The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Friday, August 29, 2008
Current Affairs ... Politics ...

I agree with the liberal pundits that the Democrats had a good convention this week. Obama’s acceptance speech yesterday at Mile High Stadium was a bit stern and preachy, but overall the public was impressed. This can be seen by Obama’s bump-up in the daily tracking polls.

Obviously the blogging world has said a whole lot about the political festivities in Denver over the past four days, and there isn’t too much that I can add. But I will offer a quick review of Al Gore’s speech early yesterday evening. First off, Al was introduced by an old tune from the Fifth Dimension, recorded way back around 1969; i.e., the second half of “Age of Aquarius”, a.k.a. “Let the Sun Shine In”. Yes, the song was appropriate; Gore is both an oldie and a solar powered child (at least at heart; his large carbon footprint is repeatedly noted by the conservative bloggers and talk show cranks). After a quick round of applause, he gave a speech that was surprisingly animated. Some pundits claim that he was rushing through it, but I think he was actually putting on some enthusiasm, as compared with his usual plodding speaking style. Also, he now speaks with a slight southern twang in his voice, something entirely lacking during his vice-presidential term and his run for the Presidency in 2000. Who knows, had he used that verve and twang back in 2000, perhaps he would have gotten the extra 530 votes that he needed to win Florida. Ahhh, what might have been.

One more odd thought: Al Gore now looks a lot like the late, great comedian Rodney Dangerfield. I would have loved it had Gore fingered his collar while complaining about the heat from climate change, followed by a few one-liners about how he gets no respect from the Bush administration. Unfortunately, the Democrats traditionally haven’t had much of a sense of humor (and Obama continues this grim legacy). McCain recently made a comment about how his campaign is trying to inject some levity into his messaging. He may be on to a Democratic vulnerability.

As to McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for GOP vice president: I perused the NY Times and Washington Post web sites, and the reviews of McCain’s choice were unrelievedly negative. Ah, but this is the liberal media, after all. It must mean that they are quite worried about Palin! (And ticked off at McCain for stealing the afterglow of the Dem convention with a bold VP pick; as to Palin’s particulars for the job, I won’t get into that at present. But whether or not she would be right for the job, it certainly was a gutsy move on McCain’s part).

P.S. — The Democratic criticisms about Palin are that she is inexperienced and that she’s not ready for national politics let alone being one 72-year-old heartbeat away from the Presidency. Hmmmmm, sounds much like what people were saying twelve months ago about a young tyro from Illinois (and Kansas, and Hawaii, and the world at large perhaps) who had national ambitions. Hilary Clinton banked her national ambitions on the experience rationale — and lost. Time will tell if Sarah Palin turns out to be as masterful (and lucky) a politician as Barack Obama is.

In sum — the Democrats would seemingly describe the Palin pick with the following word: audacity.

P.P.S. — I’ve already seen liberal pundits accusing McCain of tokenism. If I were part of the liberal cheerleader team for Obama, I would NOT go there. And ditto for the conservatives who hope that Palin will make Biden look like an old fossil. Now that these surface issues have reached deadlock, perhaps the candidates and the national audience will get on to the policy issues? Oh, sorry, this is America. What was I thinking?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:29 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Current Affairs ... Society ...

I’ve read that a lot of Hilary Clinton supporters are unhappy that Barack Obama won the Democratic Presidential nomination. IIUC, they feel that Hilary is a victim of a macro-game and a set of macro- and micro-rules defined by men, and biased against women.

There’s a very interesting and detailed article on by Roger Simon (Relentless: How Barack Obama Outsmarted Hilary Clinton), which analyzes the rise and fall of Senator Clinton’s nomination campaign over the past eighteen months. Mr. Simon’s analysis indicates that Hilary’s campaign was star-crossed from the start. The key people who needed to make the day-to-day things happen in a presidential campaign just didn’t mesh, either with each other or with Hilary. It was just one of those things.

