The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

A few weeks ago I wrote something here about the new Voice of Russia AM radio station in the New York metro area (at 1430 on the dial). They broadcast 24/7 and focus on news and international issues, at least when I listen during my morning and evening commutes to work. When I last wrote, the VofR announcers were mostly English-speaking Russians with noticeable accents. But since then, VofR decided to ‘Americanize’ things a bit; they focus more on local news in the New York and DC metro areas (those are the two places where they have stations; sorry, Chicago, Atlanta, LA, Dallas, etc., but you can listen on the web site). They even give occasional weather forecasts for DC and NYC, and have toned down the critical commentary (somewhat hypocritical, coming from Russia) regarding American imperialism. And instead of cuing “expert commentary” from old men with turgid accents at quasi-governmental institutions in St. Petersburg or Novosibirsk, VofR is now featuring mostly American guests on their shows. Again, at least during drive-time; at 10 PM on Sunday or 12 noon on Tuesday it might be Moscow Mailbag or Musical Tales from the steppes, or recipes for sturgeon and cabbage.

To deliver this lighter blend with an American flavor, VofR recently hired several aspiring young American news journalists as hosts. It’s quite an improvement and it gives VofR even more of an NPR flavor (but without all the pledge drives!). I still haven’t figured out just why the Russian government is spending good money on this, unless it’s a prestige thing (or maybe it’s good for business; perhaps it encourages American financial leaders to consider investing in Russia). But I’m glad they are doing it, as it presents a welcome alternative on the AM dial for us news junkies and policy wonks when the local network news stations are rattling off their commercials (dirty capitalists!) and NPR is begging for cash or playing “groovy” international music (damn socialists!).

One of the new drive-time shows on VofR is called “Capital to Capital”, hosted by two American announcers, one based in Moscow and the other in Washington. They discuss the local headlines from each capital and exchange thoughts  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:08 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, June 25, 2011
Personal Reflections ...

In my virtual strolls amidst the wandering pathways of the world wide web, I came across a muzu tv video from a couple of young British guitar women who call themselves “The Smoke Fairies”. What caught my eye and inspired me to give a listen was not so much their pretty blond hair and fetchingly subtle fashions and mannerisms, as the name of their song: “Erie Lackawanna”.

Erie Lackawanna!!!! That’s the lid of a treasure-trove of memories for me. Ah yes — the Erie Lackawanna Railroad, which ran trains over the various tracks that criss-crossed the neighborhoods of my youth (even behind my grandmother’s apartment). Back in my youth, we geek-loner types didn’t have the wandering pathways of the virtual network, but we did have wandering pathways of steel rail and wooden ties. I was a kid who just didn’t fit the mold in my high school, so finding friends was not easy. But there was the Erie Lackawanna Railroad just down the street, which became my friend. Once in a blue moon a crabby railroader or cop would come along and chase me out, but most of the time I was free to roam and watch and ask questions.

There was the Rutherford station agent (the late Jim Allen, a very mellow guy who wore a cardigan and smoked a pipe), the gate crossing guard  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:16 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Personal Reflections ... Photo ...

Back in the early 1990’s, after breaking up from a short but intense romantic relationship, I went through a period of fascination with monks, hermits and the contemplative spiritual life. It was a good time and it lasted more than a few years. In many ways it is still part of me today, even though I didn’t have it within me to join a religious monastic order, or live a truly eremitic life. But my life is still a good deal more quiet than most.

During my years of “quiet discovery / discovery of the quiet” in the 90’s, I became a big fan of Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton, who lived as a hermit for the last decade of his life. Well, sort of, anyway. Merton still had a lot of human contact, and one of his secular friends, John Howard Griffin, got him interested in photography. I recently picked up a used copy of a wonderful photo book by Griffin published way back in 1970, just a few years after Merton’s untimely death on a trip to the Far East. It’s called “A Hidden Wholeness: The Visual World of Thomas Merton“, and it presents a fair number of artistic photos taken by Merton, and also photos of Merton by Griffin. Within the latter set are a series of shots, all black and white and quite wonderful, showcasing Merton’s living quarters (his concrete block ‘hermitage’ out in the woods of Kentucky). It gives a nice look at the day-to-day stuff like pots in the kitchen, the sink, his bedroom, a working desk, etc.

