Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

The story of my life

April 27, 2013

via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Why I was wrong about the Iraq invasion

March 20, 2013

George Orwell wrote somewhere that a good way to maintain a sense of humility is to keep a diary of your political opinions.  Looking back on what you thought five or ten years before will remind you of your fallibility.

Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein

The United States and its Coalition partners began military operations against Iraq 10 years ago today.  I didn’t keep a diary, but I well remember what I thought then.

I was aware that the claims that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction were based on faked evidence.  I knew that far from being implicated in the 9/11 attacks, the secular nationalist Saddam was hated by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.  I feared that starting a war on the basis of a lie could come back to haunt us Americans, and yet I hoped it might turn out well.

This would not have been the first war launched by the United States on the basis of a lie.  The Mexican War was started on the basis of the lie that Mexican troops had fired on American troops on American soil.  The Spanish-American War was started on the basis of the lie that the Spanish blew up the battleship Maine in Havana harbor.  The Vietnam intervention was authorized on the basis of the lie that the North Vietnamese had attacked American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.  Yet the first two of these wars turned out well—that is, well from the American perspective, not from the point of view of the victims of aggression.

iraq_oil_map485I thought it possible that the Iraq invasion would turn out well for all concerned.  Iraq was ruled by a cruel and hated dictator.  I thought that after U.S. forces liberated Iraq from the dictator, Iraq would become a country whose people were friendly to the United States, and whose rulers would be more dependable military allies and oil suppliers than the royal family of Saudi Arabia.

In addition, the United States had been waging a low-level war against Iraq for more than 10 years, following Operation Desert Storm in 1991.  All through the Clinton administration, Iraq was under economic blockade, with intermittent bombing, which had caused enormous hardship and suffering.  I thought that the human suffering from a quick invasion.

The George W. Bush administration quickly proved me wrong.  Military forces occupied the Iraqi oil ministry and oil fields, and let the rest of the country sink into chaos.  Local Iraqi leaders were pushed aside, and U.S. appointees installed in their place.  For some reason, the Iraqi military was disbanded, but individual soldiers were allowed to keep their weapons, when the obviously sensible thing to do would have been to confiscate the weapons but keep the soldiers on a payroll and under control.  American commanders installed themselves in some of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces, and sent prisoners to his old torture chamber in Abu Ghraib.

But even if the Bush administration had been sincerely interested in creating a democratic Iraq, this probably would not have been feasible for a foreign invading army to do.  I went through the same stages in my thinking about Iraq that I did about Vietnam, but over a shorter period of time—from thinking U.S. policy was flawed but justified to thinking that U.S. policy was a big mistake to thinking that U.S. policy was a crime. Of course it should have been obvious in both cases that unleashing total war on a small country that does not threaten you is a crime.

I was wrong about Iraq, and wiser friends of mine were right.  Now I was not a decision-maker, or even, in those days, a blogger.  My wrongness had few consequences.  But I am an American citizen.  Politicians ultimately answer to the citizens.  I have my small share of the responsibility for the Iraq tragedy.

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My favorite web logs

January 25, 2013

Today is my third anniversary as a blogger.   When I started, I conceived of my web log as primarily a way to have on-line conversations with my circle of friends about subjects I’m interested in.  As it turned out, only a few of my friends were interested, but I’ve made the acquaintance of other people in distant places.

blogger_in_heaven_1153685To celebrate, the anniversary, I’d like to share links to my favorite bloggers.  I divide them into two categories.  The Star Bloggers are journalists, paid bloggers and professionals who comment on subjects on which they are experts.  The Kindred Spirits are my peers—amateurs like me who think they have something to say.  I think anybody who finds my blog of interest would also like them.

I keep my Blog Roll as a page in the upper right corner of my blog.   It is subject to change, but here is how it stands today.

STAR BLOGGERS

Glenn Greenwald on security and liberty. Glenn Greenwald is an American civil liberties lawyer who for years was a solo blogger and now writes a daily column for The Guardian in Britain.  I admire him for his hatred of injustice and his independent mind.  He judges the Obama administration by the same high standards as he judged the George W. Bush administration.

Ta-Nehisi Coates | The Atlantic. Ta-Nehisi Coates posts daily for The Atlantic magazine about popular culture, politics, the African-American perspective and his own life. His posts are interesting, and so are the well-moderated comment threads.

Rod Dreher | The American Conservative . Rod Dreher posts daily for The American Conservative magazine mainly about moral and social issues. He is a cultural and religious conservative who lives in his small hometown in Louisiana. I don’t share his political or religious creeds, but I am concerned about the same things he is. Like Coates, he writes interesting posts, and presides over interesting, well-moderated comment threads.

Conor Friedersdorf | The Atlantic . Conor Friedersdorf posts almost every day for The Atlantic mostly on politics. His own perspective seems to be mildly conservative and libertarian, but he is critical of all political factions who fail to meet the test of common sense and basic human decency.

naked capitalism. Yves Smith is a Wall Street financial consultant. She and the contributors to her blog are both outstanding investigators of political and financial corruption, and critics of conventional economic wisdom.

writer's block cartoon

ClubOrlov. Dimitri Orlov is a Russian-born American citizen who witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and sees the United States heading in the same direction. He posts every Tuesday about signs of collapse, how to survive collapse and the benefits of a simple life and mutual cooperation. I’m not sure his predictions will come true, but I am sure that the United States can continue as it is, and his thoughts have merit independently of his predictions.

The Agitator. Radley Balko performs a great public service with this web log which is devoted mainly to abuses of police and prosecutorial power. He is an example of a libertarian who is a much more staunch defender of basic Constitutional and human rights than most of us liberals. If you read his blog, you’ll see that the United States is not as free a country as most middle-class Americans assume it is.

Matt Taibbi | Taibblog | Rolling Stone. Matt Taibbi posts every few days for Rolling Stone magazine mainly about financial and political corruption. He doesn’t dig as deeply as Yves Smith and her team, but his work is solid, independent of party and faction, highly readable

The Big Picture: Macro Perspective on the Capital Markets, Economy, Technology and Digital Media. Barry Ritholtz is a shrewd Wall Street analyst who posts daily on a wide range of subjects. His blog is full of interesting charts and links.

