Friday, June 24, 2005

Problem statement...

The reality of any organization with more than one member is that it's very difficult to agree on what to do. In the case of a country the size of the United States, it's impossible. I don't mean difficult. I mean impossible. We have this idea that we live in a free country, but we don't. We live in a country where some attempt has been made to balance the forces that govern us in such a way that no needless restrictions on our freedom occur. In the absence of malice, this system is imperfect. In the presence of malice, it can be turned into a tool.

When someone wants to manipulate the government, the best way to do it is to try to get the forces that are intended to balance each other to pull in the same direction - to control both the executive and the legislative branches, for example, or in extreme cases even to control all three branches. This leads to a situation where there is no balance, and even the illusion of freedom is (hopefully temporarily) lost.

You might think this is going to be a diatribe about GWB. It's not. It's a diatribe about politicians in general. Politicians in general seem to see the stability of opposing forces as a problem to be solved, rather than as an intended part of a well-oiled system. So Republicans try to install Supreme Court justices, for example, who they think will support a Republican agenda. And Democrats try to install justices who will support a democratic agenda. Likewise we see gerrymandering on the part of both sides of the aisle to try to stack the deck in congress, and then we see that the only contest that people really take seriously is the quest for the presidency. Frankly, we are better off if none of these machinations bear fruit.

I don't think there's necessarily much malice here. Most of the leading Democrats I know of seem to have generally pretty good motivation. Perhaps I am being naive. But I think they really believe the Liberal Agenda. Likewise, much as I detest a lot of what GWB has done, I think there's some genuineness to the agenda that the people who run his party are pushing. Both sides of the aisle are populated by human beings who are not saints, and so there are abuses, some of which are quite egregious, but I think in general these are a layer on top of a body of good intentions, rather than a core value held by the legislators in question. For example, although I do not agree with Senator McCain's support of nuclear power, I think his intentions in promoting it are good, not based on some kind of corrupt influence, and I don't regret voting for him in the most recent election.

I am somewhat active in a standards body known as the IETF. In the IETF, we started out with what you might call a legislative orientation. We had some problem in mind, and we came up with a solution for it, and then we pushed the solution and got it standardized. This worked well in the early days, but as the IETF has turned more into a group of standards wonks and less into a group of geeks, it's become less successful. Also, as the number of participants of both kinds has gone up, the ability to come to quick agreement has dropped.

So now we do something different. Instead of coming up with a standard and trying to get consensus on it, we try to define the problem we're trying to solve first. Then we work on a solution.

I think the national legislature is in the same boat. They are pushing solutions rather than trying to figure out problems. And because it's so hard to get consensus on any solution, they try to jigger the process - to get the checks and balances of government out of balance. And out of this effort springs a huge flood of invective, divisiveness and downright mutual hatred and corruption.

I don't know how to get the wonks in charge to start thinking in terms of problems instead of in terms of solutions, but I present this notion here in the hopes that a small seed planted in obscurity can someday grow into a forest. :'}

Friday, June 17, 2005

Andrea saves the day...

Lelo's latest salvo in the battle to stop me from doing my practice was much more subtle than yesterday's: I "forgot" to set my alarm. Fortunately, just after dawn, Andrea rolled over and nudged me, which for some reason woke me up. I remembered that I hadn't set my alarm. First thought: "oh well, guess I missed class, might as well go back to sleep." Second thought: hey! Pick up the phone (my alarm clock is in my cell phone). It's 5:08. Yay! I can set the alarm and go back to sleep. So I made it to class after all, thanks to Andrea's well-timed nudge.

Just to clarify on the Michael Jackson thing. My point is not that Michael Jackson is or isn't innocent. I have no clue. My point is that we have a mechanism in place for determining a person's guilt or innocence. If we don't like what our criminal justice system is doing, the way to fix it is to vote, and also to raise a public stink about it. In this case, I haven't heard anything that leads me to believe the system failed. My main concern about the system as it is right now is that people who commit assault and battery (e.g., stabbing) are less likely to be prosecuted and, if prosecuted, will likely receive shorter sentences than people who are caught buying or selling illegal drugs, because we have mandatory sentencing for one, but not for the other.

