August 29, 2008

Thich Nhat Hanh on presenting Buddhism to the West and vice versa

When asked, "What do you think are the best ways to present Buddhism to the Western Students?," Thich Nhat Hanh replied:
"I think Buddhism should open the door of psychology and healing to penetrate more easily into the Western world. As far as religion is concerned, the West already has plenty of belief in a supernatural being. It's not by the law of faith that you should enter the spiritual territory of the West, because the West has plenty of this."
This is a particularly revealing quote about Buddhism, not just because it addresses the West's general sense about Buddhism being 'just another religion,' but in the unique way Buddhism is perceived by its practitioners and how it works as a methodology to a) assist in the study of human psychology and b) help relieve and remedy common psychological and emotional problems.

When asked how Western thought can contribute to Buddhism, Nhat Hanh answered, "democracy and science." He writes,
"Personally, learning about science has helped me to understand Buddhism more deeply. I agree with Einstein that if there is a religion that can go along with science, it is Buddhism. That is because Buddhism has the spirit of nonattachment to rules. You may have a view that you consider to be the truth, but if you cling to it, then that is the end of your free inquiring. You have to be aware that with the practice of looking deeply, you may see things more clearly. That is why you should not be so dogmatic about what you have found; you have to be ready to release your view in order to get a higher insight. That is very exciting."
Source: The Best Buddhist Writing 2007, ed. Melvin McLeod.

August 27, 2008

Roger A. McCain on the implications of the Prisoner's Dilemma

"This remarkable result [derived from the Prisoner's Dilemma thought experiment] -- that individually rational action results in both persons being made worse off in terms of their own self-interested purposes -- is what has made the wide impact in modern social science. For there are many interactions in the modern world that seem very much like that, from arms races through road congestion and pollution to the depletion of fisheries and the overexploitation of some subsurface water resources. These are all quite different interactions in detail, but are interactions in which (we suppose) individually rational action leads to inferior results for each person, and the Prisoners' Dilemma suggests something of what is going on in each of them. That is the source of its power." -- Roger A. McCain
Speaking of which, did you guys catch the game theoretic scenario in The Dark Knight? What do you believe should have been the correct course of action for a decision maker in that situation?

Buddhist Geeks

Vince Horn and Ryan Oelke, collectively known as Buddhist Geeks, offer regular podcasts that are "seriously Buddhist and seriously geeky."

Be sure to check out their podcasts with transhumanist James Hughes: Parts I, II & III.

August 26, 2008

The insidious "Assassinate Obama" meme

A number of months ago I was in Ottawa leafing through a political paper when I read something that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. It was an article by foreign affairs expert Gwynne Dyer about the various challenges that await Barack Obama should he win the U.S. presidency.

In a very matter-of-fact tone, Dyer argued that Obama may not live to see the end of his first term, "for it is generally assumed that, as the first African-American president, he will face a higher than average risk of assassination."

This was an upsetting realization. It's what futurists refer to as a wild card -- a low-probability but high-impact event.

But just how low-probability is it? My own feeling is that the chances are higher than we would like to believe.

Unfortunately, given the viral spread of the "assassinate Obama" meme, the suggestion has already normalized itself in the U.S. zeitgeist. Earlier this year, for example, the phrase "assassinate Obama" cracked Google's top 100 search engine terms.

This meme may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, inspiring a fanatical few to actually consider the act. Just this week it was revealed that a potential plot against Obama's life was thwarted. It will undoubtedly not be the last.

And so pervasive is the fear that a recent art exhibit titled "The Assassination of Barack Obama" presented the possibility as a foregone conclusion.

Indeed, assassinations are an indelible part of U.S. history. The whole idea of presidential assassination as a radical political tool has expanded to become a fixture of American culture. It's become the stuff of folklore, conspiracy theories and Hollywood films.

Moreover, the United States has a disturbing potential for right-wing extremism. The horror that was 9/11 caused many Americans to forget about its own internal ideological failings; it is America's incipient nativism and white supremacist legacy that led Timothy McVeigh and others to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995 killing 168 people. It is not a stretch to suggest that someone of the same ilk is looking to target Obama -- the potential black U.S. president with a foreign sounding name.

