The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
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 17, 2018
Current Affairs ... History ... Photo ...

Out in front of the Essex County Courthouse, there is a bronze statute of Rosa Parks sitting on a bus seat. Rosa Parks, of course, was an American Civil Rights activist of the 1950’s and 60’s, and is famous for the December, 1955 incident in Birmingham, Alabama where she was riding in the “colored section” in the rear half of a segregated bus (there were many examples of such “Jim Crow” segregation throughout the nation). Ms. Parks refused to leave her seat after the bus driver ordered her to get up and move further to the rear of the bus, so that a white rider could sit down after the white section of the bus (just ahead of Ms. Parks’s seat) had become full. She was arrested for and convicted of disorderly conduct. While her case was on appeal, the local NAACP (in which Parks was active) and other churches and activists organized a boycott against the bus company by African Americans. About a year later, a federal court decision outlawed the segregated bus seating as unconstitutional.

I walk past this tribute to Ms. Parks just about every workday. Last week, I noticed that an overnight snow squall had left her face temporarily half white. It seems like an interesting photo, so I got a phone out of my pocket and took it. Rosa Parks, in black and white. It seemed like a good metaphor. Today, Rosa Parks and the many other brave Civil Rights activists who fought the crude and absolute segregation laws and practices that existed in the United States through the 1960s is not just a black hero; she is an American hero. Her story is woven into the fabric of what our nation is today. She belongs to white Americans of the 21st Century just as much as she does to blacks, and ditto for Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, whatever.

OK, I realize that what I just said does not fully and accurately reflect the reality of America today. I understand that blacks are still not fully free, not fully empowered to share the opportunities and advantages of living in the United States. I understand that even though the crude segregationist laws and practices of the 1950’s and early 60’s have largely been abolished, there still exist a wide range of more subtle social and economic barriers that prevent too many African Americans from being “just another American citizen, entitled to all the rights and participating in all the responsibilities that go with that”. I understand that Rosa still belongs much more to those women and men of color who struggle to flush out and overcome those barriers.

And yet, it was a good dream that I had there. In fact, it isn’t too different from the dream that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of in his famous August, 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. In fact, Dr. King’s dream specifically included Alabama, where Ms. Parks had made her stand while remaining seated:

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification”, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

Let’s hope — and act — so that one day, the entirety of Dr. King’s dream will be fulfilled.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:27 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, March 10, 2018
Current Affairs ... Politics ... Public Policy ...

The tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida which occurred two weeks ago has gotten a lot of people talking about gun policy. It has also inspired the numbers geeks to take another look at the numbers regarding “mass shooting incidents” and regarding “assault rifle weapons”. Both of these phrases are easy to say, but quite difficult to define precisely.

However, given that I consider myself a hobbyist numbers-geek, I thought I would search around and see what kind of stats I could come up with from public internet sources. I wanted to see if there are any apparent correlations between shootings and social trends in public communication, such as the rise of 24 hour cable news, the world wide web, and smartphones and social media. I was wondering if the rising “sensitivity” of our society to sensational events like mass shootings because of instantaneous media sources, widely-available sources of information that did not exist before 1980, had anything to do with the rising number of shootings in our country.

OK, so how to define “mass shootings”? There does not seem to be any one agreed-upon standard; one fairly common definition is taken from a July 2015 Congressional Research Service report. This report defined a mass shooting as “a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms, within one event, and in one or more locations in close proximity.” An even stricter definition starts with this requirement, and further removes gang-related,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:05 pm       Read Comment (1) / 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
Saturday, February 17, 2018
Spirituality ... Zen ...

Our Zen sangha recently discussed a koan called “Kyogen Mounts The Tree“. It’s about a sage named Kyogen who describes a man hanging onto a tree branch with his teeth, while dangling over a steep cliff. The koan did not specify why this man could not grab on to the branch with his arms and hands — perhaps he was disabled? And just how did the guy get into this predicament? That would require a sensible answer, and koans are not in the business of providing sensible answers.

Anyway, according to the koan story, someone else came along and saw the poor fellow up in the tree, hanging on for life. The sojourner did not make any attempt to rescue Kyogen’s friend — perhaps there isn’t much that could have been done in ancient times, a time without cell phones and body harnesses and helicopters. So, the passer-by decided to ask the hanging man a question: Why does Bodhidharma come to China from India? This question puts Kyogen’s man in a quandry — if he stays quiet, he “fails” — presumably he misses his chance to spread the dharma and perhaps attain his own enlightenment (for it is in teaching that we learn the most). But by staying mum, he keeps alive the hope that somehow, something will rescue him. If he does decide to answer, he goes down into the chasm, and dies on the rocks below. But in the few seconds of his fall, he might attain enlightenment (or at least bring the passer-by to it — assuming that Kyogen’s man has a good answer).

