The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Sunday, May 29, 2011
Photo ...

I still have a lot to say, but it looks like my blog page needs some imagery. I usually post a nice scenery shot or street scene, but today I’m going a bit abstract, a bit noir. Actually this is simply a picture of the moon that went bad. But as with art (and with life), sometimes what goes bad is actually pretty good, if viewed in the right way. So give this a try, see if you can find a viewpoint where this is more than just another digital camera meltdown.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:25 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, May 28, 2011
Science ... Society ...

I have written quite a bit about my concern that civilization has been getting less civilized in recent times. One reason, I believe, involves energy. I honestly believe that the quality of our lives largely depends upon the economy, which itself largely depends upon energy and technology factors (in the long run, anyway).

Sure, there is plenty to say for love and spirituality and social interaction and self-actualization, for artistic expression, and for constitutions and elections and due process. History is made by men and women, not by guns, germs and steel. And it’s wonderful to have info at our fingertips with I-pads and I-phones. But when the economy goes bad permanently and people scramble just to find their next meal and make it to the next morning (e.g., the early Middle Ages in Europe), all the spiritual realization and artwork and human rights stuff gets tossed overboard. Complex government and social arrangements collapse, replaced by simple and crude arrangements (e.g., Sharia and other religious cults).

I really believe that we’re moving closer to such a situation, largely driven by the disappearance of cheap, portable energy sources (such as oil was for us through most of the 20th century). Unless some unexpected leap in effectiveness occurs, green energy is not  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:06 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Current Affairs ... Science ... Society ...

I see that my office has another gruesome murder / child abuse case on its hands. I’m just a support worker who doesn’t get involved in the day-to-day investigations and prosecution work, and so I don’t take much notice of the average shooting death anymore. After ten years on the job, they all start blending together. (Yes, I know that if something happened to me or someone I care about, it would NOT be just another violent crime; I realize that there are real people involved in these cases, and I apologize for being so jaded to their suffering).

However, when I saw the press releases regarding what happened last week to 8 year old Christiana Glenn from Irvington, I knew that we had a VERY bad one. The child stopped breathing and someone called the police. EMS medics found the child dead at the scene. An autospy later found that she had a broken femur bone that was never treated, and was severly undernourished. Her mother, Venette Ovilde, along with the woman she shared the apartment with, were soon arrested and charged; the mother with murder, the apartment mate with endangering the welfare of a child.

Unfortunately, this brings back memories of another child who died in Irvington not so long ago because of intentional family neglect. That was 7-year old Faheem Williams,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:34 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Current Affairs ... Religion ... Society ...

Well, it’s May 22, 2011, the day after Judgment Day. I’m reminded of a scene from the 1983 movie War Games, where US military big-wigs are gathered together watching radar screens showing what might be either a Russian nuclear missile attack on an Air Force base in Maine, or one of Matthew Broderick’s video games gone awry. They get someone from the Maine base on the line and watch the red line converge on him. After the line stops at the base, everyone freezes until the guy up in the boonies shouts out “WERE STILL HERE !!!”.

The END OF DAYS did not come yesterday, despite the famous pronunciations from Christian radio minister Harold Camping and a large group of fundamentalist followers, who were all ready for the rapture. I was rather impressed by the amount of traction and support that Camping gained for his most recent apocalyptic prophecy (he previously forecast that The Big Rapture would happen in September, 1994). I even saw some big ad posters here in northern New Jersey, deep within the most cynical and heathen precincts of the Garden State, warning us that May 21, 2011 was Judgment Day – THE Judgment Day. Whoever put up money to spread the word of Camping’s revelation must believe that there are still some souls here that can be saved. I’m heartened by their faith in us, despite recent shows like Jersey Shore and Mob Wives.

As Biblical history scholar Bard Ehrman says in discussing both ancient and modern apocalyptic movements, “the end keeps coming”. Camping is not the first person  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:05 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, May 21, 2011
Brain / Mind ... Music ... Science ...