And what a shame it would be if this were to happen, to see the U.S. dragged down to the level of political extremism that saw Benazir Bhutto assassinated earlier this year. Politicians shouldn't have to fear for their lives. The democratic process is put at risk when an extreme few take matters into their own hands because they cannot bear to witness the will of the majority.

As for my contribution to the perpetuation of the "assassinate Obama" meme, I almost didn't write this article because of it. But this is one sick cat that's already out of the bag.

Sadly, the only thing to do now is hope for the best and brace for the worst.

August 25, 2008

Instant bad karma

I was at Pinery Provincial Park last week where I spent most of my time on the beach. The Pinery is on the south shore of Lake Huron and is one of Southern Ontario's best kept secrets.

Like any large body of water, Lake Huron can be unpredictable. Even water that's as still as glass can pose dangers. The wind often blows into the lake causing a deceptively dangerous situation.

It was on such a day last week that the wind taught me a lesson about indifference and how quickly selfishness and apathy can catch up to you. Nothing too dramatic, mind you, just a nice Buddhist moment that reminded me how karma can bite you in the ass in unpredictable ways.

Over the course of the day I watched a number of inflatable items blow into the lake--much to the dismay of their owners who couldn't swim fast enough to retrieve their drifting items. One by one their floating beach gear would disappear over the horizon; it was like watching helium balloons rise up into the sky until they ventured beyond sight.

At one point I noticed an air mattress very close to me blow into the water. There was a man in his early 20's next to me who had just finished his swim and was putting on his socks and shoes. I assumed it was his mattress. He didn't notice that it was floating away.

And for some strange reason I stood there on the beach paralyzed in indecision. I was unable to act. All I had to do was shout out to him that his mattress was floating away, but I couldn't muster a voice. Or I could have swam for it myself, but I just stood there transfixed by the sight of the mattress getting farther and farther away.

As I stood there twiddling my thumbs it got so far away that I figured it was hopeless so I decided to ignore the situation outright.

But I was shocked at my indifference and my inability to help when I could have easily done so. I wondered what the hell was wrong with me.

And then a realization hit me: that wasn't his mattress, it was my mattress! It had flipped over and I didn't recognize the color.

In that instant I had suddenly become the other.

And I was struck with the feeling that this served me right--that the cosmos had conspired to teach me a lesson about apathy, inaction and the failure to project beyond one's self. My own indifference about helping another person had actually cost me my own air mattress.

Well, almost. I dove into the water and swam like hell to get it, laughing all the way at the absurdity of the situation.

Sometimes lessons are not so subtle.

Currently reading: The Best Buddhist Writing 2007

I'm currently reading The Best Buddhist Writing 2007, a compilation that was put together by Melvin McLeod and the editors of the Shambhala Sun. I cannot recommend this book highly enough -- very engaging and hard to put down.

Containing writings that are variously wise, witty, heartfelt, and profound, this is the fourth volume in an annual series that brings together the year’s most notable literature inspired by Buddhist philosophy and practice. Selected by the editors of the Shambhala Sun, North America’s leading Buddhist-inspired magazine, the pieces in this anthology offer an entertaining mix of writing styles and reflect on a wide range of issues from a Buddhist point of view. The collection includes writings by the Dalai Lama, Matthieu Ricard, Dzongsar Khyentse, Diana Mukpo, Thich Nhat Hanh, Charles Johnson, Susan Piver, bell hooks, John Tarrant, Natalie Goldberg, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso, Thinley Norbu, Karen Maezen Miller, Pema Chödrön, and Norman Fischer, among others.
Here's the editorial review from Publishers Weekly:
The fourth annual collection of best Buddhist writings, as in previous years, reflects breadth and diversity among English-speaking Western Buddhists. This collection is notable for the number of reflections on love—true love, mother love, a culture based on love—that offer refreshing change from more cerebral teachings on no-self. Even as he ages, venerable Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh continues to pour forth teaching in his distinctive lyrical way, embodying what is meant by bodhisattva, a Buddhist saint. Dying mothers, cancer, crazy siblings, violent men in a prison yard—such concrete situations all provide food for Buddhist reflection and response. Not every piece is equally accessible, which is not a problem but a caution for some readers. Two essays of Tibetan textual commentary require patience and advanced knowledge. Anthologies are not always well served by including A-list writers; Alice Walker's essay is beautiful in parts but contains undisciplined rambling in other sections. It's interesting to hear less well-known voices, alongside those of the Dalai Lama or the American nun Pema Chödrön, who also contribute pieces. This series does a great service by highlighting views and themes as they modulate with each passing year.

