Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Finally, you might not know that the technology of video projection has jumped leaps and bounds in the past decade, turning into an art form of its own. You also might not know that in Prague's Old Town is a very old and complicated astronomical clock. Behold, the two combined, for the clock's 600th anniversary. Bear in mind, this is stuff being projected onto the clock.

Projections on the Prague Astronomical Clock from the macula on Vimeo.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

not my question

I've been reading this blog Conversion Diary, by Jennifer Fulwiler, and her prior blog The Reluctant Atheist. I find her to be an engaging writer, and I'm fascinated by the process of conversion from whatever (usually nothing) to Catholicism. Hers was an intellectually-driven path, and it seems it's been trod many times, by the likes of Thomas Merton and C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton.

(Attracting, perhaps, a disproportionate number of Englishmen known by their initials.)

I read Merton's book, and I don't understand the hype, because I don't think it's very good or interesting. The depiction of life in the first half of the 20th century is detailed, but as a story of conversion, it's full of vague allusions and maybe some presumption that the reader has already been there before, or something. I didn't learn anything except that Merton circled Catholicism for a while trying to decide if that was his thing, and that's hardly remarkable: I've done that with several religions, as well as a few employers and plenty of girlfriends. So it tells you nothing about conversion except that the Catholic Church and its priests are involved, and really, none of us are that stupid. There's obviously something more to it.

I also read C.S. Lewis's Surprised By Joy, and had a similar experience. Lots of vagueness and allusion, without much substance. Having read a few passages from Mere Christianity, I'm not optimistic about his other works.

The process interests me for a few reasons:
  • Ever since I was tiny, I've been fascinated by the ways and directions human beings change, and respond to our thoughts and emotions and circumstances; in particular, the processes we use to change ourselves;
  • To those converts, "orthodox" Christianity (which to them is the Roman Catholic Church, full stop) is the most intellectually consistent and reasonable thing in the world, which is a bit different from my experience of it;
  • The question of whether God exists isn't important to me, and I want to understand why, and how to better explain that to people.
I started writing this back in November, and let it sit for a lack of direction, but Fulwiler just recently had a column in the National Catholic Register that gives me something to go on.

Some background to synopsize the article: in 2005, Newsweek reported that author Anne Rice (Interview With the Vampire etc.) had re-joined the Catholic Church in 1998. The Catholic public voices were understandably pleased that someone famous had publicly gone to the Catholic Church instead of the many alternatives: the publicly notable Catholics listed above all died at least 30 years ago, and the list hasn't refreshed often.

In 2010, following the Church's substantial support for the anti-gay Proposition 8, she suddenly noticed that the modern Catholic Church is quite hostile to gays (outside the priesthood), and somewhat confusingly left the Church, stuck with Christ, and no longer considers herself a Christian.

Got that?

Back to Mrs. Fulwiler. Here's her theory about Anne Rice's un-conversion:
At the time, I got a lot of emails from blog readers asking for my take on this turn of events. I didn't respond because I was embarrassed to say what I really thought:

It was probably spiritual attack.

It's a subject nobody wants to talk about. Even among fellow Catholics, you risk being seen as superstitious or ignorant if you acknowledge that there is a dark force whose sole purpose is to keep people away from the light of Christ. And, to be sure, some hesitation about the subject is warranted: We've all heard stories of people who became overly fixated on the subject of evil, renouncing personal responsibility with "The devil made me do it!" arguments or seeing demons around every corner. So it's good not to place too much emphasis on the forces of evil. But this is a subject where we want to be very, very careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I think that modern Catholic culture has done just that.
Uhhh...okay! Let's skip the obvious questions and go with that for a minute...
In my own journey, an understanding of the reality of demonic activity has been critical to my spiritual life. I've been fortunate to have a spiritual director who has helped me learn to recognize when these kind of forces may be at work, and to act accordingly. For example, at one point I walked into one of our meetings to announce that I was quitting a spiritual writing project I'd just started. Agitated and jumpy, I ranted about how I was sick of this and sick of that, I knew everyone would hate it, and, besides, it was all moot since I was going to fail anyway.

"This line of thinking is not from Christ," she said. Christ doesn't accuse. He doesn't fill your heart with resentment of others. He never makes you feel like a failure. She gently pointed out that I needed to wait to make a decision about how to proceed until I was in a place of peace. Sure enough, after going to confession and spending time in prayer, I realized I should continue with the project, and it ended up being beneficial to me as well as others. I suppose that my agitation could have just been that I was in a bad mood or had been drinking too much coffee (though I doubt it, given some of the specific spiritual "symptoms")--but, either way, it was helpful for me to learn to recognize and reject those thought patterns that are not of Christ.
I'm not sure about your (probably non-Buddhist) response to that, but mine is something like "Uhhhhhh what?".