Well, I’m not anywhere near the spiritual or artistic caliber of Merton and Griffin. But these photos nevertheless inspired me to get out the camera and get a few “quotidian” shots around my own apartment and hermitage-of-sorts. So, here is my kitchen stove on a Saturday AM, with some cooking projects underway. And the cabinet shelf where I store my hats, gloves and scarves, ready to fight off any cold and inclement weather. In black-and-white, no less. But yea, Merton probably got by with a lot fewer hats, gloves and scarves than I do, and not nearly as much other junk on the shelves. It’s tough being a simple hermit in the 21st Century!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:16 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, June 18, 2011
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ... Politics ...

When Barack Obama caught fire in 2007, pro-government liberalism tried to make something of a come-back in the USA. To be honest, Obama’s new liberal movement didn’t thrill me, given that it built itself politically on the stale form of left-over liberalism from the mid-20th Century, fronted by worn-out leaders like Nancy Pelosi, Barney Franks, John Kerry and Harry Reid. It wasn’t a good sign that one of the newest lights in the liberal world is a clown named Al Franken. (Oh for a Robert Kennedy and a Theodore Sorensen). And its biggest cheerleader is Keith Olbermann, a media jerk just as jerky as the Fox News bad boys (Glenn Beck, etc.). Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow also fail to inspire me.

So I got interested in the counterviews being presented, quite intelligently, by conservative writers such as Victor Davis Hanson, Charles Krauthammer, George Will and Thomas Sowell. I was just about ready to support the more thoughtful contingent of young, upcoming GOP leaders such as Paul Ryan, Rob Portman and Marco Rubio (oh yea, and Nikki Haley).

But it finally occurred to me that despite some serious grains of truth mixed in with the new Republican stew, most of it is also pretty stale and warmed over. In the end, the GOP is still the party of the rich minority,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:02 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Aspergers ... Science ...

A few days ago I wrote an entry here about “socio-Aspergers Syndrome”, using Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblance” as used to describe the approximate way that most words are defined in our language. I contrasted this to “clinical autism” (the classical “Kanner Syndrome” version of autism, with its effects on communication skills, learning achievement, socialization, etc.). I believed that “core autism” had a more strict, scientific definition.

But a few days later I read an article on the Scientific American web site about continuing research into autism and its genetic markers. Well, it turns out that there is no one “smoking gun” in the genes that determines autism. The genetic factors are in fact all over the place, with certain overlapping trends that cover maybe 20 to 30% of all autistics, but never a definitive set of genetic conditions common to all autistic people. So, even in the DNA realm, autism is a mixed-up fruit salad, a “family resemblance” thing. Oh well, just shows how wrong we all can be!

[Unless the study was “polluted” by the “spectrum” concept – i.e., if the researchers are not focusing on the “clear cut” cases, but instead  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:03 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, June 11, 2011
Brain / Mind ... Philosophy ... Science ... Spirituality ...

Stephen Hawking (the crippled world-class physicist) is on a metaphysical tear once again. In a recent interview, he re-asserted the metaphysical viewpoint that there is no God, no heaven, no spirits, no after-life, no karma, nothing AT ALL beyond what the physics books say about reality. He recently told the London Guardian that heaven is “just a fairly story for people who are afraid of the dark”. According to the Hawking view, the known laws of gravity, working in the context of “M Theory”, a super-string based unification of the known basic forces in a fashion consistent with both quantum mechanics and general relativity, allows for creation “ex nihilo” (from nothing). Reality, according to these laws and paradigms, creates all kinds of universes from nothing; just a random throw of the dice. Sooner or later, one comes along that can support sentient and self-conscious life. Nothing terribly special about it all. It just happens.

OK, well first off; M-Theory and superstrings have not yet been verified empirically. But so what, it’s based on a lot of well thought out deductions based on many proven laws, including quantum theory and general relativity and the standard particle model (or a super-symmetric expansion of it, anyway). Einstein’s theories on special and general relativity were likewise untested when announced back in the early 20th century; as scientific techniques and abilities progressed, his ideas were eventually shown to be spot-on. So why shouldn’t M-Theory and superstrings and super-symmetry be taken seriously, pending verification from new tools such as the CERN particle accelerator and a variety of space-probes planned over the next 20 years, including the LISA multi-satellite gravity-wave detection system.

