Sunday, March 29, 2009

More awareness then we had thought?

Still on travel, but I didn't want to let this story slip through the cracks:

After producing superlatives like the world’s biggest statue of a jackrabbit and the nation’s most unpopular modern-day president, Texas can now boast what may be its most bizarre and undoubtedly its slimiest topper yet: the world’s largest known colony of clonal amoebas.

Scientists found the vast and sticky empire stretching 40 feet across, consisting of billions of genetically identical single-celled individuals, oozing along in the muck of a cow pasture outside Houston...

Scientists say the discovery is much more than a mere curiosity, because the colony consists of what are known as social amoebas. Only an apparent oxymoron, social amoebas are able to gather in organized groups and behave cooperatively, some even committing suicide to help fellow amoebas reproduce. The discovery of such a huge colony of genetically identical amoebas provides insight into how such cooperation and sociality might have evolved and may help to explain why microbes are being found to show social behaviors more often than was expected...

Meanwhile, as impressive (or even threatening) as a colony of a couple billion amoebas might sound, it has turned out to be surprisingly fragile.

“Just one week later, it had rained a lot and then it basically was gone,” Mr. Gilbert said.

Apparently, such is the fleeting nature of grand amoebic phenomena, for the Texas clone is not the first to dwindle inexplicably into nothingness. Scientists say that the last traces of what at one point may have been the world’s largest individual amoeba — and the star of a highly productive research program — shriveled in their laboratory last summer until it disappeared.

So even though their existence is fleeting, is it the case these animals also exhibit to some extent altriustic behavior?

BTW, evidently these things can be up to 0.8mm in length, or about 0.031 inches.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Free Will, Behavioral Determinism and Buddhism

I used to be concerned about the Free Will versus Determinism issue. I'm not really that concerned anymore. Humans are not exactly controllable and observable in a systems theoretic with today's technology, and even if they were, the question still wouldn't be answered, because humans would still be doing the experiments.

Maybe we have to wait for the Robot Overlords to take over before we can get an answer.

Regardless, everything's densely interconnected.

Practicing mindfulness to achieve good behavior might not pay off every time like a slot machine, but it beats alternatives.

All that said, as long as you can make any kind of gesture purposefully, it appears that it is an absolute purposefulness, which can be forgiven as being taken as the appearance of freedom.

But it's not absolute in the sense that it can really stand apart from the 10,000 things.

But a lot of gestures equivalent to wiggling one's toe can add up after a while.

It's kind of like going to the gym: don't overdo it, but if you go regularly there will be results.

That probably didn't clear things up, so how about this: Whether or not we're purely meat machines or whether there's other metaphysics involved is outside the category of useful things that Buddhism discusses. (A useful thing that Buddhism might discuss is: I'm suffering! Must be an attachment somewhere! What's the way out? [Followed by a purposeful behavior.])

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Made it to Seoul, and in a couple of days hopefully will post some nice pictures and all that. Made it to Jogyesa. Korea's not bad, actually, but there's certainly more corporate heaviness here (or if you like, vertical integration from the chaebol taken to absurdity) than probably anywhere else in the world. I mean, they have Samsuing Life Insurance and Hyundai Department Stores. But it's not all that bad. Or, as a Korean colleague working for me used to say, "It's stupid, but it's OK."

The other thing I hope to get though is a post, of all things, on the death of the mall, and implications of malls you probably haven't considered.

On edit: Actually, no I'm not going to post on this, because to do so would be kind of an anti-mitzvah, if there were such a word.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

New diary on Daily Kos


I'll be in transit to Seoul in the next couple of days.

More to come...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The last word on miracles from spirituality...

I'll credit Douglas Adams, from The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, with the basic line of reasoning:

The Babel fish is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy recieved not from its own carrier but from those around it, It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. the practical upshot of this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any language.

Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so
mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some
thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. The argument goes something like this:

"I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."

"But," says Man, "the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves that you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. Q.E.D."

"Oh dear," says God, "I hadn't thought of that," and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

"Oh, that was easy," says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove
that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

Most leading theologians claim that this argument isn't worth a pair of fetid dingo's kidneys, but that didn't stop Oolon Colluphid from making a fortune when he used it as the central argument in his book Well That About Wraps It Up For God.

Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

The point is: if you hail from a religious tradition in which faith is paramount, in which it is required, indeed any "miracles" will render faith redundant, which undermines the religious tradition itself. The minute you point to some special transcendent activity of a supernatural being, that is the very minute you have declared that faith in things unseen is not required, and that is the very moment you betray your allegiance to the faith-based religious tradition.

