The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Politics ... Society ...

Let us now praise famous men (Sirach 44:1). I’ve lived my life mostly “under the radar” of important political happenings. So, I never got to rub elbows with any presidents or ambassadors or anyone else who might be interviewed by Barbara Walters or George Stephanopolos. I’m like most everyone else — I’ve seen a famous person from a distance (Jimmy Carter, Sen. Everett Dirkson, Jane Fonda), or I’ve talked to someone who knew famous people (the daughter of former Sec. of State Cyrus Vance, a former savings and loan bank president who knew Paul Volker), or I’ve gotten to shake hands with someone who was once in the news (former HUD Secretary Cisternos, former HEW Secretary Joseph Califano). But I don’t have Rahm Emanuel on speed-dial on my cell phone (I don’t even have a cell phone!).

However, I have had occasion to spend a few hours with certain people who occasionally show up in the news. So I’m going to give them a mini-tribute here, because all three of them seemed like good people who are doing mostly good things.

First honoree: Nicholas P. Retsinas

Mr. Restinas is currently the Director of Harvard University‚Äôs Joint Center for Housing Studies. He’s been interviewed by the press a lot lately about the mortgage crisis and the agonies of the housing market. I just heard him talking on Bloomberg radio the other day. Back in the 1990s, Retsinas served as HUD Assistant Secretary for Housing and Federal Housing Commissioner. One day he came up to Newark for a tour of New Community, and I was selected as his chauffeur for the day. He was gracious enough, even to me, and he asked the big wigs some very good questions. I think that I answered a question or two from Mr. Restinas at an odd moment when the Board Chairman was otherwise distracted. I never saw the guy again, but I got some pretty good vibes from him that day. He seemed like a seriously smart guy doing his best to make the federal government run better. Now he’s at Harvard and I’m sure that he’s still doing good things. So hats off to you, Nicholas Restinas.

Second honoree: Carol Lamberg

Ms. Lamberg was and still is the Executive Director of the Settlement Housing Fund, a non-profit affordable housing developer based in New York City. Settlement Housing has been responsible for developing over 55 developments with approximately 8,600 apartments, housing over 25,000 New York City residents in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. The organization currently owns 42 buildings with 2,260 rental units. Besides rentals, Settlement Housing has developed cooperatives, condominiums, and two-family homes. I got to meet Ms. Lamberg in circumstances similar to my day with Nick Restinas; she was visiting New Community for a tour (but this time I was one of the guides, and not the van driver). Again, she seemed like a highly dedicated person, truly interested in bettering the lives of struggling people and families. I hope that she’s still managing to get more affordable housing built despite all the economic turmoil we’re now in. (Especially in a politically tangled situation like New York City!). So hats off to you
too, Ms. Lamberg.

P.S., according to a campaign contribution disclosure site, Ms. Lamberg was for Hilary Clinton in 2007, then got on board with a donation to the Obama campaign in 2008.

And last but not least: Harold Pachios

I got to know Hal (as we called him) in the mid / late 1980s, when I was working for an insurance industry rate-setting group and Hal was representing the industry in its rate increase litigation in Maine. He was and still is a partner in one of the most influential law firms in the State of Maine (the insurance industry wouldn’t hire any old hack!). I went along on many of the trips to the state capitol (Augusta) as I was working in the economics department and I helped to crank out the rate-of-return calculations that were presented to the State. Hal was a great story teller, as he worked in Washington back in the Lyndon Johnson years (Assistant Secretary of Transportation and Associate White House Press Secretary under Bill Moyers). He also served on the presidential campaign of Edmund Muskie. And he still has his hands in politics, serving recently as Maine State Counsel for the Obama Campaign.

Unlike the intellectual Nick Restinas and the Mother Theresa-like role of Carol Lamberg, Hal Pachos was and is more of a political wheeler-dealer. As the main partner in a big law firm, he takes a lot of money from big business. But I knew and still know that at bottom, Hal is a very good man, a fellow who got into politics to do some good. So Hal, this blog’s for you. I’ll never forget those dinners that my boss and I had with you on Commerce Street in Portland, eating really good seafood (back before I became a vegetarian), drinking Geary’s Ale, and laughing at your great stories about LBJ, Hubert Humphrey, Ed Muskie, Bill Moyers, et al.