XKCD-Cartoon

Marginal Revolution – Small steps toward a much better world. Tyler Cowen and his friend Alex Tabarrok are professors of economics at George Mason University whose view of the world is more conservative and comfortable than mine. I read their blog party to get a perspective that is different from my own, but mainly for the many interesting links on subjects I know little about. Cowen is one of the most erudite people I ever came across, and I get the benefit of his erudition.

Making Light. Patrick and Theresa Neilsen Hayden are editors for Tor science fiction books. They and their friends post every now and then on a wide variety of subjects, but what is most interesting are the links in the upper left of their web log.

The Dish | Andrew Sullivan. Andrew Sullivan is a gay, Catholic, British-born American citizen who is both a self-described conservative and an admirer of Barack Obama. He has been blogging for more than 10 years and many famous bloggers look too him as a kind of elder statesman. He and his staff post daily on a wide variety of subjects. I read his blog to get a perspective different from my own and because of the links to subjects I am not familiar with.

KINDRED SPIRITS

Unqualified Offerings: Looking sideways at your world since October 2001. “Thoreau” and his predecessor Jim Henley are physics professors in California who post almost every day with wit and wisdom about politics, science education, life in academia and the passing scene.

cgon332l

Psychopolitik: Random thoughts from a big angry negro. “B Psycho” in St. Louis posts with great insight every couple of weeks from a libertarian/anarchist perspective on politics and the passing scene

BlogTruth: Observations from a student of life. “Atticus Finch” and his pal “Holden” are young businessmen in Atlanta who post every few days on politics, the passing scene and, with great frankness, their personal lives. I think the blog lives up to its title; I think “Atticus Finch” is interested in knowing what is true as against parroting a received opinion

Class War in America: the Politics of Socioeconomic Class. John Pennington in San Francisco writes thoughtful essays every few days on topics related to economic justice.

simonandfinn | random things of interest…sometimes involving cartoons. “Melissa” is an artist, writer and cartoonist in Toronto who posts comments and cartoons every week or so about philosophy, the environment and the passing scene. Like me, she is an admirer of Bertrand Russell. Simon and Finn are two of her cartoon characters, but her philosophical cartoons star a character named Ernie.

Robert Nielsen | Economics, Politics and Religion. Robert Nielsen is an intelligent and well-informed young economics student in Ireland who posts every couple of days, usually to debunk economic or religious dogma.

New NY 23rd: Discuss the Politics, Economics and Events of the New New York 23rd Congressional District. Rich Stewart, a retired school teacher in Yates County, N.Y., writes and links about political issues affecting New York’s 23rd congressional district, which takes in the thinly-populated Southern Tier of counties along the Pennsylvania line, as well as some of the Finger Lakes area. His posts deserve a wider readership than just the citizens of that district.

The Deliberate Observer: both eyes open…. “Chico Marx” in the Twin Cities puts up links every few days to interesting articles.

Reddotsg’s Blog“Reddotsg” is a blogger in Singapore who posts every now and then about events in Singapore and the world.  I like the idea of having a connection with someone in a country I will never visit.  [Added 1/26/13]

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Why I don’t own a gun

January 14, 2013

I accept that the Constitution affirms an individual right to keep and bear arms, I believe that self-defense is a basic human right and I don’t think gun prohibition would work any better than alcohol prohibition did or drug prohibition does.

But speaking for myself, I have no desire to own a firearm.  I would be terrified at the possibility that, in a moment of panic, I might take a human life.

Double click to enlarge.

Double click to enlarge.

I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in Williamsport, Md., a small town on the Potomac River at the foothills of the Appalachians.  Almost everyone in town owned a gun, mainly for hunting and sometimes for killing animal pests or target shooting.  I have fond memories of my father, with newspaper spread out across the kitchen table, cleaning and oiling his deer rifle prior to hunting season.  What I never heard back in those days was the need to own a gun to defend yourself against somebody else who owned a gun.

A Gannett editor who worked in Las Vegas once told me that young men in Nevada like to take junk refrigerators and other appliances out into the desert, and blow them to pieces with high-powered firearms.  That sounds like a lot of fun.  I don’t have any quarrel with anybody who likes to do that.

I’ve met owners of convenience stores in high-crime neighborhoods who think they need to own guns for self-protection.  That is their decision and their right.

But count me out.  If I bought a gun for self-protection, I would have to make up my mind that I was in such grave personal danger that I would have to be willing to take a human life.  It would be like being in the military.  Then I would take firearms training in order to be sure I could handle a gun safely and responsibly, without a danger to myself or bystanders.  That would not be a casual decision.  If my life had taken a different course, I might have found myself in circumstances in which I thought differently.  But such circumstances are not the norm.

The vision of a society in which everyone carried a gun at all times, like the movie version of the Wild West, is an appealing fantasy to some people.  To me, it is a nightmare.  Robert A. Heinlein many years ago wrote a science fiction novel, Beyond This Horizon, set in a future in which every citizen carried a gun and duels were common.  Heinlein thought this would result in a process of natural selection, in which survivors were either quick and accurate marksmen, or very, very polite.  I don’t think this would be the reality.

The idea of teachers in the classroom being armed is dreadful.  Teachers would be like prison guards.  If this idea were implemented, I would expect a rash of “stand your ground” shootings in the schools.  Now there might be circumstances in which bringing armed police officers into the school is necessary, but it would be a necessary evil.

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Life is a carnival that has to end

December 14, 2012

ferris_wheelIn the little town in which I grew up in the 1940s, we children used to look forward to the annual Firemen’s Carnival—a fund-raising event for our volunteer fire company.  I’d save my money, and, when the day came, I’d ride the Ferris wheel and the other rides, I’d try to win prizes in the carnival games, and I’d buy cotton candy and drink sugared drinks.   Eventually dusk would come, my money would be spent, I’d be tired and cranky, but I didn’t want to go home.  I’d want the carnival to go on forever.

