Monday, November 29, 2010

New blog

Content on this blog will remain unchanged, but please see my new blog, Signal Selection, for updated posts. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Reproduction, altruism, and evolution

Haplodiploid sex determination operates within the hymenopterans, eusocial insect species used as living proof of Hamilton's theory of kin selection as an explanation for the origin of altruism.  But there are other eusocial species where this is not a factor, most notably termites and mole rats.  Why should these animals be apparently altruistic as well?  I can only conclude that haplodiploid sex determination is an incomplete explanation for eusocial kin selection and altruism.  It is hard to explain what a soldier termite gets from suicidal altruism, autothysis - it can only be that this self sacrificing behavior benefits kin selection all the same.  There are less extreme examples of cooperation, such as cooperative breeding - "if we work together, more offspring will survive to reproduce".  The Handicap principle is another explanation for altruism - "I can afford to be impressively wasteful with my resources, therefore I have better genes than most".  The Handicap principle is altruism as a demonstration of fitness, a signal, and not entirely for its own sake as it is with the soldier termite whose altruism is not a signal, or means to an end, but an end in itself!  "I die that the colony may live."  I think that any animal capable of using altruism as a signal can also use altruism for its own sake, but not vice versa, as signals require a certain level of cognitive ability to decode that not all animals possess.

Let's tackle this from another angle and change our perspective - consider the situation from the level of individual cells.  A multicellular organism such as a human is composed of billions of cells that are "born" and die, most of which are non-reproductive.  So we may easily consider eusocial species to operate as a super-organism, as the single organism and the single insect colony are largely similar.  Kin selection operates within my body just as it does clearly in the insect colony.  If an animal cannot physically reproduce, how is it any different from a non-reproductive cell within my body?  Each, colony and human, operates as the basic unit of sexual reproduction.  E.O. Wilson earlier made this same comparison.  Are my body cells therefore altruistic, just like the soldier termite?  I think so.  This analogy allows me to make the following proposition: altruism as an end in itself is something that primarily occurs within the basic unit of sexual reproduction, whereas altruism as a means to another end (as a signal, or handicap) primarily occurs between units of sexual reproduction.  Although some have suggested that humans are eusocial, that society forms a super-organism, we are no where near the borg-like eusocial insects, the hymenopterans and termites.  Our altruism is at least as well explained by the handicap principle as it is by kin selection.  (Besides, if you're helping someone closely related, is it really altruism?)  But more to the point I think kin selection and the handicap principle are capable of operating in parallel due to the different processes they affect.  Kin selection is natural selection, whereas the handicap principle, so far as altruism is concerned, is sexual selection (a special case of natural selection).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sexual Selection

Over this last weekend I read Tor Norretranders' book The Generous Man: how helping others is the sexiest thing you can do. No, it wasn't because I was browsing the sex/self help section of the library. I found a reference to it after searching for more information about Zahavi and altruism online. (Another book about the evolutionary origins of altruism, The Altruism Equation, was not as engaging.) The main point Tor makes is that Darwin developed two ideas concerning the evolution of species: natural selection and sexual selection. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, but later published The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871. The second part of this second work contains 550 pages about sexual selection. (This is something I really should read.) Zahavi's work a hundred years after Darwin's publication of his ideas spurred a re-examination of the field, which has produced an ever-accelerating number of theories.

Tor makes the case that as humans, we owe what makes us truly unique among species to the process of sexual selection, which operates according to Zahavi's Handicap principle; natural selection alone could never account for humanity. The first part of the book seemed to confirm much of what I already knew. Part of the fun was recognizing the names of scientists that I had come across before and seeing them joined together in common cause to elucidate a single idea between the covers of one book. But the last few chapters contained some interesting predictions. Take this one for example: "Computers and robots will have to learn about hau, about generosity, and in the final analysis, about sex." (p293). Definitely thought provoking!

Tor is a Danish author of books about science and its role in society.  The Generous Man was published in 2002 and later translated into English in 2005 after enjoying success in Europe. He writes in an easy to read and engaging style. The book is basically an homage to Zahavi's Handicap principle as it applies to sexual selection and altruism. And that is what makes it GREAT! He applies the concept to ideas that even Zahavi might be reluctant to pair it with, but that is all part of the fun.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Amotz Zahavi

I haven't forgotten the importance of Amotz Zahavi's contribution to our understanding of evolution, which I only mentioned in passing earlier.  Evolutionary concepts are fascinating when one realizes the powerful and wide ranging implications they have.  Take for example Gould's paper "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme" (1979) or Trivers paper "Parent-Offspring Conflict" (1974).  To these add Zahavi's "Mate selection - a selection for a handicap" (1975). 

Amotz Zahavi elaborates this theory even more in his book The Handicap Principle: a missing piece of Darwin's puzzle.  Specifically in chapter 12 "Babblers, competition for prestige, and the evolution of altruism", he demonstrates that when an animal acts altruistically, it handicaps itself - assumes a risk or endures a sacrifice - not primarily to benefit its kin or social group but to increase its own prestige within the group and thus signal its status (and fitness) as a partner or rival.  "Altruistic acts obviously demonstrate - and are perceived as demonstrating - the abilities of those who perform them." (p225) 

What does this say about religion, which may be a handicap itself?  Or Aristotle's virtue of magnanimity, or Guy Laliberté (known for throwing the best parties), or romantic overtures (whose goal is often copulation)?  I think it sheds light on all of them.

It is interesting to note that the two competing theories explaining the origin of altruism are Zahavi's Handicap principle, and W. D. Hamilton's "kin selection" theory.  It appears that Hamilton's theory is more popular among evolutionary biologists, although it is not without problems.  The subject remains unresolved.  Here is a video of Arabian babblers, and a lecture by Zahavi. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

The events of 9/11 forced Ayaan Hirsi Ali to examine her beliefs; in May 2002 she realized that she was atheist (Infidel, chap. 14, Leaving God) and that in practice she had left God years ago.  If one assumes, with Hirsi Ali, that the goals of religion are "to be a better and more generous person", then the motivation toward atheism comes from the realization that the methods of religion are not suited to promoting this worthwhile goal. 

There has been some disagreement on the origins of what has come to be called New Atheism, the greater visibility of atheism in popular culture and the media with notable authors such as Dawkins and Hitchens, that began around 2004.  Richard Norman is quoted by Caspar Melville, of the New Humanist, as saying that the impulse began with 9/11.  Melville's article, which seems to have arisen out of Melville's own inability to discern any positive direction from new atheism, has been criticized by several bloggers.  This point in particular was dissected by Aratina.  After reading Hirsi Ali, I'd like to weigh in as well with an entry of my own. 

Did it begin with 9/11?  Undoubtably 9/11 had a very polarizing effect.  For some authors such as Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris, it was a clarion call to defend reason and a confirmation of their own stance on religion (though many other authors needed no such confirmation at all).  The question can put another way: Without 9/11, would new atheism exist?  I think that it would, because 9/11 is not an isolated example of the negative impact religion has had on society.  If one were to cull all references to 9/11 from the books and other works of the new atheists and their supporters, you would only have removed a very small fraction of the material.  Unfortunately, the grievances against religion are far more numerous than a single event in 2001.  (Is it worth mentioning that the destruction of the twin towers of the world trade center in New York was foreshadowed by the destruction of the twin Buddha statues at Bamiyan?)  Additionally, each of the authors built upon the success and awareness raised by the others.  As the books came out in relatively quick succession they were able to ride the same wave, pushed a little higher by the publication of each book. 

I would miss an important aspect of new atheism if I didn't mention that it is defined not just by the popularity of the recent authors, but notably that a significant portion of these authors place emphasis on a scientific perspective, where the question of God is treated as a testable hypothesis (that fails), and demonstrating the importance of evolutionary thought in better at explaining the origin and nature of humans.  In this regard, Norman is right in that it does appear to address Christian fundamentalism, which denies science preferring instead a literal interpretation of the Bible.  The first Age of Enlightenment was built upon the realization that evidence and the methods of science could lead to a surer foundation for knowledge and progress, so it is encouraging to see these tools employed by the new atheists in the service of reason again.  Another point is that new atheism wouldn't even exist as we know it without the online community of nonbelievers that has come together and flourished as organically as the Internet itself (see Aratina's post for a more full description of this aspect).