P.S., I also once met former NJ Governor Jim McGreevey, in an Episcopal church. But I’m not going to brag about that!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:53 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Food / Drink ... Photo ...

Like most people, I like to eat; I enjoy the act of consuming tasty, well-prepared food. But I also know that too many kinds of tasty food have bad side-effects, e.g. obesity from too much fat and sugar, high blood pressure from too much salt, and possibly cancer from certain preservatives and by-products (e.g. the stuff in bacon, maybe even the crust on bread!). And I also know that what I eat has a bigger effect on the planet and on humankind at large. As such, I choose not to eat meat, and to minimize the amount of animal products that go down my throat (admittedly, I’m not a perfect vegan yet). Furthermore, I’m convinced that what I eat has an effect on my psyche; I’d get pretty depressed after a while trying to survive on microwaved burritos and non-stop Micky D’s (although I know people who do survive on that diet — in fact, too many people).

So, I’m a bit of a “foodie”, a vegetarian foodie. I put a lot of time into cooking and baking, I constantly try to improve my recipies, I own about 7 or 8 different cookbooks, and I’m on the lookout at the supermarkets for interesting new ingredients that might fit with my food philosophy. (Unfortunately, most of the new things I see at those supermarkets are highly-processed “food-like” items, exactly what I don’t want to eat). I’m kind-of a “slow food” guy, although I’m also trying to keep it simple. I don’t do complex, elaborate dishes; I don’t go bonkers to get the freshest, most exclusive items from specialty stores; and I don’t limit myself to organic fruits and veggies (too expensive!). I mainly use ingredients available at the local supermarket (although I do order some things now and then from bulkfoods.com, and I stop in at the local Whole Foods every month or so).

My meals are fairly simple; no fancy salads or appetizers, just a plate full of carbs, proteins and veggie fiber, followed up by a small dessert (maybe some cookies or a cupcake that I made – from scratch – during my weekend cooking sessions). With perhaps a glass of wine or ale (or porter or stout), but sometimes just a glass of seltzer with lemon. I concoct my main dishes on weekends, so that a weeknight consists of cooking some rice or pasta and heating up some veggie side-dishes along with the “main event” (usually a soup, a bean dish, or a pasta sauce). And then sitting down to enjoy the results.

Notice that I cook a lot, and thus use a lot of heat. Yea, admittedly I’m not a raw-foods person. I come from a Polish ethnic family and even though what I eat is very different from what they ate (lots of starch and meat fat and nothing green or yellow), I still tend to favor hot, cooked meals. As such, my carbon footprint is larger than for those good, progressive folk who get by on nuts, salads and raw brocolli. But there’s something very familiar and comforting about having a steamy plate full of calories under my chin, come dinner time — even in July! With me, the old tradition lives on (even though the spices and basic ingredients are all different).

So what’s on the menu? Here’s a list of my main dishes at present. I go back and forth between these items, making enough for 8 or 10 meals and then moving on to another item to sustain me for a few weeks.

– Black beans / rice or cornbread, with broccoli and yam or yellow squash
– Black bean soup w bread, yam or yellow squash
– Veg chili, red beans and lentils, with broccoli and yam or yellow squash
– Green split pea soup (no ham) with bread, broccoli and yam or yellow squash
– Lentil / tomato soup w bread, yam or yellow squash
– Beans baked in molasses and onions w whole grain raisin bread, yam or yellow squash
– Lentil / barley / mushroom soup w baked potato, broccoli and squash or yam
– Black eyed peas / rice or cornbread w yam or yellow squash
– White bean / kale / tomato soup w bread, yam or yellow squash
– White bean / broccoli soup w red vinegar, bread, yam or yellow squash
– Pinto bean stew w wheat noodles or baked potato, broccoli and yam or yellow squash
– Lentil / carrot / ginger soup w bread, yam or yellow squash
– Baked lentil loaf w sauteed mushrooms, baked potatos, yam or yellow squash
– Ratatouille (zucchini, eggplant, tofu, bread crumbs) w rice, yam or yellow squash
– Curried eggplant with peas, rice, yam or yellow squash
– Noodle casserole w tomato, green pepper, onion and tofu, with yam or yellow squash
– Stir fry (broccoli, red cabbage, red pepper, onions, tempah, garlic) w rice (sweet or short brown)
– Whole wheat pasta, orzo or aroboli rice w lentil/onion sauce, sauteed split mushrooms, steamed broccoli
– Garlic/chick pea/red lentil/cracked wheat soup, with yam or yellow squash
– Falafel with tahini sauce, bread, brocolli, yam or yellow squash
– Red Beans, hot peppers, cumin w/ rice, salsa, yam or yellow squash
– Pasta with kale/red cabbage/garlic, sauteed zucchini and portabello mushroom
– Pasta sauces: Tomato; Lentil/onion with basil pesto; Green pepper and onion w red vinegar

