The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

There was some public debate recently as to whether America could continue its military presence in Afghanistan. President Trump decided to consult with his generals and then decided to keep us there and even add a few thousand troops. The idea is to shift away towards nation-building and re-focus on defeating terrorist threats to the West.

Various people are rather unhappy about US troops still being there after first being sent in late 2001 (following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack); they call it the “never ending war“. It made a fair amount of sense for US forces to root Al Qaeda out of its secure hiding spots in the Afghan mountains, right after we lost almost 3,000 lives from an Al Qaeda plot. However, a second phase of the Afghanistan mission eventually developed, focusing upon the pro-radical Islamic Taliban political / military movement in Afghanistan. This second phase focused both on degrading the Taliban’s military strength, and in denying its political strength by building an alternative nation-state more in keeping with western democratic traditions.

Unlike Al Qaeda, the Taliban, which had gained control of the Afghan national government, was and remains a home-grown movement focusing mostly on Afghanistan, versus international Islamic conquest as with radical group like Al Qaeda. The US under President Bush (the second) and then President Obama tried with some success to keep the Taliban from ruling Afghanistan. Doing so would help keep Al Qaeda or a similar radical Islamist movement (such as ISIS)  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:16 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Current Affairs ... History ...

I’ve been pondering the terrible incident that took place earlier this month in Charlottesville, VA, when radical white nationalist groups (including neo-Nazis and the KKK) gathered to protest the planned removal of the monument statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. There are plenty of terrible things to say about the radical right (or “alt-right” in modern terms) and the violence that it fomented, violence which led to the death by automotive terrorism of a young woman who was part of the crowds that came to Charlottesville to counter-protest the radical right. And since there have been plenty of writers and commentators who have already expressed those things in ways that are much more cogent and eloquent than I can, I will pretty much leave untouched the tragic events that transpired in the home of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and in more recent times, writer William Faulkner and pop-singer Dave Matthews.

What I would like to ponder a bit further is the issue of removing statues, monuments and other symbols relating to the Civil War and the Confederate movement of the 1860s. In quite a few towns in the South and also further north, local community activism has led to the removal of Confederate flags along with a wide variety of statues and monuments relating to the Confederacy. The City Council of Charlottesville had recently approved the removal of Robert E. Lee and Traveler (his horse) from the downtown pedestal where they stood since 1924, although the actual removal has been delayed by a lawsuit. There doesn’t seem to be any set plan as to where the Charlottesville statue will wind up, but other cities have moved similar statues to museums.

Although I completely agree that General Lee and other tributes to the Confederacy need to be removed from pedestalled places of honor on public grounds, I do hope that these artifacts will be preserved and made available to the public, although in a context where the great sufferings that were at the heart of the conflict (i.e., the institution of slavery) can be balanced with the “southern pride” aspects of the rebellion. The terrible nature of slavery must remain at the forefront  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:17 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, August 18, 2017
Current Affairs ... Society ... Technology ...

I usually avoid offering “real time” commentary on significant national events, as my inner nature is more tortoise-like than hare-like. I try to wait a while and let things cool off, if possible, before making judgments. Given that I graduated from engineering school way back in 1975 (BS Industrial Engineering summa cum laude), and then at age 47 took a half year break from my working career for a rigorous software training program (Chubb Institute’s long-gone “Top Gun” program), I was immediately drawn to the story of James Damore, the former Google software engineer who wrote and distributed a letter questioning Google’s diversity policies.

As you probably know, Mr. Damore was subsequently cashiered from the “Googleplex”. I.e., he was fired for criticizing Google’s vigorous efforts to recruit and maintain female technical and engineering personnel (mostly software designers and coders). These efforts include hiring preferences favoring women over men, on-the-job support programs for women only, and mandatory training for male technical staff warning against both explicit and implicit (i.e. sub-conscious) negative actions and attitudes regarding female techies. What made it tricky for Google was that Damore cited a variety of scientific studies to support his argument that the predominance of male technical staff is “natural” and nothing much can or should be done about it.

Over the past week or so, there have been a whole lot of opinion pieces about Google’s firing Mr. Damore. People with liberal / Democratic party biases generally support Google, while those with conservative / GOP sympathies think that Google was wrong. Also, more men oppose Google’s decision and more women seem to support it. But of course, you can find plenty of cross-over individuals. However, on average . . . ah yes, “on average”. This is at the core of what got Damore in trouble.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:48 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Current Affairs ... Politics ... Society ...

Not long ago, I listed to a Teaching Company audio course on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is an interesting psychotherapy technique, in that it puts emphasis on getting the patient to “pull up their own socks” instead of relying on the therapist to evolve a plan (after long analysis) for the troubled patient’s mental salvation. Of course, CBT is more subtle than that, but it certainly does try to encourage the patient to build up their own social and mental resources. One of the important resources that the CBT therapist attempts to foster is an inner sense of “meaning in life”. CBT includes exercises whereby the patient identifies things that they find very important, and that give meaning to their lives. These exercises might consider family relationships, social belonging, personal achievement, financial success, religious or spiritual beliefs and expressions, learning and discovery, fame and acknowledgement, feeling needed, etc. Those are the kinds of things that would probably occur most frequently to many modern suburban Americans if asked what do their lives mean.

