Friday, May 30, 2008

What Buddhists shouldn't do when given a microphone...


PARIS — Christian Dior, the French fashion brand, has become the latest global company to learn a hard lesson about the danger of offending Chinese pride.

Facing the possibility of a boycott of its products, the luxury company said on Thursday that it had dropped the American actress Sharon Stone from its advertising in China after she suggested last week that the recent earthquakes in Sichuan Province were karmic retribution for Beijing’s treatment of Tibet...

Ms. Stone said last week during the Cannes Film Festival: “I’m not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans because I don’t think anyone should be unkind to anyone else. And then the earthquake and all this stuff happened, and then I thought, is that karma? When you’re not nice that the bad things happen to you?”

I'm not sure if Stone is a Buddhist or not, but that comment was heartless and idiotic, and not unlike John Hagee saying a Katrina devastated New Orleans because of the gays or something like that.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Junk Food, Stress, Monkeys and Modern America

Danny Fisher, by way of this article from the NY Times on meditation, inadvertantly reminded me of this article from last week...(mostly) about what's in the title of this post...

The ladies who lunch do not obsess about their weight in the rhesus monkey compound at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. Food is freely available, and the high-status females do not pride themselves on passing it up. They don’t seem to stigmatize obesity — there is no equivalent of a Kirstie Alley joke — and they certainly don’t turn themselves into Social X-Rays.

In fact, the dominant females ordinarily eat a little more than the subordinates. The lower status monkeys can get as much food as they want but seem to have less of a desire to eat, perhaps because of the higher level of stress hormones in their brain. The anxiety of constantly toadying to their social superiors seems to curb their appetite, researchers suspect, at least when their regular high-fiber, low-fat chow is on the menu.

But suppose you tempted them with the equivalent of chocolate and potato chips and ice cream? Mark Wilson, a neuroscientist at Emory University, and a team tried that experiment at Yerkes by installing feeders with a constant supply of banana-flavored pellets — not exactly Dove bars, but they had enough sugar and fat to appeal even to human palates. (In the interest of science, I sampled a few pellets.)

Once these foods were available, the low-status monkeys promptly developed an appetite. They began eating significantly more calories than their social superiors. While the dominant monkeys dabbled in the sweet, fatty pellets just during the daytime, the subordinate monkeys kept scarfing them down after dark...

In that experiment, the dominant monkeys didn’t show much interest in pressing a lever that administered an intravenous dose of cocaine. But the subordinate monkeys, who started off with compromised dopamine receptors, kept pushing the lever to get more cocaine, just as the subordinates in the new study kept munching on the fatty pellets. Dr. Wilson suggests that the snackers are reinforcing the dopamine systems that had been diminished by stress.

“Essentially, eating high-calorie foods becomes a coping strategy to deal with daily life events for an individual in a difficult social situation,” Dr. Wilson said. “The subordinates don’t get beat up, but they get harassed by high-ranking monkeys. If they’re sitting somewhere and a dominant monkey comes over, they give up their seat and move away. They’re always looking over their shoulders.”

These results seem to jibe with the famous Whitehall study of British civil servants, which found that lower-ranking workers were more obese than higher-status workers. Even though the subordinate workers were neither poor nor lacked health care, their lower status correlated with more health problems.

The new monkey data also jibe with an American study that looked at women’s snacking tendencies. After they worked on puzzles and recorded a speech, the women were tempted with an array of chocolate granola bars, potato chips, rice cakes and pretzels provided by the research team, led by Elissa Epel, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

The women who seemed most stressed by the tasks, as measured by their levels of cortisol, ate more of the sweet, high-fat snacks, the same pattern observed in the subordinate monkeys with high cortisol levels. But as Dr. Wilson and others caution, there are plenty of other factors besides status and stress that affect humans’ diets and waistlines.

Debra A. Zellner, a psychologist at Montclair State University, tested both men and women by putting bowls of potato chips, M&Ms, peanuts and red grapes on a table as the participants in the study worked on solving anagrams. Some of the people were given unsolvable anagrams, and they understandably reported being more stressed than the ones given easy anagrams.

Well, Americans are certainly more stressed due to the economy, due to suburban planning forcing long commutes, due to every last nickel being squeezed everywhere.

Americans don't hardly cook at home anymore, I'm told. (We eat out way too often.)

This low cost petroleum lifestyle isn't so healthy.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Marx was only 1/2 right: sometimes the satire goes first...

From today's WSJ:

Fertilizer prices are rising faster than those of almost any other raw material used by farmers. In April, farmers paid 65% more for fertilizer than they did a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That compares with price increases of 43% for fuel, 30% for seeds and 3.8% for chemicals such as weedkillers and insecticides over the same period, according to Agriculture Department indexes.

