The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Sunday, March 28, 2010
Religion ... Science ...

I’m always on the lookout for non-fiction books with a new or off-beat approach to a topic that interests me. The problem is that I’m not a fast reader; I like to plod and think things over as I read. So, I have an inventory of books waiting to be read, and they can sit around for years until I get to them. One of the books in my current inventory is Frank Tipler’s “The Physics of Immortality”. I’ve had it for about 2 years now, but I don’t see myself getting to it until maybe later this year. However, I opened it up and started to peruse it the other day in a spare moment, and it got me interested. Not interested enough to start reading it (I’m now trying to slog my way through Steven Pinker’s “How the Mind Works”, a 500+ page tome written in a breezy, chatty style that just begs for a ‘skip-around’ approach). But interested enough to do a Web search for a summary and some opinions on Tipler’s ideas. Enough to hit the ground running when I do finally get to his book.

Tipler is a 64 year old mathematical cosmologist, a legitimate physicist who teaches at Tulane University. Like many modern physicists, he was an atheist most of his life. However, he had a “road to Damacus” experience and decided to affirm God and Christianity, supposedly as a result of his theoretical research. He became noted (perhaps not really “famous”) for his Omega Point Theory, which is explained in “Physics of Immortality” (yes, shades of Teilhard de Chardin).

In a nutshell, Tipler set out  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:27 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Monday, March 22, 2010
Personal Reflections ...

There’s a good article in the April Atlantic by Jonathan Rauch about the struggles of caring for an aging parent (i.e., what Rauch went through with his father, who died this past December). Having been involved since 2001 in a somewhat similar situation (my mother, who died this past October), I wanted to make note of Mr. Rauch’s reflections. He concludes that senior caregivers are still mostly a “silent, invisible army” amidst millions of Americans in their fourties and fifties, most of whom are trying to get by in their own working lives while simultaneously working hard to raise their own children.

Given the experience he had over the past 12 months with his father, Mr. Rauch, a successful political affairs writer from the Washington DC area, now understands something of the sacrifices that a whole lot of unseen, uncelebrated people “out there” in the cities, towns and villages of America are making in order to comfort their parents in their decline. Now that he’s had a taste of what all these good folk silently bear, Mr. Rauch wants to put them “on the radar” of the movers and shakers of our political, cultural and economic institutions. He wants the news and entertainment media to give them more recognition, wants the government and other do-good establishments to give them more information and support, and wants employers to give them a break when their commitments call them away from the daily grind.

Well OK, Mr. Rauch, thanks. Having been a member  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:12 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Friday, March 19, 2010
Socrates Cafe ...

I was at the local Socrates Cafe meeting in Montclair a few evenings ago (yes, after 4 years I’m back with them). That night, the group seemed to lack its usual enthusiasm for coming up with a multitude of topics for discussion, and then weaning them down through a balloting process. So I threw out an idea that had been rattling around in my head, about the nature of morality and ethical behavior in humans. I.e., is it more social or innate? Does morality originate within each of us (or many of us, or at least some of us) and then somehow get co-opted by the human collective (as laws, ethical notions, shared moral values)? Or does it somehow emerge from the group, and is then assumed by the individual through osmosis (at least in the better of us)? Given the lack of inspiration on anyone else’s part that night, my idea was quickly accepted.

Well, this turned out to be a good topic, as it inspired about 90 minutes of intense and wide-ranging discussion. I can’t say that I left the room with a conclusion; a lot of the discussion frankly veered off from the intended subject. But that’s OK, Socrates Cafe is all the more charming for its lack of academic discipline. What did interest me was the reaction that one of the men in the group had. This fellow, who I respect greatly, is in his late 50’s or early 60’s, and is employed as a bio scientist. I would describe him as “logical positivist” in outlook. He appears to believe that science is the best answer to humankind’s dilemma. He feels that notions of God or gods or spirits or inner spiritualities are hardly necessary. Science explains more and more of our reality, in a very definitive and useful fashion. There’s hardly anything left to the realm of mystery anymore.

So in response to my question,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:13 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Monday, March 15, 2010
Brain / Mind ... Science ...

