Sunday, May 27, 2007

The ends don't justify the means...

...because if you use the wrong means, you never really get the ends you were hoping for anyway. I'm pretty heartbroken that after the way the election went last year, we still don't have a Congress with the balls to stand up to Bush and tell him to take his war and shove it.

But I'd like to give a big shout-out (which will be heard by all three people who read this blog) to two congresscritters that I know voted against it: Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). I wasn't surprised by Grijalva, but I was surprised by Boxer, and I was really happy to hear that she voted against the bill.

Maybe next time.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


Will, as usual, asks a very good question:
How about if we start with a question: How do you think the middle way applies to what you do with your money?

To put it in very simple terms, Buddhism says that you should look for your own actions reflected in the world. So if you see a world full of poverty, and you want to change that, you need to be generous, and you need to avoid stealing.

The middle way aspect of this comes from the actual definition of the middle way, which is the path between not any two extremes, but two specific extremes: the extreme of thinking that things exist truly, and the extreme of thinking that things don't exist at all.

To illustrate what this means, consider what a person would do who believes in the extreme of existence - that things exist truly. Someone with this belief thinks that wealth comes from getting things. So a person like this will, when they see a poor person and want to help them, give them things. And if they pick the right poor person, they may actually see some benefit from what they do. And if they pick the wrong poor person, they will see no benefit.

A person who falls to the extreme of nonexistence will point out that because giving things to the poor person has no cause-and-effect relationship to seeing the poor person do better (if the relationship was cause-and-effect, it would work _every_ time), there is no point at all in being generous - even if you want to help the poor person, you can't, so you might as well go surfing.

The middle way here is realizing that while there is no direct cause-and-effect relationship between helping a specific poor person and that person doing better, nevertheless if you make a habit of helping people in need, then that habit might function to create a world in which there is more generosity, and that in turn might produce a world in which there is less poverty.

The point is that if you follow the middle way, you just live the reality that you want to see in the world. You don't tell other people how to act, because it doesn't work. How do we know it doesn't work? Because if it did work, we'd see it working. And what we see instead is a pitched battle, with no obvious hope of a good outcome. So the solution to the problem isn't to join the battle. It's to stop the battle.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

More arguing about wealth...

I was writing this in response to something Will Shetterly said in his blog - the response started to get long enough to feel like a blog entry in its own right. What Will said was this:

But I will quibble with one thing: The rich do the dividing by taking the lion's share for themselves. Perhaps my seeing the world in terms of wealth is as invalid as ktempest seeing it in terms of race, but I think having a billion dollars while people are homeless is more meaningful than the melanin in your skin or the shape of your nose.

But I still haven't a clue how you get the rich to share. It's kind of the antithesis of what you need to be rich.

See here's the thing: the rich aren't taking the lion's share for themselves. Well, some are, but for most, the lion's share just came to them. They aren't necessarily sharing, that much is true, but as often as not, they didn't try to take the lion's share for themselves - it just arrived at their doorstep.

Consider my case. You very generously exempt me from being one of the mean non-sharing rich folks, but here I am. When I was in India last year, the locals treated me like a rock star. The waiter who took care of us at the Shangri-la hotel hung around our table and didn't want to go away. There were people who we met, who took care of us, who earn less in a year than we spent there in a week. People hassled us on the streets because to them we looked like bags of money.

On the road to Dharamsala, at an intersection in north Delhi, there was a lady with a baby who came up and banged on the window and demanded that we give her money. And I didn't, because I was afraid that if I opened the window, we'd be mobbed and overrun - there were at least a hundred thousand people there at that intersection, and not one of them was someone who made as much money in a year as I had in my pocket.

So you can't say I'm not rich. You have to admit that I'm rich, even if by American standards I'm middle class.

So then how did I get this way, and why don't I share? I got this way by accident. By pure luck. I happen to have developed an interest in computers when I was a kid. And then I ran into someone who's made a name for himself in the business, and he asked me to do something, and what he asked me to do wound up being important, and so I got famous in my tiny little microcosm. And now here I am. I didn't plan it, or expect it.

And when someone in need came up to me on a road in north Delhi, I didn't share my wealth with her. So I am one of the mean rich people you're talking about.

Okay, Bill Gates has billions. He's richer than I am. But he didn't get there by screwing anyone either. He got there by luck. The owner of CP/M-86 didn't have time to talk to IBM, so Microsoft got the deal. And Microsoft took the money and did something useful with it that made them even more money. And Bill had a ton of Microsoft stock. So now he's the richest man in the world. And despite how much I despise Windows, and I do truly despise it, I can't say that Bill screwed me to get rich.

So the corollary to that is that Bill is no more a bad guy than I am a bad guy. Bill gives away more money than I will earn in my entire life every single day of the year. I suspect he gives away a larger percentage of his wealth every day than I do. So if you are saying that Bill is a bad guy, be honest: you're saying I'm a worse guy.

And this is why I think that approaching the question of rich and poor as if the rich are screwing over the poor is nonfunctional. I think it doesn't work. Yes, there are rich criminals, and that's maddening, but there are poor criminals too. What's wrong with both is that they value their happiness over others' sufficiently that they take what isn't theirs. The problem with both of them is that they hurt us. They are more alike than they are different.

The problem with Bill is that everybody isn't as fortunate as he is. It's not that he's rich. And that's the problem with me, too. And if I could fix it, I would. And in fact that's why I practice Buddhism: because I have seen the world, and how it works, and I know that I can't make the world a better place simply by reaching out and tweaking it. We need works, it's true. But we need something more than that - call it faith, call it insanity, call it synergy, but don't call it beating up Bill Gates, because that ain't going to work.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


I'm listening to some music by Michael Hewett right now, and it's bringing back some really fond memories of our trip to India last year, when Andrea and I spent a ton of time with Michael and Nicole, two wonderful people we haven't seen since. I really miss them both. Dunno when we'll see them next.

And I was just reading my friend Kimberly's blog. Haven't seen her in a long time.

And I had a nice chat with Mark Epstein what was it, two months ago? And I've been meaning to call Lois for about a month now, but I suck at phone calls, and I haven't yet.

And I was thinking about how nice it would be to be able to hang out in Warwick with my family. And another trip to Austin would be nice. Perry and I might do some hacking together soon, but I haven't actually hung out with him in several years, because he no longer goes to the conferences I go to.

It's weird that even though I'm surrounded by friends whom I dearly love in Arizona, there are at least as many friends I hardly get to see outside of the state.

I'm sure this is one of the six sufferings. There's a word in Tibetan for someone who's still in the cycle of suffering: drowa. One who goes. What a metaphor. To see everybody in my life that I love would be a road trip of epic proportions. Am I blessed to have so many wonderful people in my life, or cursed that I can't see them?

Drowa's real meaning, the one that hits home, comes when you hear the synonym, sosor kyewo. A person who is born alone. We all move from life to life alone. We can't bring friends and loved ones with us. We are the ones who go one by one. We can't even have our friends with us in this life, when we would dearly love to.

A good man, someone who I've known for about seven years, who's been very kind to a lot of people I know, went on that journey today. He got cancer about a year after I met him, and we've been watching him come and go, from health to sickness, to a nice long remission, but finally to decline and departure. A valley out at Diamond Mountain is named after him. It seems like if anyone can hope for a kind welcoming party on the other end of his journey, he can. Maybe he'll show up at DM in twenty years. I hope so.