The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Sunday, September 20, 2020
Current Affairs ... Public Policy ... Science ...

Back in November, Scientific American ran an article about a computer model that a research team at Tufts University used to simulate and research the economic processes that drive the inequalities in income and wealth of individuals, families and households in modern industrialized nations having capitalist market economies. The article was written by Prof. Bruce Boghosian, one of the leaders of this team.

By studying the results from this model after running it with a variety of hypothetical and historical data inputs, the researchers found that concentration of wealth is mostly inevitable in modern market-oriented nations. However, wealth redistribution mechanisms can mitigate the severity of concentration and prevent extreme oligarchy. A “redistribution mechanism” is something like Robin Hood; it takes from the rich and gives to the poor (or intends to, but is often misused by those who aren’t poor).

An example would be the progressive tax system, whereby the rich are subject to higher taxes on income, while the poor pay less (or nothing). The poor also benefit more than the rich from government spending on subsidized housing, subsidized health care (e.g. Medicaid), low-income tax credit cash refunds, etc. Some nations have more generous redistribution mechanisms while others have more stingy ones (redistribution is usually the province of the government, although voluntary charity and philanthropy can also have a redistribution effect). Obviously, American’s “social safety net” has been getting more and more stingy in recent decades.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:20 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, August 25, 2020
Current Affairs ... Personal Reflections ... Photo ...

While looking through my stamp collection recently, I thought to myself “this arrangement looks pretty nice”. So I got out my camera and snapped a few shots, and have attached more of them below. I started collecting stamps when I was in grammar school, maybe around 1963. My mother had occasionally saved “plate blocks” of commemorative stamps since the late 50s; being a young space geek, I got interested myself when the 4 cent commemorative for Project Mercury came out. My mother thus let me walk down the street to the local post office with a quarter or two in my pocket.

Once I got thru the door and up to the counter (ah, I still remember the cool and slightly musty air and the grim seriousness of the décor), I would ask Mr. Stanton, the regularly assigned postal clerk, if he had any new commemoratives. Sometimes he did, and I  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:09 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, July 9, 2020
Current Affairs ... Personal Reflections ... Photo ...

My office recently started bringing people back on a regular basis, although for now most are alternating between a week from home and a week in the office. Most of us were ordered in mid-March to work from home until further notice; I lasted to March 20 before I was told to go home. But now the place is coming back to life, even if it won’t be at full speed anytime soon. Even though I occasionally stopped by my office for an hour or two over the past 3 months, the place mostly seemed like a “dead ship”.

Now I will be there for full days, even if not 5 days a week. So on Monday it was time to get my office calendar updated. When I arrived, I noticed that I hadn’t changed the calendar page since April. It’s as if time stood still. I took down the pages for April, May and June, and then wondered — where did the time go? It’s like COVID just sucked them up and made them disappear. Before I threw out these sheets, I took a pic, as a tribute to the “lost months” of 2020.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:26 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, June 26, 2020
Economics/Business ... Politics ... Society ...

In recent times, we have heard a lot about systemic racism. Since the horrible George Floyd killing by the police in Minneapolis, we have heard a lot more about it. What is systemic racism? To be honest, from what I’ve read about it (which has been a lot lately), I’m not completely sure. Those who use the term seem to be saying that racism is widespread in American society. The days of Jim Crow and back seats on the town bus are long gone, thank goodness. But there remains something about our “systems” that continue to manifest anti-black acts and attitudes; that is what I take away from the notion of systemic racism. And I am not writing this to deny the concept’s validity. But it does raise questions and problems in pinning it down precisely.

So, next question — exactly what is it about our systems that manifest racism? The easiest answers to this question come from the criminal justice system, especially from the police enforcement component. The George Floyd killing was perhaps the most egregious recent example of an African American being treated in a racist fashion by police, but Floyd’s death follows in a series of incidents where blacks stopped by the police wind up dead or seriously wounded because of police misconduct. The evolution of widespread video recording capacity in the late 1990s was the technology that “uncovered the rock” to see the ugly stuff that was previously shielded from most citizens.

Yes, there is no denying that many police departments have a problem in controlling racist attitudes and unprofessional behavior on the part of their officers, and that inadequate progress has been made in addressing this problem over the past 2 decades.

OK, so we can watch the videos and see systemic racism occurring in the nation’s policing system. But the term ‘systemic racism’ as used today appears to be addressing much more  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:52 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, June 18, 2020
Current Affairs ... Public Policy ... Society ...

