The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Sunday, January 31, 2010
History ... Politics ...

I just read James Fallow’s article “How America Can Rise Again” in the Jan/Feb Atlantic Magazine, which provides a good summary of the sorry state of politics and government in America today. Fallows wrote his article before the recent victory of Republican Scott Brown in the election for the late, great Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts, and probably was finishing his article as Republican candidates pulled surprising upsets in the New Jersey and Virginia governor’s races last November. Over the past few years, our political system has seen quite a few upsets and surprises, led by Barack Obama’s primary victory over Hilary Clinton, who had previously been considered a shoo-in. And then Obama trounced GOP candidate John McCain in the general election, a surprising turn when you consider the clean victory that the Republicans gained in the Bush vs. Kerry presidential race four years before. It’s all quite exciting for us political sports fans; it’s quite a spectacle. But is it good for the country?

Some people say that it’s just a function of the candidates involved; Obama has all that charisma, Scott Brown also has “the look” and the everyman image (with his pickup truck), and most of the losers involved just did not run good races. They came on to the public like, well, like losers (Martha Cokeley, Jon Corzine, etc.). It’s just an interesting coincidence that all of this back-and-forth between parties and candidate platforms has happened in the course of two or three years.

Obviously, I don’t agree.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:45 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Personal Reflections ...

OK, regarding the Jets / Colts AFC Playoff game this past Sunday. I was in a bar watching it with a bunch of people, mostly Jets fans. That’s something I haven’t done too much in my life. But now I’ve finally had the true Jets-fan experience. The first half was a lot of whooping and hollering and joyous hope. Lots of fun. Miracle dust was in the air.

But then came the second half, when the Jets shut down and the Colts kicked into gear. Neither the Jets’ offense nor defense could do anything right. It was a heartbreaker; another “miracle that never happens“. Something that long-term Jets fans have become used to.

So, I guess that this was my baptism into true Jetsfan-dom. I’m now a bona fide member of the gang-green community.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:33 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Aspergers ...

BOOK REVIEW: Asperger Syndrome and Anxiety by Nick Dubin. As I’ve said before on this blog, I have taken an interest in Asperger Syndrome over the past few years. A lot of what I read about Asperger sounds familiar. I’m not formally diagnosed, and I don’t fit all of the major characteristics that the typical “Aspie” is said to possess. But a lot of those characteristics do hit home with me, especially the characteristic of anxiety. Anxiety is indeed an issue in my life.

Well, you might want to respond here that anxiety is an issue in EVERYONE’S life. True, but Aspies have a special way with it. They (we?) have various mental techniques to create anxiety even when there is no rational justification for it. And of course, when there IS justification for being anxious, we take it to the max; we see doom and dark clouds in every little set-back. Obviously, that is not good for one’s health and well-being. It isn’t a pleasant way to live one’s life.

So, Dr. Nick Dubin, a recent doctorate in psychology and an Aspie himself, recently wrote a book about anxiety issues in the lives of adults with Asperger Syndrome. I recently read it, and overall I give it a “thumbs up”. Dr. Dubin subtitled this book “A Guide to Successful Stress Management”. In other words, this is not an academic study on why people with Aspergers seem to have anxiety issues, nor is it addressed to professional shrinks and therapists who treat Aspies. This book is aimed at the nervous adult like me who constantly struggles with “being different” from the crowd, thinking differently and seeing life thru different sunglasses. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a “self-help” or “do-it-yourself” book, as Dr. Dubin clearly urges readers to seek professional help. But he also provides much thought and many techniques that the typical Aspie can use to help control their own bouts of anxiety. Again, though, he does not promise that these alone will be enough; in fact, he clearly states that most Aspies can NOT take care of their anxiety issues alone, even if they faithfully apply what he lays out.

Just what does Nick Dubin lay out regarding Aspie anxiety? Mostly he provides a “talking cure”, or better said, a “thinking cure”. Under the banner of “cognitive behavioral therapy” or CBT for short, he explains logically why many Aspies feel apprehensive, and how they take this logic way too far, to the point of irrational fear and panic. Dr. Dubin prescribes a variety of “schemas” to show that “there’s not as much to fear” as the anxious Aspie thinks.

Basically, this is the faith of the psychotherapist; i.e., that an affective problem can be talked-through (at a cost of maybe $100 per hour). With enough talking (and enough $$$ to pay for all that talking with the shrink), the person suffering a psychological imbalance will see the light of reason and get themselves back together. I.e., they will get well. Dr. Dubin points out that there are anti-anxiety medications that a psychiatrist can prescribe, and that these do have their place. But, he concludes that “alleviating anxiety takes hard work; a pill alone won’t do it”. Obviously, that hard work involves lots of talking and thinking it over.

