Saturday, January 31, 2009

Hurdy Gurdy Joyfest

'Twas then when the hurdy gurdy man
Came singing songs of love.
Then when the hurdy gurdy man
Came singing songs of love.

I'm in a retro, psychedelic mood tonight. And, for some reason, I was drawn to Donovan's immortal Hurdy Gurdy Man.

I've never been sure what or who the song is about. Actually, I just read tonight that it was Donovan's gift to his musician friend Mac MacLeod, bassist in a 60's Danish-English power trio called Hurdy Gurdy. I've also heard that it refers to the then superstar guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

But it doesn't really matter to me who Donovan was writing for or about. What matters is that this amazing song has always resonated with something deep inside me that yearns for ecstatic, soul-expanding release from my self-imposed semi-isolation from the wide, sometimes wonderful world that surrounds and, ultimately, IS me.

I love this song.

Donovan's original recording.

Steve Hillage's celebratory version.

Finally, Steve Hillage's Hurdy Gurdy Glissando.

Bad News = Opportunity

It's official. Many of the per diem jobs, mine included, are being eliminated, and the ones that remain will be filled by those who want them and have the most seniority. This means that I, one of the most recent hires, will almost certainly be laid off come February 28.

I could feel sorry for myself, but my house is paid for and I have no kids to support. The people I really feel sorry for are those with big mortgages and kids to feed, clothe, and put through school.

I could see my situation as a catastrophe. But, instead, I choose to see it as an opportunity. An opportunity to find another job that offers a higher salary, paid vacation and sick leave, health coverage for me and my wife, and, most importantly, makes more fulfilling use of my interests and talents.

I don't hate my current job. I like and respect my supervisors and co-workers, I keep physically active, and I'm earning money that helps to pay the bills.

But surely I can find and do something better than an entry level clerical job with a low salary and no benefits. Yes, I have my share of weaknesses, but I also have strengths that my current job scarcely taps. I need to focus not on what I'm losing but on what I stand to gain, and to welcome the layoff as a jump start to a better job and a better life.

In his remarkable novel Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse wrote a poem called Stages. Here is a passage I cherish from that poem and which sums up my view of my situation:

Serenely let us move to distant places
And let no sentiments of home detain us.
The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Quote of the Day

Haggard's betrayal, his lies, his compulsions, his deceits are the excruciating function of this human dead end. What we have to do as Christians is open up this always-closing door, to find a way past the abstractions and neuroses of fundamentalism to a more honest and more human acceptance of gay people as God-like. Gay people, like all people, need love. We need family. And yet we are uniquely and cruelly denied these things. And no love and no family can be genuinely based on the deceit or self-hatred that are the alternatives.
--Andrew Sullivan

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Meeting

I and my co-workers have been concerned for some time about the faltering economy combined with our ever-diminishing workload in the main file room of the medical records department of a major metropolitan health care system. We primarily process paper medical charts that leave and come into our department. But as more and more of these charts are being converted into electronic form, there are fewer and fewer paper charts for us to handle. This means that our department needs fewer and fewer clerks such as myself to do the work that needs to be done, unless we can be trained to perform new tasks. Yet, even if we could be, it seems that our department won't need as many of us as it has in the past. When thousands of paper charts are moving through the department every day, many clerks are needed to pull, toss, scan, bundle, un-bundle, repair, file, and transport them. But when this daily flow of paper charts reduces to a comparative trickle of hundreds or fewer or ceases altogether and most or all patient information is processed by computer, a virtual skeleton crew can probably take care of business.

So my co-workers and I have been waiting for months for the bad news, and we just learned yesterday that it may well come tomorrow, Friday. We relatively new per diem clerks, as opposed to the "career" clerks who've been there for many years, have been asked to come in to work thirty minutes early tomorrow for a special meeting concerning "future plans" for our department. We all think this means that we're going to be told that some, if not many, of us are going to be laid off immediately or in the near future. We could be wrong about this, but I suspect that we're right and that it's time to start looking seriously for another job.

