The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
Politics ... Public Policy ... Society ...

I’ve read a couple of interesting things lately about college education and the question of whether college should be available to everyone via government tuition subsidies at public colleges. Bernie Sanders introduced federal legislation not long ago to make all public colleges free. In 2014, President Obama proposed making 2-year community college free. The idea behind such government guarantees is that college is necessary today to obtain a good secure job with decent earnings, and that the more people who have college, the better off our society will be, in terms of economic growth, fairness and equality, and a variety of quality-of-life measures. A more educated workforce would theoretically stimulate the economy and allow employers to pay the higher salaries that highly productive college-trained workers demand. And with a higher percentage of our working population making college-level salaries, the expanding income and wealth distribution gap in our country should start to turn around, one would hope. The on-going racial gap in earnings and wealth should also improve as more minority students gain practical financial access to college.

So we get richer and have a more just society as a result of some up-front government tuition subsidy (which gets made up over time, hopefully, by increased tax revenues from higher overall worker earnings and business profits). Also, we should live better and more fulfilling lives. According to certain studies, college grads have longer life expectancy, greater life satisfaction, and better general health e.g. lower incidence of obesity. They are also less likely to commit crime, drink heavily, or smoke. They are also more likely to vote, volunteer, have higher levels of tolerance and educate their children better than non-graduates. College‐educated parents engage in more educational activities with their children, who are better prepared for school than other children.

College helps students to more fully participate in cultural and societal events and activities throughout their lives. Not surprisingly then, the rates of suicide for educated individuals is far lower than their uneducated counterparts. And, so the education idealists tell us, a more educated public is a more united public, experiencing  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:27 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, April 12, 2018
Religion ... Society ... Spirituality ... Technology ...

I want to talk today about a young Roman Catholic priest from Minnesota who seems to be getting more and more attention amidst the faithful for his social media skills. His name is Father Mike Schmitz, and his videos and use of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram are quite impressive. He appears to be one of the first, if not THE first, Catholic spokesperson to make truly effective use of “the new media”, even though it’s been around now for more than a decade. I think that Father Mike is someone to watch, if you at all interested in the American Roman Catholic Church; I get the feeling that he is a rising star, someone you will be hearing a lot more about.

During the 1930’s, Father Charles Coughlin became know as “the radio priest” and got a national following for his commentaries during the Great Depression and World War 2 (especially considering his often fiery political views, such as his support of Huey Long and his opposition to US involvement in the War). After the War, the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton used the increasingly popular paperback book medium to gain fame through his conservative pro-Church writings. His 1948 autobiography Seven Storey Mountain was said to have inspired thousands of young people to a Catholic clerical vocation. Then in the 1950s, Bishop Fulton Sheehan became the “television priest”, supporting Catholic doctrine with a popular TV show. Then came Mother Angelica and her pioneering use of cable TV in the early 1980’s, with the formation of the EWTN network. The Internet and its social media infrastructure has been awaiting a charismatic Catholic spokesperson to come along and defend the magisterium on YouTube and Facebook, and it looks like Father Mike is the guy. You can check him and his thoughts out at his Ascension Ministries website channel, his page on the University of Duluth Newman Center site, on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

This guy has a HUGE footprint on the Internet !!

Father Mike has a LOT of videos out, over 100; I have watched about 10 or 11 of them so far. Each lasts about 6 or 7 minutes, and each roughly follows the format of a priest’s sermon at mass. For the most part, Father Mike  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:26 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
Photo ... Society ...

The adjacent cities of Clifton and Passaic, NJ were once the home to a variety of eastern and southern European families, many of which emigrated from Europe between 1900 and 1920 so as to find work in the many mills and factories in the area. Today, most of the factories are closed, and most of the Euro families have moved on to more distant suburbs. But northern NJ still has a diverse economy with a continuing need for cheap labor, and over the past 30 or 40 years, this has attracted a wide variety of Latin nationals to settle in the older neighborhoods in Clifton and Passaic where the Polish, Italian, Hungarian, etc. groups used to live. The Puerto Ricans came first, but today the predominant group seems to be the Mexicans. (Also, there is increasing Middle Eastern settlement in the northern areas of Clifton and adjacent South Paterson, e.g. Lebanese and Syrians).

