Monday, September 23, 2013

Technological leapfrog

Education and Technology in Bangladesh
I was reading the other day that the 12th largest shopping mall in the world is in Bangladesh. Bangladesh!? With a little further research, it turns out that seven of the largest 10 shopping centers in the world are in developing Asia.  My picture of Bangladesh and other similar countries as dusty or flooded areas of rural occupants with scraps for clothing and emaciated from hunger obviously needed some updating.

With a little research, it has become obvious to me that economic development in the emerging Asian economies is going to occur at a much faster pace than what we have seen in Western economies over the last 50 to 100 years. Among the major advantages that the developing economies have is the ability to take advantage of recent scientific and technological advancements and “leapfrog” over the existing developed societies.

For example, it would take many years and billions of dollars to trench and lay cable to every home in India or Bangladesh to provide phone and Internet services (and of course cable TV so they can watch MTV.) But they do not have to do that; they are jumping straight to wireless services for communication, Internet access, and televised entertainment and education.

Cell phone penetration in the top 20 countries includes of course the United States and China, but also includes India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Thailand. Of the 6 billion mobile phone subscriptions around the world, 5 billion are in developing countries.

Back to the shopping center. Though it is true that large megamalls are appearing in developing Asian cities, there is certainly nothing like the scale of retail shopping establishments we see in the US, Western Europe, or Japan, and that will likely never happen because e-commerce will spread far more rapidly in these regions than will brick-and-mortar retail shops (maybe I should invest in the Indian and Indonesia equivalents of UPS and FedEx?) Similarly, rather than large banks with satellite stores scattered throughout the cities and countryside, these areas will continue to expand the use of smart phones for banking and to purchase everything from a vending machine drinks to groceries, clothes, and perhaps even cars.

The government will also take advantage of new technologies and science to provide better services to their citizens, with increased security compared to that in the Western economies. Avoiding all the problems that hazards the US Social Security system, which is plagued with identity theft and fraud, India is creating a national online identity database for the entire country based on biometrics (fingerprints, iris scans, & facial photographs) which will make it possible to verify every individual's identity, instantly, with a smart phone or other device. This ambitious program plans to include more than half the population by 2014.  In this country there is rampant paranoia of the 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 variety when it comes to government having the ability to verify your identity. However, this is the coming world standard, and to refuse it will continue to allow economic fraud of every type, and make it easier for known criminals and terrorist to operate within our society.  I personally find the latter possibilities a much greater threat than giving the government the ability to biometrically confirm who I am.

Meanwhile, federal and state legislatures have passed and continue to renew laws and policies entrenching existing legacy corporations and their outdated technology, and they resist new expenditures that would actually help maintain our lead as a technologically advanced citizenry. Whether it be satellite or cable television, our subscriptions are the most expensive in the world. Whether it be land lines or cell phones, our subscriptions are the most expensive in the world. Whether it be wireless or hardwired, our Internet access is the most expensive in the world (and among the slowest and most limited in the world.)  It's time to move forward before we are left behind.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Post-Religious Jesus

My reading is generally divided into what I term my "daytime" reading and my "nighttime" reading. The first is material that require some thought and the ability to stay awake, and might be scientific, philosophical, or theological in content. The second genre of books are generally about some seriously flawed detective or agent who despite of his flaws is able to solve the crime and save the day.  If I fall asleep a few pages into the book, then there's no harm done. No scientific details require recall the next day either.

The most recently read "daytime" books are all theological/philosophical, Two of them are written by an Episcopalian bishop whom I have previously read and listened through online podcast, and a third from a relatively new writer who has a newly released book on the bestseller list addressing the historical Jesus.  This is one of those occasions that I periodically observe in which I read several books that are seemingly disconnected in arthurship and orientation, but when read simultaneously deeply interrelate.