By contrast, Obama’s team members were meant for each other and for Senator Obama. It looks to me like fate; at some point, any great idea needs real people to make it happen, and if those people just don’t happen to work together well, the great idea is forgotten. You can’t say up front that a team comprised of A, B, C, D and E are going to make magic happen, and a team of V, W, X, Y and Z are never going to get it together. Many dream-teams on paper turn out to be losers, and some groups of losers come from behind to pull off miracles. You never know why. You only know it post-facto. As Hilary Clinton now knows, her team was the wrong one; whereas Obama’s team was the right one. It’s not a sexist issue.

But Simon identifies a crucial moment in the Clinton campaign, one that may well have sexist implications. After her third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses in January, Hilary pulled an unexpected come-back in the New Hampshire primary; most political analysts feel that the ’emotional tear incident’ at the Cafe Espresso in Portsmouth turned it around for her. According to Simon, her staff urged her to keep up the tears, jack up the emotions! The polls indicated that John Edwards and Barack Obama were seen to be “empathetic, sympathetic, caring about me”, whereas Hilary came out more “tough, ready, strong”.

Now that does indeed hint of underlying sexist assumptions and expectations regarding women. Hilary helped pass much more legislation than Edwards and Obama combined to help families and children. Her passion to help needy individuals was clear in her many years of dedicated action. And yet, her unwillingness to satisfy social expectations regarding female emotional vulnerability; and her reward for her one exception to this in New Hampshire, seems to be rather clear evidence of an unspoken double standard in American politics. According to Simon, Hillary refused to play up emotions; she knew that in doing so, reporters would require her to spill her guts about the Monica Lewinsky incident. Senator Clinton wanted to protect her emotional life, and was punished for it.

But — who are the feminists to be mad at? Barack Obama? Howard Dean? Evan Bayh? Bill Clinton? (well, yea, Bill can be a dog). These guys didn’t set the social rules and expectations. The problem resides in all of us, in tiny doses. The situation should be publicly discussed, and may represent a “teachable moment” for our country. But as to taking out anger on Senator Obama because he is a man — well, that seems quite counterproductive.

Next Issue: Above My Paygrade Afterall? In her comment on my last blog regarding the abortion question and my ideas regarding the social determination as to the “start of life” for purposes of human rights under law and social custom, Mary S. says that because I am a man and will never carry a baby, I do not have the standing to discuss abortion policy and the “start of life” question. Mary goes out of her way to express her respect for me, but then says that “if they [men, including myself assumedly] ever had even one period in their life [they] would spend the entirety of the time lying in bed.”

Most interesting. Mary’s views regarding discussion standing are shared by Dr. Leslie Cannold, an Australian bioethicist who has written extensively on abortion and gender issues. Dr. Cannold has a short, readable article about men’s standing in the abortion debate. She concludes:

Men lack moral standing in the abortion debate — indeed are guilty of moral arrogance — when they push for control over a procedure they’ll never have to have because they can’t get pregnant.

Obviously, you can find a variety of views on the blogosphere regarding Cannold’s comments. I believe that there are a lot of good arguments supporting the right, need and duty of men to be part of the social discussion regarding human reproduction. However, I do acknowledge that until the past 50 years or so, the world and its laws and ways were determined almost exclusively by men. And in many places on this earth today, that situation remains. Laws and customs regarding pregnancy that are defined entirely by men obviously aren’t going to consider all of the relevant evidence; they aren’t going to be optimal. As with most things, the extremes are bad, the middle is good. The extreme of men running women’s lives was admittedly injust.

Dr. Cannold’s logic obviously does have an interesting implication, however. Many women have never been pregnant and will never become pregnant, for a variety of medical or social reasons. This would apply to most Roman Catholic nuns. According to Cannold’s reasoning, a Roman Catholic nun should also be barred from the abortion discussion, as much as a Roman Catholic priest and bishop. I myself would think that the voices of both priests and religious women should be considered; sometimes those on the outside, those observing the flow, can point out things that those caught within the flow cannot see.

