Monday, December 17, 2012

2012 in Retrospect



John and Barbara's  2012

First Grandchild Maya, London East End, Christmas in Colorado, Thanksgiving in Tucson, a new battery for John, and a new knee for Barbara.  Add in work, bridge, cooking,  jewelry-making, and side trips, and it was again a full year.

We started 12 months ago with a 2011 family Christmas in Estes Park.  Karen, Brian, Matt, and Rachael flew in early, and there was a short appearance by Anne and RC.   The weather cooperated with a beautiful snowfall, providing the opportunity for some to snowshoe the Emerald Lake trail in Rocky Mountain National Park on a bright sunny day (common) without wind (not so common.)  The usual wildlife was accented by watching a bobcat nap right under Karen's bedroom window, so close you could touch it but for the glass!

In the spring of 2010 Barbara had bought (at a great price) a week in a London Condo through a silent auction in Palm Desert, but we could not get the time free until January.  We were a little concerned about doing this in the winter, but from experience knew the weather could not be too terrible.  The good thing about flying to Europe in winter is that we managed to get tickets with frequent flyer miles.  To simplify things and spare Barbara's arthritic knee, I arranged for a driver to meet us at Heathrow and take us directly to Ipswich in East Anglia where Barbara was going to start some genealogy research.  He dropped us at the Ipswich genealogy center for the afternoon returned later that evening to take us on to our Hotel in Lowestoff on the East Anglia coast, where Barbara planned additional genealogy research. As it turns out, David, our driver was from one of the small towns from which Barbara's ancestors immigrated, and his mother was also a Dickerson; so he and Barbara were almost certainly related. Small world!  Before taking the train to London, we had a wonderful evening with some of our daughter in law's English uncle and grandmother. (Here is the post for that trip.)

The flat we had for the week was in East London, and even though we had lived in England for three years and have visited London numerous times since, this was a whole new part of the city for us to explore.  The “East End” is historically, socially, economically, and culturally complex.  Over 100 languages and dialects are spoken in this area. Our condominium was close to the large East London Mosque, as well as next to an historic Jewish synagogue.  Barbara, of course, found a theme to guide our explorations - Jack the Ripper.  We explored alleys where murders occurred, pubs that were inns occupied by prostitutes and victims of the times, and the Spitafield church where prostitutes were offered shelter in its basement.  There were only a few typical English pubs remaining in this area, but restaurants serving foods of Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Eastern Europe were numerous . . . and delicious!

Clive Moore, a dear friend we first met almost 40 years ago in England, made a trip into the city, allowing us to have a wonderful day with him.  We were also hosted by an online physician friend of John's,  Anthony and Christine Campbell, for a most enjoyable dinner. ( Anthony's blog - http://www.acampbell.org.uk/serendipity/ )  Brian Bruns, a young man who spent much time in our house as a friend of our children in high school and who is sort of a second son to us was in London to receive a literary prize, so he took the spare bedroom of our condo and spent 3 days with us.  It was on this trip that Barbara realized that she had finally become limited in travel by her arthritic right knee, and it was time to do something about it beyond the injections which had provided only temporary relief.  More details and some pictures of this trip are available in John's blog ( http://blipsinthecosmos.blogspot.com/2012/02/back-to-uk.html ). 

In February and March we returned again to our RV Park in Palm Springs, with John commuting to work in Iowa. Local trips included a drive to San Diego so we could spend some time with Barbara's brother Martin, who had come down from Alaska. On our return to Iowa, we stayed two weeks in Tucson at Catalina State Park.

We returned briefly to Phoenix in May for Anne's graduation from Mesa community college (she is now finishing her bachelor's degree at Northern Arizona University,) and in June made a fun weekend run to Joliet and Chicago. John also had a new pacer battery pac installed.  The first one only lasted 7 years, but after its first check, the new one says it will last 12 years. While Barbara started preparations for her knee replacement on August 7, John flew to Portland, for a short but wonderful visit with Matt and Rachael during Fleet Week and the Rose Festival.

In early August, Karen flew out from Tucson and kept Barbara distracted for several days prior to surgery, and flew home two days after surgery. After that, Anne and Dana Fritz separately came to Cedar Rapids assisting Barbara's recovery.  (John did a few weeks of laundry, cooking, and personal assisting as well.)  The rehabilitation for knee surgery is a long and arduous process and continues even today, but she has worked diligently and is doing very very well.  We also had wonderful visits from cousin John and Donnice Cochenour from Ft. Collins Colorado, and from Rod and Char Mann, friends that date back to Air Force days in San Antonio in 1978.  In October, as Barbara continued her convalesence, John drove to Estes Park for a week to check on things and visit with friends.

This November, we rented a house for three weeks in north Tucson and hosted a  family Thanksgiving reunion.  Matt and Rachael flew down from Portland, and Anne and RC drove down from Chandler.  Our first grandchild (adopted) was born on October 23, and went home with Karen and Brian on October 24, Karen's birthday.  Adding to the festivities, Brian Bruns drove down from Las Vegas for a few days. On Thanksgiving Day, our family joined Ron and Judy Longenbaugh and a number of their family members for a big Thanksgiving feast at their house; it was a lot of fun.

John is working through Christmas and New Year's holidays this year, it's his turn, so we will take the opportunity to hole up in our nice warm condo and scheme for the coming year.

