The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Politics ... Society ...

There is a saying popularly attributed to Winston Churchill that roughly goes as follows: if you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you have no mind. (The phrase actually originated with Francois Guisot, 1787-1874: “Not to be a republican at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.” It was revived by French Premier Georges Clemenceau 1841-1929: “Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.”)

Well, my own political philosophy has gone something like that over the course of my 55 years. As a young twenty-something, I was an enthusiastic supporter of George McGovern in the 1972 presidential race, and felt that big government and high taxes (especially on the rich) were the answer to the world’s problems. Thirty six years later, I haven’t given in to Rush Limbaugh and the GOP yet, but I certainly would not support George McGovern anymore. And having worked in government for much of my career, I know that government can only do so much good and has many bad side-effects while doing it. There certainly do exist cases where the bad from government intervention outweighs the good.

I was attracted to liberalism because I am concerned about people. I would like to see as many people as possible saved from injustice, oppression, economic calamity, disease, war, and other bad stuff. I really did think that liberalism and its advocacy of socialistic governmental interventions was the best way to achieve those aims. And I still think that governmental interventions are necessary in our modern world to help make life better for as many people as possible.

BUT. I’ve become a lot more pessimistic over the years about just how much good can be done by government before the bad side-effects drown out the original intent. First off, government is a clunky thing. It tried to do too many things and answers to too many masters, and thus gets bogged down with paperwork and rules and uninspired bureaucracy, as implemented by uninspired bureaucrats (like me!). It costs a lot of money to operate, money that causes higher taxes. Higher taxes make a lot of people unhappy; and even worse, they eventually threaten the non-governmental world, i.e. the world of business and capitalism. But business and capitalism are all about greed, and liberal government is all about trying to help people, right? In a perfect world, yes; but in the real world, good intentions often lead to hell, and bad intentions sometimes get us closer to heaven (however unintentionally).

Second off, government can’t be separated from politics. And even the best form of politics, i.e. a balanced semi-democracy as spelled out in the US Constitution, too often goes off the rails and is hijacked for greed and power lust. And even worse, politics involves internecine warfare between factions competing to satisfy their own greed and power lust. In the middle of all that, government has to remain timid and survival-oriented. New ideas and innovations are feared. Old ways become entrenched and remain long after their time has passed. So in the end, the scalpel that liberals would use to remove cancers like racism and poverty and inhumane working conditions from the social body becomes a dull blade.

In some cases, a dull blade is better than no blade. In others, it does more damage than doing nothing. And if liberals took that into account and chose their battles based on a realistic assessment of which of their laudable goals could actually be enforced, I would still be an enthusiastic liberal. But most liberals don’t give much thought to the many side-effects of their remedies. As such, I can’t support the liberal cause wholeheartedly anymore.

Another problem with liberalism is that it is ultimately just another faction seeking political power. Liberals want political power, hoping that it will allow them to carry out their ideologies. And they make many compromises to gain that power. Right now, Barack Obama is the “great white hope” (irony intended) of the liberal cause. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), Obama is himself doing what he has to do to gain such power — including selling out the liberal policy line.

President George W. Bush has been a bad president. But he and his neo-conservative cronies have gotten away with what they have because of the general bankruptcy of the liberal alternative. Liberals have to “get real” with regard to economics and the practicalities of changing society through governmental interventions. They might, for example, be able to improve the schools and the children who are educated in them, but might not be able to assure that all minorities (including women and homosexuals) are given an equal playing field in terms of economic and social opportunities. Liberals would be better off if they would learn to choose their battles. But politically, that means saying no to certain interest groups. And in American politics, the art of saying ‘no’ is almost non-existent. So, I expect that the liberals will remain a very inclusive and very irrelevant political movement into the future, and that the conservatives will continue to rule the day. And that’s a big regret.