As I mentioned much earlier, I denied my religious belief in May of 2001.  For myself and many former believers, it was a significant decision not made lightly, and I recorded the date and exact reasoning that led to it.  This was obviously four months before September 2001, so I had no knowledge of what would happen later that year.  It is interesting to note for myself, that my infidelity with religion predates Hirsi Ali's, which became famous several years ago after the publication of her book, Infidel.  I do not know anyone whose views became atheist after 9/11 that wouldn't have come to this conclusion of their own accord without any additional impulse from that tragic event.  Incidentally, reading Hirsi Ali has been a pleasure, she is capable of conveying a wide range of emotion- an epilogue to her most recent book Nomad is titled “Letter to my unborn daughter” and it is very moving.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


I have a 20 gallon aquarium with low light loving bushy plants, driftwood, and active rosy barbs and Buenos Aires tetras.  I had considered putting other fish into the mix, but these small colorful, active, pugnacious (they say, semi-aggressive), archetypal, little fish are very fun to watch.  I also have a 10 gallon tank with a wakin goldfish and a Shubunkin goldfish, “rescued” from the feeder fish tank at the petshop.  I had a wakin goldfish in the past (as well as rosy barbs).  Both tanks are at a nice equilibrium right now, but if I find another wakin goldfish for less than a dime and a nickel, the temptation to buy may be too great. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Christopher Hitchens

After reading Dawkins, I was eager to scan a few more books from popular new atheist literature.  I had borrowed from the library a copy of Christopher Hitchens' The Portable Atheist, and God is Not Great.  My joy at reading these inspiring works is mixed with the sad realization that they aren't being more widely read and discussed.  History may well record these authors as positioned near the beginning of a new enlightenment, emerging as it does from unprecedented levels of ignorance in contemporary society.  I only read Hitchens' introduction to The Portable Atheist and a few of the authors included in this compilation, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali (whose face is piercingly beautiful and whose words gave me goose bumps).  In God is Not Great I read just five chapters (I really should read the rest of the book sometime).  Now, whereas Dawkins shines forth in his writing through his intimate knowledge of science, Hitchens is clearly a writer par excellence capable of painting images on the canvas of the mind.  His face as seen in photographs often appears to carry a dour expression, but like Dawkins, his writing reveals a much more charitable personality than you'd otherwise expect. 

Hitchens explains that the term atheist is very useful, if only because we are emerging from a social past in which theism has been used to control all aspects of life.  (The Portable Atheist, xx)  Perhaps no author makes the actual extent to which this control went more clear than Sam Harris in The End of Faith.  His descriptions of the atrocities are worse than anything I can imagine.  The positive view of atheism, to which I wholeheartedly subscribe, is well explained by Hichens:  “...atheists have always argued that this world is all that we have, and that our duty is to one another to make the very most and best of it.”  (PA, xvi)

Delving into the nuances of the atheist stance, Hitchens writes:  “And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers.  Our belief is not a belief.  Our principles are not a faith.  We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason.  We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”  (GNG, p.5)

I think one underlying fear held by religious people (correct me if I am wrong religious people out there!) is that all atheists would be happy to eliminate religion and relegate it to the dustbin of history.  But near the beginning of each of Hitchens' books that I read, he is careful to present his views on this:  “...religion is so much a part of our human or animal nature that it is actually ineradicable.  This, for what it may be worth, is my own view.” (PA, xxiii)  “Religious faith is, precisely because we are still evolving creatures, ineradicable.  It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.  For this reason I would not prohibit it even if I thought I could.” (GNG, 12)  Indeed, why prohibit what comes naturally?  Leaving religion should be an informed personal decision, just as entering it should be.  Hitchens' also addresses a concern much more relevant to me, and probably many religious folk as well, that without belief life loses its “awareness of the numinous or the transcendent”.  But by squarely looking at the facts of existence- that we are merely animals with organs that will fail all too early within our short lifespans- I take comfort.  The facts allow me a rational basis for effective action.  False notions will do nothing for me.  “There can be no serious ethical position based on denial or a refusal to look the facts squarely in the face.”  (PA, xxii)  Two excellent books by Hitchens, highly recommended (if only for the content which I reviewed).

Monday, October 25, 2010

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins, and the new atheists in general, have a reputation for nastiness.  Having read Dawkins' book “The God Delusion”, I say such a reputation couldn't be more ill deserved.  Before reading the book, the title sounds antagonistic, but after finishing the book, it only sounds like a well reasoned and entirely appropriate conclusion.  Even after the first few pages I had to revise the mental image I had of the man, he is much more kind and took a more balanced approach to his subject than I had anticipated!  Of note, I found the sections on the origins of morality (page 219 gives an interesting example of Arabian babblers, little brown birds that compete for costly and dangerous roles) and the inspiration of nature (page 362) to be particularly interesting.  I also enjoyed the frequent references to primary sources in science, literature, and religion.  There is a lot to recommend reading this book.

It is not the only, nor probably the best, reason for a person to leave their religion, but Dawkins summarized the very basic reason why I left religion (page 282):
Fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a holy book and they know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief.  The truth of the holy book is an axiom, not the end product of a process of reasoning.  The book is true, and if the evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out, not the book.
Despite my honest belief, I came to realize that I valued reasoning over axioms.  It is simply the more responsible approach.  And when that reasoning does not lead to one's professed axioms, deconversion is virtually inevitable.  These are my own words from early 2001 (note the similarity to those of Dawkins' above):
There is nothing wrong with believing a doctrine, the will to believe requires no justification, but if a doctrine is considered inviolable against the inquisitive nature, the very thing that suggested its possibility in the first place, then any further possibilities that are suggested will have to either accord with it or be rejected, although it may be more appropriate to question the primacy of the doctrine itself.
Dawkins makes reference on several occasions to an idea that Dennett put forth: belief in belief.  For some time after I wrote that, and even now, though I do not believe as I did before, I do at times believe in some form of belief.  It isn't that I dislike belief, so much as that I earnestly value reasoning.  (And as it is wont to do, reasoning often stands at odds with cherished beliefs.)  Anyone one who feels the same will find a kindred spirit in this book.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

John Lennon

If John Lennon were still alive he would've been 70 yesterday; he died in 1980 when he was 40 years old. I watched The U.S. vs. John Lennon, which seemed as good a way as any to celebrate his birth. The radio station played “Nowhere Man”, a song Lennon wrote about himself, and no review of his life would be complete without mentioning the song “Imagine”. Lennon believed in peaceful revolution and advocated for human rights, especially where he saw their abuse. It's all there in his song, here's the message, paraphrased: Imagine no religion, no countries, nothing to kill or die for; no possessions, greed or hunger. Imagine sharing all the world, living for today, in peace. I wonder what Lennon would've said had he lived? His song is probably the most widely recognized in the world, a dream countless people still aspire to.

But Lennon's life was not a fairy tale.  He didn't really know his parents.  He seems to have been very abusive of people close to him in his earlier years.  His affair with Yoko Ono (who herself faced hardship in early life) led to leaving his first wife and son, whose existence was kept secret to protect his career.  While with Ono she and John became burned out from drugs, quacks, emotional breakdowns and media attention.  His relationship with Ono was inconstant: she had relationships with gigolos, and at her suggestion he had an affair with their personal assistant May Pang for several years.  Mark Chapman, who shot him in 1980, was obsessed by Salinger's book The Catcher in the Rye.  Salinger himself was interested in a litany of spiritual, medical, and nutritional belief systems.  All told, it makes for a pretty messy story.  But out of all this there was produced moments of beauty, and many people found inspiration. 