Our best wished for each and everyone of you this year; we keep you close in our hearts.

John & Barbara

Saturday, December 15, 2012

On the Conneticut School Shootings



On the conservative American Family Radio, Brian Fischer blamed the lack of prayer in public schools for the tragic shooting “And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve gotta invite me back into your world first. I’m not gonna go where I’m not wanted.’”

Also, Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee opined on FOX News “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools," . “Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”

Are they suggesting that God "allows" the slaughter of school children just because they don't pray to him/her in the classroom? This threatening, fearsome deity full of hate and retribution to which they refer is the god of the religious right, but not my god, and I suspect not the god of many Christians.  It seems logical that (paraphrasing Epicurus) if God could have stopped this and didn't, then he/she is a malevolent, vindictive, petty god, and certainly does not deserve my worship.  If  unable to stop it, then he/she is certainly not omnipotent.  In either case, why call him/her God?

As for returning "God" to the classroom, which god should be returned?  The Catholic god?  The (non-Christian) Jewish god?  Allah?  The pantheon of countless Hindu gods and goddesses (after all, Hinduism is the worlds 3rd largest religion)? Buddha (actually a philosophy)?  Wodan/Odin?  Or perhaps the god of Religious Humanism?  Our country's founders were careful to keep affairs of state independent of religion; they had seen the evils perpetrated by the alignment of kings and clerics, as well as the suffering by members of religious minorities in the presence of state-sanctioned majorities.  Tolerance and inclusion become exclusion and conversion.  Look what happened to native American religions in the 19th century when we put their children in schools where their native beliefs were severely suppressed and replaced with Catholic or Protestant indoctrinations.

Yes, we have some bad people perpetrating tragedies in this country and in the rest of world, but edging towards a state-sanctioned religion and eventual theocracy would bring more strife and death; just look at conflicts around the world where religion is tied to governance: Muslim-Jewish, Sunni-Shia, Christian-Muslim, Hindu-Muslim, Buddhist-Hindu, etc, etc.  This is not the time to seek governmental endorsement of any particular faith/religion.  We should remain a pluralistic, multi-religious (and non-religious) society wherein every citizen can maintain his/her own religious belief with the protection, but without the endorsement, of our government.  

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Days Are Getting Shorter


Fall landscape from my living room window 

PART I

As I approach my 68th year, the changing of the seasons takes on more poignancy in the fall, as, like the accelerated shift from long days to long nights, my body reveals in not so subtle ways the results of years of molecular corrosion and aging. If nothing else, it prompts reflection of years past, and adds just a bit of urgency for actively, more than passively, making ongoing decisions about life, love, work, learning, and creation.

To this point, I feel some satisfaction, convinced, or possibly deluded, that I have more often than not taken advantage of opportunities that were presented over the years.  Most satisfying has been the daily co-existence for 4+ decades with my best friend and wife, and the knowledge that the world will be better for the presence of our 3 children.  The chance to be educated was taken, and over the last 45 years I never woke in the morning dreading or resenting going to work, for it has remained interesting and challenging for all that time, and it remain so to this day.  Of course, the move from sharecropper to physician in 3 generations was entirely made possible by the middle generation, my parents, and is perhaps more their credit than mine.  Now, having transitioned to part-time work, I enjoy the absolute best of both worlds:  the excitement and rewards of my profession, yet with enough time and income to travel, read, and do all those things that most must postpone until official retirement.

As a "free-range" youth living in a tiny, remote west Texas town, I explored the low hills, stream beds, and mesas of the desert southwest with little restraint, feeling comfortable with the flora and fauna of the dry land, re-creating in my mind the lives of those who left the flint arrowheads I collected, watching the slow progression through the cloudless day of shadows so well-defined the edges seemed sharp enough to cut, and from a rise in the landscape watched tornadoes given life by a weather front cross the plane of the horizon.  Texas is a huge state, and I have lived in and explored not only its semi-arid plateaus and deserts, but also the piney woods, the grasslands of its south, the gulf coast, and the urban centers of north Texas.  Friends, enmities, and loves were encountered; some of each persisted as others drifted beyond my presence.

Married and later widowed, I was then gifted with a spouse who was fiercely devoted to family, but also to experiencing the world, and who was not only willing to roam, but who pushed, cajoled, and lead me to experiences in 49 of our states, Canada, and most of western Europe and Scandinavia.  I held hands with my best friend as she gave birth to our children and shared their many ups and downs as they became adults, I shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during the time of the Camp David peace talks, drank Georgian sparkling wine in Leningrad at the height of the cold war while the temperature hovered at 50 below in the Russian winter, was included as family for a 5-day wedding celebration in Provence, watched bald eagles mate in the sky in Kodiak Alaska, ran aground on the Danube River, helped  a family reunion take place in rural Norway, warmed myself with hot coffee in Colorado and in Canada as the rising sun spread over Rocky Mountain peaks, watched the tidal bore in the Bay of Fundy, was awed by the stars at altitude in the dry, dark New Mexico highlands, stared at the blue Cherenkov radiation glowing in the core of a nuclear reactor, saw dolphins playing in the coastal California surf, read many wonderful books, had a lifetime of professional work, and a thousand other things.  Surely this has been enough.  If I don't explore Angkor Wat, see the Taj Mahal at sunrise, or stand at the edge of Victoria Falls, there will be no regrets, because there were only a few misused opportunities.  