Those skyrocketing costs are making it harder for farmers to expand their harvests in response to the global food crisis that has sparked rioting, rationing and export controls in many countries. Food prices have soared in recent months as the world's growing demand for grain, which has exceeded production for much of this decade, has reduced stockpiles to extremely low levels...

Major fertilizer producers deny any allegations of gouging. They say they are simply raising prices to reflect tight supplies and growing demand after years of relatively low prices.

But there's an unusual piece in the pricing puzzle: In several countries, obscure laws shield makers of potash and phosphate from certain antitrust rules. In the U.S., for example, phosphate makers are among a handful of industries empowered by the 1918 Webb-Pomerene Act to talk with competitors about pricing and other issues...

Phosphate, a mineral found in fossilized marine life, provides essential nutrients for plant-cell development, while potash, a rock mined from the earth, helps plants grow strong. Prices of both are climbing faster than those of nitrogen, which is manufactured in a process that requires lots of natural gas.

In North America, nitrogen fertilizers are applied liberally to corn and wheat fields. Urea, a nitrogen-carrying fertilizer, is selling for around $600 a ton, twice the price a year ago, mostly because of a steep run-up in natural-gas prices.

The price of phosphate has climbed to about $1,000 a ton, up from $365 last year, according to Green Markets, a trade publication, while the price of a ton of potash is now more than $700, up from $230.

Even though - like with oil, we're consuming the biomass of What Went Before, and therefore yet another leading indicator of how screwed we are, I realized that this is one possible solution to the problem...:

... A hospital lobby. A line of people are being ushered through. A sign says 'Blood Donors' with an arrow in the direction they're all going. Mr Samson is in a white coat.
Samson Blood donors that way, please.
Donor Oh thank you very much (joins the line).
Samson Thank you. (Grimshaw comes up to him and whispers in his ear, Samson looks at him, slightly surprised) What? (Grimshaw whispers again) No. No, I'm sorry but no. (Grimshaw whispers again) No, you may not give urine instead of blood. (Grimshaw whispers again) No, well, I don't care if you want to. (Grimshaw whispers again) No. There is no such thing as a urine bank.
Grimshaw Please.
Samson No. We have no call for it. We've quite enough of it without volunteers coming in here donating it.
Grimshaw Just a specimen.
Samson No, we don't want a specimen. We either want your blood or nothing.
Grimshaw I'll give you some blood if you'll give me...
Samson What?
Grimshaw A thing to do some urine in.
Samson No, no, just go away please.
Grimshaw Anyway, I don't want to give you any blood.
Samson Fine, well you don't have to, you see, just go away.
Grimshaw Can I give you some spit?
Samson No.
Grimshaw Sweat?
Samson No.
Grimshaw Earwax?
Samson No, look, this is a blood bank - all we want is blood.
Grimshaw All right, I'll give you some blood.
He holds out a jar full of blood.
Samson Wher did you get that?
Grimshaw Today. It's today's.
Samson What group is it?
Grimshaw What groups are there?
Samson There's A...
Grimshaw It's A.
Samson (sniffing the blood) Wait a moment. It's mine. This blood is mine! What are you doing with it?
Grimshaw I found it.
Samson You found it? You stole it out of my body, didn't you?
Grimshaw No.
Samson No wonder I'm feeling off-colour. (he starts to drink the blood; Grimshaw grabs the bottle) Give that back.
Grimshaw It's mine.
Samson It is not yours. You stole it.
Grimshaw Never.
Samson Give it back to me.
Grimshaw All right. But only if I can give urine.
Samson ...Get in the queue.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

If you're in Portland on June 7...

Come down to the Portland Buddhist Festival.

June 7, 2008, 12:00 pm to 4:30 pm
Colonel Summers Park, SE 17th and Taylor, Portland, Oregon

.....Food and Festivities.....
+Buddhist talks and workshops
+Teachings and activities for Adults and Children
+Tabling by Buddhist Communities

planning meetings April 27, May 18

Contact for more information.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Note: People aren't simplistic.


The New Paradigm for Financial Markets includes Soros’ verdict on the credit crisis. He thinks, as has been widely reported, that it is the most severe since the 1930s, and that it marks the end of a 25-year “era of credit expansion based on the dollar as the international reserve currency”...

His insights are clear and concisely expressed. They are worth reading for anyone interested in the topic. But what is most interesting, and obviously engages Soros at an emotional level, is the idiosyncratic philosophy he has developed to explain the metaphysics of how markets work. Even before the emergence of the efficient markets hypothesis, which has dominated academic thinking on markets for at least three decades, Soros had devised his own theory to prove markets were not efficient. He acted on this philosophy as an investor with spectacularly successful results.

