Musings & Adventures, Random

Getting my Diacritics Corrected at MIT

OM MANI PADME HUM written in chalk on 20 foot x 20 foot chalk board in Sata center lobby

While visiting the Stata center at MIT, I scrawled my usual chalkboard graffiti in the lobby – OM MANI PADME HUM.  An hour later,  I found that someone had actually “corrected” the  diacritized sanskrit “NI”, which looks backwards when compared with the standard Tibetan alphabet.

Tibetan letter NI curling to the left, visible erase marks where it was corrected

Barely 2 hours on this campus and I’ve already been anonymously second-guessed by a cheeky smartypants.

After a brief moment of sheer amusement,  I decided to engage constructively.

Tibetan letter NI curling to the right, with a comment written below that reads learn your diacritics.

This is why I love visiting academia.

Images, Meditatation, Musings & Adventures, Random

Photos: Drupon Khenpo teaching Rigpe Dorje Institute Spring Session

These photos are from the 2013 spring session (the 10-day meditation programme) of Rigpe Dorje Institute.  I’ve posted a gallery of all the photos from this session on Google Plus.  Here are some highlights:

Rigpe Dorje Institue Meditation Class

Rigpe Dorje Institute Meditation Class in the Mahamudra Shrine Hall at Pullahari Monastery

Drupon Khenpo Teaching, Margaret Translating

Drupon Khenpo Teaching, Margaret Translating. Vajradhara statue in background.

Drupon Khenpo Teaching

Drupon Khenpo Teaching

Meditatation, Musings & Adventures, Random

What Western Science and Buddhist Philosophy have to offer each other

While sitting in Drupon Kehnpo’s lectures on the views of the various Buddhist schools, I frequently find myself understanding his explanations by means of modern scientific understanding. In my experience over the years, the cautious critical combination of these systems of explanations consistently gives rise to deep clarity of understanding that advances my ability to work with, explore, and discuss either system. I’m prone to become exuberant when I see how this blending of insights has helped me, and when I see how it could also be fruitful for others.

In these cases, when I look carefully, I see that what excites me is the possibility that the incredible system of post-enlightenment western science, which has made unbelievable progress in a mere few hundred years, actually has the capacity to express insights about mind, cognition, reality, and experience that align with those of Buddhism but are formulated using language that arises entirely from the axioms of the western scientific viewpoint.

From the time of the enlightenment until now (though with roots going much further back), there has been a fairly strict division between so-called “hard” science and metaphysics in the west. This division, partially arising as retaliation against the hegemony of the Christian church, has been extremely fruitful. To study the philosophy of science is to study the pracitcalities of a concerted communal effort to circumvent self-deception in the strident pursuit of truth. Now we’ve reached a point in history where some fields, particularly cognitive science, neuroscience, and physics, find themselves being forced to grapple with topics that were previously categorized as metaphysics but they’re addressing them with grounding and language that come from scientific method combined with observations accumulated over centuries of scientific exploration.

When you look at the history of ideas in Buddhist philosophy, particularly the mahayana schools’ progressively refined analyses of phenomena and the mind that observes them, and compare their observations and explanations with those of modern cognitive science or post-Einstein physics, you find clear parallels along extremely important lines. In those cases I’ve found my western-educated mind naturally prefers the explanations coming from western traditions. In fact, the novel observations from western traditions sometimes sidestep sticky points that have harangued Buddhist philosophers for centuries, or provide explanations whose grace, simplicitly and completeness makes it much easier to find an intuitive understanding of the patterns being explored. This does not, however, mean that western science has outdone and overtaken the Buddhist traditions; it means that western science is able to offer its own graceful explanations of many aspects of phenomenal reality. In other words, Western science is excellent at explaining phenomena on both a coarse and extremely subtle level — even better than the most refined Mahayana schools — but when it comes to the most important questions about the mind that experiences those phenomena, western explanations falter and quickly descend into a confused space on the boundary between science and metaphysics. That thrilling space is where all the interesting action occurs and where the most strident explorers are continually honing, revisiting, and reimagining their assumptions about how to make observations that are not deceptive.

Some people think that this means western scientists need to loosen their standards and welcome outside views with a warm embrace. I think the opposite. Western scientists need to make their standards more strict than ever, then with an open mind and a precise understanding of what we do and don’t know they need to apply those standards equally to all assumptions including their own. Meanwhile, what’s really needed is for people within older traditions, ones that never shied away from metaphysics, to also apply their most thorough scrutiny to explanations coming out of the west and see how much mileage they can get. I’m certain that in both cases, we will find that each tradition has profound improvements to offer to the other especially in the domains of pedagogy, vocabulary, and praxis.