Along the way I tried to live by the Golden Rule, failing far more often than I like to admit to myself, especially in the early years, but I suspect this simple philosophy is enough for a Humanist.  Others have seen and done more during their lives, but many have experienced far less. I remain ready for more, and I certainly hope for more, but with no anxiety that I haven't experienced enough already.

PART II

I take great solace in the knowledge that my existence is a small, but integral component of processes evolving since the big bang, and as the universe spins on I am playing my part to the best I can.  I am more of an environmentalist every year.  We watched the vixen that raised her pups in the hill below us for two seasons until, sadly, adjacent street construction destroyed their den.  Her care of, and I suspect concern for the pups was in many ways little different from that of human mothers.  I don't know, but I imagine that in the pantheistic, pre-Christian old world (and perhaps in pre-Colombian America) people felt more related to their surrounding world and less superior to its non-human inhabitants.  "No man is an island," and  that extends to our whole earth.  Growing up in concrete and steel urban environments as do so many of the current generation, empathy with nature comes less naturally.  For myself though, with the polar bears, elephants, whales, tigers, and assorted other creatures, not to mention plants, disappearing, I feel a kinship with the threatened and therefore experience a sense of loss and an impotence to do anything about it.  I am not above, but a part of, the natural universe.


When my time is over I will not be aware of events, but I would like to return as simply as possible to this earth, and with as little injury to it as possible, perhaps only with only an unadorned wood box, or even just a biodegradable shroud, and no concrete vault.  My elements would drift into the soil, be recycled by the bottom of the food chain, and keep recycling until drifting ultimately into the oceans, from which life likely originally started on this planet.  This might require short-term refrigeration rather than embalming, but such burial arrangements will be challenging in this day and age, in this country, particularly as a national cemetery may host my internment, so I will not hold my survivors to this task if it proves difficult.


PART III



I view my conscious self as the sum product of my physical mind; I am not a dualist.  Any surviving "soul" or "spirit" I would view as simply the totality of changes in friends, family and other individuals, and thereby on society, that result from my existence.  In my mind I keep hearing a song by Steve McDonald (Link to Music  or Video).  (shared, as most of my music experience has been, from my wife.)

So neither fearful of nor anxious for the end, as I enjoy memories, I still need to make the best of what is left.  "Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant; all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed.  When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive - to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love." - Marcus Aurelius.







Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Cosmological Quartet



A course on astrophysics and cosmology in four books
  
THE other day I was talking to a friend about the Chandra x-ray telescope currently in orbit and the images constructed from that data from photons that had traveled 12 billion light years across the universe from a colossal energy emitting source. My friend challenged "they don't know that's where those came from, they could've come from 1000 miles away or from the sun. They just have no way of knowing that they started 12 billion light years away!"  this was a very intelligent friend, and I was shocked that my friend would not simply accept these observations as fact.

I have often been concerned, though without thinking very deeply, that some people reject so easily what I consider scientific fact, including a 13 billion-year-old universe, a 6 billion-year-old Earth, the appearance of life on Earth about 3 billion years ago, the appearance of primates about 60 million years ago (after the dinosaurs had disappeared,) and the evolution of humans during this multi-billion year process. If you have no formal education or self-education in this area of science, perhaps one sees no reason to accept these things as something other than "opinion" of some scientists in a remote observatory.

I was at somewhat of a loss as I tried to formulate my response to this challenge to something I really had no question of in my own mind.  My education spans almost a half-century of chemistry, physics, and biologic sciences education. In recent years I have read a number of books that, while directed at the lay population, are reasonably sophisticated in the subject matter that they address; my favorite four are pictured above. I founded a near impossible task to try to abbreviate that background into a short, understandable response to my friends challenge.

These four books are an excellent resource for understanding this incredible universe in which we exist, and I think they are best read in order, from left to right as presented above. Indeed, the three on the left have all been discussed in previous postings on this blog.  I most recently finished the fourth book, Gravity's Engines, and I find it an excellent complement to the first three.  Caleb Scharf, the Arthur, is director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center and has written a number of books directed both at scientist and at the lay public.  Gravities Engines is nominally about black holes, but encompasses a general discussion of a much broader astrophysics world in order to lay the groundwork establishing the importance of these mysterious entities in the creation and maintenance of our universe.

Everyone of course has heard of black holes. In the Star Trek universe from television or the movies, these are mysterious entities with such gravitational pull that nothing can escape but perhaps provide access to "wormholes" through which a different universe can be reached. In actuality, not only are these very complex structures, with various interesting theories regarding their origin and formation, but they also provide a source of almost unimaginable energy projected into the universe and are probably of critical importance in the formation of galaxies such as our Milky Way and it's 100 billion or so stars.  they can be visualized as dots of whirling vortices intensely deforming space time with a mass equivalent to billions of our sun, but compressed to a diameter much smaller than the Earth. The gravity from this mass, which is spinning at close to the limits of theoretical possibility, is such that within a certain distance, not even light can escape its pull.  However,this is a vast oversimplification, and the processes occurring during the accumulation of mass by the black hole and the complex events happening at the event threshold throwing huge beams of matter outwards, generating massive amounts of secondary radiation, and affecting rather dramatically the local cosmic structures while giving scientists (with appropriate information gathering instruments) new insights into the origin and nature of these "black stars."