FINAL POINT: Most foodies love farmers markets. Up to now I haven’t given those markets much attention, as they are usually provisional affairs open at a odd times in odd places without good parking. But this past weekend I discovered a more institutional farmer’s market — some snobby foodies might not even consider it a farmer’s market. It’s in South Paterson, NJ, about 5 miles from my house, and I came across it by accident on a photo expedition. It impressed me by its size and scope (it’s not a handful of tables in a town square, but a series of warehouse buildings along a two block stretch where food merchants set up bins on the sidewalk and along the curb). So I got out and walked around, and was quickly astounded by the low prices and high quality of the stuff for sale on those bins. I picked up some apples and tomatos and strawberries at half to 3/4 of the supermarket price.

Most of the sellers aren’t farmers but food wholesalers, although supposedly some farmers set up tables and sell direct during the summer months. So maybe the apples came from Chile and the strawberries from Mexico and the tomatos from Florida or such. This market is not necessarily local, but neither am I. In fact, it’s patronized largely by the local Arab and Hispanic neighborhoods. It’s what “one-worldism” is truly about, once you get past the elitist idealism of the Barack Obama / PBS crowd (to which most “foodies” subscribe). It’s gritty and industrial; it’s not organic and there aren’t any Starbucks nearby (in fact, there are classic old diners to either side of it!). Here’s a pic. My kind of place — I’m definitely going back!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:17 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Brain / Mind ... Personal Reflections ...

Smell is a stronger form of sense than most of us realize. That’s probably because it goes way back in the chain of evolution. Before there was eyesight and hearing and taste, there were living things that could pick up chemical signals in the air. Our brains are like Microsoft Office software; they are not designed from scratch, but are “layered” from basic software designs drawn up many years ago. I.e., they still have the original programming design, but with a lot of additions and complexifications as to do more things. As such, we still have a brain that gives a lot of attention to smell.

Thus, it’s not surprising that smells can trigger dormant memories stored way in the back of the mind. I was thinking the other day about how certain kinds of smells can “take you back” to your childhood in just a second or two. You can be watching a baseball game or knuckling down on a math problem or reading an article about secularized sub-prime mortgage securities or pondering a vacation spot, and suddenly a whiff breaks your concentration; your mind wanders to far-away places from years and years ago.

So I drew up a list of some of the smells of my youth:

  • Seagrams rye whiskey (my parents and aunts and uncles always drank it during the holidays, mixed with ginger ale)
  • Balsam (from a Christmas tree in the living room)
  • Clove oil (from the dentist’s office)
  • Tar (the city was re-paving the local streets; and also from the Flintkote roofing-paper factory up the road)
  • Creosote (Railroad track ties — every male child ‘walked the tracks’ back then)
  • Perfumy flowers (funeral parlors and the local Catholic church at Easter time; for that, add the weird, resiny smell of beeswax candles burning)
  • Baseball glove leather and neatsfoot oil (ah, boyhood summer days)
  • Salt water (at the beach)
  • Yeast (pizza shops — back when they made their own dough)
  • Sweet baking smells (the local bakeries — we had two in my neighborhood)
  • Polished wood floors (the school gym)
  • An odd, somewhat rancid damp smell (wet raincoats and galoshes stored in the school classroom closet on a rainy day)
  • Burning tree leaves (in October and November, back when everyone burned autumn leaves)
  • “Beerwood” (the smell in an old bar or restaurant where everything was wood, and was marinated in spilled beer)

Many of these smells are mostly gone, because times have changed (e.g., pizza places now buy pre-made dough; dentists don’t use clove oil anymore for pain relief; you can’t burn leaves in autumn; and most Christmas trees sold are not balsam firs, or were cut months ago and have lost their smell by late December). It just shows that I’m getting old. But it’s still nice when an occasional smell takes me back for a quick mental visit with my youth, the days of long ago.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:44 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ...

