November 12, 2013
Just a few days ago I was in the Missouri S&T Physics building looking at fliers on the walls. The U.S. Department of Defense offers these spectacular scholarship programs for the best scientists and engineers which will pay you a $30,000-$40,000 a stipend per year, all room and board covered, plus all tuition costs paid. The catch? You have to work for them the same number of years they support you.
It got me thinking about how expensive college is. Most students have to bury themselves in $100,000 in debt to get a degree which might not even find them a job afterwards. But, if you’re willing to create weapons of war, you can sell your soul to the devil and graduate with loads of money in the bank, debt free. That is, if you’re willing to build machines which do this to people.
That’s a young boy in London, 1945. His parents were probably blown up and he found himself wandering the streets of rubble, holding onto a stuffed animal, trying to stay warm. Somebody built those bomber planes used by the Nazis. Chemists, physicists, and engineers designed the bombs. Why build things like that?
November 10, 2013
Earlier today I went out to dinner with family to celebrate my aunt’s birthday. We all went to a restaurant that’s about an hour-long drive away. On the ride back to town I was talking with my mother about emotion in music. She finds Chinese meditation music very peaceful and has always been amazed how music has emotion embedded within it. As you listen to it, it can change your own emotional state. I’ve experienced this many times, but it only happens with certain songs and melodies. Not everything evokes strong emotion from me, but I want to share some things that do.
This first song is by The Maine – I Must Be Dreaming. The lyrics and melody both remind me of a girl I liked in high school. It’s almost like it takes me back to that time. It’s innocent teenage love, a feeling you had toward your first big crush or girlfriend. A very warm and fuzzy song. I just sort of smile and say, “That was nice.”
A lot of music revolves love and passion. This next song’s lyrics are about a man who misses a woman who’s broken contact with him due to unrequited love, but I think the emotion within the song’s melody is more generally about missing a dear friend or loved one. Longing. I could easily see the lyrics rewritten around a mother lamenting her lost son, asking him to come home. I find it really moving.
I’ve always loved this next song. Anyone who’s ever broken off the main path and attempted something of their own knows what this song is about. Life is a difficult place and things don’t always work out the way you want them to. Many of us (myself included), have spent time on projects and other endeavors which never amounted to much. You can learn a lot from failure, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy process, especially if you worked really hard on something, yet, everything fails in the end. You get the Highway 40 Blues.
Well, these Highway Forty blues,
I’ve walked holes in both my shoes.
Counted the days since I’ve been gone,
And I’d love to see the lights of home.
Wasted time and money too;
Squandered youth in search of truth.
But in the end I had to lose,
Lord above, I’ve paid my dues.
Got the Highway Forty blues.
The highway called when I was young,
Told me lies of things to come.
Fame and fortune lies ahead!
That’s what the billboard lights had said.
Shattered dreams, my mind is numb,
My money’s gone, stick out my thumb.
My eyes are filled with bitter tears,
Lord, I ain’t been home in years.
Got the Highway Forty blues.
The song seems to be specifically geared toward musicians. We live in a world where the lights and billboards tell us about success and the American Dream. Television is full of stars and celebrities showing off their big homes and wealth. We hear their success stories, and how they had to stick to it. I heard Michael Bolton had to keep singing for nearly twenty years before ever had any real success. In the meantime, they struggled in poverty.
What they don’t mention is that any success at all is rare. Many of my family members are musicians and they’ve pursued their dreams of making a living as music artists. They slowly acquire music equipment, even record their own cds. They go out and play gig after gig, but nothing really comes of it. For a long time, they believe fame and fortune lies ahead, but in the end they had to lose. Now their mind is numb, they’re sticking out their thumb, eyes filled with bitter tears.
This next song is by Chet Atkins – I Still Can’t Say Goodbye. The emotion comes primarily from the lyrics. I’ve had tears roll down my face listening to this song. It embodies a man’s love for his father and grandfather, if he had a loving family. All of the lyrics remind me of my Dad and grandpa. It starts off, “When I was young, my Dad would say, come on son let’s go out and play. Sometimes it seems like yesterday.” I remember my father grabbing my football and he’d get on our back deck and throw me long bombs way off into the back yard. The deck was high off the ground and I was probably fifty yards away. He’d throw them as high as he could in the air and and I’d run after them, like punt returns. Then I’d throw the ball back up to him and we’d do it again and again.
Other times I remember my grandfather coming over when I was a kid. He worked at the power plant and always seemed to have a different hat on his head. He’d take them off, adjust the strap in the back and say, “Hey Jay-man”, and put them on my head. Always smiling.