That philosophy derived from his undergraduate studies at the London School of Economics under Karl Popper. The “relationship between thinking and reality”, Soros calls “reflexivity.” It fills the book’s centre in chapters which he admits many will find “heavy going”. In markets, Soros says, participants’ thinking plays a dual function: they try to understand the situation (the “cognitive function”), and to change it (the “manipulative function”). The two functions can interfere with each other; when they do so the market displays “reflexivity”.

So an investor’s misperception of reality can help to change that reality, begetting further misperceptions. When market actors’ decisions affect outcomes, patterns emerge. If a lot of people are bullish about internet stocks their price goes up. Soros used the theory to predict, and profit from, a series of “initially self-reinforcing but eventually self-defeating boom-bust processes, or bubbles”. Each bubble “consists of a trend and a misconception that interact in a reflexive manner”.

A key implication of this is that markets do not tend towards “equilibrium”, as predicted by modern portfolio theory. And they will not move in the “random walk” promulgated by efficient markets theory, which holds that prices always incorporate all known information and so move randomly in response to new information.

So "The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Credit Crisis of 2008 and What It Means" has to be added to my reading list, along with Ariely's book "Predictably Irrational."

Oh, wait, I gotta put in one more quote...

Many will dislike Soros’ politics. Others will find the book self-indulgent. He calls himself a “failed philosopher” and badly wants his theory to reach a broader public. It is hard to imagine it would have been published were he not so famous and successful.

I have become fond in recent years - especially with the exigencies of my current project - of quoting Deng Tsao Ping's "It does not matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice." I could rephrase the last sentence in this as "It is hard to imagine it would have been published were he not so famous and successful his results indicative of the usefulness of his approach."

Within economics you have the classic issue of measure/probability theory: the underlying space - think of the set of all humans engaging in the economy or all humans' economic actions -just doesn't behave as the theory demands it to in order for all the other nice juicy stuff to follow.

Soros is right. Conservative economics - supply side Reagan/Thatcher/Norquist BS is as dead as a McDonald's Big Mac.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Book Review: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

In The Godless Delusion, Dawkins doesn't mention Buddhism much at all, except to say he thinks they're philosphies, not religions. This Buddhist disagrees on that point. Dawkins arguments against the existence of a monotheistic god are cogent, powerful, and above all, far more accessible than the tripe you get at Unfortunately, as a man trained in biology, every argument looks like it can be addressed with evolution. That said, one argument - the argument that says an "Intelligent" "Designer" would have to be hopelessly complex and hence far more unlikely than an evolved ecosystem built up by its own bootstraps a step at a time - is actually quite new to me.

Also unfortunately, he himself doesn't quite get probability theory, or to put it another way, he readily and humbly admits he's confused by quantum theory, but when he says "no no no there's no randmoness" in evolution, he protesteth too much. However, his wonderment shines through even here.

His basic arguments are spot on though.

Two points:

1. He doesn't quite mention theological positions of folks like mine - perhaps because there's so much kinship with his position, he doesn't see the difference. That is, he does not see that much of what he's saying is eventually irrelevant to folks like me, because the question's irrelevant, except perhaps as fodder for keeping busy in coach class.

2. He brings up what is likely some nonsensical controversial book about language and voices in one's head- the title escapes me at the moment and I am too comfortable frankly to get my copy of Dawkin's book to look it up. His point is that perhaps at one time the dialog in one's head was regarded as real. Perhaps it was, but as we have no model for how the ancients perceived consciousness until...yeah, Buddhists...OK, maybe some Hindu writings address such issues, I'm not familiar...but until Buddhists wrote about enlightenment, there wasn't a heckuva lot the ancients wrote about consciousness, though I'd suspect that at least among the lower classes, R.D. Laing's quote of Kierkegaard was probably right: the ancients probably did see angels and halos and all that what-not. Again, it doesn't matter because the dialog in your head is just that anyway; it's the picture of the cake...and that implies that we're likely miles apart from Quakers, despite the alleged similarities of practice.

All in all, very much worth reading. Go out and read it today, in fact, it's in paperback, and a bargain.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Ok, how do you talk about a nice wristwatch on a Buddhist blog?

When I first moved out to the Northwest, I realized that the old Seiko 5 that I had had for decades was beat up, didn't quite look professional, especially when my company's early literature talked about wearing suits and all that.

I had wanted a replacement watch. I didn't really want a quartz movement - first of all there were the batteries. Secondly, a pure (automatic) mechanical movement such as the Seiko 5 had required no attention.

