Thursday, December 23, 2010

Impact vs Fame

I recently discovered a delightful blog by a young man named Jason Summers. Jason creates software, majors in physics at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and spends a lot of his leisure time philosophizing and studying “visual spatial cognition.” He says, “My goal in life is to understand what space and time really are, and how the virtual reality within our brains differs from the real world we live in.

But in a recent blogpost, Jason says he doesn’t pursue his interests for “honors and fame,” and he laments the facts that too many people these days want to reap the fortune or at least the fame of being “the next guru or sage” and that the brightest young people going into science don’t want to do “observations and grunt work which needs to be done,” but desire, instead, “to be the next Einstein.” Jason concludes by saying, “I believe that the men and women who have the greatest impact on the world for the better are unknown and do good deeds without asking for any recognition.

Here is the comment (slightly modified here) I posted to his blog in response:

Jason, while I agree that doing good deeds without expectation of rewarding recognition is laudable, I question your assertion that those who've had the greatest impact on the world are unknown. For instance, Jesus, for better or worse, has arguably had the greatest impact ever, and there's probably no one more famous.

It stands to reason that those who've had the greatest impact in religion, science, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, technology, and other fields of endeavor are precisely those who have garnered the most fame for their accomplishments, whether or not they sought it.

Also, I can't say that I blame the brightest people for eschewing the laboratory for the chalkboard, figuratively or literally speaking. It seems to me that it would be an awful waste for a "monster mind" like Ed Witten to spend a great deal of time running mundane experiments designed to confirm other people's results. His singular talents are much better deployed, at least most of the time, in Einsteins' old office.

This was Jason’s thoughtful reply:

Hi Steve. You bring up some good points. While I for the most part agree with you, in some respects I also disagree. Though the pursuit of truth is admirable, I feel it’s just as important to work on projects and inventions which relieve human suffering. I suppose you never know what abstract research may eventually lead to, but even so, it’s very important that scientific research efforts work on the mundane aspects of life, improving the everyday lives of people on this planet. Einstein’s work is certainly valuable, but I think other unknown scientists in various fields are the ones responsible for the majority of my own happiness. Scientists at Intel designed my computer. Scientists from Sony designed this computer monitor. Scientists designed my stereo system, the navigation system in my car, my home’s heating and air conditioning systems, and the list goes on. None of these people are known yet they are responsible for most of what I value in life. I don’t feel it’s beneath a genius to work for a company and design a city’s plumbing and sewage systems. I think this is what my professor was trying to tell me.
What do you think. Do you think unsung heroes have had the greatest impact on our lives, or has it been famous people? And do you think the brightest of us should toil away at mundane labors in laboratories and “drafting boards,” or should they be applying their prodigious intellectual gifts to a “higher” or at least more intellectual calling?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Martin Luther King to President Obama

"Cowardice asks the question- Is it safe? Expediency asks the question- Is it politic? Vanity asks the question- Is it popular? But conscience asks the question- Is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.
--Martin Luther King Jr.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Health Care For All is Not an Entitlement, It's a Necessity

Here is most of a comment I posted yesterday to a Facebook discussion of the recent federal court decision ruling that some parts of the new health care coverage bill are unconstitutional:

You're absolutely right. Health care coverage for all should NOT be viewed as a "handout" or "entitlement" for those unable to acquire it otherwise but as every bit as much if not more of a necessity for the "pursuit of happiness" as is police protection, military defense, and public education, to name just a few of the public services we legitimately look to government to provide.

We don't require people to have jobs providing coverage for these public services at reduced cost or to pay exorbitant fees out of their own pockets for privately obtained coverage for these public services, so why should we require this for health care coverage?

We don't deny coverage to people with "pre-existing" vulnerabilities to having to use these public services or to those who have reached a utilization "ceiling" for these public services, so why should we do this for health care coverage?

And if those opposed to so-called "Obamacare" don't like the fact that it requires everyone to purchase health insurance from private insurers, then let's just tax everyone and provide "Medicare for all" via the "public option," which is what we should have been doing all along anyway, with those who want something more and "better" and who can afford it paying extra to get it.

What I find so disturbing in this debate is that people who oppose the new health care law seem so callous to the suffering of the ill and injured and their families and to the concerns of growing multitudes unable to obtain adequate health care coverage or who are afraid of losing it if they lose their jobs or become sick enough or injured badly enough to exhaust their "caps."

These uncaring individuals talk as though this is unimportant and that we either don't need to do anything about it or we'll solve the problem simply by allowing more "competition" between the insurers and paltry tax breaks to consumers. Clearly more than this needs to be done, but I don't see any viable solutions from those opposed to "Obamacare." I just see a sneering dismissal of those who are trying to do something effective to provide everyone with coverage, and I find this disgusting.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why Shouldn't There be Something Rather Than Nothing?