I was reminded of the CBT “meaning in life” exercise recently while I was reading an article in the April, 2017 issue of The Atlantic on ancient Athens (“Making Athens Great Again” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein). In this article Ms. Goldstein discussed what some of the great thinkers of Athens said about “meaning in life”. She concludes that they clearly rejected spiritual transcendence. “The cosmos is indifferent, and only human terms apply: Perform exceptional deeds so as to earn the praise of others whose existence is as brief as your own”.

However, the ancients recognized that there was big problem with this way of finding meaning in life for most people. According to Ms. Goldstein, “most people are, by definition, perfectly ordinary, the ancient Greeks included.” Most people aren’t going to perform very many exceptional deeds in their lifetimes. Still, the Greeks “found a solution to  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:41 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, February 25, 2017
Current Affairs ... Politics ... Society ...

Some friends recently invited me to the movies; they were going to see a documentary about James Baldwin, i.e. “I Am Not Your Negro“. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to join them, but their invitation got me interested in James Baldwin, the American writer and activist whose works were very much a part of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (and who lived in France for much of his life). Not being familiar with his works, I looked Baldwin up on the web and watched some You Tube videos about him from the 60’s.

James Baldwin was certainly an interesting figure; one article said that he straddled the uncharted territory between MLK Jr and Malcolm X. He was a little too radical for MLK’s movement, given that some of his writings hinted at black violence against white society. And yet he never embraced separationism as with Malcolm or Bobby Seale or Stokely Carmichael (who coined the term “Black Power”). Baldwin most definitely rejected the “moral authority” of Euro-Western Civilization, saying that the white man has nothing the black man should want except power. And yet, Baldwin talked about the need for compassion and a broader perspective regarding collective truths, both on the part of whites and blacks. Baldwin did not totally write off the ability of white society to acknowledge its wrongs and change, even if he wasn’t terribly optimistic about it. In a nutshell, James Baldwin was a complex and compelling figure, well spoken and well written.

The video that most intrigued me was a 1965 debate at the Cambridge Univ Student Union (in England) between Baldwin and conservative writer William F. Buckley. The debate was very formal and proper, very British. The proposition being debated was “Has the American Dream Been Achieved At the Expense of the American Negro”. Spoiler alert, a ballot of the students who attended the debate was taken,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:10 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, February 6, 2017
Current Affairs ... Politics ...

I haven’t talked very much about President Trump since he was elected back in November. Just a few days before the election, I published a post entitled “America, You’re Not Really Going to Do This, Right?” In that post, I acknowledged the pre-election momentum towards Donald Trump, but I concluded that Ms. Clinton would still win. “I think that just enough will re-think the situation once faced with the true responsibility of being an American voter, and will give the system some more time to try to right itself.” Well, so much for my political clairvoyance. A whole lot of Americans in the right places (relative to the Electoral College) were not about to give the existing system more time, i.e. by voting for Hillary Clinton. The Trump Revolution was on.

And so, Donald Trump is now President, and thus far he is making good on his campaign promises to disrupt the current state of affairs in a “big league” kind of way. A whole lot of progressive Democrats (as well as independent moderates) are very downhearted by this. Over the past 3 months, many of them have engaged in a variety of wishful thinking exercises, including hoping that enough members of the Electoral College would take the initiative to vote counter to their state’s “winner take all” mandate, such that Clinton would become President. Some people thought that Trump would be different once he took the oath of office, but thus far, that has not panned out. And a variety of articles have been published (e.g. Salon, Huffington, and Michael Moore) speculating that Trump will not finish his first term but will either resign or be forced out by impeachment proceedings within two or three years. Will these predictions do any better than the other wishful thinking exercises to date?

Trump has started his Presidency with a lot of gusto and gung-ho, appointing a team of like-minded, wrecking-ball types with little or no experience or investment in the current state of government. He is having a lot of fun with his power of executive order. But what happens when he has to knuckle down and get Congress to legislate, and then get the bureaucracy to carry out  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:53 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, September 11, 2016
Current Affairs ... Science ...

I’m in the mood for another science post right now, so . . . what to talk about? OK, maybe space exploration. NASA had a good rocket launch this past Thursday of the OSIRIS-REx spaceprobe, which hopes to fly out to a big asteroid called Bennu and grab a small sample of rock or dust or whatever from its surface. If all goes well, OSIRIS-REx will return this sample to earth in 7 years. It will take OSIRIS-REx about 2 years to reach the asteroid, which orbits the Sun in the space between the Earth and Mars.