If, however, you plead that one must have faith in the miracle, then you're back to square one, and you must admit that there is doubt that the transcendent has left a calling card.

And so, if for a moment you accept that what you have observed is not a miracle, admitting the doubt that it is not the transcendent activity of said supernatural being, then the possibility of alternative explanations presents itself. And the ethic of sincerity would demand, I would think, that these alternative explanations be examined. And if there is more support for the alternative explanations than for a miracle, what then? Do you become like Nietzche's madman in Thus Spake Zarathustra and proclaim the death of god from rooftops? Really? Is your faith that weak? Allow me to present some middle ground that is accessible, I think, to all.

"It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists," I think (the Christian) Wittgenstein said. You exist. You live and breathe and have various senses. You are aware. Why would you want something more? Why is that not sufficient to help beings?

To Buddhists, greed, hatred, and ignorance are the three poisons, the source of all suffering; and the strongest poison in this regard is greed. (Christians could translate that to pride, itself a form of greed.) Trungpa Rinpoche, his character flaws and extreme alchoholic behavior aside, rightly pointed out that spiritual materialism is a form of greed. Spiritual materialism and spiritual hucksterism intersect at the point where the transcendent is entreated to make a show of itself, when the very breath being breathed makes anything else look like the existential equivalent of a McDonald's Happy Meal compared to the fare at a Michelin-rated eatery.

Why would you want anything more?

So you think you know heaven and hell...

Hakuin in one of his writings mentions the existence of heaven and hell, and asserts their reality. His reasons are not quite logical, and with the writings, at least as translated, there's more than a bit of defensiveness.

What to do with that?

Accept him at his word?

I do tend to subscribe to the ideas, as expounded by other Buddhists, that heaven and hell are what you make your life here and now. To be fair to Hakuin, he could be read that way, but that could just as well be a clever way around some statements that are hard to defend. It could be historical revisionism.

Generally, I tend to take a nontheist view of things; it is not important to the work of transcending suffering, curing the 3 poisons and so forth to speculate deeply about metaphysics. This comports with Buddhist viewpoints going back millenia, going back to the Buddha himself, who when asked about such things is said to have responded with a noble silence.

Hakuin couldn't have been totally ignorant of this, he was very learned to say the least, but his writing though could as well be informed by the Lotus Sutra, in particular where doctrines of upaya are presented. Quan-Yin/Kannon/Avolkitesvara will assume any form needed to accomplish compassion, if compassion is sought. Hakuin understood that there was a "popular" Buddhism that lay people followed because they could not afford the learning and leisure to practice zazen of the clerical class.

Hakuin was not above criticizing some of the abuses and decadence he saw in Buddhism of his time and place however.

I guess the difference is that between "thought leaders" - people who decide where to take culture by their unique position and leadership, and the masses, who don't have the time and leisure to consider deeply the spiritual, religious, political, psychological and otherwise "technical" (medical, scientific, legal...) aspects of the life they must live now.

So I want to make myself a bit clearer: I have nothing against any individual who decides to practice a 12 Step program, for whatever reason, if they think they need it. I even have nothing against those who, for want of a better solution, recommend a solution to a problem known to be suboptimal. But for those who are peddling known suboptimal solutions, based on snake-oil as some kind of universal optimum I modestly dissent, to use the words of the Scottish Calvinists in response to the Jacobites. When adherents of a sect claim some kind of metaphysical reality being breached uniquely to that sect, I have to respond: what is my experience, chopped liver? And when someone claims that their sect and its supporting structures has science behind hit, when there is none, I am compelled morally, I am acting ex cathedra, so to speak, from my vows to bring up what science is, why there is no science in the organization. And if there's a dodgy history behind the sect I will have to mention it. There's dodgy history in my sect, and I bring it up, should hucksters get a pass because they claim they "help people?"

The answer to my questions above, by the way, is to respectfully disagree with Hakuin's positions on heaven and hell, at least insofar as a noble silence on such subjects is disagreement.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The awe and fun of engineering...

One of the more amusing aspects of something I read about this Ken Wilber guy is that, from what I've read, he regards much of science and scientists as "flatland" or "flatlanders," or whatever, as if he wants to relegate scientists to a "less-than full number of dimensions" of existence.

It's amusing because Wilber clearly is displaying his lack of knowledge of a vast variety of fields; I have looked for a definition of the opposite of polymath, but haven't been able to find one.