"This model is different, because the universe never collapses." (Roger Penrose)

This morning, I read this brief article outlining a theory advanced by the genius mathematician-cosmologist Roger Penrose that the universe existed BEFORE the Big Bang. I don't pretend to understand the sketchy explanation offered by the article or even the somewhat more expansive, if less detailed, one Penrose himself serves up in the interview below, but I'm intrigued by the notion of a cyclical universe that may have had no beginning and may have no end. This inspired me to post the following "note" to my Facebook page this morning:

I used to buy into the popular belief that nothingness is necessarily the "default position" of reality and that we need to explain the appearance of the universe out of original nothingness, which, of course, theists do by insisting that only God, by whatever name, could be responsible. But lately I've come to question this prevailing assumption. I've begun to think that, given the presence of something rather than nothing, which seems awfully difficult to explain in terms of something originating from nothing, perhaps the real default position of reality is somethingness. In other words, perhaps the universe has always existed and has, as Penrose might be taken to imply, cycled through an eternity of eons.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Sci-Fi Justice

Take away a man’s life, memory, payment for his’s still not enough. Where does revenge end and justice begin?” --Captain Sheridan, Babylon 5

Babylon 5 is one of the finest sci-fi shows to ever grace television. It originally aired in the mid-to-late 90’s. It takes place 250 years in the future mostly on a giant space station named Babylon 5 that began as a kind of galactic UN but later became the base of operations for the good guys versus the malevolent Shadows and their alien allies in the great war to end all great wars.

Spoiler alert

I’ve been re-watching this wonderful series from the beginning on Instant Netflix for over a month and have worked my way into the early part of Season 3. Last night, I watched one of the most provocative and poignant episodes of the entire series. Titled Passing Through Gethsemane, it focuses on a remarkably devoted and endearing Catholic monk (played by the always mesmerizing Brad Dourif) named Brother Edward who painfully discovers that he isn’t who he thought he was.

For “Br. Edward” had previously been a psychopathic serial killer of women who was caught, tried, convicted, and sentenced to “death of personality” for his crimes. That is, his memories were wiped clean by a telepathic process, and he was given false memories of his past and turned into a very different person bent on selflessly serving others for the rest of his life as a Christian monk. He did this beautifully for eight years until his past caught up with him when family members of some of his victims found him on Babylon 5 and enacted their revenge after restoring his memories of his previous crimes.

Early in the episode, before Br. Edward made his shattering discovery, he was asked what he regarded as the emotional core of his Christian faith and he replied that it was when Jesus stood in the Garden of Gethsemane contemplating his fate and fearfully wondering, in a moment of human weakness, whether he could and should go through with it as planned. Br. Edward confided that he too wondered whether he, if he ever found himself in his own Gethsemane moment, would have the courage to do what needed to be done. And, as you might suspect, he learned the answer to that nagging question.

This episode raises the vexing issue of the nature of justice. As I’ve written many times in this blog, I don’t believe in free will, so I’m not sure what justice entails. That is, if a person’s nature--shaped by an almost infinitely complex set of interconnected physical, biological, psychological, and social factors--at the time he commits a crime causes him to commit that crime, what is the just response to his crime. Should justice consist of punishment even if the person to be punished is blameless? Should it consist of retribution? Reparation? Rehabilitation?

“Death of personality” seems, on the surface, like an ideal form of justice. Out with the old criminal personality or nature and in with a new and benevolent one. The person isn’t punished for crimes his previous nature made him commit; he’s rehabilitated or given a new nature that causes him to behave in a very different manner that enables him to at least begin to make reparations to the community he harmed before.

But one problem is that the survivors of the people he harmed didn’t feel in their hearts that justice was served, and I think there’s something to be said, unfortunate as it may be, for the human need to see a person suffer for his crimes whether he could help committing those crimes or not.

Another, perhaps more theological, problem is that suppose Br. Edward is right when he says, “How can I confess my sins to God if I don’t even know what they are. The mind forgets, but the stain remains with the soul.” In other words, if the soul and sin are not Christian fabrications, what would happen to a soul that can’t confess because the mind that overlays it doesn’t remember what it needs to confess?

"Passing Through Gethsemane" is a fascinating and powerful episode well worth watching, which you can do by clicking on here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fiddle or Fight While America Burns?

I hang out on Facebook a lot. More than I should, actually, although I've decided to back off on it over the coming days. But I read a post today from one of my Facebook friends in which she says she's tried of all the doom and gloom that people are spreading about America's alleged decline, and she's going to stop listening to them and get on with her business.

She thinks that we certainly have problems, but bright minds and natural cycles will solve them unless and until we allow ourselves to become so obsessed with the dire and unflaggingly repetitious pronouncements of such pompous prophets of doom as Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, and Tom Friedman that we become too demoralized and debilitated.

I disagree with her. I think our problems are very serious and that we have no chance whatsoever of solving them unless we begin by acknowledging and understanding them. This, with some minor modifications, is what I wrote to her:

I don't believe we are "functioning well" at all. Wall Street continues to grow richer while Main Street continues to grow poorer and our infrastructure continues to crumble and collapse before our eyes. Our educational system is in shambles at a time when it desperately needs to get its act together. Our political system is so polarized that very little can be accomplished. Health care is becoming more expensive and so-called Obamacare, a piss-poor patchwork substitute for single-payer but still better than what we've had before, is on its way out as Republicans continue to attack it and Democrats continue to cave to their demands. Our national debt continues to rise with no viable prospects for reversal. Soon China will be the world's dominant technological, economic and geopolitical power if it isn't already, and India and other rising countries such as Brazil may also relegate us soon enough to second tier, has-been status while our only preeminence, at least for a time, will be as militarily musclebound freaks.

These and a million other serious, serious problems eat away at our nation, and whether you want to collectively characterize them as "brokenness" or to use some other, more euphemistic term for them, they are real, and they are destroying us from the inside out while other countries chip away at us from the outside in.