Meditatation, Musings & Adventures, Random

Loving Kindness, Compassion, Mass Destruction and the Singularity

These are some of my thoughts on what tantric meditation traditions have to tell us about how to pro-actively deal with situations where technology triggers culture-wide crises of identity and ethics. It’s all about training the mind.

In 2001 Dr. Vladimir Chaloupka at University of Washington invited me to participate in a graduate seminar on “Knowledge Enabled Mass Destruction” whose purpose was to foster interdisciplinary discourse about the feasibility of, and possible responses to, the kind of global threats posed by Eric Drexler’s Grey Goo Problem and Bill Joy’s related essay Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. In short, if you measure the progress of civilization in terms of the amount of damage that could be wrought by five determined people acting on their own, what does it mean when you reach a point where those five people could wipe out civilization completely, or make the planet uninhabitable? Is that even possible? Have we already reached that point? What can/should we do in response? As discourse and speculation about the so-called singularity continues to build, this topic seems more relevant than ever.

I think Dr Chaloupka’s reason for hosting the seminar sheds useful light on the subject. He said that the nuclear bomb led Physicists to talk about ethics for the first time in a field that is designed to be entirely focused on observable facts, explicitly excluding any deference to normativity. He painted a picture of this high-minded pursuit of pure science being stopped in its tracks by that single moment where the hubris of scientific progress led to holocaust on a previously unimaginable scale. He said the discipline of Physics was forever changed by the burden of knowing that their work had produced nuclear bombs, and thus indirectly made nuclear proliferation possible. This has led Physicists to tackle issues of global ethics in ways that most other traditions haven’t. As other fields have now taken on a pace & tone of innovation that almost promises the invention of new horrific dangers, he wondered if the contrite inventors of the atom bomb might offer some guidance or preemptive inspiration towards caution.

Dr Chaloupka asked each participant in the seminar to present some contribution from zir own field of expertise. For example, a virologist addressed questions about weaponized superbugs and an engineer described the nuances of nanotech. I, an undergrad pursuing a Bachelors in Comparative Religion, spoke about Tantric Sex. My presentation focused on the fact that tantric traditions include meditation practices that are dangerous if you engage in them if you’re not adequately prepared.

Though the idea of a meditation practice being dangerous may seem strange, there’s ample evidence floating around these days. Some people definitely get really messed up when they do this stuff. Even with carefully maintained traditions, things get seriously colorful at moments. For this reason, before teaching these meditation techniques, authentic lineages are extremely careful to ensure that practitioners have first completed the appropriate foundational practices to stabilize their minds.

There is a wild and colorful variety of tantric traditions. Most of their practices do not involve sex at all. I chose to focus on tantric sex for this presentation because it’s something appealing and potent that has come to be taught outside the original traditions. I drew the parallel that tinkering with potent technologies in pursuit of exciting innovations is like going to some snazzy weekend course on tantric sex and then tinkering with the techniques in pursuit of better orgasms.

In the end, I was happy with my choice of subject matter, but I wasn’t satisfied with my presentation. When I finished my slides, the other participants asked questions to the effect of “Ok. So these traditions say you should be careful to prepare before you let the cat out of the bag, but what does that tell us about how to deal with a situation where the cat (technologies allowing determined people to do global harm) was never in a bag?” I couldn’t give a satisfactory answer, despite being convinced that there was something to be gleaned from this parallel. I simply didn’t know enough about the subject.

For years afterward, I’ve periodically sought to formulate a more complete presentation of the idea I was trying to get across. Now finally, I think I might have put my finger on it. I’m not going to speak about tantric sex, though it’s such a compelling idea. Instead, I’m going to look at the traditional purpose of initiation and secrecy in tantric traditions and how that applies to the contemporary crisis of ethics that Dr. Chaloupka challenged us to address. This analysis definitely applies to the idea that humanity is approaching a technological singularity, but it also applies to run-of-the-mill crises of ethics triggered by technological advancement.

Tantric meditation traditions carry thousands of years worth of repeatable observations, drawn from trial and error, about the potential and limitations of the human mind. They also carry myriad praxes/technologies for fulfilling that potential. What does that tell us about super viruses and murderous nanobots? Actually, it tells us a lot. Remember that technology is created and used by humans. To understand technology, you must look at the human mind. In that sense, these tantric traditions are particularly useful because they’re all about skillfully working with the mind when it’s at its most potent, when it’s overwhelmed by its own energy.

