another day, another week, another grant, another bureaucratic maneuver to escape the line of fire.

By 5:30 PM I had an e-mail confirmation from GRANTS.GOV that our application had been received. It was an intense day of work for me, but it was finally time to go home. Just before I locked up my desk and grabbed my bag, I fired up the browser for a quick look at the news. The headline on nytimes.com was appropriate: Space Shuttle Lands Safely. Yep. As I marched down the stairway towards the door, I reflected on it: a safe landing in California for the Shuttle, a safe bureaucratic landing in Newark for me. The Shuttle never fulfilled its promise, and my own life went the same route. But it was Friday evening, and we were both on the ground safely after a busy week. So, it was time for a beer, not for a tear of regret.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:14 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
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Uncategorized ...

I felt a twinge of sadness the other day when I read that the last of the great trans-Atlantic passenger ships, the Queen Elizabeth II, is going to be retired and sent to Dubai to become a floating hotel. By the time that the QE 2 went into service around 1970 (when I was still in high school), the jet plane had already killed off most of the demand for three-day voyages from New York to London or Paris. But God bless those British folk at Cunard for building one last great “liner”, nonetheless.

The Queen kept up the old tradition for another three decades, although toward the end it was doing more cruise business than cross-Atlantic trade. I never rode the Queen, but I once worked in Manhattan and had a view of the Hudson River dock where the Queen would hold court every month or two. I always kept an eye out for her. Sometimes she’d be docking as I was getting to my desk in the morning, and once or twice I was there late enough to watch her heading downriver for the open seas. Well, I doubt if I’ll have reason to visit Dubai anytime soon, so perhaps I’ll never see the old girl again. But here’s a pic I managed to get of her from my office. A nice little memory of some British pomp and circumstance on the west side. New York, and the world in general, is not a better place now that the Queen 2 no longer flies the Union Jack proudly over the briny seas. Hail Britannia, erstwhile ruler of the waves!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:08 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, June 17, 2007
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Because my blog is not widely popular, I have the luxury of being “not politically correct” from time to time. My thoughts for today fall into that category. I’ve been thinking about the “Islamic problem” and the “African-American problem” side-by-side. Of course, I’m taking the perspective of a main-stream American white guy. Also of course, I have my prejudices. Third “of course”, I’m trying to be as fair and open as possible about this stuff as possible, given who I am and where I come from. Final “of course”: at the end of the day I do have my opinions, and I’m sticking with them whether popular or not.

With that being said, let me get back to comparing the Islamic problem and the African American problem. Both represent large groups of people who are having their problems fitting in with “Western culture” and economics. They both have legitimate beefs with this culture, but they both also have common beliefs and practices that keep them from fitting in and achieving full economic participation. Another “of course” is needed at this point: of course, this is a broad-stroke statement. There are millions of people from both groups who have fully adopted and integrated with “The West” and are quite successful, in many ways. But in general, both groups seem to have their problems with mainstream western culture and with poverty. They too often represent the economic outcasts, and they express anger about this.

The interesting thing is that they both have something the West wants. The black culture has a certain cultural verve that whites seem to crave (hip hop music, trendsetting words and expressions, sporting and artistic prowess, etc.). The Islamic culture has oil. So we have to deal with eachother, like it or not. Another interesting thing is that both Islam (as both a religion and a culture) and the black culture have many legitimate criticisms of the western mainstream. They seem to imply that we are too materialistic, too impious, too stingy, too impersonal (although I’m NOT trying to merge the Islamic vision and the Black vision into one; they are very different, and would have many points of disagreement and friction between themselves). These cultures certainly have many of their own faults, and even hypocrisy; but alot of their cultural critiques ARE worth thinking about. They do contain some significant truths.

