Saturday, December 22, 2007

How to succeed as a student

Well, I've just finished my first semester in grad school. Well, not my "first" really, because I got a master's degree 15 years ago, but I had a very different attitude towards that experience, and I got very different things out of it. Here's what I've learned so far this time around:

Grad school, at least the way Oregon State does it, is not so much about learning ideas as it is about learning to communicate ideas clearly and engagingly. I took one graduate-level class, and participated in several research groups, and we were repeatedly asked to present our own projects, or our understanding of papers we'd read, to the group. It was remarkable how quickly some people improved over the course of even our short 3-month term, and how easily you could tell second-year from first-year students. (As for me, I was thinking more about content than presentation, so I'm really not sure if I improved or not. I may need to ask for some feedback.)

I also did grading of exams and projects an undergraduate "writing-intensive" software engineering class, and quickly discovered that I was asking too much of myself to attempt to grade the students' "understanding" of the material -- all I can do is evaluate their presentation of it. My math-teacher friends Matt and Jenni told me the same thing: they constantly have to remind students that they're grading their work, not their understanding of concepts: teachers are not mind-readers.

Students would do well to think of studying in terms of practicing their performance, rather than checking their understanding. I think there was a time that I would have rankled at that suggestion; that somehow it was noble to increase my understanding of the world, and that practice was secondary. But understanding reaches a dead end quickly without practice; it's ephemeral and ungrounded and forgettable. We delude ourselves into thinking our understanding is firmer than it really is; only in practicing it and explaining it to others are we confronted with the holes and contradictions.

Another thing I learned is that articles written for conferences and journals are not so highfalutin' as I thought they were. They're glorified term papers. Like term papers, they're required of certain people and they represent about a term's worth of work. They're original and interesting at their best, but they don't all get picked up by the New York Times, turn the scientific establishment on its head, or win Nobel prizes. They're just updates on what you're working on, and they keep you on track and in communication with your colleagues. I guess I had the notion before that "publish or perish" was a critique of the shallowness of academic bureaucracies, but it just doesn't seem that way from what I'm seeing at OSU: paper submissions are simply a way to chunk and organize this otherwise vague process called "research". If someone is researching but not publishing, they're making the same mistake as the student who thinks understanding the material is more important than communicating it. If you discover the wheel but can't think of a way of demonstrating its usefulness to other people, then your discovery won't make any practical difference in the world. Anyway, that's how things look to me as a newbie; we'll see how I feel after a few rejections :-)

So far I love being a graduate student. I love being paid to think about stuff that used to be a hobby. I don't love every single thing I'm working on, but I don't hate any of it. I have some serious, but I think healthy and natural, uncertainty about how I'm going to position my perspectives and passions within the corner of the academic world I've chosen to start in. I can't just pursue any crazy cool idea I come up with, because everyone around me has their own interests and perspectives, and I have to learn how to collaborate. My adviser is a proficient cat herder, and I want to learn that from her, and let myself be herded a little; but I still want to stay in touch with my cat-nature.

(thanks Westernlady and Tiger for the picture!)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bike Reflector Art

I took my brother and sister-in-law to see the building I work in, late at night after dinner. There's this artwork on one wall, about 10 feet wide and three very tall stories high, made of different colored bike reflectors. My brother, Handy MacGyver, had a flashlight/laser pointer readily at hand, and he quickly discovered that if you brace the flashlight on your forehead and walk back and forth across the atrium, you see shiny waves of light crossing the piece. Of course, everyone had to try it, including a baffled professor who discovered us staggering around in the lobby. Here's my blurry sister giving it a try:
Jung-eun appreciating art

Monday, September 10, 2007

Left and Right Brains

The LA Times reports on a study of brain differences between liberals and conservatives. They showed people an "M" or a "W", and they had to click a key only when an "M" showed up. M's were much more common than W's. Liberals did better on average than conservatives at holding back from clicking when a W appeared. The implication the Times draws is that conservatives are more prone to making decisions without considering new information.

If this is an accurate report, it makes me wonder how to find a game where conservatives would do better than liberals. My guess might be some test of field dependence, like the embedded figures test. If conservatives are more likely to wrongly fixate on a pattern when asked to look for exceptions, maybe they're more likely to correctly identify a pattern when distracted.

