The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Friday, April 30, 2010
Socrates Cafe ...

There was a nice turn-out at Socrates Café last Tuesday evening, with 11 people (including myself) ready for some thoughtful discussion. We had two new faces and nine veterans (or semi-veterans, in my case), and the topic dejure involved ethics and ethical conduct. Specifically, what are the ethics of responding to someone who irks you, who is creating a nuisance in your life. Just how far can you go in responding; just how much do you have to put up with before taking drastic actions to defend your turf and your peace of mind? Just how dramatic can you get?

The group quickly developed three real-life scenarios based upon inconsiderate neighbors. One involved a neighbor who had ten wandering cats; another involved an unchained, unfenced German shepherd; the third involved an apartment parking lot where a rude tenant appropriated another tenant’s space with his boat trailer. Too many people, unfortunately, just don’t seem to care about the misery they impose on those around them. We shared stories regarding angst and frustration in dealing with such people, about how legal remedies and due process seemed to accomplish little when the perpetrator just wants to be obnoxious. So what should be done about such people, from a philosophical perspective regarding government, society and “the good life”?

Actually, we didn’t get into that. After some lamentations  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:02 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Economics/Business ... Public Policy ...

President Obama has repeatedly offered a vision for the future of America’s economy. He talks a lot about “green energy”, i.e. non-fossil fuel energy (or renewable carbon sources) that will take the place of the dirty fossil fuels on which our economy depends (and which cause global warming). He tells us that green energy is the economic sparkplug for the future; in creating a green energy infrastructure, we will create a vast number of new jobs and economic opportunities for American businesses. We can thus avert the crisis envisioned once “peak oil” is reached (perhaps in 20 to 40 years), and save the planet from climate catastrophe to boot. Sounds great!

Unfortunately, it may not work. Most green energy sources have BIG problems and drawbacks attached to them. There was a good article recently in the Washington Post (of all places) about this. It turns out that both wind and solar power will require vast expanses of land and the construction of thousands of miles of transmission lines (since the places where the sun shines the most and the wind blows the most are very far from the population centers where power is needed.) There will be plenty of environmental consequences from that alone. Next, because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, we will still need back-up power sources that can run anytime; most likely, good old fossil fuel plants.

Furthermore, both solar and wind power need rare earth elements that are mined in one place –  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:08 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Outer Space ... Public Policy ...

There’s a lot of buzz amidst the aerospace crowd these days about the X37B, a new satellite system being developed by the US Air Force. The Air Force has been involved in plenty of different military satellites, so what makes the X37B so new and different? Well, actually, it’s that the X37B is NOT so new and different; when you see it, the first thing you say is that ‘I’ve seen this before’. Basically, the X37B looks like a smaller, non-piloted version of the Space Shuttle. Although it is launched a bit differently than the Shuttle was, it will glide back to earth after its mission and land on an airplane runway, and then be re-used, just like the Shuttle.

Many space program analysts regard the Space Shuttle as a failure in both engineering design and in economic realities. It was supposed to make traveling into low earth orbit with humans and cargo both safer and cheaper than the old Apollo, Gemini and Mercury capsules, which were all one-use only. The Shuttle supposedly made more sense by being re-usable. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out to be either safer or cheaper. The Russian space program tried out a shuttle-like ship, but decided to stick with its tried-and-true Soyuz capsule. And the American manned space program has now turned back to the old capsule on top of booster rocket design (even though NASA’s Ares-Orion rocket program has been canceled, its possible replacement for low earth orbit missions, the commercial Dragon / Falcon rocket from SpaceX, is also a classic capsule and booster). So why is the Air Force messing around with an (assumedly) unmanned mini-Shuttle?

They aren’t saying right now. The X37B is sort-of a “dark” project. But it has a lot of money behind it and the first test flight went off last week.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:24 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Socrates Cafe ...

At last night’s Socrates Café session in Montclair, we talked about government. The kick-off question regarded China – why did China embrace Communism in the 20th century, given all the cruelties that resulted in Maoist times? Why hadn’t the Chinese people embraced a governing system which more fully integrated the values of the Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist heritage? Why couldn’t there have been a Buddhist governing system in China, a kinder and gentler kind of governing system?

Interesting questions. The group (about 6 people that night) rallied to the intellectual challenge as usual. In the initial volleys, we came to an agreement that Buddhism doesn’t lend itself to governing a billion or so people. Buddhism, at least as we westerners imagine it, is more a philosophy for individual existence than for collective regulation. Perhaps there have been instances of Buddhist government — one member pointed out that the Dali Lama dynasty ruled Tibet until the Chinese Communists (them again!) invaded in 1950. In fact, there are Buddhist monks today who still have an axe to grind with the present Lama (who set up protests in places where he gives talks). Ah, politics.

(Read this article about political Buddhism and civil war in Sri Lanka; it can get just as ugly under Buddhism as under any other -ism.)

We then pondered the notion that Communism, in its pure state  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:13 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, April 18, 2010
Photo ...

Nuthin’ much here, just some springtime foliage with Manhattan in the hazy backdrop. I love the reds and yellows of autumn, but to me there’s still nothing like the yellow-green renewal of life in springtime.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:31 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, April 15, 2010
History ... Science ...