The first of these books is "Zealot: the life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" by Reza Aslan.   I have read several books addressing the "historical Jesus," and this certainly rates among the best. It is authoritative, compactly complete, and imminently readable. I am not a biblical scholar and certainly not any sort of knowledgeable person regarding ancient Palestinian history, and I feel considerably more educated having finished this book. The introduction  establishes the basis for the existence of an historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived in first century Palestine. The prologue paints a sociological and political and religious background into which Jesus of Nazareth was born. Following this are three major sections, the first giving the background for Jesus the person, very difficult since there is virtually no written record from his actual life. The second has to do with his life and those with whom he interacted including family, John the Baptist, and the politicians and Jewish priest, and the circumstances of his execution by crucifixion. The final section is a review of the theology of Jesus of Nazareth, and its evolution through the Council of Nicaea. The final third of the book, provided as an appendix, is an extensive discussion of his source material and explanation for the conclusions that he reached, material that would have interrupted the flow of the book if inserted within each chapter, but which is at least as interesting as the main text itself.  A note about the author; he comes from an Iranian family that left for the United States with the fall of the Sha. He as a young man had a fundamentalist Christian experience, but it is very difficult to pin him down as to his current theologic perspective, except that he is definitely not a biblical literalist. For me personally, the value in this book was an education in the sociologic and political history of first century Palestine, and a view of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, his religious preaching, the rejection of Pauline theology by the Jerusalem Jewish hierarchy (James, etc.), the turn to the Gentile population for conversion, and the early evolution of Gentile Christian theology. 

The other two books are by a retired Episcopalian bishop, John Shelby Spong, a priest that has been somewhat of a thorn in the side of Episcopalian/Christian orthodoxy.

In his recent book "Jesus for the nonreligious" he of course overlaps substantially with the time and events covered by Aslen in "Zealot" but differs in  emphasis and direction, going into less detail about first century sociology and politics, and more extensively into the development of the canonical Gospels of modern Christian religion.  In his early personal growth, he began to find he could only accept the synoptic Gospels as extensively symbolic and allegorical  and difficult to accept literally. At the same time, he found the Gospel of John somewhat "offputting."  With his own personal maturity, however, he thinks that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written within the framework of historical Judaism, and tried to overcome the limitations of narrative language by using extensive symbolism while trying to make sense of Jesus's life within the Jewish context, while it was the writer(s) of John,  breaking from the Jesus constrained by historic Judaism, who finally got it right. Thus, Bishops Spong extends beyond historic narrative, and superimposes his theological interpretation, producing a text about the historical Jesus that is considerably different from Aslan's. For this reason, I found reading "Zealot" and "Jesus for the Nonreligious" complementary, and worthwhile individually and jointly.  

Spong, though having lived his life almost entirely within the Episcopalian faith, has for some time been advocating a maturing of modern religion that accepts the Bible For what it truly is in the light of modern biblical scholarship, and the growrh beyond Fundamentalism and literal interpretation of the Bible; not only for the individual, but for Christianity as a whole.  In his own words "we do not need to be born again, we just need to grow up."  He does not ask the Christian to deny their religious past but that they simply mature beyond it in order to recognize the fulfillment of their own humanness.  Much of this writing could easily be that of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or others who have criticized organized religion for either outright dening modern science, or making theological arguments that attempt (but without success) to reconcile the literal interpretation of the Bible with current scientific knowledge.  Spong is different only in that while he accepts all of modern science, he still finds value in his understanding of the life of Jesus.

Spong's final book, "eternal life: a new vision" overlaps substantially with "Jesus for the non-religious", but has a different direction.  Spong, as is common in the aging individual, has in this text tried to address the issue of the possibility, or absence of  a possibility, of a conscious afterlife; in other words the survival of the individual consciousness beyond physical death.  To arrive at his answer, he reviews the history of humans, starting with the Big Bang, extending through the formation of Earth and the appearance of life, and the appearance of a conscious animal, human, who has to deal with the problem of conscious awareness of their mortality and ultimate death.  The last book addressing this issue in depth which I read was sometime ago, Ernst Beckers "Denial of Death." Spong addresses this topic in a substantially different manner, probably because of his life as a theologian, but the two men are not incompatible in their thoughts.  

His ultimate conclusion is to me a little difficult to condense into a sentence or two, so I will let you read  (and interpret) his thoughts on this matter for yourself. I do find considerable similarity in Buddhist philosophy to his conclusions, and while Spong made no such comparison, I do Find that Spong's Jesus, as I read Spong, is not totally distant from the Buddha or other Eastern Religious godheads that do not include in their philosoply/theology a physical rebirth into an eternal, blissful, heavenly existence.