I'd rather this kind of research be used to figure out how people can broaden themselves, than to pigeonhole people or belittle their beliefs as poor brain functioning. Is it possible to train the brain to be more field-dependent or independent at will? Can we learn to adopt a liberal or conservative mindset when one or the other is advantageous? Maybe there's a scientific bias against studies asking people to "do" things mentally and observing the results; since internal "doing" is so hard to describe and to measure. But maybe improving brain scan technology will allow more exploration of the ways people can choose to change the way they go about thinking and emoting.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Taking night pictures with a cell phone camera

In my explorations of what you can do with a cellphone camera, the most interesting challenge is night pictures. I find brightly colored lights at night to be really beautiful, but the cell camera doesn't capture it well. Here's a snapshot of what was a brilliant traffic light my last night living in Denver:

white traffic signal

You can see some redness in the "don't walk" sign across the street, but the traffic signal just shows up white next to the streetlight. I think it was green at the time, but it's hard to tell here. Should I photoshop it to fix the color to what I remember seeing?

Here's a photo of the Man and the moon from Burning Man last week. The man was bright green -- here he shows up white. The green canopy under it shows up as green though. Must be something about intense green getting washed out more than other colors.

burning man and moon

Also the moon is a lot less dramatic. I took several moon pictures and they always look tiny. Why is that? Must be related to the effect that makes the moon look bigger on the horizon. I don't think I'll bother with moonshots any more without a telephoto lens.

Here are our water bottles: we put glow sticks in them so we can carry them around and not lose them and not get hit by bikes. The green looks fine here.

blue and green glowing water bottles

One final example: I tried to get a picture of the Thunderdome; this is a huge geodesic dome where the audience climbs on the outside and people fight inside hanging on bungee swings. I was trying to just get a straightforward snapshot of the fighters with audience in the fore- and background, but obviously the shutter speed had to be too slow for all the motion and my unsteady hand (snapping at arms length over my head). Plus my aim sucked. But I kinda like it anyway; it captures a sense of anarchy and chaos. I guess night photos with a cell phone have to be either still lifes or lomographic motion shots like this.


Sky-blue Mohawk

Andrew in the dome

I also got some good pictures last week of Andrew in his blue mohawk and dustpunk coiture. We had to scrunch up the fabric covering the dome to create larger openings, when a windstorm/dust-whiteout came up and the dome got blown about 10 feet. Opening up holes cut the wind resistance a little, but our stuff got incredibly dusty.

Andrew in white pants

He was frustrated with how quickly the blue hair faded in the sun, but I think it looked good that way.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The world from my window

sky through metal bars

I took some pictures at Burning man with my new camera phone. Most pictures come out crap with it, but occasionally I really like one. Andrew keeps telling me this should inspire me to get a better camera, but I really like the convenience of this one, and it seems like the fun part of art is to see what you can make with the medium you're working with, rather than obsessing about better equipment.

This is looking out at the sky from the doorway of our geodesic dome home.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Wildlife of Corvallis: The Llama

The Willamette valley of Oregon is, geographically speaking, the northernmost reach of the greater Bolivian Altiplano. As such it is home to the Desert Jaguar, the Flamingo, the Northern Capybara, and of course the deadly Llama.

In the mid- to late northern summer, the llama flocks begin to arrive from the southern parts of their habitat, to lay their eggs and feast on the abundant ripe blackberries. Here is a young hatchling, or llambkin, spotted in a nearby field:


Despite their majestic beauty, the llamas are considered pests in the valley. Farmers spray for them at the start of blackberry season, and homeowners employ netting on their chimneys to avert the nuisance of cleaning up sooty llama prints between the fireplace and kitchen every morning.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Wildlife of Corvallis: Black-capped Chickadee

The Willamette valley has a lot of plants and animals that are new to me, so I wanted to blog photos of some of them. I have a new phone with a camera in it, which I love very much, but you'll have to pardon the quality of some of the images.

Today's find is called a "black-capped chickadee" by the folks at the Audubon society booth. My own name for it is the "white-cheeked seed pig", because of it's white cheeks and it's cookie-monster-like eating habits. I've circled it in blue below. If you compare the photo with bird books, it doesn't look that great. But if this were a picture of Bigfoot, this photo would be considered SHOCKING PHOTOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE. So I ask you to judge it by those standards.

Black-capped chickadee

Here's another photo of the same bird by a guy on flickr named prariedog:

Black-capped chickadee

I think you can see the resemblance.

