March 13, 2011

Taoism: Working Out, Leadership, and an Illustrated I Ching

I just put the below on eBay's half.com. Two of them I have had for many years, but shelf space is limited.

Working Out, Working Within; The Tao of Power; The Illustrated I Ching
(Image is clickable.)

Working Out, Working Within is a fitness book. Amazon's product description is as follows:

Zen meets The Zone in this guide to combining physical fitness with spiritual awakening. During physical training, we can experience something deeper than just the burn of working out. We can achieve spiritual awareness and know that we are alive and healthy. Working Out, Working Within offers readers techniques and suggestions to avoid fixating on winning the game, scoring the goal, or building the perfect body. Instead our workouts can become tools for personal transcendence as we get to know ourselves, test our limits, gather personal strength, and build physical potency. Here's a book that will nourish and exercise the spirit while showing readers what "ultimate" sports and living really are.

The Illustrated I Ching is especially nice with pictures of some very excellent Chinese art work throughout, but it is time to allow someone else to benefit from it.

The Tao of Power is a translation of the Tao Te Ching with some interesting commentaries.

Posted by Jeff at 09:50 PM | Comments (1)

August 05, 2010

Fair Play

I'd like to recommend a book. If we just read material that supports positions we already hold, we don't give ourselves a chance to challenge our positions. And one position most of us commonly hold could use some serious challenging and in earnest. Let me quote a couple of pages from the book:

Fair Play, Steven E. Landsburg

A few years ago, I published a book called The Armchair Economist in which I argued that bipartisanship in Congress should be treated as a violation of the antitrust law. We don't allow the presidents of United and American Airlines to conspire against the public; why should we allow the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties to conspire? I got a note back from a copy editor asking whether there wasn't actually a key difference, in the sense that the airline presidents are conspiring to break laws, while the politicians are conspiring to make laws. I wrote back, asking if he had any historical evidence as to which of these activities was more likely to be harmful. My guess is that making laws is on average worse than breaking them. Th fact that this possibility never occurred to my editor is another instance of the kind of indoctrination I am talking about.

If you want to combat this stuff, you take the opportunities that come your way. For example, when your three-year-old starts asking about your radar detector, you have a limited number of options. Total honesty requires explaining that the sole purpose of a radar detector is to facilitate breaking the law. Partial honesty can be served by hiding the radar detector.

My colleague Alan Stockman faced this dilemma when his oldest daughter Gwendolyn turned three and curious. Alan opted for the hide-the-detector strategy, lest Gwendolyn get the idea that all rules are made to be broken. The truth, of course, is that some rules are made to be broken and others are not, but philosophers as subtle as Saint Thomas Aquinas have grappled with the question of where to draw the line. For Aquinas the key criterion was conformity with natural law, which is all well and good for a sophisticated adult, but Alan didn't think his three-year-old was quite prepared to grasp the concept of a natural speed limit.

So to maintain his daughter's respect for the rule of law, Alan lived without a radar detector for a few years. There would be time enough, as Gwendolyn grew older, to show her that between black and white there are many shades of gray.

I told Alan he had the analysis half right and half wrong. The part he had right was this: It's true that a very young child is likely to be confused if you tell her that some laws are bad while others are good. But it's wrong ot conclude, as Alan did, that very young children should be allowed to believe that all laws are good. My own inclination is to go the opposite route, by teaching the very young that all laws are bad. As those children grow older and more sophisticated, they can be gradually introduced to the advanced Aquinean concept that some laws are actually just.

You walk a thin line with these things. I do want my daughter to know that policemen are good, in the sense that if you are lost they will help you find your way home. But I also want her to know that policemen are bad, in the sense that they enforce a lot of bad laws. I've talked to her about this paradox, and she has no trouble grasping it.

And there are some things that I want to impress on my daughter even when they push the limits of her young capacity for thought. The massacre at Waco took place only days after my daughter (then aged six) had asked me how the government uses our tax dollars. When she walked in on the television coverage of flames and carnage, I told her that now she was seeing the answer to her question. And when she heard that there were children in there, that they were burning children, her eyes grew wide with horror, and I both hope and believe that she will never forget that moment.

That's from a book called, Fair Play: What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life.