As such, it’s not surprising that Dr. Dubin does not at all mention in his book the growing research into brain structure factors that could contribute to heightened anxiety in people with Aspergers. Just a quick Google search will bring up a variety of information about neuron connectivity differences and lower-capacity connection structures between the limbic system (the emotional center of the brain, especially the amygdala) and the pre-frontal cortex (where most of the thinking and logic gets done). In other words, it IS possible that Aspies are fighting something that is partly genetic, something that is hard-wired in their brains. I.e., something that might require drug therapy to fully compensate, if the neurological problem can be fully understood and an appropriate medication devised and fully tested . That could be many years away; for now, the available anti-anxiety medications are relatively crude and un-targeted to the Aspie’s particular brain factors, and thus can be expected to have varying effectiveness along with negative side-effects.

Thus, at present there’s not much that the typical Aspie can do directly if in fact he or she is “wired up differently”. But I think it would have been good for Dr. Dubin to have included something about this, as it might help those of us dealing with the anxiety monster to feel a bit better about ourselves. Dr. Dubin devotes a whole chapter to “Anxiety and Shame” (chapter 9), and talks about “forgiving yourself” for having all these problems. Yes, I myself feel stupid sometimes for getting so wound up about little things. As such, I believe that it would help to know that a lot of the problem is not your fault, that it was locked-in genetically on the day that you were conceived.

By the same token, there is much temptation to take such information as a crutch, as an excuse not to try to get better. But Dr. Dubin makes a good case that “talking cures”, especially if done with a professional therapist, can be effective in helping Aspies to deal with anxiety (although he does not cite any effectiveness studies in that regard), and that self-forgiveness is a step in the process. In the context of his overall message, I feel that ignoring the neuro-structural factors relating to Aspergers Syndrome is regrettable.

If Dr. Dubin did miss one important aspect to understanding and dealing with anxiety in the life of an Aspie, he did not ignore another issue that is of major proportion: i.e., the question of SPIRITUALITY. Wow, imagine that — an acolyte of the great religion of psychology (and that’s what it ultimately is today, a religious faith system) admitting in effect that shrinks and their logic can only go so far!

Ya think?

Dubin thus includes an important chapter on “Anxiety and Spirituality” (i.e., Chapter 11). He tells us that although he was brought up in one of the major faith traditions, he is not today a practicing member of it. However, he has much regard for its spiritual wisdom, and seems to give some credence to the notion that “there’s something more” to reality than science and logic can explain. Or, at least BELIEVING that there is can help with the ultimate issue that we all face, i.e. death and dying. Obviously, scientific and quasi-scientific psychological logic are having their problems in helping people in this regard. Ultimately, all anxiety points to the issue of death. Most modern therapists and psychological researchers don’t want to admit this, as they don’t have a very good answer to it. (Freud would have done a lot better had he stuck to the death issue and not gotten so hung up on sex.) Dr. Dubin is to be commended for facing up to it.

Dr. Dubin’s approach to spirituality is a fairly typical modern mash of eastern wisdom and stretching some of the implications of modern scientific paradigms beyond their empirical boundaries (e.g., quantum weirdness, non-local quantum entanglement, ‘butterfly effects’ of chaos theory, and Dubin’s favorite, “morphogenetic fields”, which is based on X-file implications regarding certain strange events like monkeys across thousands of miles learning at the same time how to wash potatoes, or birds simultaneously learning how to remove caps from milk bottles. Coincidence? I don’t think so!). He doesn’t mention Ken Wilber, but that’s basically what we’re talking about. And yet, Dr. Dubin does tip his hat a bit to good old fashioned Judaism and Christianity. In sum, Dr. Dubin wants to help heal people, and he seems to recognize that modern psychology alone isn’t doing the job. So he’s willing to cross some lines and risk taking heat from the defenders of the “hard science” approach.

That is why I like this book so much. You can tell that Nick Dubin wrote it because he really wants to help others. There’s a warmth that comes through in his writing style. He shares a lot about himself throughout the book, including a discussion of the failures of his dating life to date (but he’s only 31, still has lots of time to get it together yet), and an interview with his parents regarding his childhood. He is willing to be vulnerable in order to get across some ideas that he believes will really help adult Aspies to deal with the many challenges in their lives. There are a lot of books out these days about Asperger Syndrome, some of which were written by people with Asperger Syndrome; but I can’t think of any Aspie books (and I’ve read a handful of them) that seem so warm and caring.