Monday, October 4, 2010


So you want a comfortable bike to take you around town nimbly balanced on two wheels?  Forget recumbents.  Omafiets, Dutch for "grandmother's bike" are the gold standard for comfort.  According to Mark Sanders, bicycle designer, a bolt upright riding posture is better than one leaning over to reach the handlebars.  Though not news to me, his accompanying photo was interesting because one of my big aspirations is to go on a cross country road trip by bike.  (And even if that never happens, I am still taking a lot of local bike trips.)  In his article Sanders was only considering upright bikes, but omafiets seem to come out on top even against recumbents.  The best recumbents I have ridden (and only recently does that statement carry any weight- see my report on Angletech) are the short wheel base "stick recumbents".  These bikes, like the Challenge Mistral or the Bacchetta Giro, are beautiful.  But while comfortable for short rides, exercising while in a very recumbent position can lead to minor numbness in one's feet, and to keep a relatively low seat height these bikes have 20 inch front wheels.  An omafiets has large 28 inch wheels that better smooth out irregularities in rough terrain.  But so can "crank forward" bikes, particularly those made by RANS.  However after reading about omafiets, RANS crank forward bikes seem to be a more expensive solution to a problem that doesn't exist, or if it does it is only because omafiets aren't widely enough known by or available to American riders.  Everything about omafiets are utilitarian, and they don't have more gears than you really need. 

I am about as far away from the Netherlands as one can get, so what are my options?  Probably the easiest thing I could do is try to assemble my own omafiets from different parts, beginning with the right size and shape of frame, handlebars, seat and wheels.  (According to some people, omafiets are similar to cruiser/comfort/leisure bikes, but there are often differences in frame geometry.)  I can also stay abreast of information from Velovision, prodigious bloggers like The Lazy Randonneur, and read Peter Eland's book "Practical Bike Buyer's Guide".  So will an omafiets make a good cross country bike?  I think so, they can easily be fitted with front and rear racks for carrying gear, so it looks like a good fit all around!  I wonder how many miles in the saddle I can log in one year?  BTW, if you look at other countries besides the Netherlands where bikes are a primary form of transportation you see the same general form.  For example, Japanese "mamachari" bikes are similar if not identical to many omafiets.

If you want to delve any further into the minutiae of Dutch bikes, there are also "opafiets" (grandpa bikes), the picture above is a bike of this variety.  At the linked page is an image showing the shape of the handlebars, an important feature of any oma or opafiets.

Friday, October 1, 2010

La Mettrie

"L'homme machine" or "Man the Machine" was written in 1748 by Julien Offray de La Mettrie.  It is described as an important contribution to the development of the Age of Enlightenment, but leaving its historical context aside for the moment, it contains many interesting ideas which I will try to summarize.

La Mettrie, a physician, allows only the use of facts and observations derived through experimentation to describe the human body.  From this approach he concludes that it is a machine, though admittedly a very complex machine that is initially impossible to get a clear idea of, and therefore to define.  It is only the arrangement of our parts that distinguishes one person from another, or a person from an animal, plant, or anything else.  Observation leads La Mettrie to conclude that animals think, are intelligent, and feel repentance and shame just as humans.  A materialistic explanation can even be extended to illuminate the causes of criminal acts.  Indeed, all things have materialistic explanations for La Mettrie.  Our abilities as well as our limitations can be ascribed to our material organization; it is our ignorance of them that has led us to use alternative explanations (usually supernatural).  For La Mettrie, we exist simply to exist, but if there is a reason, then nature made us for pleasure first and to be happy, and secondarily to be educated (though he suggests that like Gould's classic article about the Spandrels of San Marco, our ability to learn may have only been accidental.)

There is one quote by La Mettrie that I cannot improve on by summarization, so I will include it's translation (full pdf paper):
There is nothing contradictory about
(1) being a machine and (2) being able to feel, to think and to tell right from wrong like telling blue from yellow; that is,
(1) being a mere animal and (2) being born with intelligence and a sure instinct for morality,
any more than there is about
•being an ape or a parrot and •being able to give oneself pleasure.
. . . .Who would ever have guessed in advance that a drop of liquid ejaculated in mating would give rise to such divine pleasure? or that there would be born from it a little creature who would be able one day, given certain laws, to enjoy the same delights? Thought incompatible with organised matter? That is so far from right, I believe, that thought seems to be a property of matter, like electricity, power to move, impenetrability, extension, etc. 
In case this translation isn't clear, to La Mattrie, thought is not incompatible with organized matter, rather it is a property of it! Even 262 years later, we haven't solved that riddle yet.  But imagine if we really acted as though we were aware that we are the purely physical machines he describes us as.  What if we understood that we and all other things differ only in minor differences of organization, without any substantial differences at all.  Small changes in organization can lead to large changes in appearance and behavior.  Wouldn't we then be more sympathetic to our fellow men and creatures?  La Mattrie certainly thought so:  
Those haughty, vain, self-praising beings who are marked off by their pride more than by the label ‘men’ —are basically only animals and upright-crawling machines....
If only men would always show [as animals] the same gratitude for kindness and the same respect for humanity! Then we wouldn’t have to fear being met with ingratitude, or to fear these wars that are the scourge of the human race and the real hangmen of the law of nature.

Friday, September 24, 2010


While on vacation recently (a whole story in itself worth retelling) I visited one of the premiere recumbent dealers in the country, Angletech.  In a span of a two hours I test rode the best bikes available:
  • Tour Easy (Fold Easy)
  • Rans Stratus XP
  • Rans Enduro Sport
  • Rans F5
  • Bacchetta Corsa
  • Challenge Seiran
  • Rans X-Stream
  • Challenge Fujin
I also rode the ICE B2, a bike somewhere between the Rans Enduro Sport and F5 in seat/crank reclination.  The list is ordered from more upright to more laidback, which is the order in which I test rode the bikes, to find where my comfort zone really is.  In the end, I liked the Rans Enduro Sport the best, which is a popular design for short wheelbase recumbent bikes.  I was acutally surprised by this, as my limited recumbent riding led me to believe I was more of a Tour Easy guy.  But after riding these bikes in sequence two times, the Tour Easy felt way too upright, like I had very poor power transfer to the pedals.  After these recumbents, I rode the "Crank Forward" bikes:
  • Rans Fusion
  • Rans Dynamik
  • Rans Alterra
The Rans Dynamik was the best feeling to me, very comfortable.  And last the tricycles:
  • Terratrike Rover
  • Terratrike Cruiser
  • ICE Adventure 3fs
  • ICE Sprint2
  • Greenspeed X5
  • ICE Vortex
I liked the ICE Sprint2 the best, it was low and had suspension.  But the connection to the ground was not as nice as with the bikes, so the Rans Enduro Sport was the overall favorite of all that I tested.  Who knows if a longer test period (weeks) would confirm these first impressions?  It would be great to do that!  And I would've loved to try the tandem recumbents, but after the lengthy test rides I had no willing participants.

All those were only a fraction of the bikes on the crowded display room floor, so the next day wondering if I'd missed a rare opportunity, I called back to see if Kelvin Clark, the owner, had any Cruzbikes like the Quest.  He said he didn't, and furthermore gave good reasons why he though that if I had tried one, I wouldn't have liked it over and above the Enduro Sport that I selected as my personal favorite.  Now as it was, I liked that bike for the sheer pleasure of the riding experience, but some people might value other characteristics at least as much, such as cargo capacity.  Needless to say, there were bikes there designed to meet that need admirably as well.  And finding one's personal “nirvana” on a bike is more than simply a factor of seat/crank height.  For example, Rans created the Enduro as a response to consumer requests to lower the seat height on their popular V-Rex bike.  The seat height felt right to me.

Bikes are vehicles, archetypal things that move us, but they require the attention of a navigator to steer a path. This isn't much different from life, where we must steer a path to avoid the shoals of disaster. Life is always in motion, and we are all going somewhere. It is obvious when riding a bike that one must be attentive to everything in the environment around them. Though it is less obvious, so too must one be attentive in life in order to get anywhere. This is one reason why I love riding a bike. I can really get around for very little energy, in fact I put more energy into paying attention to where I am going than I put into making the bike move!

(On the subject of how riding a bike increases one's attentiveness to the here and now, what about a sauna? Stepping into a very hot room, then stepping out into the cold bare naked makes one aware of the largest organ on their body – the skin.)


Humans are essentially the same the world over, so what are the barriers to understanding and empathizing with one another?  Physical appearance and cultural differences are one, and among the cultural differences a big one is the use of different languages.  Without a translator, dictionary, or translation program to refer to, if you don't know the language you are helpless.  The less foreign languages become a barrier, the more we will understand what makes the human experience unique for each of the six billion plus people on this planet, our only home.  Foreign languages and literature is an interesting field.  I can never know every one of us, but I should know more nonetheless.  I'd like to be fluent in all forms of communication basic to human society and familiar with the information [for which] they were created to represent.  Then I can call myself literate, a scholar, and an expert in any field I work in.  I must admit I don't read enough English literature as it is. 

