The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
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Thursday, August 30, 2007
Religion ... Society ...

A lot of midwestern newspapers, and even some coastal rags (like the Washington Post) have run stories in the past few days with titles such as “Lesbian Being Considered As Next Episcopal Chicago Bishop”. Here’s an example. Just for shock effect, they always begin with the word “lesbian”. I don’t think that most people are at ease with that word yet. The subtext is that it’s bad enough for men to be gay, but for women to go bad like that . . . .

That mentality was drilled into my head by my parents and teachers. They hardly ever used the term “lesbian”. It was something so bad, so far removed from normal life as to be unspeakable. And since my genetics never took me on the journey of homosexual urges, I had little reason to question this notion.

Until I went to law school in 1979, I don’t think I’d ever even seen a “lesbian”. Not that I’d know, anyway (I obviously did see them, given that they make up around 4% of the female population). Only in the legal mill did I encounter any openly gay women and men (some woman named Linda and a guy known as Mitchell – definitely not “Mitch”). And it took another 5 years until I actually started talking to people who I knew were gay or sort-of gay (lots of blurriness out there). By 1990 or so I actually had some gay friends, people I could stop thinking of as gay when I was around them.

And then around 1993 or so I met Tracey Lind — the Reverend Tracey Lind that is. The LESBIAN Reverend Tracey Lind. I was trying out the Episcopal faith and I was looking for a parish with some electricity, some voltage, some juice. Most Episcopal parishes run on AAA batteries in that regard. After reading an article somewhere, I decided to try out St. Pauls in Paterson (NJ), specifically their mid-week evening Eucharist. And guess what? There was some voltage in the air. And most of it was emanating from the presiding minister – none other than the good Reverend Lind.

I hung out at St. Pauls to varying degrees for the next 5 years, and I got to know Tracey — more or less. I can’t say that we became best of friends. I became involved in a handful of parish activities, and I had to deal with Tracey in a variety of ways. To be honest, she could be quite grating at times. And she definitely was a publicity hound. She had her own little cult of followers, comprised of some other bona fide lesbians, some gay guys, some down-and-outers from the inner city looking for a break, and some well-intentioned genteel Anglicans from the middle class looking for “relevance”. I think there was even a transexual in the mix. I used to call this motley crew “the Trace Cadets”. Obviously, I was not one of them, and thus never got the attention and consideration from Tracey that they did.

And yet I kept on schlepping up to Saint Pauls every week or two, to see Tracey up on the altar and to listen to her sermons. Why did I do that? Because she was damn entertaining. Sometimes she could be insightful, sometimes she was humanistic and caring, and sometimes she was just plain off-the-wall. But she was always entertaining. And at bottom, I always sensed that she had a good heart.

Well, finally it was time for her to leave for bigger and better things in Cleveland. And now she’s in the running for even bigger things in Chicago. And not only that – it’s like the whole future of the Anglican Communion is riding on what happens with her. If the Diocese committee were to select her, it would get the Anglican bishops in Africa and England royally peed off, given that she’s quite open about her sexual orientation and is openly living with a female partner. Then the Episcopalian Church in the USA would get tossed out of the “World Communion”, and the local parishes would start choosing whether they were “American Episcopalians” or “International Episcopalians”.

To be honest, I just don’t see what the big deal is. It’s just Tracey Lind. So what if she lives with a woman, and who cares what they do in private (or don’t do – I’ve heard that most lesbians don’t have anything like the scintillating sex life that teenage boys, and the many web sites catering to them, would imagine). And if they hug or kiss in public, well, we don’t have to watch it.

Whatever she does with her partner, Tracey is still a pretty good priest. She has a lot of spirit in her. She’s not afraid to relate to heterosexuals and to minister and preach to them. Despite my quibbles with her, I enjoyed my time at her parish. If she were still in the area, I’d probably still go to church despite my disagreement with the core Christian myths. I still haven’t discarded the most central of those myths, i.e. that God exists. And Tracey definitely hasn’t either. She is a woman of God, a woman who serves God well despite a lot of flaws. It’s sad to see her caricatured in the papers as “LESBIAN”. It’s so impersonal, so political. Well, Tracey is tough; she can handle it. She will land on her feet one way or another. But I do hope that the good Episcopalians burghers of Chicago will decide to take advantage of her talents.

Is Tracey Lind worth having a schism over? Well, if you gotta have a schism, it might as well be over someone ultimately likable, like Tracey. History has seen so much worse.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:05 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, August 26, 2007
History ... Photo ...