I’m 76 years old today, and I’m at the dusk of my life.  I’m getting tired and cranky, but I don’t want the carnival to end.  There are still rides I want to take and there are still games I want to play.  I accept that there is, and has to be, a closing time, but I’m not ready to go home and go to sleep.  Not just yet.

The self-actuating tape recorder of my mind

December 2, 2012
memory

Double click to enlarge.

I’m prone to what I call playing “tapes” in my mind—going over conversations in the past in which I failed to respond to someone who insulted me or insulted someone else or said something vicious or stupid that ought to be contradicted, and editing the “tape” so that I responded the way I would like to have.  Unlike the person described above, I am able (or think I am able) to keep separate what happened and what I would have liked to happen.  But at the same time, it is important to me to turn these tapes off.

  • Going over these conversations does me no good, and it does neither good nor harm to the other party in the conversation.
  • My anger is not really directed at the other person.  It is directed at myself for failing to respond adequately.
  • My failure to respond adequately is at least partly and maybe mainly due to my being preoccupied with myself and not fully engaged with what is going on around me.

I can’t help feeling whatever negative emotion I happen to feel — anger, regret, self-recrimination — but I have a choice as to whether I rationalize, justify and cultivate these feelings, or let them go.  The same is true of positive emotions — love, aesthetic pleasure, mastery.

Since these feelings and thoughts come into my mind seemingly by themselves and not by my decision, then “I” am something different from my feelings and thoughts.  What is that something?

I found the graphic above on Ido Lanuel’s To Be Aware web log.

Thanksgiving 2012

November 21, 2012

thankful

If the only prayer we ever said was “thank you,” it would still be enough.
    ==Meister Eckhart

If you think about reasons to be thankful and grateful, you cease to make yourself unhappy by feeling frustrated, resentful or worried about things that don’t matter.

If you click on What I Am Grateful For and read other people’s reasons for thankfulness, you may find reasons for thankfulness and gratitude about your own life.

Small thanks 2012

November 20, 2012

rockwell_thanksgiving11

This is an update of a post which I wrote in November, 2010.

I have many things for which to be thankful.  I have food, clothing and shelter, and no reason to fear going without.  I had parents who loved me, set a good example for me and provided for my material needs.  I have never been without friends.  I have good health for somebody my age (75).  I live in a free country under the rule of law.  I live in an age when the great mass of my fellow citizens can devote themselves to other things besides working to survive.  And I am thankful for the gift of life itself.

But this post is not about these things.  It is about small, easy-to-overlook things I am thankful for.

I am thankful for automobiles that don’t rust out.  Road salt is less of a problem now than 30 years ago, but the plastic body of my Saturn doesn’t rust anyhow.

I am thankful for automobiles that always start in the winter.  I can remember when this was a big issue.  I would run my car in neutral when I got home, and before I tried to start the car, in hope of recharging the battery enough to get a good start.  Now, with alternators as standard equipment, that recharging takes care of itself.  I am thankful for automobiles that get good traction on ice-covered and snow-covered streets, for right-side rear view mirrors and for rear-window defrosters.  I am thankful for idiot bells that let me know when I am getting out of the car with my lights still on or my key still in the ignition; this idiot needs the reminder.

I am thankful for left turn lanes on expressways, for left turn signals on traffic lights and for automobile turn signals replacing hand signals.   I am grateful to snowplow operators in Rochester who keep the roads clear in the worst of conditions.

I am thankful for affordable airplane travel, which makes it possible for me to good see my brother in California or my good friend in Texas in only half a day.  This is easy to take for granted, but I can remember when airplane travel was a luxury and middle-class people traveled by train, and crossed the ocean by ship.

I am thankful for luggage with wheels.  I can remember walking through airports and, before that, train stations carrying suitcases that felt like they would pull my arms out of their sockets.

I am thankful for ballpoint pens that don’t leak over my shirts when I accidentally put them in the washer.

I am thankful bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders provide chairs so I can sit and read.  They don’t lose money by allowing me to read their books free; I spend more there than I otherwise would.

I am thankful for painless dentistry.  As a boy, I once had a tooth extracted without anesthetic.  The dentist used what looked like a pair of pliers.  He pulled and pulled and pulled, then had to stop and catch his breath before going back and finally getting it out.

I am thankful for plastic bottles shaped with grips.

I am thankful for thermostats.  My parents had a coal furnace, and we had to be constantly thinking not letting the fire go out, but also banking the furnace so as not to waste coal.  One of my chores, since both of my parents worked outside the home, was to go right home when school let out and shovel fresh coal in the furnace.  Now I have a gas furnace that doesn’t have to be monitored at all, and a thermostat which I can turn up or down when I feel too hot or too cold.

I am thankful for hot water heaters.  I can remember when the only way to take a warm bath was to heat a kettle on a stove, and pour the boiling water into a tub of cold water.

I am thankful for search engines since as Google that allow me to find information in two minutes that I would have had to spend an afternoon in library to get, if I could find it at all.  I am thankful for web hosts such as WordPress that allow me to have my own web log, free of charge and without needing to be computer-savvy.  I am thankful for being able to communicate with friends in distant places through e-mail.  Not to mention spam filters which free me from having to continually purge my e-mail and web log comments.

I am thankful for cable television which enables me to receive broadcasts from places other than the city I live in.  And I am thankful for YouTube and Internet television which enables me to see broadcasts that my local cable carrier does not carry.

I am thankful for direct-dial long-distance telephone service.  I can talk to people in distant states and even foreign countries at an affordable price and without having to deal with an operator.  And for telephone answering machines.

When I was a boy, telephone service was like Internet service today.  Most people had it, but a large minority didn’t.  And not all telephone users had private telephone lines.  Basic telephone service in those days consisted of a party line, networking a number of households; the phones of everybody on the line rang on every call, but you were supposed to recognize the distinctive ring of your own line and not listen in to others’ calls.

Microwave ovens are a great boon to a lazy cook like me.  I do almost all my cooking nowadays, which consists mostly of frozen dinners, in the microwave.  But I also am thankful for farmers’ markets, where I can buy fresh vegetables and fruit directly from the farm.  I am grateful for trail mix and Granola.   I am thankful for ethnic restaurants, which give me a taste of the world’s cuisines without me having to leave my native city.