I do know of one woman who would consider at least one man’s view regarding the point in a pregnancy when full humanity endows itself. That would be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In a recent interview with Tom Brokaw, Congresswoman Pelosi made the argument that “life” does not begin at conception, and cites the opinion of St. Augustine that “ensoulment” begins three months into the pregnancy. Well, I myself am neither a saint nor a doctor of the Church; however, Augustine and I came to similar conclusions, interestingly enough (ditto for St. Thomas Aquinas; but yes, I know, Aquinas never got pregnant either).

Back to Mary’s comment for a moment. Mary approaches the abortion question using an analogy to the growth of morning glory vines. Touche; absurdity reveals absurdity. Both morning glory vines and my analogy, jet planes being built in the sky, are shown to be very inadequate. The human situation is indeed more complex and difficult, by many magnitudes.

Congresswoman Pelosi does point out the complexity and difficulty of the abortion issue. However, she does not conclude that because of these complexities, the issue is legally and ethically indeterminable. Speaker Pelosi does not argue that the courts and the legislatures (like her own US House of Representatives) have no right to make determinations and rules that affect all fertile woman AND men. She seems to imply that it’s more a question of getting the decisions right, or as right as possible in a complex world. And to get it close-to-right, it will take an open discussion from all quarters, young and old, fertile and infertile, female and male. For women to imply that men should be excluded from a critical social discussion because of their grandfathers’ sins, is to repeat the mistake of exclusion and censorship that tho
se grandfathers made.

Mary, will all due respect to you and your interesting and well-considered thoughts. Comments, please.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:33 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Friday, August 22, 2008
Brain / Mind ... Current Affairs ... Politics ...

For the Ayers ad. I don’t mind an ad reminding the public about Obama’s former association with a guy who did some nasty, violent stuff. Obama has disassociated himself from Ayers, but so what? He’s been dissing a lot of people since the presidential campaign began. One more bit of luggage overboard isn’t all that surprising. But back to the Ayers ad, which was produced by the American Issues Project (headed by a former fundraiser for McCain). In its dramatic build-up to Ayer’s sins, the ad says that on 9-11, flight 93 never made it to the Capitol (but Ayers did, setting off some explosives there with the Weather Underground, back in the late 60’s when Obama was still a child). Now that’s hitting way below the belt — politicizing 9-11. McCain doesn’t seem to be making any effort to disassociate himself from this. And for that failing, I must give Senator McCain many demerit points.

BOO TO OBAMA: For not announcing his VP today, and leaving all of us political junkies in limbo tonight. It’s the Obama tease once more; the guy really is quite haughty, quite impressed with himself. So, demerits for Senator Obama also.

ABORTION AND THE START OF HUMAN LIFE: NOT ABOVE MY PAY GRADE. At the Saddleback Church interview last Sunday, Barack Obama refused to set a definition as to when human life begins. He said that such a responsibility was “above my pay grade”. As to McCain, he basically said the same thing when asked to set a definition as to when being rich begins. But he had a pat answer about the start of life: at the moment of conception.

When I was young, I was a rather devout Roman Catholic, and I honestly agreed with the moment of conception argument. Being a techie and an Asperger’s candidate, I devised a techie way of looking at the issue. I set up the following thought experiment: imagine that instead of building jet airplanes in a factory on the ground, they built them under the wings of other flying aircraft. Yep, they put together new jet planes way up there in the blue sky. Imagine the process as follows: on one plane, the “mother ship”, workers would somehow assemble a frame for the new plane, with wings and metal skin. But another plane would have to meet up with the mother plane, way above the earth, and bring the jet engine that was to power the new contraption.

Well, up until that point, the hollow frame being built under the wings couldn’t really be said to be an airplane. But once the engine was inserted, then the thing had a lot more substance. Even if more work was yet to be done before it could fly off on its own, it was now essentially an airplane. To me, that seemed pretty close in nature to the meeting of the sperm and egg in a woman’s uterus. So: problem solved. Human life beings at conception.

But now I see it differently. Back to that klutzy thought experiment: the new airframe and jet engine riding under the wing of that big mother ship (maybe an old B-52) would be worthless until they install the cockpit and all the controls. Until then, no one could fly it, even if it did have everything else hooked up. So, what is the comparison here?

