The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Monday, November 26, 2007
Society ... Technology ...

Tis the season once again for buying gifts for the family. I’m a true-blue techie geek, so I now do most of my holiday season shopping on-line. Other than getting my brother a bottle of wine, I have no use for tromping around malls and stores in late November or December. In fact, I fully intended to do all of my shopping (other than the wine) by Internet this year. I had most of it done by mid-day yesterday, but I still had one site to hit today, a site that I had used before. I found two nice things that my mother might like, so I popped them into the virtual shopping bag and started the check-out procedure. But something got messed up; the total came to $0.00 and I was never asked for a credit card. Maybe I would have gotten the merchandise for free, had I pushed the “place order” button. But more likely, I would have gotten an e-mail in a few weeks saying that my order was canceled. Obviously that would happen on Christmas Eve.

So, I started over again. It seemed to go better this time around, so I punched in my credit card number. But I got a screen saying that my credit card didn’t work. Now this was odd, since I had just used my card on another site just an hour ago, and I was hardly near the spending limit. So I started again. But this time I got the zeros once more. Well, I figured that the server must be acting up because of high volumes; it was Sunday afternoon, after all.

I tried again last night around 10 PM, figuring that e-commerce traffic would be tapering off by then. But still no go. So I tried tonight as soon as I got home. Again, no good. I usually use Firefox; I try to avoid Internet Explorer. But just to see if browser incompatibility was the problem (I still occasionally run into a site that only works for IE, usually a government site), I fired up the great wonder of Microsoft. But that made things even worse; the site froze up after one item on IE.

So, I did something I haven’t done in quite a few years now. I dialed the 800 number and placed my order via a real, live human being. I got put on hold at first, and turned on the TV expecting a half hour wait. But no, after three minutes I was talking with a live person whose accent and speech patterns were like my own (no offense to the call centers in India, but when doing a cultural thing like ordering gifts, I still feel better talking to someone close to home). And despite a false start or two, the whole transaction went fairly well. It didn’t seem to take much time at all. And the woman taking my order was actually rather pleasant and cheerful, and left me with what seemed like a fairly sincere wish for a happy holiday. She didn’t just rush me off with the usual “we’re done, good bye, next call”. I had obviously forgotten that sometimes, dealing with a human being does add something to the equation, something that you can’t get on-line.

This morning, I read a fluff article from the AP business desk about how the retail industry is promoting the Monday after Thanksgiving (which is today) as “Cyber Monday”. Cyber Monday is supposed to be an on-line imitation of “Black Friday”, the post-Thanksgiving mall-hopping spectacle. Well, I’m glad that I went a bit retro this Cyber Monday, reverting back to the phone and the exchange of human voices. Even a techie freak like me can appreciate a nice holiday greeting from somebody out there in the American heartland. Not that I’m giving up on the e-commerce web sites, but you never know when a frustrating glitch turns out to be something like an angel — delivering a blessing in disguise.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:08 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Philosophy ... Science ...

I just started reading Tom Siegfried’s “The Bit and The Pendulum” recently, and unlike most books, this one starts off with a big idea. A really good idea. That idea is as follows: since the dawn of science, way back in the 1500’s or so, our scientists have tended to use practical mechanical items as a metaphor for understanding what they are studying. And what they are studying is the world. Individual scientists usually don’t study the world as a whole; they pick a particular subject, e.g. rocks or heat or chemicals or stars or butterflies, etc. But they usually need a “meta-theory” of reality to fit their discoveries and immediate theories into. It’s that meta-theory that Siegfried says usually comes from observing an important practical tool.

Siegfried cites clocks as having a lot of influence upon Isaac Newton’s physics. The operation of a clock hints at the orderly direction and use of force. Newton found the math to express what the clock seemed to be doing (the fact that a clock needs numbers certainly didn’t hurt Newton in his determination that math was needed to describe what was going on). A hundred or so years after Newton, the steam engine probably influenced scientists, especially in the field of thermodynamics. The steam engine helped them to abstract Newton’s ideas regarding force into the somewhat more abstract concept of energy. Siegfried then jumps to the present, with computers as a metaphor for information. And thus you now see a lot of speculation about information as the ultimate grounding of reality and the universe as one big computer. Siegfried’s book talks about this, but you can find others. E.g., Seth Lloyd’s “Programming the Universe”.