It looks as though President Obama has got the country all riled up about the infamous AIG bonuses. To be honest, I’m not terribly upset about them, and I find the current level of public indignation to be rather ironic. Over the past 20 years or so, our politics have become more and more pro-capitalist and a good bit less socialistic. We elected leader after leader who promised to free the business class from the bindings of government regulations and controls; and those leaders made good. As a result, our nation experienced a lot of economic growth over that time. It hardly seemed to bother most people that the lion’s share of the expanding wealth was going to CEO’s and hedge fund managers and others already quite well off, with barely a few crumbs falling down where the most needy reside.

But now, those tigers of industry, who the public willingly unleashed over the past generation, have fallen into a pit and need the public’s help to get out. And in the process of helping them, we are noticing that they are still acting just like — just like unleashed capitalists! Well OK, so what should we expect? We loved them during all those years when unemployment was low and mortgages and credit cards were plentiful, when entertaining and affordable new consumer products were flooding the market. Who cared if the CEO made almost 1,000 times what the janitor was making? Or if your cousin lost her job because she was making 10 times what someone in India wanted to do the same work? Back then, she could always get another job.

Now our economy is in a pit, a pit that almost no one foresaw and most everyone, rich and poor and in-between, participated in digging. Despite all the frustration and inequality, it’s not a good time to get very angry at the investors and industry leaders (like AIG’s management) who seemingly got us into this mess. Angry reactions such as the 90% taxes on management bonuses, and restrictions on free trade, may preclude our economy from rebounding anytime before the third digit on the calendar turns from 1 to 2; just as they once made the 3 turn to a 4 before things got better. And just the sheer hypocrisy of a public that embraced capitalism so unquestioningly when times were good (which was for a long time), and now is bringing out the torches and pitchforks because of a crisis partly brought on by its own stupidity, is quite interesting. Hey, no one forced so many people to take out crazy mortgages on the assumption that housing values would forever rise faster than economic growth rates.

I myself did not previously believe that unchecked capitalism was a boundless source of good in the world, and I still think that we need to move toward a greater role for the government in our economy (albeit, a more intelligently placed role than with past attempts at government regulation and direction). But to suddenly lash out at the capitalists for doing things that we and our government have known about for a long time — that just seems stupid to me. Such lashing out doesn’t get at the real problems, and maybe even makes those real problems worse. I say let the AIG people (and the management of other financial and industrial firms now under federal bail-out) have their 2008 bonus money, so long as they know that it’s their last taste of the good old days. Mr. Obama, Mr. Geithner, Mr. Frank, Mr. Cuomo and their like should be putting full time into solving the present crisis and into designing a viable economic future; and not into punishing the fat cats for a bad twist of fate (especially after the voters who elected those now-indignant leaders embraced the fat cats for many years, when the twists were good).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:44 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Religion ... Society ...

I’m presently reading Reza Alsan’s “No god but God”,subtitled “The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam”. Here is my preliminary report, from about half-way through.

First off, Aslan is a good writer. I’ve tried to read Islamic history before, but it always bores me to death. There’s a huge volume of detail about Muhammad himself. With Moses all you get is a little clip of his childhood and then the big march from Egypt; similarly with Jesus, there’s a birth story then a year or three of preaching adventures. Even the resurrection is cut short to but a few months. But with Muhammad it goes on and on; there’s this revelation and then that one, there’s this wife and later that one (or two or three), there’s this battle and then the next one. And forget about the night journey to Jerusalem, I get that all confused. Then Muhammad dies and there are lots of Caliphs and battles and a hidden Imam or two. The Sunni and the Shia split and then keep on colliding. You get to Spain for a time, and then there’s an Inquisition. The Crusaders arrive in the East, and the battles go on and on. The Turks come in and gloriously expand things, as the Byzantines finally fall and the Hagia Sophia becomes a mosque. But eventually even the Ottomans fall apart and the west muscles its way in to get at the oil. I never get much traction with the grand sweep. But Aslan does a pretty good job of keeping your attention. I must give him credit for that.