“He always took care of Mom and me … We all all cut down a Christmas tree. He always had some time for me.” Dad always looked out for all of us. The song’s about your father dying, and you looking back. I admire art like this. It’s simple yet brings out strong emotion. It also reminds you what’s important.
A lot of video games have powerful soundtracks. I’ve loved the Final Fantasy video game series since I was a young kid, though I haven’t been a huge fan of the FF-XIII games. This next song, ironically, is from FF-XIII. I’m not sure what word to put on this feeling, as it’s not a simple emotion. I’ve noticed a lot of people don’t feel the emotion in this next song. I’ve actually had discussions with people about this track in particular and they don’t feel anything at all. It has no lyrics, so all of the emotion is in the melody.
Maybe they lack experiences in their life which would allow them to understand or feel this emotion? I can try to describe the sorts of situations in which it would arise. Imagine returning to a place from your childhood, a place where you have really fond memories, but everything’s run down. It could happen while visiting a parent’s grave after they’ve been dead and gone a long time. Or imagine seeing something precious to you completely destroyed, yet there’s nothing you could’ve done to stop it. I think the event has to be “distant” in time for this emotion to happen.
This particular track deeply resonates with experiences I’ve had. Notice how it drags just like sadness, yet the background vocals are very beautiful and powerful. It’s lonely but not weak. It’s not warm. It’s cold and austere. It’s not despair. It’s more of a pressing through adversity in a really dark time.
If you need contrast, this last song is one a deep despair. It was sent to me by a younger woman I met many years ago when she was really depressed. I’ve never experienced despair of this level. I don’t think I’m able to relate to this level of depression and I can’t understand all of the lyrics. It’s obvious it’s about suffering and pain, but take this section of the song.
And you don’t seem the lying kind
A shame then I can read your mind
And all the things that I read there
Candle lit smile that we both share
and you know I don’t mean to hurt you
But you know that it means so much
And you don’t even feel a thing
All I can come up with is it’s about some form of rejection. Two people get together and one person is far more emotionally involved than the other. I’m not sure.
All of the other music I’ve shared resonates with me in some way, or brings out emotions I’ve personally experienced. This is too dark. I hear it and imagine myself in a dark, dirty room, and glass shards slowly cut my hands and blood rolls down my arms. It’s too dark. It’s lonely, confusing, and really bleak. It comes from a soundtrack to a really strange Japanese anime called Serial Experiments Lain. I watched the whole series out of curiosity. Very bizarre. It’s about some young girl who turns out to be a strange god in her own created cyber-universe, but she slowly comes to realize it.
November 7, 2013
Should those who commit adultery be stoned to death? Should women be isolated from any role in society? Should all gays be executed? You should watch this video.
At a recent Islamic conference in Norway, thousands were asked these questions. If they agreed, they were to raise their hands. Nearly everyone there did. Then the speaker asks the crowd, “How can they say we’re radical when all of us think these things?”
If you’re going to murder people over their sex lives, and tell half of the human race that they have no role in society other than to be their husbands’ personal servants, we’re going to have problems. Women have rights and can vote in democratic societies. They have just as much say as anybody else. We don’t live that way anymore.
And stoning? Let me see if I’m getting this straight. When I think of stoning, I imagine a mob of angry men dragging a poor woman out into the middle of the street. Everyone’s screaming at her, “Whore! Whore! Repent!” Then she’s pelted with rocks until she dies, lying there in a pool of her own blood. We’ve quit doing those sorts of things a long time ago. The death penalty has almost been completely abolished in the civilized world, much less torture and stoning.
And gays? A lot of us also have friends who are gay. You think we’re going to let you murder them because of your religious ideas? You going to round them up into a pen and stone them too?
Ironically this discussion took place at a peace conference.
November 7, 2013
Growing up, I was always an athlete, playing basketball, hockey, and running track. I never had to worry about staying in shape or eating right, considering I was so active. But things changed as I got older. My life became more and more sedentary, mostly from having to do software projects to earn money. I found myself spending more and more time on the computer, and less and less time being active.
I can remember turning 28, looking in the mirror one day before taking a shower, and I saw the beginnings of a pudgy belly. I wasn’t fat by any means, but I’ve always had a chiseled physique, and I didn’t like what I saw. I stared into the mirror and said to myself, “This is it. This is how it starts.” Most people accept that as a fact, and many give in to all kinds of rationalizations. Love yourself as you are, and all that sort of thing. I knew what I had to do – I had to change.