Well, over the first four months of fetal development, a rudimentary brain forms and at some point starts doing something; somewhere around the 6th week, a faint brain wave can be detected (somewhat akin to a sea slug’s brainwave). Even then, much more brain development is yet to come. However, by the end of the 90th day– i.e., the end of the first trimester — the brain in the new fetus has some connectivity and some initial capacity to process data. The corpus callosum linking the two halves of the brain has just been formed; the brain at that point starts acting as a whole. It may not yet be capable of supporting conscious self-awareness; the thinking part of the brain, the neo-cortex, still has a lot of work left to be done. But it certainly is pretty far down the road by that point. The thing now has its basic controls installed.

SO — I would say that for legal and moral purposes, the best we can say is that life begins at the end of the first trimester. Before that, abortion is more a question of manipulating the mother’s body. After that, you’re messing with something with a very high potential for consciousness and self-awareness. Sure, there is no bright line; it’s all pretty fuzzy. But we have to draw a line somewhere, and for me, the first trimester is the best place to do it. Yes, it would be difficult for a doctor to determine just when a fetus is over the time line. But the same dilemma exists today, given that the end of the second trimester is the usual limit for legal abortion under Row v. Wade.

So that’s my final answer. I.e., split the difference between the pro-choice forces (at the end of the second trimester) and the pro-life forces (at conception). This would reduce the number of abortions, but would not eliminate their availability. (I believe that over 50% of abortions occur within the first trimester at present.) Under such a compromise, I would also rule out the “slow downs” that the pro-life people have written into the law over the past 10 years or so, including waiting periods, pre-counciling on adoption options, and parental consent. Choice should be true choice, so long as it is justifiable.

Well, it’s a good thing that I’m not running for office. Neither the pro-lifers and the pro-choice people seem interested in compromise, even if it is based upon reason and science. Obviously, the Democrats and Republicans would both be mad at me for such a position!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:26 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, August 17, 2008
Politics ...

The Democrats have a familiar litany about how viciously and unfair the Republicans fight (e.g., the Swift Boat ads of 2004, the Willie Horton ad of 1988, etc.). And about how they themselves have always stayed above board, but now need to get tough. A recent Eleanor Clift column is a good example.

I’m sorry, but this stuff doesn’t bring any tears to my eyes.

I’ll be the first to admit that G.W. Bush and his lackeys (especially the nefarious Karl Rove) have practiced an extremely divisive brand of political governance over the past 8 years, and have hurt our nation because of it. But regarding the Democrats and their theories that their misfortune over the past 30 years is because of unfair political tactics, I can’t help but respond: what about Bill Clinton. Ole Bubba was a guy who was politically skilled and knew what the majority of Americans wanted to hear. He showed that a skilled Democrat could win and win big, if he or she could ‘go mainstream’. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party is a ‘very big tent’ which caters to a wide variety of interests, including many that demand large-scale, active government interventions (gays, minorities, feminists, environmental activists, academia, artists and entertainers, etc.). I.e., the kind of interventions that mainstream Americans don’t want to pay for.

In a better world, this wouldn’t be so; these special interest groups have suffered injustices and often have legitimate claims. But this is not a better world, and this mix of interests forces many Dems to lose sight of the average ‘Jane and Joe’ out there in middle-America. Bill Clinton managed to get thru to middle America and still give a nod to the specialized Democratic interests. But this is an extremely difficult balancing act, one that the average politician cannot handle. Only once in a blue moon does a Democrat come along who can ‘stay on the wire’ and not be toppled by either special interest demands within the party, or by attack campaigns from without. By requiring such a tightrope act, the Democrats make their candidates vulnerable to GOP smears that paint them as being out of touch with “average America”.