We have three of these seed-pigs that visit the yard as a group. Are they a breeding pair and a brother-in-law? A menage-a-trois? Three hot chicks out on the town? I can't tell because I'm a lousy chickadee sexer, and know nothing of their chickadee ways.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Chris and Andrew Go to Oregon

I live in Oregon now. I live in a house. I have a yard. It is very thirsty. I have bad plants. I have to cut them. The spiders live in the bad plants. They bite me. We are not the best of friends.

We have a kitchen. It is pink. It has mirrors. It is tacky. But I love my kitchen.


Here is my boyfriend. He is sitting in the pink kitchen. Sit, boyfriend, sit! Enjoy your pink kitchen! The spiders do not bite you.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

How to never lose a war

As long as they keep a heart-lung machine going, no one can say the patient has died.

As long as I keep a copy of Gravity's Rainbow on my nightstand with a bookmark on page 17, no one can say I'm not an intellectual.

As long as we keep sending soldiers to die to Iraq, no one can say we've lost the war.

(Thanks Nana Rose for the image)

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Reinterpreting Failure

Blogging live today from Ogden, UT, where my barbershop quartet, Baseline, went belly up last night in the semi-finals of the Rocky Mountain District preliminary competition. We were a little shakier than usual on our first song ("Listen to that Dixie Band"), but then halfway through the second ("Each Time I Fall in Love"), we inexplicably segued into four different keys, and couldn't pull it back together until the very end. We tied for 17th out of 18 quartets.

Afterwards we went out to Dee's, one of the only restaurants in Ogden that stays open after the sun goes down. We drank hot chocolate, ate hash browns with gobs ranch dressing and pepper, analyzed our performance, and discussed the breasts of other late-night restaurant patrons.

The barbershop world is strangely numerical and anal retentive: although there are no time limits on quartet or chorus performances, the contests are scheduled to the minute, and every deviation is lamented by the MC. Scores from 1-100 are assigned by a panel of 6-8 judges, where a 50 means you officially don't suck (you can sing in public with the blessing of the society), and a 76 means you "qualify" (you can compete at the international competition in Denver in July)

Well, we scored a 51.5 overall, and a 56.5 on "Dixie". I suspect that one and a half points is not statistically significant, so, strictly speaking, it is impossible to conclusively determine whether we suck or not. However I would like to mention that one of the judges said that we looked very sharp in our tuxes.

I really like this group of guys I'm singing with and I'm sorry to be leaving them soon to move out of state. We were all pretty philosophical about the results, trying to find what we could learn from the experience, willing to share the blame about what went wrong, and the credit for what went right. I think we've gotten to the point where we're really singing approximately the right notes with confidence (except last night, of course), and we're ready to pay closer attention to musicality and presentation issues. I'd be pretty excited about that if I were staying; but sadly they'll be needing to bring a new baritone up to speed, and I'll be back to singing in the shower for a while (where I sound great, I should mention, but I don't look so sharp without the tux hiding 40 years of gravity).

We get what will probably be our last chance to sing together tonight at the afterglow party. For me, that's the fun part; I like the supportive camaraderie of the afterglow far more than the competitive spirit of the prelims. I think we'll claim the ancient right of do-overs on Each Time I Fall; then we've got a couple other songs that are sounding pretty good, so I think we'll be able to redeem ourselves a little bit.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Teaching a soldier to escalate violence

It's true, as everyone is saying, that this video of a German soldier being trained shows racism and Bronxism. The guy tells the trainee to imagine that a bunch of black guys have gotten out of a van in the Bronx, and are insulting his mother, and that he's should shoot them and yell obscenities at them.

But there's something else offensive about it that no one seems to be taking note of: Soldiers ought to be trained not to escalate situations. If someone is yelling insults about your mother, it's not appropriate to shoot them. Am I naive to think that army training ought to include some skills about staying cool and rational in difficult situations, so you can make judicious decisions about when to use deadly force? This is exactly the kind of macho, video game attitude that the good guys should be discouraging in recruits. Why isn't that part of the scandal?

(Thanks to dariuszka for the image!)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Why we need hate and ignorance on the radio

One of my favorite bloggers, Brad Warner, (whose blog happens to be posted on a non-explicit section of a porn site, so maybe don't click on this at work:) talks about the Imus affair. Imus was a radio talk show host who got fired for saying some racist stuff on the air.

Warner, to summarize, is basically saying that he doesn't care much about what Imus said on the air, and that we should take responsibility for ourselves rather than fretting about what other people say. Many of his commenters are disagreeing, saying that Imus is perpetuating racist attitudes in society, and he's rightfully being held responsible for his words by being fired.