I am thankful for unit pricing, which enables me to compare prices of what I buy at the supermarket.  Otherwise I would need a calculator to figure out what is the better bargain, and even then I might not be able to do it.

What am I overlooking?

What am I taking for granted?

Thoughts now that my lights are back on

November 2, 2012

My electrical and gas service were restored this morning, and I am back home after having taken temporary shelter with my good friends Bill and Jane Hickok.  I am grateful to Bill and Jane, and thankful for all my other friends whom I can call upon for help if need be—a gift which I have not earned, but gratefully accept.

What I suffered was a minor inconvenience compared with the plight of people on Long Island, New York City, New Jersey and elsewhere along the East Coast, but it was enough to remind me how much I owe to the competence, hard work and intelligent planning of the people, working in the private sector and the public sector, who operate the complicated systems that give me electricity, telephone and Internet service, gas heat and gasoline, water and sewerage service, and food in my pantry.  Interruptions of service remind me not to take these things for granted.

Tropical Storm Sandy is a reminder of the importance of preparedness both on the individual and societal level.  On the individual level, having flashlight batteries, candles, nonperishable food and water on hand; on the societal level, thinking about worst-case scenarios and not making false economies that inhibit readiness.

As I said, what I suffered was a minor inconvenience.  The majority of people here in Monroe County still had electricity and heat.  It is very different from the parts of New York City where large neighborhoods are without light, heat or subway services to their places of work.  And we Americans are well off compared to people in the Caribbean and south Asia who have been ravaged by storms, tsunamis and earthquakes in recent years, without the means in place for relief.

I think it is a safe prediction that, as a result of the changing climate, the world can expect more extreme weather during the coming decades.  There is nothing that can be done about this in the near term.  If and when the U.S. government and other governments get serious about addressing climate change, it will be to protect future generations from even worse changes.

Tropical Storm Sandy over Rochester

October 30, 2012

Tropical Storm Sandy passed over Rochester, N.Y., on Monday night.   The video above gives my impression of what it seemed like.

We got off lightly compared to people in New York City and the other coastal cities, but I’m without electricity and Internet service.  I’ve posted this from a public access terminal at the Rochester Public Library.   Expect few or no new posts until I get my power back.

While you’re visiting, you might be interested in the articles menu on the right side of the page.

Why is music in bars so loud?

May 19, 2012

I hardly ever go to bars anymore because the music is so loud, I can’t hear what my friends are saying.  I mourn the quiet old-time bars, where you could sit in a booth, nurse a drink and have a long conversation.

Why has music become so loud in bars?  A scientific study finds that the louder the music, the faster people drink their drinks.  Why is that?  I don’t know.  Maybe just because loud music drowns out conversation, and you can’t talk and drink at the same time.

Click on Why Loud Music In Bars Increases Alcohol Consumption for more about this theory.

My evolving position on gay rights

May 15, 2012

When I was younger, I didn’t know any gay people, or, to put it more accurately, I wasn’t aware of knowing any gay people.  So in those days, I had no reality check to correct my prejudices.  I thought of gay people as unfortunates who had something wrong with them for which they shouldn’t be blamed, any more than you would blame somebody for being diabetic or colorblind.  I didn’t care for what I read about the flamboyant, promiscuous gay male culture, but I thought that people had a right to live the way they wish so long as they kept away from me.  In truth, I hardly ever thought about such things at all.

If I had thought about it, I probably would have said that although homosexuals should not be persecuted for something they couldn’t help, they should not be Scoutmasters, grade school teachers or anything else in which they would be role models for the young.

All of this could come under the heading of an honest mistake in thinking.  What I am deeply ashamed of to this day are the times I joined in making bigoted jokes and snide remarks about gay people.  This probably was partly because I have never been tough or macho and I subconsciously wanted to differential myself from a group of people that were outside the pale.  But it was worse than that.  I was generating a false sense of self-esteem by expressing contempt for a group of people outside my group–the same motive that leads people to tell racist jokes.  This was pure malice.

I think the worst thing you can do is to try to build yourself up by downgrading somebody else.  And I was guilty of it myself.

My thinking changed as a result of (1) being a Unitarian Universalist and (2) living in Rochester. N.Y.   The UUA and the Rochester community were not always liberal about such matters, or anything else.  They changed in the same way that American society as a whole is changing, but a little bit ahead of the curve.   The city of Rochester elected one of the first, maybe the first, openly gay city councilman.  He was Tim Mains, a high school guidance counselor.   I met him once and found he had the same values I did.   We had a nice conversation about how kids these days aren’t like we were when we were young.

Some time in the 1990s I reconnected with a former girl friend, then living in Santa Fe, N.M.   I went down to visit her, and she showed me the city.   At the end she told me that she had been reviewing her life, and decided that she was a lesbian.   A few years later I flew down to Santa Fe to attend her commitment ceremony with her partner.   I never saw two human beings look at each other with such love as these two middle-aged, outwardly ungainly women.

What reason other than prejudice could have caused me to question the value of a loving relationship between two adults?  Gay men are condemned for supposedly being more promiscuous on average than than men in relationships with women.   If that is true, then it would be a good thing, not a bad thing, for gay men to be recognized by society when they enter into committed relationships.

It still doesn’t sit well with me to use the same word “marriage,” the relationship between my mother and father, to the commitment of two men to live together.  But that is prejudice, not reason.  I do in fact know male couples and female couples who love each other as deeply as my mother and father did.   I know a couple of gay men with an adopted daughter who are as good parents as anybody could be.

There are a lot of people in the United States who think as I used to think.  If I could change, so can they–or their children.

New links: Quotations, Waco

April 14, 2012

I’ve made some additions to my links menu.

Under Pages, I’ve restored my Favorite Quotations, which I once took down because it didn’t seem to get many views.  But a friend of mine said she missed it, so I put it back up.   There is a basic list of quotations in alphabetical order by source, and then new additions to the list at the top with the newest added first.