This can be a daunting task for just about anyone in today's economic free fall. For a guy like myself, it can be even more so. But a guy's got to do what a guy's got to do, and so I will.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Quotes of the Day

God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches by means of opposites, so that you will have two wings to fly, not one.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. - ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' -- Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Quote of the Day

THIS I BELIEVE: That phenomena do not have any kind of demonstrable, intrinsic existence. That anything that is the composite sum of other parts is, logically, impermanent. That suffering is a given in any form of existence where confusion and ignorance are present. That when confusion and ignorance have been definitively eliminated, and goodness, caring, and wisdom have entirely taken their place, that is true happiness.
--Pamela White

Friday, January 23, 2009

Quote of the Day

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. But the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
Apple Ad

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Mind as a Pair of Scissors

Jonah Lehrer, author of the delightful neuroscience blog The Frontal Cortex, posted an entry today about his new book How We Decide. This entry explains that the book examines the various factors that go into producing the various kinds of decisions we make including everything from choosing which flavor of Cheerios to buy at the supermarket to whether to take out a subprime mortgage.

In a Q&A section extracted from Amazon, Lehrer likens the mind to a pair of scissors. In this metaphor borrowed from Nobel Prize winning psychologist Herbert Simon, one blade of the scissors represents the brain and the other represents the brain's environment, and, just as we can't understand the operation of the scissors without understanding the simultaneous movement of both blades, so we can't understand the choices the mind makes without understanding the interaction of brain and environment.

In the comments section, this is what I wrote:

I look forward to reading your book, and, judging from Publisher's Weekly's starred review, you have nothing to be nervous about.

No doubt you address the free will vs determinism issue in your book. Herbert Simon's delightful metaphor of the brain and environment as the two blades of a pair of scissors reinforces my view that brain and environment are what the philosopher Alan Watts called a "unified field" and that the choices issuing from this field are the inevitable products of the conditions within it.

In other words, there is no freedom to choose other than what the conditions within the field produce, and there is also no determinism of something outside the field causing it to choose as it does, because, ultimately, the field encompasses everything of which there is nothing outside.

I do look forward to reading this book and to reviewing it here someday.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sacramento Loses Again

Last night, I received the following e-mail from Bruce Maiman, now former host of an excellent weeknight talk radio program on KBFK, AM 1530. First, KSAC changed its format from liberal talk radio to gospel. Now Sacramento has lost its last even-handed talk radio program with a local as well as national focus, and it has lost an outstanding host. I'm saddened and frustrated by the news.

Is there anything we can do to stop this kind of thing from happening, or is it the inevitable way of things?

Please accept my apologies in advance for this mass e-mail. I hate them, but there many of you and sending something to each of you individually is a bit cumbersome, so I hope you don't mind.

Our parent company, Clear Channel, conducted extensive layoffs nationwide today, Tuesday, dispatching nine percent of its total workforce. I was one of those let go and will no longer be broadcasting on KFBK each weeknight.

Radio for me has never been about any ego stroke --I have no delusions of grandeur; it's only radio. And it has never been about ratings success, which we have enjoyed here and which I have enjoyed elsewhere.

What I enjoy most, and what I will miss most, is the daily interaction with compelling listeners who have things to say, whether they agree or disagree. If you are on this list, it is likely because we have engaged in conversation either on the air or via the web that I have found stimulating, compelling, perhaps infuriating and frustrating, and always enjoyable. For that, I thank you. Talk radio isn't talk radio with people talking to each other, so each of you has, in some way, been a part of that dynamic and helped make the program what it eventually became.

It's an odd thing, radio being the intimate medium that it is, and yet I have no idea how some of you even came to be listeners. The program started nearly three years ago with a completely different take than the previous host and, as a consequence, had to be built from scratch. It is no small task to build a program on a conservative radio station with a host who isn't an ideologue conservative table pounding the desk while bashing Democrats and liberals for all that ails society. Not that ideologue on the left are any more productive. Considering today's events, one wonders if this kind of behavior won't finally, finally fade away and the country can resume on a more reasoned discourse.

Because the larger corporate interests that operate the Clear Channel properties nationwide have little interest in local radio, let alone California or Sacramento, the corporate mandate today was to replace local radio hosts with some kind of syndicated programming. Who that is and when exactly that will happen, I do not know, but as I understand it, that's what's in the cards, and that's the real misfortune: With the exception of a single midday hour each on two other stations, there will be no place for Sacramento listeners to go to talk about their city, their state, their community. Somewhere, an apology for that is in order, but those who should give it most, care the least.

