The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Philosophy ... Spirituality ...

To many people, philosophy seems like a big exercise in wasting time. It looks like a little group of weird people with spacey minds having nothing better to do than to ponder the true nature of their bellybuttons. These folk are kept away from the crowds, safe and sound in their colleges and universities. There, they challenge our youth (college students) with odd questions that have some temporary usefulness as “mind strengthening” exercises. It’s kind of like weight training for a baseball or football player, as it helps young women and men to develop brains strong enough to take on modern problems like quantum computer design or asynchronous war strategy or multi-national manufacturing logistic systems. As with muscle exercise for athletes, you do just enough philosophy in college to pass your class, then you get on to the more relevant challenges.

In a way, that’s too bad. Classical philosophical issues really can be interesting and relevant to a graying, middle-aged person like myself. But other than spending your time alone with a bunch of books (which actually sounds pretty good to me these days), it’s hard for the average middle-aged person to get back in touch with philosophy. There are a handful of small “movements” out there that are trying to bring philosophy back to the people. One of those movements is called “Socrates Café”, which sets up weekly or monthly discussion sessions open to the public during the after-work hours. I’ve been to the nearest SC, and it can be interesting. But it didn’t seem like “real” philosophy to me. It was mostly a rambling discussion that usually turned into a group therapy session (with follow-up liquid therapy at the local tavern).

Not that a walk-in therapy session (at low cost) is a bad idea in these crazy times. But from what I’ve seen, philosophy really is like exercise. It’s not easy and not necessarily pleasant. You have to put time into it and work your way up through it, as your “mental muscles” strengthen. In my own current project of reading up on the issues behind human consciousness, I’ve had to build some familiarity with “philosophy of mind”, which can be difficult and frustrating at times. It’s not always light, pleasant reading. But it can lead to some interesting insights, and maybe even develop the wisdom that promotes and protects one’s mental health in a crazy world. At my age, it’s not a question of passing a class to get a degree; it’s a question of using whatever time and opportunities are left to shore up some of my failings and to make whatever I can yet out of my messy little life.

I’ve been reading a treatise lately that talks a lot about “the self”. You can’t read a book or article on consciousness without some reference to “self”, but the authors of this particular work were very interested in Buddhism and its claim that there actually is NO self. Well OK then – so just what is “the self”? We usually get just one self in life, so maybe it’s better to ask just what is MY self? One answer to that question, perhaps the easiest one, is that our bodies define our selves. Here I am, sitting right here. My body defines the way I look, the way I talk, the memories I have, my tendencies such as crankiness or anger or hunger or contentedness or friendliness. The body changes over time, but so what? We all accept that we change over time.

And yet. Deep down inside, isn’t there something that we believe stays the same about us? Isn’t there some theme to who we are, to what our lives are? Isn’t there something we could say about ourselves that would apply even when we were babies and children? Something fundamental, more than just the sum of what happens to us over time? Were we totally determined by everything around us, everything that happened to us and came through us (“you are what you eat”) over the years? Obviously our laws don’t think so. We are held responsible for what we do; we can’t get off a felony charge by saying that we had a bad childhood or a bad meal.

Actually, our laws could simply be pragmatic; they could accept that we don’t have independent selves (free will) but demand that the guilty still be punished so as to keep society from falling apart. But most people (here in the west, anyway) seem to think there’s something more to it than that.

Plato took it all the way to the other end. He said that we had souls, and that there were “forms” that defined the pure essence of everything in our world. As such, our souls are the ultimate “form” of ourselves. You can see why the Christian religion (and some of the others) liked Plato, despite having to ultimately brush him off as a Greek pagan. The Christians, and the Jews before them, said that God gives each of us a soul, and that soul is ultimately who we are – or could be. But we live as a mix of body and soul, and if we listen too much to the body, our souls get corrupted and ultimately vanquished, to Sheol or Hell or where ever. If we make the sacrifices needed to nurture the soul, even at the expense of the body, then we won’t be vanquished once our bodies fail. We might then live on in some other realm or dimension, since we previously asserted the true nature of our “self”.