(As an aside, there is a wonderful, well illustrated resource regarding the general topic of "stars" in a wiki site here.)

Sir Arthur Clarke, British scientist, writer, and futurist is famous for many things, including "Clark's laws". The third law states that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  I would suggest that the term "sufficiently advanced" is relative to the observer of that technology, and it is indeed difficult to discuss the practical or even philosophical implications of something when one party finds it indistinguishable from magic.

I did read another book recently, Before the Big Bang:  the Prehistory of our Universe, but I found it a bit repetitive, poorly focused, with some strange opinions that are at the fringe, if not completely at odds with generally accepted origin concepts.  I do not recommend it.

It's time to conclude my astrophysics and cosmology reading for a while. I want to go back and find some interesting books on world history or some new twist on theology or philosophy. Of course, there is a great deal of excellent fiction writing out there, and I need to pay a bit more attention to worthwhile reading in that genre than I have in recent months.


Friday, August 24, 2012

In the child, the man

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. - Proverbs 22:6


Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher observed that
…the experiences and illuminations of childhood and early youth become in later life the types, standards and patterns of all subsequent knowledge and experience, or as it were, the categories according to which all later things are classified—not always consciously, however. And so it is that in our childhood years the foundation is laid of our later view of the world, and there with as well of its superficiality or depth: it will be in later years unfolded and fulfilled, not essentially changed.

My childhood years, one might think, might have led to someone very different from my current self, since I grew up in the household of a preacher and a very religious mother. On the surface, attending church events multiple times a week for the better part of two decades, participating or hearing prayers before every meal, and spending more than the average amount of time in the company of other preachers families, would seem to have oriented me towards a very religious-based life. However, it seems I was never hyper-religious, even as a schoolboy before I left for college.

Referring back to Schopenhauer's comments, I would agree that "in our childhood years the foundation is laid for our later view of the world" but once I critically look deeper at my upbringing, it makes it easier to understand my adult philosophy. First of all, my mother, while very religious, was also well-educated. If there was a conflict between a biblical verse and science, she always accepted science and religious dogma had to adapt. My father, in the meantime, was incredibly well-read, not only in theology, but also in philosophy, world history, and in general science. My parents did provide the customary encyclopedia in our house (at no small expense to their budget) and a steady supply of magazines including life, National Geographic, popular mechanics, and popular science, at least providing the opportunity to expand the depth and breath of my young mind.

So when you really look at my upbringing, it was clearly within a deeply religious environment, but also with the opportunity, or even the obligation, to open my mind, exercise rationalism, and go wherever it took me. This opportunity, and implied permission, to travel the journey with knowledge and rationalism as my map and guidepost was perhaps my parent's greatest gift.

POSTSCRIPT

I need to make one additional comment about the importance of "thinking" in my father's philosophy.  I have a copy of his Thesis, about the book of Job and titled "Job and the Moral Right to Think."  In the final pages he comments:

The evidence leads to the conclusion that God approved of Job, the independent thinker, and condemned Job's friends, who would hold to traditional ideas about God's dealings with man without subjecting them to honest intellectual inquiry." 

and

"Job teaches that true religion is more than a formal system of ideas, beliefs, or practices.  This was the prevalent conception of religion among Job's contemporaries:  religion involved an acceptance of the traditional beliefs and ideas and the practice of the customary ritual.  Religion for Job was an honest intellectual search for truth based on personal experience."

So, you see I come by it naturally.  (I wrote about my father more directly in a post from Oct 2010, The Rev John Lewis Floyd - A Green Minister?).

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Who to vote against?


It is that time again; the presidential election is upon us,and I must decide who I will vote against. 

As usual, the media debate will be limited to major party politicians. The last time there was a real third choice, Ross Perot and Adm. James Stockdale were allowed to participate in the debates, and I thought it added great flavor to the election season, as these two people were totally unafraid to say exactly what they thought, and often demonstrated that the Emperor (the major candidates) had no clothes. In fact, it was so upsetting to the powers that be, that the League of Women Voters have excluded a third-party from participating in the debates ever since. 

the upcoming presidential election is, with the selection of Paul Ryan for vice president candidate, the first time in several decades where the country is presented clearly two choices;
1. Candidates who firmly believe the country is best served by substantial intervention by the federal government in the economy of the nation and, through taxation and redistribution of material resources, provide for the needs and happiness of the citizen general, or
2.  Candidates who find intervention in a free market, capitalistic society by the federal government to not only be intrusive but also counterproductive to the overall good of the citizen general.

As a third option, the Libertarian party always gets my interest, especially following an encounter with a middle or lower-level bureaucrat who has total control over some part of my life, and uses that power aggressively, and often without logic, either for fear of  straying from instructions from higher up, or simply to relish that small bit of power that they have been allowed one part of their life. The nexus of the Libertarian party with the Democrats tends to be in social issues, and the nexus of the Libertarian party with Republicans tends to be on (absence of) taxation issues. Of course, no one would want to live in a totally Libertarian state, anarchy is never attractive. a nice discussion. I found within a reasonably small book an excellent discussion of libertarianism a few years ago: What It Means to Be a Libertarian by Charles Murray.