I think there's a deeper point here, that hopefully Warner is getting at. When we stop people from saying offensive things on the grounds that it will have some general effect on the "public mind", we're encouraging people to value the state of this "public mind", rather than being skeptical of it. It's vitally important for the health of a society, for people to think skeptically. They must be able to hold onto their beliefs and opinions despite appeals to mob mentality, despite crazes and manias, despite panic and terror and lies and promises. We have to know that the "public mind" is untrustworthy, so we will never be tempted to use it to excuse ourselves from moral behavior.

When we attempt to scrub the airwaves of any bad ideas that might influence people, we cause the same sort of problem as overuse of antibiotics. People accustomed to hearing only socially acceptable stuff on the radio will not get much practice in distinguishing what they hear from what they have seen to be true with their own eyes. Their defenses will be down. But people who are used to hearing a lot of bullshit on the radio will get practice at questioning everything they hear.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Advice to Any Random Tourist

Advice to Any Random Tourist
Instead of trying to understand
or the scent of everything

keep trying to magnify
your soul lost and little
like a mustard bean
soft and little

set ever so carefully
in the center
of a lone placemat
scuffed and brittle

--Nicole Marie Beatty

(Wow -- ain't the internet great? I saw this poem on a bus, years ago, as a tourist in San Francisco, and jotted it down because I liked it. I just found that piece of paper and decided to type it up so I could throw out the paper. But I googled the title, and found it here!)

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sports Rivalry -- I don't get it

There is a great article on The Situationist about March Madness and sports fandom.

For some reason, this enthusiasm for one team over another is something I don't experience very strongly. I occasionally go to a football game with my boyfriend, and once I identify what colors "our" team's uniform is, I do find myself watching the game from their perspective and hoping they win. But it's just not a very strong preference -- I'll find myself cheering after an impressive run or something by the other team.

I'm not sure why I'm like that. Seems like a pretty normal thing for people to strongly identify with a team, nation, university, or any other in-group that presents itself. It's obviously irrational, and my boyfriend, for example, will happily admit that it's irrational but that it's fun to get caught up in it anyway. But he's pretty balanced about it, compared to some other fans I see. We sat behind a guy at a Crush game the other night who was on his feet the whole time, yelling, red in the face, looking genuinely upset and angry with every referee call that went against the Crush. He was disturbing for two reasons: he seemed incapable of believing that his team was capable of an error; and he wasn't equally gleeful when things went his way. I wonder if for a guy like that, his whole life isn't just one bad day after another.

Must be some personality trait that you just kind of have or don't have, and I come up deficient. I guess I sometimes get a little smug about thinking I'm more rational that everyone else, but the fact is most of the sanest, most rational people I know are sports fans, and they can easily separate the fun of boosterism from rational analysis of a situation. I wonder if there's some benefit to that mental trait, that I'm missing out on.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Forgetting my life

I started digging through my filing cabinet today, throwing old stuff away. The thing was full, and I'm moving out of state, so I need to lighten my load quite a bit.

Flipping through folders of business proposals, 401K brochures, copies of tax forms; I ran across evidence of things I did long ago that I barely remember and rarely think about. I'm 40 years old, which doesn't seem very old to me, but maybe that's because I forget so much. It's a little scary to throw some of this stuff out, knowing that without any evidence, I may never think of some of these old jobs again. Jobs that were my whole life at the time and that I obsessed about every detail.

I've never been good at telling my own story because I tend to think about the present and the future a lot more than I think about the past. So when someone asks, "what kind of jobs have you had" or "what did you do this weekend", I really have to stretch to remember because my rememberer doesn't get much exercise.

It's funny how quaint some of this stuff looks. I found a nastygram I got from the IRS in the early 90's, and it was printed on multiple pages with carbon in between, with holes along both sides, for feeding into a printer. And I found old resumes I typed on an actual typewriter. I found a letter from a professor mentioning that he'd found "interesting" comments in some code I'd written -- I'm meticulous now about not putting smart-ass comments in code, but at the time I guess I must not have been quite as professional about that kind of thing.

I should be more careful not to save things now, because this will be even harder when I'm 80. The pull of nostalgia will be stronger and I'll want to spend my days reading old blog posts and scrutinizing yellowed grocery receipts, longing for those exotic foods we used to eat back at the turn of the century.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Law of Spam Attraction

My recent post on The Secret and the Law of Attraction seems to have attracted the attention of a few people hawking related self-help products. They try to post comments which make a passing reference to what I said, then go on to plug their wares.