Posted by Jeff at 12:57 AM | Comments (0)

July 24, 2010

The Authenticity Hoax

Book recommendation: I'm reading a book right now which dissects the things we do to raise our status and why. Here's a paragraph from it:

We can safely say that it was Rousseau who launched the first serious volley in the culture wars, the now centuries-long dispute between passion and reason, art and commerce, the individual and society, the bohemian and the bourgeois. To be bourgeois is to be alienated from your authentic self, which is just another way of saying that you've allowed your creativity to atrophy in the name of comfort and security. You've sold you, in other words, and the only way to get your edge back is to become a bohemian, a nonconformist, a solitary rebel at odds and out of step with the mainstream. An authentic person is one who, almost by definition, rejects popular tastes, thoughts, opinions, styles, and morals.

Rousseau laid the groundwork for our understanding of the authentic self and its relationship to the modern world, and most of what is to come in this book will involve exploring the consequences of these developments and showing how the basic terms of engagement that he laid down are still the ones that dominate our approach to the questions of personal identity and the meaningful life. (Page 75)

Ultimately, none of this has anything to do with trying to be true to one's self, or trying to avoid being duped or pushed around by society or popular culture or being "authentic". Instead, it's all about status - trying to elicit a reaction from our peers. If the concert shirt we're wearing has the dates and locations of the venues of the tour, well, then, that shows our peers that we were there and so, well, aren't we cool? And if we bought that shirt 20 years ago at an actual concert in support of Piece of Mind, then our shirt means something, while identical shirts printed today and sold at Hot Topic, with the same pictures on the front and dates & locations on the back - identical reproductions - they're forgeries, hoaxes, copies...inauthentic...they're lies and steal status. If someone then washes the "reproduction" shirt repeatedly in order to make it look old, that's unforgivable. If he's caught, he's identified as a charlatan - and loses status.

The organic foods movement was about status. Rich yuppies paying 50% extra for food, claiming to be "saving the planet", were just so much better than the rest of us, weren't they? Buying organic food ("authentic" food - made by nature!) was just so cool, wasn't it? But then Whole Foods became a giant corporation, mainstreaming the whole foods movement, and worse - Wal*mart got into the act by selling organic foods at 10% above non-organic prices. If a person really thought that going organic was about saving the planet, having organic go mainstream would be a wonderful accomplishment, but the followers of organic foods reacted almost uniformly with anger - and quickly changed the subject: the issue is no longer about being organic, it's about buying local. Now, once again, only a few people can participate. They get to say, "Aren't I special?" once again, and have the foolish masses seeking to become them.

Punk rock had status...until it became mainstream.

When Levis makes 501s in the old style, then washes them with stones to distress them, and calls them "authentic", when Italian restaurants advertise themselves as "authentic Italian", we recognize the game: it's fake authenticity (like a Hot Topic reproduction t-shirt). They know it's fake, we know it's fake, and they know that we know it's fake. These people aren't the ones to worry about. The people to worry about "are the people who go to special invitation only set-menu dinners hosted by professional Italian chefs" (Page 135), who hold their experience up for the rest of us as "real authentic Italian" and set the bar for the rest of us. They're the "in crowd" - they have the "real 'authentic' Italian meal" and the "real 'authentic' Iron Maiden tour shirt" and the "real 'authentic' pair of 501s (purchased from an estate sale of someone who actually bought the jeans in the 1940s)"...and, my...aren't they special? I want to be just like them!

Show me a rebel - a "non-conformist", and I'll show you someone who is completely full of shit, a status hound - and doesn't know it.

The Authenticity Hoax
(Image is clickable.)

About the author, from the back of the book:

Andrew Potter is the coauthor of the international bestseller Nation of Rebels. A journalist and writer, he holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto, and he is a former assistant professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Canada. He has also taught at the University of Toronto and The University of Quebec at Montreal, and was recently a visiting scholar with The Educational Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. he is currently a politics editor with the Ottawa Citizen and a public affairs columnist with Maclean's Magazine, Canada's national newsweekly. He lives in Ottawa, Canada.

How's that for status? (I sure hope his degrees are authentic - I wouldn't want to accept an argument from a person with no "real" status!)

Posted by Jeff at 04:22 AM | Comments (0)

April 09, 2009

Americans are Making their Choice: Atlas Shrugged

March 10, 2008

Irvine, CA--Fifty years after its publication, Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" is selling more than ever, having reached the astounding mark of 185,000 copies sold in 2007.

As noted by Dr. Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, "this sales figure is an all-time annual record, far exceeding sales of any year in Ayn Rand's lifetime."

Sales of Atlas Shrugged at All-Time Record

Washington, D.C., February 23, 2009--Sales of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" have almost tripled over the first seven weeks of this year compared with sales for the same period in 2008. This continues a strong trend after bookstore sales reached an all-time annual high in 2008 of about 200,000 copies sold.