PS, with regard to Barack Obama and the so-called liberal bias in the national media: I’m afraid that it’s true. I never gave much credence to conservative GOP complaints that big media favors the liberals (for what little good that it does them historically). But this year, big media has been especially enamored of Barack Obama, most likely for liberal reasons (i.e., his minority status, his pro-big government policies, etc.). The numerical evidence is available: according to the Christian Science Monitor, the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) conducts a weekly news index, surveying more than 300 newspaper, magazine, and TV stories, and has found that in the six weeks since the general campaign began, Obama has had significantly more exposure than McCain. Last week, Obama was found to be a “significant presence” in 83 percent of campaign coverage, versus 52 percent for McCain. You can also see a chart prepared by PEJ on their web site tracking this.

And yes, I do believe this to be unfair to Senator McCain. This is despite the fact that I still can’t embrace the ideas and philosophies that McCain espouses, despite my break-up with liberal orthodoxy.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:20 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Society ...

According to the Census Bureau, about 28% of adults in the US have earned bachelors degrees, and another 28% have associate degrees or have taken some college courses. As such, about 55% percent of Americans probably know something about the academic field of sociology. It’s too bad that number isn’t higher.

One of the most important things that sociology teaches, in my opinion, is that we humans do the things we do largely because of social influences. And most of the time, we don’t even know it. A fish in water doesn’t stop to think about water. And a social animal in a society doesn’t usually stop to think about whether the crowd is going in the right direction. As social animals, we mostly go with the flow.

That’s a good thing, in many ways. But there are cases where it causes problems. Take race relations, for instance. I was browsing a page on recently, which showed the results of various recent polls on race relations. The results clearly show that white people tend to think that racial relations aren’t much of a problem anymore and that discrimination barriers are mostly a thing of the past for blacks. By contrast, black people more often think that race issues have not been settled and that discrimination is still a big problem for them. Another poll appearing in the NY Times a few days ago said basically the same thing. So why the difference?

In my opinion, racism is still alive, but it is manifested in a much more subtle way. The days of “back of the bus” and separate white and “colored” restrooms are long gone. But a lot of white people who make decisions that affect blacks, such as teachers deciding on how to instruct students, or business owners deciding who to hire and promote, could well be influenced by race and not even know it. Social notions and evaluation standards, such as who is more trustworthy or more industrious or more likely to cheat or to be violent, are not formed through overt discussion; they come about through subtle signs and unspoken assumptions, sometimes even through sub-conscious processes. So yes, it is entirely possible that a form of continued racism is going on within white American society in a sub-conscious fashion, and is manifested by people who don’t overtly hold any bad feelings towards people of color.

So, blacks complain about continuing racism while whites aren’t sure what they are talking about. Perhaps they think that blacks are just being political or are being outright ‘whiners’. (As to the political aspect, I do believe that some black political leaders draw the racism card too quickly). But mostly what they are trying to say is that a certain sociology is at work, and that whites need to be more aware of this and work to end it. Unfortunately, sociology is not an easy thing to talk about, especially if half the country isn’t very familiar with it.

I’m not saying that popular sociology is the answer to race relations. But it would at least be a way to get some movement from the present stand-off between whites and blacks, a possible grounding for an open, intelligent discussion. (As part of that openness, common black attitudes about whites would also need to be discussed.)

And here’s another sociology problem: our nation is currently in an economic crisis fueled by too much debt. Over the past ten or twenty years, too many people spent too much on housing and consumer items using borrowed money. And now the banks and investors are sweating because it turns out that a whole lot of that debt isn’t going to be repaid.

There have been a lot of “profile” articles in the papers lately on the people who borrowed all this money and are now in hot water over it. You’ve seen the story, e.g. a couple in their late 40s making around $50,000 bought a big house and an SUV and much other good stuff. Then something went wrong and one of them got hurt or was laid off, and had to take a lousy job paying only half of what they used to make. And then the mortgage payments jumped, and they couldn’t refinance to draw out equity because housing values starting sinking. In the article, the couple is quoted to say that they were duped by the lenders and credit card companies who offered them all sorts of easy loans just a few years ago, and are now pestering them day and night about their past-due balances.