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Life as it is, here and now, is as good as it gets.  When something catches my attention and I want to turn toward it, I also turn away from the rest of my life.  I have to be careful with my attention!  (Zen contains a corollary message.)  When I follow the necessity of transient circumstances, my life is best, and it flows more smoothly.  By allowing myself to be receptive to the changing needs of life I become more accepting, appreciative, and compassionate.  And my thoughts and actions reflect this attitude. 

It used to be that we could only satisfy our basic needs; an ascetic lifestyle was the norm for our early ancestors.  Then, when culture and technology rapidly changed our lifestyle, we learned how to satisfy almost any need we could imagine, faster than ever before.  But we lack the native wisdom to know which desires should be satisfied and which should not, which impulses to act on and which to restrain.  This wasn't a problem before, we simply couldn't satisfy most of our creative desires, so the temptation was much less.  But now, in our instant gratification society, being careful with where we place our attention is more difficult than ever.  Perhaps the contemplative traditions like Buddhism arose to remind us that it is now up to us to impose on ourselves the control that the environment can no longer exercise over us.

The last few days I knew that my circumstances necessitated that I attend to various work and chores, but I became infected with a desire to watch episodes of the television series "Firefly." It was easier to do this than my work, so I easily caved and watched them.  While enjoyable, my work still needed to be done, only now I had even less time to do it in. 

"To study Buddhism is to study the self.  To study the self is to forget the self.  To forget the self is to become enlightened by all things."
"When other sects speak well of Zen, the first thing that they praise is its poverty."
"If he cannot stop the mind that seeks after fame and profit, he will spend his life without finding peace."
- Dogen

"My sermons are criticized by certain audiences. They say that my sermons are hollow, not holy. I agree with them because I myself am not holy. The Buddha's teaching guides people to the place where there is nothing special... People often misunderstand faith as kind of ecstasy of intoxication... True faith is sobering up from such intoxication."
- Kodo Sawaki

"No thought, no reflection, no analysis, no cultivation, no intention; let it settle itself."
- Tilopa

Saturday, August 28, 2010

neurology of transcendance

How does focusing on a perception of transpersonal experience affect the human brain?  Many members of society want a vocabulary to talk about them and claim their benefits, but the terms used are imprecise and lacking in scientific accuracy.  Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs from his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" placed such peak experiences of self-actualization at the top of his pyramid.  Carl Sagan spoke eloquently of the inspiring nature of the cosmos, and "Einsteinian" religious sentiments are referenced by Dawkins frequently (he has also said that pantheism is "sexed up" atheism).  More recently than that there has been talk about the "New Mysterium" in philosophical circles.  I'll make a naive attempt to define what I mean. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

scientific humility

My earlier interest in the role of science resurfaced when I looked at the ideas of E. O. Wilson.  He combines a depth of understanding with an ambitious and sweeping approach, making use of powerful quotes and sources along the way that make his works a pleasure to read. Wilson elevated the discipline of sociobiology, which he saw as bridging the gap between the humanities and the sciences in a new and revealing way.  Gould, another scientific giant, denounced Wilson's approach, when applied to humans.  The conflict between these two is interesting.  When I encounter unresolvable conflicts like this, my tendency is to want to side-step the problem and approach it from a new angle.  (Dawkins and Dennett have weighed in on this debate, though I have not read their conclusions yet.)  Since my interest is in the role of science in changing our perception of the world, I remembered PZ Myers once hailed Jacob Bronowski as a particularly articulate popularizer of science.  And indeed, he is: 
"It's said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That's false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken."

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people."
Source: Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, Episode 11: "Knowledge or Certainty"  (text or video)
Earlier, in his 1951 book The Commonsense of Science, Bronowski wrote: "It has been one of the most destructive modern prejudices that art and science are different and somehow incompatible interests".  Bronowski and Wilson were trying to do the same thing, they were trying, in Wilson's words, to show the consilience of knowledge, though they do it in different ways.  Wilson's critics believed he did not give due acknowledgment to the role of culture in explaining behavior, his approach was overly simplistic ("greedy reductionism"), and his conclusions on human nature were not entirely correct.  Gould was aware that not only genes but also developmental constraints influence evolution – any explanation for human behaviour would inevitably be pluralistic in content.  Wilson provides a materialistic explanation for the unity of knowledge that, for a variety of reasons, not everyone accepts.  Bronowski provided an explanation for the unity of knowledge that roots it in our ethical sensibilities, and is far less controversial. 

What I find most interesting about the extended quote above is that Bronowski, in humanizing the subject, turns a popular assumption of the role of science on its head.  The most important role of science isn't to provide us with knowledge, it is to tell us that we do not have knowledge (any claims of knowledge must meet rigorous criteria), we do not have knowledge when often we suppose we do, and to show us why this is so.  Science is the best tool we have for eliminating certainty.  A dictatorship, like those during WWII, aspires to absolute knowledge and power - any doubt of its authority must be eliminated and prevented.  Honest science cannot proceed under such constraints with artificial limitations imposed upon it.  It depends on the freedom of ideas, so to Bronowski, the flourishing of science is the best hope to preventing future tragedies of the scale that had occurred in WWII.  He does not believe they would have occurred if the people, and the leaders, were to ask themselves if they could be certain they were right, in light of the terrible cost of being wrong.  The same effect results from science as can result from philosophy, rationalism, realism, and critical thinking.  Science, the application of critical thinking to everyday human activities, is the antidote to the power of propaganda.  Science does not make us arrogant, it can only humble us.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Satisficing: the cure for analysis paralysis

I have a great family, a house, and I am part of a socially stabilizing effort assisting in the development of humankind toward a deeper understanding and appreciation for life.  No one person does this alone.  And yet, I have a problem.  Lack of motivation?  Obsessive-compulsive?  Instant gratification impulsiveness? Inability to defer gratification to a later date?  No.  Perfectionism?  Indecisiveness?  Closer.  As Dan Ariely puts it, "When we are choosing between two or more very similar options, we tend NOT to take into account the consequences of not deciding."  In other sources, this situation is cleverly termed "analysis paralysis".  My almost compulsive over analysis of some ideas came to my attention in a post dated 11 May 2010.  (The following portion of this entry will borrow heavily from the most popular online reference, Wikipedia, paraphrasing liberally.)

Analysis paralysis describes the situation where a decision is treated as over-complicated, with too many detailed options; when a person seeks an optimal or "perfect" solution upfront, and fears making any decision which could lead to erroneous results.  In the end a choice is never made, despite the alternative of trying something and changing if a major problem arises. In this example the opportunity cost of decision analysis exceeds the benefits that could be gained by enacting some decision.

Herbert Simon (who researched cognitive psychology, politics, sociology, and computer science, among other fields) defined two cognitive styles: maximizers who try to make an optimal decision, and satisficers who simply try to find a solution that is "good enough". Maximizers tend to take longer making decisions due to the need to maximize performance across all variables and make tradeoffs carefully; and some suggest they also tend to more often regret their decisions

Simon coined the word satisfice in 1956. He pointed out that human beings lack the cognitive resources to maximize.  A more realistic approach to rationality takes into account these limitations, this is called bounded rationality.  Bounded rationality is the notion that in decision making, rationality of individuals is limited by:
  • the information they have (we usually do not know the relevant probabilities of outcomes), 
  • the cognitive limitations of their minds (we can rarely evaluate all outcomes with sufficient precision and our memories are weak and unreliable), and 
  • the finite amount of time they have to make decisions. 
(Thus ends my liberal paraphrasing of Wikipedia.)

So what can I conclude from all this?  Well, a rational person who adopts a realistic perspective is a satisficer; someone who recognizes that this kind of decisiveness is in the long run a more optimal solution than indecisiveness despite the initial appearance that it is a poor decision making strategy.  (This reflects Tim Pychyl's anti-procrastination mantra "just get started.")  Satisficers take an evolutionary approach to optimization, where some "accidental" solution is used so long as it works, and competing solutions are naturally selected such that the best ones are used and less optimal solutions either change or are no longer used.  And in the final analysis, who is to say that an optimal solution exists (Zhuangzi had much to say on this subject)?  Each solution has advantages and disadvantages, once the apparently worst options are removed, what remains may be qualitatively indistinguishable.  Satisficers, and the process of evolution, both have no definite goal, or even a clear direction (in a sense).  Perfectionists and maximizers do have a goal: making the optimal decision, and they insist on knowing what that is before they take any action.  That is their weakness and eventual downfall. 