Aslan is also good at developing interesting meta-concepts regarding Islam. Ah! Finally some Islamic meta-concepts; every western writer (except the hide-bound conservatives) is afraid to present any meta-concepts on Islam. One of Aslan’s meta-concepts is that Islam is currently undergoing something akin to the Christian “Reformation”. But that reformation is still in process, it’s a fluid thing, no one is sure where it will lead. OK, that one seems important.

Another Aslanian concept is that certain of the Prophet’s teachings were over-interpreted and mis-interpreted by some of the scholars after his death through a long series of “hadith”, so that women are given less respect than Muhammad intended. Well, that tries to appease the feminists, and at least opens the door to the popular western passtime of questioning the originality of various segments of the Christian Bible (although I doubt if such a view, along with feminism, has gotten very far yet in the world of Islam). Aslan also considers the traditional willingness of Muslims to accept centralized leadership (e.g., the Grand Ayatollah for Iranians) as being rooted in Arab notions of tribal society, the social context from which Islam emerged. (Just as Catholic Christianity co-opted the political context of the Roman Empire in which it was incubated; an all-powerful Pope makes sense if you came from a place and time where the Emperor was the “Maximus Pontiff”.)

That’s all interesting. But at some point Aslan’s intended “clarifications for westerners confused about Islam” start sounding a little bit too good, a little bit contrived. Regarding the historical tensions and sometimes hatred between Islam and the Jews, Aslan attempts to establish Muhammad as having originally considering himself a Jew, or nearly so (certainly a co-son of Abraham). Per Aslan, Muhammad considered himself and his followers to constitute a Jewish reformation movement (perhaps like early Christianity).

It makes some sense, but then there’s the matter of Muhammad’s own dealing with Jewish tribes in Mecca and Medina. In some of his early battles, the local Jews joined with the foes of Muhammad, but after victory Muhammad avoided the slaughter option (so frequently exercised in ancient world) and let the Jews go into exile. But eventually it was “no more mister nice guy”; there was a group called the “Banu Qurayza” who were going to get involved with the anti-Muhammad forces at the Battle of the Trench, but in the end decided not to show up. Muhammad won that one, and after going through the motions of a trial proceeding, he decided to slaughter about 500 or so Jewish tribesmen. Aslan puts a good face on it, and says that it doesn’t reflect an anti-Jewish attitude within the Quran and Islam. But you can still find a lot of arguments out there that the slaughter wasn’t justified and does represent the start of an anti-Semitic attitude within the heart of Islam. I’ll tiptoe away from that one, simply pointing out that not everyone buys what Aslan tries to do in this book.

With regard to Christianity, Aslan takes a somewhat amusing tact. He says that Muhammad and Islam were never anti-Christian; they were just offended by the moral hypocrisy and laxity of many Christians in Muhammad’s Arabia. Aslan also takes pains to point out that Muhammad really liked and respected Jesus, and Islam still gives Jesus a big spot in its teachings. (However, it appears that they have ignored Jesus’s words regarding casting the first stone.) Aslan says that Muhammad was convinced that Jesus was a prophet, but not the theological “Son of God” or Christ. Well OK, that would fit in with Aslan’s discussion of Muhammad as semi- or quasi-Jewish. But it gets comical when Aslan explains that the Quran never condemns Christianity, but only goes after those who believe in the Doctrine of the Trinity, i.e. God as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Those who do so cannot even be considered “People of the Book”, i.e. the “second prize” that the Quran allows to those who don’t follow Islam but still believe in God and the prophets of Biblical Judaism.

I’ve got a hot newsflash for Mr. Aslan. Every Christian faith or sect that I’ve ever heard of since Emperor Constantine helped squeeze out the Nestorians and their like has the Trinity at the core of its teachings. I feel that Aslan needs to be a little bit less politically-correct himself; Islam and Christianity have a really fundamental disagreement that exists today. That disagreement can’t be stepped around. What can be stopped is the idea that either side has the right to use force against the other, be it physical or economic or academic hubris, in the pursuit of its doctrine. And even better: perhaps both sides might consider the notion of dialectic, that “I could possibly be wrong, and we both could be wrong, even though we both still believe ourselves to be right; and someday, the better idea will emerge”.