So do we blame the couple or the banks and mortgage brokers who bombarded them with all sorts of tempting loan deals so that they could live even higher on the hog? Well, David Brooks of the NY Times just wrote a very intelligent article that suggested another way to look at such a couple. Brooks feels that we have to consider the “culture of debt” that has been developing in America over the past few decades. In other words, borrowing and spending to the limit has become a sociology thing, a crowd phenomenon. Everyone was doing it, because everyone else they knew was doing it. It’s easy to think that it must be OK to do when no one else is worrying about it. But now things have changed, and social attitudes will eventually adjust to the new conditions. America will go back to a somewhat more frugal and thrifty way of life. Living within one’s means may come back in fashion, although the banks and credit companies will try not to let that idea get too far (through massive advertising campaigns).

Had everyone thought a little bit more about sociology, had everyone been aware that they were following a crowd and questioned whether that crowd was moving in the right direction, perhaps some of this mess could have been avoided.

Sociologists of the world — where are you now that we need you? How about getting out a bit from your ivy-covered halls and making yourselves more accessible to the masses. You too are following your own little academic herd, living in your (relatively) protected world of universities and conferences and journal articles. It’s time to get out there into the evening news and the local papers and the shopping mall bookstores. And maybe even make some appearances in church basements and at evening adult-school courses. American society has some nasty messes to untangle, and we need people who can help us to see the big picture. Elsewise, we’re going to just keep on dancing in circles, thinking everything is fine while an increasingly competitive and hostile world, jealous of our comforts and our past achievements, closes in around us.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:11 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Current Affairs ... Weather ...

It’s that time of year in northern NJ — temperatures in the mid-90s and near-liquid humidity. And I hear a lot of people complaining about the discomfort of it all. They’re ready to cry bloody murder as they break a sweat while walking between their air-conditioned cars and their air-conditioned houses or offices or shopping malls. Air conditioning has become a social expectation here, as in most other places outside the “third world”.

Being a bit out-of-step with the world around me, I don’t embrace air conditioning. I have one in my apartment, but it doesn’t work anymore. I never use the one in my car; I’d rather get a few extra miles per gallon, especially now with four-dollar gas. The only place where I do need air conditioning is at work. And even there, the system can barely hold 80 degrees on summer afternoons. Obviously there is a lot of complaining. But not by me.

So how do I survive a weekend at home in late July and early August? I have some fans to keep the wet 90 degree air moving. But most important, I find that my body knows how to adjust to the weather. Basically, it does what people used to do in primitive hot-weather cultures; my metabolism throttles back and I sleep a lot during the day. I do all of my chores and projects in the morning, and by 2 pm I’m in my reading chair with an open book and closing eyelids. As the afternoon drifts by, I go back and forth from nap to nap. By 6 or so, I get up for dinner, and then snooze some more. Then around 9 pm I get some energy back and putter around until about midnight.

I’ve thus gone into the classic “siesta” cycle of Latin countries in the tropics. In the last 50 years or so, many people in these countries have abandoned the traditional “lazy afternoon” way of life in favor of air-conditioned hyperactivity all day long. And that has driven up the demand for oil; air conditioning, no matter how efficient, will always be an energy-intensive proposition. And now oil production is not keeping up with demand, thus threatening the world economy with spiking prices. (As I previously discussed, investor speculation in oil futures has made things worse. But until some of the speculators get hurt and the bubble bursts, there’s nothing you can do about it; it’s just a nasty little side-effect of free market dynamics).

So, perhaps our modern society will eventually be forced to re-adopt some of the old traditions like lazy, sleepy afternoons and active evenings (not all old traditions are bad; although admittedly, stuff like nationalism, racism and warfare have to go). Another thing: the heat isn’t as bad when you maintain your proper weight. Obesity is becoming an epidemic in the USA, and I think that it has something to do with the notion of universal air conditioning, air conditioning as a right. If energy scarcity forces us to restrict air conditioning to places of work and to those who need it most, e.g. the elderly and the medically frail, perhaps Americans would watch their weight more carefully, reducing diabetes and heart disease and increasing life spans.

