The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Thursday, August 30, 2012
Current Affairs ... Outer Space ...

The press recently marked the passing of the first man to walk on the moon, astronaut Neil Armstrong. Ah, another famous figure from my youth has gone to the great round-up out in the blue. And another reminder is had that life is not to be taken for granted.

The RealClearScience web site published a tribute to Mr. Armstrong just after his passing, making the point that he probably saved the Apollo 11 mission from being aborted or even failing tragically during the last minute when the lunar module approached the moon’s surface. As the story goes, the “LEM” (lunar excursion module) with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin was off course a bit and was heading towards a rather rocky and dangerous landing spot. Armstrong decided to over-ride the computer controls and pilot the craft himself, which required him to fly horizontally over the moon’s surface, looking for a nice flat spot to land. This maneuver used up a lot of fuel, such that the LEM was less than a minute from running on fumes (which it basically doesn’t do). But Armstrong stayed cool and finally found his spot, and the rest was history.

Not long after reaching the moon, Armstrong took the first walk on lunar soil. It obviously was a moment for the history books, and Armstrong had a good line prepared for the moment. As his boots hit the lunar dust, Mr. Armstrong spoke into his helmet microphone “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. It was a big moment (recall the scenes of CBS News anchorman Walter Chronkite being flabbergasted and losing his words), and this line sounded really good. Only later on did anyone think about what Armstrong had actually said. Man . . . mankind . . . what’s the difference? One small step for humanity, one giant leap for humanity? What’s this, a Zen koan or something?

No, Armstrong was trying to contrast how his stepping off the LEM platform was physically just  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:04 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Monday, August 27, 2012
Economics/Business ... Outer Space ... Politics ...

With the Republican convention underway, I gave some thought to an economist’s kind of question — i.e., how much money is spent each year on politics; how much of our national economic wealth goes into “electioneering”. I did a quick search and got a couple of ballpark answers. One article cites a study of national political costs in the 2008 and 2012 election years; for all elections, from the local school board all the way up to the White House, the predicted total cost of campaigning for votes in 2012 is $9.84 billion, versus $6.98 billion in 2008.

Hmm, a 41% jump, well in excess of the net inflation rate and net GDP growth rate for that period. Another study concluded that the nationwide cost of election politics in the Congressional mid-term election years was $4 billion in 2010 versus $2.85 billion in 2006. Which was also a 40% jump over 4 years. Wow, politics is definitely a growth industry, even in the midst of a “great recession”!

And this doesn’t count the cost of another form of political influence, the more indirect technique of political lobbying. I’m sure that if you piled on all the money spent by corporations, unions and other big interest groups (e.g. trial lawyers) for “access” to our leaders on the state and national level, you could pile another billion or two on to these totals.

Oh wait, here’s a web site for that! In 2006, the nationwide total spent  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:10 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, August 25, 2012
Photo ...

I’m a little sad today, as my digital camera has bitten the dust. I pulled over on my ride home from work yesterday, wanting a shot of an interesting warning sign on the fence around a demolition site. My trusty Minolta Dimage Z10 was in the trunk, so I got it out and walked over by the site. The sun was at my back, so everything looked good for a quick photo shoot. But when I pushed the button to power up, all was silent; no reassuring little ‘beep’. I peered into the viewer, and all was dark. I re-tried it a couple of times, but nothing. Dead as a doorknob.

When I got home later, after a nice dinner out with my brother, I replaced the batteries, hoping that it was just a bad battery issue. But no dice, there was nothing but darkness and silence where once there was light . . . a celebration of light, a capturing of light by thousands of little photo sensors. That would be no more.

I probably shouldn’t invest any feelings into a modern piece of plastic and microcircuits. I was probably lucky to get 6 years out of my Z10. It’s time time to move on; my next camera will probably cost less and do more (image stabilization would be nice to have). It also will probably be smaller and lighter, an important consideration in a suspicious world, where standing there with a big camera over your face is a sure way to invite questioning from the constables and even jumpy local residents. As a photographer trying to get close to things that security-conscious forces might not want you so close to, it’s best to keep one’s camera hidden out of sight as long as possible. I.e., pocket-size cameras are a photographer’s best friend in a post-nine eleven world.

And yet . . . this particular piece of plastic and rare earth elements seemed special to me. It helped me to create some interesting images. It helped me to be creative. It helped to preserve something of the essence from a lot of interesting scenes that I came across. Or so I thought, anyway.

So I’ll miss my way-behind-the-times Z10. In a few days, after a decent mourning period, I’ll get back on-line and start searching for a new camera. Maybe I’ll have it by next weekend.

This is a picture of my erstwhile main-picture-taker, along with the last shot taken by it. I was trying to capture a scene in Newark on a side street near downtown, where a few days before I had noticed something almost ethereal about the way the sun and morning haze was outlining the iron fire escapes. A few days later, when I took this shot, the sun was dimmed by a layer of high clouds and the mood was not the same. I was hoping to come back with my Z10 next week, on a clearer and brighter morning; but that will now be left to a newer generation of digital picture taking thingies.