Tags: decision making, indecisiveness, irrational delay, deferred gratification, analysis paralysis, satisficing, bounded rationality

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Is that Denali I see?
Ice water immersion.  Yes, that's just like it sounds.  In Finnish it is avantouinti.  If I can't get a sauna, then this is what I can do this winter - cold water dousing also has the effect of elevating body temperature.  The only problem is that it is difficult to keep a large tub of water from freezing solid in the winter here.  But it's not impossible, I could insulate a large tub set in the ground, maybe even have a pump circulate it, but that's a lot of trouble to go through.  I recall hearing about Tibetan monks who do a sort of meditation call “Tummo” in which they can raise their body temperature, especially that of hands and feet, to the point where they can stay outside in the cold, even drying wet sheets draped over their bodies.  This practice is associated with the monk Naropa, Tibetan Buddhism, Tantric meditation, and Kundalini Yoga, but I think that consciously affecting thermoregulation is not a rare feat that requires special training in meditation.  I would guess ordinary folks asked to concentrate on elevating their bodily heat though a kind of biofeedback involving visualization and relaxation are probably capable of doing it.  And this is something I'd like to do, to help me keep a clear mind and good physical health as well as enjoy the outdoors.  Wrapping a thin sheet over my skin could give me some level of protection from instant frostbite. 

If I can develop an ability to generate heat and know my limits, then wearing only a fundoshi I would like to participate on Dontosai, January 14, in the annual hadaka mairi (written 裸参り in Japanese) at Takekoma Jinja in Japan.  It would be a great experience!  I believe it was in 2004, during a visit to Japan that I saw the festival at this shrine first hand.  But first I am going to make my own outdoor shower, and use it until the first frost of the year. 

My greenhouse plans had long since turned to “a plastic sheet covered metal pipe box barely five feet high”, and now my sauna plans have turned to me sitting outside baring my skin to the cold and wet.  And these are my ideas for “the backbone of recreation during the summer and winter - outdoor oriented activities, play in the snow and cold, and in the summer watch plants grow and mold  - social activities, to be shared and enjoyed in the company of others?”  Yes, they are, and now it seems I have it all.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


What comes to mind when you think of the word "irrational"?  It has a very accusatory sound, and doesn't instantly appeal to most people the first time they hear it.  It only appealed to me after I was able to apply the notion to my own behavior, with positive results.  And it seems more precise than colloquial phrases like "human folly".  That said, the word "irrational" is still very vague, and the more often it becomes used by people and groups with different ideas of what constitutes irrational behavior, the less clear it becomes.  Just as one man's junk is another man's treasure, one person's definition of irrational behavior is not the same as another's.  So long as an explanation is given for why a particular thought, desire, or behavior is irrational I think these difficulties can be avoided and the reader can come to her own conclusions.  In my opinion, it is easier, and sometimes more immediately fruitful, to spot out instances of irrationality than examples of rationality, but both deserve equal attention.

There is an intersection with these ideas and the skeptical and atheist movement.  (Before going further I should re-emphasize that all these terms are equally vulnerable to misappropriation by groups with opposing ideological agendas.  Remember how "compassionate" used to be a good word? It still is, but not everyone means the same thing.)  It is wise to be skeptical of our motivations when they are likely to be irrational.  And the atheist movement is the result of putting religious claims under the critical lens of science, philosophy, and humanitarian concerns.  There are voices on the internet calling attention to these subjects.  Dan Ariely is a behavioral economist whose focus is irrational behavior, which is also the subject of his last two books.  A group of bloggers contribute to "Irrationality Itches", which appears to have been dormant for the last few months.  Another blog called "Human-stupidity" appears to come from the political right wing (or libertarianism, I haven't taken a close enough look) in his views of irrational behavior.  And I cannot mention irrational behavior without also talking about the psychologist Albert Ellis, who targeted irrational ideas as the focus of his therapeutic work.

So how exactly do people exhibit irrationality?  This could be the subject of a long series of posts, if they ever get written.  But to spend my time on that right now would be irrational for me to do, in light of other demands on my time and energy.  In the meantime I'd like to direct you to the other resources mentioned above, and welcome hearing any of your thoughts on this subject in the comments.  I should mention that I don't think irrationality, on the face of it, is bad, but when it goes unnoticed  masquerading as rational behavior it can have very serious and harmful consequences.

Monday, July 26, 2010

challenging assumptions

Is it possible to be as happy when in want as when without?  I've asked only one other person this question, and she gave me an enthusiastically affirmative response without hesitation.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Dawkins experience

I arrived at Davis Concert Hall with my dad a full 15 minutes early, but I already knew it was going to be packed.  Cars were streaming onto campus and lines of people were converging upon the concert hall.  When we arrived at the doors we heard someone announce that the Hall was full and no more people were allowed to enter, however it would be webcast live in Greuning room 208.  We debated for a minute the value of attending a webcast, and decided to go.  The room filled to overflowing within five minutes, a second room across the hallway was opened as well.  For almost half an hour after the lecture started the overflow audience sat in frustration as we could only see the video of the lecture - the audio wasn't working.  As our last hope that the audio would be fixed faded, we left and headed back to Davis Concert Hall.  After deciding it would be too long to wait around until the lecture and Q&A session afterward ended to get Dawkins signature on our book, we left.  Thankfully on our way out we were told the media lab downstairs in the library had working video and audio for the webcast.  Having missed at least the first half hour of the lecture, we greatly enjoyed watching the second half, webcast in full fidelity.  Lots of good content, with some good natured humor intermixed!  When I get the chance, I will have to download and view the first half hour of the lecture I missed.  The Q&A took up the full hour allocated and afterwards I went to the book signing.  The line snaked almost entirely around the perimeter of the large lobby area outside of the Concert Hall.  The attendance and overflow for this lecture was the greatest I have ever personally seen at UAF, and has to have been one of the most successful lectures ever on campus.  Dawkins waived all his fees, including travel, hotel, and meals.  He is a very impressive speaker and critical thinker, and a truly inspirational figure, whether in person or via live webcast.  On the heels of his appearance at the Amazing! Meeting 8, I hope his time here in Fairbanks was an enjoyable experience.  I also hope the showing at his lecture did something to dispel the poor reputation Alaskans have gained in the global community, thanks in no small part to some of the politicians we have elected.  When he signed the copy of The God Delusion I have been reading, I thanked him and asked him to send my regards to PZ, and was given a warm smile of recognition in return. 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

construction season

Soon I will begin to build a 12 x 16 foot shed using dimensional lumber.  The shed to our house will be like an expansion tank is to a water pump.  How's that for an analogy?  It will also help me clean up the landscape around the house.  It has been a long and complex vetting process to identify the best design based on a wide variety of factors.  Like natural selection, the process yielded conservative results.  Getting the shed up brings me one step closer to a few other things I've been looking forward to... a sauna and greenhouse.  And I think I found the perfect sauna for me.

With more freezing days than warm, a sauna is more valuable than a greenhouse.  I can have an 8 x 12 sauna transported wherever I may move.  A collapsible greenhouse can also be delivered wherever I want.  In my area where falling trees are an everyday reality, using sheet plastic to cover the greenhouse is a justifiably cautious approach.  Off the top of my head, the best greenhouse I ever stepped inside was my wife's grandmother's greenhouse in Japan - a plastic sheet covered metal pipe box barely five feet high.  It had some of those delicious Japanese grapes inside.  The second best was Rosie Creek Farm's big wood truss greenhouse.  A shed is really too big to move, it stays in place just as the house does.  The greenhouse and the sauna form the backbone of recreation during the summer and winter.  Each is a staycation in itself.  I can play in the snow and cold, and in the summer watch plants grow and mold.  And these are both very social activities, to be shared and enjoyed in the company of others. What a nice thought!  They are also outdoor oriented activities; I love spending my time outside. 