If we acknowledge and understand our problems, there's always the risk that we'll succumb to debilitating and paralyzing despair and not only sink into the morass of mediocrity or worse but be miserable the whole way down. But if we don't acknowledge and understand our problems and just "fiddle while Rome burns" (pardon my mixed metaphors), expecting everything to right itself as part of some natural and inexorable cycle, we have no chance whatsoever.

The choice is ours. Fiddle or fight.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Your Bet

"So here’s the math: 98 climate scientists out of 100 will tell you that man’s continued carbon emissions pose the risk of disruptive climate change this century. Two out of 100 will tell you it doesn’t. And “conservatives” today tell you to bet on the two."

Saturday, October 30, 2010

First Webcam Video

I just bought a new webcam, installed it, and posted my first video with it to Facebook earlier today. And then I figured that if I'm using this blog to nakedly reflect the "real me," this would be a good place to post the video as well. Actually, I plan to post more videos of myself here over time, if I can think of anything to talk about, but this is my first foray into such Internet visibility.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

To Chew or Not to Chew?

A local news channel posted on its Facebook page the following question: A congressman has asked the Giants and the Rangers not to chew tobacco on the field in this year's World Series. What do you think about that?

Almost everyone has responded by excoriating the congressman for not attending to more important things and by defending the right of baseball players to do what baseball players have always done. Yet, as you might suspect, I posted a rather different response that, despite its deliberate rhetorical excess, makes what I consider to be some valid points:

Why do any of you care if a congressman merely ASKS the players not to chew tobacco during the World Series? He's not trying to legislate against tobacco chewing. Apparently nobody else had the testicular fortitude to do it, so he stepped up to the plate to try to spare our nation's impressionable youth from being exposed to that vile habit during American baseball's most visible and iconic event. You should be applauding him for what he did instead of condemning him for it! How is it that you've allowed your exaggerated, reflexive hatred of government to override your concern for the health and well-being of your children?

The only problem I have with the good congressman is his naivety in thinking that major league baseball players are smart enough to heed his intelligent advice or that they give a damn about our children or anyone else but their overpaid and overly famous and pampered selves.

Monday, October 25, 2010

My Comment to Roger Ebert About Life and Death

Roger Ebert has an outstanding blog that uses the films he reviews as a taking off point for more extended reflections on the themes and issues raised by those films. In a recent entry about Clint Eastwood's new film "Hereafter," he makes the following comments about death:

"When I write that I expect to experience no more after death than I experienced before birth, I receive comments from people who pity me. They wonder how I can possibly live with such a bleak prospect. I find it more cheerful than most of the other possibilities that have been floated. I don't want to come back as an insect, haunt unquiet places as a ghost, or gaze down benevolently on my loved ones below as they, and all their generations to the end of time, die from mayhem or disease. I am also offered the possibility that I will be absorbed in God's love for all eternity, which is a better offer, but lacking in definition. If that means what it seems to mean, and if God is infinite (as he must be), then the role played by "me" can hardly be aware or conscious in any meaningful way. But I will become part of the universal, you say? I already am. You, too...We live, we die. That is not a tragedy. The tragedy would be never having been born."

I just replied with a comment that awaits Ebert's approval before it appears. Here is what I wrote:

Roger, I agree with you that there's nothing "bleak" about the prospect of dying and returning to the same state of non-consciousness that presumably characterized us before we existed. But I disagree with you that there would be anything "tragic" about never being born in the first place. For whom would it be tragic? If one never existed, there would be nothing to regret missing out on the experience it never existed to have.

In fact, I'd go further and agree with philosopher David Benetar's premise in "Better Never to Have Been" that if our lives are simply, as Alan Watts characterized the prevailing non-religious view, "a trip from the maternity ward to the crematorium," and, as Benatar argues, fraught with more pain and suffering than pleasure and happiness, the REAL "tragedy" for most if not all of us is that we WERE born. We'd have been better off had we never been at all.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Road Rage

Last week my wife and I were driving somewhere when I almost got into a violent altercation with someone. I was driving to an unfamiliar location and realized that I was in the wrong lane with a left turn coming up, and when I signaled and tried to move into the left turn lane, the big SUV behind me sped up to make sure I couldn't move over, as a woman in the passenger seat glared down at me as they raced by like she was thinking, "Screw you."

Well, I did manage to get over behind the SUV, and as we both sat at a red light, I made an angry gesture to the driver of the SUV. No, I didn't flip him the bird. I shook my fist at him. He saw me and opened the driver side door part way as though he was going to jump out and confront me right there, but it appeared as though the woman passenger stopped him from following through on his folly. He slammed his door shut and jerked around in his seat like he was completely beside himself with fury.

I don't know what I would have done if he had gotten out of his vehicle and moved toward me. I know I would have stayed in the car, but what if he started pounding on it or kicking it? What if he had a gun? He certainly seemed angry enough that if he had a gun, he wouldn't have thought twice about using it, especially if he hadn't had a female passenger to talk him out of it.

If he had had a gun and started walking toward me with it, I think I'd have tried to run him over. If he'd damaged the car with punches or kicks, I or my wife would have tried to get his license number and report him.

But what about the gesture I made to him? Should I have done it? Did he deserve to see my displeasure over the way he conducted himself when I tried to move into the left turn lane just before the stoplight? I think he deserved it. But what people deserve and what we should give them if it puts ourselves and our loved ones in danger are, perhaps, separate issues with the latter overriding the former.