I’ve put up a new category, Important Documentaries, in which I have restored the link to Waco: the Rules of Engagement, about the tragic killing of members of the Branch Davidian cult near Waco, Texas, by federal agents in 1993.  I had taken down the link because it didn’t seem to get any views, understandably because it is two hours long.  But I put it back up because it is the best documentary motion picture I have ever seen, and because of the importance of the subject.  It shows that Americans killed by their own government basically for being unacceptably weird.  If the U.S. government was not waging a “war on terror,” it might be waging a war on cults or a war on militias.

The other link under Important Documentaries is a four-part BBC documentary, The Century of the Self, on how psychological knowledge has been used to manipulate society.  It, too, might be longer than many people would want to watch on a computer screen, but the producer, Adam Curtis, found a lot of interesting stuff I’ve never seen anywhere else, and connects disparate facts in a way I’ve never seen anybody else do.

I continue to update my Articles menu.  The three top items are new this week.

My morning energy drink

April 7, 2012

When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is to heat an oversize mug of skim milk in my microwave oven.  Then I put in a spoonful of Ovaltine and a spoonful of instant coffee.  The spoonful can be either a level teaspoonful or a heaping tablespoonful, depending on my mood.  The delicious mixture makes me energized to face the day.

Recently I shared my recipe with some friends of mine, who liked it a lot.  I would be pleased to think others might like it, too.  If not, no harm has been done.

It is not food.   Instant coffee is of course not food.  The main ingredient of Ovaltine is sugar.  Skim milk is barely food.  It is like a no-fat Starbucks drink.  But I do not make the mistake of regarding it as a substitute for food, as some of my acquaintances do with Starbucks-type concoctions.  After I dress and wash up, I eat a bowl of Total and skim milk, or sometimes oatmeal and skim milk.

Formerly my morning drink was a mug of hot water, with spoonfuls of instant cocoa and instant coffee.   In my working days, I would sometimes feel exhausted but have more work to do.   I would drink the cocoa-coffee mixture, take a short nap or doze off, and wake up feeling like a new man.   Years later I started drinking a cup of warm Ovaltine and milk – the stereotypical old-guy drink – when I had trouble getting to sleep.   Now a spoonful of instant coffee turns my bedtime drink into my wake-up drink.

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My thoughts on the nature of evil

April 6, 2012

My definition of a good person is someone who understands what is right, and usually does the right thing.

My definition of a bad person is someone whose understanding of what is right is overridden by some more powerful motive – pride, anger, fear, laziness, self-interest or appetites of different kinds.

My definition of an evil person is someone who is actively hostile to the good.   Such people exist, although they are unusual.  I know they exist because I have met some of them, and I recognize the evil in myself.

When I meet someone who is manifestly superior to me in any way, I feel judged.  I feel the lack in myself of whatever quality I admire–achievement, courage, compassion, professionalism in work, whatever it is.  One healthy way to respond to this is to try to emulate the good qualities I admire.  Another is to refrain from making comparisons.

But I feel the temptation to try to tear down the admired person, at least in my mind.   I think of all the reasons they might not deserve credit for being what they are, and all the excuses I might have for not meeting their standard myself.  I can imagine myself trying to tear them down in reality.  That would be evil.  The evil person is committed to the belief that there is no such thing as good, and that the good person needs to be taught a lesson–to be shown that their goodness does not coincide with the way the world is.

During my life, the people for whom I feel the most resentment are not people who are rich and powerful.   They are peers whose achievements are greater than my own.   I have learned to abort these feelings.  If I did not, I would be miserable, and I would make those around me miserable.   When I know someone whose achievements make me jealous, I make a point of going to that person and congratulating them on their accomplishment.   When I do that, I feel as if all the poisonous feelings are draining out of my mind, as if there was a boil that had been lanced with a red-hot needle.

I like egotists–that is, the kind of egotists who think well of themselves without having to think badly of other people.  It is a great mistake to based your self-respect on lookind down on other people.  This is especially true when you look down on other people because of their race, religion, nationality, social class, sexual orientation or political perspective, because your sense of superiority requires no effort on your part.   But it is a a mistake in any case.   No matter who you are, you can always find someone to look down on, just as you can always find someone who by whatever measure is better than you.  I have always found it a mistake to judge myself by comparing myself with others.   I have resolved to never let my sense of self-respect depend on things that are outside my control.

Imaginary evil is glamorous.  That’s why Nazism has such an enduring fascination.   Sauron, the Dark Lord in The Lord of the Rings epic, is a glamorous figure.   But in the story, giving yourself up to the Ring of Power will eventually turn you into a Gollum, someone whose personality has been reduced to a bundle of appetites.   That’s a good metaphor for how things are in reality.   Real evil is not glamorous.  It is petty and trivial.

Additions to my Links menus

March 25, 2012

If you find my posts of interests, I think you will find the items on my links menus of even greater interest, especially the Articles of Interest and the Articles of Lasting Interest.  I add to Articles of Interest roughly once a week.

I have added two new menus, Essays by Paul Graham and More Links and Pages.  Paul Graham is a computer programmer, venture capitalist and essayist who lives in the Boston area.  Many of his essays are of interest mainly to information technology specialists or business managers, but others, particularly the ones to which I have linked, are of great interest.  More Blogs and Links is a kind of P.S. to the menus about it.

I list some of my old posts which I think are still of interest under Notable Posts.  The posts and pages which get the most views in the current day and the day before are listed under Popular Posts and Pages.

The war on empathy

February 3, 2012

This is from Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly’s column in the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle.

Today, I am a rich guy, a one-percenter. … … My late father could not even fathom how much money I make.  I have trouble processing that as well. … …

Bill O'Reilly

Today, the Occupy Wall Street crew and many progressive Americans believe that I am a greedhead, even though they have no idea what I do with my money.  Just the fact that I have it gives them license to brand me as a dreadful “one-percenter.”