Unfortunately, I could not at the time, find a jewelry dealer in Vancouver that sold a decent non-quartz watch. It was the sticks, you know.

And Rolexes? I couldn't afford one, I wouldn't afford one, and they reeked of being yuppie toys to me.

So I wound up getting an at-the-time nice looking, but essentially cheap Citizen Quartz Chronograph, which tended to need batteries more often than I expected, and at times when it was unfortunate to replace them.

Still, it served me faithfully, more or less, for about 12 years though it got quite beat up. And of course I never actually used any chronograph functions.

And then...I realized that it was really beat up, from being on my wrist in all those coach-class international flights. It looked ridiculous on my hand when I met the CEO of my company.

I just didn't have the ceremonial robes down right, so to speak.

What had really tipped me in the direction of getting a new watch, though, was this article, which I read because my wife got me a subscription to Forbes Life, because frequent flyer miles were expiring, and, you know, it'd be a waste not to use them... Your logic may vary - anyway a variety of magazines started showing up at my home, but that's another story. Ok, let's just say, Forbes Life is conspicuous consumption porn, but it's worthwhile compared to Fortune.

Anyway, I came upon this article, and the engineer in me was fascinated.

The first collectible watch I ever bought was a Rolex Bubbleback, the only timepiece in the 1940s to enclose a self-winding movement in a waterproof case. Admittedly that wasn’t especially impressive by the time I acquired it in 1991—modern quartz didn’t need winding, and watertight plastics were abundant—but what mattered to me was the sheer inventiveness, the audacity of making a watch bulbous as a submarine just so that it could be powered by swimming. In the mid-20th-century, Rolex thrived on technical bravado, making sport of staid jewelry counters by displaying watches inside goldfish bowls, while other companies such as Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin tested the limits of mechanical complexity with watches that tracked phases of the moon or multiple time zones.

Today, that grand old tradition of bold mechanical innovation is back with a vengeance. Aided by the latest advances in chemical and mechanical engineering—and computers, of course—an agile new generation of independent watchmakers is building timepieces that would have been unimaginable in the ’40s, or even the ’90s. Richard Mille combines platinum and steel with resilient new materials developed for fighter jets. Franck Muller engineers gears that rotate only once every thousand years. The most extraordinary contemporary timepieces don’t remind me of 20th-century wristwatches so much as 18th-century philosophical toys such as the mechanical doll that delighted savvy audiences by writing Descartes’famous line “Cogito ergo sum” with a quill pen.

(Note the irony of the last sentence...)

Too, I was reminded of the remonstration Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly made regarding her profession in "The Devil Wears Prada," which struck me as valid: people design this ridiculously expensive stuff not only so that the wealthy have something to conspicuously consume, but also because it helps the rest of us define our image of ourselves to each other. It's a bit of communication.

Andy Sachs: No, no, nothing. Y'know, it's just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y'know, I'm still learning about all this stuff.

Miranda Priestly: This... 'stuff'? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.

That movie is probably the only good date-movie I've seen in 5 years, but that's another trajectory...

I realized that it's high time I searched for a decent non-quartz watch. One that's not as accurate as my cell phone's time function.

I also realized there's the huge sub-stratum of society - like the folks who build model railroads obsessively or collect rocks (not necessarily jewels) who collect watches.

I'm not one of them. But I understand the allure. Here's what I got: the Oris BC3:

This watch should be environmentally correct, last decades to be handed down to my son, and didn't set me back anywhere near like a Rolex. It's readable on a plane on an international journey, it's readable without my reading glasses, and it's got a saphire crystal, so it won't likely get any kind of a serious scratch while I'm alive.

Moreover, you can see the movement moving through the saphire crystal see-through back, and it's movement's movement is reminiscent of Mary Roach's description of the human heart beating - it's doing some kind of wild St. Vitus dance in there. The watch appears alive; its second hand dances across the face.

It's deliriously, beautifully, obsolete and irrelevant. That's quite similar to a description once made by Thomas Merton about monks.

And somehow, I can't think it's totally, completely immoral to have a decent reliable watch in this day and age whose only future environmental footprint is characterized by its tuneups that will be needed years from now.

One final plus: my 6 year old asked me, "Daddy, why does it sound like it's going so fast?" He had never heard a mechanical wristwatch before, and so I got to explain to him about mechanical analogs of phase locked loops and whatnot.

The trouble with the death penalty...

Now that the "Supreme Court" has OK'd lethal injection, it's killing time again in prisons...

“The Supreme Court essentially blessed their way of doing things,” said Douglas A. Berman, a professor of law and a sentencing expert at Ohio State University. “So in some sense, they’re back from vacation and ready to go to work.”