It is commonly believed that Aspies are robot-like geeks who lack empathy and are ultimately incapable of expressing emotion. And in person, a lot of Aspies come across that way; I know that I do at times. Perhaps Dr. Dubin is also like that face-to-face; I couldn’t say (but here’s a YouTube interview; he does seem a bit geeky). But down inside, many Aspies really DO care about others, even if they can’t always express it in the ways that society recognizes. Nick Dubin has shown that he does care, and has used this book to express it. That’s worth the price of the book alone. Even if his CBT techniques or schemas never do the reader any good, the anxious Aspie will feel better just knowing that Nick Dubin cares (and that it’s good for them to care for others too).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:53 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Personal Reflections ...

I’m not a big football fan, but I’ve been following the Jets pretty closely since December. And the Jets, a so-so team for the first 8 or 9 games, started playing miracle football since then. I’m not always sure exactly what a tight end or a fullback or a defensive safety is supposed to be doing at any one time, and the plays often look like a big blur to me. I’m still pretty confused about the shotgun formation and just what an off-sides punt is supposed to do.

But I do know that the Jets went thru a psychological phase-sift over the past few weeks, and now they’ve made it to the AFC championship game this Sunday against the Colts. It’s pretty clear that the team is starting to really like itself and its new coach, Rex Ryan. The resentment over “the hotshot kid in the limelight”, i.e. rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, has dropped away as Sanchez started throwing more carefully and avoided the big flashy (and very risky) long throws. Sanchez has obviously signed on to being another one of “Rex’s guys”, and not to being his own little enterprise, as happens too often with high-publicity quarterbacks.

It’s pretty clear that the Jets have “gone Cinderella” because of something rare, something that hardly ever happens amidst 30 or so big, over-payed, ego-hyped athletes (again, please forgive my lack of knowledge as to the exact roster size of the Jets, or even of the main players). They’ve found a mutual groove, they’ve learned to appreciate one another. They’re feeling like they’re a part of something bigger than any one of them. That is becoming so rare in the high-money world of pro sports these days. So you can’t help but love it when you see something ‘really real’ happening on network TV.

Well, I’m not counting on the Jets winning this Sunday and going on to the Superbowl in Miami in 2 weeks. But I do know that they’re going to give Payton Manning and the Colts a real good fight. I’ll be in a bar somewhere with my brother and his friends this Sunday at 3, when the Jets and Colts kick off. I’ll be wearing my green Jets cap (which was supposed to be a Christmas gift to my brother, but I inadvertent ordered the small size, which doesn’t fit him. It works fine on my little head, so I kept it and got him something else). And I’ll be getting emotional along with the rest of the crowd. It will probably be the end of the season for the Jets, but it turned out to be a really good season despite the unpromising start.

Ryan and most of the Jets will be back next year; they’re a relatively young team. So my little fling with NFL football these past weeks may carry over into the fall. Perhaps by then I’ll figure out how an offside penalty works, and what a 1 point safety conversion is about. When a group of guys start putting their hearts into what they do, it’s worth knowing more about it. Too bad that has become so rare in the sports-entertainment-financial complex of 21st Century America.


◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:19 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, January 17, 2010
Photo ...

We’re having the usual “January thaw” here right now. Yesterday it was sunny and warm, up around 50 degrees. I went out for an afternoon walk and saw people running around without jackets. It was a nice little break from the past 4 weeks of cold and snow, and from the next 6 or 7. For those of you old fogies like me who no longer enjoy windy 15 degree mornings (or worse, depending on where you are), and perilous road conditions that linger after a snow or ice storm: here is a reminder of what awaits us in another month or two. Even the most boring and blaze suburban scenes in northern New Jersey look pretty good during those magic months of spring.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:18 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Friday, January 15, 2010
Philosophy ... Spirituality ...

During the spare moments at work, I sometimes surf the net for something interesting to read (not unusual in today’s workplace). Today I was skimming thru a free PDF of the book “Norman Einstein”, a criticism of integral philosopher Ken Wilber.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Wilber, although no one interested in modern philosophic speculation can discount him. Nonetheless, author Geoffrey Falk has attempted to de-bunk him, or at least expose Wilber’s significant flaws. Wilber certainly does have a large and loyal following; if you are not one of them, then you probably won’t care about 60 or 70% of what Falk writes about. He goes into great detail. Since I never took the bait from Wilber (given that it was clear to me right away that the guy had significant anger issues, and had not found inner peace), I didn’t need to be let off the hook.

However, there is an interesting article in the appendix on how Wilber misunderstands and misinterprets the ontological paradigms regarding the reality behind quantum physics as postulated by the late, great physicist Dr. David Bohm. I won’t try here to explain what Dr. Bohm is getting at, except by contrast to the prevailing Copenhagen interpretation of quantum phenomenon. According to the Copenhagen disciples, “weird things happen” on the micro level. Get over it. There is no explanation. This is where physics ends. There’s nothing more to be explained through research, as we can never dig any deeper due to inherent uncertainties and fuzziness in our ability to observe tiny energy interactions.