Here’s an interesting photo that my late uncle took at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York (the shot was actually taken in 1940). It shows the League of Nations pavilion, a rather serious, substantial looking affair. The League is putting on a good face, but in reality is powerless at this point (and had been for quite a while). The bullets were already flying in Europe and Asia, and the second world war was gaining unstoppable momentum. My uncle was 15 at the time. In four years, the USA would send him and his older brother to serve its Navy in the Philippines. Luckily and thankfully, they would both come back unscathed and would share in the suburban prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s.

As to the League … it went out of business not long after this picture was taken. But after the war, it was more-or-less reincarnated as the United Nations. And unlike the League, the UN was taken seriously for awhile. But it’s fallen on hard times in a world of global warming and terrorism and sectarian conflict. The dream of world unity will have to wait for another era.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:22 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, August 25, 2007
Politics ...

Essex County Prosecutor Paula Dow: A Shakespearean Tragedy? If you are one of the rare few who have followed my blog, you know that I have a professional affiliation with the criminal justice community of northern New Jersey (on the local level, not with the FBI or anything important like that). At any rate, I know some people who are “wired in” to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. That Office is now getting a lot of attention for its role in the investigation and prosecution of the gang of Central American immigrants who murdered three college students in Newark (some of the perps were illegal residents). The Prosecutor, Paula Dow, is currently the only female County Prosecutor in New Jersey, and is just the second African American female Prosecutor from that great state. You would think that the press and the local minority community would give her a break. But no dice. When crime is as much of a threat as it is in Essex County, political correctness and ethnic loyalty are jettisoned very quickly. People want results.

Are they getting results from Prosecutor Dow? From what I hear, she’s doing about as well as anyone else could given what she has to work with — which I hear is not exactly first rate. The Essex Office did finally get a good crime scene unit earlier this year. But in general, their operation is underfunded and their staff is often uninspired. Dow is doing what she can, so I hear, but she inherited a lot of dead wood surviving under government labor protection. She brought in some new blood at the top levels, but mostly left the old establishment intact. So nothing too much changed, and the new blood has given up trying to change things. Even Dow seems afraid to take them on; e.g., the lowest rank supervisors (most of whom who never do any field investigation work) continue to get County cars and free gas to commute to work with, an old practice that all of the other County agencies pulled the plug on because of tight budgets.

Dow came from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where the standards are a bit higher than on the county and municipal level. From what I’ve heard, she is trying to maintain her own personal integrity; she refuses to get involved with the petty corruption and favor mongering that is embedded within the day-to-day workings of Essex County government. She encourages her underlings to maintain their ethics as well (some listen, many don’t). That sounds just wonderful, but it may also be her Achilles heel. She supposedly avoids the politicos and hardly talks with her County Executive, Joe DiVicenzio, a smart and savvy political operator (he’s a guy with a flair for making the old political machine look to the public like a reformist campaign). She basically doesn’t have any friends amidst the mayors, state senators, state assemblymen, county freeholders and other assorted wind-bags that run northern New Jersey. And Jersey’s Governor, Jon Corzine, has no time for her either. She’s staying clean, but she’s predictably not getting much done either.

When a big nasty case comes up, such as they now have with the college student killings, the press looks for a scapegoat, and Paula Dow is the goat without any friends. So it’s not surprising that the local rag, the Newark Star Ledger, hasn’t been very sympathetic with her. None of the big boys will pick up the phone and call the editorial board to tell them to lay off her, as they do for those who they know. Fox News has also been slamming her, and no one with any political juice is speaking up in her defense. Prosecutor Dow has been set up as a lightening rod for the angst caused by illegal immigration, a crisis that she did not create and is powerless to fix.

So it’s a kind of mini-Shakespeare tragedy going on in Essex County. Paula Dow is trying to remain noble amidst a bunch of machine politicians, and things are falling apart around her for it. She’s bearing the brunt of the public’s outrage, focused by a media establishment that needs to blame someone — preferably someone who can’t really fight back. Prosecutor Dow is trying to fight back alone, and in New Jersey, that’s pretty much a lost cause. Yes, Shakespeare would have loved it.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:54 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, August 20, 2007
Society ...