So, putting the Libertarian option behind me, my choice comes down to the obvious; Democrat versus Republican; or acid is sometimes put "trickle up" economics versus "trickle down" economics. Among all of the economic philosophers from Aristotle, through Adam Smith, and Karl Marx, I think we are basically talking about the standoff between John Maynard Keynes and Frederick Hayek.

Keynes, a British economist publishing between the two world wars, proposed government economic intervention as necessary for citizens individually as well as the country as a whole.  Frederick Hayek, an Austrian, had been recruited by the London school of economics as a free-market economic theorist who would counter the rising popularity of Keynes at Oxford.  The economic debate began before, and extended through, the Great Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany, but the debate and the divide persist as strongly as ever today.  I read two books recently regarding economics first is Friedrich Hayek's original book, the Road to Serfdom, and the second is a more recent publication by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky (a father-and-son/economist-and-philosopher combination) How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life.

A recently published a book by Kensian biographer and experts Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky (a father-and-son/economist-and-philosopher combination) How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life  is actually quite deep and not quickly read.  Their thesis is that free-market capitalism has permitted many countries to have a gross national product that can provide for the needs of all of its citizens, but that this was obtained with a Faustian agreement, as capitalism, as an economic philosophy, contains no ethics or morality inherently. The problem, as they see it, is that economic growth has become an (insatiable) end in itself, unrelated to any sense of what a good life might look like. In fact, the very idea of the good life has been so eliminated from public conversation that we are left floundering with a vague theory of happiness, a more definitive understanding proving insatiable and elusive.  we certainly have enough wealth to provide for the basic needs of everyone in the population, but the distribution of that wealth has become very asymmetrical, and the drive to accumulate more wealth has become insatiable, because there is no longer a link to the goods and services individuals require such as food, shelter, safety, health care, etc. This is perhaps best exhibited in the hedge fund and derivatives markets where the item of accumulation (a "share") is so far removed from any specific a good or service that it is meaningless as anything other than a marker for "success."  they point out that when you survey for "happiness" the societies that rank highest on the scale are those societies with the narrowest distribution of wealth, as long as the country is not sunk in overall poverty (most notably seen in the Scandinavian countries.)while they do not advocate socialism, collectivism, or central control of the economy, they certainly advocate for relatively high tax rates and central government actions that provide a minimal level of economic security for every citizen.  The book argues that progress should be measured not by the traditional yardsticks of growth or per capita incomes but by the seven elements of the good life: health; security; respect; personality; harmony with nature; friendship; and leisure.  They make a series of sensible suggestions for how the good life could be attained: a basic citizens income, an expenditure tax and curbs on advertising to rein in consumerism; a Tobin tax on financial transactions. It is a well-written book with lots of charts and data to support the arguments.

Frederick Hayek is no Ayn Rand, but does argue that allowing the central government to use taxes to redistribute money, either as cash payments or provision of free or subsidized services to the general citizenrys is a slippery slope. He regards the competition of free-marked capitalism as superior to Socialism, Communism, collectivism, etc. not only because in most circumstances it is the most efficient method known but because it is the only method which does not require the coercive or arbitrary intervention of authority.  His book also is not an easy read, and I am certainly not confident that I understood completely his thesis.  He argues that freedom is not provided by a state assuring economic success for everyone but by letting the power of capitalism have free reign.  "Who can seriously doubt that the power which a millionaire, who may be my employer, has over me is very much less than that which the smallest bureaucrat possesses who wields the coercive power of the state and on whose discretion it depends how I am allowed to live and work?"  Actually, Hayek does not argue that the state has no obligation to providea minimum level of assistance.  "But there are two kinds of security: the certainty of a given minimum of sustenance for all and the security of a given standard of life, of the relative position which one person or group enjoys compared with others. There is no reason why, in a society which has reached the general level of wealth ours has, the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom; that is: some minimum of food, shelter and clothing, sufficient to preserve health. Nor is there any reason why the state should not help to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance in providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision."  Furthermore he states, "The successful use of competition does not preclude some types of government interference. For instance, to limit working hours, to require certain sanitary arrangements, to provide an extensive system of social services is fully compatible with the preservation of competition."   However, were Hayek alive today, he no doubt would point to the current economic crisis in Greece and other Western European countries as prime examples of the danger inherent in government income redistribution.  

 As I stated at the beginning, I'm left pretty much with a decision as to who I vote against.

I will not vote Libertarian, since, among other things, the Libertarian candidate while strongly upholding rights of the individual to be free from government control, also considers a fetus to have "personhood" and would use the power of the government to prevent a pregnant woman from undergoing abortion.  To me, this denies the individual rights of the pregnant mother and refutes the whole basis of libertarianism.

Mitt Romney Paul Ryan are I believe most likely to advance the gross domestic product of our country, but I think they are also most likely to aggravate the asymmetrical distribution of income between the common citizen and the rich. We already are in danger of becoming a plutocracy, and I think their philosophy of unrestrained capitalism will accelerate this process. If, eventually, the wealthy few possess the vast majority the nation's wealth, revolution in some form will be inevitable. I also think some of their ideas are flawed. Take health care for example. The Ryan plan is to replace Medicare, Medicaid, etc. with a voucher program, giving each individual a certain amount of credit to take to the marketplace and purchase health insurance. This will leave many people inadequately insured or completely uninsured, since it does absolutely nothing to control the accelerating cost of healthcare, only partially subsidizes the cost of health insurance, and does absolutely nothing to contain the rampant greed of the giant health care insurance companies. This I am certain of, since I have observed how the healthcare market works both as a provider and as a consumer. (see my blog postregarding the Ryan healthcare plan that I posted on April 29, 2011.)