I'm forced to admit that maybe if you are very focussed on your goal of making money by selling a book, you might be more effective if you set aside socially beneficial, but limiting, beliefs like "I don't want to be an annoyance to people" or "it's rude to post lame comments as an excuse to insert marketing". This technique probably works, to the benefit of your bottom line, but to the detriment of the quality of conversation that goes on on the internet.

I said recently it might be OK if The Secret was urging people to get clear with themselves, by tempting them with material wealth. But this reaction makes me question that. If The Secret is "you can get rich by removing all mental resistance to your greed", then it might be better for it to stay a secret.

Friday, March 09, 2007

More on Bardo Barbie

The Last Psychiatrist makes use of the same quantum mechanics metaphor I did recently, and suggests that what we call "identity" is really just our own and other people's expectations of us, combined with our desire to live up to those expectations. Change those expectations, and you'll find yourself very motivated to change your behavior.

Can you change those expectations? Are you free to redefine yourself as The Last Psychiatrist claims? Can Barbie return to the Bardo at will? I've been perusing another blog called The Situationist, which makes the rather depressing argument that we're so influenced by our environment that it's a stretch to say we're free at all.

There's plenty of people out there struggling and failing to lose weight or fight addictions. Are they free to change but choose not to, or are they not free? Some people do change, others do not. I don't understand why.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Liberals and Conservatives

"One form of mental illness is obsessive behavior in which all observations are interpreted in terms of some emotional component. I even suspect that the liberal - conservative political spectrum is based upon ones inherent emotional bias. Liberals tend to think everything is their fault (or their group's fault) while conservatives think nothing is their fault (or their group's fault)."
-- unknown, quoted by Chris Chatham.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Pseudoscience and the "Law of Attraction"

David Monk talked in a recent blog entry about a movie called The Secret. I haven't seen it, but I've Steve Pavlina's descriptions of its topic, the Law of Attraction: it's essentially a New Age, power of positive thinking message, sometimes expounded in terms of physical concepts such as quantum mechanics, energy, and vibration.

On one hand, I find the underlying concept essentially a good one. There are a lot of things we claim to "want", but we don't behave the way you'd expect a good wanter to behave. We say we want to drink beer and have six-pack abs -- and we end up frustrated one way or the other (you know the model in the photo at left dropped that beer like a red-hot snake after the photo was taken -- he knows which side his bread is buttered on). I think the underlying message of the Law of Attraction is about being conscious of conflicting goals and realizing that you have to clarify your desires or you'll be sabotaging yourself.

But why is it that this stuff gets couched in pseudoscience? You hear people talk about this in terms of vibrations, quantum mechanics, energy, force, even nonsensical combinations like "energy force". To be fair, a some of it is clearly metaphorical: it's common to talk about "vibes" and "resonance" as a metaphor for detecting having something in common with another person, in the same way that a tuning fork will resonate along with another tuning fork of a close enough resonating frequency. (I abused quantum mechanics myself in a previous post.) But there's also an element of snake oil, especially with quantum mechanics, in movies like What the Bleep that are seriously trying to sell us on the idea that quantum phenomena can be observed on the macroscopic scale.

How we think influences how we act, and how we act influences the world. I guess it makes sense that if you adopt a belief in a shortcut directly from our thoughts to the world, it provides a simpler conceptual framework that can make necessary introspection appear to be more rewarding in the short term. That's probably why some very effective people have had good luck with this kind of mental framework. But for essentially lazy people without the habit of getting their hands dirty, it allows for the possibility of a sterile sort of magick where you lie around on a couch wishing really hard for something good to happen. When nothing comes, it's because you didn't wish hard enough.

Monk also questions The Secret's emphasis on manifesting wealth and shiny consumer goods. I'm not sure that's bad in itself -- if someone is pursuing material wealth, and they're not succeeding because they're confused and conflicted, giving them tips for getting richer through introspection may be the spoonful of sugar they need to make the medicine go down. Getting clear with things is good for you whatever your goals are, although it will certainly cause you to reconsider what your goals are.