Another tidbit on the "we don't really know what's going on, do we?" is the McCain-Lieberman amendment to energy bill that is going through the Senate right now. One PAC has sent me email asking me to urge my Senators (one of whom happens to be John McCain!) to vote to adopt the McCain-Lieberman amendment. Another organization points out that one thing this amendment does is to authorize huge subsidies to build new nuclear power plants. Who's telling the truth? I don't know. The way to find out? Read the text of the amendment, if I can get my hands on it. Would I have guessed that I needed to do this from just reading what one group said about it? No. It pays to be very, very skeptical about the people who want us to support their political agenda.

Yoga class today went well. It turns out that I was doing something wrong, which may be related to the lower back pain: I was using my lower back instead of my legs to propel me up out of forward bends. Lisaji and I talked a lot about the whole lower back pain thing the day before yesterday, so this morning she went into full-on debug mode. This is something you don't usually get from a yoga instructor during a led class - it's kind of a unique feature of a mysore-style class. Basically, she just sat down next to me and watched me do sun salutations. After a couple of them, she said "you see how your butt is going back and forth? That's because you're not using your legs to stand up." Then she sat next to me again and watched me do another sun salutation to make sure I understood her. Unfortunately, she sat a little too close, and I managed to whack her in the face as I stood up. Bad Ted, no biscuit. I feel really bad about it, but what can you do?

Which brings me to the next topic: amazing women. Lisaji is certainly one of them. At a guess, she's probably grossing less than a thousand bucks a month doing the yoga class in the morning, possibly quite a lot less. She spends her whole week taking care of others, and I think she does okay, but I know it's not an easy living. She gets whacked in the face. She grabs hold of sweaty students and pushes them into poses. When her students (e.g., me) panic as she pushes them into the position they're supposed to be in, she endures it, and keeps trying. Why? Out of love for her students, I think.

More amazing women. Mothers. Highly underrated in our society. If you want to be a mom, you're giving up your career, or going on the mommy track. You're going to spend the next eighteen years looking after someone who's not going to cooperate with you very much, and who is going to go out of their way to make your life miserable sometimes. When you screw up, they're going to remember it, and possibly remind you of it, for the rest of their life. They're not going to turn out anything like you expected. When they're 40, they're still going to be coming to you with their problems. To even *become* a mother you have to go through nine months of health troubles. Once you succeed, your life is completely at the mercy of the father of your child, who you *hope* turns out to be trustworthy.

I've been dedicating my practice of trying to kick lelo's to a certain friend who is thinking of becoming a mother, because to me motherhood is the epitome of non-lelo. This morning when I was doing shavasana another friend who is also a mother came to mind. I had this image of a woman in my mind, and at first I was thinking of all the things that men think of when they think of women - soft, beautiful, gentle, kind. I know, give me a break. A mother's love doesn't come from softness. It comes from strength. I've been seeing a lot of that recently.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Not so much pain...

The human body is a strange thing. Yesterday, my back was killing me. Today, no problem. Today I had a little trouble because I overdid it with my wrist in bujapidasana and bakasana yesterday, so I stopped at navasana (the asana before bujapidasana) today. Sorry for the no doubt boring Yoga descriptions, but after all my whining yesterday I felt I needed to post an update.

The whole thing with Michael Jackson is weird. I've read at least one blog in which the author said he was acquitted only because he was rich and had good lawyers. Superficially, this is probably true. However, the implication seemed to be "he was guilty, but he was acquitted because of his unfair monetary advantage."

I don't want to be an apologist for hoarding wealth here. If you have a lot of money you might as well do good works with it rather than hoarding it. But the fact is that people are neurotic, and sometimes don't think of this, and that doesn't mean they're evil. Michael Jackson is a strange fellow, so I think people are predisposed to assume that he's a bad fellow, but different doesn't mean bad - people can seem very normal and be very evil, and people can be very weird and yet very, very kind - indeed, being too kind is, at least in our culture, one way in which you can be weird. Say, spending your riches helping others. What are you, some kind of chump?