Atque in perpetuum, Z10, ave atque vale.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:54 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, August 19, 2012
Spirituality ... Zen ...

It’s time for an audio file! Yes, a real MP3! Well, not exactly a very good audio file. It’s a recording of me talking at a “practice circle” discussion at my local zendo recently. The quality isn’t all that good, given that the mini-recorder was buried in my front pocket and I wasn’t speaking into the mike. But with some clues herein provided, you might be able to make out most of what I said.

The topic of the discussion was a chapter from one of those typical “How to be a Zen Buddhist 101” books (i.e., “Buddhism, Is Not What You Think” by Steve Hagen; I would give this book 2 and 1/2 stars out of 5, basically “meh”, a bit condescending). The “sangha” was discussing one of the better chapters, regarding the idea that “serenity” is not simply going to a peaceful and beautiful place all by yourself and staring at your navel for hours on end, awaiting a great transcendent insight. Hagen, to his credit, makes the point that the serenity that Zen seeks is something much deeper, something that doesn’t evaporate when the lady at the checkout counter shorts you $5 in change, or someone runs a stop sign not far ahead of you while chatting away on their smart phone. True serenity is . . . well, darn if I know or could put it into words even if I did. If I ever do find out, I’ll get back to you.

The sangha was also pondering an old story previously discussed by our own “monk in charge”, Jeff, which was about an ancient Zen master who got framed unfairly for getting a girl pregnant. This old master obviously lost all his credentials as a monk and teacher. Instead of using that classic line from Martin Briley’s 1983 hit “Salt In My Tears”, i.e. “I never did it, no I won’t admit it”, the old monk just said “is that so?”. The girl’s parents gave the baby to the monk and said “you’re the daddy, so take good care of junior”. Again, all he said was “is that so?” The now-former monk and former-teacher was a stand-up guy, so he got a real job, got a crib, and raised the child. But then comes the twist to the story — about a year later, the girl ‘fessed up and pointed her finger at the real daddy. Her parents then charged over to the old master’s hut and said “give that child back, he’s not yours!!” The soon-to-be-restored monk and teacher handed over the child and said . . . wait for it . . . “IS THAT SO?”

We were also discussing the invocation we often use at the end of our zazen, i.e. “may we realize the Buddha Way together”. In my MP3 below, I share my own thoughts on all this, along with the question of “just what are we supposed to be doing or attaining with our minds when we sit in meditation for long periods?” The Zen teachers are mostly quiet on that point. But obviously, it has something to do with seeking out serenity in your life. So I briefly discuss the “big mind” idea and how modern neuroscience seems to affirm that meditation can create a well-integrated brain state, a form of consciousness that captures and includes everything that is going on in your head, and not just a particular area of current attention or worry. In theory, if you could take your “big mind” to the street, bring it “back to the city”, you would be a person who has it all together, who doesn’t argue with her or himself, and thus is less likely to argue and bicker with others. You would work to find common ground and understanding, even when the going gets tough.

So that’s what I’m blabbing on about for 5 minutes or so. PS, I get confused towards the end of my talk about the song “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”. I forgot that it was written and originally recorded by Bruce Springsteen; I was thinking of the later cover version by David Bowie. One of the many ‘music mavens’ at the zendo helpfully corrects me, though! Enjoy.

Some Semi-Coherent Ramblings from an Eternal Student of Life



◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:01 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Friday, August 17, 2012
Art & Entertainment ... Brain / Mind ... Spirituality ...

The other day, I posted a blog about modern scientific attempts to debunk the idea of God with attempts to explain everything — absolutely every darn thing that might possibly exist — through a self- selection process involving random trial and errors. I explained my own problems with this, pointing to a possible reduction ad absurdum, the same absurdity that scientists accuse the “God theory” of having.

But the world of science is attacking the notion of God on another front . . . and that is “the quiet voice deep within”, i.e. the personal experience that makes one think that there is “something more” than we know in the immediate sense. This is also called “the spiritual experience” or a “religious experience”, and it seems to be quite universal. People of all sorts from many different lands and cultures seem to report similar experiences. Evidence, some might say, that there must be a God; even though humans still fight idiotic wars over what the nature of this God must be.

But the brain scientists are fighting back, performing studies and publishing papers on why our brains make us have such experiences and interpret them as “transcendent”. They have come up with a variety of factors  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:00 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Religion ... Science ...

Scientists are on a tear these days to stamp out any rational reason for believing that there might be a knowing and almighty God or similar “higher power” as postulated by many of the world’s major religions. Over the centuries, science has broadened its jurisdiction over many areas of mystery where the ancients once thought God’s fingerprint might be found. E.g., humankind found out that we live on a limited sphere (planet) and not an infinite flat plane (or a limited island on an infinite ocean, as the Book of Genesis seems to imagine); then we found out that this sphere was not the center of the universe with all other heavenly bodies circling it; then we found that the forces of life are driven by ordinary chemistry and physics (and information processing), not by some spiritual “elan vital”; then it turned out that humans themselves evolved through these physical processes over time through trial-and-error processes, and not by any direct intervention from the divine.