Well, here's why:

  • The term "flatland" goes back to this book, developed by a guy with a mathematics background, to say the least. Ken Wilber did not choose to express concepts claiming us tech types were limited without using terms tech types invented to broaden expression!

  • Wilber evidently has never had any experience in science or engineering, because if he did, he might understand the appeal, which comes from knowing something is true to a metaphysical certainty, with no chance of there being disagreement. My recent work is based on a fundamental theorem of information theory. The main theorem was proved by someone else; I am simply not that bright or don't have the time. However much of the ancillary design was based on "little theorems" or through brute force experimentation that was developed by myself, some of which was not obvious to my main collaborator. The feeling one gets when one designs something based on a theorem being true (especially that you yourself have engineered and proven) is awe and humility. It enables one to imagine the feelings going with being the first person to see the sights from Mount Everest. It is "one taste" that no one has tasted before, but thanks to efforts by one's self and others, all can taste now. It is a big responsibility and serious business, too.

There's a lot of electrical and mechanical energy spent in the Buddhist blogosphere (and elsewhere) on spiritual and religious issues; elsewhere many want for something or someone beyond what is here now, and what pervades the whole universe. But when you can take the facticity of "A," (whatever "A" is, though I could go off on a nice Buddhist tangent here) and exploit it so that time, energy or bandwidth is conserved, you know you are reading the mind of god, as an atheist professor of mine mentioned in a similar context. There simply is no way to critique such a spirituality if you haven't been there and done that or something similar. And it fills a practical need. People all want to make sense of why they are existing in this time and place, in ill-fitting finitude to all appearances. But nobody wants to do that while paying through the nose for energy or for their cell phone bill.

I have mentioned elsewhere that my intellectual property is or will soon be on track to be more widely disseminated than Michael Jackson or Madonna. It's the economics of it all that are the reason of course as to why a) my IP is more widely disseminated and b) why pop music intellectual property is more widely known. But that's somewhat of a pity, because there's a certain elegance in extensions of Shannon's work that just can't be appreciated without a technical background. And unlike certain other forms of intellectual property, it will work as advertised.

So, I'm very grateful to be doing work that gives great fun and great awe. And when folks give advice as to how "limited" my work/outlook/philosophy/etc. is, my advice is, get a doctorate in a field like systems engineering, patent a few things and get back to me. Or do something similar, even if it's in Sculpey-Clay. Or at least try.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Richard Dawkins in the Lions' Den

The guy's got courage...and here's an example of what he's up against. It's pretty appalling actually.

More on 12 Step Groups...

At the tail end of an unusually successful week which I hope to allude to more here, I had an e-mail exchange with a relative that was odd, to say the least. This particular relative of mine, a woman, had long had behaviors that most of the rest of my family had considered, ah, unusual, which I won't go into here, but suffice it to say that while her son was growing up, other members of my family, along with myself, concluded that, "He's going to have problems growing up."

He did, exhibited some substance abuse behaviors over a prolonged period of time, got put in rehab, and has been in a 12 Step group for a number of years, and to my knowledge has not re-engaged in those behaviors. Good for him. I hope that he never experiences the downsides of 12 Step programs, which have been well-documented.

Anyway, the other day this relative - the son's mother - sent around to family members an article from Nature, (sorry, no free linky) in which she claimed "studies discussed add new insight into AA and similar programs."

Within this article, despite my relative's claims, no studies' results were actually discussed through the entire article. That I could find. While some papers were listed as footnotes, clearly the publication requirements for Nature do not match the peer review requirements for any of journals in which I've been published.

Now 12 Step programs have never been shown safe and effective for anything (which, when pointed out to my relative she replied that safety and effectiveness for treatments applied only to "drugs and devices," as though things that insurance companies pay for for heath purposes - like 12 Step meeting attendance in rehabs- don't all need to work and it's OK if they hurt you or make you suicidal!) As someone committed to helping all beings transcend suffering, this is appalling, to say the least.