Well, my second idea is probably a bridge too far for both Christianity and Islam. But if there could at least be a cease-fire declared, if the Christian soldiers and Islamic jihadists would all stand-down, together with the Israeli army and settlers, we might have a better world. I’d like to see Aslan say something along those lines in the rest of the book. I hope to finish his book before too long; but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for him to say that. Aslan is still a good read, but you can see in his writing that Islam is still much too timid in applying the medicine of critical self-analysis; although Christianity still has a long way to go in that too, admittedly.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:33 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, March 13, 2009
Personal Reflections ... Religion ...

As noted in my recent blog entries, my mother spent about 7 weeks in the hospital over the past 3 months. As a result, I spent a fair of number of hours there myself during that time. One of the hardest things to get used to was being surrounded by broken, decaying bodies. Yes, I mean the patients. Most of the patients in the intensive care unit and the recovery wards were old. And those who weren’t old were often in pretty bad shape anyway. Each day as I strolled past the rooms, I occasionally peaked in; a bit of entropic voyeurism (everyone does it). It’s like whistling past the graveyard, trying to ignore the fact that all these sick and weak people are ultimately no different from me; that in all too few years, I could be where they are now. It takes a bit of the bounce out of one’s steps.

During the long hours watching my mother slowly heal (mostly while sleeping), I occasionally gave in and watched some TV with my brother. TV is a celebration of youth and vigor; what with all the sports coverage and all the shows and commercials that try to lure one’s attention with sex (or at least sexual innuendo). It’s quite a juxtaposition; pretty women and men with taught, fully potent bodies on the screen, and broken old bodies everywhere else you look. It’s quite a reminder that youth and strength are temporary, fleeting things; that decay is inevitable and eternal.

The Roman Catholic Church has a ritual that acknowledges this. It’s called Ash Wednesday. Interestingly enough, my mother got out of the hospital on Ash Wednesday. The rite of ashes is accompanied by one of the most wisdom-packed incantations that I’ve every heard in a mythical / mystical ritual: “remember man that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.

As much as I hate to admit it, the Catholics are on to something there (although they lose points for the fact that Ash Wednesday is a relatively minor occasion for them). I can’t dig all their stuff about salvation and god / man trinities and transsubstantiation and deposits of faith. It’s all too complex, all too disanchored from what we now know about the universe and ourselves from critical thinking and observation (i.e., from modern science). But on Ash Wednesday, which is not a mandatory holiday, “the Church” latches on to a really big truth. I remember Ash Wednesday ceremonies of my youth being rather solemn and dignified affairs; no gold chalices, no fine linens, no embroidered vestments. Just ashes and a bit of wisdom. Yea, too bad that the other 99.9% of ecclesiastical life isn’t like that (although some of the Catholic monastic rituals also have an austere beauty to them; flickering candles and chanting during a 3 am vigil service is not a thing easily forgotten).

Well, I don’t attend any Catholic rituals these days; I seek wisdom in other ways. Seven weeks on hospital grounds is not an easy path to wisdom, but wisdom is certainly there, if you take it in a certain way. As I’m trying to do, on reflection.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:00 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, March 7, 2009
History ... Personal Reflections ...

I have proclaimed myself on this web site to be an “eternal student”, which means that I have an affinity for the ideals of learning and scholarship, even though I’m neither a student nor an academic scholar. Some people are sports fans; I’m a learning fan, a fan of academic prowess and advancement. Even if I’m not in the big leagues, I still like to participate as I can. So I read a lot, I look things up, think things thru, and write about them (mostly on this web site; I just can’t get myself together to write a big article or a book, as I’m just not ready for all the publisher rejection). But I’m not an “eternal student” as the term is mostly used on the Internet; it is generally a self-reference used by 20-somethings who are in grad school and don’t want to get out into the real world; or who do want to get out into the real world but aren’t having much luck.