I want to be clear that noticing your thoughts and impulses and treating them with a sense of skeptical perspective is a genuinely fantastic thing to do, and is sort of a sine qua non of Buddhist practice. The teachings give us a dizzying array of tools (of which I honestly use, like, two), but simply "noticing what's happening right now" is really the most elemental. Good for Jennifer!

The thing I can't wrap my head around is the need for our thoughts to have some sort of supernatural basis. There's a perfectly rational, and physical, explanation for it: the same way your ear creates sound signals in your nervous system whether you're trying or not, your mind creates thoughts. Imagine "thoughting" as a verb. It's what minds do. Practice, in one sense, is exercising our ability to treat those thoughts, or react to them, in different ways. But there's no one out there trying to get us. Thoughts come from the mind. Why bring demons into it? (I won't ask how you tell which lines of thought are supernaturally imposed by Christ or Satan and how you tell when it's just, as Scrooge proposed of Marley's ghost, "an undigested bit of beef." I can't imagine how you could convince me of your premise.)

I think that ultimately I just have no patience for unprovable propositions. How does it help? If God exists, what exactly are we going to change? We might change our behavior, change our relationships to other people, change our ways of thinking...

Hmm. We'd be changing ourselves. It would be us, working on us. Why not forget about whether God exists, and just change ourselves anyway?

That's basically what Buddha said. People asked him these sorts of questions all the time, and although they didn't have the does-God-exist question (or its relative, "How does a good and loving God allow the presence of evil?"), there is a short list:
  • Is the cosmos eternal, or not eternal?
  • Is the cosmos finite, or infinite?
  • Does the Buddha/a person continue after death, or not?
  • Are the mind and body separate, or the same?
Here's a roughly condensed version of the primary story where this came up: A monk named Malunkyaputta came to the Buddha and said, "Answer these questions, or I will no longer practice with you."

The Buddha said, "Foolish man, did I ever tell you that if you came to practice, that I would answer these questions?". Malunkyaputta said, "Well, no."

And then we get one of Buddhism's most awesome passages:
"It's just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me... until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short... until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored... until I know his home village, town, or city... until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow... until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated... until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.' The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.

"In the same way, if anyone were to say, 'I won't live the holy life under the Blessed One as long as he does not declare to me that 'The cosmos is eternal,'... or that 'After death a Buddha neither exists nor does not exist,' the man would die and those things would still remain undeclared by the Buddha."
That's why I'm not really interested if God exists or not. I could wonder and philosophize about it forever, and then I'd be dead anyway.
"Malunkyaputta, it's not the case that when there is the view, 'The cosmos is eternal,' there is the living of the holy life. And it's not the case that when there is the view, 'The cosmos is not eternal,' there is the living of the holy life. When there is the view, 'The cosmos is eternal,' and when there is the view, 'The cosmos is not eternal,' there is still the birth, there is the aging, there is the death, there is the sorrow, lamentation, pain, despair, & distress whose destruction I make known right in the here & now."
No matter what our views on the unanswered questions, we still experience birth, sickness, aging, and death; we still experience "sorrow, lamentation, pain, despair, and distress." How we engage with our experience is entirely, utterly, completely about us. Our metaphysics don't matter. How are we going to respond? How are we going to act?

more bad translation: dukkha

Like many curious kids, I had a lot of almanacs: books of facts, and questions, and answers. My favorites were How Do They Do That? and How Did They Do That?, but there was also the World Almanac for Kids, which I think was my first introduction to Buddhism. Here's a paraphrase of what books like this will tell you about Buddhism:
Buddhists believe in the Four Noble Truths:
  1. Life is suffering.
  2. Desire/attachment is the cause of suffering.
  3. Nirvana/Enlightenment is the letting go of all attachments.
  4. The Eightfold Path is the way to Nirvana.
The Eightfold Path is:
  1. Right View.
  2. Right Resolve.
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration
That's all familiar, right? There's some doctrines you can believe. There's some rules you can follow. It's just like Christianity/Islam/Judaism/Zoroastrianism, right?

That presentation doesn't make any sense. Look at it. Life obviously involves suffering, but it's pretty strong to say that life is suffering. There are a fair number of genuinely content people in the world. Even if you're not persistently content in general, we all experience times of genuine happiness and joy and peace. They're a part of our human experience.