In recent years, our physicists and cosmologists have made much progress in understanding the universe on both the largest and smallest scales. I.e., Big Bang/inflation cosmology (replete with dark energy and dark matter) rule the macro end, while quantum mechanics and the Standard Particle Model (and maybe soon, superstring theory) hold at the micro scales. Nonetheless, a problem has emerged over time for many of these physicists, when they realized that “it didn’t have to be the way that it is”. If ‘life, the universe and everything’ can be compared to a loaf of baked bread, scientists now realize that just a few tiny differences in some arbitrary factors governing matter and energy relationships could have left the universe as a gummy blob that never rose, or a stack of burnt crumbs after the primordial dough rose too fast and then blew to pieces. Things turned out as they did, with organized clusters, galaxies, stars, planets and living things (and then living things with sentient consciousness), because of an unlikely confluence of “just right” settings in the basic laws of the universe.

Now, obviously this seems to leave a door open for God to leave a fingerprint. So the scientists are working their minds overtime in trying to weld this door shut, with concepts of repeating “multi-verse” bubbles and parallel universes  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:00 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, August 12, 2012
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ... Politics ...

As all the world knows, Mitt Romney now has a running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan. Ryan, of course, is noted as the GOP point-man for fixing the federal debt crisis (or crisis-to-be; right now we’re getting by, lenders still want to loan money to Uncle Sam . . . but at some point, we could get into a jam like Greece, Italy and Spain are in with their unpayable sovereign debt and shrinking economies). And Ryan’s key target is the complex of federal entitlements, including the two biggest ones, Social Security and Medicaid. I haven’t seen all the details of the Ryan plan, but I understand that he wants drastic cuts in benefit levels for the average citizen, with no exemptions for Baby Boomer foggies like me who are counting on these programs for a comfortable but not lavish old age.

Of course, the big problem is the “Great Recession” that we are still not out of, despite the official declaration that the Recession ended in late 2009. The problem is that the economy is still growing much slower than it could and should. That has caused an appreciable net loss of national potential wealth, the wealth that these entitlement programs were counting on to stay afloat. So yes, it does seem reasonable to say that everyone has to share some of the pain, given that the pain is now unavoidable.

What I don’t like about Ryan and his cronies is that they seize on a real financial problem (which most leaders in the Democratic Party  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:22 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, August 5, 2012
Outer Space ... Technology ...

The “space race” ain’t what it used to be in the USA. In the glory years of the 1960s and 70s, the USA put men on the moon and sent up the first orbiting space stations. But over the next 30 years, the dangerous-but-not-very-inspiring Space Shuttle soaked up most of the dwindling resources available for “exo-atmospheric” exploration, and ultimately left us at a dead end. For now, the only way for Americans to get into space is by hitching a ride aboard a Russian Soyuz vehicle (although NASA is working with Boeing, SpaceX and some other firms to get American manned vehicles back into earth orbit sometime before 2020 . . . or so they hope).

However, during these years, the USA had not done so badly in terms of sending increasingly sophisticated robot probes and vehicles to the planet next door, i.e. Mars. We’ve managed to get about 2 out of every 3 Mars missions successfully to the red planet, whether in orbit or to the surface via parachutes and rockets or bouncing air-bags. Now we’re kicking it up a notch with the Curiosity rover, a mission set to make a landing attempt in a few hours (around 1:30 AM Eastern Daylight Time on Monday, Aug 6), eight months after launch from Cape Canaveral. This baby is almost 5 times the size of previous scientific rovers, and will be a scientific lab on wheels. It will move more than twice as fast as the Sojourner and 5 times the Opportunity, and have twice as many scientific instruments on board to probe the Martian surface. Sounds great, makes you almost proud once again of the American space program.

But one problem . . . first this thing has to land first, using a wacky “sky hook” arrangement  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:01 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, August 4, 2012
Photo ...

Street art on University Avenue, Newark NJ.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:00 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Brain / Mind ... Spirituality ...

I read an interesting thought recently in an article discussing medical science. It specifically applies to the question of how much testing and monitoring of the human body is desirable and ultimately beneficial, given the state of modern medicine (and in anticipation of the future state of medicine and medical practice). But I think it can apply to all things. Here is the quote:

Data is not Information
Information is not Knowledge
Knowledge is not Wisdom

Very interesting – four levels of human understanding: Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom. I won’t make a detailed attempt here to define these concepts. They obviously represent an attempt to bridge the gap between sensory inputs and the highest levels of mind-brain functioning regarding how we behave, how we make choices, and how we live our lives.

Actually, you could add “sensory inputs” as a level below “data”. I.e., you need to read a blood pressure meter with your eyes, or count your pulse through your fingers, before you have any “data”. And at the other end –  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:16 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
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