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!