I just finished reading a book by Paul Churchland about the human brain and its neural network architecture (“Engine of Reason, Seat of the Soul”). This book might be the best available introduction to neural networks and how they make things happen in the brain. It’s not highly technical, but it’s not light reading either; you need to be comfortable around basic scientific and math concepts. But if you can slog your way through it (it’s a slow read), Churchland will reward you with a lot of enlightenment about the operating system of the brain, about how things work below the level of thoughts and feelings and moods and sub-conscious motives, i.e. the paradigms of ordinary psychology. He gives you the basic outline of how small webs of brain neurons (small components of the brain) respond to signals coming in from the senses, as to translate these little blips of ion charges into something having meaning to the higher decision-making parts of the brain; e.g., how they identify a particular face, or a taste, or a color, etc. based on past experience.

These higher areas themselves turn out to use the same techniques to bring together all of these sensory impressions, weaving them into an overall picture of where you are, what you are perceiving, what you think or feel, what you remember, and what you plan to do (or not do). Pretty interesting; it’s not the final blueprint for how the mind works, but it does explain what the primary building blocks are like.

After his introduction to neural networks in the first half of the book,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:37 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Personal Reflections ...

I had to take my car to my regular mechanic the other day for some servicing, and it gave me an occasion to ride a bus. Or, “the bus”, as we say here in Jersey. The bus route in question was the NJ Transit number 75, a rush-hour only express service from Newark to Butler. And I must say that I enjoyed the ride. NJT uses a big, smooth-riding MCI cruiser on this route, not just another Nova street-rattler. The ride was smooth and quiet, and open seats were plentiful. The driver made change, which doesn’t happen on most buses out of Newark. It was a nice day and the sun was shining through the big windows. Everyone on board was well-mannered, no radios or bad behavior. And the trips were more or less on time.

Riding local buses, though, is not easy (and not always pleasant! especially when they are standing room only, or you go through the wrong neighborhood). You have to invest some time and research into finding out when they run, where they stop, how much they charge, how and when you pay for the trip, etc. And even when you’re on board, if you’re a first time rider, you might not know the protocol to use when your destination nears and you want to get off. Maybe there’s a strip or button that you press on the bus to ring a bell telling the driver to get ready to stop. But when you’re not a regular, sometimes the driver still won’t stop; unless you walk right up front and tell him or her. And if you do, the driver might get a little surly about being told, implying that you are bothering her or him with unnecessary details. (And if you do happen to be on a local bus going thru the wrong neighborhood — just stay calm and quiet, stay loose, don’t move too much, and look at the floor or out the window mostly.)

Even getting on the bus is not always easy; some bus drivers  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:21 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Politics ... Public Policy ...

It now looks like America is going to get comprehensive health care reform after all. President Obama has shown his willingness to burn many political bridges to close the deal. There may still be a lot of sparks and friction getting sufficient votes in the House, and the Senate reconciliation process will cause a lot of squawking from the Republicans. But it looks to me like Obama is going to get a big new legislative plan for health care passed while the tulips are still blooming here in the northeast.

I’ve already written about my apprehensions regarding the ObamaCare approach, i.e. much government oversight and control over health care providers and insurers (along with many new requirements and fees for both individuals and businesses). I agree that there is a health care crisis in America. And I think that the heart of the problem is costs. Health care is much more expensive now than it was going back thirty, twenty or even ten years.

Since 1970, health care costs have risen at a rate  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:23 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Personal Reflections ...

It’s early March, and the signs are in the air that another winter is coming to an end. There’s a few minutes of daylight when I get home from work now. The cold winds still blow, but they aren’t as frigid as they were four weeks ago. The weather forecasts still threaten us with snow, but mostly mixed with rain and slush.

I haven’t seen any bulb plants (daffodils, crocuses) poking up thru the muddy, snowy ground yet; but I have seen robins up in the trees. Usually you see them on the ground, looking for worms; but that protein source will not be available for another week or two. In the interim, they probably know how to find other kinds of birdfood, like the sparrows and starlings survive on. They obviously were thinking of the recent mild winters we’ve had here in the Northeast. Surprise, this one was like the olden days. But the tougher the winter, the sweeter it is once it’s over. Or almost over, which is where we are right now.

This was my first winter since my mother died back in October. It’s been  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:39 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
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