Various members of our group argued that the answer is obvious: let go and answer the question! Being a true Zen student means taking the risk, accepting the worst, and letting go. Even if that means making a sacrifice for the cause. We should not get hung-up on what seems most obvious — i.e., putting self-preservation first. The fear and struggle caused by mindless self-preservation holds us back; it can be worse than the consequence itself. This would seem most consistent with the Buddha’s teachings that grasping and desire are the ultimate cause of suffering, and  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:07 am       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, January 27, 2018
Current Affairs ... History ... Politics ...

The NY Times recently posted a video entitled “Is There Something Wrong With Democracy?“, and its worth a look. Throughout the 20th Century, it seemed as if more and more nations were casting aside their autocratic forms of governance and assuming the path of western enlightenment by adopting the institutions of representative democracy (e.g., free elections open to all adults, written constitutions and codes of laws, independent courts, limited executive powers directed by the will of legislative bodies, etc.). The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the new freedoms granted to its many constituent nations seemed to mark the final chapter of democracy’s victory.

Recall the attention that Francis Fukyama’s 1992 book “The End of History and The Last Man” gained, based on his claim that western democracy was the logical endpoint of humankind’s historical struggle to find the best way to govern nations and peoples. History was now over, the end had been reached (or was clearly in sight); liberal democracy turned out to be what sociocultural evolution had been working towards since the dawn of civilization 10,000 years ago. And yet, today, with populism on the rise throughout the world and right here at home in the USA, and with more and more developing nations affiliating themselves with an unrepentingly autocratic China, we see more and more think-pieces like the Times video and a recent article in Foreign Affairs entitled “How Democracies Fall Apart“.

What makes me scratch my head about all of this is that the usual suspected cause of strong-arm governments, i.e. declining economic and living conditions, isn’t really happening. For example, in 1981, 44% of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty. Today that figure is about 10%. The world economic picture in 2018 is better than it has been for quite some time. Growth is expected in almost every region. So why are so many people in the world today  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:54 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, January 20, 2018
Personal Reflections ... Photo ... Spirituality ...

At my office desk, I have a little “altar” hidden away on a shelf behind my computer monitor. This little altar reflects my own spiritual philosophy that God and reality are much bigger and difficult to grasp than any human system of understanding and belief can adequately deal with. And by “system of understanding and belief”, I include all religions, modern science, philosophy, art, literature, and “the voice of nature”. I think that the best that a “seeker” like myself can do is to listen to what all of them have to say, or at least as many as you have time for.

My little altar here is a tribute to the dynamic duo of world spirituality, Jesus and the Buddha. Obviously those two figures cannot represent all of the various “systems of understanding” out there, but they are two world-class heavyweights who saw things from very different perspectives. Jesus put his faith and emphasis in love and relationship, relationship between humans themselves and between humans and God. Jesus felt that humans could, with proper effort and with God’s help, achieve fulfillment and meaning in relationship and love. His vision of a “Kingdom of God” reflected his faith that humans were up to it, with God’s countenance. But the Kingdom that Jesus saw coming would require a lot of love, the kind of love that is a lot more than a Hallmark card sentiment. Jesus was not talking about sentimental niceness, but radical justice for the poor and oppressed.

The Buddha, by contrast,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:25 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Monday, January 15, 2018
Food / Drink ... Photo ...

Did you ever make a mistake only to find out that the outcome of your mistake was actually quite valuable? That recently happened to me. I had bought a big supply of apples in late autumn at a big food market, where the apples were very fresh and quite cheap (50 cents a pound). And there were a wide variety available. Anyway, I couldn’t store all of the apples in my refrigerator, so I put a bag of them in my car trunk, given that it was late October and the falling temperatures outside would be just as good as any indoor refrigerator.

Well, turns out that the weather here got surprisingly cold right after Christmas, and stayed well below freezing for two weeks. Just a few days ago, I finally thought of those apples, and went to my trunk to bring them inside. It turned out that the freezing temps had frozen them solid, and when they melted, they were all mushy and shriveled and brownish. It looked like they would have to be thrown out.

But just for the heck of it, I put one in the microwave for a minute or two, just to see what would happen. I took out the now-hot shriveled apple and got a knife and spoon to cut the skin and taste the almost-liquified flesh. And turns out that it tasted fantastic!! A bit like a baked apple, but not exactly. The inside got very juicy and sweet, and was quite delightful. The only problem was that with all the juice, eating the apple could be messy; you need a plate or bowl if you try this. Also, you need to work to avoid the pits and hard spots in the core, as they easily get mixed in with the soft, warm flesh.

Still, I think that a frozen and re-heated apple makes a very nice and tasty snack, and I will try this little ‘frozen apple mistake’ recipe again in the future!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:22 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, January 3, 2018
Photo ...

It’s early January and the holidays are over. The season to be jolly has passed. In offices across the country (such as this one, where I work), Christmas decorations are being taken down and put back into storage. Eleven months from now, hopefully some merry soul will find the decoration box and once again deck the halls of bureaucratic cubicles. For now, it’s time to get back to work amidst the dis-inspiration of a dark and brutally cold January (we have a snowstorm forecast for tomorrow). When the holidays end in early January, they end hard — almost like it never happened.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:24 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
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