Siegfried has bigger fish to fry in his book, but I think this is a really interesting idea. He doesn’t develop too many other examples of abstract theories stemming from practical machinery, although he does leave behind one good one: the science that led to the computer was conceptualized in the early 20th century around the typewriter!

So what else can we do with this idea? How about Einstein? What machines helped to shape his ground-breaking concepts regarding the unity of space, time, mass, gravity and energy? I would venture to say that the railroad train played a big role (the train being a further development of the steam engine). How about quantum theory in the early 20th century? I’m out on a limb here, but perhaps the revolutionary concept that energy and matter come in irreducible “quanta” was helped along by the many factories and production lines of the time, which cranked out thousands and millions of standardized products, all of the same size and shape. As to the random, dancing behavior of quantum particles, perhaps the scientific realization that the micro world behaved so strangely was assisted by the area of industrial statistics and quality control, which dealt with the fact that industrial production lines actually were not perfect; their behaviors and outputs were subject to random factors that were describable (on a higher level) by Bell curves.

And if you go way back to the days before science, you can still see human technology at work in the metaphysician’s attempt to make sense of the universe. For example, the ship figures largely in some ancient descriptions of how our world relates to other worlds, such as heaven and hell. Go back to Genesis and Adam and Eve – the writer there may have been thinking about another human artifact, i.e. the farm, specifically the orchard. The universe is a big farm where crops and trees are arranged by plots. Don’t cross over to that particular plot at harvest time, or something bad’s gonna happen.

I always enjoy a big, simple and new idea, especially if helps you to focus things a bit. I think Siegfried has a good one here, so I’m happy to share it today.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:33 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Current Affairs ... Society ... Weather ...

The UN released another big report on global warming this past week. It was about what you might expect from the UN. The quality was high, the science was reasonable and well-supported, and the conclusions were cautiously and diplomatically stated. The bottom line was that the problem is real, but with enough international cooperation, the nations can get together and keep this thing from becoming a mega-catastrophe.

Yea, that’s the old-tyme UN religion at work. It’s nice to see that the UN still dreams the dream. But the reality is that this dream has gone nowhere over the past half-century. Perhaps the UN is a century or two ahead of its time. The nations of the world basically DO NOT want to cooperate on a world-wide basis. They’ll cut deals with each other to meet immediate problems or objectives, but as to “one-worldism” . . forget about it.

I agree with the UN that it would be a really good time for one-worldism to get started, given the big mess that global warming might very well create in another 50 or 60 years. But there’s a quaint little American song from the days of World War 1 that describes the international politics of global warming: “How Ya Gonna Keep Em Down On The Farm, After They’ve Seen Paree”. How is America going to convince the developing nations in Asia and elsewhere that they’ve got to shoot for a standard of living lower than what Americans have (and won’t give up), because the world can’t afford for their citizens to create as much greenhouse gas as the average American does? It’s too late for that; the whole world knows about American prosperity, and wants its share as soon as possible.

Even if American technology manages to cut the average American’s “carbon footprint” by 20%, the world is cooked once Asians and Africans en mass reach even a “reduced” western level. There’s eventually going to be starvation and desperation over wide tracts of territory; that sort of thing usually leads to war. And war usually leads to more war, along with economic decline. With enough war and poverty, even the big nations (including the USA) are going to be in trouble. We’re not talking here about extinction of the human race, but we may well be in for a reversal of civilization, something akin to the Dark Ages.

I’m sorry to be so pessimistic, but I think that people need to grasp just how big the implications of this global warming thing are. It’s not going to be solved technically and painlessly like the other air pollution problems were (e.g. CFC’s). It’s going to require soul-searching about just how high-on-the-hog any one nation can live. It may truly mean that the standards of material wealth in America will have to go down; to prevent absolute chaos, this would somehow have to be done in a fair way, one that hurts the rich more than the poor.

One way or another, there are going to be big changes from global warming — worldwide changes. Perhaps this is the crisis that will finally let the UN and “one-world thinking” have its day. The rich nations don’t like one-world thinking, but once they see that their wealth and power can’t survive a world catastrophe, maybe that will change. At the very least, the maligned and disrespected UN will finally be able to say “told you so”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:06 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Friday, November 9, 2007
Science ... Society ... Spirituality ...