Why do tantric meditation traditions have structures of secrecy and initiation? Within these traditions, the few practices that are kept secret are ones that are particularly potent. They’re designed to dismantle the ego and obliterate our ordinary, confused ways of seeing things so that the practitioner can perform the profoundly simple act of nakedly seeing mind as it is. In a way, these practices are invoking a deep crisis of identity that cuts straight down to your fundamental concepts about reality. If you encounter practices like this outside the context of the tradition in which they were developed, there are four main dangers:

1) You could pose a danger to yourself.
2) You could pose a danger to others.
3) You just might miss the point, or get the wrong point. In other words, for pragmatic pedagogical reasons, things are presented in a particular order.
4) You could pose a danger to the tradition.

What does that mean, and what does it mean to be adequately prepared? Of course the details will be unique to every tradition, practice, and teacher, but there are some basic patterns that apply consistently.

1) Without mental stability you could pose a danger to yourself.
2) Without loving kindness and compassion, you could pose a danger to others.
3) Without precise understanding of what you are/aren’t doing, what’s being communicated, and why you’re doing it, you might not get any benefit from the practice or might harm the tradition by developing an incorrect understanding of the practices being transmitted.

So the reasons for this secrecy are actually very practical, and the fundamental requirements for doing these tantric practices are the same key things that all Buddhist traditions emphasize: mental stability (shamatha), loving kindness & compassion (bodhicitta), and precise understanding (prajna) combied with insight (vipassana).

We can apply this directly to the crisis of ethics posed by technological advancement, which actually comes down to a crisis of psyche and a crisis of society triggered by the fact that technology is outpacing our psychic and social capacities. Specifically, this manifests as

1) Crisis of mental stability
2) Crisis of ethics & normative decisions
3) Crisis of realizing that we lack understanding, lack connection with reality, and lack insight into what we’re doing or why we’re doing it

As you can see, it’s the same issues. We’re encountering a crisis of identity — one that could challenge our fundamental concepts about reality — and what we lack are mental stability, loving kindness, compassion, precise understanding and insight. It’s the same situation, with the same solution.

Say you did take that snazzy weekend course and instead of groovy orgasms you got a tantra-style psychological crisis and totally freaked out. Now your mind’s been blown and it keeps re-blowing and you can’t cope at all. What do you do? If you’re lucky, it occurs to you to go find an authentic master and ask zir for help. While the advice you get from that master could end up being almost anything, we can be certain that the remedy is going to eventually focus on those same ingredients that I keep repeating — mental stability, loving kindness, compassion, precise understanding and insight.

Solution: Training the Mind

Here’s the good news. Absolutely every moment is a crisis of the sort we’re talking about, and always has been, because our confused way of seeing the world doesn’t line up with reality. Our ordinary way of thinking assumes that reality is made up of finite truly existent things experienced by a finite truly existent self, but we know that’s not true. That friction manifests as constant dissatisfaction, which Buddha called dukkha (suffering). The Buddha spent a lot of time cutting to the heart of the matter of suffering and he found that it has a cause — confusion/ignorance — which can be cut. What methodology did he use to cut that cause of suffering? Mental stability, loving kindness, compassion, precise understanding and insight. [This paragraph is paraphrasing the Four Noble Truths, which is the first thing the Buddha taught and comprises the most essential Buddhist tenets.]

The mind is plastic. You can cultivate these things. These are the authentic, tested means. Test them. Until you do cultivate them, the crisis will continue and you will continue to harm yourself and others over and over and over and over. Grey goo is just the latest turn.


Selling my SXSW Interactive Ticket

When I returned from SXSW in 2011, I said I would only return if/when I had a product to launch. Well, we’re launching DataBindery, CoCuPu and Data Curation Experts this year, so I bought a ticket for SXSW Interactive (March 8-12 2013). Then I decided to spend 3 months on sabbatical in Nepal.

Good thing SXSW makes it easy to transfer your ticket to someone else, though they do require a $125 fee to transfer it.

I just want to recoup my costs, so I’m willing to sell the ticket at cost for $845.00 USD, which is a $305 discount off the current price for a ticket on the SXSW website. Breakdown of the cost: $720 for the badge, which includes a ticket to the SXSW Taco Meet Up ($25), and $125 for the change fee.  I’ll accept payment via PayPal, but willing to make alternative arrangements.

I do not have a hotel reservation to transfer.  You’re on your own for accommodations.

If you’re interested, the best way to reach me is by emailing or tweeting @flyingzumwalt. Expect a delay cause the internet’s unpredictable here at Pullahari.

Musings & Adventures, Random

Are we really living in a simulation? Answer: it doesn’t matter.