And in between these two extremes, i.e. self as nothing more than the changing body and self as cosmic eternal soul, various philosophers over the years have had other thoughts. John Locke emphasized the facility of memory; we are what we remember. Memory allows us to change, yet keep some things constant over the years (so long as our brains are working right). According to Locke, if you could take two people and exchange their memories (unforeseeable in Locke’s time, not so unforeseeable today), they would in fact exchange bodies and lives. The “self” would follow the memory trail. David Hume talked about self as more of a “bundle” of things, some that change quickly (e.g. our conscious attention; our minds do wander a lot), and some that don’t change as much (memories, body structures, personality tendencies, etc.). Other philosophers in turn have pondered whether there is something else about the mind that defines us, something to do with the ethereal nature of consciousness (i.e., “SELF consciousness).

Even the most dualistic of modern philosophers (those who posit that consciousness is different than matter and physics as we now know them) are generally afraid to say that consciousness actually affects how we are and what we do. But a small handful try to get around the “epiphenomenal” problem and ponder whether a conscious being is actually different than an unconscious one, all else the same. If so, then our behavior is in fact influenced by consciousness per-se (or self-consciousness, which is conceptually more stable than the short-run consciousness we have of itches and flies buzzing and people talking in the background and what we are doing this weekend). If so, then there is something to Plato and the Judeo-Christian Platonists, even if this doesn’t prove that there is a God (or a “World of Forms” in Plato’s case) behind it all.

The Buddhists generally don’t think so. They say that the mind is a monkey, doing this and doing that without much more reason than day-to-day survival. As such, the self is an illusion. On one level of truth, we have multiple selves, selves that change every day. We are one way in the morning, another way in the afternoon, another way after good news, another way after bad. In their deep meditations, they see nothing but change. They see that the idea of an unchanging self ultimately causes more pain than comfort. It’s an empty promise that makes us nutsy, it’s really the source of all problems. The highest level of truth revealed in their sittings is that there is no self. Once a person reaches that truth, they can
then be happy in life despite pain and sickness and failures in this world. Well, that’s what I’ve read about the Buddhists, anyway.

So, is all this deep thinking (or deeper than the usual office-cooler chit-chat) worth more than the digits and pixels on the screen which you are reading it with? Can it help my life and yours? Notice that I didn’t draw any conclusions here (although admittedly I am hoping against hope that the radical consciousness-dualists somehow rally back against the pro-Buddhists and physicalists that seem to be winning the debate right now). But hey, if the exercise helps you to appreciate your own SELF – your life, your very being – if it helps you to see just how precious a gift it all is, even in a world of decay and failures — then maybe it is worth the struggle. As the fitness freaks say, “no pain, no gain”. In a “SELF-SERVICE” world, it’s a good idea!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:11 pm       Read Comments (4) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Personal Reflections ... Society ...

I’ve been doing some ancestral research of late, trying to cobble together whatever factoids that I can gather about my relatives. I was able to put a basic picture together on my mother’s side, going back to my great-grandparents. After that the trail goes cold, given that they were all in Poland and I have no practical access to any trace they may have left behind over there. Even if I were rich and could go to Poland for a few months on a fact-finding mission, there might not be many facts left to find, given the mess that was made of eastern Europe during WW1, WW2 and Soviet Communist rule. But still, I know a good bit more now about my grandparents, and I can better appreciate what they went through. They seem like real people to me, much more so than when they were alive. The language, age and cultural barriers between them and us (i.e., my grandparents versus my brother and my cousins) kept us apart; but now I can almost enter their bubble and see that our lives weren’t all that different, on the most important levels anyway. My little genealogy project has been quite satisfying in that regard.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to do much with my father’s side. At least I had a small cache of family papers and pictures that my mother’s brother had saved, which we inherited when he died eight years ago. But I have almost nothing to go on regarding my father’s family. He died almost 35 years ago, and his surviving brother died back in 2001. We hardly saw my uncle at all after my father died, but I had a chance to speak with him briefly in 1999 at his late wife’s wake. He wanted me to stop by his house for a longer visit. But of course I didn’t. Back then I had “bigger fish to fry”. Only now do I realize the golden opportunity that I passed up there.