It takes a long time for spaceprobes to get anywhere in the Solar System. We don’t have rockets big enough to launch a probe with all the heavy-weight scientific do-dads that you want it to have, and at the same time give it enough fuel to keep on accelerating towards its intended destination. Most long-distance probes, including OSIRIS-REx, have to loop back towards the Earth over the first few months of its flight so as to get a “fly-by” boost from the Earth’s own gravity. This is in ingenious way to get the speed needed to sling a spacecraft out of the Earth’s neighborhood, but it sure makes the flight take a long time.

NASA and other nations and organizations concerned with sending space missions across the Solar System would love to have a light-weight method of continually accelerating a spacecraft after we launch it into space, so long as it doesn’t use much power and thus won’t take up a lot of room and weight for extra fuel or batteries. Even if the thrust amount was tiny, so long as it was continual it would gradually build up speed in the probe, faster than a loopy fly-by could do. You could cut off a number of months, maybe even more than a year, from a mission like OSIRIS-REx, if you could tack such a device on it (again, so long as it didn’t significantly add to the size and weight of the spaceprobe).

That’s why there has been so much buzz in the last few weeks amidst the space-heads and with interested physicists in general, regarding a possible way of doing exactly what I just described. The new “device” is generally know as “EM Drive“. The more precise name is “radio frequency resonant cavity thruster“. I’m not going to try to explain precisely what this is and how it supposedly works, but it has to do with microwave generation, using the same kind of “magnetron” that’s inside the microwave oven right there in your kitchen.

Your own microwave oven creates  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:05 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, August 27, 2016
Current Affairs ... Health / Nutrition ... Public Policy ...

About once a week I take the train to work, and I’ve noticed that the NJ Transit stations and the insides of the trains still have advertisement posters, even in this day and age when everything important is on your smartphone. About a year ago, I saw a lot of posters for Oscar, the “new kind of health insurance”.

So it was sad to read that Oscar is pulling out of the Obamacare market in New Jersey (where I live and where my train line is), along with Dallas. They aren’t completely abandoning the Obamacare exchanges; in fact they are expanding their offerings in some places (like San Francisco). But they tried to make ObamaCare work in NJ, and it didn’t happen for them. That’s too bad; I liked their ads. They were cute, especially the big walking bear. If you live outside of NJ, you might see them (supposedly Oscar is still drumming up business right across the river in New York). They are very cute and innovative, and they emphasize Oscar’s tech savvy nature (one ad said “Hi, we’re Oscar. We’re using technology to make health insurance simple, human and smart”). Actually, prior to Oscar I don’t remember ever seeing any sort of advertisement for health insurance! To actually have an insurer trying to convince you to buy their health coverage was very different.

At present, I don’t need Oscar; my Aetna policy from work meets my needs for now, and in a just few years I will be on Medicare. Still, it was nice to see an insurance company trying to innovate, a health insurer that seemingly wanted my business (just in case worse ever came to worst with Aetna). It all seemed like a good sign, an indication that Obamacare was working. Hey, if  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:57 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, August 20, 2016
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ... Politics ...

America today seems to have a race relations problem; that’s not saying anything new. A lot of people today perceive a worsening in such relations over the past decade.

Perhaps a key factor is the information revolution that has been caused by the widespread availability of video recording to the public, which stems from the rise of smart phones. These phones have been increasingly used over the past 4 or 5 years to video police interactions with the public, especially when there is police misconduct. These recordings have uncovered a great deal of disrespect or improper acts by the police when dealing with African-Americans in a wide variety of contexts, from simple traffic stops to pursuing criminal suspects. Too often, these potentially improper police acts turn out to be fatal. In some of the more “viral” examples of these recent video cases, the police actions eventually turn out to be justified; there was a clear and present danger to the police and public. These videos often do not tell the whole story. But too often, it becomes apparent that the police were in the wrong, and that underlying racial attitudes on the part of police officers and officials may have been involved.

And thus the rise over the past few years of the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM appears to have been spawned by these highly publicized incidents. However, BLM is increasingly trying to transcend the troublesome matter of  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:12 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, July 28, 2016
Current Affairs ... Politics ...

Here’s a link to an interesting article on some recent research on what people think about their own voices. It turns out that many people “cringe” when listening to their own voices played back from a recording.

And I thought that I was the only one !!

Albeit — another study found that when people were asked to rate their impressions regarding the attractiveness of another by listening to their voice, on average they rated themselves most attractive (i.e., they were asked to rate 3 or 4 different voice samples, and unbeknownst to the listener, one of the voices was their own). So perhaps many of us don’t like the sound of our own voices, but we still like the image of the person behind the voice. Ah, we humans are such complex creatures.

Well, that’s all from me for tonight. Despite all the Democratic Convention hubbub, I don’t find anything too interesting going on in politics right at the moment. But here are two “other shoes” waiting to drop. First — regarding Hillary — good old Julian Assange and Wikileaks got the convention off to a rough start with the DNC leaks about Bernie Sanders. And then there was the Russian angle . . . were those e-mails given to Wikileaks by  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:26 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
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