The Poles were probably the most predominant ethnic group in these cities up through World War 2, and today a handful of Polish and later-generation Polish-ancestry families remain. And thus, you can see “ethnic stew” scenes like this: the El Mexicano restaurant sited right next to the Homemade Pirogi store on Main Avenue (they claim to have 17 varieties), just up a few blocks from the Passaic border. For the most part, everyone seems to get along. I would bet that the Mexicano gets a few tables of Polish-heritage customers, and the Pirogi place occasionally sells its wares to hungry Latin families looking for a different kind of inexpensive but filling cuisine. So, the ethnic stew of immigrants keeps on simmering in Passaic and Clifton, just as it has for over a century now!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:37 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, March 24, 2018
History ... Society ...

Over the past winter, I’ve been listening to an audiobook version of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. For those of you who haven’t had the torturous pleasure of engaging Gibbon, this book is a classic historical work that was issued in 6 volumes between 1776 and 1788, right after the birth of a future empire, the United States of America. There are several versions of this audiobook out there; my version is the narration by Philip Madoc and Jason Neville. Mr. Madoc does the Gibbon voice, and Neville provides the background color and abridgement that makes this book listenable within 8 hours (who knows how long a line-by-line reading of all 6 volumes would take). The musical backdrop consists of intermittent extracts from Schumann’s bombastic ‘Julius Caesar’ overture. The musical director for this audiobook went out of her or his way to select the most pompous and overblown clips from Schumann; thankfully they usually don’t last very long and aren’t overly frequent.

Both the historical events described by Gibbon, and his work in and of itself, are worthy topics of study for those interested in what was once considered “classical liberal education”. You know, sort of like Shakespeare (which I myself am quite deficient in — wonder if there is a “Best of the Bard” audiobook out there?). You would think that a huge history text would be quite dry, but actually, Gibbon was something of a sensationalist — he seemed to relish the details of murder, slaughter, treachery, rape and pillage, while staying within the boundaries of what a “Victorian gentleman” might say. After a while, it starts to seem as if the whole Roman Empire was one continuing bloodbath, and the Byzantine Empire which survived the fall of Rome for almost another millennium (i.e. the former Eastern or “Greek” portion of the Roman Empire) wasn’t much different. And nothing much changed after Christianity spread and became the official religion of the empire following Constantine. I noticed that the Christianized Byzantine Empire had developed forms of torture that even the early pagan tyrants like Nero or Caligula hadn’t indulged in, such as demanding plates and bowls filled with the cut-off noses of fallen opponents.

And if you become easily upset by a seventeenth century British scholar who casually and repeatedly refers to the supposed weaknesses and faults of the feminine body, mind and character, then get ready for a very rough ride with Gibbon. Ditto if you don’t enjoy the pompous Euro triumphalism of the Victorian upper class; Gibbon unthinkingly refers to Rome and then Britain as “civilization” and “the world”, while almost all other peoples and nations are related as “barbarians” and “savages”. I think that a lot of modern educated people today get offended and turned off by such relics of the past, and would not get much beyond the first few chapters of a presentation of Gibbon (especially such a grandiose and pompous presentation as my Madoc / Neville version).

And yet . . . if you stick with Gibbon and put his seventeenth century upper-crust attitudes into context, you will occasionally be surprised by some of the grand insights that Gibbon offers. For example, with regard to the Christian Crusades against the Islamic nations and empires who held “the Holy Land” in medieval times, Gibbon seems relatively sympathetic to the Muslim leaders who were attacked and temporarily overwhelmed by the Latin crusading knights. At one point, he surveys the justifications that ancient Christendom proffered for the massive death and destruction  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:17 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, March 3, 2018
Current Affairs ... Science ... Society ...