If my maternal grandparents were “on another planet” back when I was a kid, my paternal grandparents were off in another galaxy. I never even knew my father’s father, as he died shortly before WW2. I somewhat remember my paternal grandmother, as she lived upstairs from us. But she only spoke Polish and didn’t always get along with my mother, so my brother and I mostly stayed away from her. She died when we were around 10 or 11. So there ain’t much that I remember about her, other than the little musical “glockenspiel” she had with the mechanical boy and girl coming out of the doorways during the song, along with the smell of mothballs up in her apartment. And the fights that she used to have with my mother in Polish. I remember my father saying that they ran a “dry goods” store in Wallington, NJ, and that he had good memories of occasionally taking the train to New York City with his dad to order stuff. And that they were all good Roman Catholics of Polish origin. But really, that’s about all I know.

Up to now I haven’t mentioned my last name on this blog; that gives me more leeway to talk candidly about my employer, a county law enforcement agency. But if you knew my last name and did a Google on it, you’d think that my grandparents (or grandfather, anyway) were Russian Jews. It’s one of those “strongly” Jewish names. In fact, many people in the past have assumed that I’m a Jew (and that actually may have helped me to land a job or two). Also, I’ve heard that being a dry goods merchant was a rather Jewish thing to do back in the early 20th Century. So what was the story with my grandfather? My father was a more-or-less devout Catholic, and never expressed any interest in Judaism; he was perfectly at ease eating pork sausage (kelbasa) and other non-Kosher stuff. Also, I don’t remember any signs of Judaism in my grandmother’s apartment; no Stars of David or even a candle set. My grandfather is buried in a Roman Catholic cemetery, so I assume that he had an official Catholic burial. And yet, I also remember that my father had a certain Jewish sensitivity, somewhat rare for a Catholic son of Poland (although he was born in the USA). If he even thought that my brother and I were making fun of Jews (easy to do in the all-white, all-Christian neighborhood where I grew up; all the kids were little bigots), he would yell at us. By contrast, he left us alone when we got down on blacks.

I recently came across a little tidbit of info on my paternal grandfather on ancestry.com. I paid the $20 for a month’s access and then managed to drag up my grandfather’s WW1 draft registration card (from 1917), along with an entry in the 1930 Census for my father’s family. The registration card did confirm one thing: my grandfather was a “Rusky”, born in Minsk (actually that’s in Belarus, so I guess that he was a Belarusky). But he was also living in a very Polish Catholic section of Passaic at the time, and worked in the Botany woolen mill as an elevator man. He was already married by then, and would have his first son (the uncle who died a few years back) in another year. So he was living the same life as my authentic Polish-Catholic maternal grandparents, who at the time were only two blocks away and working at the same mills.

And yet, in 1930, something of a Jewish trend could be seen. In the Census, he is listed as the proprietor of a dry goods store and has three kids. Also, they own a house in suburban Wallington. My maternal grandparents were still renting, and never did leave their tenement in Passaic. But my paternal grandparents had obviously stepped up an economic notch or two during the 1920s. My father’s family might have been relatively well-off had my grandfather lived into the 1960’s.

Well, no need for me to ponder what might have been, in that regard. But it is interesting to consider what a unique individual my granddad must have been. He was a bit of a “black swan”, in the sense of that interesting book by Nassim Taleb. He went against the averages, deviated from the trends, and was an unpredictable phenomenon. Most Russians families with his last name (and mine) came over from Russia in the 1880s, and clustered in one of two urban regions: one in southern New Jersey, and one on the other side of the Hudson River. (The New York clan actually had a rubbish carting business; I remember once being in a car with some friends next to a garbage truck with my name on it – obviously I took a ribbing for that!). Yet there was my grandfather in Passaic, where there was no one else with his last name. There certainly was a Jewish section of Passaic, but my grandfather was firmly entrenched in the Polish Catholic zone, living and working (and arguably praying) just as any other Pole would. And yet he pulled off some kind of Jewish connections to become a successful local merchant, something that very few of the typical Polish immigrants would do (other than a candy store here and a meat market there).

