The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Saturday, July 7, 2018
Photo ...

It’s after 10, and the local Oriental restaurant has closed its doors. The staff has cleaned up and gone home, but it looks like the proprietor’s family has decided to take a break and review the day with each other, before locking up for the night. I like this scene; there’s something almost Edward Hopper-ish about it (yes, I’m thinking about Nighthawks and Automat, two of Hopper’s more famous works).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:48 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, June 28, 2018
Current Affairs ... Politics ...

In my last post, I reviewed the 2020 Presidential primary situation for the Democrats, and concluded that Senator Kamala Harris is starting to emerge from the fog as an early favorite for the nomination. I considered some of the pros and cons for Harris, including her strategic positioning amidst potential Democratic voting blocks in November, and concluded that she would have a fighting chance of beating Donald Trump, especially if Trump continues to alienate Hispanics. However, I opined that Senator Harris still needs to “up her game” a bit to achieve the stature of a national leader (and towards achieving nation-wide name recognition — in that vein, I have noticed that CNN and MSNBC are giving Senator Harris a lot more air-time these days).

Although I respect Senator Harris and I would sincerely consider supporting and voting for her in 2020, my personal favorite potential candidate remains Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Interestingly, both Harris and Klobuchar are former prosecutors and former Attorneys General. In a previous blog post, I explained why I believed that Klobuchar could win and would be a good President. And I stand by that opinion one year later.

However, being a political realist, I understand that Harris is closer to “where the Party is” today, with its continuing leftward shift. And I will admit that Harris, as an African American (actually, the child of a Tamil Indian mother and a Nigerian father – or roughly akin to Barack Obama with his American Caucasian mother and his Kenyan father), can probably inspire higher levels of black turnout, which could make the difference in several of the midwestern swing states that Clinton lost in 2016. I believe that Senator Klobuchar would also have the chance of taking  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:11 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, June 21, 2018
Current Affairs ... Politics ...

I’ve seen some recent articles written by informed political observers (Salena Zito and Tim Swarens) indicating that Trump has a pretty decent chance of winning a second Presidential term in 2020. We’re still more than 2 years away from the 2020 election, but at the same time we’ve had Trump in the White House now for 18 months. Despite a lot of outrageous words and actions, his Presidency seems nowhere near collapse, notwithstanding the predictions of some that Trump would be gone within 2 years (e.g., John Kerry reportedly told an associate of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in January that Trump would be likely be out of the White House by the end of 2018). Despite approval ratings that bounce between 38 and 44%, support for Trump within the GOP remains strong, although there are some early signs that his popularity in the Midwest is beginning to wane.

Still, it looks as though the Democrats may not have an easy time retaking the White House in 2020 (we will obviously get a better fix on that following the mid-term Congressional elections this November). Democrats have some heavy thinking to do regarding who their best candidate might be. The 2020 primary field for the Dems is just starting to focus, and the situation seems to parallel the GOP situation for 2016. I.e., there are a wide range of figures expressing or hinting at their interest, with no one predominating (as Clinton did in 2016, or Trump does now with the GOP). It’s likely to be a horse-race, where the strongest runners won’t emerge from the pack until late in the process.

The biggest strategic question for the Dems is whether they should attempt recapturing some of the white working-class voters that largely defected to Trump in 2016, or whether to double-down on their “new coalition” of educated professionals and working-class people of color. This choice appears to be  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:14 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, June 16, 2018
Nature ... Philosophy ... Science ...

I recently read an article in Scientific American about a research project meant to measure the bite pressure of various crocodile species. The author (Dr. Gregory Erickson) was himself the researcher, and thus spoke from personal experience. He started his article with a description of how he would approach crocodiles (both in captivity and in the wild), so as to shove into their mouths a wired-up tube designed to measure pressure.

Obviously, this was not an easy form of research !! In fact, it sounded absolutely harrowing — sneak up on the croc from behind, goad it with the tube, then get the thing to attack the tube with its hideous teeth and crushing jaw (and not attack you!). Turns out that certain crocs can bite down with a pressure approaching 3,800 pounds per square inch — i.e., the pressure that you would get by putting a Chevy Impala on a platform, and holding it up with a 1 inch square piece of metal (or whatever else could withstand such pressures).