If Barack Obama can exercise the same skill that Bill Clinton had in getting through to the working family and still keep his ties with the special interests that stoked his meteoric rise (and continue to fuel his magnificent fundraising machine), then he will become the 44th President. But even with struggling working families looking for leadership alternatives that would bring better economic conditions, Obama remains disadvantaged by his lack of touch with such families. And thus he remains vulnerable to GOP attack campaigns. Even if a Democratic counter-attack strategy were to successfully rebut whatever arguments the GOP smear artists are making, it may not be able to establish Senator Obama as a “man of the people”. Even if Mr. Corsi is shown to be the nutcase that he is, the damage will still get done.

It seems to me that the best thing the Democratic special interests could do for the party would be to leave. Democratic candidates could then focus more on bread-and-butter economic issues, and would be less vulnerable to the GOP. Perhaps these interest groups should form their own political party. Actually, I’m surprised that they don’t. They could then play the Dems and Republicans against each other in return for their endorsements and fundraising abilities. They might actually gain power and leverage in the system, instead of going down in flames so often behind the Democratic standard bearer. As to what would remain of the Democrats — admittedly, they would need a new base of support, especially financial support. The big unions were once enough to keep the party going, but unions have since become a vanishing breed.

So, for now, the Democrats will go on in their haphazard fashion. If Barack Obama wins this November, he may be setting out a blueprint for a successful Democratic Party paradigm (although that’s what was said regarding Bill Clinton’s presidency). But if not, the Democrats are in for some heavy thinking about their relevance and viability. It’s not just a question of heading off the swiftboats, as Ms. Clift seems to imply. The Dems may need some big changes — maybe even a divorce — if they are to get back in the game.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:33 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

The Russian invasion of Georgia is giving me the creeps. I can’t help but wonder if we are back in 1936, when Nazi Germany invaded the Rhineland. The big powers decided to mostly look the other way. Don’t worry, Hitler won’t go any further, he has a legitimate gripe. Yea, right.

This Georgia thing is really bad news. And given that oil and gas prices probably aren’t going drop significantly, Russia will only get stronger in the coming years. Stronger and bolder. I hope that whoever is elected President this fall is ready for some nasty weather. Only good thing about it: it will put us back into a triangulation with China. I’m sure that they’re going to be doing some militarizing on their northern boarder in the near future. Hopefully that will take the pressure off Taiwan.

PS, I’ve read the articles saying that the USA has no right to criticize Russia after what it did in Iraq and Kosovo. OK, the USA is not without its sins, especially in Iraq. But two wrongs don’t make a right, and the Russian wrong of trying to crush a legitimate democracy so as to reestablish a vassal state is in a different league.

PPS, I also don’t buy the argument that the USA has ‘taunted the bear’ by allowing former Soviet block nations to join the European Union and NATO. Hey, if Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, and now the Ukraine and Georgia want to be part of the west, what right do we have to say ‘oh no, you have to go back to your former slavemaster, we don’t want to get him angry’. Also, I understand that until recently, we have shown restraint by not stationing US and British battalions and warplanes along the Russian border. Now we are going to put US military personnel and equipment in Poland, as part of Bush’s anti-missile system. I don’t completely agree with the anti-missile system, but I don’t feel sorry for the Russians after their recent conduct in Georgia.

PPPS, the thing to watch now is Cuba. Will the Russians re-kindle the old friendship with the new Castro regime, through promises of cheap oil and gas (like back in the Cold War days)? And also re-establish a Russian military presence there, e.g. Russian warships using Cuban ports, or Russian radar and electronic listening posts on the island? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:15 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Monday, August 11, 2008
Personal Reflections ... Technology ...

I was reminiscing the other day about the cars that I used to drive. The one that I had the longest was a 1974 Plymouth Duster. My mother bought it new for me in early ’74, and I finally got rid of it in early 1988. Somehow I survived fourteen years with that car. And I am most grateful for surviving those years. That car would do the craziest things, things that could have cost me my life. Luckily — VERY luckily — the car pulled its tricks in relatively tame circumstances.