Now I had never read Nature, but as it turns out, it's somewhat less sophisticated than Scientific American, if this article is any judge (the author of the article is a freelance writer, with no scientific, medical, or public health policy background listed in the article). Anyhow, the telltale signs that this was not an article about any of the aforementioned disciplines was here:

Spiritual control
And then there is religion, which has been shown to have a strong inverse association
with drug addiction. Psychologist Michael McCullough, who studies religion and behavior at the University of Miami in Florida, calls this inverse association “one of the most unsung findings in the entire literature on drug and alcohol abuse”. Both adults and children deemed religious by various measures “drink, smoke and do drugs less often”, McCullough says. “If they get into trouble with drinking
and drugs and smoking, they’re more likely to be able to get away from those problems.” McCullough suggests that when a person commits to any cultural system that regulates behavior, the psychological effort to conform strengthens the brain systems that mediate self-monitoring and self-control. “What makes religion unique, I think, is that the code of conduct isn’t just laid down by your parents
or your friends or your principal at school, but ostensibly by the individual who is superintending the Universe, so it has an extra moral

Now, this would make any scientist's alarms go off, because here is an empirically testable claim; it is falsifiable: does religion, specifically a monotheistic religion make one less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol?. We can look at studies of religious people and behaviors.

And the answer is no, it does not. While there is less alcohol consumption amongst sects that prohibit it, we certainly have the experience as a nation with Prohibition (both of alcohol and drugs like marijuana) that shows that prohibiting consumption of substances tends to produce more harmful behaviors than the act itself. The history of alcohol prohibition, for example, was that prohibition produced substantially higher consumption of alcohol (and more unsafe alcohol) than prior to Prohibition. That, plus the explosion in crime, was why it was repealed. This situation has also been observed in teaching sexual abstinence only to youths.

And 12 Step Groups ( links here)?

After several months of indoctrination with A.A. 12-Step dogma, the alcoholics in A.A. were doing five times as much binge drinking as a control group that got no treatment at all, and nine times as much binge drinking as another group that got Rational Behavior Therapy.

It would be unethical to recommend such things, and so it's not surprising that the author of the Nature article is not a member in a profession where such ethical concerns are paramount. We know, at any rate, why these "findings" are "unsung."

It's because they've been found to be false.

Why do people push stuff that's obviously false?

Why did the Bushies push abstinence education? Why does the Catholic Church dissuade people from using condoms for the prevention of many sexually transmitted diseases?

Religious belief. Evidence contrary to one's belief is often discounted.

Let's continue a bit:

Some religious rituals, he says, have been shown to provoke enhanced activity in prefrontal regions. “It’s as if certain forms of prayer and
meditation are pinpointing precisely those [prefrontal] areas of the brain that people rely on to control attention, to control negative emotion and resolve mental conflict.”

There's been studies done on meditation, and it's kind of telling that the author refers to certain forms of prayer and meditation. Which ones? Which ones should someone avoid? I could probably look up studies, but the fact that this is all blurred by the author suggests that this is a point he probably does not want to make.

This blogger became a Zen Buddhist because of the personal efficacy of practicing mindfulness throughout the day. I make no claims regarding the efficacy of my practice on a worldwide scale; and think there was wisdom in dissuading just anyone from joining the temple. While I desire to help all beings transcend suffering, part of the process of skillful means of that is not to proselytize.

However the twelve-step strategies actually work on the brain, “there is now excellent documentation that those who attend AA-type programmes regularly do very well by anyone’s standard”, says Thomas McLellan, director of the Treatment Research
Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The problem, McLellan says, is that the
vast majority of people who enter such programmes do not go regularly — they
drop out after a few days or weeks — and are more than likely to relapse.

As long as "anyone's standard" isn't a correlation of attendance with the program and not engaging in abusive behaviors, one might conclude that AA type programs "do very well by anyone's standard."

I could go on. Later on in the article there's a quote about a researcher linking substance abuse issues to "Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder." These two disorders may well be social constructs combined with a great deal of suggestion.

Finally, on this point, it's useful to remember the words of William Blake about 200 years ago: "Prisons are built with the Stones of Law, Brothels with the Bricks of Religion." Prohibition in the form of religion coerced by a monotheistic deity was caught out by the Romantics. No amount of brain jargon will remove that, and such things have the added difficulty that they lack concision and elegance.

How then to deal with substance abuse?

Pay attention. Teach others to pay attention.

Friday, March 13, 2009

And, speaking of Chinese Youtube Videos

If you haven't seen this, you haven't lived:

More on the Saga of the Grass Mud Horse

Someone helpfully translated the sounds-like naughty bits from Chinese

The things you can't do with English...

And if you wonder why I post this rather than inveigh against the horrors done against Tibetan culture, well...well...

  • I'm sorry, but this is funnier. As Jon Stewart showed by doing, don't underestimate the power of humor to move the world.

  • It shows the Chinese are not monolithic on things

  • It probably does more to create peace and harmony than a dozen "Free Tibet" protests at the White House.

