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Wednesday, March 23, 2005  permanent URL for this entry

An old friend writes seasonally:

The Bicycle Pedaling Frog wishes you and yours a happy Germinal.

Yes indeed, and to you and yours also! I'm sitting here (off-net, yet) in the nose-doctor's waiting room, and it's spring, and outside the window there are all these really large (think "small Post-It Note") snowflakes rushing down out of the sky in swirly wet picturesque masses. Lots of them, with the wind blowing them around into curvy shapes and in under the eaves and the carports.

Maybe by next Sunday (which is when we celebrate the Equinox, for complex historical reasons) it'll be warmer and more bunny-infested and stuff.

Yahoo actually buys Flickr! Or Flickr buys Yahoo, or SBC buys GM, or something like that. Pretty cool! So Stewart and Caterina (or someone) are probably all rich now!

Stumbled onto sound click dot com today. Just like the old em pea three dot com back before it got all confusing and commercial: lots of free streams and downloads of music by random people making music. Great fun. (I discovered Gretchen Lieberum on mp3 dot com; who will I randomly trip over on soundclick?)

So at lunch the other day we all made disbelieving noises when Ed said that someone was making a film about Bob Dylan, and that they were considering casting Oprah Winfrey as Dylan. We should never doubt Ed.

All Complex Ecosystems Have Parasites (the text isn't quite as interesting as the title, but it's a good rant).

From Marginal Revolution, a piece about 13 things that do not make sense. (This is in the "science puzzles" domain rather than, say, the "stupid computer programs" domain.)

From Rebecca, an article on a great niche skill: How to Snatch an Expiring Domain. Amazing how much complexity can grow in a sufficiently incented crevice.

Also from Rebecca, a paper I really hope I find the time to read: A Century of Candy Bars: An Analysis of Wrapper Design.

And speaking of doom, from Rebecca yet again, the stealthy menace of Nanobacteria!

A couple from the referer log: Long Story riffs on (among other things) one of our koans (have to get that "Broken koans and other Zen debris" section of the site put up some decade); and the Generator Blog has an entry on our ancient Haiku generator (gad, is that still working?). (At first I was very impressed by the nearby Medical Term Generator, but it looks like it just picks a random medical term from a dictionary of real ones, rather than rolling up new ones from scratch; that's cheating!)

Our clever input-box prompt got mixed (in a good way) results:

Your search - Jonas Whemb - did not match any documents.

Effect of AIDS in Africa

Hofstadter's Contracrostipunctus Acrostically Backwards Spells "J.S. Bach"

My feet become ice blocks when I'm up late at the 'pooter, but very slowly

Oblique response

Clever input-box prompt:

I'm taking a college seminar in memes. It's a lot of bullshit.

i robot

recipe for trouble

Dimwitted input-box sluggish:

how to look at yahoo webcam without permission

buy kamagra in the UK

(You'd think now that we've definitively revealed how to view Yahoo webcams without permission (back in December) people wouldn't have to search anymore; oh, well!)

And one that I have to call out specially, partly because otherwise you might not notice it:



(Postum Scriptoriolanus: by the time I got out of the nose doctor's the flakes were smaller and even more massive and very businesslike, and the roads were quite messy. But now I have some Drugs that may or may not get me my sense of smell back; we'll see!)

Tuesday, March 22, 2005  permanent URL for this entry

One day Will Rogers was talking to a Zen student at the boundary between the monastery and the Wild West. Each was leaning against the fence from his own side, and they were talking about things.

After awhile the Zen student, impressed with the humor and deep humanity he sensed in Will Rogers, said "I think you're not far from Buddahood".

And Will Rogers replied, "Yep, just the fence here between us."

And optionally it could say "and the student was enlightened", but really not all that many Zen stories end that way; it's sort of a cliché.

The extra-credit assignment is in three parts: () identify the original joke, () determine (with evidence) whether or not it was actually Will Rogers, and () write a commentary (preferably rhyming and enigmatic) on the story.

And on similar subjects, I finished and wrote up Thomas Merton's "Raids on the Unspeakable", and also finally got up the steam and nerve to write up "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones" (probably the longest and most labored-over of the recent series of book notes, not that that's saying much).

Monday, March 21, 2005  permanent URL for this entry

On the principle of not ceasing until we have utterly driven a meme entirely into the ground and out the other side, readers write:

So, "cast".

So, "Clever input-box prompt."

So, "Zeldman".

Exactly. Or at least approximately (I have no objection to Zeldman at the moment).