According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s definition, a black swan is a large-impact, hard-to-predict event that is beyond normal expectations. Taleb claims that almost all consequential events in history come from the high impact events. And yet, in a recent article, J. Richard Gott III claims that in thinking about the future, it’s best to assume that there is nothing special about the particular moment that you’re observing. Dr. Gott says that for on-going things (like Al Qaeda, or the Internet, or the US space program), the future can best be predicted on how long something has lasted already. He recently said that we need to get a colony up and running on Mars within 46 years in order to ensure human survival. If we don’t do it within 46 years, chances are (based on his method, which a lot of people take seriously) that we won’t do it.

These two ways of looking at history and the future seem a bit inconsistent, but that’s not necessarily the case. The world is shaped both by momentum and by big changes. Things go steady for a long time, and just when you think things will never change, BAM. The unexpected happens. Something reaches the tipping point (another book, by Malcolm Gladwell), and yesterday is irrelevant. Then the Gott approach begins anew. Evolution and revolution. Yin and yang. Yada and yada. I better stop here.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:54 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, August 17, 2007
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ...

A whole lot of Americans want to have big houses and big cars these days. Forget about the days of compacts and Cape Cod starters. America has become a super-sized society. (That also applies to waist lines.) And the side effects are now being felt.

Big houses and big cars use up a lot of fuel, especially since a lot of those big houses are built in places where you can’t get anywhere without a car. And the car of choice for those places is a pickup or a big SUV. So, the USA is using a whole lot of fuel to heat and cool its houses and to get its citizens to work and play. The average American uses 3 times the energy (in oil kg equivalents) as the average world citizen, and about 10% more than the average for Germany, Britain and France. Unfortunately, we are now feeling a variety of side effects from this addiction to bigness.

It has been pretty well documented that heavy fossil fuel consumption is pushing the earth’s climate system towards a tipping point, i.e. global warming. And it’s fairly clear that high energy prices supported by American demand help Middle Eastern kingdoms to support terrorism, through direct and indirect means (e.g., funding groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and building new fundamentalist “madrassas” which instill the young with anti-western values and attitudes). And now we find out that high energy prices are bringing Russia back as a hostile military threat. This article discusses the variety of new weapon systems that Russia is starting (including nuclear missiles, bombers, aircraft carriers, and anti-missile systems). The bear is back, after falling into second-rate status after the demise of the Soviet Union. And it’s all because of all the revenues that the Russians are earning from oil and gas sales (hey, there’s a Lukoil filling station right up the block from me!).

And now the US economy is in a bit of a spin because of the wacky ways that financial entrepreneurs found to slake America’s appetite for easy credit, the stuff that makes all the big houses and big cars possible. The stock market has fallen around 10%, mortgage rates are going up, and loans are being refused to worthy borrowers because the mortgage default rate was creeping up from 10%, and reached a tipping point at around 14%. Now the “secondary market” which provides the money needed to make loans has gone into a panic, and a big sector of the American economy is in real trouble (including housing developers, realtors, construction companies, construction suppliers, home improvement retail – think Home Depot – appliances, moving vans, furniture makers, lumber companies, etc.). Let’s hope that the Federal Reserve can stop the bleeding with rate cuts.

But the bottom line is that Jimmy Carter was right. America is going to have to stop living the fat life, and start thinking about how to live reasonably and moderately, within its means. The furies are gathering, but perhaps there is still time, if people would just start heeding the warning signs.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:48 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, August 12, 2007
Current Affairs ... Politics ...

There have been a number of big-newspaper articles in the last week or so acknowledging signs that the US troop surge is having positive effects. Three intellectual heavyweights (Anthony Cordesman, Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack) recently got back from Iraq, and are now espousing the progress made by US forces in stopping violence and getting the rebuilding process underway once more. However, quite a few commentators and bloggers are asking if this is not a classic case of winning the battles and losing the war. In the past few weeks, the Parliament went on vacation without solving the big sticking point, i.e. how to get the oil-rich Shiite sections to share their revenues with the oil-poor Sunni areas; the Sunni factions subsequently pulled out of the Maliki government. And three days ago, the governor of a southern Shiite province was killed in a roadside attack. About a year ago, that region (Diwaniyah) experienced fighting between central government troops and militias loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Since then, it was thought that radical Shiite factions were cooling their heels. So, despite four years of nation-building on our part, neither the Sunnis nor the Shia appear to be happy with political compromise.

I do believe that a lot of people working for big media aren’t very sympathetic to the Bush Administration, and like myself take perverse delight in seeing the USA mess up a war effort that we wise ones thought was a bad idea from the start. Yea, it’s fun to say “I told you so”. But let’s grow up.