  • Besides, I do hail from a tradition where the answer in a dharma confrontation to the question of "What is Buddha?" was "a dry shit-stick."

Stuff I want to do...

  • Write the Dalai Lama and ask him questions based on the issues which I've recently raised. I think the responses would go a long way in mutual understanding of Tibet relations.

  • Write the Chinese to ask their views on Tibet. There is almost "naturally" a cheerleading section of the American Buddhist blogosphere.

  • Post comments on "Norman Einstein," which is quite a hatchet job on "Ken Wilber," and much of which is likely true. However, it is also clear from my skimming of the book that a critique of the author's point of view is in order as well.

  • Say a bit more about 12 Step believers who practice Buddhism. There's things that needs to be said about the confluence of science, public policy, and religion.

I hope to get to the above items soon, but having made a pretty useful discovery in my work, with the help of colleagues, I simply lack the time today, or perhaps until, I dunno, until a couple of weeks from now? Not that there'll be no postings until then, there will, but I wanted to write about what I want to write about.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

And just to keep things fair and balanced all around...


BEIJING — Since its first unheralded appearance in January on a Chinese Web page, the grass-mud horse has become nothing less than a phenomenon.

A YouTube children’s song about the beast has drawn nearly 1.4 million viewers. A grass-mud horse cartoon has logged a quarter million more views. A nature documentary on its habits attracted 180,000 more. Stores are selling grass-mud horse dolls. Chinese intellectuals are writing treatises on the grass-mud horse’s social importance. The story of the grass-mud horse’s struggle against the evil river crab has spread far and wide across the Chinese online community.

Not bad for a mythical creature whose name, in Chinese, sounds very much like an especially vile obscenity. Which is precisely the point.

The grass-mud horse is an example of something that, in China’s authoritarian system, passes as subversive behavior. Conceived as an impish protest against censorship, the foul-named little horse has not merely made government censors look ridiculous, although it has surely done that.

I have to ask my wife what the dirty word is supposed to be, because, uh, it's been censored from the NY Times story. But it appears that it has something to do with sexual intercourse and one's mother. Which is not surprising because within every mother (妈) there's a bit of horse (馬). Don't blame me; I didn't invent the language.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Permit me to dissent from the Dalai Lama Hoopla

Here's a bit of corrective to some of the recent hoopla over the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama leaving Tibet, for example, here.


No mere spiritual leader, he was the head of Tibet's government when he went into exile in 1959. It was a state apparatus run by aristocratic, nepotistic monks that collected taxes, jailed and tortured dissenters and engaged in all the usual political intrigues. (The Dalai Lama's own father was almost certainly murdered in 1946, the consequence of a coup plot.)

The government set up in exile in India and, at least until the 1970s, received $US1.7 million a year from the CIA.

The money was to pay for guerilla operations against the Chinese, notwithstanding the Dalai Lama's public stance in support of non-violence, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

The Dalai Lama himself was on the CIA's payroll from the late 1950s until 1974, reportedly receiving $US15,000 a month ($US180,000 a year).

The funds were paid to him personally, but he used all or most of them for Tibetan government-in-exile activities, principally to fund offices in New York and Geneva, and to lobby internationally.

Details of the government-in-exile's funding today are far from clear. Structurally, it comprises seven departments and several other special offices. There have also been charitable trusts, a publishing company, hotels in India and Nepal, and a handicrafts distribution company in the US and in Australia, all grouped under the government-in-exile's Department of Finance...

It is not clear how donations enter [the exile government in Tibet's] budgeting. These are likely to run to many millions annually, but the Dalai Lama's Department of Finance provided no explicit acknowledgment of them or of their sources.

Certainly, there are plenty of rumours among expatriate Tibetans of endemic corruption and misuse of monies collected in the name of the Dalai Lama.

Many donations are channelled through the New York-based Tibet Fund, set up in 1981 by Tibetan refugees and US citizens. It has grown into a multimillion-dollar organisation that disburses $US3 million each year to its various programs.

Part of its funding comes from the US State Department's Bureau for Refugee Programs.

Like many Asian politicians, the Dalai Lama has been remarkably nepotistic, appointing members of his family to many positions of prominence. In recent years, three of the six members of the Kashag, or cabinet, the highest executive branch of the Tibetan government-in-exile, have been close relatives of the Dalai Lama.

An older brother served as chairman of the Kashag and as the minister of security. He also headed the CIA-backed Tibetan contra movement in the 1960s.

A sister-in-law served as head of the government-in-exile's planning council and its Department of Health.