Monday, August 6, 2012

Facebook is the Problem?

I can't believe it's been 5 months since I posted here.  Yes, I have been on call more than usual lately and Barbara is having a knee replacement in the morning, but the real problem is . . . in a word . . . Facebook.

I have been sharing a lot of short communications with only a few people.  By current standards on social media sites, I am a veritable hermit.  I have, by design, only a few family members and a very select few close friends as Facebook "friends."  Limiting my "friends" allows me to (a) keep my personal life reasonably personal and (b) keeps the number of postings showing up daily on my Facebook page to an easily readable number.

Facebook has served a purpose in that it keeps me up to date on what is happening with my family and some of my close friends, and perhaps they have some interest in the going-ons in my own life.  What it does NOT do is serve as a place for me to sort my thoughts on a topic by writing a short essay, nor does it allow my friends and family to, at their convenience, read something from me that is longer than a Facebook posting, such as a book review or a travelogue from a trip I might have recently taken.

The other problem is that facebook is not really the best way to communicate, in the classical sense of the term, with other people.  I know that many of my facebook postings are lost in the "noise" of the site.  If someone with a lot of "friends" goes for several hours without reading his/her post, they will likely never scroll all the way to the oldest post since their last online check.

Don't get wrong, I am not going to cut off all my ties to facebook . . . I really enjoy having a window into the lives of my family and friends . . . but I am going to return to some serious blog posting, starting with a review of two books about economic theory:  How Much is Enough; Money and the Good Life by Robert and Edward Skidelsky, and The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek.  These were not easy books to read, and are going to be a challenge to summarize, contrast, and compare.

 
When I was 18, I knew all the answers.
  
  
 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What a Strange Universe it Seems to Be







Questions from sleepless nights as a young boy:
  
I remember thinking long and hard as a kid about the question "what was there before this world existed?"  Even if I accepted the answer available to me (and almost everyone else) that "God created the world from a "void," this still seemed to leave a mystery . . . what was this "void?"  What really was "nothing?"  I just couldn't imagine what is the absence of everything.
  
The other question that plagued my wandering young mind was what do you find at the end of space, at the edge of the universe?  A wall? A shimmering  boundary with nothing on the other side?  Again the given answer was that it went on forever, an infinite distance, God has no boundaries.  Again I had a hard time getting my 10 year old mind around that concept.
 
Now a half-century later, I finally have been given some answers that I can accept, even if I struggle to fully understand the math and physics (Quantum math/physics was never my strong point.)
 
First Question Answer:  Nothing = the absence of space and time, no matter, no energy.  Just Nothing, but it doesn't last long.
  
Second Question Answer:  If, searching for the edge of the universe, you look sufficiently far into the distant universe with mathematical binoculars, you will see . . . the back of your head!

Both of these books are well worth reading, but even though they were written for the lay public, the concepts might be challenging if you were a liberal arts college major and have had no mathematics, physics, or science since high school.  Hawking's book is shorter, but has better (and full color) illustrations. while Krauss' book gets further into the margins of cosmology, and offers alternative theories (for example he talks about string theory, but admits he personally doubts it is the answer, or even valid.  
  
I would suggest starting with Hawking and after letting that digest for a while, then pick up Krauss.  Neither of these books worked well for late night reading nor with a glass of wine; a clear daytime mind and a cup of coffee helped me.

So what is the bottom line?  
- Something can come from nothing; in fact nothing is an unstable state, and something will always come from nothing.
- Micro-universes appear all the time, but only when an "expansion" occurs is a universe like ours created.
- Multiple universes likely exist, and they may or may not have the same laws of physics as our universe
- In the presence of almost infinite variety of possible events, as long as an event is not impossible then that event will occur.
- "We" are the consequence of these almost infinite possibilities, though we are pretty insignificant considering the scope of the universe in size (~500 billion known galaxies and ~100 billion suns in each galaxy,) and time (13.72 billion years old now and a life-expectancy of at least trillions of years.)
- This does not mean "God" did not create our world, but on the other hand "God" is not necessary for our universe to exist, unless it is the God of Einstein and Spinoza.

Monday, March 5, 2012

An Escape from the Escape Fiction -

 
 

 
Just read "A Book Forged in Hell" about Baruch Spinoza and his seminal Theological-Political Treatise, written by William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  It is part biography, part a critique of his treatise, and part a discussion of the early days of the Enlightenment.
 
A number of years ago, I initially became interested in Spinoza because of a comment Einstein made when challenged by the Jewish rabbinical powers as to if he, in fact, "believed in God."  He answered "I believe in the God of Spinoza."  I could not fail to followup this discovery with some reading on Spinoza.  I have read two books on Spinoza previously, but this looked to have a greater potential to dig deeper into his philosophy rather than the story of his life.  It did.
 