"Americans are flocking to buy and read 'Atlas Shrugged' because there are uncanny similarities between the plot-line of the book and the events of our day" said Yaron Brook, Executive Director at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights. "Americans are rightfully concerned about the economic crisis and government's increasing intervention and attempts to control the economy. Ayn Rand understood and identified the deeper causes of the crisis we're facing, and she offered, in 'Atlas Shrugged,' a principled and practical solution consistent with American values."

Sales of "Atlas Shrugged" Soar in the Face of Economic Crisis

April 4, 2009

The biggest under-appreciated political story of this year is the astonishing surge in the sales of Ayn Rand's epic 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged.

In the past week, the ranking page which shows the top sellers among all of the books offered through Amazon.com showed the novel surging into the top 20, climbing as high as #16. Remember that this is a thousand-page-long, 52-year-old novel that is heavy on philosophical content. And those rankings surely understate actual sales, since the novel is listed under at least three separate editions, each showing strong sales in its own right.

Atlas Shrugged Sales Overturn Policy Calculations

Gee, maybe there is hope for the world after all.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Posted by Jeff at 09:57 PM | Comments (0)

August 13, 2008

Which book to read? Atlas Shrugged? Or Ulysses?

ULYSSES by James Joyce Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Which book is better? Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand? Or Ulysses by James Joyce? Which book should a person read? And why? These two books tend always to be at the top of reader lists, the former at the top of "elite" lists, whereas the latter at the top of common reader lists. But which is really better?

Post Script: April 9th, 2009: The world is making its choice in RECORD numbers: Atlas Shrugged

Posted by Jeff at 12:59 AM | Comments (4)

October 03, 2006

John Adams

Having read 1776, by David McCullough, and enjoyed it quite a bit, I've decided to move on to one of his other books: John Adams.

John Adams, by David McCullough

So far, John Adams is less interesting, but still good. The author fills the pages with meaningless details (names of childhood friends, as one example, most of which I suspect will never be mentioned again), which can make some pages a bit of a bore, but then it steps right up again. I'm enjoying these books.

Posted by Jeff at 12:15 AM | Comments (1)

September 17, 2006

Currently Reading: "The Mind's I" and "1776"

The Mind's I, Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett

The Mind's I is a book that I've owned for years and I read quite a bit through maybe a decade ago, but never finished. It's a book about consciousness, a conglomeration of pieces written by quite a few different authors, then each piece reflected upon by Daniel C. Dennett (author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea) and/or Douglas R. Hofstadter (author of Godel, Escher, Bach). If there is a strong philosophical bent to your thinking, you may like this one.

1776, by David McCullough

1776, by David McCullough, is a new book to me, and is very interesting. I had no idea how little I knew about the revolutionary war. The book centers around General George Washington, but it employs many different characters. It reads like a novel, but is heavily interspersed with actual surviving quotes made by the historical characters within its pages. It's very interesting and I recommend it to everyone. (It is good enough that I am likely to follow up by reading one of his other books: John Adams.)

More on The Mind's I:

Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter, is a book which compares the mathematics of Godel, the paintings of Escher, and the music of Bach to one another. There's a great deal of similarity.

There's a long chapter in that book called, "Prelude...Ant Fugue", which is reprinted in the book The Mind's I.

The chapter, in and of itself, is (supposed to be) a fugue by Bach. The content of the chapter is a dialogue between four characters: Achilles, (a) Tortoise, (a) Crab, and (an) Anteater. The dialogue is about a friend of theirs by the name of Aunt Hillary. Aunt Hillary is an ant colony. She doesn't participate in the discussion, of course, because she's not present. Much of the discussion is about how it is possible that Aunt Hillary can even be referred to as an individual, being as how she's composed of ants, and of how Aunt Hillary can consider Anteater to be such a good friend (which she does) in spite of Anteater being...an ant eater (he doesn't eat colonies, so it's not like Aunt Hillary has anything to fear - but the ants which of which she is composed don't like Anteater in the least!).

Also, the conversation is occasionally self-referential, in that its participants sometimes discuss the very Bach fugue which is composed of their very conversation. That would be like the Bach fugue actually thinking about itself, in some strange way. No, that's not quite accurate...it's more in the other direction...hmm....

Anyway...the whole idea is to make clear the distinction between different levels of description (such as how this picture, at one level of description, is a bunch of photos of soldiers, but at another is a single picture of George Bush's face [note that it is very poor art, given that they just put a bunch of photos together, and then they bleached some of them and darkened others in order to create the light and dark portions of Bush's face; that's pretty amateur]).