Well, if that’s true, then metaphysical speculation fans like Ken Wilber (and myself) would be quite disappointed. That’s why David Bohm is so attractive to most of us. He comes up with some mathematically supportable if not yet empirically testable ideas on what might lie deeper than what we can detect. I’ve read a bit about his paradigms, but to be honest I didn’t really grasp them too well. But today, while reading about Wilber’s problems with Bohm’s ideas, I started “getting it”. Well, up to a point, anyway. Mr. Falk did a pretty good job summarizing what Bohm was getting at, and why it is such a huge paradigm shift.

And I really enjoyed it! This is what makes me happy – having an intellectual breakthru in my own old, misfiring grey matter. And I actually had a bit of this happiness today. I had the “AH HA!” moment, when I could see bigger things, have expanded visions of reality. The holography and implicate order paradigms regarding the reality in which quantum mechanics manifests itself are making a bit more sense. OK, these are not proven facts, just theories (as yet unprovable theories). But they are fun to explore with your mind. At least for me.

For various reasons that I don’t fully understand, Wilber doesn’t think that Bohm was on the right track regarding “meta reality”. But as I indicated, I don’t really understand Wilber either. And to be honest, from what I know of Wilber, I don’t want to.

Another recent bit of intellectual searching during my break time involved Zarathustra, the Persian prophet who more or less founded (or grounded) Zoroastrianism. Yes, he’s the guy that Nietzsche was referring to the book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. Well, actually Nietzsche was going off on a “God is dead” tangent, and didn’t really care that much about the real Zarathustra. But I do. Why? Because I’m a big fan of the intellectual interpretation of Jesus as a Jewish apocalypticist. This to me is the most powerful way of understanding Jesus, the real Jesus. This makes a lot of puzzle pieces fall into place.

So why is Zarathustra important to understanding Jesus? Well, Zarathustra seems to be the first historical instance of a prophet calling for belief in a single god; he may be the earliest historically verifiable voice favoring monotheism. Before him, religion was animistic, polytheistic, nature-based, and mediated by shamans who used magical procedures to make the “forces of the universe” cooperate with one’s desire for good crops, more children, better fortune, etc. You didn’t have an individual relationship with these forces; they didn’t care much about you, and they didn’t call you to moral and ethical responsibility.

But Zarathustra, who lived around 1000 BCE or even earlier, may have planted the seed for the big change in the way people thought about both themselves and the “great forces” beyond their control. And that big change eventually manifested itself into the Jewish faith (via the influence of Zoroastrianism on the Jews during their exile in Persia), and later Christianity and Islam. But even better regarding Jesus – Zarathustra was also an apocalypticist!

It’s like he gave Jesus the blueprint for his own movement. Zarathustra called for an “end of time” to come in the future, whereby a human-like “savior” would mediate the purification of the world. Those who were good would be raised from the dead, while the evil ones would be swept aside. The Zoroastrian God (Ahura Mazda) would now be in control, and humans (the good humans, anyway) would live according to the ways of good — i.e., the Kingdom of God.

Yes, there is pretty good evidence that Zarathustra was saying all of this more than 1000 years before Jesus adopted it as his own mission in life. That’s another example of the kind of “big idea” that I enjoy having.

So yea, I do live a lot in my head. But I did do one thing today to re-connect with reality. I signed up for a donation to the Red Cross thru payroll deduction to help fund their relief efforts in Haiti. My donation was small; but I recall hearing Bill Clinton (a big fan of Ken Wilber, incidentally) say on the radio that whatever amount you can give will help. Perhaps I can wrap my mind around implicate orders and apocalyptic inspirations in the ancient Middle East. But as to how and why a God who has a relationship with us, as Jesus and Zarathustra seemed to believe, or an integral kosmic karma, as Ken Wilber might prefer, allows such terrible tragedy and suffering in this world . . . not much that I can say. Nor anyone else who cares. Thus DIDN’T speak Zarathustra, Jesus, Ken Wilber . . . or me.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:14 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Monday, January 11, 2010
Aspergers ...

AB&C: Autism Bickering & Confusion. As someone with Aspergers Syndrome in my life (but not controlling my life), I have taken an interest in the various discussions going on in newspapers, magazines, books and on the web regarding this condition’s relationship to autism. As a whole, the field of psychology now classifies Aspergers as an “Autism Spectrum Disorder”. Researchers seem to feel that Aspies substantially share the same set of environmental and genetic circumstances that cause what some call “classic autism”, i.e. where the person cannot function independently and experiences severe learning and behavioral disabilities along with social deficits. According to the psychology “mainstream” view, the difference between an Aspie who is the president of a successful computer software company and an institutionalized adult with an IQ of 60 who can hardly speak, wears diapers and bangs his head at the wall, is mostly a matter of degree along this spectrum.