I was concerned that this might be another "philosophy light" as so many books on historic thinkers seem to be these days.  This was indeed reasonably readable, but it was a pretty intense, dissection of Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise, with discussions of its relation to the writings of Hume, Descartes and others..  The term "forged in Hell" was actually used by 17th century critics twice.  This work was Spinoza's great hope; he thought it would so irrefutably convince others that any extreme of philosophical thought was proper, and should pose no threat to the religious/political order.  He was severely mistaken, and he was harassed as an heretic, and charged with blasphemy.  This should not have been surprising, seeing the inquisition put Galileo under lifelong house arrest, an act that silenced Descartes, who decided not to publish a very similar treatise on the movement of the celestial bodies.  Blasphemy was still a capital offense through most of Europe . . . Spinoza was just at the dawning of the enlightenment. 
 
"To the extent that we are committed to the ideal of a secular society free of ecclesiastic influence and governed by toleration, liberty, and a conception of civic virtue; and insofar as we think of true religious piety as consisting in treating other human beings with dignity and respect, and regard the Bible simply as a profound work of human literature with a universal moral message, we are the heirs of Spinoza's scandalous treatise."

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Genealogy, Jack the Ripper, and Fish and Chips


This is just a travel album of our recent trip to England with a few captions.
  
All pictures were taken with a cell phone, in most cases my iPhone 4S

(As usual, click on any picture to enlarge it.)

The trip had two parts.  First, Barbara's genealogy research in Suffolk, followed by some time in London, long one of our favorite cities.
 
 
We flew on frequient flyer miles; lots of seats available in January.  The weather was actually pretty good.  Not cold, and only one day where we needed our umbrellas.  Pictured is the black bag with our passports and British Pounds that was transiently lost.  We were actually being deplaned when it was found.  Our trip was almost over before it began!
  
 David, our driver, met us at Heathrow arrivals, drove us to Ipswich, kept our luggage in his car, picked us back up later in the afternoon, and then drove us to Lowestoft.  He was great!  Also, his mother's name was Dickerson and from the same place where Barbara's Dickersons' had come from . . . probably a distant cousin.
 
The Victorian school building in Ipswich where the county records were maintained.  Barbara's  Dickersons, Coopers, and Paines sailed from Ipswich in 1637 on the Mary Anne (link to list of passengers.)
 
Searching the microfiche files.  Old English with strange script and quill pens that tended to grow faint at regular intervals is not easy reading!
  
  The Hotel Victoria in Lowestoft; our digs for 3 days of research.  Our room was the middle balcony on the left.
 
 View from our balcony of the hotel grounds, the prominade, and the beach.
  
Bath houses on the beach below the hotel.
   
 One afternoon we took the train from Lowestoft to Norwich to visit Rachael's grandmother and uncle.  Here, Adam is serving the fare he provided:  Scotch egg, meat pie, and an assortment of wonderful UK cheeses; served with Suffolk cider, beer, and wine.   We had a great evening of talking, even extending to politics and religion.  We got so involved we never even took a picture of granny Margaret.  Glad we didn't have to drive home.
 
 Changing trains in Norwich on the way to London
 
 Our London place was a 2 BR condo that Barbara secured (for a great price) in a charity auction.  It was located in the East End, convenient to two underground stations and a block from the huge East London Mosque.  It was an interesting part of London in which we had not spent much time previously.
 
 We were surrounded by Turkish, Pakistani, and Bangla restaurants, as well as a couple of decent pubs.  All in all this was a great "foodie" trip; lots of different, excellent, and relatively cheap meals.  Meat at a nearby restaurant, Maeda, was being cooked on wood coals.

 The first day we did a river cruise on the Thames, downriver to Greenwich, then back up to Parliament.  Big Ben is shadowed against the evening sky amongst other assorted elements near Westminster.
 
 Coming out of the Tower Bridge tube station, you are presented with 2000 years of history, starting with the Roman wall on the left and extending to the Tower of London in the center.
 
We popped into the Minaries Pub (in the arched brick rooms of an 1840 train station) just to rest our feet and get a half-pint, but when they came by with the fish and chips for the next table, we decided to join in as well.
 
On Sunday, Clive Moore traveled up to London to meet us for lunch and for a nice easy stroll from the Sloan Square area along to Knightsbridge.  Clive was our landlord when we lived in Suffolk, and has been a wonderful friend since that time.
   
We also visited more recently-made friends from Southgate one evening.  Anthony and Christine Campbell joined us for lunch during our last trip to England, and during this trip kindly entertained us at their home for dinner.  Christine is Greek, and of course the economy was much discussed.  Anthony is a renaissance man, (link to his blog here)  and we so enjoyed our evening with them that I never took a picture.

Since 1420 there has been a bell foundry outside the old city wall near the Aldgate underground station (Aldgate was the eastern most gateway through London wall leading from the City of London to Whitechapel and the east end of London.)  This particular foundry dates from 1570, and within the relatively small confines were cast Big Ben, the original Liberty Bell, the US bicentennial bell, and the 9/11 commemorative bell, as well as many major church/cathedral bells around the world.
 
The entry to the business offices of the foundry is on the left.  The main entrance to the family house is one of the only still surviving on Whitechapel Lane.  The family still uses the upper floor as a residence.
  
The original wood crane was recently used to lift a 2 1/2 ton bell onto a truck.
 