The latest NTK gets my nomination for "best headline blurb". But that may just be my fondness for twitting organized religion.

John who ought to have a weblog points us at the very noteworthy 3D printer to churn out copies of itself, including the very significant line:

Better still, the machines could evolve to be more efficient and develop new capabilities, says Bowyer

Just what we need: hordes of mutant self-reproducing "3D printers" roaming the countryside, devouring everything that gets in their way.

And speaking of impending doom, that same issue of NTK notes parts dot mit dot edu:

The Registry supports design classes where students make simple systems from standard, interchangeable biological parts and operate them in living cells.

We are so doomed.

Things I really ought to get around to reading: The State of the News Media 2005 report (and its no doubt extremely uplifting section about online journalism).

Today's significant "419 letter in its entirety":

Subject: ESQ

Tel: +44-704-0110806

Your name and your e-mail address came up in a random draw conducted by our law firm, ALI THURAKI Law Chambers in London, UK. My name is ALI THURAKI Esq. personal attorney to our late client Mr. Mohammed Saibi who was the chairman of Algosaibi Diving and Marine Services in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

And that's it. Presumably this d00d has sent out so many advance fee fraud letters that he no longer feels the need to include all the gory details; just the setup should be enough to cause the whole scheme to appear fully-formed in the potential victim's mind.

Yet another copy of us! We're so distributed. (I especially like the "Add to my jawfish" button.)

And speaking of distributed, here's a cool new idea about enabling distributed search (from Amazon rather than Google for a change). "We want OpenSearch to do for search what RSS has done for content." This looks like it would be fun to hack around with, except that I don't actually have any search code that I can think of on any of my websites.

(Hey! Maybe Ian will get inspired to implement this on his former weblog, which has its own rad-c00l search engine to which I'm sure OpenSearch would be a simple addition. Which is more fun, after all, hacking around with one's website code, or adding mere content?)

So last week I had all these early morning meetings that mostly kept me from getting to the Gym in the morning, so to make up for it I did some rope-jumping over the weekend, and I must not have warmed up and/or cooled down properly because now my calves ache whenever I try to, like, use them for anything. Like say standing up or walking.


Saturday, March 19, 2005  permanent URL for this entry

So is there a word for things (claims, beliefs, theses) for which there is no particular evidence, but which there are obvious emotional or psychological or even practical reasons to believe anyway?

I'm still listening to this series of talks on the Diamond Sutra (downloaded from here). There's lots and lots of material (like twelve hours or something?), and it's incredibly generous of them to put them online for free and all.

The talks aren't really about the Diamond Cutter Sutra (the Diamond Machete, the Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion). They're vaguely inspired by or structured around that sutra, but they're mostly a detailed explanation of certain parts of (I gather) Tibetan Buddhist doctrine, or some particular subflavor thereof.

It's fun to listen to. The speaker (teacher, lecturer), Michael Roach, is a friendly sort of guy, laughs alot (a slightly annoying laugh until you get used to it), talks pretty straightforwardly. It's philosophy in a very real sense, and it takes me back to my innocent youth doing philosophy under Gil Harman and those guys. And it's an interestingly different kind of philosophy from that American Analytic School stuff I did back then; it's concerned with the nature of reality and the underpinnings of the universe more than about the meanings of words (although those can both end up in the same place, depending on how you do them).

The basic nub of what he's teaching in these Diamond Cutter lectures is what he calls "emptiness". This is (or at least I'm currently understanding it as being) something very much like the usual "language cannot express truth" and "the division of the world into things is optional" schtick that I've been tossing around here on the log lately.

Everything that we normally talk about, he says, is nothing other than our own projections (seeing that a thing is nothing but one's own projection is called "seeing its emptiness").

He's somewhat loose on the question of whether or not there's something out there that our projections are projections onto; whether or not, that is, there is some objective universe, or at least some intersubjective sense-data or sense-data producers or something, out there. Sometimes he says that it's an open question; a subject of great debate in the monasteries. (That's good; open questions are a sign of a healthy meme complex.) Other times he speaks as though he knows the answer (although he varies on what that answer is).

(And it's is a rather important question if you want to go down this path, since if there is an objective substrate then that suggests constraints on our projections that don't necessarily fit with the rest of what he wants to say; whereas if there isn't then it's hard to see how we avoid solipsism: if everything that I perceive is purely a function of my own mind and my own karma, then how can anything that I perceive tell me anything about you as an entity with your own mind and your own karma, including even that you exist at all?)