In retrospect, I wish I had made no gesture, although a perverse part of me is glad I did. But if I had it to do over, should I have made the gesture I did or some other one? If another one, what should it have been? I kind of think that showing him the back of my open hand would have been better. It wouldn't have been overtly vulgar like flipping him the bird, or confrontational like showing him my fist. He would have probably thought I was flipping him the bird or challenging him to a fight anyway, but at least I'd have the satisfaction of knowing that I did neither, assuming he didn't shoot me and I was able to feel anything afterward.

What kind of society do we live in with people like the jerk in the SUV with his stereotypical Harley sticker on the back and, perhaps, a gun or crowbar under his seat driving on our public roads? Or am I the villain in this story?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Quote for the Day--Commemorate 9/11 With Compassion

"In the United States, we have witnessed an upsurge of anti-Muslim feeling that violates the core values of that nation...And now we have the prospect of the Quran burning proposed by a Christian pastor, who seems to have forgotten that Jesus taught his followers to love those they regard as enemies, to respond to evil with good, and to turn the other cheek when attacked, and who died forgiving his executioners...If we want to preserve our humanity, we must make the compassionate voice of religion and morality a vibrant and dynamic force in our polarised world. We can no longer afford the barbarism of hatred, contempt and disgust...In an age when, increasingly, small groups will have powers of destruction that were previously the preserve only of the nation-state, respect and compassion are now crucial for our very survival...Instead of looking at one another with hostility, let us look at the suffering that we are seeing in so many parts of the world...On September 11, let us all try to find something practical to do that can, in however small a way, bring help and relief to all those in pain, even -- and perhaps especially -- those we may regard as enemies...Imam Feisal Rauf is a Sufi. Over the centuries, Sufis, the mystics of Islam, have developed an outstanding appreciation of other faith traditions. It is quite common for a Sufi poet to cry in ecstasy that he is no longer a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew and that he is at home equally in a synagogue, mosque, temple or church, because once you have glimpsed the immensity of the divine, these limited, human distinctions fall away into insignificance. We need that spirit today -- perhaps especially near Ground Zero."

Friday, September 03, 2010

Quote for the Day--Obamanomics is Not Keynesian

"The way the right wants to tell the story — and, I’m afraid, the way it will play in November — is that the Obama team went all out for Keynesian policies, and they failed. So back to supply-side economics!

The point, of course, is that that is not at all what happened. A straight Keynesian analysis implied the need for a much bigger program, more oriented toward spending, than the administration proposed."

--Paul Krugman

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Quote for the Day--The Joy of Infinite Love

"As Kierkegaard said, if at every moment both present and future I were certain that nothing has happened or can ever happen that would separate us from the infinite love of the Infinite, that would be the reason for joy."
-- Huston Smith

Monday, August 02, 2010

The Japanese Aesthetic Defined

I've been listening to a marvelous The Teaching Company course by Professor Grant L. Voth on the History of World Literature. I listen to it on my iPod Touch while taking my daily morning walk along a lovely creek trail. Today, I heard a lecture on Japanese poetry.

The Japanese aesthetic has always held an especially strong appeal for me, from the time I used to listen as a little boy to the tinkling of an ancient Japanese tune on my mother's music box to my introduction by Alan Watts to Zen and Japanese culture to today when a part of me still yearns to model the traditional Japanese aesthetic in the exterior and interior design of my home and my whole way of life.

But what exactly is that aesthetic? Well, today, Dr. Voth listed four of its key principles, qualities, or elements: (1) Subtle suggestion rather than explicit statement; (2) Asymmetry is always preferable to symmetry; (3) Simplicity is superior to complexity or clutter; and (4) Perishability is preferable to permanence.

I guess what this all boils down to is that the traditional Japanese aesthetic seems to possess a subtlety and depth missing from the traditional Western one where things tend to be much more boldly and, oftentimes, clumsily "in your face."

The paradox of this for me is that while I'm attracted to the subtlety and depth of the traditional Japanese aesthetic, I seem to have the kind of mind that finds it difficult to penetrate beneath the surfaces of things and ideas to plumb the depths beneath. Maybe it's partly a case of being drawn to the mystery of what is, for me, the forever impenetrable and unfathomable.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Quote for the Day--Leave the Sandbox

"In the perspective of mysticism, most of us are still playing in the world as if we were children in a giant sandbox. We have our rattles, we hold on tightly to our Popsicles; for the vast majority of us, most of life is spent with toys. Figures like Sri Krishna, Christ, and the Buddha come to the edge of the sandbox and remind us gently, “Look, your hair is turning gray. Do you want to play here forever? There are vast worlds to be discovered.” But often we reply, in effect, “Right, Lord. Just let me finish this one sand castle"...If we keep playing with pleasures and possessions for decades, before we realize it the sandbox becomes our universe. Then we have no thought for what we really are, who is within us, what is our destiny, whether life has any goal.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Quote for the Day--Double Dip Recession

"No one in their right mind would have wished for another Great Depression, of course. But we seem to have got the worst of all worlds. The bank bailout, the stimulus, and the Fed brought us back from the brink just enough to dampen zeal for anything more. As a result, we are now slouching toward a tepid recovery that could just as well fall into a double dip recession, while a large portion of our population suffers immensely."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Quote of the Day--Eyes on the Path

I know some people say “Keep your eyes on the prize,” but I disagree. When your eyes are stuck on the prize, you’re going to keep stumbling and crashing into things. If you really want to get ahead, you’ve got to keep your eyes focused on the path.
--Russell Simmons

Monday, June 14, 2010

Was There a Ghost in Our Hotel Room?