The Museum of Natural History was a marvelous structure on it's own accord.  It is huge, and this entrance is a small part of the structure.
 
The size of the great hall is hard to grasp.  Numerous, very large galleries extend to both sided.
 
Close to the Natural History museum is the magnificient Victoria and Albert Museum.  Barbara is standing in the Raphael Gallery of the V&A.
 
The "Egyptian Escalator" at Harrods Department Store.
 
The memorial to Diana and Dodi at the foot of the Egyptian Escalator.
 

Matt had given us an head's up on the Neals Yard Dairy.
 
Martin seemed determined to offer us a sample of everything in the shop, and ultimately we settled on several cheeses to take with us.
 
Lunch; more fish and chips at the" Rock and Sole Plaice"
 
An evening walk with the "Eye" on the left and Parliament on the opposite bank of the Thames.

For the last three days of our stay, Brian Bruns, a young writer we have known for years crashed in our condo.  Shortly after his 20/20 interview he came to London to receive his 3rd place prize for the 2012 London Book Festival.  Brian did his own thing the day of the award dinner, but the other days he patiently explored various corners of the city with we older, slower folk.
 
We returned to the Natural History Museum to visit a special exhibit on Scott's South Pole attempt. ( That's Brian on the arched bridge with his arms extended.)

Checking out the Still and Star Pub with Brian.  Classic Brit pub with Bitters pumped from cask and darts being played in the back.
 
Ally or small lane we came across in which one of Jack the Ripper's victims was found.  Barbara was aware that the Ripper murders happened in the area of London we we staying in, so we checked out several of the notable locations during our walks that week.
 
This pub was one of our stops on our own Jack the Ripper tour.  It was a brothel at the time.  A story with some credibility is that the series of murders stemmed from a cover-up of an encounter between a noble/royal personage that resulted in a pregnancy.This site has just about all the existing reference material about the Ripper.
 
Most friendly and talkative barman in the Ten Bells.  (Everyone will willingly talk to Barbara!)
 
Across from the Ten Bells is the Spitalfield Market.
 
Just my luck!  It was the day for the antiques dealers to display in Spitalfields.

St Paul's from the Millennium bridge.  We were generally lucky with weather this trip, even though it was winter.
 
On our last night we explored the Wapping Docks area, and had a pint and snack in the Town of Ramsgate Pub on the ThamesIt has a very interesting history if you follow the link.
   
  This sampling of pictures is not comprehensive, and does not begin to cover all the places and experiences of the trip, but will hopefully give you some of the flavor of our time there.  This will save you hours of boredom as you will have an excuse not to see all of our pictures when you visit!
 
J&B
  
 

Monday, January 30, 2012

DARWIN DAY IS AROUND THE CORNER

Charles Darwin Day (Feb 13) is upon us again.  I have a previous post regarding Charles Darwin, and I have little to add to that commentary today..
 
In this country some (actually quite a few) citizens, including a few congressmen, have religious belief in divine creation, or intelligent design as it is sometimes called, (their belief is fine with me), and they would like to see creationism taught as legitimate science in our public schools (this is not so fine with me.)
 
In contrast, I was recently in London and visited the British Museum of Natural History, which is essentially a monument to Darwin.  It even has a full-sized statue of the man in a prominent position of the main hall.  The quintessential homage a country can give to a citizen however is to place his/her image on their money so that it is seen by millions every day, and that is what England did with their 10 Pound Sterling banknote (and this is fine with me.)

Darwin, seen on the stair landing at the far back of the hall, 
oversees the collections of the British Museum of Natural History (click to enlarge.)

Charles Darwin

Lost in thought?

Darwin on the Ten Pound Note

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Julian Barnes: Non-Linear Novelist



Flaubert's Parrot was my fortuitous introduction to the novels of Julian Barnes.  It's unconventional structure as narrative/fictional biography with multiple voices and non-linear chronology somehow held together to illuminate Flaubert's philosophy as it relates to the protagonist's inward struggles.

Oxford educated Julian Barnes was raised by academic parents (French Professors) and his brother, Jonathan, is a widely respected academic in ancient philosophies, so the introspective nature of Julian's prime characters follows in a natural, almost family sense.

Critics are generally effusive, and his novels have garnered big-time awards, but some might wince at the occasional vivid inclusion of some of the baser human language, thoughts, and acts which Barnes occasionally presents seamlessly, if bluntly, and more in some books than others.  ("Filth" and "disgusting" have been used in some of the individual Amazon reviews of his books.)  Women in his novels are mostly present as a foil for the male character, and while these women are complex and challenging, they are not often treated with great sympathy (but then neither is the central character).

Two of his more recent novels (Nothing to be Frightened of, and The Sense of an Ending) deal with a protagonist that is aging and unavoidably ponders the changing nature of life, and reflecting on how he (Julian himself?) came to be what he is.  This might seem to be morbid, but comes across, at least to myself, as a process that we all tend to endure as our past life becomes longer than our future life.   Julian and I are roughly the same age, so it is natural that I find some comradeship when he writes of being old, and how your thinking changes; "It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different past for others."

Nothing to be Frightened of is not really about dying, nor is The Sense of an Ending about death, but I do think you need to be approaching or past Medicare age, as am I, to really appreciate either.