Thanks to taijofj for the cat photo: may he manifest a big bowl of tuna.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Time-Lapse Living

Over at Unknowing Mind, Mike theorizes about why time seems to pass faster as we age. His answer is framed from a Buddhist perspective involving karma, intention and mindfulness and it's worth reading. Here's my reinterpretation of his idea: you're conscious of the passing of time only when you're conscious of what you're doing; and you barely notice time when you're operating on autopilot. The longer you live, the more situations you have an automatic unthinking response to. When you're 13 and you do the laundry for the first time, you think about every step and worry that you're not getting it right. When you're 31 you do it automatically without even noticing, and so much less time seems to pass for you. As you become more competent in so many areas, your life flies by like a time-lapse film, the camera only capturing a frame during your increasingly rare "what the fuck am I doing?" moments.

Mike suggests living more intentionally -- deciding what to do and doing it mindfully. Maybe another trick would be to try lots of new things and take more risks. Try to put yourself in situations like you encountered so often as a child: trying to do important adult things for the first time with small uncoordinated hands.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

What the war is *really* about

I had this 11th grade history teacher, who I'll call Mr. R, who told us one day in class what the seven reasons for the US civil war were. Then on the test we had to list them. If I recall correctly, the question was, "What were the seven reasons for the civil war?"

At the time I think the sum total of my internal reaction to this was "History is boring", but after taking some more thoughtful history courses in college, I began wondering how Mr. R decided what the seven reasons were (or more to the point, how the textbook writers decided; Mr. R taught with the textbook open on his podium for reference; I don't think he liked history any more than I did).

Nowadays I think that every participant in a war, from soldier to politician to journalist, had differing and complex reasons why they participate. A war itself doesn't have a purpose; purposes are things people have.

I keep hearing that the war in Iraq is "really" about oil, and I just can't believe that. It's plausible that profits to oil companies are high on the president's list of concerns -- I understand his family and their friends have concerns in that business so it makes sense that he might see things from an oilman's perspective. But I can't believe it's his only reason, or even his main reason. People are more complex than that.

And furthermore, even if W were totally and solely focussed on oil, he wouldn't have been able to convince the Congress to go to war without pitching other reasons: fear of terrorism, fear of nuclear or chemical weapons, the promise of a new Arab democracy to set an example. Since those ideas were critical to convincing Congress to declare war, why shouldn't they count as "reasons" for the war, regardless of the president's personal motives?

And to take it a step further, what if Congress threw a war and no one came? Americans participate as soldiers for various reasons, including the ones stated, as well as individual reasons ranging from loyalty and patriotism, to unemployment, desperation, rage, curiosity, or a thousand other things. Then there the Iraqis and all the other nationalities fighting on both sides, whose many reasons I probably can't even guess at.

I don't think the US is doing the right thing in Iraq. But the reasons we are there are complicated and I don't think it helps to claim they are simple. If all the world's oil were gone tomorrow, we'd still have wars. It's useful to look at and consider the influence of oil on the equation, but in the end, wars are emergent phenomena that are very hard to explain, and therefore very hard to prevent. I hope we figure it out soon, but I'm not all that optimistic.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Barbie visits the Bardo

In filling out grad school applications and writing essays for them this fall, I found that the most difficult aspect of it was defining myself: telling a story describing my life, experiences, and interests that would let admissions committees know who I am. I found that I needed to write three different essays for the three different schools; each of them was very honest, I think, but they all told different stories. I've been thinking about what that means.

Seems to me that the relationship between what we really are and what we say about ourselves, is kind of like the relationship between a quantum state and a classical state in quantum physics. (I'm not claiming that quantum physics really has anything particular to do with how the mind works; I just think it's a good metaphor). What we really are is a bundle of contradictory possibilities; but when we describe ourselves or make choices in our lives, we make some of the possibilities manifest and turn the others into might-have-beens.

For example, suppose there's someone you know, and you really haven't decided if you like them or not yet. They say what they mean and ask for what they want; they could be assertive and self-confident, or maybe they're pushy and egotistical. You haven't really thought about it.

Then someone asks you for an opinion. You think about it, talk about it, reach a conclusion. After that, you're more likely to see evidence that that person fits your judgment; if you said they were egotistical, everything self-confident about them will feel like egotism to you. What was a contradictory, ill-defined collection of impressions has become a preconception that every new impression is now fitted to.

Here's an article talking about how people choose "friends" on MySpace; what is a fluid and ill-defined thing in the real world has to be narrowed down to a black and white decision on a social networking site. There's people you like when you're in one frame of mind and dislike when you're in another, kind of like that poor cat that's both alive and dead, but rather mistreated either way.