The reason that I have prospered monetarily is that I put freedom to good use.  I worked hard, got a great education, paid my dues in journalism, and finally hit it big.  America gave me the freedom to do all those things.  In the past, my achievements might have been celebrated.  Not today.  Now, more than a few folks say I am not paying my fair share to ensure the security of my fellow citizens. … …

… …  I’ve decided that those demanding more of my money for “social justice” are really attacking freedom.  In this country, it is not wrong to prosper.  You should not be demeaned for “having.”

via Bill’s Column.

What I get from this column is a lack of empathy for people who’ve been less successful than Bill O’Reilly, and a fierce anger at anybody who thinks he should feel such empathy.  I think Bill O’Reilly speaks for many Americans, and not just those in the top 1 percent income bracket.   Opposition to empathy is widespread.

The big objection to Justice Sonia Sotomayor during her confirmation hearings was that she said she could identify with people who were victims of racial or sexual discrimination.  During the current Republican presidential debates, the crowd cheered Ron Paul when he said that if somebody could have afforded to buy health insurance and didn’t, he would be willing to let that person die for inability to pay medical bills.  Other crowds cheered executions.  The common feeling, in my opinion, is a push back on claims for sympathy for people in bad situations.

I can sort of understand this, in a way and up to a point.  I don’t like freeloaders.  I don’t like guilt salesmen.  I object when the Haves try to help the Have-nots at the expense of the Have-a-littles, as in the Boston school busing controversy of the 1970s.

But neither do I think of myself as an individual, separate unto myself, whose well-being is due solely to my own merits and not at all to good fortune or to the help of other people.  It is not a question of altruism.  It is not a question of me sacrificing myself for the good of others.  Rather it is that my well-being being is tied up with people around me.

I can’t have a secure retirement income unless everybody has a secure retirement income.  I can’t have snowplows clear my street unless everybody has snowplowing service.  I can’t hope for a good future for my little grand-nieces without hoping for a good future for everybody’s grand-nieces.

Now this would be less true if I were in the upper 1 percent income bracket, but it would still be partly true.  I read an article in the Democrat and Chronicle some time ago about how the wealthiest people in the Rochester area objected to paying for a public water supply.  They reasoned that they had clean water, and saw no reason to subsidize clean water for the masses.  It was pointed out, however, that an unsafe drinking supply helps the spread of infectious diseases, which are no respecter of economic class.

I don’t want to give up what I have—food, shelter, good medical care and leisure to enjoy life—but I wish everybody else had at least as much as I have.  I couldn’t lead a happy life if everybody around me was miserable.

I know, however, that there are those who feel the exact opposite.  For them, having things that other people don’t have is precisely the point.  I’ve seen this attitude expressed on T-shirts.  Winning is not enough.  Others must lose.  The joy of owning stuff, for such people, is that others envy them for having it.  I don’t know what to say to such people, except that to say they have no standing to complain about “the politics of envy.”  Or to suggest that if they lack the ability to imagine themselves in somebody else’s place, they lack a basic tool for understanding the world and are likely to be blindsided by reality.

Click on The One Percent Blues for the complete Bill O’Reilly column.

Click on The Empathy Gap for series of columns on the subject by a Psychology Today writer.  [Added 2/4/12]

Click on Empathy and Compassion for a web site devoted to the subject [Added 2/4/12]

Thomas Riggins’ blog

January 31, 2012

I’m pleased to learn that my friend Thomas Riggins has started a web log.

Click on The First Casualty of War to read an excellent post about the increasing number of incidents in which the troops of the U.S.-backed Afghan government shoot at American and NATO troops.

His web log is in my links menu at the right under “Links to friends.”  Blogs I Like [5/28/14].

On the Internet, nobody knows…

January 25, 2012

This is the second anniversary of this web log.  I owe it to my friend David Damico, who made me aware that web hosting services such as WordPress are free, and that no technical knowledge is needed to start a web log.  If I had realized that earlier, I would have started a web log years ago.

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Kodak and the Rochester mentality

January 21, 2012

Rich Karlgaard of Forbes wote in the Wall Street Journal that Eastman Kodak Co. might not have failed if it hadn’t happened to be located here in Rochester, N.Y.

He said Kodak needed to be in a place where “success is the norm and innovation is built into the ecology.”  And he said Kodak CEOs did not make the bold and drastic decisions that were necessary because of excessive concern for the welfare of their employees and the community.

I heard stuff like this a lot when I was reporting on Kodak for the Democrat and Chronicle in the 1980s.  When Kodak started to falter, Wall Street analysts called for layoffs – the bigger, the better, in their view – and they complained about Kodak’s generous employee benefits and separation packages, which took money they thought rightfully belonged the stockholders.

It is true that Kodak’s operations were much more concentrated in a single city than almost every other major manufacturing employees.  I no longer have the figures on hand, but my recollection is that 40 percent of Kodak’s employees worked in the Rochester area.  Kodak accounted for one out of every eight jobs in the Rochester area, and one out of every three manufacturing jobs.  All of Kodak’s CEOs, from the death of George Eastman in 1932 to the hiring of George Fisher from Motorola in 1993, were promoted through the ranks and spent most of their careers in Rochester.  Kodak and Rochester were very much identified with each other.

During the 1980s, Kodak management was well aware, as Karlgaard noted, that the days of film photography were noted.  CEO Colby H. Chandler tried to incubate new enterprises within the corporate framework, but fostering start-ups within the framework of a larger corporation proved hard to do.  The new enterprises were neither self-reliant nor free of corporate independence.

Perhaps – who can say? – it would have been better for Kodak to launch its digital imaging business in a new location as a separate corporation, far from Rochester corporate headquarters.  Another Rochester-based company, Xerox Corp., did just that, and it didn’t work out.

In a deliberate effort to escape the Rochester mentality.  Xerox relocated its headquarters to Stamford, Conn., and its research laboratories to Palo Alto, Calif., so as not to be limited by the mentality of any one place.  Douglas K. Smith and Robert C. Alexander in their book, Fumbling the Future, wrote that scientists at Palo Alto Research Laboratories in effect invented the personal computer, but Xerox never capitalized on their invention.  Perhaps — who can say? —  if Xerox factories, research laboratories and headquarters had all been in the same place, the divisions of Xerox might have been able to work together to turn research innovations into marketable products.