A younger sister served as health and education minister and her husband served as head of the government-in-exile's Department of Information and International Relations.

Oh, here's something the Dalai Lama doesn't exactly talk much about...

BEIJING -- Chinese geologists have discovered more than 600 new sites of copper, iron, lead and zinc ore deposits on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau since 1999, according to the results of the latest geological survey.

Preliminary estimates show the plateau has reserves of 30 million to 40 million tons of copper, 40 million tons of lead and zinc and billions of tons of iron, said Zhang Hongtao, vice director of the China Geological Survey Bureau.

Zhang said geologists have also compiled the country's first Qinghai-Tibet plateau geological map on the scale of 1:250,000 and the plateau's first map of metal and nonmetal deposits on the scale of 1:1.5 million.

Currently 90 percent of China's iron ore deposits are of low grade but geologists have discovered three large high-grade iron ore deposits on the plateau, including the one in Nyixung with reserves of 300 million to 500 million tons.

Large quantities of oil shale resources, which could be turned into oil, were also found on the plateau.

The plateau may have "large or super-large" deposits of hydrocarbon resources, said Zhang, adding that geologists had detected promising reserves of oil and gas in northern Tibet.

"These deposits will fundamentally ease China's shortages of mineral resources", said Zhang.

Oh, one more thing:

Here's some context as to how the Chinese no doubt think of the whole Dalai Lama thing. Admittedly, it's an American history source, but still...

Call it the Shangri-La factor. In the popular imagination, pre-Communist Tibet was a fabled theocracy in which a beatific Dalai Lama smiled over a kingdom where no man raised a hand in violence as he spun his prayer wheel in search of nirvana. Then along came the Communist Chinese, who made short work of these placid people. Fifty years after the Chinese takeover of Tibet, the myth still persists and has even grown, thanks to the media and the increased interest of Westerners in Buddhism.

But contrary to the pop history version, the Tibetans did not simply let the Chinese roll over their country in 1951. For almost 20 years afterward they fought a long, bloody war of resistance that struck serious blows to Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s expansionist plans. Invisible to outsiders as it raged, this largely unknown struggle that no novelist could have dreamed up got support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which sponsored secret training camps and made arms and equipment drops to aid horse-mounted herdsmen against the bombers and artillery of the largest standing army on the planet.

By way of background, the story begins in the fall of 1951, when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) marched into the ancient Tibetan capital at Lhasa, after forcing the Dalai Lama’s religious government to sign a ‘Plan for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet.’ This thin fiction of an agreement was somewhat maintained in Lhasa, but in the outlying regions the Chinese occupation involved forced collectivization and the killing of tribal chiefs and lamas.

At that time influential Tibetan traders began to mobilize in a resistance movement that would later become Chushi Gandrug (Four Rivers, Six Mountains). Chushi Gandrug’s organizer was a hard-fighting, hard-drinking 51-year-old trader named Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang. Uncoordinated and poorly armed as they were, Tibetans conducted a series of surprisingly successful raids and battles.

A widespread popular revolt finally broke out in February 1956, after the Chinese bombed ancient monasteries at Chatreng and Litang, killing thousands of monks and civilians massed there for protection. Given the growing military might of Tibet’s occupiers, Gompo Tashi and the meagerly equipped Chushi Gandrug knew they were going to need outside support. Consequently, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, Gyalo Thondup, who had already been approached by the CIA, contacted the Americans. The Americans, he found, were quite intrigued with the prospect of supporting the Tibetans as part of a global anti-Communist campaign. If nothing else, their resistance would be one more way to create a ‘running sore for the reds,’ as one CIA man put it, even though at the top levels of the U.S. administration there was no pretense of commitment to Tibetan independence. Gompo Tashi’s guerrillas were excited at the prospect of American support. They knew little about the United States, but judging from the Communist propaganda they received, this faraway country was China’s greatest enemy.

The Chinese no doubt saw this movement headed by the Dalai Lama as an attempt to destabilize their government.

I could go on, but there's clearly more than what some folks think is going on.

I'm all for nonviolence as is the next guy, but there simply is no parallel for this in the US, unless maybe you think Leonard Peltier qualifies, and there ain't no way he's being let out of prison anytime soon, I'd guess. Maybe at the end of Obama's second term.

But I would invite other Buddhists, especially bloggers, to consider that the Dalai Lama's image, like any other political figure, is crafted and packaged, and does not necessarily conform to the historical reality. The Dalai Lama was, and no doubt in the in eyes of the Chinese, still is a leader of a violent rebellion, one which goes to attack very heart of the official dogma on which the legitimacy of the People's Republic of China rests: i.e., that all the people are the source of the legitimacy off the government regardless of their nationality.