A response to Nick Bostrom’s “Simulation Argument”

My understanding of how quantum computers work* is that when they are in an uncollapsed state it’s mathematically valid to think that all of the possible computational paths are being traversed simultaneously. In other words, a possible “universe” opens up for each logically possible path. Whenever the logical feasibility/stability of one parallel “computation” falters, its “universe” collapses. When all of the unstable paths have expired, the computer reurns to a collapsed state — returning all possibilities that fit the constraints of the “reality” (logical rules) provided for that computation.

We look at quantum computers, observing how they work, and we think of that phenomenon as being something novel, abstract, foreign and dependent upon human-made technology. How silly! Any physicist can tell you that quantum computing is just harnessing something that is absolutely ubiquitous in the phenomenal world. It’s not inventing a brave new thing. Rather the opposite – it’s tapping into something that’s so integral to every aspect of the phenomenal world that we don’t know how to recognize it. It’s so close to our noses that we can’t see it without extreme contortions or profound insight.

What we experience as reality is just what happens when a consciousness interacts with a probability field that is constantly collapsing and uncollapsing in countless ways.

What does this tell us about Bostrom’s “Simulation” argument? It tells us that the distinction between “simulation” as he describes it and some “reality” external to that simulation is meaningless. The futuristic “ancestor simulation” machines he imagines are nothing more than reality functioning exactly as it has always functioned. This is not to say that some actual, manifest computational devices will never be engineered by humans to do the things he speaks of. Rather, it means that those machines would be gross unwieldy prototypes of something whose truest form would have to shed the chauvanism of a race that clings to a known misperception of time as linear and space as finite.

If or when we let go of that foolishness, we might then glimpse a so-called posthuman existence and discover, not for the first time, that it’s just reality staring us in the face.

The important questions to ask don’t pertain to whether this world is real in some absolute sense (it’s not.), or even how this reality came to occur. Instead, they pertain to why we believe that it’s real, how that impacts our minds, and how it serves as a basis for suffering. This has always been true and will always be true. Neither technology nor knowledge of the mechanisms of the universe will change it.

If a microbe in a petri dish were intelligent and became aware of the experiment, how would that change anything for the microbe? Possibly it could contrive some form of escape? What then? It’s just one microbe among zillions, whose capacity for experience can’t meaningfully differentiate between petri dish and non-petri dish. Likewise, while Bostrum’s simulation might be a fun idea to toss about, the theory doesn’t provide any meaningfully novel inroads to actually understanding reality.

* I would love to get links to well-written sources that correct or extend my understanting of this topic.

Musings & Adventures, Random

Poem: Each from Different Heights

That time I thought I was in love and calmly said so
was not much different from the time I was truly in love
and slept poorly and spoke out loud to the wall
and discovered the hidden genius of my hands.

And the times I felt less in love, less than someone,
were, to be honest, not so different either.
Each was ridiculous in its own way and each was tender, yes,
sometimes even the false is tender.

I am astounded by the various kisses we’re capable of.
Each from different heights diminished, which is simply the law.
And the big bruise from the longer fall looked perfectly white in a few years.
That astounded me most of all.

– Stephen Dunn

[quoted by Millie Getachew in an email conversation about love and beauty on March 5, 2008]

Musings & Adventures, Random

Seeking New Urbanism in Minneapolis

Note: I found this post on my laptop. It feels unfinished to me, but these ideas are constantly evolving in my life and I won’t be coming to any conclusions any time soon. It’s all an ongoing exploration. In the spirit of working & pondering openly, I’m putting it out there as-is.

17 March 2012

Last night I lay on my floor with a university math student from Beijing. We talked about the dissociative culture of a megalopolis – the crush of people, the aggressive push, and the concomitant loneliness. This isn’t our only option for densely populated human existence.

In the middle ages, urban populations tended to max out at a couple hundred thousand. They were dirty, smelly, dangerous places prone to rampant disease and violent political conflict. We had reached a hypothetical limit to the size of population that a city — a type of ecosystem — could sustain without suffering collapse. However, with time, we reimagined what a city could be and forged ahead with new developments in hygiene, communication, education and food transporation. This allowed for a new flourishing of urban landscapes, allowing cities to grow and host millions of residents. Along the way, extensive social change occurred to accommodate urban life. New forms of urban culture arose, often characterized by greater mobility and stronger emphasis on individualism.

We have reached another hypothetical limit, this time on a global scale, and we must innovate again. The challenge is surmountable, and the solution lies in reinforcing the positive things that we are already doing. As with any truly challenging situation, panic is not constructive, differing perspectives must be accommodated, and everyone must make the effort to look beyond their personal comforts to see both the greater threat and the broader possibilities.