There is a slight tinge of anti-scientific hubris in this attitude, given that science is supposed to be open to surprises until the “field data” reaches a high level of confidence. But OK, Hawking is an extremely smart fellow who devoted his life to this entire stuff, so I wouldn’t bet against him regarding M-Theory. But still,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:31 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, June 9, 2011
Aspergers ... Philosophy ... Society ...

During my readings today I happened across a discussion regarding philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s thoughts on words and language. Wittgenstein made the point that most common nouns do not have a precise definition, one that would satisfy the rules of science. That’s not too surprising, as most languages and words evolved long before humankind conjured up the rules of science. According to Wittgenstein, things like chairs and tables and trees are recognized for their “chair-ness” or “tree-ness” by having a significant number of “family resemblances”. However, any one chair need not have ALL of the basic characteristics that chairs can have; it’s as if there were a menu of “chairness” features, and when an object has enough of those features (but not all of them), then it’s a chair. The next chair probably has a different set of features, but with some overlap.

And if you had a hundred different chairs, no one element on the “chairness” list would be present in every chair. But each chair would share at least a handful of characteristics with any other one. That’s just the nature of common language, that’s just how our minds work for day-to-day things. When science came along, it taught us the benefit of having strict definitions; so we can say that beryllium must have a certain number of protons in order to be beryllium (I think the number is four; beryllium is a very light metal, versus uranium with its 92 protons).

This made me think about Aspergers Syndrome. As I’ve said before, Aspergers Syndrome and I have some common ground; I’m not formally diagnosed with it,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:17 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Monday, June 6, 2011
Photo ...

Nostalgia time. Here’s a shot of some Navy guys at the Pearl Harbor air base circa 1945. The war is either over or nearly over, and the mood at Pearl is much lighter than 4 years before. One of these sailors is my dad. I’m not going to say who he is, except that he’s not the guy making the funny face. Thank goodness!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:35 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, June 4, 2011
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

I just saw an article about a recent computer hacking against an Al Qaeda web site. Unlike most web site attacks, however, this one was pulled off by the British intelligence service. How about that, digital counter-terrorism! The spook-geeks at MI6 got onto the web server and replaced a downloadable article on bomb-making with a web page containing cupcake recipes!!! American cupcake recipes, to boot.

The article, known as “make a bomb in your mom’s kitchen”, was written by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American radical imam based in Yemen. Some observers recently stated in the NY Times that al-Awlaki is mostly an outsider to al Qaeda and is mainly a freelance terrorist. But there was al-Awlaki’s ‘bomb for mom’ article on al Q’s “Inspire” web magazine, replaced for a few days by American cupcakes. The bomb article made its way back after a week, unfortunately.

Nevertheless, BRAVO MI6 !! That dry British wit (not the silly Monty Python stuff) still holds true in the face of modern techno-evil. So God Save the Queen ! And Hail Britannia !! RULE BRITANNIA!!! Ruler of the (quantum) wave(packet)s . . .

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:44 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Religion ... Society ...

I recently wrote about the tragic death two weeks ago of 8-year old Christiana Glenn of Irvington, NJ after starvation and extreme neglect by her mother, Venette Olivde. I wondered if tragic deaths like hers (and there are way too many of them) signify a severe weakening of community in our nation, manifested in different ways in the poorer and better off areas. I argued that in both poor and affluent neighborhoods, the vast proliferation of electronic media (TV, radio, internet, smart phones, I-pods, I-pads, etc.) sends countless messages glorifying the rich and implicitly denigrating the poor, creating a burden of bad feelings and self-image on the part of anyone who hasn’t ‘made it big’.

Furthermore, these devices allow each individual to find and live in his or her own virtual world of common belief, decreasing the sense of “real community” and social solidarity that once existed, especially in poor neighborhoods. Those factors obviously didn’t kill an 8 year old girl; but they may have weakened the social mechanisms that might have saved her, i.e. communal responsibility for children’s welfare.

The Christiana Glenn case has another important aspect however, but one that still feeds back into the community situation. Christiana’s mother was a part of a 12 to 15 person “mini-cult” religion,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:51 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
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