Just what did this car do? Well, it stalled a lot. And not just at stop lights. It once stalled on the Garden State Parkway while doing 55 MPH. I was able to pull over safely since it was on a Sunday night. But had that been in heavy traffic on a weekday afternoon — well, I don’t want to think about it. What else? Well, my Duster had something call torsion bars. They were part of the suspension system. I learned about them while driving with some guys out on a back road near the Delaware River around sunset. Boomp! What was that? And why is the car driving so funny now? The answer was that the right torsion bar had cracked and failed. And without it, you couldn’t do more than 10 mph without losing control. It was a long night getting home, and a couple of days getting a new torsion bar installed (with the help of one of the guys).

Then there was a cold January day on a photo road trip to middle New Jersey, where the car was doing just fine. Until it decided not to start at all; no amount of cranking with the pedal floored did any good. A ballast resistor suddenly failed. And my brother had to come to the rescue with a tow chain, which came unhooked in the middle of downtown Newark, NJ on Route 21. I’ll never forget standing in the middle of the road at sunset with a line of blocked cars honking, big office buildings on either side, waiting while my brother and my friend got the chains re-hooked. Somehow we got away before the cops could hassle us.

And then there was the time that the floats in the carburetor went, causing the car to stall during a left turn. Not every left turn, mind you. You just never knew when you’d lose all power during a left turn. Another time, the carburetor came loose while I was tooling along in a 40 mph zone, heading for work. I hit a bump and poof, red lights and a stalled engine. I called up the gas station guy who lived next door to my family, and walked the rest of the way.

I still don’t know how I nursed 14 years and 125,000 miles out of that confounded Chrysler contraption. I do remember spending a lot of time under the hood and sometimes under the frame. It was a lot easier to work on cars back in those days; you can’t get to anything on a modern car. But you were always working on your car back then; there was something to tend to just about every weekend, even if there wasn’t an emergency breakdown. I got to know a lot of auto parts stores back then. Even a radiator place that supposedly didn’t sell to the public (but they gave me a break).

Today I’m driving a Toyota Corolla. Knock on wood, but so far it’s acting like — like a Toyota Corolla. Nothing much goes wrong, so long as it’s taken to a good mechanic every 5000 miles (where I walk out a hundred bills or two lighter). Almost everything under the hood is now a mystery to me. But it starts up and runs, and keeps on running.

The overall intent of both cars is about the same: basic transportation. But so far, the Toyota seems to provide it with much less drama. Sometimes I almost miss getting my hands all greasy and sweaty with a socket wrench, or standing at an auto store counter telling the guy that I need a whatchamagizmo for a ’74 Plymouth one-ninety-eight six cylinder. And it’s worth a laugh remembering those crazy breakdown situations, and what I had to do to get out of them in one piece (and without going bankrupt, given that we didn’t have too much money back then). But here in my old age, a Toyota is the right car for the times. Thankfully, they don’t build ’em like Chrysler-Plymouth used to!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:15 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, August 9, 2008
Personal Reflections ... Photo ...

Right around Memorial Day, I got to thinking about my college days. I was still living with my mother and father and brother in the same house that I grew up in; we couldn’t afford to go away to college. During the summers I had a job with the local railroad, and much of it was on the night shift. Which I sort of enjoyed, actually.

Anyway, when I got home after working nights, I would often notice the morning glories that my mother had planted along an old swing set. The vines climbed up along some strings that my mother had strung from the swing frame. If it was a sunny morning, the purple and blue and white flowers would be in full bloom. I always gave them a look as I dragged myself from the car into the house, carrying my utility bag, ready to get some sleep.

Well, back here in 2008, I got an inspiration from that memory: why not grow some morning glories out in my landlord’s back yard? He wouldn’t care; he might even like to see them himself. So I shleped over to the local hardware store and bought two Burpee seed packages. Then I found a spot near the back fence that seemed fairly sunny, and did some planting and watering. It was a bit late in the planting season, but there was still all of June, July and August to come, so I figured it was worth a try.

Eventually some vines started growing and I found some wood stakes in the backyard for them to wrap around. But it took several tries. Just as the seedlings were starting to come up on the first try, the people next door did some work on the fence, and the workers stomped out most of the young shoots. So I tried again, with similar results as they came back and put a new fence in. Well, I had just enough seeds left for a third attempt. OK, this time it worked. Or it seemed to work.