Also, if the Eightfold Path is the way to Nirvana, why is it after Nirvana in the list?

Also, I'm kind of attached to Anna and J and my family and friends and teachers and aikido. Am I screwed on the whole "enlightenment" thing?

The reason the presentation above doesn't make sense is that it's crap. That's also why it falls apart under questioning.

There's a lot to be said about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. You can read the Buddha's first teaching, which is pretty polished and accessible as the Pali Canon goes, and discover that he presents the Eightfold Path both first and last: both the means and the result of awakening to the nature of human life. For now, we'll stick to the First Noble Truth, and that word "suffering." Let's skip the English and change Thanissaro's translation to have the original Pali:
"Now this, monks, is the noble truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha, separation from the loved is dukkha, not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha."
The "five aggregates" are a way of categorizing our felt experience: thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions, and consciousness. This does sort of ignore happiness and joy, but we don't really have problems with happiness and joy, do we? Most of us can handle being happy fairly well. We need help with the things we're unhappy about, and with the fact that happiness is a transient state.

I think it's pretty clear what dukkha covers, and "suffering" isn't it. Thanissaro uses "stress," which is pretty good. When I'm talking to people for whom Buddhist language is meaningless, I use "angst," which more closely resembles my experience of it. "Distress," "dis-ease," and "discomfort" also show up in translations. The etymology of dukkha means "wheel out of balance," which I find helpful. Our feelings of annoyance, irritation, heartbreak, anger, sadness, stress, disappointment, longing, dissatisfaction: all dukkha.

I often wonder about the experience of the first few generations of translators that led them into such error. Having grown up after the successive cultural chaos of the World Wars and its offspring of Dadaism, twelve-tone music, hippies, and especially postmodernism--I am essentially, if you will, of a post-postmodernist generation--it's a natural thing for me to look for a translator's biases, and baffling that the biases I find should be so overwhelming, so transforming of the original intent of the text. Patrick Kearney writes, of their choice of the word "enlightenment":
I have never been able to find any Pâli or Sanskrit word which corresponds to the English word "enlightenment." This word was selected some time late last century by English translators as a label for the goal of Buddhist practice because of its resonance with the 18th century ideal of the Enlightenment. The European Enlightenment was a movement which idealised progress, science and reason - the "light" in "Enlightenment" refers to the light of reason. In Victorian Britain, sympathetic English scholars wanted to present Buddhism in as favourable a light as possible, and they did so by portraying the Buddha as the perfect Victorian gentleman. He was presented as rejecting the priestly mumbo-jumbo of the brahmins (who for the Victorian English corresponded to the Roman Catholic clergy) in favour of a religion of reason and morality (Almond: 70-4). The only thing that spoiled this picture was undeniable evidence in the Buddhist texts that the Buddha taught and practiced some kind of bizarre self-hypnosis or cultivation of trance states - what we today call meditation. The word "enlightenment" referred to a state of enlightened reason attained by the Buddha which, however, existed only in the imagination of Victorian scholars. Unfortunately the word has stuck, and with it the confusion.
I take it as a reminder that we can mean well, and still screw up pretty royally. =)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

grr rip snarl

I have an ambivalent relationship with my job. On the one hand:
  • it's a lot of stuff I'm not interested in.
  • I don't get to code very much.
On the other:
  • I do get to code sometimes.
  • I'm learning some stuff I do want to learn.
  • it's a really, really nice place to be, full of smart people and comfy office.
Today wasn't very ambivalent at all, since I spent the day trying to get a handful of Mac Minis configured in response to a crisis. That process turned out to be both undocumented and manual, so it took about 5 hours. Then a couple hours after that, the QA guy said he needed them back.

That's pretty much everything I hate about systems administration, right there: an unending stream of detail-oriented tedium, under pressure.

I'm not really sure what to do about it. In theory, if I just start directing my energies towards coding some project or other, then I'll get more time coding. In reality, the days are broken up with meetings and sysadmin tasks, so blocks of time for coding are rare; and the things I'd be coding are not simple things. (My team lead often says, "It's not that it's really hard, we just haven't done it," which actually means it is, at the very least, not particularly easy. We call this a Simple Matter of Programming.) I also spend time doing research and experimentation to inform the advice I give to my client team, which can involve code, but not in a "Look, I produced something" kind of way.