These are among the books that I wish I could have read 50 years ago, as they might have changed my life. On the other hand, now that I read them with that additional 50 years of life, they are likely more meaningful, and will perhaps have a greater impact. If these books sound interesting to you, they probably will be, and, if not, they probably will not be.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

50 YEARS LATER . . .

Looking back, of course we were good and moral, but we were also irresponsible, mad, forlorn, and idiotic. My town in those years was a place with a lot of opportunity for mischief, but fewer opportunities for real trouble.  I did learn from our all-night poker games that if you don't take chances, then you'll seldom have a winning hand. - JLF

Recently I found myself embarking on a 1500 mile road trip to the 50th year reunion of my high school class; a fairly small affair of the surviving 60+ fellow graduates of Slaton High School ("63 in '63".).   I did this with some trepidation. First, I had not been going to school with the same classmates and friends for 12 years like most of the group, having started school in Spur, TX and transferred to Slaton for completion of high school. Second, when I left Slaton, I left permanently. My folks moved to new jobs, there was no family or home there any more, and I was fully occupied with work and college in Ft Worth.  I only returned as a side trip on two, brief occasions; once with Barbara as a drive through to my mom's in Oklahoma and once on a road trip with my son, not attempting to contact anyone on either occasion.

This permanent departure was not so much due to any animosity for the locale, but was simply because my life took me in a different direction (see my previous post "The Days are Getting Shorter.").  Barbara was urging me to go to this reunion, but why should I now return to a place to which I felt no strong attachment, to visit with people with whom, with scant exception, I had maintained no connection?  There was one classmate I had reconnected with on facebook, but we coincidentally had a common city where we would likely meet in the future. The deciding moment was when my best friend (and best man in 1966 and again in 1971) sent me a letter and expressed hope I was going to be there; that tipped the scale.

The girls (it will always be the "girls") did a great job of managing to bring 80% of the surviving  members of the class of 1963 together.  The dinner of July 3rd and the party in the park the morning of July 4th worked brilliantly.

I do think that the 50th high school reunion is different from the 10th, 25th, or even 40th reunions.  Although I have scant experience, from what little I have seen and from most of what I have heard, the early high school reunions, particularly the 25th, are heavily weighted toward those who have accomplished (in their own eyes) a lot, and are eager to tell their other classmates about their (successful) life.  As this population approaches 70 years in age, there is much less egocentrism, jealousy, and insecurity. Simply surviving to this age is a common thread among all.  Was it good to hug with affection people one has not seen in 50 years? Of course; it was more than that, it was wonderful, especially if the one hugging you was one of your best friends that you had not seen for so long.  

I was surprised at the number of divorces.

I was also surprised at the suicides; not how many, but who.

I was a bit envious of the people who had many grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, I was also a bit jealous of those who were surrounded geographically by large numbers of their family members. Some of us simply had no locus of family, and for those who chose to wander far and not look back, it was a choice made and, I suspect for most, not regretted.

Looking back on the reunion, it was good to go back, but it was good to have left 50 years ago.

The pictures that follow (all simple iPhone photos) do not always show the town in it's best light, but a booming suburb it is not. They are only a vignette of two or three people and some places that have some significance for me.

(For some reason, in some browsers, the pictures are lightly cropped.  Click on any picture to see full-frame.)

Slaton High School.  Some additions, but essentially the same.

Same Football field

Same Brick streets.  New wall mural.

Corner building was the newspaper office of the second paper in town (interesting since these days most large cities have only one or no daily papers) and where I learned offset printing and was a staff photographer.

 Cottonseed oil mill in Lubbock where during one night shift I had an accident and came very close to losing my right leg and life.

City Park.  Site of flag (and occasionally tackle) co-ed football games, swimming  pool with climbable fence, and the yellow building on the left which in the '60s was the venue for post-game dances - "Tiger Town." 

Another occasional site of High School dances was the Catholic Church Hall.  My first more or less romantic kiss was outside this building one night.

A bit shocking to find our class picture poster in the local history museum!

 Yup, that's me. 

11-man football with 16 players; a lot of us played both ways.  I (#74) only went out for the team my senior year.  We were 1/1/8 that year; pretty bad.
Unfortunately, #64 on my right and #52 on my left are deceased by suicide.  There are some very close boyhood friends in this photo.

I played trombone in the band, even during my senior year along with football.  My best friend Bill is between the middle two tubas; I am between the two tubas on the right.  We were a 2AA sweepstakes band that year; sort of made up for the football record.

Soda fountain from the drug store; in the Slaton History Museum

Printing press.  According to the provenance provided with this exhibit, I'm fairly sure I was trained on this machine and printed a run or two of announcements on my own.

 I have visited Harvey Houses before, but interestingly enough I never knew Slaton had its own Harvey house until the reunion.  It has been well restored.
Harvey House.

Bill, my best friend in high school, and my best man . . . twice.

 The venue and some of my classmates.

 FB pen pal Areta, on the right, has perhaps traveled the longest, most interesting road of us all.  She is currently master of an international school  in Colombo, Siri Lanka.