It would be a good thing if the USA could get a stable government going in Iraq. Iraq isn’t going to become a prosperous liberal democracy overnight, as Chaney, Bush and Rumsfeld were dreaming back in 2003. But if it could at least stabilize itself without a strongman government (i.e., another Saddam Hussein), it might eventually move in the directions that we had envisioned for it. Our problem with Islamic terrorism does indeed stem from the social and economic backwardness that is so prevalent in the Middle East (although I’ll be the first to admit that our extremely pro-Israel foreign policies, coupled with our exploitative economic policies focusing on cheap oil, certainly helped to get where we are today). If we could turn Iraq into a poster child with an Arab-Islamic accent, the world might well become safer for all of us.

And that would be a good thing, if not an unmixed blessing. It has a heavy dose of “realpolitik” to it, something along the lines of the 2nd Century Roman Emperors (with their “Pax Romana”) and Henry Kissinger and Queen Victoria. The main scenario is to send in the mighty empire troops, beat down the unhappy local militias and insurgents, then rebuild and modernize their lands, educate their youth, and let them taste the benefits of participation in the new world economy. Our actions in Iraq today are basically the same thing, with a slightly kinder and gentler slant. Will we do any better than the British and the Romans? Can we keep the barbarians from attacking the homeland? Can we prove to the world that we are really good, deep down inside, and that our ways are right? Or are we just winning a few battles in the process of losing that war? That’s the trillion dollar question for the USA, isn’t it.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:01 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, August 9, 2007
Religion ... Society ...

One of the reasons why I don’t have much desire to be involved with religion right now is because of GROUP-THINK. I don’t like group-think. Group-think is when a group of people believe in some common idea or set of ideas because everyone else in the group believes in it. If you trace out the logic of it, you wind up with a big circle. John believes because Judy believes; Judy believes because Andrea believes; Andrea believes because Phil believes; Phil believes because . . . and eventually, the trail leads right back to John. Everyone feels good talking about Jesus and the saints (or Moses and the prophets, or the Buddha and the bodhivistas, or Mohammed and the caliphs, or Krishna and all his friends). They feel confident in believing in the sacred myths, because everyone else in the room believes. Loops and loops and loops. Loops from the ancient past making their way across time into the present, and cruising on into the future. No the circle won’t be broken.

But as I’ve said before, I haven’t left religion because I’m an atheist. At best (or worst) I’m a somewhat skeptical agnostic. But I still want there to be a God, and I still haven’t heard an air-tight explanation as to why God doesn’t exist. Some atheistic rationales for the non-existence of God are just as laughable as what the snake-handling Pentacostalists way back in the hollers of West Virginia ever said or did. For example, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson (of the Hayden Planetarium and PBS’s NOVA series) gives a presentation citing a long list of reasons as to why the Universe could not have had an intelligent creator. One of Dr. Tyson’s complaints is that for most animals, including humans, the sexual organs are located near the waste excrement apparatus. Personally, I can’t help but wonder if there is a wise lesson in that fact; something along the lines of “remember human that you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return”. Perhaps it was intentional to have the flowery pleasures of new life and the revolting stuff of death juxtapositioned. I myself see a lesson in it, a lesson that a wise creator might well have intended after designing the bubbly, mindless feeling of sex.

(And furthermore, I’ve never heard of anyone deferring from sex because the main physical events occur too close to where the yucky stuff comes out. In fact, certain people seem to enjoy that fact . . . . but I’ll stop there.)

The “new atheism” movement is the only thing worse than group-think religion. The modern anti-God voices (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris … and Elton John, ugh) seem to be growing a group-think of their own. Here’s a blog devoted to debunking it. And I say bravo! I hope the guy will post some more.

The thing for me is that God is too important to pursue through group-think. I personally feel that philosophy is a better approach to God than religion. It’s too bad that philosophy is such a small and limited institution, existing as a rare hot-house flower in a far corner of the academic grove. You can find churches on every other street; but you can go for hundreds of miles before you can find a place where theistic philosophy is discussed and debated. Socrates would surely find that to be a shame; certainly Lao Tsu also (if there was a Lao Tsu). And I think so would Jesus, and Mohamed, and Moses, etc. Ultimately, I believe that they were well beyond group-think religion, and really didn’t want to condemn their followers to drowning in such a mental whirlpool. Too bad that’s what ultimately happened.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:46 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, August 6, 2007
Photo ...

Here are some old shots from my late uncle’s collection. They were taken in 1961, but they could as well have been from 1941. Nothing remarkable, just some guys at a bowling alley bar. It’s hard to say just why pics like these can’t be taken today; but they can’t. Is it the hats, the thin bow-tie with the short-sleeved white shirt, and the small beer glasses? Or is it something more – is it that these guys actually look happy?