Yea, I know, I sound like a communist autocrat telling people how they should live and forcing social changes on the unwilling masses. But no, I’m not. All I’m saying here is that if $8 gasoline and outrageous electricity bills do ever cause Americans to re-think their ways of life, their dread regarding going back to older ways of life may be somewhat unfounded. Take my word for it — a lazy, sleepy afternoon in a hot and humid room (with open windows; no more sealed-in buildings with “central air”) really isn’t that bad!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:55 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, July 18, 2008
Economics/Business ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

The escalating price of oil is throwing the world economy into a spin, a downward spin. The big question is whether recent price levels ($140 to $150 per barrel) are permanent, or just a stop on the way further up, or instead represent a high-water mark driven by speculators who can’t make a killing right now on the stock market or in real estate. As a person with part of my retirement money in a mutual fund that promises long-term performance but for now is doing very poorly, and which is staking its comeback on the notion that the oil markets are currently in a bubble which will soon break, I have some skin in this game. So here’s my 2 cents on what’s going on with oil.

The bottom line is that we’re in a twilight zone; we see through a glass darkly right now. One of the biggest questions is whether classic microeconomic theories regarding market behavior still apply in the oil markets (or to what degree). Economist Paul Krugman and others believe that the lack of supplier hoarding (above ground oil storage increases) indicates that the problem revolves around the demand fundamentals. I.e., current oil prices accurately reflect growing demand relative to the increasing inelasticity of output (i.e., inability to ramp up output significantly due to political and geo-technical factors). The oil that is left is in the worst places with higher and higher marginal production and distribution costs.

On the other side of the coin, there does seem to be a lot of ‘restless capital’ out there, in the hand of investors who drove the stock bubble of the late 90s and the real estate bubble of the 00’s. So I’m leaning towards the bubble theory, despite the dearth of signs regarding above-ground inventory hoarding. The ‘smart money’ and its corresponding panic psychology is focusing on oil futures, not on actual oil barrels from the spot market. So, if there is hoarding (as seen in bubbles of the past, e.g. the tulip mania of 1636), it would logically occur further up the production chain — i.e., in-the-ground hoarding, reflected in lack of effort on the part of the oil owners and producers to ramp up drilling and production. That might – again, MIGHT – be consistent with the surprising lack of production increase over the past few years despite the amazing price run-ups. (Only a year ago, oil was around $70 a barrel; two years takes you down to $45).

The oil markets are pretty wacky; you can’t assume that all producers are fiscal profit maximizers, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez being a case-in-point. I’m still waiting for the flood of new oil that analyst Daniel Yergen predicted in 2005. Is that new oil just around the corner — admittedly, deep sea and tar sand projects do take a lot longer to bring on-line than the good old Texas gusher from days past. So what if this is a bubble being driven by in-the-ground hoarding, what breaks it? Some combination of reduced demand because of business recession and increased output once long-term oil production projects of a more exotic nature finally come on line MIGHT cool the fever. I hope.

But, the real wild card is in the situation between Israel and Iran. Once Iran tests its bomb, or once Israel finally runs out of patience with negotiations and fires up its jets for a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the oil market will go off the rails. Especially if an Israel strike fails to thoroughly destroy Iran’s nuclear program. Maybe I need to get my $$ out of that overly optimistic mutual fund!

PS, what we clearly DON’T need right now is John McCain trying to be humorous, doing a takeoff on an old Beach Boys song (Barbara Ann), using the refrain: bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:25 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Brain / Mind ... Current Affairs ... Society ... Technology ...

Two thoughts, both of which aren’t all that pleasant:

FIRST: next month (August 11), al-Qaeda celebrates it’s 20th birthday. Some analysts (such as Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown U. and RAND) think that they might have something big planned. Nine-eleven, then eight-eleven? Let’s hope not.

SECOND: This is a longer-term concern. I’ve been a student of the mind-body issue for several years now, and one of the biggest and most interesting questions on that topic is whether machines can ever become conscious and self-aware. I’ve been pondering that question lately in light of my readings and hazily emerging understanding of “neural networks”, i.e. computer simulations of various forms of brain activity. I think that the best answer comes in two parts. First off, with regard to self-awareness, I do indeed believe that computer systems will eventually achieve that. So yes, the Terminator scenario regarding “Skynet” might indeed be plausible, from what I’ve read regarding the capabilities of neural networks.