So okay everything is a projection. Now what determines which of the many possible projections we experience? That is, given that the dividing of the universe into things, and the experiencing of the universe as having certain named or namable properties and features, is in a sense optional and there are lots of possible such dividings and experiencings, what determines which one happens? Why is it that I divide the universe up in this particular way, and experience it as having these particular features?

Roach says that it's entirely forced (not chosen voluntarily), and that it's forced by past karma. For instance, he says, if someone is unfaithful to their spouse, and enjoys the act, the reason they were able to experience the act as enjoyable is that they've done good things in that area in the past (in particular, they've previously been faithful to a spouse); and further because what they're doing right now is a bad thing, they will not be able to experience future similar situations as enjoyable, because they're producing bad karma.

Described this way there's a certain psychological and metaphorical rightness to the thesis. How I experience the world does have alot to do with my past and my actions. I experience this as enjoyable because I've enjoyed similar things in the past. I experience that as boring because I've failed to find ways to enjoy similar situations in the past. I experience this other thing as stressful because I've done something rotten in a similar situation in the past and I feel guilty about it.

The problem with the system that Roach outlines is that it goes way too far with this idea. Roach uses this idea to explain everything that anyone experiences. This has consequences that I find repugnant and implausible; if someone dies when an airplane falls out of the sky on them, not only is it morally wrong to say that it must have happened because of something that they did in the past, it's also factually wrong: it's not true. There is in fact only a weak and general (albeit interesting and important) correlation between past action and present experience, not a strong and specific correlation.

Another problem is that much of the past action that Roach is talking about is said to have happened in past lives, and I don't see any reason to believe in this sort of past life.

Even if I did believe in it, though, I recently (today at the grocery, in fact, listening to him on my iPod) noticed an interesting puzzle. If we believe that we have had past lives, and that we're going to have future lives, do we in fact have any reason to care about them? I think a pretty good case could be made that we do not.

Consider. So say that after I die I'm going to be reborn in another life. The person (or other thing) that I'm reborn as won't remember anything at all about this life (just as I don't currently remember anything at all about my former lives). But what that person (or other thing) experiences will depend, more or less tightly, on what I do in my current life.

Do I have any reason to (for instance) forgo some pleasure in this life in order to avoid a much greater displeasure (or gain a much greater pleasure) in that future life? I see no strong reason to think that the answer is 'yes'.

If am I altruistic, I may of course care about that future me just because she will be a sentient being, and I care about sentient beings. So if I know that by not yelling at my kids in this life, my future self will be yelled at less and will experience other people as being more friendly and kind, I might do it just because I want to do that for her, independantly of the fact that she is a future incarnation of myself.

But is it rational to care any more about her than about any other future person who is not me?

This veers off into the stylish and interesting philosophical question of why I should care about much closer versions of myself, like myself ten years from now, or next month, or tomorrow. There's been some good work done in this area that I ought to read up on. I wonder to what extent the considerations there would also apply to future lives. I wonder, for that matter, if the people who have thought about reasons to care about myself next year have also thought already about reasons to care about my next incarnation. Have to look into that.

Thinking about explanations rather than reasons, it's pretty clear that there's a solid evolutionary explanation for the fact that people care about themselves an hour from now or tomorrow: them that didn't tended not to leave behind many children. But it's harder to think of an evolutionary explanation for caring about future incarnations. We'd probably have to know more details about reincarnation to pin it down, but it may well be that evolution doesn't apply at all (since whatever the things are that are being constantly reborn may not undergo natural selection). So an explanation for caring about future selves may be as hard to come by as a rational reason to.

And here I think I've pretty much run out of steam. I was going to complain about a tangent in which Roach does some plain old bad philosophy, but it was only a tangent and there's no real point in taking him to task about it. Another slightly annoying feature of the lectures is how certain of himself he seems, and how he's always saying that certain things are impossible and that certain other things are the only way (emphasis his) to experience emptiness or reach nirvana or whatever. Any teacher that says stuff like that loses major credibility with me, of course; I'm not sure whether this is his fault or the fault of the meme complex that he's bought into.

I may take another log entry sometime to talk about the "obvious emotional or psychological or even practical reasons to believe anyway" parts of this, which I see I didn't get to tonight, and how those features of this particular meme complex are similar to and different from, say, good old Christianity (the deferring of reward and punishment to a time after death, for instance).

But anyway I suspect I'll stick to Zen rather than Tibetan Buddhism in my own practice, at least this week. *8) But still it's fun to listen to and think about, even if (or especially because?) I think it's sometimes wrong, and I know it's occasionally annoying...


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