Another thought, the thought of moving somewhere else, somewhere near the ocean, comes up occasionally.  To me, a beach is a magic place, a spiritually expansive place, the edge of a vast empire.  Aside from the rhythm of the waves, the rocky shoreline, and the alien like life I can find there, I can also see for miles and miles, sometimes without limit.  I don't have that experience where I am at right now, but the good news is I think I can, if I build the sauna at the top of my hill and resting on an observation platform to get me an extra five to ten feet from the ground (not mobile) that is situated at the point where the slope changes the most.  The added height may minimize the risk from falling trees, and I'll have a view of the Alaska range and probably Denali if I am lucky.  Not to mention the aurora straight overhead.  The wind and the landscape from there will help me connect with that same feeling again.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

James Randi

Randi is old, he's lived 81 years already, but he is very sharp and has long applied his skeptical mind to the defense of the gullible by exposing people who would like nothing more than to mislead and take advantage of them.  There is no more honorable reason to kill sacred cows than that.  By dismantling contemporary claims of supernatural events, he does a great service to science and rationality.  And he's a cute old man!  He looks more huggable than Santa Claus.  Meanwhile, other notable skeptics like Dawkins, Hitchens, or Dennett look decisively less huggable (okay, Dennett has a fuzzy white beard too).  But then I also like Randi because he seems so down to earth, like the neighbor you bump into at the post office occasionally. 

But what I really love about Randi is that he highlights how easily it is for us to decieve ourselves.  Self-deception goes beyond allowing myself to be duped into following a religious cult, it goes to the heart of a lot of personal self management problems that have nothing to do with religion.  He's an expert at deception and entertaining with valuable first hand knowledge of how it happens.  I think this uniquely qualifies him in a different way than other experts in areas such as science, journalism, or philosophy (though these are not without their own value).  He's very personable, in fact inspirational as an exemplar of humanitarian values, and has been featured on the popular science blog Pharyngula several times recently.  I may add that for many of the same reasons I like Randi, I also like Martin Gardner, who at 95 died about a month ago. 

To long time readers of my blog, James Randi is already a familiar name.  When late last year he expressed skepticism over climate change, it was troubling news to many of his fans and supporters.  But I say lesson learned, defer to the appropriate experts when forming an opinion outside of your field of expertise.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Out-buildings around town

Back on the subject of building things... I have been taking a close look at the vernacular buildings around town to get ideas for the construction of a shed and sauna at my home.  The first building I took a photo of was the ramshackle sauna at Calypso Farm and Ecology Center (image 1, at left).  These guys will try just about anything, and they keep it all low budget, which shows.  But I gotta give them props for being true to their mission.  The sauna you see at left has a simple shed type roof.  It has a small changing room in the front and the enclosed sauna is in the rear.  The lower half of the roof is a large overhang, and a gutter directs all runoff to a standing water tank with a simple garden hose siphon.  The owner said he'd like to talk sometime about the changes he'd make if he were to do it over again.  I'll have to get back to him.

(image group 2) Also at Calypso Farm is this very eclectic looking shed.  I like this building, it has clear similarities to a Norwegian trestle frame shed.  Round tree posts, beams, and trusses; it doesn't get much simpler.  The close up picture below shows that it all rests on simple concrete blocks in the ground.  The soil on hillsides around town is very dry and well drained.  It looks like this building has stood here for more than a handful of years.

(3) This next building is a shed built at Rosie Creek Farm.  It is very similar to the one above at Calypso Farm, but it has a full concrete foundation and uses all dimensional lumber.  The room at the back is insulated and used as refrigerated storage for the produce they grow and harvest before it is distributed to customers.

(4) This is a cabin built just this year at Rosie Creek Farm.  Last year only a plywood platform stood at this location.  This cabin has a wide overhang along the roof on one side.  The exposed beam ends are probably not a good idea.  They have another small shed that is of the common rafter-roof form, to use Ted Benson's timber frame terminology.  Last year this may have had a canvas roof and not the tarp roof it does now.

(5) With the exception of the sauna, all the above buildings have gable roofs. But a simple shed roof is the simplest form. Back in February I took this picture of a woodshed at Calypso Farm while I was there for a workshop. The picture below it is of a woodshed at my workplace at about the same time of year.

(6) Another local storage shed.  This one belongs to an acquaintance of mine and is built on a hillside similar in slope to my lot.  It was designed as lockable secure and weather proof storage for the owner's tools while he was out of town on extended leave.  You can see the simple post and beam construction and overall modest size of this building.  I think he built it single handed.  It rests on treated posts sunk into the ground; the natural grade of the site was not disturbed.  The covered deck surrounding it on two sides makes convenient shelter for frequently used items.  Two identical buildings like this (shed and sauna each) separated by at least 20 feet and oriented parallel to each other and at right angles to my house (though at least 60+ feet distant from it) would look very sharp.

(7) This little neglected shed used to be home for a few hogs. Most recently it became a chicken coop. It has a dirt floor. Barely visible in the photo on the right side of the building is a small chicken wire fenced area is attached on the opposite side. Bottom section constructed with logs, upper part is framed. The exterior dimensions, including siding, are about 15x15, and the roof slope is about 2/12. The roof overhangs by at least two feet all around. I'm not sure what the ramp on the side was intended for. Very compact and sturdy looking. The roof slopes down toward the north. You can see that the door was left open. 

(8) You may remember these two pictures from my earlier entry in January. A simple pole framed woodshed and a diagram of how to build a deck floor.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The language of emotion

I'm going to test new waters and pretend to know something about music.  Sounds are so beautiful, whether they are the spoken music of a foreign language, the sound of rain gushing out of downspouts, or classical music.  I haven't taken the time to become skillful enough with any instruments, though that has long been an ambition of mine.  One piece of music I like is Ravel's orchestration of "Bydlo", the fourth movement of Mussorgsky's suite "Pictures at an Exhibition".  While listening to the music, we are to imagine a lumbering oxcart's journey.  The movement begins quietly, builds gradually, and then fades, suggesting the oxcart approaching, passing the listener, and then receding.  An ox is a massive animal with incredible strength, and the music reflects its great power well.  If you feel you are straining under an emotional load and need some cathartic release, listen to Bydlo here.

When I was a little kid, I remember marching all around the house banging on metal pots and pans with wooden spoons to the tune of "March of the Toys" from Babes in Toyland.  I wouldn't dream of depriving my kids of the same opportunity!  

Monday, June 14, 2010

kill the buddha

Continuing the theme of the last few blog posts, I began with a discussion of systems of thought, and the philosophy of science.  Then continued with how apparently contradictory perspectives may in a sense all be right (anekantavada).  Next I identified several of Zhuangzi's allegories that illustrate the equality or fundamentally indistinguishable nature of things, and ask us "why should we be attached to any particular preference?"  Now I'd like to point out where Zen Buddhism intersects with these ideas.  Zen emphasizes direct perception of reality; words and ideas only get in the way.  With this approach, the methods of instruction are therefore unconventional.  Consider this quote from Linji:
Seekers of the Way, if you want to achieve the understanding according to the Law, don't be deceived by others and turn to [your thoughts] internally or [objects] externally.  Kill anything that you happen on.  Kill the Buddha if you happen to meet him.  Kill a patriarch or an arhat if you happen to meet him.  Kill your parents or relatives if you happen to meet them.  Only then can you be free, not bound by material things, and absolutely free and at ease. 
I think this may be the most shocking Zen koan (certainly one of the best known).  What other religion says "kill the founder" and shows no sign of remorse?  But this is, as he says, about emancipation from the obstacles that we place in our minds.  If I hold a particular opinion on a matter, or think this is right and that is wrong, then I have circumscribed my innate freedom.  Though they may be seen as a progression of thought, all three approaches to knowledge are unique and each has its virtues.  Zen is about realizing how the mind works, Taoism is about realizing how nature works, and anekantavada is just the doctrine of non-exclusivity.  It was due to Zen's emphasis on the mind that my Eastern philosophy teacher was attracted to it.  