Here are a couple of thoughts rattling around my brain at the end of another exhausting work week. If I have any thoughts at all on a Friday night, then it wasn’t really such a bad week.

First – I was reading the 150th anniversary issue of The Atlantic, which had a diverse set of essays regarding “the American idea”. Most of the authors seemed to agree that there was and is “an American ideal” generally having something to do with freedom. As to what freedom is and what it means, however, the authors start diverging rather quickly. That’s where the discussion gets interesting. However, there was little to no discussion on whether the “American formula” is reproducible. That to me is the 20 million dollar question. Is our nation’s high level of success and prosperity a function of a well-designed political and governmental system that maximizes human freedom? Or is America just a set of unique events and circumstances that came together at the right times and in the right places, and there isn’t much in terms of principle that can be profitably transplanted to other lands?

Second – I was pondering the matter of entropy in the universe. You know, the second law of thermodynamics. The classic view is that things generally start off with low entropy, which means high levels of organization and much potential for work. Kind of like how we humans are when we are young. But over time, we get more and more disorganized and our potential for getting work done declines. As such, our entropy is increasing. At first it sounds good that something increases with age (other than the number of years, months and day of our lives), but then it sounds bad in that we get frayed and weaker.

In recent years, however, there has been another view of entropy, an informational view. According to the informational view, the higher the entropy (the more mixed up a big group of things seems), the more information that can be stored in it. For instance, imagine a book full of letters that just kept repeating the alphabet, a to z and then back to a, over and over. That book would be a lot more organized, but it would hold a whole lot less info than a typical book with its seemingly jumbled-up groupings of letters.

So, maybe thermodynamics and information science say something about the human experience of aging. Something akin to “I’m older but wiser”.

Third – I just caught up a bit on the tiff going on over British philosopher Antony Flew and his abandonment in recent years of the hard-core atheistic views that defined most of his life, toward a clear but tenuous belief in “a God of sorts”. Flew’s God is not exactly the Hebrew Testament’s God of power and might, or the New Testament’s God of love and wisdom. Flew is now a “deist”, someone who believes in a remote, unemotional, uncaring God, one quite different from the Judeo-Christian portrait of God. Flew doesn’t think that this God gave us souls that will reunite with “Him or Her” at the end of time; he doesn’t believe in an after-life. However, for a philosopher who intellectually denied the existence of God for decades to turn around and accept the notion that the Universe requires something more than what science can provide to make sense of it is rather important. It at least lays an intellectual foundation beneath the more sober portraits of God that some of our church thinkers present (in their better moments; there’s still too much “snake-handleing” and fairy-tale religion in America).

So, no wonder the atheists are taking “the flight of Flew” seriously. In a recent Sunday NY Times Magazine article,one of their supporters claims that Flew’s conversion had a lot to do with his age (over 80) and a group of Christians who befriended him, perhaps in a conspiracy to brainwash the guy in his elderly vulnerability. It’s no secret that the book about his conversion was written by one of these Christians (Roy Varghese), although attributed to his authorship. If you want to take a peak at some of the arguments and the level of urgency being expressed by both sides to this controversy, take a look at the Amazon book reviews for his recent “There Is A God”. I take my hat off to all of them; these people are taking the issue very seriously. Is Flew a victim of entropic thermo-decay, or a beneficiary of entropic information growth? Is Flew’s conversion a reproducible model or just the story of one man? Ah yes, once again I’ve found a common thread (however frayed) between three diverse subjects. Pretty good for a Friday night when I’m ready to zonk out from exhaustion!

Let intellectual freedom ring.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:17 pm       Read Comments (5) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
Personal Reflections ... Society ...

Not long ago, I finally got bitten by the genealogy bug. All of the relatives who could have helped me with this were gone by the time I started with this. But there are also lots of resources available today on the Internet, and that got me hooked. So over the past 5 months or so, I’ve been doing a lot of web surfing, looking for various clues about the lives of my ancestors and the world that they lived in. In some cases, the search engines have led me to buy a book or contact a government agency, but they have also led to some web sites where I’ve found direct reference to family members (e.g., the Ellis Island web site search, and the 1920 and 1930 Census info available for a fee on Overall, it’s been much like any other form of academic research, all dry and crisp and precise. As a geek-like eternal student, that kind of thing appeals to me. So it’s been enjoyable.