 Robert, on the left, is a high-powered finance lawyer in Dallas but seems to take most pleasure participating in national table suffleboard tournaments.  David was a nationally ranked swimmer in high school, and still looks it.

Rumor was that the police had ringed the water tower with barbed wire on hearing of the upcoming reunion of the class of '63, not wanting to risk defacement by paint-wielding senior citizens.

To be able to look back upon one's past life with satisfaction is to live twice.  - Lord Acton

Monday, May 13, 2013

Bermuda - Not the Caribbean

Bermuda Flag with Union Jack and Bermuda Coat of Arms

 I had heard of Bermuda, but in my mind lumped it in the general classification of " a Caribbean Island," with steel bands and Jimmy Buffett bars. I was significantly off-target.  Barbara was given the opportunity for a free Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) cruise this year, with options including the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and Bermuda.  Our first instinct was to jump for a cruise out of Barcelona, but the timing was not right (mainly my still being employed with substantial, but not unlimited vacation availability.)  We have never been particularly attracted to the Caribbean, but with a little investigation, it was obvious that Bermuda was altogether a horse of a different color.

Bermuda is a British Overseas Territory in the Atlantic Ocean, 6-700 miles East of North Carolina, discovered by a Spanish sea captain in 1505, though never explored as the Spanish saw the multiple reefs as too dangerous for entering.  An English ship on its way to Jamestown, Virginia in 1609 was blown onto the reefs by a storm and the sailors stayed two years before rebuilding a small ship, Deliverance, which they eventually sailed on to Virginia Some sailors stayed behind, and from that grew the town of St George, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A small volcanic island in the Atlantic
Dockyards (Cruise Ships and fortifications) on the West end,, and St George on the East end

Bermuda, with Turquoise shallows and reefs as seen from space. (Click on Picture to enlarge)

 The Island has more in common with England than with the Bahamas; conservative, with strict drug and driving laws.  You will not wear a bathing suit into a store or restaurant, you will be summarily deported if caught with any drugs, and Bermudians have strong advantages in home purchasing, with a very few, very expensive homes bought by wealthy foreigners (Opra tried to purchase a $37M house, but after 3 years of bureaucracy gave up & bought in Hawaii instead.)  Citizenship is very difficult to obtain; if you are born there, you will be assigned the citizenship of your mother, and matrimony yields citizenship only after 10 years of continuous marriage bliss - no quickie or convenience marriages count.  Executive authority in Bermuda is vested in the Monarch and is exercised on her behalf by the Governor, who is appointed for a 4 year term. However, Bermuda is self-governed by its Parliament.  

Boston Prelude

Our NCL ship departed Boston, so we flew in a day early to insure against airplane delays and to meet with our long-time investment advisor the morning before boarding ship in the afternoon.  We did a LONG march of about 5 hours and visited a few lesser-known historic buildings, Boston Commons, Boston Garden, Boston Central Cemetery, and the memorials being left at the Boston Marathon bombing site.  Barbara's new knee was functionally normal from what I observed; great to have my walking companion back!

Panorama of the bombing memorial location near the finish line (Click on picture to enlarge)

Cruise from Boston

The ship was first-class construction and I think well-staffed.  Our 11th-deck stateroom was as large as any we have experienced.  That said, half our fellow cruisers were shabbily dressed, tended to the grossly obese, and displayed far too much tattoo-encrusted skin.   The standard restaurant food was mediocre at best, with the buffet much better.  Hamburger bars were great!  They had 6 upscale restaurants with $10-30 cover charges where the food was quite good and the atmosphere more to our taste.  Drink prices were average.  Did I mention the cruise was free?

Our ship, the Norwegian Dawn, gave us one day "at sea" on the way to Bermuda and two days "at sea" on the way back to Boston, and it served as our hotel for three days on Bermuda.
For a friend, we included "Flat Stanley" (actually a flat "Sintu"" in our trip. (click here for the Flat Stanley website)
Our cabin is partially seen, top edge/exact center of the picture.
Looking down the 8-deck high main atrium mid-ship. 
The Dawn  had no issues during our trip, but  has experienced its share of problems. 


We did find this a great place for historical-cultural touring.  The people of the island are uniformly friendly, skin color-blind, literate, and proud of their country.  Historical buildings and fortifications are interlaced with narrow streets and roads.  The tour books minimize the culinary experience, but thanks to a local recommendation, we had our best dining of the week in a pub slightly off the main roads (The Lobster Pot in Hamilton.)  We started with a general overview tour of the island in a mini-bus, ended with a boat tour of the local "millionare row" homes, and in between explored on our own with a ferry/bus pass and a few taxi rides.