Again, deep thanks for your time and your thoughts. It was a pleasure to have your company.

Bruce Maiman

Quote of the Day

Dan Rather, not usually my favorite pundit, said an oddly interesting thing on the Chris Matthews Show yesterday. He said that America was ready for the kind of leader who landed that plane in the Hudson the other day. I think he was right. That weird event became somehow symbolic of what the country is hoping will happen with Barack Obama as president. In the plane crash, tragedy was averted by a steady hand on the helm, a wise and prepared professional who did everything that could be done and prevailed, saving lives and giving the whole world confidence that competence and wisdom were still alive in the U.S.
--Mary Lois Timbes

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

It's Time to Sink or Swim

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
--President Barack Obama

When John McCain chose Sarah Palin to run with him on the Republican ticket, I believed that he would be our next president. A crashing economy prevented that. So, today, I watched Barack Hussein Obama be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, and I heard him give a magnificent speech that crystallized the hopes of people throughout America and the world that a politics beyond politics and a new way of seeing and living in this world can lift us from the depths to which we've fallen and to the heights of which we dream our noblest dreams.

I'm not naive enough to believe that one man alone can lift us up, even if he is the president of the United States. Nor do I believe that one man can fully inspire all of us to work together to do the lifting. No, long after the words of Obama's stirring speech and all the pomp and circumstance of his inauguration have faded into history, we must look to ourselves and each other for the determination to change the way things are and for the strength to follow through day by day and hour by hour with that determination.

As President Obama made very clear in his address, perilous and difficult times lie ahead for the world, for this nation, and for us as families and individuals. The way I see it, we stand on barren ground decimated by fear, hatred, ignorance, and selfishness, and the promised land lies on the other side of a river. We must jump into the water and swim to the other side of the river to make it to a better place. We have no guarantee that we won't drown in our attempt, but we can be sure that if we don't make the effort, we will collectively if not individually perish from physical, moral, and spiritual stagnation and starvation.

Certainly, this is how I view my own situation. I've spent most of my adult life hiding from the world and fearing to take chances and fail. But now I see that I must leap into the water and either sink in resignation or summon all my strength and skill to swim to the other side of the river. If I do not try like I have never tried before, I will surely fail, and I don't wish to fail.

So, just as Obama's presidency begins in earnest tomorrow, so does my transformation in every aspect of my life as I exercise the full power of my own "presidency" over myself and everything I say and do from that point on.

Does this sound ambitious? No more than President Obama's speech.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Quote of the Day

When we begin to treat culture as an object of our awareness, we can begin to dis-identify with its power over us and become unique, post-cultural individuals.
--William Harryman

Friday, January 09, 2009

Quote of the Day

[Ray Kurzweil] seems to be saying that once a computer can cycle quickly enough, it will stop being an adding machine and become a sentient being. Does Kurzweil also believe that once a knitting machine makes enough mittens, it will turn into his grandmother?
--Peter K. Sampson

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Obama's Warning

For every day we wait or point fingers or drag our feet, more Americans will lose their jobs. More families will lose their savings. More dreams will be deferred and denied. And our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse.
--Barack Obama

Quote of the Day

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
– John Muir

When we see the world with new, spiritual eyes, we realize it is God’s beach, God’s ocean, God’s world. We see ourselves as waves in the ocean of love that is God. We are not separate from one another, we realize, but we all exist as part of the sea, as a wave of the infinite ocean. This is seeing spiritually: seeing everything joined together – the waves of the sea, the light in the sky, the birds skimming along the whitecaps, the dogs running, the children playing, the warmth of the sand – everything together.

It is impossible to put this experience into words, but all those who try to do so describe it as a deep sense of fellowship with all creatures, from the little sandpipers to the mighty leviathans of the deep.
--Eknath Easwaran

Quote of the Day

Despite having access to an astounding number of great and detailed dharma books, I found that they left out lots of details that turned out to be very important. I learned the hard way that using conceptual frameworks that were too idealistic or that were not fully explained could be as bad as using none at all. Further, I found out that much of the theory about progress contained ideals and myths that simply did not hold up to reality testing, as much as I wanted them to.
--Daniel M. Ingram

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Quote of the Day

In his classic poem "Paradise Lost", John Milton describes the angels debating how some of them could have sinned of their own free wills given that God had made them intelligent and happy. Why would they have done it? And why were they responsible for their sins rather than God, since God had made them the way they were and had complete foreknowledge of what they would do?
--Robert Kane

Monday, January 05, 2009

Proportionality in Asymmetric Warfare?