But it has also made me stop and think: what about the human factor here? Back when I was a kid, I was pretty close to a lot of the stuff that I’m now looking down at from “on high”. I was actually around the kind of people that I’m now reading about, i.e. the immigrants and their immediate offspring. I actually saw and heard and otherwise sensed a bit of the “older world” that I now seek to rediscover from a digital perspective. E.g., meat markets and other ratty little stores, tenement buildings and people raising pigeons for food, women cooking cabbage soup. And to be honest, I didn’t always like that world. I wanted to be a regular suburban American kid, and the old “pollock” stuff seemed very un-cool. Those people were locked into the past, inferior to me and my friends.

So I feel a bit schizoid about the whole project. In some ways I am sorry for once being so uncharitable and dismissive about “the old world” that had still been a part of my mother and fathers’ lives. But in another way, I still harbor some negative feelings about that world. I generally don’t look back at it nostalgically, longing to recapture something of the way that they lived.

But actually, I have differences in feeling about my mother’s “old world” versus my father’s “old world”. I was (and still am) more sympathetic to my mother’s relatives and the experiences that I had as a child with them (in the Dundee neighborhood of Passaic). I remember that the people involved on my mother’s side seemed “nicer”. I still looked down at them for the most part (except for my Uncle Bruno, who was always pretty cool). But today, it seems much easier for me to have good feelings about “Mom’s old world”.

My dad came from Wallington, which was a early on the suburb of Dundee, the place where factory workers went to buy a home with a little bit of a backyard once they could save some money. I’d need a shrink and a lot of time and money to ferret out all of my memories regarding my father and then analyze them; but the bottom line is that I didn’t like his world too much. They didn’t seem as nice as the Dundee crowd. They seemed more “Americanized”, but in the worst ways. E.g., mindlessly materialistic, concerned about status without a sense of style, locked in a continuing sense of dissatisfaction. Dundee somehow seemed to retain some “old world charm” to balance off the old-world poverty. By contrast, Wallington seemed to have ditched the poverty, to a greater extent, but also lost the charm, to be replaced by a bastardized Polish-American sense of reality.

I’m probably being unfair to my father and his Wallington world in many ways. And my present exercise in genealogy will hopefully be a good way for me to come to grips with my own prejudices. But there is one thing that I remember that I still believe needed rejection. And that was the attitude about other ethnic groups and races that I picked up around my father’s friends and associates.

Not that my mother’s “Dundee world” was utterly innocent in that regard. They were quite afraid of the black and Puerto Rican families who started moving in during the late 50’s. I also recall my mother telling me and my brother that we shouldn’t get too involved with Italian families — read, don’t bring an Italian girl home to be your bride. But on the other side of the coin, they maintained some humility about other kinds of people; the “n-word” for blacks and the “s-word” for Puerto Ricans was not used (sensibly enough, given that the “p-word” could easily be used against them). And actually, my Uncle Bruno (who was still living in Dundee with my grandparents) told us that as future world travelers, we should be ready to meet different people. He even told us of some good experiences he had with blacks in his travels.

OK, so my Uncle wasn’t exactly a freedom marcher in Mississippi, and the rest of my mother’s relatives had their fears. But compared with what I heard from the Wallington crowd, this was positively enlightened. Let’s just say that my father’s people weren’t terribly circumspect about using insults against other races. I still remember those guys in their T-shirts with cigarettes and beer guts, talking about how “they” just don’t want to work and “they” expect others to take care of them and “they” behave like pigs. There was a certain viciousness in their words, which I just don’t remember from the Dundee crowd. Well, maybe that’s just a phase that people coming out of poverty need to go through. The Dundee folk were content to keep renting their little cold-water tenement apartments; the Wallington folk were now land-owners, and thus had more to lose (and not much more income to keep it with). Their pride mixed with their heightened fears of losing what they had achieved, and spawned some very uncharitable attitudes about all that remained “outside the boundaries”.