But the second part regards “consciousness”, as we humans know it. I honestly don’t think that machines can ever attain a human-like form of consciousness. And that is where the “Skynet” problem comes in. Human consciousness was honed by the forces of nature over billions of years of evolution and natural selection process. Despite the seeming randomness and cruelty of these processes, I believe that as consciousness emerged from them, something of an appreciation for being and natural creation came about. This appreciation manifested itself in our attraction to beauty, to songs and rhythms, and to a deeper appreciation of the senses (the smell of flowers, the taste of fresh food, the warmth of sunshine, the coldness of water, etc.). And once aided by our thinking capacity, it inspired ideas such as justice and morals.

Machines will never go through such processes. They are created by humans, mostly by the human “left brain”, the thinking and rational faculty. Computers are not inspired by and are hardly relevant to the human “right brain”, the poetic side, the side that is tied more closely to nature and our evolutionary heritage. As such, a self-aware computer will not have the “lessons of nature” wired into it, as most people do (to varying extents). Once we let them think on their own, computer thinking will be different from ours. In some ways that will be good; but at bottom, they really won’t understand us. So if we let them start making big decisions, we may not always like what they decide. Yes, just like HAL killing David in the movie 2000, A Space Odyssey.

The other problem is that humans will become more machine-like in the future, especially if we keep letting our machines run more and more of our lives. Over a century or two, humans may well be bred to forget the right brain stuff and get on with living in a strictly rational way. Yes, I know that science fiction stories like that have been around for a long time now. I understand that I’m not saying anything new here. But I never took those stories very seriously — until now.

Because I am becoming aware of what neural-networked computer systems can do, it’s really starting to seem possible that the human race could ‘sleepwalk’ into a situation where the machines eventually remake their creators. By ‘sleepwalking’, I mean letting computers and machines do more and more things and make more and more decisions. It’s already happening — no doubt about that; computers and machines make businesses more profitable, war more winable, and daily life more pleasant for many folk. So why not continue down this road? Pretty soon, even the call centers in India will be out of business, as machines become intelligent enough to answer phones for Dell and Amazon and Sears and your local dentist.

It would take a long time, maybe 200 years, to really change us. Despite our notions of civilization, we humans are still a pretty wild bunch. But if this trend continues, I predict that humankind will eventually go thru some major changes. People will be more rational, more orderly, more robot-like. There may no longer be any crime, any wars, any starvation, and a lot less disease. But there might also then be no more poetry, no more song, no more art, no more sex. It’s amazing what kind of worlds we could sleepwalk into, now that our scientists are unlocking some of the computing secrets of the brain (and our entrepreneurs, generals and political leaders are starting to make daily use of them). Time perhaps to dust off some of those yellow, dog-eared science fiction paperbacks up in the attic.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:56 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Personal Reflections ... Photo ...

I’ve been around long enough now to have known a guy who has been turned into bronze. This fellow was a gentleman named Charles Cummings, a former citizen and librarian of the City of Newark, NJ. Prior to his passing, Charles was the designated city historian. He was also a member of the Episcopal parish of Grace Church in downtown Newark. And that’s how our paths crossed.

I spent seven or eight years trying to feel at home in Grace Church, an old “Anglo-Catholic” congregation with deep historical roots. Those roots made Charles feel right at home. And in my attempt to likewise feel at home there, I saw Charles on most Sunday mornings. After the Mass (this was high-church English-style, complete with incense and sung gospel), I would encounter Charles at the coffee hour, exchanging polite greetings and sometimes a few lines of conversation. I knew that Charles was the city historian, but strangely enough he almost never talked about city history while at Grace. I never heard him proffer any interesting facts or stories about Newark’s past. He seemed mostly interested in the personal matters of the congregates; who was sick, who was well, who had a son graduating high school, who had been to Florida recently, who the rector (a rather touchy fellow) was upset with, etc.