I figured I needed to lose roughly eight to ten pounds to get back to my athletic build, so I began cutting portion sizes in all my meals. Did I see any results? Nope. Nothing. I didn’t lose any weight. I may have slowed down the weight gain process, but it seemed to have little to no effect.
I then ate even less. Then less. Eventually I cut my intake to 1/3 of what I had been eating, and everything was healthy. Oatmeal, salads, and that sort of thing. Still nothing. I wasn’t losing any weight, at all.
I then started walking every day. First it was for thirty minutes each day. I remember feeling better, but I still wasn’t losing any weight. I then increased my walking to an hour. I was eating super healthy AND walking an hour each day yet still wasn’t losing weight. At that point I was pretty upset. I mean, geez, what do you have to do to lose weight? It was insane.
Out of sheer curiosity, just to see what it took to lose weight, I practically starved myself for two weeks. I only ate small salads for each meal, and I was sooooo hungry. I was suffering from nasty headaches, mainly from low blood sugar, and I was walking for over an hour each day. I was weak, tired, hungry, and completely miserable. Then, finally, I lost like two to three pounds in two weeks. Just imagine suffering migraines and starvation for two weeks, all just to lose two pounds.
I seriously thought I may die if I continued on that path. It was nuts. I realized why people gain so much weight and are never able to lose it. You look at restaurants (especially fast food), or even most of the stuff in grocery stores, and it’s all unhealthy. It doesn’t take many McDonalds value meals, cookies, or bowls of ice cream before you’re packing on the pounds. It’s so easy to do.
I was discouraged and angry. I went back to eating healthy, but not starving myself. And, once again, I didn’t lose any weight. I needed to lose six or seven more pounds, but I had no idea how. Then over the course of a year or so, I gained the two pounds back. It was hard to tell though. That pudge was not going to go away without a fight.
All of this led me to start researching how many calories different activities burned. Walking for an hour, at my weight, will burn like 200 calories, roughly. Then I was reading online and saw that those elliptical machines in the gyms can burn 600-700 calories per hour, at my weight. I realized that using that machine was like going for three or four hour long walks in a day. Since I’m a student at Missouri S&T, I just went to the gym one day and tried it out. It wasn’t all that difficult. You do a ski like motion for an hour, and it said I burned 550 calories my first time. I was at a loss for words. It was like I’d gone for three of my normal walks. That’s a lot.
I noticed the elliptical machines each have their own screens, almost like a personal mid-size TV, and they have an iPod hookup. I could watch movies, lectures, or anything I want. I just download it into my iPod and bring it with me. So I took advantage of that.
I put all sorts of interesting things on my iPod and have been absorbed in the material, completely losing track of everything going on around me in the gym. My body goes into auto-pilot, and I don’t even realize that people are coming and going, on and off of the machines near me.
I used to just sit here in my study and watch lectures. I was doing it anyway, now I just do it in the gym. I’m not starving myself. No headaches. No suffering. It’s not even hard. I put the resistance on level 15 and just work out for an hour, or so.
Now for the crazy part. You want to talk about losing weight? I was already eating healthy, and then when I started doing the elliptical machine for an hour, I lost that pudge in two weeks. I was losing about three pounds a week. It was just a huge change for me. Since I use that machine nearly every day, I have to eat more just to counter the calories I’ve been burning off exercising.
I looked in the mirror just the other day and had a six pack again, just like I used to back in high school. It’s nice.
I’m not writing this post to brag about losing weight. I know people struggle with their weight. This really has nothing to do with weight loss. The real message I’m wanting to convey is that life doesn’t care how much you struggle. How hard things are for you. How much work you put into something. None of that matters. I could’ve continued starving myself, eating salads, and suffering headaches for six months and maybe lost ten pounds. That was an option, but I chose to change my approach.
The magic word is change. Some approaches are just better in every way. You get better results with far less effort. That elliptical machine allows you to increase the resistance, so it’s like a special form of walking that burns a ton of calories yet puts no stress on your knees. Engineers designed that thing as the ultimate calorie burning machine. Combined with a heated and air conditioned gym, with access to an iPod dock, TV, and other pleasures, why was I bundling up in my coat and gloves, going for cold walks down the sidewalk outside, only to burn 1/3 to 1/4 the calories?
Isn’t it strange how we so often stay in these ruts which just go in circles, taking us nowhere? People are afraid of change. I was afraid of change. I went to the gym and thought, “I’ve never liked these places.” Then I said to myself, “What? Where is that coming from? Really? I don’t like the gym? And why is that exactly?” Of course the voice in my head, Mr. Recluse, had no real answer. If I have an enemy in this world, it’s Mr. I want to stay at home all the time, away from people.