Besides shifting the focus of my position as it is, there's also asking to be moved into a Software Engineer role at the company, which might or might not fly; we're suffering heavily from our emphasis on Rock-Star Programmers rather than Mature Programmers, but that doesn't mean we're changing the emphasis. And if that doesn't work, I suppose I'd bail out. That's unlikely before my 1-year anniversary, partly because that's when my options vest, and partly because my 2009-2010 resume is a little weird-looking and I want to have a full year down on my resume again.

It was interesting to watch myself today, with waves of anger and frustration, tied to all sorts of wanting to feel competent or useful or even craving the simple pleasure of having my efforts make a discernible change in the world. That's all a sort of addiction to my own self-existence: "See, I'm real! I can do these things, I perform an action and I control something in the environment!". I, I, I, me, me, me.

Tomorrow's another day. At least I didn't have to go back to the office to give the machines back.

hard truths

There's a Russian woman in our Zen sangha. She's very happy to not be in Russia, and of course she has some marvelous stories. The talk last night was about fear, so she shared her story.
When I was younger in Russia I couldn't swim very well. I was terrified of going underwater, so I could only dog-paddle. I almost drowned a few times, because I could only dog-paddle.

One day this guy sees me and he says, "You can't swim like that, you're going to drown. I'll teach you how to swim."
"I can't, I'm afraid of being underwater!"
"You'll be underwater when you drown because you swim like that."
"Who are you?"
"I was the national swimming champion [for the Soviet Union]. Come on, I'll teach you."
"I'm afraid."
"What are you afraid of?"
"I'm afraid you'll drown me when I'm underwater."
"I'm not going to drown you. You're going to drown yourself, because you can't swim right."

Now I can swim for a mile, and I'm never afraid.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

because we needed another project

Actually it's because we need a place to live, and suitable rentals are rare and expensive, and house prices have fallen enough that this becomes reasonable:

The offer goes in today, then we'll have a few weeks to back out, giving us time to get inside it again (there are tenants right now). I'll write up details when I take interior pictures, but it's 1,280 square feet, 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, nice little kitchen with granite counters and the kind of recessed sink that Anna loves because you can just wipe the counters cleanly into the sink. (I also like it, but she is a much bigger fan.) Fireplace, big living room, dining room, 2-car garage, cute little backyard with a lemon tree. The yard is dried-out, cracked clay, which means doing raised beds for gardening, but I think those look cooler anyway. And it's still walking distance to downtown and the train.

More details as it happens. It's a short sale, so there's still all sorts of things that can go wrong, and then the house needs to be tented for termites before we can move in, so there's a whole process left. Still, pretty exciting.

(We had breakfast with Anna's grandparents this morning, and Lois said, "It's good to own property." I was trying to be both honest and gracious, but the fact is that it really depends. We'd be paying 60% of what it sold for in June 2006; whoever that was, owning property didn't work out too well for them.)


Something has been Obviously Wrong with my left big toe for a month or so, and it turns out to be a bone spur. A few years ago I had a month where I severely jammed both my big toes several times (aikido, of course), and apparently the reason it hurt so much was that one or more bones fractured. On the left, at least: I expect to eventually have the same problem on the right, which makes me wonder if I should just have them both ground down at once, because...

...while I can go running or whatever 2 weeks after the 10-minute outpatient surgery, I can't do barefoot athletics for 3-6 months.

Months and months without aikido. Hurf.

And yet, the toe is already discouraging me from training, so I might as well go ahead with it. Pfeh.

Stupid impermanence. =)

Saturday, May 7, 2011


I'm finding a lot less time to read, but still enough, especially since I save everything to Pinboard.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Buddhism: lost in translation

I've been listening, often repeatedly, to some talks by the teacher/scholar Stephen Batchelor, and I've decided to eventually learn Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts. It's kind of a spoken form of Sanskrit, and in fact the word Pali just means "text," so someone in the early days saw the words "Pali language" and didn't get that it's just "the language of the texts".

Pretty much all of Batchelor's talks are awesome, but I recommend "The Life and Death of Siddartha Gotama" and the ones on "secular Buddhism" to get a sense of what struck me. Essentially, he's looking at the earliest Buddhist texts with the rule of thumb that anything in the canon that could have been said by anyone in 5th-century B.C. India probably isn't a part of what made the Buddha's teaching special even at the time, and has enabled it to continue to the present day.

Why bother with Pali when I'm not interested in learning Japanese or Chinese--Japanese especially being the liturgical language of Soto Zen? (I'll learn some eventually.)