I know too little about Zen koans, though it may be better to begin with a review of Feng Youlan's books on Chinese philosophy.  The shock value of koans like "kill the Buddha" is really wonderful.  I need shock value to grab the attention and interest of people who are distrustful, angry, and disillusioned... and who need to think; to grow and change.  I don't want to frighten or give the wrong idea however; violent imagery isn't really appropriate for all audiences.  Linji's lessons can be... strong medicine.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Three in the Morning

Anekantavada is very similar to the advice Xunzi gives in his chapter on dispelling obsession, which is also similar to the concept of wu wei (perhaps best espoused by Zhuangzi).  Zhuangzi's second chapter, The Equality of All Things (Qi Wu Lun), is short and bursting at the seams with wonderful passages like the following.  (It is easy to compare the story of the blind men and the elephant to this one.)
When we toil our spirits and intelligence, obstinately determined (to establish our own view), and do not know the agreement (which underlies it and the views of others), we have what may be called “three in the morning.”  What is meant by "three in the morning"? A monkey keeper once was giving out nuts and said, "Three in the morning and four in the evening."  All the monkeys became angry.  He said, "If that is the case, there will be four in the morning and three in the evening."  All the monkeys were glad.  Neither the name nor the actuality has been reduced but the monkeys reacted in joy and anger [differently].  The keeper also let things take their own course.  Therefore the sage harmonizes the right and wrong and rests in natural equilization.  This is called following two courses at the same time.
Here is a very cute animation (based on the graphic novelization of Chinese classics by Tsai Chih-chung) of Three In the Morning. Before this is viewed as simply a lesson in delayed gratification, and not as a lesson in the equality of different viewpoints/preferences, keep in mind that the story does not specify the time of day that the monkey keeper spoke to the monkeys.  It may have been in the morning or it may have been in the evening, meaning the monkeys could have received either the larger or smaller amounts of nuts first depending on what time it was.  Furthermore, we could imagine continuing the story where the monkey keeper has another group of monkeys, and having learned from his first negotiation, he offers this second group four in the morning and three in the evening.  Let us imagine that unlike the first group, they become angry at this suggestion (which had satisfied the first group) and are only appeased when he then offers three in the morning and four in the evening.  We could go on.  Perhaps a third group agrees instantly to the first offer he makes and there is no need for a counter offer, but you couldn't draw out the intended moral from such an agreeable group of monkeys!

Another passage that practically trivializes human differences (oversimplification?):
The "this" is also the "that."  The "that" is also the "this."  The "this" has one standard of right and wrong, and the "that" also has a standard of right and wrong.  Is there really a distinction between "that" and "this"?  Or is there really no distinction between "that" and "this"? 
This passage questions a basic assumption: that there are meaningful ethical differences between people or systems of thought.  The implied message appears to be that any differences are more superficial than fundamental.  But this passage alone (taken out of its context) in the end shies from asserting that claim.  Nothing escapes Zhuangzi's skepticism, which is elsewhere turned inward when he says "I have just said something, but I don't know if what I have said really says something or says nothing." and "When I say you were dreaming, I am also dreaming."  The next passage I have quoted below continues this trend:
Suppose you and I argue. If you beat me instead of my beating you, are you really right and am I really wrong? If I beat you instead of your beating me, am I really right and are you really wrong? Or are we both partly right and partly wrong? Or are we both wholly right and wholly wrong? Since between us neither you nor I know which is right, others are naturally in the dark. Whom shall we ask to arbitrate? If we ask someone who agrees with you, since he has already agreed with you, how can he arbitrate? If we ask someone who agrees with me, since he has already agreed with me, how can he arbitrate? If we ask someone who disagrees with both you and me to arbitrate, since he has already disagreed with you and me, how can he arbitrate? If we ask someone who agrees with both you and me to arbitrate, since has already agreed with you and me, how can he arbitrate? Thus among you, me, and others, none knows which is right. Shall we wait for still others?
I can almost hear the voice of my Eastern philosophy teacher rise and fall as he reads this. He loved this and often said "if I wasn't a Buddhist, I'd be a Taoist". Well, he was a Chan Buddhist, which was heavily influenced by Taoist philosophy, so he was able to have his cake and eat it too. I also love the spirit of this passage and the way Zhuangzi admits that even if it may seem that he is right, he may still be wrong after all. Who can say? Apparently nobody can. I imagine that if this passage was in Ecclesiastes (perhaps somewhere near chapter 12, verse 12), it would be quoted all the time!

Monday, May 24, 2010


Have you heard the story of the blind men and an elephant?
In various versions of the tale, a group of blind men touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one touches a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes on what they felt, and learn they are in complete disagreement. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a tree; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a snake; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a spear. Each blind man has interesting and useful things to say, but what seems an absolute truth is relative due to where each blind man stands.  The story is used to indicate that reality may be viewed differently depending upon one's perspective.  
I used to say that the elephant was like a tree and a rope, then I only thought it was only like a tree and maybe sometimes like a snake, but now I think it is like all of them. Sometimes I even feel like I am "one with the elephant."  The interesting thing about elephants is that their characteristics are transient, and they are always moving around, so what they are like at one moment can be completely different at the next.  That's nature, but it can be accepted and even transcended when one takes the perspective of all perspectives, and realizes, as expressed by Wang Yang-ming, that "all things form one body".  The same sentiment is contained in the Western Inscription.  I take this to mean not only all things, as in material things, but also the contents of the mind.  In this union with everything, there is peace.  There's only one problem, I can't help feeling a little delusional writing "I am everything and nothing" in a blog entry. 

So the story of the blind men and an elephant is a very useful one, even if by itself unconvincing.  And elephants are just cool!  They are big, smart, and have one of the most awesome appendages in the animal kingdom - a trunk.  A trunk is so useful.  How many herbivorous animals without hands can paint on a canvas with a brush? 

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Feyerabend's autobiography, a review

I finished reading Killing Time recently, with an eye toward learning about Feyerabend's approach to the philosophy of science.  A simple search on the Internet will provide a basic introduction, but it is always better to get information from as close to the original source as possible, so I am including a few quotes from the book below.  Feyerabend places the scientific tradition on an equal plane with other traditions, including religious traditions.  I think this is for several reasons:  science is not objective, nor are its products always beneficial.  If the scientific tradition is deposed as the ruling way of knowing, what we are left with is “epistemological anarchy”.  Popularly conceived, anarchy means chaos, but here it is better understood as pluralism – no single tradition has a monopoly on knowledge, or truth.  On the other hand, he would never say that scientific theories are not to be taken seriously.  So what is there to gain from all this?  In Feyerabend's words, “a little more freedom, a little more happiness, a little more light.”  It will take a reading of his other books to gain more insight into how he reached his conclusions.  For now, I appreciate being unbound by any ideology, free from guilt and free to understand my experience on terms of my own choosing.

A few weeks before he died, Feyerabend was told in the course of an interview "You have not created a positive philosophical system" to which he replied "You find positive things not in theories but in human relations.  If somebody is happily married, has good children, this is a positive thing in life.  It can't be put into concepts."  Feyerabend thought that happiness, love, friendship, and the full development of human beings was the highest possible value. 

Richard Dawkins will be visiting this summer to give a speech, and I would like to ask him his opinion of Feyerabend.  I am sure he should find him agreeable, as Dawkins opens his book The God Delusion with a short story illustrating why it is unethical to indoctrinate impressionable youth in a particular religion without allowing them to make that decision for themselves.  Feyerabend makes the same point, taking it one step further to include science among the list of ideologies susceptible to the same kind of religious fervor. 

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Religion, Science, and the inneffabile

[Note: Several statements in the first paragraph no longer reflect my current opinion, see the next entry above for an explanation.]

There are the things of the world we are able to sense directly or detect with sensitive apparatus, and the things we cannot.  Those things we can sense are useful in making and carrying out sound decisions, those things we cannot detect cannot be used for making sound decisions.  I think it is inappropriate to make decisions based on ideas that cannot be independently tested and confirmed.  One of the reasons I believe this is so that the rights of everyone are respected.  That way if someone asks "Why?" They can be given a reason that they can confirm or prove wrong.  Everyone can have a say, the facts are available for all.  Basically this means rules should have some basis in science.  Science sounds like a very modern idea, or even a futuristic one, but it's roots reach deep into the past.  It is a way of looking at the world much like philosophy, with curiosity and the willingness to learn new things.  It is the spirit of invention and creation.  It is useful, but has no ends other than those we give it. 