The Economist magazine has a good article on Israel's attack on Gaza. It questions whether Israel's actions meet the following three "tests" for a "justified war":
A country must first have exhausted all other means of defending itself. The attack should be proportionate to the objective. And it must stand a reasonable chance of achieving its goal. On all three of these tests Israel is on shakier ground than it cares to admit.

I'm inclined to agree with The Economist that Israel is on "shaky ground" with respect to tests 1 and 3, but I really wonder about test 2--proportionality. Chris Dierkes of Indistinct Union has posted a thoughtful entry arguing that the criterion of proportionality cannot be meaningfully applied to the Israeli-Hamas situation. He quotes Shmuel Rosner:
But such is the tricky nature of modern warfare: How do we measure proportionality without reducing the concept to an impossibly pedantic tit-for-tat? (How would it work? For every rocket launched into an Israeli town, Israel would retaliate by launching a similar rocket? And even then, how could we achieve proportionality without making sure that Palestinians in Gaza have the same alarm systems and comparably effective shelters?) How do we measure “success” in a situation where no side is likely to bring real closure to a volatile situation?

Dierkes answers as follows:
Easy answer: you don’t and can’t. The doctrine of proportionality (which has its roots in classical just war theory) was announced–as Rosner correctly points out–in the 1907 Hauge Conventions. That defined the era of Clausewitz’s Trinitarian Theory of Warfare: government, armies, and populations. The first two fight the war, the third does not. In the post-nuclear, post WWII era, of Fourth Generation Guerrilla Insurgencies, propotionality is a meaningless term because what you have is the equivalent of a swarm of bees stinging an elephant. What would be a proportional response of an elephant to the bees? It doesn’t make any sense. Proportionality only works as a guiding principle within the bounds of a nation-state with a professional army built for conventional warfare. The other side in this conflict does not have that edifice of social organization and therefore is not going to abide by those rules. Meanwhile for the side that does (Israel in this case), the technological difference is so vast, there is no way (as Rosner himself points out in the article) for there ever to be a proportionate response. All the elephant can do is step on some bees. There is no proportionate elephant equivalent to a sting.

I'm inclined to agree with Dierkes that we cannot reasonably apply the concept of proportionality to the situation at hand and to other instances of asymmetric warfare. So, what do we do instead? Use only tests 1 and 2. or add a new test to the mix?

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Solving the Israeli-Palestinian Problem

When I watch news reports of Israel's invasion of Gaza and listen to spokespersons from both sides justify themselves and condemn the other, I feel overwhelmed with frustration, anger, and sadness that the violence and excuses continue and that human beings in that godforsaken part of the world are suffering terrible lives and dying terrible deaths because they can't escape the awful grip of stupidity and hatred.

Israel says they're attacking Gaza to stop Hamas from bombarding Israel with rockets. Hamas says it's bombarding Israel with rockets to stop it from blockading and abusing the impoverished people of Gaza. Israel says it's blockading Gaza and killing and arresting people there to punish terrorists and stop terrorism. Hamas says it commits the kind of violence it does against Israel because this is the only way it has of opposing the oppressive tyranny of a superior military force. Israel says it wouldn't need to exercise this force if Hamas would acknowledge Israel's right to exist and leave it alone. Hamas says that Israel has no right to exist because it seized its land illegitimately. Israel says it has a right to its land and to exist and protect itself. Back and forth the two sides go, irreconcilably justifying their own actions while condemning those of the other side, and showing no empathy and compassion for the other.

Several interviewers asked these spokespersons yesterday, "What will it take to stop the violence?" Each side said that the other side must first stop doing what it's been doing. Yet, neither side is willing to take that first step without assurances that the other side won't exploit it and that there will be lasting change for the better. And no such assurances seem forthcoming.