For one thing, I think Pali will be easier. It's Indo-European and written with an accented Roman alphabet. I should say "can be written": Pali, as a spoken language, doesn't have a native alphabet, and everyone has always written it using their own native alphabet, like Brahmi, Sinhalese, Thai, and now Roman. Unlike Chinese and (literary) Japanese, though, it does have an alphabet, which is already a big step in comprehensibility.

The other thing, and the root reason for learning it at all, is that Chinese and Japanese are often additional layers of translation, and learning Pali will let me look behind the curtain of translation a bit and judge for myself what a passage means. Here's an example:

In the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, the "Discourse on the Noble Quest," the Buddha gives a little backstory of his awakening experience. After his realization, he hangs out for a bit, then thinks
This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, is excited by attachment, enjoys attachment. For a generation delighting in attachment, excited by attachment, enjoying attachment, this conditionality & dependent co-arising are hard to see.
From Stephen Batchelor I learn that instead of "delights in attachment," he actually says "people love their place," where "place" is "alaya," as in "Himalaya": "place of the snows". Thanissaro's translation isn't wrong, but it takes the Buddha's metaphor and substitutes the more direct Buddhist terminology that everyone has standardized on in English (which I deeply dislike, and being able to write about that more clearly is another reason to learn Pali). There's a lot of flavor lost there, like how the buddha views home and place, and why they thought of "going forth from home into homelessness" as being such an unusual and good thing. That context matters, if, as Batchelor suggests, we want to identify what parts of the Buddhist canon are timeless and speak to our situation now, and what is just a sort of hangover from ancient India.

The older the English translation, the more rewarding to look closely at the original. The final words of the Buddha, according to Rhys-Davids (late 1800s):
"Decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence!"
In researching this I found it quoted a fair bit by Christians explaining why every other religion's idea of "salvation" is wrong (in this case, that salvation can be achieved by works). Except that line is actually based on Philippians 2:12 (Revised Standard Version, my emphasis):
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling...
And the word "salvation" doesn't appear in the Pali. Vajira and Story's version:
"Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!"
The Christian apologists quoting the Rhys-Davids translation don't look too hard to see that they're using a translation benighted in 19th-century colonialist projection. (Although they might not notice: most conservative Christians themselves seem quite comfortable benighted in 19th-century colonialist projection.) That's sort of an egregious example, but we're stuck with many longstanding bad translations made by people who didn't understand the material: any time you see the words "Void," "suffering," and "enlightenment," you're looking at a bad translation that barely scratches the surface. (Those are shunyata, dukkha, and either nirvana or bodhi.) The very name "Buddhism" comes from that old Western worldview: Buddhism isn't an "-ism" in the sense of a system of beliefs, but that's all those scholars could imagine. We have to be somewhat cautious about taking the translators' word for it.

It seems well worth the effort to read past that.

Monday, May 2, 2011

quick update

Work is good. Sometimes I feel useful. Sometimes I wonder why they haven't fired me yet. I feel like I have an experimental job description, and we're all still figuring out how to make use of me. I really miss writing code, and I wonder if that's not a better way to share my operational knowledge. Regardless of how I feel about the work on a given day (or in a given hour), it's an incredibly pleasant place to be. Lots of really smart, really nice people, and they stock the fridge with grapes.

With Anna's encouragement, I actually started my next Zen sewing project: a black rakusu. It should take less time than the last one.

I need to register for the GREs this week, so I can take them before August, to have my Stanford application ready. Hurf. Just getting ready for grad school is a test of my organizational skills.

I bought a motorcycle! A sparkly black 2002 Suzuki SV-650 named "Two Slim" by the previous owner, Susan. I had a lovely 30-mile test ride up outside Fairfax and I was hooked. Susan was overjoyed to have it go to an experienced rider, starting from the moment I started pulling all my safety gear out of the trunk of my car.

And finally, we had J for 5 days, which was lovely, and then he was with his dad for 5 days, which was good for a couple days, and then I missed him. We call him Chaos Machine when he's not around, but really as kids go he's incredibly chill and reasonable. When I got home tonight, he came dashing down the stairs talking in his excited way--which means the same complex sentences with long words and clear enunciation, but faster and louder--to see me and the motorcycle and all my gear. So that's pretty awesome.

Finally, I injured my left big toe last month doing something innocuous--there was no particular traumatic event, but something is clearly wrong inside the pad above the joint. It's not really getting better, so I made an appointment with a sports medicine foot doctor in a couple weeks, since my experience is that GPs are pretty useless for injuries and I don't want to waste the time.

Summary: busy. In between being busy, I'm busy. After that, I'm usually busy. Eesh.