There’s a pretty good article in the April, 2010 Atlantic Magazine about US Army General Stanley McChrystal and the war in Afghanistan (“Man Versus Afghanistan” by Robert Kaplan). In this article, Kaplan talks about an ancient philosophical debate regarding the nature of world history. This big question is whether impersonal environmental forces and uncontrollable social dynamics determine the fate of nations and societies, or is there a “social will” developed by our great leaders that transcends the influence of “guns, germs and steel” (recalling the book with that name by Jared Diamond, which expounds the environmental-determinism viewpoint so as to debunk the alleged glories of Western Civilization; how politically correct!).

This is an interesting question, one that too few Americans think about. I took several history classes while in high school and college, and heard various historical discussions while studying for my masters in economics. And yet, I do not ever remember this question being framed out and dealt with.

However, being an eternal student dedicated to keeping my mind growing  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:06 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Monday, April 12, 2010
Socrates Cafe ...

Last week the local Socrates Café group decided to tackle the question “what is wisdom”. There was a good turnout that night (about 12 people, including myself), and a lively discussion ensued. Just about everyone had a different take on the idea of “wisdom” and how it differed from facts, knowledge, art, scientific beliefs, technique, etc. Some people said it was all about love and relationships (the long-term versions of those things, anyway). Others cited the great spiritual avatars, including Jesus and the Buddha. I interjected that wisdom in the greater sense would even encompass economics and politics (e.g., Warren Buffet and Abraham Lincoln).

In the end, we were all “chasing a butterfly” with an intellectual net, and coming up empty. Unlike something like a lump of coal or an apple, which succumb quite readily to the taxonomic guidelines provided by science, wisdom is something that refuses to be nailed down. I cited two examples. First, I brought back memories of Robert Pirsig and his quest for the notion of “quality” in his first book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. I proposed that Pirsig’s high-level concept of “quality” and our sought-after notion of “wisdom” were about the same thing. And that we both had about the same success; Pirsig went on in his second book (“Lila”) to derive a formal specification for quality, i.e.his “MOQ” or “metaphysics of quality”.

Lila was not nearly as successful as Zen and the Art, and Pirsig  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:53 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Web Site/Blog ...

It looks like my blog has survived the Blogger FTP shutdown and is now safely in the hands of The proof is in the pudding, so grab a spoon and dig in. There may be a few additional changes, maybe even improvements. But what you see right now is pretty much what you will be getting.

All I can say is that WordPress is tough to hack around with. Blogger required a general level of familiarity with computer programming, but with its PHP and “themes” and “widgets” and “plug-ins” is up there on a whole ‘nuther level. It’s wonderful that so many techie kids today are willing to fiddle around and offer a wide variety of pre-packaged site designs and add-ons for free to the public. It’s one of those nice things that the Internet has brought about, another instance of “digital community building” (a virtual version of an old-fashioned barn-raising, perhaps).

But despite the thousands of themes and adjuncts available for a  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:41 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Web Site/Blog ...

The day of reckoning has finally come for this blog. Hopefully it will survive, and come back slightly the better for it. The bottom line is that I started writing this thing back in late 2002 using Blogger as my “engine” and a Yahoo Geocities account as my host. To get the updated blog files from Blogger to Geocities, I made use of Blogger’s FTP file transfer mechanism. This arrangement worked quite well for the past seven and a half years. But things change, and Blogger has decided to ditch the FTP service. They claim that almost all of their users chose to have their blogs “reside” on the Blogger server, subject to their formatting rules. There are only a few wack-o’s like me left who wanted to keep control of their blog’s formatting and content, by arranging for their own hosting once Blogger creates / updates the blog page for them.

So, despite some discontent out there in the “blog-o-sphere” about Blogger’s cold-hearted decision, Blogger is standing its ground (although they did give a one-month stay of execution, extending the deadline from March 31 to April 30). And why not, since Blogger owns the proverbial ground, lock stock and barrel. I mean, Blogger is a free service; those of us who took advantage of its offer to process our blogs and then send them to the server of our choice have no legal or moral standing to complain. In announcing the end of FTP, Blogger has graciously offered to transfer our blog files to its own free hosting service. I had thought about going along with that, but as noted, that would require some compromise with blog design (but relatively minor). My bigger concern is a haunting suspicion that this will put Blogger (owned by Google) in a better position to eventually demand payment for its services, or require ads on the free blog pages. There has to be some sort of long-run business plan encompassing this change.

Unfortunately, the available alternatives to Blogger are quite limited.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:40 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Photo ...

It’s Spring here in New Jersey, and everything has gone from yucky and mostly dark shades of gray and brown, to green and yellow and purple and pink. On a nice sunny day, it’s not hard to get a nice outdoor photo. And hopefully I will soon get some of those and post them here. But right now I’m still coming out of an “after-dark” mood, so I took advantage of the warming temperatures and calm skies (finally, no more cold gusty winds!), and got a night shot from up on the hill in Wallington. In another month or so the trees will block the view. So here are Wallington and Passaic, two cities side by side in the Passaic River valley, cities of night.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:59 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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