The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Thursday, February 26, 2015
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

The cover story in the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic is entitled “What Does ISIS Really Want”. I have the issue on my kitchen table (yes, a old-school paper magazine), but haven’t read the article yet. However, I did come across a good summary today on the Atlantic web site by none other than the article author himself, Graeme Wood.

If I’m reading him right, Mr. Wood is trying to drill down past the “western enlightenment” analysis regarding the social and economic conditions that arguably lead to political extremism and violence, and see just how serious ISIS is about its religious ideology. He seems to be saying that we do in fact need to take seriously the notion that ISIS finds its inspirations in existing (if not entirely mainstream) strains of the Islamic tradition. Although the Islamic mainstream is peaceful and tolerant, the ISIS viewpoint was not made up on the fly for entirely political and sociological reasons; Mr. Brown says that it is not a laughable misrepresentation of historical Islam. And that fact makes it all the more dangerous and powerful.

Of course, many intelligent people here in the US want to think that this really isn’t about religiously-inspired belief. We just can’t believe that anyone in the modern world would accept the notion that God demands an extraordinary level of purity, one that requires violence and death to achieve. In order for the many to be saved, some (“the wicked”) need to die. No, it just can’t be that anyone living today would think that . . . it has to be poverty, historical exploitation by the west (motivated by oil), brutal dictators who were supported by the US and its European allies . . . Recall the recent TV interview statement by State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, who asserted that a primary motivation for people to join ISIS is the lack of job opportunities in Middle Eastern countries.

Good old Tom Friedman, the self-appointed Middle East guru of the NY Times, today weighed in on what ISIS is, and what problems need to be solved in order to stop it. In a column entitled “ISIS Heads to Rome“, Friedman takes an “all of the above” approach. He asserts that ISIS is led  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:33 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, February 21, 2015
Science ...

I’ve been writing too much lately about all the problems of the world and about life. It’s time to take a break for a little while and do some pondering about math and science. Allow me to forget the real for a spell and wander a bit into the land of abstraction.

Today I’d like to ruminate on the notion of SYMMETRY a bit. To most of us in our daily life, symmetry isn’t all that important. We notice it now and then when two things seem basically the same in their overall design, but some important features about them have been changed or swapped. For instance, there are many different versions of Oreo cookies (of which I was a big fan as a youngster; they’re way too sweet and over-processed for me now). The basic Oreo has two dark chocolate cookies surrounding a white-ish vanilla icing layer. But there is an “inverse Oreo” on the market that has light, vanilla-flavored cookies surrounding a dark chocolate filling. The two are different, but in a symmetrical fashion; some part of the basic “Oreo-ness” is still there. Also if you like photography and remember black and white film, you may have noticed the symmetry between a negative and its print (the flip between dark and light areas on the image).

In the world of science (and engineering, i.e. the art of applying science to everyday things), symmetry is really important. In understanding how things in our bodies work on the molecular level, symmetry between molecular structures and compositions can tell us a lot. It helps to understand how things work, and also why things sometimes don’t work (i.e. disease);  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:55 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Monday, February 16, 2015
Philosophy ... Religion ...

I was listening to the local NPR station one evening and they were playing an interview with the author of a children’s book called “Tuck Everlasting”. The author’s name is Natalie Babbitt, and the book tells a story about a family (the Tucks) living way out in the middle of some forest. In their travels, they came across a spring of water one day, and took a few drinks from it. It turned out that this particular springwater has the power to make you immortal. They came across the spring a long, long time ago, and by all rights they should all be dead by the time of the story. But they (and their horse, which also took a few sips) hadn’t aged a day. And it don’t look like they are going to.

In the story, a little girl from a local village decides one day to take a hike in the woods, and happens across the same spring. She’s thirsty and is about to drink up, when someone in the Tuck family comes across her and yells out “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” He runs toward her and leaps and tackles her in slo-mo, just as she raises her cupped hands to her lips. Well, maybe not (this book was written in 1975, before everything had to be a violent action-adventure in the Terminator style); but they still dissuaded her from taking that fateful sip.