People like me (i.e., old people; at least relative to the great majority of people using the web) are also called “life-long learners”. But I don’t like that term either. It sounds too quaint and too lame, sort of like “senior citizen”. Besides, when I say “eternal”, I really mean eternal. I believe that learning is something existentially profound, something with metaphysical bite to it, something that will still have meaning when our earth and our universe are no more. But aside from the ontological aspects, perhaps “learner” is a better term than “student”. Student is a passive word, whereby learner seems more active. A learner is a person who wants to learn, not someone forced to sit in a classroom. You can certainly be a student, in the modern sense, and not be a learner. In fact, the colleges and universities are filled with students whose main inspiration is getting a good job, and not learning and understanding important things about the world.

So maybe I should call myself an “eternal learner”. But hey, what’s in a name. What matters most is what you do in the world with your learning. I was reading the other day about an all-star “eternal learner and educator” from the past, and I thought I’d give him his due. His name was Alcuin, and he lived in Europe back in the 8th Century. Those days were known as the Dark Ages, and learning was a tough sell at the time; most people kept busy trying to avoid famine, plague, and roving vandals. But King Charlemagne decided that there was more to life than war and plundering in the name of the church, and so he decided to use the religious infrastructure of the time to spread learning throughout his kingdom (what we now know as Italy, France and Germany).

The religious infrastructure of affiliated monasteries was about the only infrastructure going at the time. So Charlemagne recruited Alcuin, a church deacon and scholar from England, to set up a school within Charlemagne’s court, and to follow up with a system to spread learning throughout the Frankish Kingdom. Before long, Charlemagne himself was taking classes. And priests were being trained and sent far and wide to work with the local monasteries to set up abbey schools, as to offer elementary education to both the nobles and the common folk.

Alcuin did a pretty good job in making education commonly available in Europe once again, setting up curriculums and teaching methods and tending to many bureaucratic issues. One of his contributions to the teaching of mathematics was the classic and often-hated practical math exercise. You know, the ones that go like this: “a man drives due east at 50 miles per hour, while from the same starting point his wife leaves 30 minutes later and drives due west at 40 miles per hour . . . ” Alcuin was interested and involved in many things, including theology, historical research, and the writing of poetry; he was a Renaissance man well before the Renaissance. His arguments for freedom of conscience helped to convince Charlemagne to abolish the death penalty for paganism.

Alcuin died in 804, and on his tombstone it says: “Alcuin my name, wisdom I always loved, Pray, reader, for my soul.” Alcuin thus assumed that he had an eternal soul, and that learning was at the root of its being. I’d like to think that he’s right, and that all true “eternal learners” like him never truly die.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:43 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ...

About a year ago, just as the “sub-prime crisis” was starting to make the news, I wrote a note on this blog musing about the economic paradox of “restless capital”. I said that most students in economics classes (and I was once such a student, as I have a masters in economics from Rutgers) are taught that capital is a good thing, a helpful thing, a thing very much needed for a successful economy. The notion that too much capital could be a bad thing was almost unheard of (and besides, free markets would quickly correct any such capital glut — interest rates would go very low and people would cut back on their savings, they would consume more). And yet, despite low interest rates, the Asians and other big players around the world kept on saving money and offering it to America. So America got stupid. Totally against what’s in the economic textbooks.

The main reason why I didn’t go forward with my academic training in economics after getting a masters degree, despite encouragement from various teachers to pursue a PhD, was that advanced economic classes delved deeper and deeper into abstract math and esoteric concepts. I originally thought that the basic microeconomics classes would be followed by detailed studies on how these concepts actually develop and function in the world of trade, industry, finance, government, etc. The macroeconomics classes would, I imagined, segue into a detailed analysis of what has happened over the course of history as nations and central banks sought to administer policies to stabilize prices and employment and output. When I found out that it would just be a lot more technical language and multiple-regression models, I lost interest.

The current economic crash confirms my hunch that the guys who DID stick it out and gain their economics doctorates never did learn all that much about how things really work. This certainly includes all those Chicago-school economists who said that de-regulation was the greatest thing since sliced bread; but it also includes the liberal Paul Krugman, who often opines in the NY Times that big government is the only way to go.