Admittedly, I am not qualified to give an authoritative answer on this. I don’t know anyone with classic autism, although a woman at work who sits a few cubicles away from me has an institutionalized 35 year old son with autism. I overhear many of the details of her relationship with him. I have read that the psychologists and neuroscientists are not unanimous about the “spectral view”; some see significant differences in the brain structures and environmental patterns of Aspies versus “classic autistics”. I do know from surfing the web that putting Aspergers in the “autism ship” has caused disagreements and bickering between parents with autistic children, advocates for research and therapy, and people who themselves claim to have either Aspergers or high-functioning autism. (Obviously, people who are “lower” on the spectrum cannot voice their thoughts on this).

If I’m getting it right, there are several camps. First, there are the Aspies who embrace the autistic categorization and call for what is called “neurodiversity”. This viewpoint in effect asserts that the world needs to give autistic people a break, i.e. be more open minded to their quirks and differences. It’s another variant of a civil rights movement. It says that autistics should not be looked at using a “pathological” model.

Next, there are the autistic advocates who argue against neurodiversity. It’s not that they don’t want Aspies to be welcomed and better understood by the public; it’s just that they feel that the Aspie crowd is stealing the political spotlight from them and their own needs. The Aspie crowd are the new kids on the block; whereas the relatives of classic autistics have lived in the proverbial neighborhood for a long time. They want more public funding for research and treatment for those suffering significant impairment from autism. They want a cure, not public sympathy. They realize that neurodiversity can happen on the cheap; genetic therapy for autistic infants cannot. One of the most noted proponents of this view is Len Schafer.

(Oh, there are also the “mercury people”, mostly parents of autistic children who want to believe, despite many scientific studies to the contrary, that autism is caused by mercury preservatives in vaccines. I won’t touch that one, since I don’t have children at all and certainly know nothing of what it would be like to have an autistic child.)

In response to Schafer and his like, some Aspie-neurodiversity people (e.g. Michael John Carley) have expressed sympathy (but not agreement) with those who want a cure for autism. The “old time autism” advocates nonetheless remain wary, convinced that all of the neurodiversity people are dead set against a cure for autism. The old-timers also seem to wonder whether Aspies would still care about low-functioning autistics once they receive their tokens of public recognition and acceptance.

There’s an interesting and related side effect from the increased attention that Aspergers Syndrome has drawn over the past few years. A lot of people have produced books, articles, web sites and videos proclaiming themselves to be Aspies and telling of their great relief now that they know “what’s wrong with them”, i.e. why they never seem to fit in with the world around them. Some of them have not been professionally diagnosed by a shrink. (Hey, I guess that includes me!). “Self DX-ing” is fairly common and generally accepted in the “Aspie community”. But there is a reaction brewing amidst the more cynical members of the public, i.e. that many self DX-ers (and even those with a shrink’s opinion) are often “slackers” and “whiners”. They’re just people looking for an excuse, just looking to justify their own failings. They just don’t want to do the work needed to be successful in this world. They’re almost as bad as the proverbial “welfare queens” of the inner city.

Interestingly, some of this reaction comes from those who clearly do suffer from “classical” autistic deficits or from those who take care of such people (e.g., parents). They send e-mails saying “you don’t have autism or Aspergers”. And in response, those accused of “slacking” publish their justifications, listing their autistic “credentials” and explaining how they’ve “paid their dues”. One interesting example is from a woman named Rudy Simone, a self-DX’d author of various books on AS. Ms. Simone recently put out a YouTube video presenting her own such ‘apologia’. Quite interesting.

As for me, here’s where I stand. I may well have Aspergers in my life, but Aspergers does not RUN my life. It could explain some things about me, but it doesn’t remove any of the responsibility that I will take for what has happened and for what is yet to happen in my life. I’m still at the wheel; I’ll take all of the blame and any of the praise (if there is any to be had from this skeptical world!). If anything, knowing about Aspergers and how it influenced my life gives me increased opportunity to use the rest of my life in a positive fashion. And it doesn’t take away any responsibility for what has already occurred. I can’t say that learning about Aspergers was a total surprise to me. My second grade teacher, Mrs. LaGreca, told both me and my parents that I was “different” (but not different enough to be put in special ed). Some older guys that I knew on the railroad back when I was 16 said just about the same thing. But they said that I had a “good difference”, i.e. I was more responsible and intelligent than most kids, if a bit weirder.