Back when I was in law school, one of the profs asked me if I were related to the southern NJ clan, as they had produced a number of attorneys who had gained local fame. All I could tell Professor Cohen was “no”. But now I’d tell him, quite proudly, that I’m with the black-swan branch of the family!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:31 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, October 22, 2007
Food / Drink ... Photo ...

To follow up on my essay from Saturday, I took some pix at a relatively nice Italian restaurant, one with classy aspirations (they have osco bucco on the menu). I ordered penne arribiata, i.e. penne with a sauce of tomatos, onions and cherry peppers. Here’s what it looked like:

The sauce was quite fresh and tasty and the tomatos still had some body; they were not over-processed into a Campbells Soup consistency. So, the sauce was not the problem. It was the pasta portion — too big. The dish was simply pasta and sauce. That’s the mindset that needs changing. In my opinion, a restaurant entree should be a complete, satisfying meal in itself. Most of the meat dishes in this place are indeed that – they come with potatoes and veggies. But with pasta, the prevailing mindset is that you only want noodles and some sauce; you want carbs and little else. If you want some vegetables to make it a more satisfying meal with a better protein balance, you have to order them and pay extra. So I ordered some brocolli rabe sautéed in garlic, as seen in this shot:

OK, now we have a nice dinner going. But the pasta is still out of proportion. The plate here should only be half-full of pasta and sauce, and the rabe and garlic (or some other nice combo, perhaps something with chick peas) should take up the second half. But you can’t get such a meal anywhere that I know of — other than my own kitchen. If I had a lot of time to kill and $$$ to lose, I’d open up a restaurant that served tasty, wholesome, balanced pasta dishes. But given that I’m an underpaid, over-50 bureaucrat with an invalid mother to help support, well . . . I’m afraid that Jim’s Place won’t be opening anytime soon.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:45 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Food / Drink ... Health / Nutrition ...

There was a nice little article in the NY Times the other day (by the so-called “Minimalist”) about how pasta should be served. The bottom line is that a pasta dish, whether at home or in a restaurant, should have a lot more vegetables and a bit less pasta than most of us are used to. The role of pasta in an American meal has gone through some changes over the years. Back in the 1950s, pasta was generally served as a plate of spaghetti with a heavy dose of meat sauce. It was your once-a-week break from meat and potatoes.

Then in the 1980s, pasta became a bit more fashionable, and people re-discovered the various shapes and sizes it came in (rigatoni, capellini, twists, shells, bowties, etc.). Cooking it into a limp paste (just like canned Spaghetti-O’s) became a no-no; al dente became the watchword for the culinary police. Also, the sauce now became a supporting actor; you no longer drowned your noodles, and maybe tried some different twists on the basic marinara or meat ragu. Then came the Atkins diet craze, and carbs became the enemy. So pasta portion sizes shrank, and it was back to overwhelming it with rich, heavy sauces, frequently cream-based (e.g. the popular “vodka” sauce, which doesn’t really have any vodka in it). In recent years, I’ve notices a retro-trend, back to big portions of pasta with lots of heavy sauce.

The “Minimalist” makes a cry for sanity in this long night of pasta madness. The world shouldn’t revolve around heavy sauces. Pasta should indeed be a bit chewy, but it shouldn’t cover the plate; it should almost be looked at as a side dish. And the cheese and oil need to calm down too. The star of your plate should be fresh vegetables, preferably sautéed in a bit of garlic and olive oil. This could be more than one vegetable or mix of veggies; perhaps peppers, tomatoes and onions on one side, and zucchini and mushrooms on the other. For you carnivores out there — fine, add your sausage or chicken strips. As a vegetarian, I’ll stick to the veggies (other than my occasional foray into linguine with clam sauce; clams aren’t really vegetables, but they aren’t sentient animals either).

The bottom line here is that pasta should be a complement to the vegetables, not the other way around. Overcooked noodles are considered “high glycemic”; their calories get digested into the body too quickly. At some point, foods that are high-glycemic might contribute to obesity, diabetes and liver problems (or so I’ve read; I’m not a doctor or an expert on this). Increasing the veggies and reducing the pasta (and keeping it al dente) certainly makes for a healthier meal. Another factor is the protein balance; wheat flour needs vegetables to give a properly balanced protein mix. But, in my opinion, and the Minimalist’s too, the veggie-first, pasta-second philosophy also makes for a nicer, better tasting meal.