There’s a lot more to the plot, but the leitmotif of Tuck Everlasting is about whether anyone should really want to live forever. Babbitt doesn’t think so, and thus  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:33 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Friday, February 13, 2015
Society ... Technology ...

You may or may not have read or heard about the tragic SUV – passenger train crash that took place on the evening of February 3 in Valhalla, NY, when 6 people were killed after the train caught fire from the SUV’s gas tank. There are plenty of stories in the press about all of the various fatal accidents, crashes, explosions and other sorts of mayhem that occur when the infrastructure of modern society goes astray. A new one seems to appear almost most every other day; a bridge collapses, an airliner crash-lands, a chemical factory blows up, a ship sinks . . . and this is just the accidental stuff, not even counting all the crime, terrorism and wars that happen all over the world. Then fold in all the diseases and physical disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, etc.) that nature throws at us. So yes, a fatal train-car crash in the suburban New York metro area doesn’t really move the dial too much relative to everything else going on in the national and world news.

But still, this accident sort-of hits home for me. Valhalla is not that different from Montclair, as they are both upper-income suburbs of New York. The Metro North line there is similar in many ways to the NJ Transit Montclair-Boonton train line that runs about a ¼ mile from my apartment. And I am an old “railroad hand”, was always interested in trains and even worked part-time for a railroad during my college years. So, I couldn’t help but give this one some attention. (In a way it’s sad how we have to “triage” what we get from the news; we just don’t have time to mourn and grieve for every unfortunate victim being reported in the news these days).

The woman driving the car, Ellen Brody was about 12 years younger than me; she was a mother of three, lived in an upper-crust suburban town (Edgemont section of Scarsdale) not far away from Valhalla, and worked nearby in a jewelry store (in Chappaqua). The news stories are unclear on the details, as they always are; but from the reports I read about what was said to reporters by witnesses and officials, it appears  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:24 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, February 7, 2015
Photo ...

We just got thru January without too much snow . . . thanks to that blizzard that took a last-minute turn away from us just about a week ago. But February is turning into a true winter month, with lots of snow, ice and frigid misery. But hey, it’s past Groundhog Day; old man winter got a late start this year and may not last too long into March given current climate change trends. So we need to grit our teeth and tough it out. It’s still too early to look for signs of spring, but even in the midst of the winter grunge, you occasionally see a note of beauty. Such as these newly ripened fruit on a holly tree branch. You can’t eat it (it’s poisonous), but it does add a note of cheer. Well, almost, anyway.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:32 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, February 4, 2015
◊  God 2.0
Philosophy ... Religion ... Spirituality ...

I’ve talked here before about the “New Atheism” movement, a rather interesting social development over the past decade or so. Citing progress in particle physics and cosmology in crafting a “theory of everything” (based on vacuum energy, superstring/M-theory, inflationary cosmology, and the resultant multi-verse process), along with continuing scientific and philosophical work on the deep nature of human consciousness, a handful of philosophers and scientists have propounded a new synthesis by which science explains it all; there is no further need to appeal to ideas about “God” or any other mysterious phenomenon or force in the universe. Perhaps the most famous proponents of this movement are philosopher Daniel Dennett and biologist Richard Dawkins. But many people say there are “four horsemen” of this new view: Dennett, Dawkins, the now deceased writer Christopher Hitchens, and neuroscientist Sam Harris. Their overall synthesis boils down to a mix of 1.) physical monist philosophy, in which all things are either known or will eventually be known through empirical science and rational analysis; and 2.) secular humanism, the notion that human beings are capable of being ethical and moral without religion or a God.

I just put the New Atheism’s ideas in a positive fashion, i.e. emphasizing what they appear to be arguing FOR. But they are probably better defined by what they argue AGAINST: i.e., classical theistic, God-based religions. According to Wikipedia, the New Atheists believe that religion should not simply be tolerated as an alternate if inferior point of view, but should be aggressively countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises. The famous biologist E.O. Wilson recently said that “the best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths.”

The New Atheism thus takes the secular humanist agenda to the next level, by asserting that humanity will achieve the highest levels of humanism and  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:45 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
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