A few days after writing my Sad Song blog, about how a tune by The Cars pulled me out of the dumps on a very trying and frustrating day, I read an interview in the May Scientific American with a hearing specialist and surgeon who is performing neuroscience research on musical creativity. I.e., what goes on in the brain when a songwriter sits at a piano sit at a piano searching for a pleasing series of notes, or when a bunch of performers improvise and exchange riffs. The pace may be different in these two situations, but the overall process of creativity is about the same. But just what is that process all about?

The interviewee, Dr. Charles Limb, mostly said that more research is needed before anything definitive can be said. So the article is more about investigating an unanswered question than about explaining a new scientific discovery. Another interesting question that Dr. Limb asked towards the end of the article – and again left unanswered – is “why do we love sad music? Why does it make us feel better and not worse?” Hmmmm, that’s a darn good and interesting question, especially given how I resolved my Friday the 13th blues earlier this month. We don’t seek out other sad and depressed people when we’re feeling down; that just makes us feel worse (most of us, anyway). But we certainly do love our sad songs, and maybe movies and paintings too. What’s the difference?

If a scientist like Dr. Limb can’t give a good answer, I certainly can’t. But heck, that never stopped me before.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:01 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, May 14, 2011
Music ... Personal Reflections ...

Yesterday I had the Friday the Thirteenth blues. Nothing all that bad, really. I didn’t see the doctor for test results, I didn’t lose $10,000, I didn’t lose my job (I hope), I didn’t get a thick envelope in the mail from a lawyer, and no one I knew got hurt. So yeah, I should count my blessings. But it was still a frustrating day. As the morning dragged on at work, a bunch of things that should have been settled days, weeks or months ago came back unsettled. The trend continued throughout the afternoon. More e-mails, more phone calls, more visits from co-workers. I tried to settle what I could, but the wave was too big; I left around 5 with a huge to-do list for next week. And in the midst of all this, it occurred to me that I’ll never have a romantic relationship again, as the fires and passions that ruled my youth have cooled far too much. I could never go thru the craziness of it all again.

I felt a bit better in the evening, sitting with my brother in a local bar-restaurant with a Guinness Draft under my chin. But then he got into the weekly review of the situation with his girlfriend, and it sounded pretty much like the report from last week; and the week before that, and the month before that, and . . . Well, let’s just say that they are caught in a loop . . . can’t live with you and can’t live without you. (Hmmm, maybe it ain’t so bad about my own fires having cooled . . .)

OK, it’s a little more complex than that – i.e., can’t live with your kids, whom you can’t live without, and who can’t seem to live without you, despite being in their mid-20s. I asked the usual questions:  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:18 pm       Read Comments (4) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, May 12, 2011
Current Affairs ... Religion ...

Are we there yet? This is currently the attitude of the U.S. and western Europe regarding the Islamic world and the hoped-for Islamic Reformation-Enlightenment. In a nutshell, much of the Islamic world is very poor and destitute and lives according to social and political norms that were once familiar to Europe and the Mediterranean basin, after the dissolution of the Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th Centuries. We’re talking about theocratic rulership, strictly defined social roles with extreme male domination, few if any personal rights and economic opportunities for the masses, and frequent use of violence and cruelty to resolve tribal disputes and punish deviations (whether criminal acts, disagreement with leadership, or simply the expression of individuality, “being different”).

There are signs of hope. Young Arab and other Islamic populations armed with smart phones and Facebook and Twitter have started organizing and challenging the entrenched leadership. Thus far they have had some success with the easiest targets, i.e. the aging dictators who based their power on secular nationalism and socialist theories, more than on religion. So we have seen bold “Arab democracy” actions and street demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya, with varying degrees of success. They haven’t done as well against the ancient royalties (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen) or against the theocrats (e.g. the failed Green Revolution in Iraq). But they are active in those places too, despite extreme repression. Again, signs of hope, but still very tentative.