My wife and I stayed at a hotel in Southern California last weekend. I won't say which hotel it was because I wouldn't want to get them or myself in any trouble. But I do want to report what we saw in our room.

We were lying in bed talking Sunday morning when I caught a fleeting glimpse of what appeared to be a moving shadow on the ceiling in front of the open bathroom door. My wife kept the bathroom light on and the door open a crack so she could find her way to the bathroom in the dark if she needed to. What I saw looked like the shadow someone might cast on the ceiling if they were in the lighted bathroom. But no one was in there.

I didn't think much of it or say anything about it. First of all, I don't believe in supernatural phenomena like spirits or ghosts, although I don't rule them out completely, and I just figured that my eyes were playing tricks on me. I never saw anything else like that the two nights we were there, and my wife didn't mention anything about it at the time.

Yet, this morning my wife called from work and asked if I'd seen anything "strange" in that room. I said, "Like what?" and she replied that she had seen the moving shadow. But she saw it four or five times. She also said she'd had a peculiar dream or two about a little boy in that room. I felt a few chills along my spine. I'm feeling them now too.

I told her that I didn't have any peculiar dreams, but I did see what she saw. I also asked why she didn't say anything to me while we were in the room. She answered that she didn't want me to stay awake looking for anything out of the ordinary and, besides, she didn't feel threatened by whatever it was that she saw.

I should explain that my wife is Thai. As a Thai, she believes in ghosts and takes them rather matter-of-factly. In fact, she and her whole family believe that a benevolent ghost protects their property in Bangkok. The opening fight scene from Rambo III was filmed there and they've called it the "Rambo House" ever since. You can read my blogpost about the filming here. The reputed ghost appears as an old lady sweeping the grounds of the property. She doesn't appear to family members but only to guests staying overnight. Everybody calls her "the caretaker" in Thai.

Back to our hotel room. I don't know what we saw. I'm inclined to believe that there's a natural explanation for it even if I don't know what it is. But who knows what it REALLY was?

I guess only The Shadow knows.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Quote of the Day--Existence Is Harm

Each one of us was harmed by being brought into existence. That harm was not negligible, because the quality of even the best lives is very bad--and considerably worse than most people recognize it to be. Although it is obviously too late to prevent our own existence, it is not too late to prevent the existence of future possible people. Creating new people is thus morally problematic.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Quote of the Day--'24's' Degradation of the Presidency

"Whether Jack Bauer lives, dies, or falls off the grid is ultimately of little consequence, but how people view their president has a colossal effect on how we feel about our country and our place in it. If viewers found themselves relating to 24's final notes for its portrayal of a government bent on destruction, it's a disappointing, sullying end for one of television's most innovative shows."
--Joshua Alston

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Quote of the Day--America's Spare Tire

"America used its spare tire to prevent a collapse of the banking system and to stimulate the economy after the subprime market crash. The European Union used its spare tire on its own economic stimulus and then to prevent a run on European banks triggered by the meltdown in Greece. This all better work, because we’re not only living in a world without any more spares but also in a world without distance. Nations are more tightly integrated than ever before. We’re driving bumper to bumper with every other major economy today, so misbehavior or mistakes anywhere can cause a global pileup."
--Thomas L. Friedman

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Quote of the Day--The Purpose of Life

The purpose of life is a life of purpose.”
--Robin Sharma from The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari

Monday, May 03, 2010


I used to make fun of the idea that heaven is angels circling God saying "Hallelujah" for all eternity. "How boring!" I would exclaim and think that hell could scarcely be worse.

But if heaven were angels singing "Hallelujah" like K.D. Lang in this stupendously stunning version of the great Leonard Cohen song that she performed during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics this year in Toronto, heaven might be pretty blissful indeed.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

My Friend's Final Months

My former girlfriend recently learned that she has terminal liver cancer. First she was told that she probably had six months to live. But after more tests were run, her oncologist told her yesterday that it's closer to two months. She's 54 years young.

She said to me, "Why me? I'm a good person. I don't deserve this."

Of course she doesn't. Nobody "deserves" to die such a miserable death. Yes, someone could argue that she did things over the course of her life that likely helped bring this on. Yet, this doesn't mean she "deserves" to die so relatively young of such an awful disease.

But who cares, besides the handful of us who do? Does nature care? Does "God," by whatever name or formless form, care? I don't see how.

I don't know what to say to her at a time like this. Any comforting words that I contemplate offering her over the phone seem too shallowly if not insultingly platitudinous to utter. So, I mostly just listen with as much empathy and compassion as I can muster.

But how can one who's not in her position REALLY empathize with her? I know intellectually that I'm going to die someday, but I haven't had a doctor look me squarely in the eye and tell me I've got only two more months to live. Only if that were to happen, as perhaps it will someday, will I TRULY know what she's going through today. And by then it's likely to be of no benefit to her.

And without much empathy, there's not as much compassion as I'd like to feel and express. Because if the truth be told--and what else is this blog for if not to "nakedly" reveal the unvarnished truth within and without?--I almost envy her. For I've asked myself how I would feel if I were in her place, and the first word that came to mind was "relieved." After all, she's been living on borrowed time for eight or so years tethered to an oxygen machine and unable to do much of anything but lie in bed watching TV and sleeping. That must be awfully old by now. Soon, she'll be released from her gasping debility and suffering into pure nothingness.