As July progressed, the vines made good progress moving up the wooden stakes. If it didn’t rain for a few days I would go outside with a plastic bottle to provide some moisture. Eventually, the 5 or 6 surviving vines sent out all kinds of side shoots and leaves that started wrapping together, which is part of the knotty charm of morning glories. However, as we entered August last week, I started to look for flowers. Unfortunately, there aren’t any signs of that.

As you can see in the picture below, there are plenty of leaves and vines, but no flowers. Without flowers, there won’t be any new seeds falling to the ground to continue the effort next spring. It seems that the plant doesn’t get enough morning sun; because of the trees and the northeastern start of the sun’s daily arc across the summer sky, my morning glories don’t get any sun until around noon. So I guess they just can’t find the genetic inspiration to put out any flowers. Instead, they put out lots of offshoots, searching in vain for an angle that will catch the dawn’s early light. It was a good try, but it turned out to be the wrong place for morning glories.

It’s too bad that many human lives go that way. You can’t help but admire the people who really makes it in the world; they have lots of grit and spunk and tell their tales of how they were kicked around and brought down, but they always picked themselves up and kept right on going. But there are plenty of other people who also did this, but their lives and their potential never fully bloomed. The stars just weren’t in the right place.

So, just a reminder not to be so hard on people who seem like losers and under-achievers. They might have thought just as creatively and struggled just as valiantly as an admirably successful person, but because of fate were always one bridge too far. For every Barack Obama or Warren Buffet or Bill Gates or Mother Theresa, for every athlete in the Olympics or performer on the superstar list, there are millions of others who had good ideas and wonderful inspirations and abilities, but just never found the morning sun.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:09 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Monday, August 4, 2008
Current Affairs ... Politics ...

This year’s presidential election campaign was supposed to be different than the rest. The mudslinging, innuendo-ridden tactics of the past were supposed to be disposed of. Both candidates agreed to be “civil”. Both sides were all for bi-partisanship and cooperation. The divisive days of Bush and his hatchet men (Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld, etc.) were to be left behind. No “swift-boating” this year (ditto for the Democrat’s lame attempt to counter-swiftboat Bush with doctored reports about his service in the National Guard — remember?).

Here we are in early August, with the conventions still three weeks away, and things are already heating up. Both sides have gone ugly early. I won’t try to assign the blame for “who started it”. There has been a simultaneous escalation on both sides, really. McCain pulled back on his promise to run a civil campaign and started attacking Obama’s character, comparing him with airhead celebrities. Obama broke his promise to stay within the public campaign financing system. He also implied quite strongly that the McCain campaign was using racist tactics (before backing away from this claim after being called on it by McCain’s campaign manager). Obama’s campaign staff lied about why Obama didn’t visit wounded American troops in Germany; McCain issued an ad that wrongfully accused Obama of not going specifically because he wanted to bring the press and was refused. Then McCain issued an ad mocking Obama for his oratorical eloquence, i.e., “The One”.

Let me inject a sidenote here about “The One” — about 3/4th of the way thru this ad, a Charlton Heston movie scene appears depicting Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea. I couldn’t help but laugh at the audacity of that. It was just too campy. Advantage McCain, for putting out a political ad with a bit of humor in it. That’s extremely rare.

What isn’t a laughing matter is that the nation seems more polarized than ever because of this election. Right now the polls indicate that it’s going to be another squeaker. People are taking sides and getting emotional, even before the candidates have been officially nominated. The “red versus blue” analysis seems to be more relevant than ever. Common ground is fading, just when it is needed more than ever.

The USA is facing some of its most severe foreign and domestic challenges since the 1960s. There’s an energy crisis, an economic and financial crisis, growing unemployment and inflation (remember “stagflation” from the early 80s?), two wars that have no end in sight, a Middle East situation that could go nuclear too quickly, increasing competition for global resources from three growing powers (China, India and Brazil), a long-term environmental crisis (global warming) that requires massive resource allocations today in order to prevent great disasters in 50 years. Oh, and did I mention terrorism? We hope that it has gone away, but just when you think that it did, it has a way of suddenly rearing its ugly head. A divided America engaged in continual political warfare is not likely to take decisive action to meet big challenges. Problems that may still be controllable are thus festering into major crisis situations.