Here are a very few pictures from three days of exploration (we took ~500 pictures - only with our iPhones - but you will not be punished with them on this blog.)  When we see you, we will want to share with you personally some stories from our experience.

Our arrival was at the Dockyards at the western tip of the Island.  You can see some of the old fortifications in the background, and the high-speed ferry approaching its dock.  (Click on picture to enlarge)

Obviously part of the British Commonwealth .
We were there during the Hibiscus blooming season.  Lots of other flowers blooming also.
Famous for its pink sand beaches.  Even though the "beach season" had started a month perviously, the water was still chilly.
Though with limited time, Barbara scoured a couple of beaches for enough "sea glass" to make a necklace for herself.

Flat Sintu with some tour and taxi drivers.  It soon became obvious to us that everyone on the island knows everyone else, and is related to many of their fellow islanders.  The 20 sq mile islands is home to only 65,000 citizens.

Originally named New London, St George was established in 1612 is the oldest continuous English settlement in the Western Hemisphere.  The town and the associated fortifications are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The House of Assembly, the white building in the far background, was originally the only house of Bermuda's parliament, and held its first session in 1620 at St Peter's Church, moving to this building later the same year.

There is virtually no  fresh water on the island.  As a result, Bermuda's roofs have evolved over four centuries to do two things: protect houses against gale-force winds and funnel whatever the heavens rain down into large cisterns that feed household taps. By law, every house must collect 80 percent of the water that falls on its roof. To build a traditional Bermudian roof, masons mortar rectangular slabs, or "slates," of local limestone to each other over a hip-roof frame.  Along the lower edges of the roof, they sculpt a long concrete trough for a gutter, which directs rainwater to a pipe that filters it and funnels it into a cistern buried under, or occasionally alongside, the house. Then they give the whole roof structure a thin wash of cement. Finally, to keep rainwater as clean as possible on its way to the cistern, they paint the roofs with special nontoxic paint (a modern replacement for traditional lime wash), which must be reapplied every two to three years

The underside of a limestone roof.  .
Typical street in St George.
Tucker House in St. George’s was built in the 1750s. A magnificent collection of Tucker family silver, china and crystal, antique English mahogany and Bermuda cedar furniture, portraits by Blackburn, and exquisite hand-sewn quilts are some of the treasures on we did not get to view, as it was closed the day we were there.

St. Peter's Church, in St. George's is the oldest surviving Anglican church in continuous use outside the British Isles. It is also reportedly the oldest continuously used Protestant church in the New World

Triple tiered pulpit in St Peter's
Back to the Dockyards, there are excensive remaing of the ramparts and fortifications, some dating to the 17th century.  (Click on picture to enlarge)

The victualing yard (Click picture to enlarge)

Exploring some of the Dockyard ruins surrounding the victualing yard.

Gun emplacements on the ramparts  The entrance to the munition magazine is in the foreground. 
Hosting mechanism from the magazine to the cannon.

This 18 ton, rifled barrel, muzzle loading cannon could target ships as far as 5 miles offshore. (my hat on the ground for size reference.)

Behind a moat and protected wall is the "Keep" and in a elevated position within the keep is the Comissioneer's House

View from the Comissioner's house porch of the Keep Yard in the foreground, the victualing yard beyond that, and the Casemate Barracks in the background.  (Click picture to enlarge.)

The Comissioner's room on the main level.  (Click picture to enlarge.)

This is an open walk to the old Casemate Barracks.  It's nice that in some countries you are allowed personal responsibility . . . there were several mildly dangerous place on these old walls that would have kept it closed in the U.S.  Same for a number of other areas on the ramparts where without some attention you could fall many yards onto stone.  (Click picture to enlarge.)

The Casemate barracks were used as a high-security prison for a decade, and then abandoned.  They are currently undergoing archaeological study before restoration.  (Click picture to enlarge.)

The clocktower building has a standard clock on the left, and a tidal clock on the right.  (Click picture to enlarge.)

Just before leaving, we did a tour, from the water, of the coves along "millionaire's row".There are indeed Bermudian millionaires and billionaires here, but the foreign billionaires mostly live in  a closed, gated compound on Tucker's Point. (Click picture to enlarge.)

WE WILL BE BACK (but probably not on a cruise; for more time to explore and experience, we will fly in and stay on the island the next time.)