I grew up in a fairly devout Roman Catholic family, and we went to church regularly. But I was never an altar boy. However, my younger brother did don the cassock and surplice (and today, he still occasionally serves as an adult acolyte at his local parish — he hopes to get back to that once services return to normal following the COVID pandemic).

My brother did the altar boy thing into his high school years, and he got to know a lot of other kids who wished to be involved in the Catholic mass ceremony (albeit at a rather subservient level). He became friends with several of his fellow servers. One fellow was about his own age, and came up the ranks with him — but unlike my brother, this fellow went all the way up the ecclesiastical stairway. Following high school, he joined a seminary and became a priest after college study in Europe. My brother himself actually had the priest dream, but the circumstances of his life led him away from it.

My brother stayed in touch with his former altar boy now priest friend over the years — let’s call this fellow “Jay” although that’s not his real name. Jay and my brother would go a few years without talking, then come across one another and have a catch-up. About 15 years ago, it became known that Father Jay had been “put on inactive status” while being investigated by the diocese for allegations of sexual contact with a minor. His case was reviewed by the Vatican, which in effect gave him a NOT GUILTY verdict. Despite that, he never served as a parish priest again; he  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:31 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Monday, May 25, 2020
Current Affairs ... History ... Music ...

The COVID crisis has changed a lot of things, big and small. One of the smaller and more subtle changes that I’ve noticed involves the songs being played on the local radio stations. The playlist now seems a little more somber and serious than before. I guess that’s what fits the mood right now.

I was recently listening to an oldies station (I’m not a big fan of pop music from the 50s thru 80s, but I still like the station), and I heard a song by Elvis – which is not unusual, since oldies stations pretty much exist to play Elvis songs. But this was one of Elvis’s later songs, the ones that are not nearly as famous and don’t get played as much as “Hound Dog”, “Don’t Be Cruel”, “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, “Jailhouse Rock”, etc.

I was never a big fan of Elvis; to me, he was “before my time”. Although admittedly he still had a lot of hit tunes in the mid 60s and into the 70s, when I became a transistor radio kid. I came of age with the Beatles, Dave Clark Five, the Stones, Jerry and the Pacemakers — i.e. the “British Wave”.

But from 1968 thru 70, Elvis came out with some songs that seemed very different from his usual style. They seemed more introspective, more story-telling, more human-oriented. I still enjoy hearing “Kentucky Rain“. Elvis was no longer just a kid singing “All Shook Up” (and getting filthy rich and famous for it!).

But during this period,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:14 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Friday, May 15, 2020
Photo ... Spirituality ...

It’s the end of another day, the sky is just about dark, and the moon or Venus might already be visible. You’re walking towards the west, along a road going over the top of a minor elevation. Hopefully you have a flashlight, because you’re not in the city. Everything around you is dark and murky and quiet. And yet, you notice something through the bare tree branches, far off in the distance. A faint red-orange glow outlining the silhouette of the western hills. The last bit of fading light from the day that just ended. Goodbye to another day. You’re reminded of the line from the poem “Today” by the Victorian English author Thomas Carlyle —

Out of Eternity this new Day is born;
Into Eternity, at night, will return.

When I was younger, I felt a “twinge” in my mind from sights and thoughts like that. It was some sort of a deep reverberation about the essence of life, something to do with the pure feeling of being. Your eyes might even start getting just a little moist. Whatever happened to that feeling? Where did it go?

The other night I was taking an early evening walk, and I happened upon such a scene. I stood there for a moment beholding it. And I almost felt the “existential twinge” once more. I wondered it if was OK to feel anything like that, surrounded as I was by a world in a pandemic. Despite all of the bad news coming at us almost constantly, I still felt something of a sentimentality for the passing of another day. Goodbye May 13th, or whatever it was that we called you. Thanks for letting me be a little part of your story, and thanks for becoming a little part of my own story.

Let’s take a look at the lines from Carlyle’s poem that follows the famous “Eternity” couplet —

Behold it aforetime, no eye ever did:
So soon it forever from all eyes is hid.

There’s something about the transition from day to night that evokes a sort of un-named emotion. Even the word “twilight” has an almost mystical air about it; it would sound profound even if you didn’t speak a word of English (I think).

Here’s a pic showing the purple twilight of a different day, taken from a different place. I hope that you too have had moments like this when you have felt “the twinge”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:24 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, May 13, 2020
Current Affairs ... Spirituality ...