It was over seventy degrees and humid in Minneapolis at 10am this morning, March 17. Historically, this would be a week where 30-degree temperatures (that’s zero celsius) would inspire comments of “ooh. Its a bit warm today… and humid. Enjoy it before the thermometer dips back below zero (fahrenheit).” I’m flying over North Dakota, near the badlands, it’s late winter and the land looks dead but you can see the touches of agriculture. Sparse settlements, a set of farm houses, irrigation and the telltale grid of crop rotations on parceled-out private land. I wonder what the weather will be like here in five years. Where will the water be? What will the temperatures be like? In many ways, this region and areas north of it might benefit from a warming climate — a longer growing season, milder winters, less competition from agricultural states further south whose crops will be failing due to drought, heat waves and severe weather. This region sits on top of the Odwalla Reservoir, which will serve to hydrate the land and moderate shifts in the climate. How can this knowledge guide our decisions? In particular, how should it inform the way we build the cities where most of our residents live?

When viewed from a map, the corridor between Minneapolis/St Paul and St Cloud already shows the markings of a megalopolis — an automobile-based concrete landscape that sprawls like Houston or Chicago, at night appearing as a glowing gash on the surface of the earth. When viewed on a national level, this development into a megalopolis seems inevitable and the patterns of that metropolis seems predictable. Someone who doesn’t understand this place would think of it as derivative — a starstruck little sibling enthusiastically immitating its elder sisters, doomed to repeat their mistakes and destined to show the same blemishes. That is one possible future, but it’s not inevitable.

Each year, Minneapolis becomes more cosmopolitan. In many ways the pattern of growth and gentrification here repeats many of the patterns you see in places like Brooklyn or Oakland, but at the same time there are fundamental differences. We’re a new Metropolis. We are surrounded by arable land on all sides for thousands of miles. We have no Manhattan island. We have a population laced with individuals who are only one or two generations removed from life on a farm. We also have the mistakes of past urban developments, and current successes as reference points. In short, we have leeway to choose how we do things, and we have room to grow in all directions.

It’s imperative that humans begin to create urban landscapes that foster local production of food, community cohesion, and rich, diverse, creative culture. This is the best way to brace ourselves against challenges that loom before us — the danger of potential economic instability, the unpredictability of changing climates, and the erosion of social/moral infrastructure.

The real problems of the modern world cannot be addressed through political means. They must be addressed by gradual, intentional, change to the fundamental structures of urban/suburban life.

It’s easy to think of localvorism as an elitist fad, or as merely a limp-wristed retaliation against the moral failings of industrial agriculture and the global supply chain that it’s part of. Likewise, urban farming may seem like a sweet indulgence by liberal dilettantes. Others see it as a valiant shift away from participating in a global economy — a maneuver which, when you run the numbers, simply couldn’t lead to positive economic results. I propose seeing it as something more gentle and potentially more meaningful. It’s a shift in relationship to our immediate environment. The innovations of the modern economy have made it possible to operate on a global scale. In fact, it has become nearly impossible not་ to operate on a global scale, and this has the unintended effect of destorying our sense of ordinary, day-to-day orientation with respect to our surroundings. Local food production is a beautiful and deeply effective means of addressing that disorientation. Producing some of your own food, or at least consuming a meaningful percentage of your food from within a couple hundred miles forces you to be attentive to things like seasons, geography, and supply & demand. The modern economy has been brilliantly effective at stabilizing prices and stabilizing the availability of commodities, but that also means that it has succeeded at hiding some of the human story behind every product that moves around the planet.

It’s valuable and healthy to be attentive to the interconnectedness of our lives. While we can’t have a personal relationship with every person who played a role in producing every object that passes through our hands, we can increase our appreciation for all those objects and the people who produced them by also maintaining and reinforcing economic relationships with geographically close, small scale vendors.

Likewise, modern communications technologies have made it possible to create and/or maintain relationships with people all over the world. For better and worse, in a context where mobile coomputing is ubiquitous, physical proximity plays a very different role in human relationships. This, together with myriad factors of post-industrial society, has led to a disjointedness that’s literally depressing. We have the freedom to choose, at all times, our own customized social and intellectual environment. As a whole, this is wonderful, but there’s immense social, psychological and economic value in being forced to deal with the people who might be physically near you while socially distant. In the past, this was something that circumstances forced upon us. Now we have the freedom, or obligation, to consciously design our urban landscapes and cultures to maintain the necessary goods of those person-to-person daily interactions.

Luckily, these aren’t new ideas. People have been exploring them for decades. Of late I’ve been enamored with New Urbanism, which is based on attempts to design new urban zoning codes in order to achive better human-scale urban spaces. Of course, there’s also Landscape Urbanism, which is also a great start. Where to from here?