Experts say the resumption of executions is likely to throw a strong new spotlight on the divisive national — and international — issue of capital punishment.

“When people confront a new wave of executions, they’ll be questioning not only how people are executed but whether people should be executed,” said James R. Acker, a historian of the death penalty and a criminal justice professor at the State University at Albany.

Texas leads the list with five people now set to die here in the Walls Unit, the state’s death house, between June 3 and Aug. 20. Virginia is next with four. Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Dakota have also set execution dates.

Some welcome the end of the moratorium.

“We’ll start playing a little bit of catch-up,” said William R. Hubbarth, a spokesman for Justice for All, a victims rights group based in Houston.

“It’s not like we have a cheering section for the death penalty.” Mr. Hubbarth said. But, he added: “The capital murderers set to be executed should be executed post-haste. It’s not about killing the inmate. It’s about imposing the penalty that 12 of his peers have assessed.”

Which means that the "State," that entity representing you and me, create a behavior, on behalf of you and me, explicitly bound by the behavior of another.

And this particular behavior is based on the notion that if you kill someone who is causing the worst kind of trouble, you will reduce the numbers of people who cause that kind of trouble.

The problem is you cannot extirpate vile hatred this way. You cannot exile desperate murderousness from the human heart this way.

So you're only making more murder, on our behalf.

Freakin' wonderful. All we need is more of this...

Friday, May 02, 2008


A mystery donor leaving $1 million to Naropa University informs me of its founder....

Naropa was founded in 1974 by a Tibetan lama, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a charismatic spiritual leader who also cut a rakish and unforgettable presence in Boulder. The reputation of Rinpoche was of a hard-partying man and a genius who was the first to adapt Buddhism to American tastes.

Rinpoche attracted a rebel generation to Naropa, including Howl poet Allen Ginsberg, who founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, named after the famous "beat" writer.

At Naropa, a more measured Buddhist influence spread, too, with visits from ordinary teaching lamas to the Dalai Lama.

Chogyam Trungpa was rakish indeed, if Wikipedia's right

An incident that became a cause célèbre among some poets and artists was the Halloween party at the Fall, 1975, Snowmass Colorado Seminary, a 3-month period of intensive meditation and study of the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana vehicles of Tibetan Buddhism. The poet W. S. Merwin had arrived that summer at the Naropa Institute and been told by Allen Ginsberg that seminary was where it was really at. Although he had not gone through the several years worth of practice required, Merwin was insistent he attend, and Trungpa eventually granted his request - along with his girlfriend as well. At seminary the couple stayed to themselves. At the Halloween party, after many, including Trungpa himself, had taken off their clothes, Merwin was asked to join the event, but refused. On Trungpa's orders his Vajra Guard forced entry into the poet's locked and barricaded room; brought him and his girlfriend, Dana Naone, against their will, to the party; and eventually stripped them of all their clothes, onlookers ignoring Naone's pleas for help and for someone to call the police.

Also this week:

Albert Hofmann, the mystical Swiss chemist who gave the world LSD, the most powerful psychotropic substance known, died Tuesday at his hilltop home near Basel, Switzerland. He was 102...

He then took LSD hundreds of times, but regarded it as a powerful and potentially dangerous psychotropic drug that demanded respect. More important to him than the pleasures of the psychedelic experience was the drug’s value as a revelatory aid for contemplating and understanding what he saw as humanity’s oneness with nature. That perception, of union, which came to Dr. Hofmann as almost a religious epiphany while still a child, directed much of his personal and professional life.

Dr. Hofmann was born in Baden, a spa town in northern Switzerland, on Jan. 11, 1906, the eldest of four children. His father, who had no higher education, was a toolmaker in a local factory, and the family lived in a rented apartment. But Dr. Hofmann spent much of his childhood outdoors.

He would wander the hills above the town and play around the ruins of a Hapsburg castle, the Stein. “It was a real paradise up there,” he said in an interview in 2006. “We had no money, but I had a wonderful childhood.”

It was during one of his ambles that he had his epiphany.

“It happened on a May morning — I have forgotten the year — but I can still point to the exact spot where it occurred, on a forest path on Martinsberg above Baden,” he wrote in “LSD: My Problem Child.” “As I strolled through the freshly greened woods filled with bird song and lit up by the morning sun, all at once everything appeared in an uncommonly clear light.

Who was a spiritual adpept? Who was the imposter? Both? Either? Neither?

My 2 cents: It's irrelevant. The whole damn question. And luckily there are other choices...and they don't involve brain-checking at the door or signing properties over to somebody who's really "just some guy."