That got me to ponder some of my philosophic assumptions about the nature of the universe, and especially this tiny but interesting little quadrant of it called planet earth, with all of its living things. Crocs are incredibly powerful and dangerous predator animals. It’s kind of hard to find any sense of natural beauty in such a ferocious and aggressive creature (although some people can). And if you believe that a sentient and almighty God created the universe according to a positive, life-affirming theme, or even if you believe in some sort of rational order or “way” to the world despite lack of a deity, it’s kind of hard to  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:25 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, June 1, 2018
Art & Entertainment ... History ... Music ...

It’s interesting how we humans respond to music. What’s the difference between music and noise? Not a lot, really. Is there something mathematical about it, something that can be put into a formula, something having to do with level of organization and complexity? Maybe it’s related to entropy (in an inverted fashion — noise has a high entropy, music has a lower entropy)?

Music is a matter of sound waves, fairly smooth sound waves, that change and interact in rather complex ways. Not all sound wave arrangements affect the brain in the same way, even when they seem like music (and not all people are affected in the same way or to the same degree). Some songs just seem to resonate with whatever is going on in the brain, with all of its complex electro-chemical patterns. When that happens, somehow you know it. (Perhaps the conscious brain itself operates something like an orchestra; when its many electro-chemical patterns are harmonious, life is good; when there is discord, you don’t have a happy audience). Other songs and noise patterns just don’t get this result.

The folk song “Ashokan Farewell” is an interesting example of a song that did a lot more than originally intended. “Farewell” was written in 1982 by folk musician Jay Ungar, intended as a closing ceremony song for the music festivals that Ungar and his wife, Molly Mason, run every summer in New York State. Unless you were a patron of their Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps, you probably would never have heard the song.

But in 1990, filmmaker Ken Burns, who somehow came across Ashokan Farewell, decided to use the tune as the theme song for his 11 hour PBS documentary on the Civil War. Burns’ Civil War series became extremely popular, and as a result, Ashokan Farewell also became well known. And no longer as a closing waltz for a fiddle festival in the Adirondacks, but instead as the theme song for the American Civil War. Even though Jay Ungar was not thinking about Bull Run and Antietam and Gettysburg and Appomattox when composing the Farewell, the brain of Ken Burns made the mental connection between whatever it is that Ungar’s song does to our minds, and the sorrow, confusion, irony and sense of loss that a careful study of the Civil War brings upon the soul.

Just to nail down the dissonance here between what Ungar originally intended and what Burns later recognized within Ashokan Farewell, here are some of the lyrics that Ungar intended to be sung when the Farewell was performed:

The sun is sinking low in the sky above Ashokan.
The pines and the willows know soon we will part.
There’s a whisper in the wind of promises unspoken,
And a love that will always remain in my heart.

My thoughts will return to the sound of your laughter,
The magic of moving as one,
And a time we’ll remember long ever after
The moonlight and music and dancing are done.

Now, this is a fitting tribute to a wonderful week of making music in the green hills of Upstate New York in mid-summer, but it’s not on the same level as a quote from Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman or Fredrick Douglas. Somehow, the music of Ashokan Farewell goes way beyond the intention of its lyrics, which today are seldom heard.

I would imagine that when Ungar and Mason first performed Farewell at their festivals, it must have taken on a lively tone. But now, in the post Ken Burns era, their performances are much more solemn and serious. This video of Ungar and Mason performing Ashokan Farewell (with the accompaniment of Jay’s daughter and her husband) shows just how aware they have become of the national purpose that their little dance ditty has taken on. Notice the expressions on every musician’s face here — almost like people at the funeral of a fallen leader, or a memorial service following a disaster (all of the terrible school shootings in the past decade come to mind).

So, thanks to Ken Burns, we have a tune that helps our nation to ponder the bittersweet but still confounding reality of the Civil War. And actually, it even goes beyond that. If you read the comments to the video cited above, you will notice that some people talk about using this tune at the funeral of a friend or family member (or perhaps even at their own funeral — see this comment and the responses to it, on a YouTube rendition by the Royal British Marine Band). In a way, the complexity and confusion that a close-up examination of the Civil War reveals can be scaled down to the circumstances of our own individual lives.