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Coming of age in the Fifties

January 11, 2012

It is the nature of us older people to see the days of their childhood and youth as better than the present.  But I really think that the days of my youth, the late 1940s and the 1950s, really were better in a lot of ways.   I’m glad I’m not a child today or a parent.

I grew up in Williamsport, Md., a small town along the Potomac River, with a freedom that seems utopian today.  During summer vacations, our parents would tell us boys to go out and play, and be back by mealtime.  We would go roaming anywhere in town.  We would go by bus to Hagerstown, the county seat six miles away, and go the swimming pool.  We would go hiking along the abandoned Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and be in woodland five minutes out of town.  I was not a Tom Sawyer, I was a bookworm, but I spent more time in the woods doing things than any of the children of people I know today.

We had Boy Scouts and Vacation Bible School, but in general adults didn’t have to structure things for us to do.  We organized our own games.   We were devoted to movies and radio, but we could role-play as cowboys and Indians without needing a video game to script our imaginations.

We were dimly aware of juvenile delinquency and drug addiction, but it was something to read about in newspapers or see in the movies, not part of our everyday reality.  A juvenile delinquent was a guy who work a black leather jacket, combed his hair like Elvis Presley and carried a switchblade knife, not an automatic weapon.  Of course there were people in our town who did bad things, as happens everywhere and in all eras, but these were not things we felt as a day-to-day threat.

We were free because we felt safe, and we were safe because there was no anonymity.  I had the illusion that I knew everybody in town.  That wasn’t possible, of course; I didn’t know 2,000 people.  But if we hurt ourselves, if we endangered ourselves, if we seriously misbehaved, somebody would very quickly get back to our parents.

Authority figures – parents, teachers, the churches, radio and the movies, the town policeman – espoused the same values and backed each other up.  There was no conflict between parents and schools, and no struggle to resist the negative influence of the mass media such as exists today.   I faithfully listened to the Tom Mix radio program and belonged to the Tom Mix Ralston Straight-Shooters.  Tom , whose hero was such a quick draw and expert marksman that he never killed anybody – just “creased their skulls” with a bullet.

We did not worry about our economic futures.  We were justifiably confident that any able-bodied adult who was willing to work could find some kind of job and that a high school diploma was a guarantee of access to a good job.  Anybody who was capable of doing college work could get a good education at a state university at affordable tuition.

On the other hand, the Fifties were not a great time to be a person of color, a woman or a gay person.  Racial and religious prejudice were socially acceptable.  People who were not middle-class white boys might not remember the era so fondly.  I was taught by my parents, teachers and Sunday school teachers that all human beings had equal value in the sight of God, regardless of race or religious heritage.  But I had attitudes about the place of women in society that I am embarrassed to remember today.   And the rights of homosexuals, as we called them then, were something that it simply never occurred to me to think about.

It was taken for granted that, in practice, the only people eligible to be elected President were Northern white Protestant men.  I remember talking to school classmates in 1952 about whether it was proper to vote for a divorced man (Adlai Stevenson) or a military man (Dwight Eisenhower).

Teachers were grossly underpaid by today’s standards.  During the summer, I would encounter some of my high school teachers working as house painters or camp counselors.  There was no health insurance beyond the dedication and self-sacrifice of Dr. Zimmerman, the town physician.

In my college years, the mid-1950s, there was a lot of talk about conformity.  We were the “Silent Generation.”  All the great struggles, so it seemed, were in the past.  This was the opposite side of the safety and stability we enjoyed in that era.   The great criticism of corporations in those days was that they wrapped employees in a cocoon of security and conformity.   But the Organization Man did not live in fear of becoming permanently unemployed and unemployable.  When we spoke of poverty and unemployment, we spoke of an “other America” which was left behind, not “the 99 percent.”

We had Jim Crow in the South and de facto segregation in the North.  We had the Korean Conflict, we had McCarthyism, we had the threats of Communism and of nuclear war.   But I and everybody I knew looked forward to a future in which things would be better.  We Americans as a nation thought of our greatest days as ahead of us, not behind us.

Was that era really better?  Or is it that I, like most people, think the days of my youth are better than the days of my old age?

Six notable people to invite for dinner

January 10, 2012

An on-line poll asked viewers to name six notable historical figures whom they’d invite dinner.  One of the responders was Newt Gingrich.  He listed Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Winston Churchill and John Ford.

The composite consensus of top invitees, as I posted this,  consisted of Jesus of Nazareth, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Jackson.

As for myself, I in a way already have notable people as guests.  They are guests in my head.  That is to say, I have imaginary conservations with people whom I’ve read or heard about, but never met.  I do not of course mistake them for real people, but I can’t always predict their responses, and I sometimes change my opinion as a result of these conversations.

I have imaginary conversations with George Orwell, Henry Thoreau and Ayn Rand, but I probably wouldn’t invite them.  I don’t think they’d be the life of the party.  But I think I’d have a good time talking to Bertrand Russell, Michel de Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, G.K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells and maybe Richard Feynman or William James.

Or maybe I should invite Socrates, Moses, Jesus of Nazareth, Mohammad, the Buddha, and Confucius and, if I am not too awestruck to open my mouth, ask them what they think of their professed followers.

What notable people would you like to have dinner with?

Click on Who are the six notable people you’d like to have dinner with? for the current version of the on-line poll.

Click on Dinner With Newt? A TIC Colloquium for thoughts about Newt Gingrich’s choices.  Stephen Masty, writing for the Imaginative Conservative, said it would be enlightening to ask all the Presidential candidates for their favorite imaginary dinner guests, more enlightening than the current debates, anyhow.  But the candidates would have to submit to lie detector tests to guarantee honest answers.

Of course the great thing about living in an age like this, when books are easily obtainable from stores, public libraries and the Internet is that you don’t have to meet great people in the flesh in order to interact with them.

Stimulus without nourishment

January 9, 2012

What little I know about Starbucks leads me to believe that its managers are ethical people who treat their employees well and provide a good product.  But I avoided Starbucks coffee because I don’t want to acquire an expensive new habit.