That’s my 2 cents; I guess that everyone likes what they like. All I’m saying is that you might want to try it, if you haven’t yet. Bon appetite.

CHEAP-SKATE VEGETARIAN SIDENOTE: As an aging veg-head, I have to take my daily vitamin supplements, to make sure that I’m not missing anything by cutting meat out entirely. About two years ago, my doctor ordered me to take a B-complex every day. And I’m glad that he did, because I’ve been feeling a bit better since then, and haven’t gotten sick as much either. But a good B-complex pill can be relatively expensive. I’ve seen some premium vitamin brands charge as much as $20 per hundred tablets. (Another B-complex problem: their RDA percentages vary a lot; the mix of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B-6, B-12, biotin and pantothenic acid vary all over the place.)

I found a pretty good B complex at Whole Foods that goes for about $22 for 180 tablets, or around $12.22 per 100. Given the Whole Foods persona and clientèle, I would assume these pills are of high quality. Then I saw Sundown B-100 going in the local Shop Rite at around $8 for 60 (about $11.67 per 100). They have a bit less biotin, but more of the other stuff in each pill (except for folic acid – just about all B complexes come with 100% of the RDA for folic). Sundown is a Rexall brand, and I would assume that on old-time pharmacy company like Rexall knows to sell a decent if not top-line pill.

Today I picked up a B complex with the same daily values as the Sundown product, but only costing $7 for 100. This was the house brand at the local A&P; it’s called America’s Choice. I’m hoping these are decent vitamins, without any harmful ingredients. I see carnauba wax and polyethylene glycol listed on the bottle, although this article from Better Nutrition hints that such stuff isn’t anything to freak out about. P.E.G. isn’t anti-freeze, which is ethylene glycol, a cousin.

Well, as a cheapskate, I always love a bargain. But as someone concerned about health and nutrition, I think I’ll hedge my bets and buy the Whole Foods brand sometimes; maybe I’ll go 50-50, cheap-o pills and better-made pills (no car wax or quasi anti-freeze) every other day.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:52 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, October 15, 2007
Society ...

Civic virtue is an interesting subject to think about. Up to now, however, I haven’t thought much about it. It seemed to be discussed mostly by stuffy professors of ancient philosophy. I’ve also hear cranky conservatives complain about the lack of personal virtue today. So it seemed out-of-touch with my own concerns. But come to think about it, maybe the “virtue-ists” have a point or two after all.

Perhaps their most important point is that economic and governing systems can only cause “progressive outcomes” (i.e., “virtuous” outcomes like the most good for the most number) if the people involved act according to a higher, unwritten law, i.e. the law of virtue. A state can have plenty of laws and the power to carry out those laws. That will definitely keep most people in check. So perhaps some forms of virtue – the negative forms, i.e. thou shall not kill, thou shall not steal, thou shall not play your music loud late at night – can be imposed by force.

But the more positive forms of virtue – taking responsibility, being careful and considerate of others (Golden Rule style), helping the young and the old and the unfortunate, thinking about the greater good as well as your own good, developing and using your talents to the fullest, having courage — that sort of thing can’t be forced. But civilization needs tons and tons of it just to survive, and needs even more of it to improve over time. We can all see that we’re better off when plenty of virtuous people surround us. So how can we promote the more positive forms of civic virtue? And how can we maintain the “negative forms” (i.e., maintaining law and order) of virtue without having non-virtuous side effects (dictatorship, tyranny, police states, etc.).