Going back to how songs affect the brain — for the most part, any particular “sound wave pattern” that is recognized as music will have different effects on different people. Some people like a tune, others don’t. When a song comes along that a lot of people seem to like, then it may become popular. For some people, an emotion is triggered by a popular song — but not always the same emotion in every person. But for Ashokan Farewell, its particular sound wave pattern seemed to affect a whole lot of people in a very similar way, and in a way that Jay Ungar did not suspect when he wrote the song. It took Ken Burns to “discover” the song and recognize that it would be a “hit” when paired to the complex and tragic story of the American Civil War.

As to myself — yes, I did and still do feel what Ken Burns anticipated when he chose Ashokan Farewell as his theme song for The Civil War. I have watched all of the series, and have done some additional readings on that war. And even though no war is as simple as might be explained by the political and military leaders involved, the Civil War is especially complicated. There was so much senseless suffering and loss, imposed by Americans against Americans. And yet . . . the cancer of slavery had grown and metastasized to such an extent within the American social and economic stratum that there was no way to end it without terrible bloodshed. Then there was the matter of preserving the union, which of course was used as the primary justification for the war as it was happening — freeing the slaves was not the main selling point justifying the great sacrifice that the Union made to pursue the war.

And the evils of slavery were not cited for the most part to condemn the renegade Confederate states and justify the great suffering that they encountered. It was as though this was a war “fought in denial” of its true cause and ultimate purpose. From a century and a half later, we could look at the bright side of the War — in the end, slavery was defeated and the Union was preserved. But there are so many dark sides too — for me, its the notion that this war was NOT preventable, that humans are just players in a bigger tragedy which cannot be avoided despite their best efforts. In fact, too often their best efforts help to feed the tragic outcome all the more. Is our species truly in control of its fate? A close consideration of the American Civil War tends to cast some doubt upon that notion (and feeds the growing pessimism that American will get through the Trump years without some form of costly civil conflict). And don’t forget the Roman Empire, which despite its incredible greatness, strength and accomplishment was brought low by endless civil battle and strife.

And yet — despite all the evidence that would lead one to a hopeless fatalism, life still seems worth living. And the Askokan Farewell captures that. The Civil War came to an end, much was lost; and yet, the nation, still imperfect but hopefully a little bit wiser, went on. It took an Abraham Lincoln to try to make some sense out of an awful tragedy and convince the nation to go on. So in a way, Ungar’s “Farewell” reflects the voice of Lincoln, and echos it even into the seemingly meaningless corners of our own lives. The desire by people to have Ashokan Farewell played at their funeral perhaps reflects a wish to express their reason for being, the meaning behind what their lives, even though life, especially in old age, often becomes a bundle of chaos and decay.

At the moment, I am not anticipating my approaching death; knock on wood, I think I have a few more years left. However, I am coming closer to the day when I will end my working career, when I will retire. For years, that seemed as though it would be a joyous occasion, something akin to a granting of freedom from slavery (not to make light of true oppressive slavery). And yet, as the time grows nearer, the more bittersweet it becomes. What did I accomplish with my productive years? What could I have accomplished but didn’t? I may never find the answers to those questions; whatever did or did not happen during my prime may never make absolute sense. But I do have a song to fit the mood — I hope to hear the Ashokan Farewell being played at some point during my last day of work. (Whenever that is.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:43 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, May 26, 2018
Photo ...

Say what you will about the relative merits of cites versus suburbs, cities can be interesting places where you can sometimes see the unexpected. Suburbs, not so much. So, a few weeks ago, I noticed something seemingly amiss at the site of the former Bordens milk factory along the Morris and Essex rail line, which I ride to work on occasion. This site was abandoned by Bordens long ago, and after changing hands several times, it is now used by the City of Newark and the Newark Police Department to store and repair some of their many vehicles (there also appears to be a horse training ring for use by the Police mounted squad).

The object that seemed out of place was a bus, hanging over a small dirt cliff in the yard, nose down. The bus is marked for the Newark Recreation Dept. It’s not surprising that Newark Recreation wanted a bus to transport children and families to its various activities and offer occasional road-trips outside the city. What is surprising is that the bus is not being used these days, because it’s stuck hanging over a cliff at the former Bordens facility.

How did this happen? Was it an accident? If not, what would inspire city personnel to leave a bus this way? Was it still usable? And what about that bullet-hole on the front windshield, drivers side?