Anyway, the point is that when you have a lot of money, people tend to see you as a bag of money, not as a person. So someone who wants to have more money might well target you. And if you have a tendency to be nice to people like that, they might take advantage of you. Not that you shouldn't be nice to them. So I confess to a certain degree of ignorance, which I think I share with most of the population of people who have heard about the Michael Jackson case. That is, I know very little about Michael Jackson. I certainly don't know enough to say for sure that he's guilty of the crime of which he's been acquitted. I don't know enough to say he's an angel either, but the point is that I don't know enough to know that he's not.

The outcome of the media circus that has been his life in the past six months seems likely to be that a lot of people will assume he is not an angel. I'd just like to encourage people not to make assumptions without data. Heresay isn't data. So you probably don't know enough to judge. We would do well to turn our eyes away from spectacles like these and find something good to do with the time we save, or maybe just read a book if we're too burnt to do something good.

Pain, pain, pain...

This weekend Andrea and I drove out to Bowie, AZ, so that I could teach a text called Lojong Dun Dunma (BLO SBYONG DON BDUN MA, for those hypothetical readers who understand the ACIP Tibetan transliteration system). Nobody showed up, which created a classic opportunity for Lojong practice (Lojong is all about turning problems into the Path, and what is the experience of having nobody show up if not a fine opportunity to work on one's pride?).

One of the lines of advice in the teaching is to rid yourself of your biggest mental affliction first. The idea is that we all have mental habits that cause us suffering, and one way to look at the process of following the path to enlightenment is that we're trying to eliminate each mental affliction. A mind without mental afflictions would be an amazing place to live.

Anyway, I've been fooling myself and nobody else about my main mental affliction for years. It's not anger, or jealosy, or any of the easy ones. That wouldn't be enough of a challenge. No, my mental affliction of choice is what the Tibetans call lelo (LE LO, because if you have it you're not going to be able to write any silent letters). Lelo is usually translated as "laziness." A friend, who is a very learned Theravadin practitioner, likes to translate it as "reluctance." I like this translation better both because I think it captures the problem more accurately, and because it makes me sound like less of a schmuck.

It's been becoming more and more clear to me that I really need to just throw down the gauntlet and stop screwing around with my lelo problem. Last week I'd decided that I was going to go to yoga class five times this week. On Monday morning, when I woke up, at 5:30, to go to the first class, the whole time I was trying to get going I kept thinking "I don't really need to do this. The bed was so comfortable. I should just go back to bed." This was the Enemy, lelo, speaking in its soft, seductive form.

This morning, the Enemy was a little more insistent. Yes, getting out of bed was hard, but it knew it couldn't win, so my challenge for today was to do my yoga practice with some of the most intense muscular pain in my lower back that I've ever had. I know what's causing the lower back pain, but it still hurts. The nice thing is that except for Salamba Sarvangasana, in which I just couldn't stay this morning, my back actually got less achey as the morning progressed. So I have every reason to hope that if I manage to actually do five sessions this week, I will have helped, not hurt, my back.

I still need to work on the whole reluctance thing, though. I had a really productive day yesterday, but I haven't made much progress at all on any of my summer projects. Lelo: "Oh, you can read just one more chapter. Here, start a new book in the bathroom. It's okay. You can light the end of the previous book with the next one!"

Today's song: Pavlov's Bell, by Aimee Mann, partly because Rhythmbox (the Gnome/Linux equivalent of iTunes) keeps playing it, and partly because it kind of sums up lelo's siren song. Oh, you'll enjoy this! Honest!

Die, you gravy-sucking time sink!

Saturday, June 04, 2005

The plague...

In an earlier posting, I compared terrorism to the plague. I wanted to expand on that a little bit. The point I am trying to make about this is that the plague was random. Whether you lived or died depended on qualities of your immune system and living conditions about which you, for the most part, had no advance knowledge. Similarly for the 1918 flu. There is some worry that the efficacy of antibiotics is on the wane, so that we might once again be visited by plagues like the ones our ancestors endured, but so far that's not a risk with which most people at least in the U.S. are acquainted. Our two big plagues are cancer and AIDS; in the case of cancer it usually doesn't take us early, and in the case of AIDS, depending on which demographic segment of the populace we are in, we may be able to pretend that it's not a problem for us.