But as soon as I post this, I'll call her and be as present for her as I can. And if her dying wish is granted and she's able to escape the loveless place that now imprisons her and come back to California to live out her last days with a longtime friend, I'll go see her and sit with her, and maybe, as I look into her eyes, hold her hand, and see and feel the life ebb from her body, something more will stir in me and radiate from me than I can feel or express now.

Maybe, when I witness, "up close and personal," the inescapable and implacable tragedy of her dying, I'll glow with more life and be able to meet my own eventual death or help others to meet theirs with fewer regrets than my friend undoubtedly feels over decades of wasted opportunities.

Like Wow, Man!

The longer I live and the more disillusioned I become with the so-called "meaningful" and "important" pursuits of life, the more I come to think that the quest to ride the "perfect wave" or engage in some joyfully meaningless equivalent is about the best we can hope for in this pointless life. So why not do it with all the gusto, if perhaps with a little less stereotypical mental and verbal incoherence, of the surfer dude below?

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Quote of the Day--Noam Chomsky on Higher Education in America

"I had a startling experience a few weeks ago. I travelled to Mexico City for talks at the National University, an enormous and very impressive institution with high standards of achievement and scholarship. Entrance is selective, but the university is virtually free. I then visited an even more remarkable institution, the college in Mexico City established by former mayor Lopez Obrador. Again, the facilities and standards are quite impressive. It is not only free, but has open admissions, though sometimes that requires some delay and sometimes assistance for students lacking adequate preparation. Shortly after I went to San Francisco for talks, and learned more about the California institutions of higher education. They have been at the very peak of the international higher education system. By now tuitions are quite high, even for in-state students, and cutbacks are affecting teaching, research, and staff. It would be no great surprise if the two major state universities, UC Berkeley and UC Los Angeles, will soon be privatized while the remainder of the state system is reduced considerably in scale and level. Needless to say, Mexico is a poor country with a struggling economy, and California should be one of the richest places in the world, with incomparable advantages. I mention these recent experiences only to emphasize that the recent cut-backs in higher education seen in much of the world cannot simply be traced to economic problems. Rather, they reflect fundamental choices about the nature of the society in which we will live. If it is to be designed for the wealthy and privileged, mostly engaged in management and finance while production is transferred abroad and most of the population is left to fend somehow for themselves at the fringes of decent and creative life, then these are good choices. If we have different aspirations for the world of our children and grandchildren, the choices are shameful and ruinous."
--Noam Chomsky

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Quote of the Day--4/21/10

"I try to encourage people to think for themselves, to question standard assumptions. Don’t take assumptions for granted. Begin by taking a skeptical attitude toward anything that is conventional wisdom. Make it justify itself. It usually can’t. Be willing to ask questions about what is taken for granted. Try to think things through for yourself. There is plenty of information. You have got to learn how to judge, evaluate and compare it with other things. You have to take some things on trust or you can’t survive. But if there is something significant and important don’t take it on trust. As soon as you read anything that is anonymous you should immediately distrust it. If you read in the newspapers that Iran is defying the international community, ask who is the international community? India is opposed to sanctions. China is opposed to sanctions. Brazil is opposed to sanctions. The Non-Aligned Movement is vigorously opposed to sanctions and has been for years. Who is the international community? It is Washington and anyone who happens to agree with it. You can figure that out, but you have to do work. It is the same on issue after issue.”
--Noam Chomsky

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Why do we dream? As a chronic insomniac, I like to pretend that our dreams are meaningless narratives, a series of bad B-movies invented by the mind. I find solace in the theory that all those inexplicable plot twists are just random noise from the brain stem, an arbitrary montage of images and characters and anxieties. This suggests that I'm not missing anything when I lie awake at night -- there are no insights to be wrung from our R.E.M. reveries.

While we're fast asleep, the mind is sifting through the helter-skelter of the day, trying to figure out what we need to remember and what we can afford to forget.

Unfortunately for me, there's increasing evidence that our dreams are not neural babble, but are instead layered with significance and substance. The narratives that seem so incomprehensible why was I running through the airport in my underwear? -- are actually careful distillations of experience, a regurgitation of all the new ideas and insights we encounter during the day."

--Jonah Lehrer, from his blog The Frontal Cortex

It's That Time of Year Again

Today's my birthday. I won't say how old I am. The older I get, the less inclined I am to say how old that is. Not that I'm likely to be saying it to anyone but myself here. Who else reads this blog anymore or has any reason to, if they ever did?

But whether I'm writing this only to myself or also to some anonymous reader or two "out there," I'm writing to maintain a tradition. I think I've posted an entry on my birthday ever since I started this blog God knows how long ago. Why stop now? Why stop until I can't write anymore because I'm either too debilitated or just plain dead?

Every year this time, I think it may be the last March 24 I'll ever see. One of these March 24th's will be the last one for me. Perhaps it's this one. Or maybe I'll see ten, twenty, or even more. In the cosmic scheme of things, it hardly matters. In my personal scheme of things, it probably doesn't matter as much as it should. Or should the personal and the cosmic schemes of things coincide? Should I take my continuation any more seriously than the universe takes it? "Under the aspect of eternity" is how Spinoza expressed it in equivalent Latin.

If I do have a next birthday and I'm willing and able to write about it here, I hope I have more positive things to say about the preceding year than I have now. Not that it's been really bad year, mind you. But it would have been nice had it been better than it was. Yet, the only way I think it can be better is if I make it better. And so far I haven't found an effective way to do that.