I am discussing Aspergers on my blog now, but I’m not asking for pity. I’m just putting out some thoughts that others might find interesting, and hopefully useful.

Next, as to whether I think that I myself should be considered “on the autistic spectrum”. Again, I’m not qualified to talk as a professional researcher or therapist. BUT, something about it doesn’t feel right to me. Perhaps there are genetic and environmental similaritie
s between me and my co-worker’s institutionalized son, which are of interest to the taxonomists within the psychological field. But in daily life, in the world of politics and laws and customs and social rituals – I think it’s a bad fit. Allison Singer also seems to have her doubts.

Perhaps this makes me a renegade from political correctness. If so, then so be it. I am not trying to throw shadows on those like my co-worker’s son. But given what my co-worker has gone through in her life, given all the angst she suffers regarding her son, I would love to see a cure for him. I am not afraid that the availability of such a cure would have hypothetically altered my life and my personality (especially since there probably will never be a true cure for a complex genetic condition like autism, just a number of ways to mitigate its more debilitating aspects; i.e., severe autistics might be made more like Aspies).

As to “neurodiversity rights” for those who have good minds but don’t have such good social sense; perhaps greater public awareness and acceptance would help. I realize that there are many Aspies who are living messed-up lives, people who can’t hold a job and can’t make friends or fall in love. I believe that our society should try to be kinder and gentler to everyone; I think there should be more understanding and compassion. BUT, I will admit that skepticism can also be healthy; people do get lazy and whiny sometimes, and need a little “cruel to be kind”. We do need standards. As with everything else in this world, it’s a question of finding the right balance. The whole Aspergers thing is a relatively new item on the public agenda, and it will indeed take a while to strike that balance.

But I think that balance will best be struck if Aspergers and neurodiversity is uncoupled from classic autism, and the “spectrum” is sent back to the ivory towers of psychological academia, from whence it sprung.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:23 pm       Read Comments (5) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, January 9, 2010
Politics ...

David Brooks had an interesting little article in the NY Times the other day about the “tea party movement” and what it means. Brooks thinks that it reflects a growing public exasperation with “the educated class”.

Brooks has a valid point, even though the whole “tea party” thing probably goes beyond this. In order to be exasperated with the educated class, you first have to BE educated (i.e., takes one to know one). Sara Palin, their heroine, is not exactly noted for her intellectual brilliance. Her upcoming speech before the Tea Party convention in Nashville should be a hoot.

But the tea party folk certainly are exasperated, and much of what they are exasperated about was put into place by very highly educated people, both in government and business (e.g., the collateralized debt obligations and government homeownership programs that made sub-prime mortgages so popular). There certainly is an anti-intellectualist wind blowing in American politics these days, perhaps part of the expected backlash against Barack Obama (and the ‘too-big-to-fail’ financial institutions, and the PhD experts who confuse people e.g. regarding mammogram necessity).

Aside from his good looks and his oratorical skills, Mr. Obama’s main calling card is his education and intellectual achievement. He’s the first president in a while who taught at a university (and not just any university; Harvard, of course). A lot of Americans voted for Mr. Obama on the rationale that he is more intellectual than both his predecessor and his 2008 opponent, and thus could better get us out of the various calamities (recession, unemployment, the real estate collapse, Iraq, Afghanistan, rising gasoline prices, the growing deficit) that happened on Mr. Bush’s watch. Most of those messes have not yet been resolved. But despite this, Mr. Obama decided to involve the nation in two more complex and contentious issues, i.e. health care reform and greenhouse gas controls (i.e., cap and trade). The nation thus seems to be in political overload right now.

I myself have no use for Palin and the tea party thing. Their reactionary response against intellectual leadership is quite pernicious. But I do have to wonder about Mr. Obama’s unspoken premise, i.e. that intelligent, well-educated people like him know best what to do for the masses, and will change things for the better if left alone. (Regarding education, Mr. Obama is unlike the 2/3 of the country who don’t have a college degree; or much higher if you limit Mr. Obama to the elite who graduated from America’s top schools. Ironically that would include G.W. Bush, although he didn’t act like it, which Mr. Obama and his team do).

Over the past 300 years or so, the notion has arisen in various places that power should be given over to “the best and the brightest”. Actually, you can trace this theory back to Plato in The Republic, i.e. his ideal of the “philosopher-king”. And of course the ancient Chinese created a class of educated bureaucrats in the tradition of Confucius; even in the Dark Ages, Charlemagne pushed the ideal of education onto his lackeys. But it was during the Enlightenment that the notion of the leadership of the intellectually elite really gained traction.