But terrorism really captures the random quality of ancient plagues. It seems likely that there will be some new act of terror in the U.S. at some point - maybe sooner, maybe later. We don't know where it will happen. When I was in NYC three weeks ago, I thought about it once in a while - nerve gas while riding in the subway, or just the possibility of a smuggled device detonated near where I was staying or walking. Really, terrorism is just like plague. We have no real control over whether or not it affects us. If we're lucky, it doesn't. If we're unlucky, it does.

The perceived difference between terror and plague is that the enemy in terror is not a microbe. It's a group of people. So even though the situation is really the same, we react differently. People need to be punished. We need revenge. Because people are visible without the aid of a microscope, we imagine that we can track down everybody who harbors a wish to harm us, and imprison or kill them. But actually, you can see the activity of a microbe under a microscope. You can't see the activity of a mind until it decides to take action.

Just like the plague, there is no reason to panic in the face of terrorism. For the most part, the risks we face with regard to terrorism are less than those of the plague, except in the case where a terrorist actually unleashes a plague, and then we are back in the dark ages. Which is bad, but not astonishingly bad, not without precedent. But how we react has a big part in determining the outcome.

If we react to terrorism by becoming paranoid, by becoming totalitarian, by engaging in reprisals, or in pre-emptive attacks, then the net damage done by the disease is increased. This is why it's so important to identify and combat the real enemy. The real enemy is hatred and anger, not some guy with a bomb.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Sometimes it just hurts...

Just three weeks ago I was in New York, practicing yoga under the direction of Shri K. Pattabhi Jois. I went to five classes, full series - one more than I'd ever done before. When your guru tells you to do five classes, you do five classes. Of course, if she gives you weasel room, and you're me, you weasel. So I did one practice session last week, and showed up today for her Friday class.

If you're not familiar with Ashtanga, the idea is to do it Mysore-style, which means that the first five days of the week, starting on Sunday, you do your own practice, at your own pace, stopping at the asana you are working on (for me it's Kurmasana). The teacher watches you, adjusts you, and occasionally pushes you deeper into the posture, which makes you cry like a baby. Good times. Friday classes in Mysore are always led, so if you're doing Mysore style, there's one led class a week, and you typically do the entire series to the best of your ability, unless you'd be hurting yourself, in which case you stop when you must.

Anyway, the greatest number of practice sessions I had ever done in a week was four, only one of which was a Friday class. Every class Shri Pattabhi Jois led in New York was a led class - no Mysore style. So I did more that week than I have ever done, by a substantial factor - maybe 30 or 40%. At the end of the week, I was feeling nice and loosened up, which was swell, but my lower back was starting to feel really challenged. So I addressed this by trying to figure out what part of my practice I was doing wrong.

I figured it was Salamba Sarvangasana - shoulder stand. That's the one where you lie down on your back, raise your feet straight up, support your back with your bent arms, and try to put your weight on your shoulders, not your spine. I normally think of this as an easy asana, but it requires a fair amount of work on the part of your lower back muscles, and after five days of practice, I reasoned that my supporting musculature was just tired out, and so it was asking too much of my lower back. So it was on this basis that I weaseled out of practice for almost two weeks.

Today when I showed up for class, I tried to explain my reasoning to my guru. She got that patient look she gets when her student is talking nonsense, and asked me if I'd been practicing. I said no. She said "that's why your back hurts." I felt somewhat unsatisfied with this, but I went with it, and she wandered off. Before class started, she came up to me again to see how I was taking it, and we talked a little more. Finally she said that in fact my back was hurting because I wasn't practicing, but that if I did practice it would still hurt.

So anyway, I did the practice, which was difficult at first. Every time I looked up in Uttanasana I could feel my lower back stretching, which was nice, but also a bit challenging. Anyway, after an hour of asana practice, we got to Salamba Sarvangasana, and my lower back was still sad. But it finally clicked, what Lisaji had been telling me. This is pretty obvious, but still easy to forget in the heat of the moment. In order to get a good result, effort is required. Sometimes the path forward is extremely difficult and painful. It doesn't mean I'm doing something wrong. It doesn't mean I made a mistake. If I want the problem to go away, I have to keep walking the path, straight into the problem. The popular phrase would be: "the only way out is through."