As with the prevalence of racism in the US, the situation in China in this regard has historically been problematic, no doubt. But the Dalai Lama as democrat, advocate of freedom, truth, justice, etc. is not the historical truth, it's historical revisionism. And his cause, certainly to the Chinese, has less to do with this or "preservation of Tibetan culture" (even with the baggage on race that goes with that) than other aims which might have more material concerns behind them.

Mormons in the news...

I'm not talking about Proposition 8 do-overs or anything like that. Evidently they got sensitive about the fact that polygamy's in their history, or more to the point that "secret temple ceremonies" are depicted in a premium cable show on polygamy.

The mafia never complained about the Sopranos. Desparados never complained about Deadwood. Didn't the Mormons get the message that any publicity is good publicity?

Anyway, if that's such an issue don't you think they'd go after the Salt Lake Tribune for having a polygamy blog?

I mean, the NY Times has a Freakonomics blog by the behavioral economics authors, they have a Stanley Fish postmodern philosophy blog, they even have a science blog written by a a non-scientist who pretends to talk about science.

But alas, they lack a polygamy blog.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why I never got a job on Wall Street:

From a so-so primer about "quants" in today's NY Times:

One of the most outspoken critics is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a former trader and now a professor at New York University. He got a rock-star reception at the World Economic Forum in Davos this winter. In his best-selling book “The Black Swan” (Random House, 2007), Dr. Taleb, who made a fortune trading currency on Black Monday, argues that finance and history are dominated by rare and unpredictable events.

“Every trader will tell you that every risk manager is a fraud,” he said, and options traders used to get along fine before Black-Scholes. “We neverhad any respect for nerds.”

Dr. Taleb has waged war against one element of modern economics in particular: the assumption that price fluctuations follow the familiar bell curve that describes, say, IQ scores or heights in a population, with a mean change and increasingly rare chances of larger or smaller ones, according to so-called Gaussian statistics named for the German mathematician Friedrich Gauss.

But many systems in nature, and finance, appear to be better described by the fractal statistics popularized by Benoit Mandelbrot of IBM, which look the same at every scale. An example is the 80-20 rule that 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work, or have 80 percent of the money. Within the blessed 20 percent the same rule applies, and so on. As a result the odds of game-changing outliers like Bill Gates’s fortune or a Black Monday are actually much greater than the quant models predict, rendering quants useless or even dangerous, Dr. Taleb said.

I suspect if you go over the books of these places, you'll find that very little pure R&D was done.

Dr. Taleb is right (to a point) though I would have used (and still do, in fact in other contexts) different models.

My thesis was in the area of nonlinear detection and estimation in dependent non-Gaussian noise.

I guess I was over-educated for Wall Street.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Confluence of Ken Wilber & Reality...

I've had a breakthrough in the work I've been doing, sort of (a real breakthrough would be to transfer my problem-solving methodology to someone else so I can solve more problems, but that hasn't happened yet).

However, I have had a breakthrough in the work I've been doing, that basically is predicted by a theorem of information theory. What wasn't predicted though is how the particular realization of what I'm working on is realized. Because of the complexity of the systems involved, it's quite a bit easier to assign the problem of how to choose the best design to be solved by a computer, more or less (less than you might think from this description however). But it requires the old Edison trick of trying 99 things before the 100th. So while it wasn't a sure thing that the 100th thing I tried would be da bomb, as it was once said, it was a certainty that something would be "it."

In an interesting coincidence, I've also been involved in a discussion on methodological naturalism versus (I guess) metaphysics here, where this Ken Wilber stuff came in again.

Now I've taken various kinds of personality tests, and I have found - perhaps it's a result of my zen practice, or perhaps the fact that I'm a low level manager - that I'm the type of person that wants a summary, I want you to tell me the concise story and key points in 5 words or less.

Ken Wilber doesn't do that for me, to say the least, and the fact that it appears that he's trying to construct intellectual edifices with a verbosity and jargon that makes his writings hard to penetrate engenders skepticism in me. Seriously, I've found Sartre, Derrida and Kierkegaard much easier to read, and Mr. Wilber cannot tie their shoelaces intellectually. The fact that he appears to opine on science and methodological naturalism is embarrassing, or ought to be to him.

Anyway, from the link above, one link lead to another and finally to here. Quoting Mr. Wilber:

Why can't evolutionary science seem to bring us any closer to understanding our own interior experiences, as scientific materialists attempt to explain consciousness by explaining it away?