Well, aside from a few weirdos like myself, no one could seriously discuss the commonalties between the black problem and the Muslim problem in public. If some kid in grad school attempted to do a sociology thesis on this, he or she would be banned forever from the halls of academia. If a serious article about this appeared in the Washington Post or the New Yorker, the author would never publish again, and the paper or magazine would have to issue profuse apologias. The world of thought just ain’t ready for open-mindedness these days. And that’s too bad. I think it would be better for everyone to start slugging it out in academic words and logic, and leave the law suits and protest marches and political invective (and even guns and weapons of mass destruction) behind. But of course, I’m not holding my breath.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:08 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, June 11, 2007
Spirituality ...

I’ve been pondering the theological problem of pain again; the whole question about how a loving God could let so many awful, humiliating, life-sapping things happen to those he loves. I mean, I’d really like to believe in God again, without reservation. Such belief certainly helps to fill a lot of psychological gaps; that’s no doubt why religion is so popular. But when I see so many people with idealistic dreams that go up in smoke, with good intentions come to naught, who suffer terribly for nothing they ever did, who lose their taste for living . . . . just how could it make any sense?

Perhaps it could, if there were in fact something more than our short, mostly pathetic years here on earth (reminds me of that depressing Peggy Lee song “Is That All There Is?”). The Bible and other religious literature promise that there IS something more. But they offer no real proof; just a lot of wishful thinking, when you boil it all down. It would really help to have a sign, however small and tentative, one that made some sense rationally, indicating that perhaps our lives don’t totally go to waste; that something could still be made of them somehow.

There might be one such sign. But I’m not sure yet if this notion has any scientific validity or plausibility. Some people think that our past is actually “still out there”. Somewhere in space, over light-years perhaps, every bit of information about our lives may still exist somehow. Every moment, every thought, every feeling, every impression, every sensation – perhaps it’s all recorded in some way. Recorded as little wiggles in gravity fields, mega-patterns in the web of quantum phase entanglement, faint bits of electromagnetic waves from decades of neuron activity within the brain. Yes, if this “information” does indeed exist, it is well beyond human capacity for recovery. It’s too small in magnitude, too diffuse, too jumbled up with trillions and trillions of other signals and patterns and static. And yet, if this were true, or even not necessarily false, it would make me feel better. I’d feel better knowing that my father’s life is still out there, even if hidden amidst the rubble of an energy field junkyard. And also my grandparents. And those guys from my high school class who died young.

OK, and Hitler and Stalin would thus be “alive” too. But maybe that’s a good thing. Perhaps their souls were always tortured and haunted and barren. If they somehow still exist, God (if God somehow still exists) then has the chance to do something with them. And to do something to heal the many broken and disappointed souls who found life to be unfair, painful, wasteful, insensible, unbearable (partly because of what Hitler and Stalin and their like did here on earth).

I have no idea how God actually could do something like this. (To get an idea, I’ve just bought Frank Tipler’s book “ The Physics of Immortality”, about how everyone who ever lived might be brought back to life if the Universe were to go through a “big crunch”, and an intelligent, altruistic society of beings did certain high-tech things to take advantage of it.) But even without a plan as to what to do with these “life signals” (if they do indeed exist), it would still make me feel better to know at least that the information is still out there. I will report back on this issue at some point, once I see what Mr. Tipler has to say about it.

PS, here’s a weird thought, inspired by Mr. Tipler’s boundless thinking. What if God did indeed create the universe, but died in giving it birth? What if our world does indeed have something of God’s character (helping to explain why we think of him so much), but gets nasty and unpleasant so often because it doesn’t have him around to keep things right? Oh wait – if God died in childbirth, then God definitely is a she. Or was a she.

Geez, you’d think we’d then try to make the best of what she gave herself up for.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:01 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, June 9, 2007
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MY FUN DAY: When you’re a nerd like me, fun is a somewhat rare event. However, I did have a bit of fun this past week . . . . nerdy fun, as it were. You see, the wife of a former office mate from a past job had called up another guy in my office (who had also worked for that past employer of mine), wanting some help in making graphs from an Excel spreadsheet. The guy who took the call (Mr. Raj) decided to call me in on the case, so I picked up his cell phone and made my re-acquaintances with Valerie.