We all have those inner voices telling us to just stay home, that it won’t work out anyway, what’s the use, and all that sort of thing. You’ve gotten send Mr. Recluse packing. It really is remarkable when you change your approach and all of the sudden the wheels stop spinning and you get traction. After a long time of frustration, you’re finally zooming off at high speed, at a loss for words.
November 1, 2013
The United States national debt is at roughly $17.2 trillion dollars and growing every day. A lot of us are asking how we got in this fiscal mess, and things are getting pretty heated. I’ll try to shed a little light on a very complicated issue.
First, we can address the primary causes for why we’ve been running deficits, and hence, running up our national debt. These are the main reasons given by a 2012 Congressional Budget Office report.
The Bush Tax Cuts (extended by Obama) (~2 trillion)
About 12 years ago, income taxes were cut across the board in pretty much every tax bracket by several percent. Next, capital gains taxes were cut in half, going from 39% to 15%. Capital gains refers to money made from having lots of money. Interest earned from bank accounts, real estate, stocks, bonds, and that sort of thing. This has led to a major loss in revenue, but spending was never cut to compensate.
Wars Overseas (~1.5 trillion)
It seems we’re always at war. There’s a generation growing up today that’s never lived in a time when we weren’t at war. Sad, but true. It’s been a massive economic drain. We’ve spent anywhere from 1.5 to 2 trillion dollars on our conquest of the Middle East, establishing bases all over the place, controlling sea lanes, oil, and other natural resources. It’s expensive.
Increased Defense Spending And Homeland Security (1.5 trillion)
We’ve been spending a lot of money on defense and homeland security. You know all those airport security scanners? Those massive data centers spying on everyone across the globe? How about those drones, stealth airplanes, and those massive aircraft carriers we’ve been building out of fancy composite materials? A giant black hole. We’re building a space shield of drones and missiles under the guise of fighting terrorism. In reality, it’s world conquest and domination.
Interest Payments On Our Debt (1.5-2 trillion)
When you borrow money, you have to pay it back with interest. We’ve borrowed our money from Japan, China, Russia, and other places. We’re taxed and send them interest payments each month. Good for them I guess. Not so much for us.
Varied Economic Stimulus Attempts (1 trillion)
Roughly 1 trillion has went into different economic stimulus programs. The government has tried to jump-start the economy by investing money in all sorts of things.
Subsidized Student Loans (700 billion)
There’s been $700 billion dollars given to students in federally subsidized loans.
Lost Revenues Due To The Economic Recession (4 trillion)
Because the economy hasn’t been great, revenues were down for a while but spending wasn’t decreased to compensate. There’s an important economic relationship which you have to understand. When the economy takes a downward swing, more and more people need assistance (unemployment benefits, etc), so safety net spending increases as revenues fall during a recession.
It’s quite clear that President Obama inherited an economic mess, as did President Bush. There were major recessions during both of their first terms. Less money was spent in stores, leading to less profits for businesses, more layoffs, and less federal revenues. The chart below makes that quite clear.
But there is some good news. Federal spending has leveled off while revenues continue to increase. It’s a nice change of pace, though it’s not enough. We need to increase taxes (get rid of the Bush tax cuts), cut defense spending, end the wars, and continue to reform healthcare and social security. But we have an uphill battle ahead.
Entitlement spending is a huge problem. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid spending is growing far faster than the economy. The CBO is telling us that if these programs continue on their current course, their expenditures will eat up all tax revenues sometime between 2030 and 2040. There won’t be any money for defense, education, the FDA, scientific research, or anything else. It will all go to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
Look at that red bar in the entitlement spending chart. That’s debt interest payments. It balloons out of control, mainly because at that point we have to borrow money to even keep our government functioning. The more money you borrow, the higher the interest rate to further borrow. It’s a downward spiral. That chart is depressing. It’s obvious that our current course is unsustainable, and with an inept Congress stuck in ideological deadlock, do you think they’re going to be able to sort this out?
Our primary problem is the inflation in healthcare costs. We have short-term unemployment problems, and that gives us short-term deficit problems, but our long-term problem is healthcare costs. If we don’t fix that in the coming decades, we’re done. They have to fix healthcare. But, on the bright side, healthcare inflation is the lowest rate it’s been since the 1960s. We’ll have to see how the Affordable Care Act plays out.
Entitlement spending could easily span an entire post, but I need to get going, so hopefully this was at least a little informative.