People in bars today usually seem rather blaze. It’s hard to find a bunch of middle-aged guys together who actually seem happy anymore (at least if they’re sober enough to stand up, as with the guys in these pics). I’m definitely not saying that life was much better in 1961. There are a lot of things from 1961 that I’d definitely not want to go back to – racial segregation, no Internet, unchecked industrial pollution, no decaf coffee, lots more diseases without cures, high rates of poverty, the Cold War with the Soviet Union, a lot more people having a lot less freedom (including 50% of the species, i.e. women). On average, our nation is much better off economically and socially compared to then. And yet . . . . a shot like this tells me that something has been lost in the process. Is it that our society has become older and wiser, or just older?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:08 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, August 4, 2007
Current Affairs ... Public Policy ... Technology ...

The other day, I got a little tour of a police communications center located in a major city in New Jersey. The police have approximately 30 or 40 cameras set up in various spots throughout the city, and they hope to get another 40 or so within the next year or two. That’s not exactly the kind of coverage that London, England has, with thousands of cameras watching almost every street in town. (Allegedly there are 32 cameras within 200 yards of the North London apartment where George Orwell once lived.) Even accounting for the fact that the city I visited was a good bit smaller and less populated than London, the camera system that I saw was quite a bit less comprehensive. Even Baltimore has 500 cameras, quite a bit more per capita than where I was.

The system I saw actually has some privacy protection built in; when it points at a home or apartment building, computer software automatically blocks out the window areas. Or at least that’s what we saw on the screen. But out on the streets, these cameras can see quite a lot. The resolution of the images from these cameras are very good, even at a long distance. The night vision capability is also very good. They seem to have trouble seeing past window glare, e.g. inside a car on a sunny day. So I suggested that they look into polarizer filters, which photographers have used for years. Just doing my part for Big Brother. The people I talked with have other interesting plans to enhance their monitoring capacity, e.g. a system of microphones tied to computers that isolate the sound of gunfire and indicate where it came from (via triangulation). A police dispatcher could see a red light blink on a map showing a gunfire location, and instantly get a squad car on the way. No more waiting for someone to call it in – if anyone would actually do that anymore. The city in question has a growing “don’t snitch, don’t get involved” mentality because of its street gang problem.

The camera system was being attended to by a funky assortment of police assistants and technicians; they didn’t seem very much like Gestapo types. I’m fairly convinced that it will be a while before this system is used for anything more than busting street criminals and getting EMS and police assistance out to auto accident sites as quickly as possible. But then again, the “slope” to abuse of such technology is indeed a slippery one. The city in question once had a mayor who was noted for his authoritarian ways and his appetite for nasty attacks against his opponents. It is easy to picture such a mayor cowing his police commander to have the camera people keep an eye on a reformist challenger during an election campaign. Where ever the young upstart challenger holds a rally or makes an outdoor speech, the cameras will be keeping track of the crowd sizes and movements. Even scarier, anyone working for the city (or anyone who does business with the city) that might be helping the reform candidate could show up in these high-quality pictures. You know they will then be in for a rough time. The political incumbents in cities with such capabilities will no doubt be licking their chops thinking of all the ways they can use these techno-toys to squelch any grass-root political threats.

Because of violent crime and the fear that it brings, our nation cannot go back to simpler days. To mix my metaphors some more, we’ve let the “eye-in-the-sky” genie out of the bottle. How do we now control this stuff? I have a suggestion. Pass a federal law requiring that every feed from every government surveillance camera be available to the public in real time on the Internet, or in recorded version by request at a local library. OK, there will need to be certain exceptions where terrorism and national security might be involved. You can’t let the public monitor line feeds from a nuclear submarine base. However, the cameras that I saw the other day were mostly focused on poor neighborhoods and downtown shopping districts. I don’t think they would have been of much use to al Qaeda. (But then again, a camera that looks at the front of a check cashing store could cause trouble; bad guys could monitor it to find the best time to rob departing customers, or to find out when an armored truck is making a cash delivery).

The police camera question is a tough one; it upsets the balance that our nation has carefully crafted over its 230 year history regarding the tension between citizen privacy and government authority. Right now, most of the police cameras are in ghettos, but once they reach the nicer suburban neighborhoods, you may see a lot more discussion of the issue. Police cameras — coming soon to a streetlight post near you!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:06 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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