When I was a kid growing up in the 1960’s, and even in the early 1970’s during my college years, the American space exploration program and its lead agency, NASA, was a really formidable institution. After all the exploding military rockets of the 1950’s, NASA managed to safely get men into orbit, and then on to the moon. They shot up plenty of orbiting satellites doing all sorts of cool things, along with interplanetary exploration probes out to Mars and Venus, even Jupiter and Saturn. And they were coming up with uses for space that had more immediate benefits, such as communication satellites providing instant phone, radio and TV signals across the globe, along with improved weather observation. And of course, there was the critical national security need to spy on our enemies with a celestial eye-in-the-sky, so that we could end our risky surveillance flights (remember the Cold War hub-bub over the Gary Powers U-2 shoot-down over Russia in 1960). NASA back then was something for Americans to be really proud of.

And yet, as the 70’s became the 80’s and 90’s, and then a new Century was born, NASA lost its luster. The Space Shuttle seemed like an interesting step, but it didn’t really go anywhere; it couldn’t get out of low earth orbit and head for the moon or points beyond. In 1970, you would have expected that by 1988 and 1998, the Shuttle would be a bit-part actor in a bigger play involving long-range missions to the nearest planets and asteroids. But that just didn’t happen. The Shuttle helped give us the International Space Station, which has done a lot of good stuff; but ISS Freedom was not the staging base for missions (manned and unmanned) to far-off destinations, as we were promised when we were children. And then of course there were the two lost Shuttles. NASA had clearly fallen from grace.

And today, NASA doesn’t even have the Shuttle. It still has a fairly robust planetary exploration portfolio, including several soft-landing robotic missions to Mars, and a recent probe that made a close pass to Pluto. Its biggest public success over the past generation was probably the Hubble telescope satellite. The Hubble returned all kinds of deep-space images of galaxies, space clouds and clusters, which amazed and intrigued so many people.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:17 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, February 8, 2018
Personal Reflections ... Society ...

At my office, the janitorial people work by day. Being a prosecutorial law-enforcement office, we have a good number of professional staff; over one-third are attorneys. As to the investigative people with the guns, most of them have 4 year college degrees, and some have graduate degrees. There are a lot of suits and ties (or jackets and ties, in my case) for male staff, along with heels and dresses for women. There are plenty of desktop screens, laptops, smart phones, and — despite all the talk about “going paperless” — copying machines and red-rope file folders. And wandering amidst the busy office rows and cubicles with their sneakers and smocks and gloves and refuse carts and vacuum cleaners are the janitors, usually middle-aged Hispanic women.

For the most part, this arrangement works out. The cleaning people are very considerate, although sometimes they have to get in our way. Once in a while I grumble to myself if one of them wants to vacuum the rug in my office while I’m working on a complicated financial report. But usually I just get up and take a walk over to the water cooler, and in a few minutes they are somewhere else. Another moment of consternation occurs when the cleaners close off a mens or womens room for 20 minutes during mid-morning.

Overall, there is not a whole lot of personal interaction between “them and us”. Some of the clericals who are also Hispanic sometimes get into a chat with one of them in their native language. But for the most part, we exchange polite hellos, they do their jobs, we do our jobs, and the clock ticks until the work day ends for the night.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:52 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, November 18, 2017
Current Affairs ... Politics ... Society ...

I’m glad to hear that the Democrats had a good night last Tuesday (Election Day 2017), when they easily reclaimed the governorship of New Jersey and comfortably won what was expected to be a close governor’s race in Virginia. There were other local State and local elections where the Dems picked up seats in areas where the GOP had held sway for some time now, e.g. picking up legislative seats in Georgia and Virginia (including Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person elected to a state legislature). There were also mayoral race victories in St. Petersburg, Florida and Charlotte, North Carolina (and even Fayetteville, NC, where ever that is!!). Democratic leaders seem jubilant; the Democratic leader in the Senate (Chuck Schumer) “smell[s] a wave coming”.