Just how well has this notion fared in the real world? Well, there was the French Revolution; that didn’t turn out so good. But then again, the leaders of the American Revolution also drank from the wells of Enlightenment thought. And they gave the world a practical blueprint for a better form of government, one that balanced the ancient ideals of democracy, constitution, human rights and freedoms, limited collective powers and ‘checks and balances’ – i.e., balances between elitism and mob democracy. Karl Marx took the Enlightenment ideal to its limit, saying that Utopia was just a matter of science, along with the strong will to force that science on an unruly world. This didn’t work out too well in practice. But in China, a hybrid, Confucian post-Marxism is having some success in raising the living standards of millions, perhaps billions of people (while continuing to deny them political rights, in the Marxist tradition).

In the USA, the public has occasionally given blank checks to its “best and brightest”, again with varying results. There was Woodrow Wilson back in the early years of the 20th Century; his Presidency didn’t fare so well. But FDR was quite the intellectual elitist, and yet the public was ultimately grateful for his leadership. Then came John F. Kennedy, but his experiment with “Camelot” ended too abruptly to judge whether he was ultimately successful (e.g., could he have avoided the tar pit that the Vietnam War became, given that he started us on the road down into that pit?). Jimmy Carter seemed like the intelligent alternative to Richard Nixon’s cynicism, but in the end he failed to inspire the nation to better things. And now we have Barack Obama quickly spending his blank checks from a near-landslide election. Is he using those “checks” wisely? The tea party folk obviously don’t think so.

I myself don’t have an Ivy League background, but I do highly value intelligence, rationality and study. However, as to whether those things can be the sine qua non for successful political leadership, things get murky. We certainly do want a basic level of brightness and education and general worldliness in our leaders. Sarah Palin exhibits the dangers of appointing a leader not having this. But book smarts are not enough. Our best and most successful leaders have blended a strong if not terribly sophisticated sense of historical right and wrong, together with a practical common sense about politics and public perception. They certainly weren’t angels, they certainly made moral compromises; but yet they did get good things done. I’m thinking here about Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, maybe even Dwight Eisenhower (he started the Interstate Highways; too bad we don’t take care of them these days). I’ll even give the Gipper (Ronald Reagan) a tip of the hat, even though I disagreed with much of what he believed in. Reagan could have used more education and intelligence to balance off his righteous populism.

So we definitely do want more than intelligence and education in a leader. We certainly should look into a candidate’s character, into her or his moral quality and vision for the nation (expecting some stain and compromise; you can’t be a politician without some bloodshed). We also must consider his or her basic common sense, along with their appreciation for the perceptions and concerns of the public. Even if the public is not always right, even if a highly educated man like Barack Obama sees more than most others do, a leader ultimately has to keep the crowds happy in order to get anything done. The whole tea party thing indicates that Mr. Obama is having some trouble in this regard.

(I also wonder about Mr. Obama’s moral vision for the nation; I think he’s an honorable man, more so than Bill Clinton was. But he seems to apologize too much for America’s past. Apologies are certainly in order, but Mr. Obama fails to cite our flaws as a lapse from a still-living American ideal, a human ideal that certainly is better than most of what the rest of the world offers.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:41 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, January 3, 2010
Public Policy ...

In my quasi-intellectual meanderings on the global warming issue, I came across a 2009 article in the Journal of Health Science called “Population is a Critical Factor for Global Carbon Dioxide Increase”.

The title almost says it all. But the article is still worth reading, as it is short and full of graphs that are interesting and easy to understand.

The bottom line here is this: the more people there are on the face of the planet, the more carbon dioxide will be in the atmosphere (along with other less potent greenhouse-effect gases like methane). As to the next proposition, that the more CO2 there is, the higher the global temps will be; and the proposition after that, i.e. the higher the global temps, the more famine, war and other calamity the human race will experience in the next 100 to 200 years; well, those propositions I don’t completely agree with at this point. I think that they are interesting theories, and should be taken very seriously given the massive potential consequences. BUT, I don’t think that science has enough evidence at this point to sound the alarm.

Admittedly, the “institution of science” in general disagrees with me. In fact it is sounding the alarm. But scientists and their institutions are still human, and are still subject to pride, ego and herd mentality. Also, they know that they have a lot to gain economically from government and foundation grant funds if the public takes them seriously. Thus, I think they’re being a bit premature. The recent “Climategate” e-mail disclosures provide fairly good evidence that the “mainstream” climate scientists along with their academic and governmental employers are protesting a bit too vehemently against those renegade scientists who beg to differ with them. Sure, those renegades often prostitute themselves to political and economic forces, i.e. the big coal, oil, power and industrial enterprises that stand to lose big $$ as governments take action against carbon buildup in the air. But again, the “mainstream” isn’t so pure in that regard either. It’s hard to know who is right.

