The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Sunday, August 31, 2014
Current Affairs ... History ...

Lately I’ve been listening to Prof. David Christian explain his “Big History” concept (courtesy of a CD course from the Teaching Company), and I’ve almost reached the end (i.e., the present). I’ve hung in there from the Big Bang and matter formation thru the first stars and star clusters leading to galaxies and solar system formation, then the condensation of the planets around those stars (using heavy elements sprayed into the void from the heart of supernova explosions). And then came the various coincidences that eventually allowed warm watery environments to evolve with slimy life forms somehow forming, eventually leading to intelligence, consciousness and society — at least on one tiny planet in an otherwise insignificant corner of the Milky Way (a generally insignificant galaxy in its own right).

In one of his final lectures in the course, Prof. Christian discusses the “Malthusian Crisis” or cycle, i.e. a situation where the human population of a large portion of the world (or sometimes the whole world itself) grows beyond its long-run carrying capacity in terms of nutrition, energy, shelter, and protection from disease. Under such conditions, the population starts decreasing, until things get back in balance a few generations later. Professor Christian offered two examples of an historical Malthusian Crisis — the first is in the 14th century, when people start intermingling from around the world, spreading nasty diseases and plagues (such as the Black Death) that started killing people off in large numbers. There were other basic factors, such as populations that were growing too fast for the agricultural capacity to keep up, along with climate changes that just made it worse. Experts estimated that world population levels dropped by perhaps one quarter (from 450 million to 350-375 million) in the 14th century, after a few hundred years of slow growth.

Then in the 17th century, things got bad once again, termed a “General Decline” by some scholars. A global cooling took place (called the Little Ice Age, possibly related  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:37 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Friday, August 29, 2014
Personal Reflections ... Politics ...

I was doing my wash the other day at my brother’s house, and for whatever reason my eyes set upon a previously unnoticed shelf in the basement. That shelf contained the various dinner service sets that my mother bought and put into storage back in the 1960s, when my brother and I were growing up. I recall her saying to my father that this tableware cache was not simply a reserve for the occasional dropped plate or lost spoon in the house. No, this was a dream for the future, when my brother and I would be grown up and married and have our own houses and families. Mom wanted to help us and our future spouses to “get started” with our own family nests, by contributing a variety of plates and cups and cutlery.

Well, that dream never came to fruition. I got married in 1985, but it didn’t last long enough to involve a house and kids. The ex and I bought some dinnerware on our own during the engagement, which wound up in my corner after the divorce settlement. So I didn’t need to borrow anything from the old homestead, after all. As to my brother, he never left that old homestead, having never married or had kids. And he doesn’t need much for his present kitchen (my parents weren’t affluent enough to afford a house with a separate dining room — just as well, AFAIAC), as he usually eats out or nibbles on take-out or pre-packaged meals at home.

So, Mom’s Norman Rockwell dream of sitting at the head of a big family holiday table garnished with the placement settings that she wisely invested in never came to pass. The flatware and earthenware sets still sit on a shelf gathering dust, awaiting a call to family duty that never came. Well, who knows — perhaps one day my brother will find a young struggling couple who could make good use of this stuff. I hope that happens someday. For now, though, we still have the dreams that Mom had when she was our present age (actually a bit younger!) to ponder, just gathering dust on a shelf near the washer and drier.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:01 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, August 24, 2014
Current Affairs ... Society ...

In the wake of the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, MO two weeks ago, various articles have pointed out how difficult it is to get good stats on the number of police killings in the US per year, and regarding the circumstances behind them. The most commonly quoted stats are from the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Report, from its Uniform Crime Reporting program. The basic number is about 400 non-accidental fatalities per year stemming from police actions. However, many point out that this number probably undercounts the real level of fatal police activity.

There is a dataset, however, from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics regarding all deaths in police custody or attempted custody (as with Micheal Brown) from 2003 to 2009, which breaks down the circumstances including race of the victim. The raw numbers from this study are fairly close to the FBI estimate, averaging about 443 homicide-like killings per year by police, ranging from 375 to 497 (with a rough upward trend seen over the 7 year period). The FiveThirtyEight web site still thinks this is too low, but it appears to me to be about the best data available for the years involved. So, I will use this data to get a rough view on whether the police are more apt to shoot a black person versus a white person during an arrest or attempted apprehension action.

OK, the BJS stats say that between 2003 and 2009 (inclusive), police killed 1,233 white people and 937 African-American people non-accidentally during a police action, whether or not an arrest had or had not been made of the victim (obviously, no arrest had been made of Michael Brown; although Officer Wilson arguably  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:28 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, August 21, 2014
Current Affairs ... Public Policy ... Technology ...

I’m going to weigh in with some comments on the Ferguson, MO situation and the difficult national issues that it touches upon. Before I offer my own thoughts, I would like to summarize a few articles by a few pundits who I feel offered some very cogent observations about the tragic events that have transpired over the past 2 weeks.

Charles Blow in the NY Times states that

discussion about issues in the black community too often revolves around a false choice: systemic racial bias or poor personal choices. In fact, these factors are interwoven like the fingers of clasped hands. People make choices within the context of their circumstances and those circumstances are affected — sometimes severely — by bias . . . These biases do material damage as well as help breed a sense of disenfranchisement and despair, which in turn can have a depressive effect on aspiration and motivation. This all feeds back on itself . . . If we want to truly address the root of the unrest in Ferguson, we have to ask ourselves how we can break this cycle.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar says that the ultimate problem is more a matter of bias and class presumptions against those living in poverty.

This fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor. Of course, to many in America, being a person of color  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:49 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, August 17, 2014
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ... Society ...

This will be one of those “off the top of my head” entries. The thing up there on top right now: Bitcoins. So here are a few random bits on Bitcoin.