In the meantime, I've apparently lost a friend or, perhaps more accurately, discovered that he probably wasn't a true friend to begin with; I've become more skeptical about so-called "spirituality;" and I've started to follow my bliss, even if it will likely lead nowhere except, perhaps, to bliss or the closest thing to it that I'm capable of knowing at this point.

I guess you could say that I'm like a lot of people on their birthday. I wish I'd never been born but grateful to be alive. I wish I'd done better with my life but relieved that I haven't done even worse. I'm not thrilled to see another year pass but hopeful that I'll see at least several more and be able to share them with my loving and lovely wife and our two feline boys.

Happy birthday to me.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Quote of the Day

"In a sensible country, people would see Obama as a president trying to define a modern brand of moderate progressivism. In a sensible country, Obama would be able to clearly define this project without fear of offending the people he needs to get legislation passed. But we don’t live in that country. We live in a country in which many people live in information cocoons in which they only talk to members of their own party and read blogs of their own sect. They come away with perceptions fundamentally at odds with reality, fundamentally misunderstanding the man in the Oval Office."
--David Brooks

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Gold Medal Commercial

I've never been a big fan of winter sports. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. It never snows there. Well, actually, it snowed enough there once, almost fifty years ago, to collect on the ground.

So, although I've always watched the summer Olympics closely, I've seldom paid much attention to the winter Olympics. But I've been watching a fair amount of them this time around. I'm not sure why. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I now live in Sacramento and have taken several trips to Lake Tahoe and Reno lately. Not when it snowed, except for one time when we ran into a few flakes driving home. But perhaps just being in closer proximity to places where winter sports are extremely popular and I hear lots of talk about skiing and snowboarding on local TV channels raised my interest level a little.

In any case, in addition to enjoying the winter Olympics, especially K.D Lang's incredibly moving version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" during the opening ceremony, I'm liking some of the commercials. The one I'm liking most is from P&G, Procter & Gamble. Maybe I'm just an old softie, but the commercial below has brought sweet tears to my eyes. I may not have any kids, only cats, but when I watch this commercial, I can just imagine how a proud but anxious parent would feel watching their son or daughter compete in the winter Olympics.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hooray for Craigslist

Those who run newspapers and other businesses supported by paid advertising may not share my feelings, but I love Craigslist. I needed to get rid of an old, wooden storage shed in my backyard, and less than a minute after my ad offering the shed for free posted, someone called about it. That person didn't end up taking the shed, but someone did the next day. That ad saved me a lot of work or money, and I paid nothing to post it.

I don't know how Craigslist survives without paid advertising, and I realize that it has hurt businesses. But, the "Craigslist killer" and other problems notwithstanding, I'm grateful that Craigslist exists for "little people" like me to very effectively advertise for free our goods and services, to find jobs, and to do other things.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Kaiser's Stolen Medical Records

I praised Kaiser Permanente the other day for the openness of electronic communication between it and its members. I wrote that I loved the fact that patients could e-mail their physicians, access their lab results and other medical records, and handle other matters online.

But the downside of this and of electronic medical records in general is illustrated by a recent story of a Kaiser employee who had a hard drive with medical files of over 15,000 Northern California Kaiser members stolen from her car parked in front of her house. She was subsequently fired for her negligence, but the information she lost could well be in malicious hands.

A Kaiser spokesperson maintains that this was a "low risk" breach that did not include social security numbers, but I wouldn't want ANY of my medical or financial information ending up with unauthorized individuals, and I hope that this never happens to me, and that Kaiser and other health providers can find more foolproof ways of protecting their members' health information while still allowing them the wonderful access to it that I have with Kaiser Permanente.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Legal Travesty or Justice?

I don't know what to make of this.

On Sunday, May 31 of last year, George Tiller was murdered while he was acting as a greeter in the foyer of the church he attended in Wichita, Kansas. Scott Roeder calmly walked up to him, pressed a .22 caliber pistol to his forehead, and pulled the trigger. Roeder was arrested shortly thereafter and charged with first-degree murder and other crimes.

His trial has just begun, and the presiding judge has already made a highly controversial and unexpected ruling. He ruled that Roeder can be allowed to argue to the jury that he committed voluntary manslaughter rather than first-degree murder.

You see, Roeder was an anti-abortion activist and his victim, Dr. George Tiller, was one of the only late-term abortion providers in the country. Roeder has openly maintained that his act was justified because he was defending the unborn's "right to life," and he will now be able to argue before a jury that his killing of Dr. Tiller was motivated by, in the words of Kansas' law defining 'voluntary maslaughter, ' "an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force." Those "circumstances" were, of course, the imminent abortion of late-term fetuses.

Prosecutors had expected this to be an open and shut case in which Roeder would be tried for first degree murder, found guilty, and sentenced appropriately. But the judge's ruling, if not reversed in the wake of the prosecutor's challenge, means that Roeder could be found guilty of a far lesser offense and released from prison within five years for his cold-blooded killing of a physician with legal license to perform late-term abortions.

Like I said, I don't know what to make of this, because I can readily see both sides of the issue. On the one hand, I believe that abortion should be permitted, and that people who kill doctors to prevent them from performing legal abortions should have the book thrown at them. But, on the other hand, I have reservations about late term abortions, and, more importantly in this case, it seems very clear to me that Roeder's actions follow the letter of the Kansas legal definition of "voluntary manslaughter." If we're a "nation of laws," shouldn't we follow the law even in cases like Roeder's?