Into the breach steps psychotherapist and rabbi Michael Lerner with a detailed plan for bringing lasting peace to the Middle East. He argues that Israel, "as the militarily superior force," should take the first steps. They should consist of a "massive Marshall Plan in Gaza and the West Bank," dismantling all Israeli settlements in these areas, allowing controlled immigration of Palestinians into Israel, formally apologizing "for its role in the 1948 expulsions of Palestinians" and working with the rest of the world to compensate Palestinians who were inordinately harmed by the Occupation, and recognizing a Palestinian state as defined by the Geneva Accord of 2003. Then, Lerner suggests, the Israelis and Palestinians can get down to the business of implementing a plan in which each makes major concessions and where both sides are scrupulously monitored by an impartial international force that rigorously enforces the agreements between them.

But all of this needs to take place within a framework of each side acknowledging the humanity and the human needs for peace, safety, and prosperity shared by both sides of the aisle. Says Lerner:
The basic condition for creating peace is to help each side feel “safe” enough to ignore those within their own community who claim that peace is impossible and that no one cares about the safety of “the Jews,” or “the Palestinians.” A first and critical step is to speak in a language that is empathic toward the suffering of each people. Rather than try to prove that the Palestinians are “nothing but” terrorists or that Zionism is nothing but an elaborate scheme for continuing and escalating Western colonialism and imperialism, we must create a climate of discourse in which both sides’ stories are genuinely heard and undertstood.

As for what the United States can do to bring all of this about, Lerner writes:
The most significant contribution the new Obama Administration could make to Middle East Peace would be to embrace an alternative strategy: that homeland security is best achieved through generosity and caring for others. If the US were to announce its embrace of a Global Marshall Plan, beginning with the Middle East and backed up with money and the conscious articulation of a Strategy of Generosity, it would do more to help Israel than all the armaments it can promise and all the shuttle diplomacy it might facilitate. If this new way of thinking could become a major part of US policy, it would have an immense impact on undermining the fearful consciousness of Israelis who still see the world more through the frame of the Holocaust than through the frame of their actual present power in the world.

Is this the "pie-in-the sky" idealizing of some radical liberal intellectual hopelessly out-of-touch with the bleak realities of today's world? Many would say that it is. But what is the alternative to listening to people like Lerner and doing our best to transform their ideals into reality?

On Fareed Zakaria's show this morning, an Israeli spokesperson explained that the ground incursion into Gaza was designed to inflict such damage on Hamas that they could not credibly claim any kind of victory and which permanently removed their capacity to rain rockets down on Israel. But it seems to me that not only will Hamas survive to make claims of victory that will be embraced by the many who want to believe them, but also that Israel, without permanently and disastrously occupying Gaza, will not be able to keep Hamas or some other radical group from acquiring more rockets and moving them into position to fire them into Israel, and that, in any case, Israel's actions in Gaza will take many lives, maim many more, and stir up even more hatred resulting in more violence against Israel and its supporters. Conversely, the Palestinians will never be able to defeat Israel and take over all its lands. Therefore, unless the madness in the Middle East is to continue indefinitely, both sides must strike out in a bold new direction together. It might be the one outlined by Lerner. It might be someone else's.

But something different must be done if a different and better result is to be achieved. And neither side can coerce the other by rockets, bombs, or troops into settling for anything less.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Quote of the Day

My fellow Americans, we can’t continue in this mode of “Dumb as we wanna be.” We’ve indulged ourselves for too long with tax cuts that we can’t afford, bailouts of auto companies that have become giant wealth-destruction machines, energy prices that do not encourage investment in 21st-century renewable power systems or efficient cars, public schools with no national standards to prevent illiterates from graduating and immigration policies that have our colleges educating the world’s best scientists and engineers and then, when these foreigners graduate, instead of stapling green cards to their diplomas, we order them to go home and start companies to compete against ours.

To top it off, we’ve fallen into a trend of diverting and rewarding the best of our collective I.Q. to people doing financial engineering rather than real engineering. These rocket scientists and engineers were designing complex financial instruments to make money out of money — rather than designing cars, phones, computers, teaching tools, Internet programs and medical equipment that could improve the lives and productivity of millions.
--Thomas Friedman