I’m not a scientist, but I do have some university training in physics, chemistry and math, and I maintain an interest in scientific issues into my old age. Thus I have taken a look “under the hood” of both the pro- and anti-warming presentations, and my impression is that it’s NOT clear that greenhouse gas build-ups in the atmosphere are going to cause or trigger future global disasters. This is still a possibility, and there is enough evidence to justify a “get ready just in case” position. There may in fact be future climate disasters that will NOT be caused by greenhouse gases; the world would still benefit from “get ready” planning efforts started today. But as to putting significant burdens on the world’s commercial-industrial networks such that economic growth slows down and millions or even billions of people who could have come out of poverty (as is now happening in India and China and Brazil) do not; well, I don’t think we have enough evidence to go that far at this point.

Back to the article and the graph that I adopted from the info used in the article; it seems pretty clear to me that the more people we have on this planet, the more CO2 will be in the air. If CO2 is pushing the world towards climate-induced disasters (which again I don’t fully agree with at this point), and if combustion of carbon-based fuels is inherent to human life itself, then the only real remedy would be to stop or significantly slow down population growth. Under this viewpoint, it almost looks like “Mother Nature” is saying “stop putting so many new members of your greedy species on my turf so quickly, or I will get rid of the excess myself”.

Of course, to adopt this viewpoint, you first need to buy into my second proposition, i.e. that combustion of carbon-based fuels is inherent to living. Can human beings live without combustion? For most of human history, the answer seemed to be NO. Even ancient humans needed to burn wood for light and heat at night (and also during the day, in regions away from the tropics), and also to cook food. Unless you lived on a tropical island where you ate coconuts and raw fish, you needed fire; that fire gave off a fair amount of CO2, and the effect was made worse because in chopping down a tree for firewood, you decreased nature’s CO2 absorption capacity.

As modern humans developed technology and moved to different kinds of carbon fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), we could provide for the basics (heat, light) in a more efficient fashion than ancient tribes could. BUT, we started finding other uses for combustion, mainly as ways to transport ourselves along with our commerce and trade. And then came electricity and refrigeration and air conditioning. As such, technology in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries was a 2-edged sword regarding greenhouse gases; it burned cleaner, but found many new ways to usefully burn carbon fuel as to make life better for us.

Technology has developed new ways to generate energy that reduce or even eliminate the need for carbon fuels. These include nuclear power, solar power, wind power, and more use of the old standby, hydroelectric power. And yes, low-carbon fuels derived from solar power, i.e. biofuels. And then there is the move towards more efficient ways of using energy, e.g. hybrid vehicles. This is the hope for today’s “green movement”; that technology and governmental resolve can move humankind away from its dependence upon carbon fuels. It provides hope that these exotic new ways of generating and using power will avoid the quandary of choosing lower living standards and / or lower population growth (or even population contraction) in order to avoid massive climate-based tragedies.

This is the subject for a LONG article, or even a book. I hope someone is working on such a book. Because I think that THIS is one of the KEY QUESTIONS in the current climate debate. Yes, I said that I am not yet convinced that there even is a CO2 problem. But I do think it’s a “definite maybe”, and thus I believe that the “green tech salvation” idea needs to be examined in fine detail. Personally, I do not believe that “green tech” will allow the global population to reach 10 or 12 billion by 2050 with most everyone living at the standards that we are currently accustomed to in the US, Japan and Western Europe, and at the same time keep CO2 concentrations from going up about 50% (i.e., around 590 ppm, versus today’s 390; some scientists think that 450 is roughly the disaster threshold, and 550 would clearly cause calamity).

Green tech is moving forward, but it is still very capital-intense. You need to use a lot of energy to set it up, and most of that energy will need to come from carbon fuel. The most potent form of green energy, i.e. nuclear power, has a lot of nasty side-effects. Another promising avenue, i.e. increased efficiency, seems to have another interesting side-effect. And that is, as we find more efficient ways to use our energy sources, we at the same time find new ways to use the energy that we saved. E.g., hybrid cars – they are much more efficient, but hybrid technology will also keep many people from giving up their heavy SUV’s, as they will be cheaper to run with hybrid engines.

Well, it’s an extremely complex situation, isn’t it. Can a marriage of technology and liberal semi-socialist politics save the day (as President Obama would have us think)? If not, do we use those powerful liberal semi-socialist governments to reduce living standards? Or to stop and even reverse population growth? Or do we let things go and do our best to mitigate the tragedies as they occur (as the free-market / conservative thinkers, the Ayn Rand-ers, might espouse)? And just how sure are we that there will be such tragedies, honestly?

And how do you honestly even wrap your mind around such huge issues? (Sorry for the long spiel here; my next blog will be shorter, I promise).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:08 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
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