The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
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
 
 
Sunday, June 4, 2017
Politics ... Society ...

If you were to survey Americans today by asking “what is the most unfortunate effect of Donald Trump’s decision to enter politics, run for President, and win the White House?”, I’m sure that you would get a wide variety of answers. People with a liberal political bias would focus on the regressive steps are being taking in terms of protecting and promoting justice for minorities and women, along with the harsh treatment that immigrants (especially Latin and Moslem immigrants or wanna-be immigrants) are now experiencing and the reversal of progress in facing the impending crisis of global climate change.

Others, including many doctrinal conservatives, would regret Trump’s populist political commitments and his general incompetence in the politics of governing. Others still will object to his generally boorish character, his lack of diplomatic finesse, and the bad name that Trump is generally causing for our nation throughout the world. Obviously, his supporters would reject the premise that Trump’s Presidency has ANY unfortunate effects, or would provide a snide remark saying how the most unfortunate thing is that the media, the intellectuals and the “deep state” still cannot appreciate the need for the shake-up and clean-out that Trump is accomplishing.

There are a handful, including myself, who indeed find many unfortunate aspects to Donald Trump’s ascendancy to national leadership. However, our biggest concern would be the deep political divisions that Trump is causing between people who identify as Democrat / liberals and those who feel closer to the Republican / conservative point of view. It seems as though every Trump story develops into a “dueling narrative”.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:16 pm       Read Comments (4) / 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, April 8, 2017
History ... Psychology ... Society ...

I recently heard an interesting report on NPR about some research being done on the psychological importance of ritual. A University of Toronto PhD student named Nicholas Hobson teamed up with some professors to examine what the practice of ritual does to the mind, especially in terms of how we relate to others. One question that Hobson and company addressed was the difference in how we relate to those who share our rituals versus those who don’t.

But first, Hobson set out how important ritual is to the human race:

. . . rituals are ubiquitous around the world. Whenever you see a behavior that occurs in different places, different times, among people who have had no contact with one another, it tells you there’s something in that behavior that’s likely woven into the hardware of the mind.

So, ritual may be more than an idea that we pick up from our ancestors; it might be part of the human genetic endowment! It certainly is interesting to see how similar rituals are for people from all over the world.

You can often find world-wide rituals focused on a similar theme. A big focal point for many public rituals is the winter solstice, i.e. the point in the year when the days are darkest, but will soon stop getting darker and getting more light (this is December in the northern hemisphere, June in the southern hemisphere). Back in November, the Teaching Company put out a catalog that had some nice info about winter solstice rituals in the northern hemisphere. The Teaching Company will mail you scads of catalogs  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:54 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, March 5, 2017
History ... Politics ... Society ...

It looks as if the Baby Boomers, the rebellious youth of the 1960’s who were going to change the world in favor of peace, pot and microdot, the politicized generation that shut Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War down, have in their old age joined another revolution. But not the one that you might have expected. Once upon a time, “revolution” belonged to John Lennon. Today it’s the opening motif for the Sean Hannity Show.

An NBC News/ WSJ Poll from last week said that 52 percent of Baby Boomers approved of the job President Trump is doing, while 58 percent of Millennials disapproved. Regarding Trump’s temporary travel ban, 54 percent of Boomers said it is a necessary safeguard against terrorism, while 59 percent of Millennials said that it’s not. On the Affordable Care Act, 47 percent of Boomers said that it is a bad idea, while 48 percent of Millennials said that it’s good.

Now, if only Millennials voted in the same proportions as Boomers, Trump might right now be but a footnote to American history. But they don’t. An early estimate says that about 55% of eligible Millennials voted in November, 2016, versus around 70% for Boomers.

Still, Millennials can be a paradoxical lot, just as much  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:21 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
 
 
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Outer Space ... Science ... Society ...

There are a lot of differing opinions today among astrobiologists and planetary specialists as to whether life is common in the universe, and how many intelligent and sentient life-forms (like humans) are out there in the heavens. On the one hand, paleontologists, biologists and geoscientists have found over the past twenty years or so that life forms can flourish in very harsh environments, places with little or no light or oxygen and very cold or very hot temperatures, even places with relatively high exposure to ultraviolet or radioactive radiation. Of course, most of these life forms aren’t much more than very simple one-celled germ-like things. But they are alive.

Furthermore, the accelerating pace of exoplanet research and discoveries have allowed the detection of a rapidly increasing number of planets whirling around far-distant stars. Our scientists have learned how to distinguish rocky Earth-like planets from “gas bags” like Jupiter and Saturn, and in a few years they might even be able to detect whether these planets have an atmosphere, and what kinds of gasses are in that atmosphere. The boffins are obviously very interested in finding out how many “second Earths” are out there, rocky planets of near-Earth size orbiting a bright but stable star at a distance where liquid water could exist and where a favorable atmosphere could form. Again, we are still some years away from being able to pinpoint such stars and planets, but thus far, a large number of candidates have emerged.

So, given that life can form even under very tough conditions, and given that “habitable zone” planets may relatively common in the cosmos, many scientists are coming to believe in a “cosmic life imperative” in the Universe. But recall that all of this was “on the one hand”. On that other hand is the increasing realization that  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:49 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
Art & Entertainment ... Economics/Business ... Society ...

Today is the big day for American politics, the Presidential Election. There will be thousands if not millions of articles written over the next 48 hours about it. I will probably chip in my 2 cents at some point. But for now, in the early afternoon calm before the evening storm when the results start coming in, I’m going to zoom back a week or two and think about the World Series.

As you probably know, the 2016 World Series was quite dramatic, pitting two Cinderella teams that haven’t won a World Series for a long time; since 1948 for the American League Cleveland Indians, and since 1908 for the National League Chicago Cubs. Cleveland jumped off to a 3 win / 1 loss start, and it looked like the Series could finish up in game 5, surely by game 6. But no, the Cubs clawed their way back to an exciting extra-inning win in game 7.

After the fourth game, my friend Mary wrote to me with her theory that the Cubs would come back and the Series would go thru to a game 7. This no doubt reflected her faith in the Cubs, given that Mary is a life-long Chicago-lander. But Mary also thought that the financial powers behind Big Baseball would encourage teams to play as many World Series games as possible, to avoid 4 or 5 game routs so as to maximize the profits from tickets, media revenues, and memorabilia sales. Well, obviously her forecast that the Cubs would force a 7th game was on the money. But what about the overall theory that the World Series games are rigged  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:28 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
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