Krugman (who can be a bit too socialist for my tastes, although he is still a talented academic, a smart cookie) had an article the other day discussing the capital glut and how it helped lead to the economic disaster that we are now in. Per Krugman, what happened was that China, Japan, Korea and the other industrializing Asian countries decided in the late 1990s to discourage private consumption, and encourage thrift and savings on the part of their citizenry. All of their saved money could not be put to work in Asia, so much of it flowed into the world credit markets. (Also add in the capital flows from the Middle Eastern oil nations, who don’t have any good ideas on what to do with all the money they earned again as oil prices rose after 2000; Allah forbid that they might actually try to expand their economies and improve the lot of their common folk).

Interest rates went way down, as plenty of money became available for borrowing and investing. And you know what nation took greatest advantage of this — yea, the good old USA. Soon after the start of the century, we Americans had access to all the cheap capital we like. Sure, it could have been better used to help the poor lands of Africa and South America; but the people who were saving all this money felt that the USA was the safest place to put their excess funds. So what was done with this boon? Well, as Krugman explains, our free market economy and conservative politics collectively decided that it should go into a middle-class consumer binge, including access to gas-guzzling SUV’s for most anyone with any sort of job; and to support deceptively easy terms on real estate financing, i.e. sub-prime mortgages. It all helped to fuel a real estate and consumption spending bubble, which finally got too big and burst. And now we’re paying the price. BIG TIME.

So it’s interesting for me to see just how right I was about the unexpected evils of “wrestless capital”, and to have my suspicions confirmed by a professional economist like Krugman. It’s too bad that all that capital didn’t go into hi-speed rail, green industry, biotechnical research, education, sturdy roadways and bridges, and other investments that would make our country better off in the long run. The Obama administration is now trying to direct some of that wrestless capital into such investments through deficit spending financed by greatly expanded government borrowing. If the Chinese decide to keep their huge flow of savings directed towards US Treasury debt, we might be OK. If they start getting a taste for the good life, like us, then interest rates will shoot way up and the Obama plan will die on the vine. If that happens, WE’RE SUNK.

Bottom line here: economics truly cannot be divorced from politics. That’s why the whole topic of money and trade and commerce used to be called “political economy” in the universities. The free market would have matchless advantages for social welfare, in a test-tube situation free of political forces. But the real world is not like that. As such, the academic world needs very badly to get back to studying economics in the context of politics, and society, and government, and history. I.e., the real world. If it had, then perhaps America wouldn’t have given up on governmental economic leadership just when other governments were offering us the huge gift of overly cheap capital. We let our free markets feast on this irresistible gift until they got sick and broke down. (I believe that will be how the Bush-junior years will be remembered fifty years from now). We can’t give up on open markets and capitalism, they do provide a lot of innovation and choice; but we also need a collective mechanism to keep it from getting drunk and stupid. Let’s hope that the economists and the academic institutions that train them start focusing a bit more on the real world and the lessons of history.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:13 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, March 1, 2009
Health / Nutrition ... Medicine ...

As I discussed in my last entry, there’s just something about hospitals, some kind of bad karma attached to most of them. I guess that you can’t expect many good vibes from a place where most people are sick and suffering. But still, there seems to be some sort of “feng shui” problem, some type of institutional coldness, some brand of bad thinking that everyone brings to the place on top of all the problems of the patients. It seems to go all the way back to the people who designed and built the hospital. I’ve heard that modern hospitals are becoming aware of this and are trying to overcome it. (The British NHS even hired a feng shui expert to help their hospitals.)

Unfortunately, my mother’s hospital is stuck with the old look and the old feel. Here’s a shot that I took from the outside. Even from this distance, you can just feel the hospital vibes. You know that this is a hospital; and even if they get all the medicine and therapy right, both patients and family members are in for a rough ride. Also, from what I heard, the folks who work there aren’t exactly crazy about the place either (but most of them still do their best out of sympathy for the patients).

Thank goodness that my mother is now out of there, and let’s hope that she doesn’t need to go back again. I now understand why my brother was so frantic to have someone there with her at all times; you have to bring your own healing atmosphere. Medicare doesn’t pay for it, so the hospital doesn’t provide it.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:23 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
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