This all makes it sound like I think it's a bad thing to have to describe yourself. In fact, I think it's what life is all about. In doing these grad school essays, and playing around with my profile on social networking sites, I've been realizing how much a different attitude towards the same set of facts and expressions of interests, can make a person seem totally different, without being the least bit dishonest. It's just good to maintain your awareness of the fact that these manufactured identities, that you use for grad school essays, friendster profiles, and smalltalk in bars, are just roles we play in the stories we make of our days; but in fact we're much foggier and full of potential.

A naked Barbie doll is full of potential; you can dress her up as a nurse or a ninja or a firefighter or a fashion model, and then she's fun to play with because there's a story to tell. Her power comes from her versatility, but it's not realized until she adopts an identity: temporarily limited, she trades breadth for depth, and has an adventure in her spacesuit as the first woman on the moon, before returning to the foggy bardo of naked plastic non-being from which the next adventure will begin!

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to go forth and adopt a different identity for a day, and see how you like it. The rules: you can't lie about yourself; you have to take the actual facts of your life and see if you can tell a different story about yourself. Emphasize a different subset of your experiences; be confident about different things and vulnerable about different things. Dress differently than you normally do. Meet someone you don't know and strike up a conversation as that new person, and see what it's like. The goal of the mission is to notice that you're a naked Barbie doll on the inside, and the way you present yourself to people is an optional set of accessories; fun and rewarding, perhaps, but totally interchangeable.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Mega-scale prayer turbines

This page on Tibetan Spiritual Technology outlines different methods of machine-assisted mantra recital. Electric and steam-powered drums with the mantra, "Om mane padme hum" written on them can produce the same spiritual effect as merely reciting the phrase.

Like the Amish, it seems that Tibetan Buddhists put conscious thought into how to integrate technology with their religious beliefs. They come to some different conclusions, obviously, but they're questioning the same set of assumptions that most of us take for granted -- does the use of this cell phone or this car or this television set help or hurt my spiritual development?

I can't help thinking though, how cool it would be to take this to its extreme. Imagine row on row of ten-story high prayer turbines, each inscribed with the mantra billions of times, perhaps laser etched at a nanoscale on a teflon surface. Monks could inscribe prayers on trees, which would be chopped down by giant logging machines, and fed into a blast furnace. The furnace would boil water, and the steam would turn the prayer turbines at thousands of rotations per second. Just how fast can Chenrezig read? The smoke from the furnace would be a prayer in itself, much as the threads ripped by prayer flags by the wind constitute a prayer.

Output of the turbines would be measured in kM/s, kilomantras per second. Measured of course by an Ommeter. A nation could have a spiritual accounting office to keep track of its gross national karmic product (GNKP), balancing industrial mantra production against a tally of such negatives as war casualties inflicted, crime rates, and estimated instances of corporate malfeasance.

(Thanks to Liz Highleyman and LHOON for the images!)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

It's hard to research small religions

I've just had a curious experience trying to google info about a religious organization called FISU (the Foundation for International Spiritual Unfoldment). They have a brand new Wikipedia page, all created by one person, and I wondered if it was basically an advertisement for a new group, that didn't deserve to be in an encyclopedia yet. They claim to have thousands of members in the UK, and be sponsoring meditation lessons all over the world. But every reference to them I can find on Google is merely an ad they've placed, on an astonishing variety of directories, going back at least 10 years. No one refers to them in a blog, or in a newspaper article, as far as I can tell. The only information available about them comes from their own PR.

I had a similar experience last year trying to research New Kadampa Tradition Buddhism; they have a meditation center in my neighborhood and I was trying to find out more about it. They weren't quite so elusive -- there was a stink between them and the Dalai Lama some time back, so you'll find articles about that; and generally they're kind of hooked in, positively or negatively, with other branches of Tibetan Buddhism. But if you want to know solid, useful, information from an outside source about a group like NKT or FISU -- how large they really are; are they high-pressure fundraisers or evangelists; how does their philosophy and practice compare to other sects -- you pretty much have to just check them out personally and trust your instincts.

I don't particularly have a bad instinct about either group, by the way; I haven't visited them; their practices sound like they are inoffensive but would not suit me personally. I'm curious about these things because I respect people that put their values on the line and work with idealistic organizations like this, but I'm also wary of religious organizations in general; so many have been tools for abusing people. Maybe there should be something like a Better Business Bureau for religions.