When you start thinking about virtue, as I did over the past few days, you come up with a lot more questions than answers. In addition to the questions I’ve already asked, one can ask – does free-market capitalism ultimately promote or hinder virtue? Is education the “garden of virtue” – can it be? Does political freedom promote virtue? Does the mass media help people become virtuous, or just the opposite? Can virtue thrive in a highly mixed and individualist society like America today, or is a “common thread” necessary to promote virtue (e.g., Hispanics, NASCAR fans, unionized workers, Methodists, liberals, Odd Fellows, etc.)? Does poverty discourage virtue (increased crime, unstable families, more drug abuse and other irresponsible / short-term behavior) – or is poverty driven by loss of virtue within a group? And what about riches – what virtues do they erode (e.g., friendliness and sharing attitudes)? And what about big organizations – individuals arguably have some biological tendency towards virtue, but what about big government, big political parties, big corporations, big religions, big terrorism networks? Is the world more or less virtuous on average because of the tendency towards big organization in our world today?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do have one comment, however. When people gain a lot of power, virtue is harder to come by. History has examples of kings and barons and popes and dictators who were in fact highly concerned with making things better for their subjects. But they seem mostly to be the exceptions that prove the rule. And the rule seems to be that power corrupts. Ego becomes cancerous when bathed in the klieg lights of fame. Our modern world has created a lot of power, and that power has created a lot of powerful people – presidents, CEO’s, billionaires, governors, celebrities, religious fundamentalists, world-class athletes, etc. What’s even worse is that we now have effective techniques for the non-virtuous to appear virtuous before their vassals. Will this world retain all the power and might that it has accumulated in modern times (scientific knowledge, technology, international commerce, nuclear armies and navies, instant communications, etc.) if its leaders can’t retain the virtues that made them leaders in the first place?

Some thinkers say that the Roman Empire fell because civic virtue had eroded amidst the population. But my (admittedly rough) read of Roman history is that the Empire created a lot of economic, social and military power, creating a lot more powerful people than history had ever known. And when those people started fighting amidst themselves (due no doubt to their own virtue lapses), civilization was destined to crash. The world reset itself back to the Dark Ages, where only a few people (kings and popes) had real power. Is America’s “credit card against the future” policies, together with the threat of global warming, pushing us towards another such “civilization reset”? I do think that the western world is wiser today than it was in 500 AD. But is it wise enough to maintain virtue in the face of all the powerful forces that it has unleashed? Next time you see a child being wheeled by you in a stroller, you can think: his or her generation may well be the one that finds out.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:02 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, October 13, 2007
Personal Reflections ... Photo ...

Last night I dredged up a childhood memory from the dark recesses of my mind. Perhaps it was the sudden arrival of cool, dry autumn air that got me going. The memory regarded a little airport about 5 miles from where we lived, right near the factory where my father once worked. One of the most frequent entertainments of my early youth were little road trips with my parents. My father would get my brother and me (and sometimes my mother) in the car and drive us around. Being an organized kind of man, my father usually had an idea of where to go. A common destination was Teterboro Airport. We would cruise up along the industrial road on the west side of the airport and find a place to park, near the big old bare-metal aircraft hangars. I wasn’t very impressed by Teteboro, as the planes there were just little Piper Cubs and such; nothing like the fighter jets and bombers that I built plastic models of back at home. Just a little plane buzzing up or down the field now and then, pulling up to the gas pumps once in a while to refuel for a weekend recreational trip.

One thing made the time there a little less boring for my brother and me: a Good Humor ice cream truck was usually parked near-by. My parents weren’t the only ones who made use of this rather tepid but certainly affordable form of family entertainment (Disneyworld was not seen as a suburban birthright back in my day). After the snack, though, there wasn’t much to do between planes but watch the cars and trucks going by on Route 46, off in the distance. Eventually it would be time to go home and turn on the tube, or if it was a nice evening maybe get out the bike for a short ride around the block.

Teterboro later became somewhat more entertaining for kids given all the corporate jets that started using it in the late 1970s. I lived not far from the airport back in the 1980s, and I remember the powerful sound of Leer jets torquing up their engines for a fast take-off. I wasn’t the only one impressed by it; I remember seeing families in cars pulled over along Route 46 at the north end of the runways, watching the action on summer evenings. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen anymore. It became another subtle casualty of nine-eleven; today the airport is considered a vulnerable target whose perimeter needs to be defended by the authorities.