August 14, 2008

Michael Phelps: The 'natural' transhuman athlete

Watching Michael Phelps swim you quickly realize that he's not like the others. He's clearly in a league of his own.

Or more accurately, he's swimming in a genetic pool of his own.

Phelps has a number of fortuitous physical endowments that have enabled him to dominate like no other. Simply put, he is the perfect swimmer.

Here's what Phelps has going for him:
  • Most people have a wingspan that matches their height. Not Phelps. He may be 6'4" tall, but his arms extend outward to a total of 6'7".
  • The average shoe size for a person the size of Phelps is 12; he wears a size 14 which gives him a 10% advantage over the competition.
  • He also has a larger than average hand size which allows him to move more water.
  • Phelps is double-jointed in the chest area; this enables him to extend his arms higher above his head and pull down at an angle that increases his efficiency through the water by as much as 20%; this also allows him to have quicker starts and turns.
  • He has proportionately short legs relative to his long, powerful trunk; this large upper body is the engine that powers his long arms. Moreover, his unique physique reduces drag through the water and allows for maximum propulsion.
  • Phelps has a greater-than-average lung capacity allowing him to execute his underwater dolphin kicks longer than the competition.
  • He has a genetic advantage that cause his muscles to produce 50% less lactic acid than other athletes. This means he can work at higher work loads for longer periods.
  • With a low body fat of 4%, he is better able to convert his effort into speed.
Looking at this list it's as if Phelps was designed to swim.

Which leads to an interesting question: Given the potential for genetic modification and gene doping, should it be acceptable for other athletes to acquire the same physiological endowments through artificial means?

If not, what makes it so acceptable to come by these traits 'naturally?' And how could the genetic lottery ever be construed as something that's not arbitrary and unfair?

Read more about Phelps's extraordinary physiology here and here.

August 13, 2008

Speedo's Vitruvian Man

Great ad.

Read more about Speedo's LZR Racer swim suit.

Q: What is the qualitative difference between this sort of technological enhancement and pharmacologically endowed enhancement?

August 11, 2008

Gee, do you think the Russian invasion of Georgia was timed to coincide with the Olympics?


With billions of people distracted by the Olympics it was a perfect opportunity for the Russians to instigate one of the most significant geopolitical events seen thus far in the 21st century.

And I'm not the only one who thinks so.

It's obvious that the Russians don't want to let Georgia slip away. It's an extremely important conduit for the transportation of oil and gas to parts west of Russia. It's also critical to U.S. and NATO interests; 9/11 enhanced the importance of both the South Caucasus and Central Asia to American security. Flying rights through the Caucasus to Central Asia and Afghanistan are vital components of the ongoing military effort there by both U.S. and NATO forces.

And frustratingly, Georgia was making good progress as it was working to transition itself to an autonomous and democratic post-Soviet nation. That's looking very unlikely right now.

Talk about shades of Czechoslovakia 1968.

What's been equally interesting is Putin's role in the matter, as his voice appears to be trumping that of Dmitri A. Medvedev's. Looks like someone's having a hard time relinquishing power.

Lech Walesa on communism and communications technologies

Communism is a monopolistic system, economically and politically. The system suppresses individual initiative, and the 21st century is all about individualism and freedom. The development of technology supported these directions. When I was fighting communism, there was rapid development of satellite television and cell phones, and communism, to survive, would have to block all these information devices. To control the free flow of information, the Communists would have to increase the secret police by a factor of four. It would be a huge effort for police to control the channels you get on TV or the phone numbers you are allowed to dial. So technology helped end communism by bringing in information from the outside. It was possible to get news from independent sources; stations like the BBC (British Broadcasting System) and VOA (Voice of America) were beyond government control. During '50s and '60s, the Communist government put people accused of listening to these stations in prison. -- Lech Walesa (Interview with Wired, June 2002)
True or false? What about the situation in China?