Can we detect everything?  It would be sheer hubris to say we can.  Laozi had a simple solution for this, what he could not detect could not be described.  It remains mysterious and ineffible.  There's nothing wrong with that.  Beauty is also mysterious.  We can choose whether or not we want to fear the unknown.  I think it is essential to the scientific and philosophical attitude to recognize the limitations of each endeavor, without negating the importance of their contributions, and for any person to reconsider their position if they find their claims to have exceeded their abilities regarding the subject on which they speak.  Right now, too much self interest and not enough science based explanations are used in decision making.

But then, one wonders if the sciences offer a consilinece of knowledge, as per E. O. Wilson, or if, as Feyerabend would have us believe, the actual condition is one of epistemological anarchy due to fundamental incommensurability.  It is liberating to realize the world cannot be seen through any one lens.  Though all are not equal, neither is one the best.  I had imagined there may be a theory of everything, but now I am not as sure.  Everything is unique and special, each experience and person is fundamentally different from the next.  I approach everything anew each time.  Doesn't reality resist categorization as much as I do?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A second bill of rights?

The other day I saw Moore's documentary "Capitalism: A Love Story".  While it's subject matter is not directly related to my job, it affects all of us.  I was introduced to names and ideas that I am not very familiar with, but am curious to learn more about.  The critical experts introduced in the film included: Wallace Shawn, William K. Black, Elizabeth Warren, and Christopher L. Hedges.  The film seemed to suggest that we could be living in an alternate reality if Franklin D. Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights had been acted upon here in the U.S., and not just implemented in Japan and Continental Europe when their constitutions were re-written in the aftermath of WWII (Cass Sunstein wrote a book about the second bill of rights).  If this had happened, we might never have seen such memos as Citigroup's Plutonomy Reports.

The second bill of rights, an "economic bill of rights", looks much the same as the lower half of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.  If people are to reach their potential, their immediate needs and safety must first be provided for.  The documentary also reminded me of Noam Chomsky, who promotes a line of thought that began as early as Zhuangzi (see the first paragraph of chapter 11 in The book of Zhuangzi). 

When a global plan for reducing pollution could not be agreed upon, the mayors of major cities created their own plans of action.  The same can be done for the second bill of rights, if not enacted on the federal level, we could work on a local form at the community level. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


On Monday Terratrike, a recumbent tricycle company, announced the introduction of its latest model, the Rover.  Billed as "man's best friend" it has garnered mostly positive reviews, detractors usually point out that it is not performance oriented.  But that would defeat its purpose.  This is a very accessible, utility oriented tricycle that reminds me most of the Anthrotech, a German recumbent trike with very similar geometry.  Among its advantages are included: affordability (as far as recumbent trikes go), ground clearance, load capacity (400 lbs.), and potential for future add-on accessories.  Terratrike is a big player in the recumbent industry with solid reputation.  I would love to see what I could load up this bike with.  With tricycle stability I could add a big electric motor, several racks for luggage, and head out for long distance touring.  The tadpole orientation of the wheels allows one to keep a relatively shorter wheelbase, low bottom bracket, and larger wheels (20 inch) without any concern for feet interference with the steering.  (My delta EZ-3 trike has a 16 inch front wheel.)  I guess I would buy this trike only if I have a realistic plan for electrifying it, an EV project is something I have never tried before. Then again, I could just try to electrify the EZ-3, or something more like this with its clean fully enclosed drivetrain.  Meh, I should probably stick with whipping tops! 

Saturday, April 3, 2010

autotrophic animal

PZ Myers commented on the negative reaction of others to an article by Freeman Dyson about bio-engineering and the potential of a techno-utopia.  It was this article that came to mind when I read about Elysia chlorotica, a photosynthesizing mollusc.  It is so extravagent that it seems to be the product of bio-engineering rather than nature!  I used to think it would be great if I could photosynthesize.  Certainly this would be a welcome ability for Jain monks and nuns, or any vegan, liberating them from consuming other organisms to an extent they have hitherto only dreamed of.  What a fascinating animal!  (A similarly life altering symbiosis exists for the bacteria-symbiotic gutless oligochaetes, such as Olavius algarvensis. But Olavius is still a heterotroph.)

While on the subject of animals, the sort of images revealed by microscopy- the structure of crystals and small biological structures- are amazing!  When I look at a scolex or a placoid scale, I see art.  (The scolex looks like it is dessicated somewhat.)  And the movement of amphisbaenians (mimizutokage = worm lizard) is hypnotic, what other vertebrates move in such an invertebrate fashion?

Abraham Maslow

Abraham Masolow is perhaps most famous for his Hierarchy of Needs, but he seems to have talked much more about the qualities of a "self actualizing" person (see personality psychology).  In the second edition of his book Motivation and Personality he describes about fifteen different characteristics.  While I cannot weigh the relative importance of each, the characteristic of "problem centering" (pg. 159-160) caught my attention.  Recently I was concerned with how I can help others, convinced that compassion and the work of assisting others is a worthy "higher calling" to which I find myself repeatedly drawn, and in the service of which I continue to struggle.  So this passage held a lot of meaning for me:
Our subjects are in general strongly focused on problems outside themselves. In current terminology they are problem-centered rather than ego centered. They generally are not problems for themselves, and are not generally much concerned about themselves, i.e., as contrasted with the ordinary introspectiveness that one finds in insecure people. These individuals customarily have some mission in life, some task to fulfill, some problem outside of themselves which enlists much of their energies.

This is not necessarily a task that they would prefer or choose for themselves; it may be a task that they feel is their responsibility, duty, or obligation. This is why we use the phrase "a task that they must do" rather than the phrase "a task that they want to do." In general these tasks are nonpersonal or "unselfish", concerned rather with the good of mankind in general, or of a nation in general or of a few individuals in the subject's family.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A cruck building technique

A ridge-beam can be supported by two tripods to make a pioneered "tripod-cruck" building.  with the ends of tie-beams extended outward, the side walls can be framed just as in a conventional cruck building.  This would work well.  But while contemplating this idea I came across a picture I saved about six months ago that provided me with inspiration for how to raise a cruck building on uneven ground single handedly. 

Build two tripods and support a tie-beam across them.  Adjust the beam for level by pulling in or extending outward the tripod legs to raise or lower the tie-beam's ends.  Then attach the cruck blades to the tie-beam (as in above picture) and place concrete piers under them.  Repeat this procedure for the other gable end of the building.  Place a ridge-beam across the two pairs of crucks.  Place the wall plates across the ends of the tie-beams.  Brace the structure, then remove the four tripods and it should remain standing firm and solid.  Sheath the building as desired.  When finished it should be a single-bay cruck building with a clear and unobstructed interior.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Whipping top

A whipping top is a toy, pure and simple. In all probability China has the most unique whipping tops, where this game has been elevated to a fitness sport. The whips become large; bullwhips, double whips, whips with chains, whips on sticks, and sticks with whips are all used. The tops may be so large that they need to be started while held steady with a dowel inserted into the upper portion of the top. Swing the big whips in a wide circle overhead and let them hit the side of the top, then again and again (video playlist). Here is a collage of images of some of the tops and whips:

Now if The Great Alaska Bowl Company or a local woodworker could turn me a four to eight inch diameter top on their giant wood lathe, I could put a metal tip on it, make a simple home made whip, and I would be in business like these guys. A cheap and easy approach.  (But all the fun of the big tops is also contained in the smaller, more portable ones that don't require a 15 foot radius to play with!) 

Here's the relevant terminology:
打陀螺    = da tuoluo, spintop or whipping top
抽陀螺    = draw top in Chinese
鞭陀螺    = bian tuoluo, lit. "whip top" in Chinese

Friday, March 5, 2010


The first time I looked at this particular plan of Johan van Lengen for a bamboo house, I thought it was boring, the second time I saw that it was very strong, and the third made me realize that it was based on a simple polyhedra - a hexagonal prism, and the gable truss was simply a portion of a hexagon and hexagram combined.  I then realized that all longhouses are essentially geometrical prisms.  So here is one way of generating them.  While the pentagonal prism is the simplest, the vertical posts on the hexagonal prism engenders a more intuitive design, and the steeper slope of the roof on Lengen's drawing is more aesthetically pleasing while allowing for the physical construction of the building using poles.