I left Grace Church in the late 90s after my best friend there, Roger the elderly “sexton” (Episcopalian word for ‘live-in church building keeper’), was brutally murdered. Interestingly, it was Charles Cummings who called me with the news. I remember Charles’ expression of deep regret at the terrible tragedy: “poor, poor Roger”. Yes indeed. Not too long after Roger left the world so horribly, I stopped going to Grace, and I never saw Charles again. It turned out that Charles met a more peaceful ending a few years later, in 2005.

Not long afterward, the City and the County raised some funds so as to have a bronze bust of Charles made, for display at the renovated County complex in Newark (where I work). Just a few weeks ago, the bust was hoisted onto a pedestal and was dedicated in memory of Charles. I finally got around to spending a few moments with the bronze version of Charles this week. Here are shots of the bust and the engraving on the monument:

Well, seeing Charles cast in bronze was rather weird at first. There’s something about a bronze statue that captures a Roman emperor better than a kindly old librarian. It didn’t seem like the Charles that I remember. The above bust photo seems a bit too angular, a bit too contrasty and bold; something more in keeping with a Hannibal or an Alexander the Great.

But, having some belief in the photographer’s creed, I decided to keep shooting at different angles until the spirit of Charles was found. The two shots below come close, I think. The bust seems to convey Charles as he probably was in his early 40s; by contrast, I remember him as a gracefully aging 60-year old. Nonetheless, these two shots better convey the patient and kindly, but somewhat distant and proud nature of his personality — as I experienced it.

Unfortunately, as can be seen in the last shot, the local birds have little respect for bronzed busts, heroic or not. But then again, I’m sure that Charles would have been patient with them. Charles appreciated the great themes AND the more quotidian elements (such as pigeons and starlings) of the city that he loved.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:51 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, July 6, 2008
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

We’re almost 7 years now from that terrible day in September of 2001 when a band of Islamic jihadist firebrands, supported by a shadowy but potent terror network based in the Middle East, managed to kill over 3,000 Americans and injure our financial and military infrastructure. And since then . . . . nothing. Not on domestic soil, anyway. So, are we doing something right? Or have we mostly been lucky?

That’s the big question, isn’t it . . . I’ve read a number of articles from reputable sources claiming that al Qaeda has been seriously wounded and that Bin Laden’s idea of a pan-Islamic assault on the west never caught fire amidst its intended audience. Arguably, there are too many Islamic emigrants living in Europe and North America who have learned to like the economic opportunities available here. They are millions of them, making money and sending it back to the relatives living in the poor and stagnant economies of Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, etc. So there may not be a very large pool of volunteers ready to fly to American and don TNT vests for suicide missions in crowded subways or shopping malls. The “Arab street” might be opting for a reasonable, moral interpretation of the Qur’an and Islamic history, over the hazy promise of black-eyed virgins in paradise and eventual glorious victory over the western infidels. And the US military has had recent success in talking the Sunnis in Iraq out of their al Qaeda sympathies.

At the same time, there is renewed evidence that the “social-mental infection” of modern jihadism remains potent within the Islamic world. I just read an interesting book review for a title that you may not find at your local Barnes and Noble; but this book is allegedly getting attention in places like Riyadh and Tunis and Karachi. It’s called “Governance in the Wilderness” (Edarat al-Wahsh), and was recently written by Sheik Abu-Bakar Naji, allegedly a high-level religious theoretician in al Qaeda. Bottom line, the Sheik says that its time for al Qaeda to renew its focus on making life hell (i.e., “wilderness”) for the USA and France and England. He admits that the jihadists probably cannot repeat the “glories” of September 11, but they can bring us to our knees by a long term campaign based on smaller incidents targeted at crowded public places, akin to what the Israelis have to put up with.

So instead of snuffing out 3,000 infidels in a day and then getting shut out by a high-tech “homeland security” response, the new al Qaeda campaign [according to this book] should be happy with getting 30 or so office employees or tourists or delayed travelers lined up at airports, on a more regular basis. Admittedly, Israel manages to thrive despite this kind of thing; but the Israelis are tough cookies, having a social / historical / religious narrative just as compelling as any Palestinian suicidalist has. Here in the USA, especially in the well-off “blue states”, we really don’t have anything so transcendent to latch on to if and when bloody warfare comes knocking at our doors. There would be a lot of social and economic disruption — which is not what we need as we currently struggle with home foreclosures and unemployment and unending increases in food and fuel prices. Under Abu-Bakar Naji’s plan, there would be no succor from the shopping malls, as President Bush prescribed in the days following Nine Eleven.