But this is still the minor leagues of national politics, and a lot of this “new blue wave” might be a short-term frustration response against Trump — I think that a lot of non-ideologue, middle-of-the-road Americans had hoped that Trump, who is quite different than your usual politico, could get a lot more done than the regular party hacks have been able to do in the past 5 or 10 years (which is not much). Trump got a lot of people’s hopes up with his bold rhetoric and unconventional manners, but 10 months into his Presidency, he doesn’t have a whole lot to show. And the more that you promise, the more quickly people notice that you aren’t delivering, and thus start getting antsy and frustrated.

And yet, the Democrats need to temper their celebrations with the realty that frustration can drive an election or two, but it is usually a short-term emotion. The bigger question is whether immediate disappointment with Trump will translate into longer term disillusionment that could tip undecideds into the Democratic column in the 2018 battle for control of the House, and the 2020 fight for the White House. The GOP hopes to regain its mojo through  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:29 am       Read Comments (2) / 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
 
 
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Politics ... Society ...

I see that the Democrats lost the special House election in Georgia’s Sixth District is suburban Atlanta. Jon Ossoff, the rookie Democratic candidate, made a spirited bid against Karen Handel, his GOP opponent, and the polls were very tight right up to the last few days. But in the final day they started breaking for Handel, and she wound up winning by a comfortable 4 point margin (recall that Trump only won this district by 1.5 percentage points). Handel’s victory came despite the fact that a whole lot of money had poured into Ossoff’s campaign coffers from pro-Democrat groups nationwide. The Democrats had hoped that this race was going to foreshadow the end of GOP control of the House of Representatives, and the breaking of Trump’s popularity in the heartlands.

I’m not going to offer a detailed, well-thought out analysis here. I’m just gonna shoot from the hip, like so much of what you see on social media (especially Twitter — what else is on Twitter but a lot of shooting from the hip?). OK, here’s my shot — the Democrats are just NOT LIKED anymore by too many people. For the most part, it’s not a matter of a particular candidate’s qualities. It’s not that a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren might do better with “working class” voters than Hillary Clinton did. And hey, Jon Ossoff himself talked about economic development and financial restraint in a way that conservatives in his district could appreciate. The problem is that a lot of people believe that the Democrats — all Democrats, not just a particular Democrat — are selling a general world view, a general philosophy that just turns these people off.

Do you need a link to a thoughtful analysis that backs up my point? OK then, how about Thomas Edsall’s recent article in the NY Times “The Democratic Part Is In Worse Shape Than You Thought” ? Edsall cites a whole lot of data and expert opinion in this article.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:44 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Outer Space ... Science ... Society ...

Nor will any vicious beast go up on it;
These will not be found there.
Isa 35:9 (NASB)

There’s an interesting article in the May 2017 edition of Scientific American that might interest those of you who are “dog people”. The title of the article is “How to Build a Dog“. No, it’s not that scientists are now so far advanced with DNA manipulation and life incubation techniques that they can custom-design a dog, and then use CRISPR, stem cell activation and artificial incubation technology to grow that customized dog in a lab. No, we haven’t gotten to the point where you can custom order your next dog, mixing and matching features as if selecting from a Chinese restaurant menu, Say, for example a miniature German Shepard with long, fold-over ears, a fuzzy tail, and shaggy white fur with brown patches.

The SciAm article is really about foxes. A number of biologists and naturalists over the years have tried to take foxes from the wild and teach them how to live with human beings. These attempts have generally failed; foxes just have too much “wildness” inside of them. However, one long-term scientific experiment based in Siberia actually has been quite successful in creating a different kind of fox, one that is similar to your average run-of-the-mill pet dog. This experiment was begun in the 1950s at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics at Novosibirsk by a Russian geneticist named Dmitry K. Belyaev. The SciAm article was written by Lydmila Trut, who started working for Dr. Belyaev in 1958 as an intern, and took over the project following Belyaev’s death in 1985. Dr. Trut gained her doctorate in evolutionary genetics and now at age 83, continues to direct the domesticated fox program in Novosibirsk.

The program was quite successful. The SciAm article describes the looks and behavior of their current generations of foxes (and provides pictures), and the parallels with dogs are quite amazing. These foxes like being around people, they want to be petted and have their bellies rubbed; they wag their tails and follow  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:06 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
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