The other day at lunchtime, I went with a friend of mine to a Starbucks, and my friend bought me a grande java-chip frappuccino, which was something like a heavily caffeinated vanilla milkshake.  It was delicious!  I was surprised by how energized I felt.  The feeling lasted all afternoon.  I didn’t eat lunch.  I saw why people like Starbucks’ concoctions so much.

That evening my energy ran out.  I felt more tired than I usually do, and I slept later the following morning that I usually do.  I realized that I needed to eat real food for lunch, and that the Starbucks frappuccino was not food, but a food substitute.  The frappuccino gave me stimulus without nourishment, energy without strength.  If I had done this on a regular basis, I would have had the energy to keep going through the day, but in the long run I would have depleted my strength.

Stimulation and pleasure are good things, not bad things.  But they are no substitutes for nourishment.  When I worked on newspapers, I needed a cup of coffee and maybe a sugared pastry each morning and afternoon to work at peak efficiency, but I didn’t skip lunch.  The caffeine and sugar gave me the energy to stay alert, but I needed actual food for health and strength.  Now that I am retired, I usually (not always) limit myself to a single cup of coffee in the morning.

I thought about the other things in life that give stimulus without nourishment.   Watching the circus-like presidential candidates’ debates on TV is stimulating, but it doesn’t make me a better-informed voter.  I need to read intelligent newspaper and magazine articles to do that.

I stay away from role-playing computer games precisely because I fear I might find them so engrossing I would give up things which I care about.  If I am alive 10 years from now, I don’t think I will regret never having played World of Warcraft, but I would regret not having read some of the great classic novels I intend to read when I get around to it.  That’s one definition of a good life–doing things you can look back on with justified satisfaction.

On a societal level, we Americans talk about economic stimulus when what we really need is to rebuild our nation’s economic strength.  The two things are not the same.  Congress seems more resistant to doing things of lasting value, such as infrastructure improvement and investing in green energy, than to things that will give a temporary boost, such as “cash for clunkers” or temporarily cutting the payroll tax.  The latter will not sustain us in the long run.

Do you agree with this distinction?  What other things give stimulus without nourishment?

Christian in the Washington County sense

January 8, 2012

When I was growing up in Washington County, Md., in the 1940s and 1950s, if you spoke of someone as a “real philosopher,” you did not mean somebody who deeply understood Plato or Bertrand Russell.  You meant somebody who kept their mental balance in good fortune and bad, who didn’t allow their self-respect to be affected by things they did not control.

And if you spoke of someone as a “real Christian,” you did not mean somebody with a lot of animosity toward atheists or feminists or some other group of people.  You mean somebody who was especially patient, modest, peaceable and concerned about other people.

With the conflicts we Americans have over abortion rights, gay rights and the relation of religion to government, you might think that the real Christians in the Washington County sense had been pushed into the background.  I don’t think this is the case.  I think there are just as many as there always were.

I think that the majority of evangelical Christians, liberal Christians and us crazy Unitarian Universalists are more alike than we are different.  Our congregations all try to minister to the needy and troubled in our own congregations, and to do good in the world – most of them without doing anything special to call attention to themselves.  I continually find out good things that congregations here in Rochester, N.Y., are doing, as Jesus recommended, without calling attention to themselves.

Some years ago I was a volunteer driver for Catholic Family Services’ refugee resettlement program in Rochester, N.Y.   Our team leader was a Lutheran, and the other members were a Catholic and a born-again evangelical Protestant full of amazing stories about how people’s lives had been turned around by instant conversions.  The refugees we helped included Christians and Muslims, from Somalia, Afghanistan, Liberia, Bosnia and other countries.  We didn’t make any distinctions, and neither did they.  The refugees had learned through that somebody who pays lip service to the same religion as you do is not necessarily your friend, and somebody who pays lip service to a different religion is not necessarily your enemy.

More recently the churches in Rochester started a program to provide, in rotation, temporary shelter for homeless families while the adults sought jobs and more permanent quarters.  My church, First Universalist Church, is paired with St. Mary’s Catholic Church in this project.  Our theological beliefs are at opposite extremes, but we work together just fine.

In Rochester there is an annual union Thanksgiving service in which Christians, Jews, UUs and Muslims all participate.   These religions don’t all teach the same thing.  I don’t want to make light of the distinctive teachings of the different religions, or to claim that it doesn’t matter who (if anybody)  is right.  But I believe that beyond all our differences and beneath all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one.

The value of a liberal arts education

November 14, 2011

When I went to college in the 1950s, there was a debate as to whether it was better to major in the humanities, the sciences or the social sciences.  The current issue of the New York Review of Books says that nowadays all three are lumped together under the heading of “liberal arts,” and are losing ground to majors such as business or communications aimed at preparing students to work in specific fields..

A Princeton professor named Anthony Grafton reported on a test administered by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which requires students to read a set of fictional documents about a business or political problem and write a memo advising how to respond to it.  Students majoring in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics outperformed students in growing majors such as business and communications.

He didn’t say why, but I can guess.  Business and communications majors at liberal arts colleges can be just watered-down liberal arts programs—a way to keep the liberal arts alive in new packaging.  But if the students don’t really care about science and the arts, but only want to get the degree as a credential, they’re not going to learn as much.  Business and technical schools can offer excellent training for occupations, which is what students want, but that training may not offer much spillover into other fields.

I decided sometime in my sophomore year in college that I wanted to work on newspapers, but I majored in American history, not in journalism.   I thought I could pick up the nuts and bolts of newspapering on the job, while the opportunity to study history under distinguished historians was an opportunity I should not let slip away.  I have never regretted my choice.

The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein said that an educated person has sound knowledge of three things — history, mathematics and foreign languages — because they provide the basis for mastery of everything else.

By Heinlein’s standard, I am one-third educated.  I have a reasonably good knowledge of American, European and world history, but I am woefully deficient in mathematics and know no foreign or ancient languages.  I neglected math and languages in college because they were hard; I took courses I liked and was interested in.  If I had my life to live over, I would make better use of my college years.

Click on Our Universities: Why Are They Failing? for the full article.