I apologize for the pessimism, but both candidates have repeatedly testified to the need for national unity, but can’t help but promote division. They both seem locked into a dance towards the ledge, into a Greek tragedy controlled by uncontrollable human fate. It’s just happening, and no one seems able to stop it. I can’t help but be reminded of the western Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. Those who were supposed to be running things were locked into continuous battle, while the barbarians were advancing through the provinces and the economy started going to hell. I’m not saying that the USA is near a state of collapse; America still has an incredible array of strengths. But so did Rome in 250 or 300 AD. And yet that mighty empire sleepwalked its way over the edge. I can’t help but think that America today is a few steps closer to such an edge than when I was a young man.

PS – I see that Obama has come out with a proposal to use oil from the Strategic Oil Reserve as to bring gas prices down. That idea is just as stupid and short-sighted as McCain’s “gas tax holiday”. And both are now favoring off-shore oil drilling. It’s becoming a real race for the bottom. But it’s especially sad to see an intellectual like Obama giving up on being smart, and selling out to the “dumbing down” of politics. It’s amazing what the dream of ambition and power can do to a good man; especially a good young man.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:18 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Friday, August 1, 2008
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ...

I’m just as perplexed as everyone else about the huge run-up in oil and gasoline prices over the past two or three years. Some say it’s the Chinese, some say it’s the speculators, some say it’s politics that’s to blame. To get some perspective on the issue, I decided to download some data from the federal EIA web site and make a chart that analyzes changes in world oil production, usage, and prices over the past quarter century (with reasonable projections for 2008 and 2009). My chart doesn’t show actual prices and barrels of oil produced and used. Instead, it plots the ratio of usage, production and price statistics for each year relative to the same statistic for the past year. So, if prices went up 10% over the previous year, the chart will show 1.1 for prices. If production went up 2% from the previous year, the chart will show 1.02 for production. If usage went down by 4%, it will show 0.96 for usage.

So here’s the chart; the price line is green (the color of money), the production line is blue, and the usage line is pinkish-purple.

What gets me about this chart is that over the past three years, nothing really extraordinary has happened (and is not expected to happen into 2009). In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the lines on the chart swing all over the place, reflecting the price shocks from the OPEC oil boycott of 1973 and the Iran hostage situation in 1979. But after 1984 or so, things seemed to settle down within a certain range of yearly change. And it’s hard to see any big changes from that trend, even over the past three years. The biggest movement, which you have to look really hard to see, is that yearly oil demand increases haven’t gone significantly below 1% since 1994. Between 1983 and 1997, yearly demand increased between 0% and 1% in five years. After ’97, it only went below 1% once. So yes, increasing oil demand in the developing world (India and China, mostly) is being felt. But it’s not any really huge change relative to the past. Demand increases are generally staying under 3%, as they have since 1977.

With that increase in demand, prices are rising more often than falling. In the same ’83 to ’97 period, average prices went down from one year to the next in nine instances. After that, average yearly price declines have only happened twice. Oil production, by contrast, seems to fluctuate between -1% and plus 4% per year, as it has since 1983.

What I take from this analysis is that we are severely pushing this planet’s ability to yield petroleum at a reasonable price. Supply does not seem to be keeping up with potential demand, so increased prices help manage demand by reducing it back to sustainable levels (in the short-run, anyway). The marginal costs of bring forth new sources of oil are thus seen to be going up, significantly. Unless we get really lucky and find an unanticipated cheap supply of oil or gas, or devise some technology that makes oil and gas recovery much cheaper, the days of easy energy are over. Speculators will make the pain a bit worse, and quick fixes like drilling for oil along the US coastal shelves might provide a temporary palliative. But until America and the rest of the world learns to wean itself off of petroleum, which could take many decades, our economies and our standards of living are in for some ups and downs; and the downs may outnumber the ups.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:24 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
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