This is kind of like asking "Why doesn't Galois Theory bring us any closer to an understanding of Differential Geometry?" except for the fact that evolutionary biology does seem to have a great deal to say about observations of other species, which in turn do have implications about the nature of our own awareness. I'd refer to the interested reader to folks like Richard Dawkins or other biologists, but I'd just note in passing that elephants and other mammals appear to get death on some level.

That last link's writer kind of gets it:

If Wilber still has doubts about the possibility of "chance" evolution of eyes and wings, he would do well to consult Ernst Mayr, who writes in What Evolution Is (2001, Appendix A: "What Criticisms Have Been Made Of Evolutionary Theory?", p. 269):

The story of evolution as it was worked out during the past fifty years continues to be attacked and criticized. The critics either hold an entirely different ideology, as do the creationists, or they simply misunderstand the Darwinian paradigm. An author [such as Wilber] who says: "I can not believe that the eye evolved through a series of accidents," documents that he or she simply does not understand the two-step nature of natural selection [i.e. random variation and [quasi-]non-random survival and reproduction, see p. 119-120]."

I had to add the [quasi] in above as there is something elegantly random about death and reproduction (i.e., the famed "birth death process") which are actually hardly "accidents"; this brings us to another point about these topics: most people who are critics of evolution (or for that matter, derivative securities) who talk about random events and such also don't know what they're talking about.

There is also a non-random element to survival and reproduction as well, which the author rightly notes.

Also read Mr. Visser here.

Ken Wilber really does not seem to understand evolutionary biology or science at all, which would imply of course that his understanding of philosophy is lacking in the basics (science didn't spring from somebody who wanted to come up with an alternative pastime to Scrabble), and in particular, his shtick, "Integral Theory" has in fact a huge gaping hole.

Wilber doesn't seem to get that science indeed has predictive uses, and can predict things that have not been previously observed. Lucky for me though, I've been able to show a very interesting preliminary result. And the feeling I get is...awe.

Ken Wilber is present in his words, and geez, I'm present in mine. I'm very grateful that I can make a living, especially in these times, observing things and predicting things and doing the science of engineering.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

I had more profound stuff to say, but...

Yeah, I would like my health care delivered to me as efficiently as the Post Office delivers mail, even considering the vast amounts of junk mail which I reliably receive.

Seriously, I'm seriously swamped with work. The "Edison thing," trying 99 things that don't work because the 100th thing will sing. I won't go into detailst, but if you google "Degraded Broadcast Channels," you can get a flavor.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009



Presently perched on a Delta 2 rocket at Cape Canaveral is a one-ton spacecraft called Kepler. If all goes well, the rocket will lift off about 10:50 Friday evening on a journey that will eventually propel Kepler into orbit around the Sun. There the spacecraft’s mission will be to discover Earth-like planets in Earth-like places — that is to say, in the not-too-cold, not-too-hot, Goldilocks zones around stars where liquid water can exist.

Kepler’s strategy is, in effect, to search for the shadows of planets. The core of the spacecraft, which carries a 55-inch-diameter telescope, is a 95-million-pixel digital camera. For three and a half years, the telescope will stare at the same patch of sky about 10 degrees, or 20 full moons, wide, in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. It will read out the brightnesses of 100,000 stars every half-hour, looking for the telltale blips when a planet crosses in front of its star, a phenomenon known as a transit.

To detect something as small as the Earth, the measurements need to be done with a precision available only in space, away from the atmospheric turbulence that makes stars twinkle, and far from Earth so that our home world does not intrude on the view of shadow worlds in that patch of sky. It will take three or more years — until the end of Barack Obama’s current term in office — before astronomers know whether Kepler has found any distant Earths.

If Kepler finds the planets, Dr. Borucki explained, life could be common in the universe. The results will point the way for future missions aimed at getting pictures of what Carl Sagan, the late Cornell astronomer and science popularizer, called “pale blue dots” out in the universe, and the search for life and perhaps intelligence.

But the results will be profound either way. If Kepler doesn’t come through, that means Earth is really rare and we might be the only extant life in the universe and our loneliness is just beginning. “It would mean there might not be ‘Star Trek,’ ” Dr. Borucki said during a recent news conference.

We might answer the question "Are there other worlds like ours?" relatively soon.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

To appreciate life is as rare as soil on top of one's fingernails.

And that makes Prof. Dawkins sort of a Buddhist, actually.