OK, that article appeared in the NY Post — a Rupert Murdoch rag. Admittedly, Abu-Bakar Naji had a 2005 book called Management of Barbarism and had a lot of other previous writings in the same vein; so another tome on hatred and vengeance by him isn’t really a surprise. But on the same day, the NY Times posted an article about our lack of progress in the Pakistani “north-west frontier”, where Osama Bin Laden is thought to be hiding. The Times believes that al Qaeda has reestablished a network of training camps there not unlike what it had in Afghanistan up until late 2001. Because of Pakistani politics, we can’t just go in there with our Delta units and take them out. We are monitoring and harassing them with our airborne Preditors (the pilotless aircraft equipped with cameras and missiles), but according to the Times, we don’t have enough to do real damage due to demands in Iraq.

So — are we safe again? Or is this the calm following the first thunderclap, the pause before the real storm begins? I like to play the role of the gloomy prophet and thus get in an occasional “told-ya-so” when one of my predictions turns out by chance to come true. But on this one, I’d be perfectly happy to look back five years from now and admit just how silly and off-base my worries were. So check with me in 2013; I look forward to saying ‘yea, I was all wrong’.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:57 am       Read Comments (5) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Science ...

When I was a kid, I used to come up with crazy theories based on partial, ultimately inaccurate understandings of things; my father used to cringe when I explained my theories, and would then dismiss my musings with a “Noooooooooooooooo . . . “

But hey, despite my father’s discouragement, I never lost the knack for coming up with bogus, half-assed theories. So in light of the recent publicity regarding the world of high-energy physics and the search for the Higgs boson (the particle that would intermediate the field interactions that give mass to most elementary particles), I’m at it again.

OK, I know this ain’t right, but — the principle of supersymmetry requires a symmetric partner for every particle; it represents a bigger version of the not-quite-super-symmetry between particles and antiparticles (which have opposite charge characteristics). So, what if there are super-symmetric particles relative to the Higgs boson (or bosons — might be more than one kind)? Would they have some sort of “opposite” characteristic relative to the Higgs field interaction? If so, would they involve something of an anti-Higgs field, whereby particles would gain a sort of “anti-mass”?

And if so, would the characteristics of such “anti-mass” be an opposite form of gravity? All particles with mass attract each other via gravity. So, would particles endowed with the supersymmetric “anti-mass” thus act according to anti-gravity, a repulsion force? And if so, would that have anything to do with the “dark energy” that is unexpectedly accelerating the universe’s expansion, in opposition to the slowdown expected by gravity?

An anti-mass property might also have to react to force in the opposite way — instead of resisting acceleration, it would fly off at the slightest touch. So just where would all this “supersymmetric stuff” be? Because of its reverse-gravity and reverse-force properties, would it already have been scattered out to the fringes of the time-space manifold which encompasses our universe? Would these particles in-effect push against the edge of timespace, slowly reviving the inflation process and thus stoking the mysterious runaway expansion?

Nah, probably not. Sorry for all the pseudo-scientific gibberish. Alexander Pope said famously that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; drink deep or taste not the spring”. I definitely have not drank deep from the springs of particle physics and modern cosmology. But I still think it’s harmless fun coming up with such wacky ideas. In fact, here’s another guy who enjoys this kind of thing!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:27 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
To blog is human, to read someone's blog, divine
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Church of the Churchless
Clear Mountain Zendo, Montclair
Fr. James S. Behrens, Monastery Photoblog
Of Particular Significance, Dr. Strassler's Physics Blog
My Cousin's 'Third Generation Family'
Weather Willy, NY Metro Area Weather Analysis
Spunkykitty's new Bunny Hopscotch; an indefatigable Aspie artist and now scolar!

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