Of course, the other way out is to just give up. Eventually the muscle tone that's triggering the problem will go away, and that form of pain will go away too. But if I want to continue with my asana practice, I have to keep practicing through the pain. This is a somewhat depressing and challenging thought, but the nice thing about my yoga practice is that although I have not done it perfectly, I have had moments where I've felt the bliss of practiced ease, just for a moment, so I know it's worth it.

Musical theme: Stokowski's Mussorgsky. Track: The Death of Boris

Celsius 232

There's an article up on a conservative web site called The Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries. At the top are the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf. I belong to a private email discussion group, and the article has seen a lot of discussion there. Someone recently suggested that the Bible and the Koran ought to be at the top of the list.

I think the lesson we can take from this, if we're looking for lessons, is that almost any book can be a harmful book, if it's in the wrong hands. Marx and Engels were idealists who wanted to create a better world. Jesus and Moses and Mohammed were all trying to teach us to be better people, which if you think about it is what creates a better world. If you consider how many people have died as a result of Marx' and Engels' work, I don't find it a stretch to call them harmful, any more than it's a stretch to call the Bible or the Koran harmful for much the same reason. But I think ultimately it's wrong to call books harmful - the problem isn't the books. It's what we do with the ideas in them.

I think it's interesting that instead of saying "these people have a very different take on life than I do," most (not all) of the comments so far have been basically just belittling the people who made the list. I have to admit that when I saw Phyllis Schlafly on the list of judges I let out a snort of my own. But in fact it's just a list of books that some people consider harmful. Their opinions are probably carefully considered. They probably have good reasons for thinking what they do. So why are we laughing at them?

The fact is that we've all been burned by broken memes. For most of us on the mailing list where the discussion has been happening (most of us are what the popular press calls "liberals" - a term that is so poorly defined as to be almost useless), the broken memes by which we've been burned have been the memes that these people (which the popular press might call right-wing christian conservatives) find comforting and hold dear. Their inability to relate to our feeling hurt by their memes is harmful to us. Is it not possible that our inability to relate to their feeling hurt by our memes is harmful to them?

I don't mean that we should simply stand by and agree with positions that we consider morally reprehensible. For me, the death penalty is an obvious one, and so is this group's position on womens' rights. The presence of "Silent Spring" on their list is something I find quite disturbing. But by laughing at them, we are essentially dehumanizing them. I think we all know what the purpose of dehumanization is. Should we really be going down that path? If we do go down the path of dehumanizing those with whom we disagree, are ideals like tolerance and peace something we really take seriously, or just a pretty face we put on our own intolerance?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


You may remember the man who ran Cantor Fitzgerald's office in the top floors of the World Trade Center. He was late for work the morning of 9/11/2001. I saw him talking about it a month after the planes hit. He was like a ghost with a cold wind blowing through his soul. Every single person who worked for him died that day. It's hard not to be emotionally and mentally bowled over by what happened to that poor man.

What happened in the World Trade Center is nothing compared to the holocaust to come. Every single person living today is going to die. Without exception. A hundred years from now, every single adult who is alive today will be dead. This is a holocaust of unimaginable proportions. Billions dead. It's literally true, and we all know it. Why don't we read about this in the news? Why is our situation different than the situation at Cantor Fitzgerald on 9/11/2001?

The truth is that it is not. There is nothing special about what happened at Cantor Fitzgerald. I don't mean to make light of it. But this is what is happening in the world every day.

Back in the Renaissance, people would pray that the plague wouldn't be too bad this year, and promise to pay for a cathedral if they lived. The Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Venice was built on that basis. Beautiful place. Everybody who was involved in building it is dead. Today's plague is terrorism. We don't build Basilicas to fight it. Instead, we kill people.

We defeated the plague by understanding it. The anger and hatred that fuel acts of terrorism have their own causes. An ancient sage once wrote that when someone beats you with a stick it doesn't make sense to get angry at the stick. The stick was wielded by the person who beat you. Likewise, it doesn't make sense to get angry at the person who beat you. The problem is not the person. It is the anger. We say the person's anger, but really the anger is wielding the person, driving the person to do things that the person would not do when calm.

As long as we identify our enemy as some angry person who wants to harm us, we are doomed. To really stop the spread of terrorism, we need to stop the anger, not the person. To stop the anger, we need to understand what causes it. We can do this on the cheap - it won't cost hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Nobody has to die to help us in our task. Honest.