Actually, I'm inclined to think that the law should be changed and the distinction between first-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter eliminated. If you consciously intend to do what Roeder did and you do it, you should be put away for the rest of your life or even executed for it if there's capital punishment in your state. But that's not the way of Kansas' and, I suspect, other states' law. and I'm inclined to believe that the law should be followed.

Yet, what happens if we do follow the law in the Roeder case and he ends up serving five years or less in prison for what he did, as well as being hailed as a hero by anti-abortion activists? Who will be murdered next by one of these misguided souls in the aftermath of Roeder's relative "victory"?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Quick Review of "Love Actually"

I watched a harmless piece of cinematic fluff last night with my wife. It was a 2003 British romantic comedy called Love Actually. It's one of those stories of an almost endless multitude of vaguely interlocking subplots involving interrelated characters in which, for instance, the Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) falls in love with a personal assistant whose young brother and sister are in a Christmas school play in which the Prime Minister's sister (Emma Thompson) also has children participating and another character (Liam Neeson) whose wife recently died also has a stepson in the play...well, you get the picture.

There are many big name actors in this movie, and, although it's not the kind of movie I would seek out or probably even enjoy if I went to a theater by myself to watch it or to review it as a paid movie critic, and I found the subplots too shallow and implausible to be as involving as they might have been, with the possible exception of the one about a burned out, cynical, former rock star (Bill Nighy) who forthrightly and amusingly lampoons his unexpectedly successful albeit ghastly reworking of the old Trogg's classic "Love is All Around," I actually grinned a lot, laughed a little, and felt the warm fuzzies watching it in the intimate comfort of home with my wife who enjoyed it even more than I did. And there was a special poignancy to Liam Neeson's role as a grieving widower given the fact that his real life wife, Natasha Richardson, died last year after a skiing accident.

I think you might enjoy "Love Actually" too under similarly hospitable circumstances. I give it a B-.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Genocidal Bioweapons

Yesterday I took my car in for maintenance, and, while I sat in the waiting room, I watched a History Channel program called "Last Days on Earth" that listed what it said were the greatest threats facing the Earth and humankind. Number two on the list, just behind climate change brought on by misguided human activity, was the ominous possibility of a pandemic deadly enough to wipe out virtually all of the human race. A naturally mutated pathogen such as H5N1 could be bad enough, but suppose some nutcake with the knowhow combined something like Ebola with another pathogen as contagious as the common cold and released it. The consequences could be horrifying and catastrophic beyond imagination.

I have to think that this is the greatest single threat we face from terrorism. It seems far more doable than a nuclear bomb and even more devastating. Maybe it won't happen because even the craziest terrorist should realize that once he or she unleashes such an indiscriminately destructive bioweapon, there's no controlling it, and everyone, including the terrorists and their loved ones, will end up being terrorized and probably dead. This defeats the purpose of terrorism--to terrorize one group to benefit another. But there may be capable people who really ARE demented enough, perhaps with the ungodly help of warped religious apocalypticism, to perpetrate this genocidal act in the name of a justly wrathful Allah or God or whomever, and that will be that. Talk about Pandora's Box!

One of my big concerns with shows like "Last Days" is that they may help to bring about the horrific cataclysms they talk about by giving the right person the wrong idea at the right time to spur them to successfully act on it. Of course, the same thing could be said about this blogpost, with the major difference being that yours truly may now be about the only one reading this blog any longer. I think it's a pretty safe bet that Osama has "better" things to do with his time.

But still I wonder if and when the pandemic of all pandemics will come, and I hope to God it's no time soon.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Thriving With Kaiser

My wife and I recently acquired different health coverage from what we've had for the past several years. We now have Kaiser Permanente, and I have to say that so far so good. With our previous coverage, we each had separate doctors in separate locations, and if we needed X-rays taken or lab tests or eye exams performed or prescriptions filled, we had to go to a different facility for each. Now we can do all of these things and more in the same facility. I really like that.

I also like the fact that you can go online and communicate with your doctors by e-mail, see summaries of your previous appointments including your vital signs, tests ordered, and your doctor's diagnoses and recommendations, and you can also check your lab results as soon as they come in and follow links from the results page to pages explaining what those results mean.

All of this seems to get me much more involved in my health care. It also doesn't hurt that I really, really like my new primary care doctor. He's very friendly and very seasoned without appearing to be antiquated.

I know that some people don't like Kaiser. They say it handles patients like an assembly line, that it's miserly with patient care, and that it restricts patients too much in whom they can see for diagnosis and treatment and in what treatments they can receive. And there may be something to all of these criticisms. I certainly think that if someone had a very serious disease and could benefit from seeing a leading specialist, Kaiser might not be his best choice. But for most people with most medical needs, I think Kaiser may be pretty good.

Having said that, I'll try to keep my eyes open to any weaknesses Kaiser might have or dangers it might present with mismanagement of patient care. I know that my grandparents had Kaiser coverage for many years and ended up dying in the same Kaiser facility. But they were very old and very sick when they did. The thing that distressed me before they died is that Kaiser was often very eager to discharge my grandparents before they seemed ready to come home and for me to give them the care they needed. But I'm sure that's not unique to Kaiser. No matter what kind of health coverage we have, we need to educate ourselves, stay vigilant, and to not let ourselves be railroaded through the system.