I had an “ah ha!!!” moment the other day; I finally “get” what Bitcoin is really all about. I was reading a magazine article about big data and the NSA and how there’s really no privacy anymore. Big government and big business can know just about anything they want to know about us, given how closely we are tracked and how our data is “warehoused” forever. Now that we are living digitally, now that everything we do economically and legally happens via a credit card or some other individual account on a computer network (e.g. employer records, medical insurance, mortgage and other loan accounts, Social Security and Medicare, tax payments, criminal records, banking and investment accounts, motor vehicle records, the list goes on and on) . . . then layer in all the personal communications via e-mail and social networks . . . all it takes are a few interconnections between a handful of database systems to paint a detailed picture of who we are: what we do, what we eat, how our health is, how many accidents we’ve had, how much liquor we drink, what are assets and debts are, who our friends and enemies are, what we care about, where we are likely to be next Sunday morning, what our political beliefs are, where our loved ones live . . .

So far the NSA has made the most aggressive use of these interconnections to look for the bad guys. And so long as the NSA answers to a constitutional government that  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:41 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Friday, August 15, 2014
Art & Entertainment ... Photo ... Zen ...

I was leading the “kinhin” walking meditation line this past Sunday at my local zendo, and my mind was pretty much on auto-pilot. I’ve led kinhin a good number of times before, and I can mostly do it now in my sleep. Actually, I hadn’t gotten enough sleep for the past 3 or 4 nights, so I wasn’t all that far from sleep. I wasn’t thinking about much, but I wasn’t “in the moment” either (such as the Zen teachers keep babbling on about). Just keeping count on how many circles we had made and how many we had left; 3, 2, 1, back into the sitting hall.

When you have your mind in neutral like that, however, you never know when something previously unnoticed will suddenly capture your attention, just because of the random, chaotic “churning of attention” that goes on in the brain. I was walking towards the wall, leading the group into a turn, when my eyes quickly focused on the brush painting on the wall. Specifically, a brush calligraphy character representing the famous Zen-word “mu”. The painting was by the late but well known Soen Nakagawa, a Rinzai roshi from Japan who made frequent visits to the USA during the 50s, 60s and 70s, as Zen was takiing root in America amidst the Beats and then the Hippie and New Age cultures of the 60’s and 70’s.

Soen was known for being an eccentric but well-loved Zen teacher. Amidst his typical Japanese Zen students he supposedly was just another tough “Rinzai bastard”. But with Americans, he reportedly showed a lighter, more  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:29 am       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Monday, August 11, 2014
Personal Reflections ... Society ...

I was walking thru Newark on the way to the Broad St. train station after work the other day. I usually drive to work, but when the weather is nice I occasionally take the train even though it involves a one-mile walk each way. Just as I reached the stairway going up to the station platform, I could see someone about a block away, someone that I instantly recognized. No, it wasn’t anyone I knew. But I knew the type — an “odd street person”. Something a bit disheveled about this person, walking with an odd gait, hair disheveled, clothes a little funny, perhaps wearing a jacket or a thick sweater on a hot August afternoon. Usually these people are harmless, although once in a while they can make things very unpleasant when they suffer from mental dysfunctions and aren’t being properly treated. Interestingly, the person that I saw was not the only odd person I would encounter that day. More on that in a moment.

“Odd street people” aren’t always subject to a formal mental health diagnosis. Many indeed are, but some are just . . . well, just odd. You might call them “misfits”. People who just never made it, never held good jobs, never married or otherwise had stable relationships. Maybe their bodies were always a bit funny or slightly misformed. Maybe they were from broken homes, weren’t socialized all that well, and dropped out of school — but weren’t strong enough to enter the world of crime. Each one probably has her or his own story.

I’ve seen a lot of them over the years. When I was younger  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:27 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Friday, August 8, 2014
Zen ...

I’ve been sitting for meditation with a Zen sangha in the White Plum lineage for a little over 4 years now, and in that time I’ve listened to quite a few talks by various teachers about “the Zen way” (they usually don’t use that expression, but that’s what it amounts to). One important aspect of the Zen-life (you might even call it a philosophy, although they don’t) is “living in the moment”. The Buddha allegedly said that “the secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.”

A recent article found on a British news site says that “emphasis on the present moment is perhaps Zen’s most distinctive characteristic”. And that Sounds groovy, despite the fact that the Buddha may not have really said that the present moment is so great.

As I’ve said before, I am something of a Zen critic despite my loyal participation at zazen every week. I love to meditate, but I’ve come to conclude that “the present moment” is over-rated. To be honest, I believe that modern Zen teachers’ fixation on “the moment” represents another example of  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:50 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Brain / Mind ... Science ...

Given that I’ve done a fair bit of study and thinking about human consciousness (from both the scientific and philosophic viewpoint, intentionally excluding most of the popular mystical and metaphysical approaches to the topic), I took note of the report that a research team at George Washington University managed to switch on and off the consciousness of an epilepsy patient by using stimulatory electrode implants aimed at a structure in the brain called the claustrum.

A few years ago, noted consciousness researchers and theorists Francis Crick and Christof Koch posited that the claustrum was the place where the brain more or less weaved all of the various sensory input responses and stored information (such as memories and learned biases, fears and attractions) into a unified brain state representing the overall experience of being conscious. Their most significant empirical verification prior to the recent GWU study involved a certain type of mind-altering plant from Mexico called Salvia divinorum. The psychoactive chemical in the leaves of this plant were found to stick to a certain type of neuron receptor that is found in high concentrations in the claustrum. This distinguished it from other mind-bending hallucinogens like LSD, peyote and psilocybin, and even the basic feel-good stuff like coke and heroin.

According to unscientific reports submitted by “trippers” who used salvia, they experience  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:20 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
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