Here's an excerpt:

CRAB: We would never have noticed if it hadn't been for you, Achilles

ANTEATER: I wonder if the coincidence of the highest and lowest levels happened by chance? Or was it a purposeful act carried out by some creator?

CRAB: How could one ever decide that?

TORTOISE: I don't see any way to do so, since we have no idea why that particular picture is in the Crab's edition of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

ANTEATER: Although we have been having a lively discussion, I have still managed to listen with a good fraction of an ear to this very long and complex four-voice fugue. It is extraordinarily beautiful.

TORTOISE: It certainly is. And now, in just a moment, comes an organ point.

ACHILLES: Isn't an organ point what happens when a piece of music slows down slightly, settles for a moment or two on a single note or chord, and then resumes at normal speed after a short silence?

TORTOISE: No, you're thinking of a "fermata" - a sort of musical semicolon. Did you notice there was one of those in the prelude?

ACHILLES: I guess I must have missed it.

TORTOISE: Well, you have another chance coming up to hear a fermata - in fact, there are a couple of them coming up toward the end of this fugue.

ACHILLES: Oh, good. you'll point them out in advance, won't you?

TORTOISE: If you like.

ACHILLES: But do tell me, what is an organ point?

TORTOISE: An organ point is the sustaining of a single note by one of the voices in a polyphonic piece (often the lowest voice), while the other voices continue their own independent lines. This organ point is on the note of G. Listen carefully, and you'll hear it.

ANTEATER: There occurred an incident one day when I visited with Aunt Hillary which reminds me of your suggestion of observing the symbols in Achilles' brain as they create thoughts which are about themselves.

CRAB: Do tell us about it.

ANTEATER: Aunt Hillary had been feeling very lonely, and was very happy to have someone to talk to that day. So she gratefully told me to help myself to the juiciest ants I could find. (She's always been most generous with her ants.)

ACHILLES: Gee!

ANTEATER: It just happened that I had been watching the symbols which were carrying out her thoughts, because in them were some particularly juicy-looking ants.

ACHILLES: Gee!

ANTEATER: So I helped myself to a few of the fattest ants which had been parts of the higher-level symbols which I had been reading. Specifically, the symbols which they were part of were the ones which had expressed the thought "Help yourself to any of the ants which look appetizing."

ACHILLES: Gee!

ANTEATER: Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for me, the little bugs didn't have the slightest inkling of what they were collectively telling me, on the symbol level.

ACHILLES: Gee! That is an amazing wraparound. They were completely unconscious of what they were participating in. Their acts could be seen as part of a pattern on a higher level, but of course they were completely unaware of that. Ah, what a pity - a supreme irony, in fact - that they missed it.

CRAB: You are right, Mr. T - that was a lovely organ point.

ANTEATER: I had never heard one before, but that one was so conspicuous that one one could miss it. Very effective.

ACHILLES: What? Has the organ pint already occurred? How can I not have noticed it, if it was so blatant?

TORTOISE: Perhaps you were so wrapped up in what you were saying that you were completely unaware of it. Ah, what a pity - a supreme irony, in fact - that you missed it.

CRAB: Tell me, does Aunt Hillary live in an anthill?

ANTEATER: Well, she owns a rather large piece of property. It used to belong to someone else, but that is a rather sad story. In any case, her estate is quite expansive. She lives rather sumptuously, compared to many other colonies.

ACHILLES: How does that jibe with the communistic nature of ant colonies which you earlier described to us? It sounds quite inconsistent, to me, to preach communism and to live in a fancy estate!

ANTEATER: The communism is on the ant level. In an ant colony all ants work for the common good, even to their own individual detriment at times. Now this is simply a built-in aspect of Aunt Hillary's structure, but for all I know, she may not even be aware of this internal communism. Most human beings are not aware of anything about their neurons; in fact they probably are quite content not to know anything about their brains, being somewhat squeamish creatures. Aunt Hillary is also somewhat squeamish; she gets rather antsy whenever she starts to think about ants at all. So she avoids thinking about them whenever possible. I truly doubt that she knows anything about the communistic society which is built into her very structure. She herself is a staunch believer in libertarianism - you know, laissez-faire and all that. So it makes perfect sense, to me at least, that she should live in a rather sumptuous manor....

This dialogue is also about the differing appropriateness of using reductionist and holistic interpretations of events.

See also: John Adams, by David McCullough.

Posted by Jeff at 11:19 PM | Comments (0)