The 92nd St Y just put out a podcast with Adam Gopnik reading and discussing a quote from CS Lewis, regarding life after WW2. People in Europe and the US were coming to realize that they could be hit by a nuclear bomb with little warning; in a flash it would incinerate them and the world around them. Lewis, as the Christian writer and thinker that he was, tried to address the spiritual crisis that this created. His advice is a bit fatalistic; he accepts that nuclear weapons are part of the modern world, he doesn’t talk about changing that. However, Lewis has some advice about getting on with life despite the dark shadows. Mr. Gopnik found this advice relevant to us today, with our COVID 19 pandemic.

Here in paraphrase is Lewis’ advice:

Let us not exaggerate the novelty of our situation. Believe me, you and all that you love were already sentenced to death before the atom bomb was made. The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together.

If we are all going to be destroyed by a bomb, let that bomb come when we are doing sensible and human things. Praying, working, teaching, reading, playing music, bathing our children, playing tennis with a friend or chatting with them over a game of darts. Never huddle together like frightened sheep, thinking only about bombs. A bomb can break our bodies, a microbe can do that too. But they need not dominate our minds.

So, CS Lewis tells us that the prospect of instant death once nuclear powers go to war is not really all that unique, not all that new. The possibility of unexpected death was always a part of human life (ironically, the current pandemic is causing us to experience what so much of humankind constantly lived with before the age of modern medicine – they didn’t have hypersonic thermonuclear warheads to deal with, but they did have the Black Plague).

We should do what we can to ready ourselves for the threat and perhaps lessen the danger. But we cannot eliminate it (not in a short period of time, anyway). At some point, we either  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:06 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, April 21, 2020
Current Affairs ... Society ...

I’ve pretty much ignored my blog for the past month. And yes, it has everything to do with the COVID epidemic. Not that I got sick — not so far anyway, thank goodness! Nonetheless, I’ve joined the ranks of the homebound. I’m not an essential employee (it’s times like this when you find out where you really stand!), so on March 20 my employer ordered me to work from home until further notice. They seem to be paying me for that, even though I’m not doing a whole lot from home. I send in an e-mail every day to let them know that I’m monitoring my work e-mail and will answer the phone for whoever calls. But not many people have been calling or writing. So I’m left with some free time (although there are still official things I do from home, given that I can link into my office’s computer system – they gave me a computer with a VPN drive). But I’m not making the best use of it, admittedly.

To be honest, I’m finding the COVID lockdown experience very disorienting, rather confusing. But, so are millions of others, or so I hear. Life is always changing and uncertain, but this situation has kicked the change and uncertainty levels up a few notches. Admittedly, I’ve got it a whole lot better than so many others, who don’t know how they are going to pay their next electric bill. My own financial situation does not seem immediately threatened, thank goodness. As to my health and my chances of catching the virus and having serious respiratory symptoms — well, I’m hoping that the further we get into this epidemic, the lower my chances are of getting it. But who really knows – that’s what uncertainty is all about.

For now, I’m just going to share a few not-so-profound thoughts or observations that I’ve had about what the virus is doing to the world around me. There are thousands of writers and commentators who are writing and speaking thousands of observations, about what has been happening and where things are going with regard to the many different aspects of our society — e.g. the economy, politics, government, international affairs, sports, art, religion, entertainment, travel . . . it’s amazing just how broadly a pandemic affects human society. Too much to talk about! But I’m gonna talk about a few inconsequential things anyway.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:59 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, March 21, 2020
Current Affairs ... Photo ...

Spring has arrived here in the suburbs, and the flowers and green leaves are returning. Daffodils are usually the first big wave of the tide that brings the return of daylight, color and comfortable weather, a tide that heralds the end of winter. And yet, this particular spring equinox seems very muted and even a bit melancholy, quite uncharacteristically.

We now have to deal with the recent arrival of COVID-19 and a lot of unanticipated changes to our lives because of it. This disease is a real threat to the survival of many people; unfortunately, our national leadership did not do enough up front to contain its spread (as the South Koreans appear to have done), despite at least 6 weeks of warning. We now need to change our lives and our means of survival in order to limit the possible loss of life.

I myself intend to fully comply with the various directives and restrictions and practical changes that the COVID-19 contagion now requires. But like so many of us, I regret the prospect of so much economic shutdown and social isolation. So many things have been cancelled, hopefully only temporarily — although it will be many weeks and possibly even months before life as we know it can return. It almost seems as if the Spring season itself has been cancelled (or greatly delayed).

It almost seems as if these newly sprung daffodils know what is happening amidst their human admirers, and share the somber mood, despite their usual sunny disposition.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:01 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
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