I have not read or heard any explanation for this situation. So I’m just going to share it here, as another example of our cities providing spice to life; they give us unexpected flavors now and then. I’m sure that this bus is somebody’s headache; but it’s not yours nor mine, so for now, just enjoy!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:45 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, May 20, 2018
Politics ...

The February 2018 Atlantic Monthly mag had a long article on Vice President Mike Pence, going into great detail about his evangelical religious views, and how he squares them with his extreme loyalty to Donald Trump. It seems as though Trump could do most anything, no matter how heinous, and Mike Pence would still be there to defend Trump. So it was interesting to read how Pence responded to the big revelation in October 2016, during the midst of the election campaign against Hillary Clinton, that Trump was on tape, courtesy of the show Access Hollywood, discussing his sexual exploits of women in a very crude and abusive fashion.

McKay Coppins, the editor of the article, reports that Pence clearly was considering jumping ship during the first few days of the firestorm that this revelation (by the Washington Post) had triggered in the Republican Party. For a few days there, it seemed as if Trump’s continued candidacy hung in the balance. According to Coppins, Pence distanced himself from Trump during those days, not returning phone calls. There was serious talk among GOP leaders and funders about dumping Trump and putting Mike Pence in his place (with Condoleezza Rice in the VP spot). And Pence was indeed returning phone calls from such leaders. Coppins reports that then-GOP National Chair Reince Priebus advised Trump that he could either drop out or lose in a landslide, and that Pence and Rice were ready to step in as the new GOP Presidential ticket.

Trump, of course, pulled a Houdini and slipped out of that crisis. Two factors came together to save Trump, and he brilliantly exploited both. First, there was a national debate with Clinton coming up in two day, the second in a series of three debates. Second was the fact that Hillary Clinton was married to former president Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was of course famous for his own political Houdini moves with regard to the multiple women who accused him of sexual exploitation over the years. He even slipped out  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:48 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
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
Wednesday, May 9, 2018
Current Affairs ... Politics ... Religion ...

I finally got around to reading the fascinating article in the April 2018 Atlantic Monthly on the strange and seemingly paradoxical alliance that has evolved between Donald Trump (in his role over the past few years as national politician and President), and the evangelical Christian community. The article is by Michael Gerson, a Christian evangelist who worked for President George W. Bush. Gerson knows something about Republican politics, and also about evangelism — he was raised in an evangelical family in St. Louis, and graduated from Wheaton College, a place with a strong evangelical Protestant heritage.

Gerson is not the first person to point out the paradoxes involved with the strong support that evangelical Christians have given to Donald Trump over his recent political career. To put it mildly, Trump has not shown much concern throughout his life for the Bible. And yet, despite divorces and salacious words and alleged misconduct, despite the many who have had unsatisfactory business dealings with him, despite all those who claimed to be the victim of ruthless exploitation on Trump’s part, despite the fact that Donald Trump has lived his life by the mandate of eye-for-an-eye and has seldom turned the other cheek or granted Christ-like forgiveness — despite all of that, evangelicals see Mr. Trump as a champion of what they stand for.

How did modern American evangelism arrive at this? Gerson goes back to the early 1800s and traces how evangelism has responded to the challenges of slavery, the Civil War, Darwin and Evolution, industrialization and growing secularism over the past two centuries. Evangelicals have a strong tradition of political involvement, and in that respect, their latching on to a strong political figure like Trump is not all that surprising. And yet — one wonders with Gerson how current Christian evangelists can support a man who seems so immune to the ultimate message that they are trying to spread. Sure, when Trump entered his new career as GOP candidate back in 2016, he had to spend a lot of time in the heartland, and thus had to quickly learn Holy-speak  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:05 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, April 19, 2018
Food / Drink ... Photo ...

I recently posted a pic of a pirogi store next to a Mexican restaurant in Clifton, NJ. That was on the north side of town. Way down at the other end of “the big C” (on the map, Clifton is shaped like a “C”), down along Route 21 and the Passaic River across from Rutherford, is a venerable eatery known as Rutts Hut. This place is so historic that it earns its own Wikipedia page.

Here’s a shot of the take-out section of Rutts at night (there is also a bar and a sit-down restaurant on the other end). It’s late, but people are still lining up for fries and “rippers” (hot dogs deep fried in oil). Rutts is definitely a part of my childhood, and is definitely a local institution!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:58 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
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