Ms. Valerie has a PhD in nursing and health care management, and recently took a job in the financial unit of a big health care system. This presented her with a bit of a challenge. She was used to managing field-level nursing operations, and not to fiscal controls and cost projections. Her new boss wanted her to turn out some actual-versus-target-expense graphs, despite her unfamiliarity with the intricacies of spreadsheets. And she had to turn them out fast. So she turned to Mr. Raj, who in turn turned to me . To turn a phrase. (OK, I’ll stop with the turning).

Anyway, there I was sitting at Raj’s desk, speaking to Valerie in Manhattan on Raj’s cell phone, trying to walk her thru the creation of a decent multi-line chart on Excel I opened up Excel on Raj’s computer, and had Valerie follow me as I created a graph. . It got pretty intense there for a while. Maybe even dramatic (she obviously was taking me very seriously, as though her job depended upon it). It kind of reminded me of those movie plots where the pilot of an airplane becomes unconscious and a passenger with little or no flying experience has to land the plane. “OK, now Valerie, do you see that handle next to the throttle lever? OK, now move it just a bit to the left. Is the plane banking and turning towards the left? Good. OK, put it back to the center. Now, take a look at the air speed indicator, which is . . . .”

Well all right, this isn’t exactly what I said (and I guess I just broke my promise about not turning anymore). But still, it was kind of fun helping someone get the hang of operating an unfamiliar technical system. She did finally get a fairly decent double-line chart together. And I felt pretty good about playing the part of the heroic air-traffic controller who landed an emergency flight through his cool and calm instructions. In my hyperactive, fun-loving imagination, anyway!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:21 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, June 3, 2007
Philosophy ... Society ...

At present, I’m trying to cut my way through the very dense jungle of prose within a book called “Godel, Escher and Bach”, as written by mathematician Douglas Hofstadter. This book was published in 1979, and gave Hofstadter a taste of fame within the philosophical ranks. The book came out just a few years after Robert Pirsig‘s “The Art of Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance”. Both books were written by off-beat geniuses who offered up concoctions of math, science, philosophy and eastern spirituality to seekers of higher truths. Pirsig made the bigger splash with Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance, which became a best seller in the early 80s. However, Hofstadter has had much more staying power over the past quarter century. Pirsig managed to get another book out in 1991 called “Lila”, which was mostly a dud. However, Hofstadter published a number of well-received works on a variety of techno-philosophical issues over that time.

Hofstadter now has a book out called “I Am A Strange Loop”, which has gained a fair amount of attention. “Strange Loop” presents his solution to the mind-body problem, the ultimate question of what our consciousness is. I’m looking forward to reading it, but I’ve heard that you really should be familiar with Godel, Escher and Bach before taking it on. So I’m trying to get ready, although the 700 some-odd pages of GEB turn out not to make for an interesting and pleasant Sunday afternoon. The author (then a young professor) seemed to think that everyone is in love with number theory and is willing to spend days and days going thru his lessons on how to write a theorem regarding the pattern among positive integers between a prime number and the cube of their successors (next highest number), taking their difference and adding it to the square of . . . . Sometimes you want to throw the book at the wall and say “who gives a ____ “.

But there are some spots where Hofstadter calms down and writes for real people, sharing various insights from his brilliant mind regarding the nature of reality. One insight that I found very interesting regarded ants and bees and neurons. These things all have to do with the fashionable topic of complexity and emergence, which was still quite unknown to the public when GEB first came out. Ants somehow act in unison to make an ant colony thrive; bees somehow make a bee hive work; and neurons somehow make our brains light up. This is despite the fact that in all cases, there is no central controller for the individual ants, bees and neurons. Each one has no idea what the grand plan is. They just do their little jobs. Yet somehow it all comes together to support a great collective effort.