Obviously, I now sort-of miss old Teterboro, despite the dearth of action and the acrid smell in the air from garbage burning in the near-by meadowlands. Maybe it’s just childhood nostalgia, maybe it’s just that life and the world in general seemed simpler back then.

In truth, the world wasn’t all that much simpler. Every weekday, my father used high-quality tools and machines across the street to craft parts for guidance devices that would guide military aircraft and missiles, some armed with nuclear weapons, precisely to their targets if and when needed. The Cold War was going strong back then, as we were reminded every Saturday at noon when the local air raid sirens were tested. The world was not a safe and cozy place back then either.

But the world sure has changed a lot over the five decades of my life, and it threatens to keep on changing faster and faster. Given all the dizziness in the air these days, I wouldn’t mind going back to Teterboro with my parents for an hour or so late on a sunny Saturday afternoon in September, munching on an almond crunch ice-cream bar. With 20/20 hindsight, boredom wasn’t so bad after all!

Here are some recent pix of the area. The black plane is pretty cool, but there ain’t no friendly place to park and watch. Teterboro ain’t Mayberry or Hootersville no more (if you remember your 60’s TV).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:29 pm       Read Comments (4) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, October 7, 2007
Current Affairs ... History ...

Just a quick thought or two on the Blackwater controversy. If I heard the story correctly, the US government is using a private security force in Iraq called Blackwater to help out with various tasks like getting our bureaucrats safely from one place to another. You might think at first that a private security force is like any other guard service that protects old factories and warehouses. E.g., college students and old guys armed with portable timeclocks, as to make sure they walk around and don’t just stay in the shack and sleep. But no, this Blackwater group is made up of tough guys with pretty much the same weapons, training and tactics as our Army. And they haven’t been afraid to pull the triggers on their M-1’s when something doesn’t look right. The Iraqi government claims that they’ve mowed down too many innocent civilians.

(For any of you fans of the late, great Jericho TV show, you remember Ravenwood – yep, based on Blackwater.)

So why is our government using Blackwater to do what it’s own Army could and should do? Obviously because our own Army is overstretched. Without going back to drafting 18 year olds, our Army doesn’t have enough people to maintain the “surge” in Iraq and cover all of our other commitments, in addition to mundane things like training and such.

I’m a fan of Roman Empire comparisons, and this brings one up. In the final century of the western empire, the Legions could not raise enough volunteers from the Roman citizenry. They were too spoiled back in Italy, and the provincials weren’t in any great mood to fight anymore either. So, the Romans started hiring mercenary armies, made up of the barbarians who might otherwise attack them. OK, so this isn’t exactly Blackwater, which I believe is still made up mostly of red-blooded American citizens. But who knows what is next. Blackwater seems to me like one more step in the decline of the American Empire. And despite my liberal tendencies, I don’t say that with any great glee.

But wait – you might say that this arrangement smacks of Thomas More rather than Fitzgibbons. Recall that in More’s Utopia, the Utopians hired mercenaries to do their dirtywork overseas. They were barbarians called the Vanellians, who loved to fight. This made them dangerous to the world, so they might as well be employed in a way that thins their ranks. More seemed to think this was a rather good arrangement. But Utopias never seem to work in reality, and I have my doubts whether the Blackwater thing with our modern American Utopia is any good, either.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:48 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, October 4, 2007
◊  The War
Psychology ... Society ...

I’ve been watching the Ken Burns series on WW2 lately (“The War”, on PBS TV). It definitely is powerful. Burns is trying to show you what that war was like from two perspectives – from the homefront and from the front lines. The homefront stuff is interesting; it shows how life had changed in four typical American towns because of WW2. So far, our modern war on terrorism hasn’t changed our daily life in America too much, aside from the increased security irritants (e.g., more paperwork to get a drivers license, more airport check-in procedures, more metal scanners at office buildings, etc.). But WW2 definitely made a big change relative to the way that things were in the 1930’s, during the Great Depression. In some ways things got better because of the war, in some ways things got worse, but they definitely were different.