That’s the human factor that the research doesn’t immediately reveal. In a lot of ways, I probably was wrong in overlooking what was good about the good old days. I purposely stayed away from the people who could have told me directly what I’m now trying to discover via the Internet. I had my uppity attitudes, and that was wrong. HOWEVER, there were indeed things about the good old days that were not so good. I hope that I’ve at least done a little bit better in terms of being open to all people, to overcoming the tribalism that ultimately dooms humanity to war without end. I’m not free of bigotry and bad attitudes, but at least it concerns me. I think the same goes for my brother and all of my cousins. Hopefully, there was some generational progress in that regard after all.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:25 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Friday, November 2, 2007
Health / Nutrition ... Science ...

I finally caught up with epigenetics, which is perhaps the newest and hottest area of theory and research in biology. My thanks for that go out to NOVA, that interesting and occasionally-great science show on PBS. Until recently, scientists thought that human genes have the last word on how living things are designed and how they operate and respond to environmental challenges. Genes were looked at as the unchangeable “software” of life. But the evidence now shows that there is another layer of control involved, the layer of “epigenetic” chemistry. From what little I understand of it, the DNA and RNA processes that express our genetic design do indeed tell the body what to do and when to do it – on the micro level, anyway (you can’t say that DNA controls your behavior, i.e. made you cranky today or made you eat that big piece of chocolate cake last night; even though some people try to). BUT, they sometimes get muted or shut down completely; or they get amplified, made to have more influence than the other local genes. That is what the epigenetic chemicals do.

So, any one person with a particular genetic code is not locked into one exact type of body with a totally fixed set of chemical processes within. The most startling evidence for this involves fraternal twins, i.e. twins with the exact same DNA. The evidence now shows that although they usually do look alike, they don’t always act alike. And the processes inside their bodies can also vary, especially if they’ve been through different experiences. So one can have a tendency to get certain kinds of infections quite easily, while the other will fight those infections off. If you are a fan of “self-healing” lifestyles, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that what you eat and how you exercise and think and avoid toxic exposure can have effects on making the good DNA bits work and turning off the bad DNA bits. The bad news is that epigenetic changes take a long time to respond to environmental factors, and once they do, they stay around for a long time – even getting passed on to the next generation. So if your parents had bad life habits or were exposed to toxins over time, the negative effects on their genes could well have been passed on to you. (The good news in response is that with enough time, those bad effects might be reversed by a sustained level of healthy life-habits).

Actually, I am going out on a limb somewhat here, as this is a new and complex area of science, which I have studied for a grand total of about 95 minutes or so. But I will make one conjecture here regarding the recent crop of studies regarding the effects of diet on preventing serious diseases like cancer. Basically, most of these studies indicate that healthy diets do nothing to prevent cancer and other serious diseases.

This seems rather curious, as earlier studies identified specific chemical pathways through with chemicals in broccoli, for example, could bolster the immune system and help kill mutant cells. Furthermore, on the other extreme of magnitude, away from individual cells and up to whole societies, studies show that nations and group of people with certain types of diet have lower rates of various cancers that are prevalent in the USA. But when you move into the middle level, i.e. 5 or 10 year studies on a mixed group of 500 or a thousand people, you lose the effect. My half-assed guess is that epigenetics have something to do with this. If your mix of genetics and epigenetics bias you towards colon cancer, then all the calcium and fiber and low-fat dieting in the world can’t overcome that all at once. But with enough time, maybe the tides do turn. And it may be that one healthy-diet factor that was studied in isolation won’t work in the absence of others. Perhaps a low-fat diet alone does not make up for the lack of micronutrients or an improper balance of omega acids or a dearth of fiber and antioxidents.

Well, this is mostly conjecture and wishful thinking on my part. But the new epigenetic movement does seem to lend some support to the old common sense notion that every day of healthy living increases the chance that it is going to do some good. In future studies of eating habits and disease, I hope that the scientists involved will learn to control for the epigenetic starting points of the participants. People nowadays find enough excuses (or succumb too easily to advertising pressures by multi-national food service corporations like McDonalds and CocaCola) to eat and drink too much of the wrong stuff without the additional notion that “scientists say that it doesn’t matter anyway”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:18 pm       Read Comments (5) / Leave a Comment
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