Hofstadter ponders just where the “information” lies that directs the workings of an ant colony, or a bee hive, or the human brain. It does NOT reside in the individual ant, bee, or neuron. NONE of these things can actually talk; but if they could, and if you could ask them what the grand plan is for connecting the caves of an ant colony, or the secret of honey production in the bee hive, or how the human mind composes songs and lyrics, each of them would shrug and say “I have no idea”. The grand plan resides on a higher level, outside of any putative consciousness of the participants.

That made me think back to my recent ponderings regarding warfare. War is one of those things that humans just don’t seem able to control. Wars just happen. Our diplomats try to stop them, but not very successfully in most instances. It kind-of seems like something from a bee hive or an ant colony. The “grand plan”, the “information” behind warfare, seems to reside at a higher level than human awareness, even higher than human collective awareness like national governments or the United Nations (which is pretty much a joke, anyway).

So just what could that “information level” behind warfare be? I don’t like to get spacey and go off on New Age tangents. But I can’t help but wonder if there might be something to the “Gaia hypothesis” regarding a planetary “consciousness” of sorts. Is war Gaia’s way of keeping the human race, with its dreams and grand plans for conquest and control, in check? (Talk about a “STRANGE LOOP”.) Are we just too aggressive and exploitative for the good of the planetary system as a whole, and so the planetary system pushes us into controlling ourselves by a war or ethnic cleansing now and then?

I read somewhere that about 200 million people died as a result of war and genocide during the 20th Century. My almanac says that world population went from around 1.7 billion in 1900 to around 6.1 billion in 2000. Using some rough averaging, I’d guess that around 8 billion people lived during the 20th century (figuring average lifespan just short of 50 years). So, about 2.5% of everyone, or around 5 out of every 200 people, had their lives cut short (usually in young adulthood) because of war.

I’m glad that Gaia let me off the hook. But as the 21st Century progresses, with global warming and nuclear weapons proliferation and worsening wealth and knowledge inequity (with the poor getting poorer, a small handful getting tremendously rich), and as the population level nears 10 billion around 2070 . . . . I can’t help but wonder what Gaia has up her sleeve. Sorry to be such a pessimist, but it may not be pretty. Wonder if Mr. Hofstadter has any ideas on how to cut that Strange Loop short?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:02 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, June 1, 2007
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Uncategorized ...

Andy Rooney, the old guy who blabs away on 60 Minutes, is cynical about the USA sending people back to the Moon. Well, perhaps he has a point. For the time being, outer space can be explored a lot more thoroughly and a lot more safely using machines. I’ve heard the argument made that there’s nothing like really being there when you’re exploring new territory. But let’s face it; human beings can’t really experience the Moon or Mars or anything else beyond our planet’s atmosphere. They would have to be cocooned in highly protective outfits and stay in isolated bases, due to all the radiation, heat, cold and lack of air. It’s not like they could go outside and touch or smell or taste anything, which is what human exploration has always been about. So I’ll give Andy a pass on this issue.

But actually, I recall Andy Rooney also being cynical about the original Apollo moon landing program from the late 60’s and early 70’s. About 5 or 6 years ago, I heard him on 60 Minutes complaining about a promise that NASA made about the great discoveries that would be made regarding the moon;s formation. Andy said that he didn’t remember ever getting that report. Well, that’s because it hadn’t been written yet. Actually, that report only came in recently. Not long ago, moon scientists finally reached consensus that the earth was hit by another planet about 4.5 billion years ago. A lot of the earth’s surface was scraped off in the process, and the stuff eventually congealed into the Moon. That’s why the Moon doesn’t have much iron, as opposed to the Earth, whose core is almost all iron.

They now call this story “the Big Whack”. And it took a while to gel. Science can be a slow and cautious process. As it should be. Sorry for the wait, Andy. Sometimes, it takes time to get it right. But now that we’ve got the moon right, well . . . . perhaps it’s time to move on to some bigger and bolder science ventures, way out there in the blue. But as far as sending people along with our probes . . . . we’re gonna have to be patient about that. Just as Andy Rooney should have patient about the moon rocks report.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:57 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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