Again, that’s all quite interesting. But Burns goes for the gut when he turns to the war front. He wants you to imagine what it was like to be in a cold mudhole getting shot at, or up in a bomber plane over France with an engine on fire, or on a Navy ship in the Pacific with a kamikaze plane diving in at you. He wants you to know that war is in no way fun. It’s gruesome work done in awful conditions. He wants you to imagine the blood and screams when the guy next to you gets his face blown off by shrapnel. He wants you to know about field amputations for gangrene. He wants you to imagine being alone in the Pacific Ocean without a lifeboat, watching the last remains of your burning destroyer ship sinking under the waterline.

I have had some trouble sleeping after watching all this. One way to feel better is to lionize these men, think about all the sacrifice they made for their nation and their fellow soldiers and sailors. Praise them for their great love of country and their incredible bonding with the other guys in the trenches. In other words, try to think about how some of the best human behavior shines through the awfulness of it all. E.g., Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”.

I just read an article in the Atlantic that makes me ponder how war paradoxically brings out the best in people. Olivia Judson wrote a somewhat optimistic article called “The Selfless Gene”, surveying various studies indicating that humans have inherited from their ape ancestors an instinct to cooperate with and even sacrifice for the group they belong to. Ms. Judson concludes that this instinct can be directed by human intelligence to make things better for us. But there is a dark side, which Ms. Judson alludes to in the middle of her article. She says that the “inherent selflessness” of humans may well have developed as a tactic of war. Charles Darwin himself hypothesized that because of all the warfare that goes on between groups of apes (and humans), the groups that cooperate the most (to the point of self-sacrifice to save the group) will do better than groups where everyone is out to save their own behind. The former groups will usually beat the latter groups, and given the deadly nature of warfare, this means that more people willing to sacrifice themselves for the group will have children than the folk who didn’t want to.

Ms. Judson then reviews a number of formal scientific studies that confirm this Darwinian theory. And from that she draws a sunny conclusion. But after watching the Burns series on war, I draw a much less optimistic conclusion. All this willingness to suffer and die for one’s country and one’s fellow soldier is great, on one level. But on a higher level, it assumes that we are always going to form groups (based on nationality, religion, race, ideology, whatever) and make war against each other. That is also in our genes. The theory espoused by humanists and religious idealists that humankind is one big family that shouldn’t fight amidst itself never gains traction.

Living in peace appears to go against our nature. There have been a few short periods in human history where there wasn’t much warfare going on. The 20th Century, and now the early 21st Century, hardly had any such periods. But even when there was relative calm throughout the world, just a few changes in weather or technology or ideology got one group upset with another, and the bang-bang started all over again. It doesn’t take much to get this species marching its sons off to the battlefield. And it doesn’t take much to convince them that they put their lives on the line. We get talked into war so easily. Again, it seems to be in our genes.

Humans are the one species that can appreciate the notion “it doesn’t have to be this way”. Once in a blue moon, humanity does go against its nature when intelligence indicates a better way. But with regard to warfare, I don’t see much willingness to question it anywhere in the world. And that’s not good, given all the mega-problems that are now brewing (global warming, nuclear proliferation, oil shortages, religious fundamentalism, unregulated global capitalism, etc.).

I’m not going to be alive to see the year 2100 come in (not even the 2050 mid-point). But I hope it all somehow turns out OK for today’s kids, who possibly will. I hope that future Ken Burns’ won’t have to keep making documentaries like “The War”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:59 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, October 1, 2007
Photo ...

I used to eat dinner and hang out in this place a lot, back in my younger day. It’s called Charlie Blood’s Tavern. The bar is up front, with the family restaurant in the back. It’s one of those family-owned neighborhood places in New Jersey. It may not look like much from the outside, and the food is pretty basic; a bit on the heavy side. But the overall experience is not bad, not bad at all. The dining area has a western theme, of sorts. And yet the family and the food (and the neighborhood) are almost pure Italian. So you could call it a “spaghetti western”. I hope to get back there again someday, hopefully on a rainy Friday night. I can almost smell that delicious hot-grease scent that greets you in the parking lot (the kitchen ventilator is quite near the entrance – this wasn’t a phony marketing technique, as done today; it was probably the only place to put the ventilator).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:15 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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