Also, Osama Bin Laden has finally been disposed of. Many analysts warn “this is not the end of Al Qaeda and its ideology”. But  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:07 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, May 8, 2011
Outer Space ... Science ...

The Space Shuttles are making their last flights and will soon be safely stuffed and mounted for all to see in museums. Many people look back at them with disappointment. They turned out to be a good bit more expensive, unsafe, and difficult to use than advertised. Most of the experts agree that America’s future in manned spaceflight, if and when there is such a future, will not utilize the airplane-like “space truck” design of the Shuttle. Although the Orion successor program was recently halted, it boldly went back to past designs, i.e. Apollo-like capsules on top of tall rockets. The Russians also experimented with something like the Shuttle, but took a pass and stuck with their old-fashioned Soyuz capsule (which is now the only way to get a human being into space and back).

But I wonder if some of the disdain for the Shuttle is over-reaction. Yes, the Shuttle was not designed for deep spaceflight, it couldn’t go to the moon or to an asteroid, nor could it form the keystone for an eventual Mars mission. But it was a pretty useful tool when it worked; it allowed Americans to place and repair important satellites (including the Hubble telescope), was a mobile space science lab, and made a pretty good delivery and assembly vehicle for the International Space Station. Had it worked better it may well have had important military applications, such as inspecting suspicious space vehicles sent up by not-so-friendly humans. We are probably going to miss it.

So let’s pretend that the USA was still flush with cash, and not tipping on the edge of insolvency. Let’s pretend that we are with NASA, to which Congress has given a blank check  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:26 pm       Read Comments (4) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Personal Reflections ... Photo ... Religion ...

I’ve been practicing Zen with my local sangha now for a little over a year, and in this time I’ve swallowed down a big dose of Buddhism. But to be honest, I’m still having indigestion from it. Buddhism just seems so negative, and ultimately it seems quite un-Zen.

At the core of Buddhism are the Four Noble Truths — which are so very negative about the world. These 4 truths actually fold into 2 basic notions: life is pretty much all about suffering, but Buddhism holds the formula to attain some sort of deliverance from that suffering. This suffering is transmitted by the cycle of birth and death and karma transmission between lives. The deliverance is called Nirvana, and is not explained or described other than that the cycle of birth, death and karma are ended permanently once Nirvana is reached.

Sounds pretty grim, actually. Zen can seem grim too, with plenty of long, harsh, boring practices prescribed to attain “enlightenment” — whatever that is! It’s not exactly Nirvana, but it’s not exactly NOT Nirvana.

Yea, yea, more of that lovely eastern double-talk. For me, though, Zen has been something much brighter. My community and teacher seem to focus on the light more than the dark; we talk about the unseen perfection of the moment. We talk about breaking thru the illusion of incompleteness. We say that you already have it all, even as you continue to search and struggle. And we enjoy each other’s company while together pondering these great imponderables.

Last weekend I finally got out for my spring hike up in Harriman State Park. Just a quarter mile south of the Elk Pen lot is this little babbling brook. I stopped to take it in, of course, and it made me think — why do we need Nirvana? What would be so terrible about being born again into a world with babbling brooks like this?

Well yes, I realize that this is also a world of terror and misunderstanding and loneliness and betrayal and war and chaos and sickness and anxiety. But is that the rule, or is the world good at the core? Do we need to achieve Nirvana, freedom from re-birth; or do we need Zen enlightenment about the goodness made possible because of our birth? The Buddha promised deliverance; Zen promises “right here, right now, right in you”. I’m with those who say that Zen is more Taoist than Buddhist in nature. I believe that it’s Tao that can experience a stream like this and know that despite all the bad (bin Laden, the killing of bin Laden, etc), at heart all is good. The Tao knows that Nirvana is here and now — so, I’m hereby renaming this location “Tao Nirvana Falls”.

Well, unofficially, anyway!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:33 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
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