Beginner's Mind

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." - Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Bush and post-war science

I mentioned in an earlier post about a Bush who played a key role in science and technology in the latter half of the twentieth century. That man was Vannevar Bush. There's some good info out there about him, for which I will supply links.

Bush had a lot of things going in his lifetime. But it's his war-time activities and their aftermath that is of interest here. In 1940, Bush, then president of the Carnegie Institution, convinced Franklin Roosevelt to organize the nation's academic scientists in the interests of national security. This led to the creation of the National Defense Research Council, later to become the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). Bush was head of this organization. Aside from the well known Manhattan Project, the OSRD also played a role in the development of radar and countermeasures, systems analysis, and techniques for manufacturing penicillin in large amounts and at low cost.

Prior to WW II, the US government did not finance science and technology research to any great degree. It was the success of the OSRD that opened the door to such government spending.

After the war, Bush created a report, Science: The Endless Frontier, stating his ideas about American science policy. In the report, Bush predicted that the country's future was dependent on technological innovation (which is itself dependent on basic science). As a result, the National Science Foundation was created.

Notes and lectures from The Teaching Company's Science in the 20th Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey.

The NSF provides a copy of Science: The Endless Frontier.

It appears that Bush envisioned the World Wide Web. Check out this link, which has a lot of information on Bush.

There's an Atlantic Monthly article which he wrote...unfortunately you have to be a subscriber to access it. I found a plain text version here.

Some of Bush's pioneering computer work is given here.

Music in my head: Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto

Monday, August 30, 2004

Getting Out and About

Sometimes it is so easy to get into a funk. The body seems to weigh a ton (I'm now about fifty pounds overweight, which doesn't help) and while you have things to do, nothing sounds very motivating.

I've learned that one of the most effective ways out of such doldrums is to "act opposite." If you feel like curling up in a dark hole and never emerging, that's the time to get out and move around.

It used to be nearly impossible to get out much. I didn't have enough energy to go to the grocery store. Small things would wear me out, and send me into a death spiral of pain and bad moods. But little by little I've crawled out.

Today I decided to join Karen for a noontime Weight Watchers meeting. The Monday leader used to be a school teacher, and gives presentations with enthusiasm and expects his audience to participate. I can see why Karen likes to go to his meetings.

After the meeting we had our usual post-meeting lunch at Subway. While we were eating a real "frog choker" of a thunderstorm came through, darkening the skies and drenching everything. We made a mad dash to the car and braved the elements once more for some grocery shopping. By the time we got out the rain had stopped.

I spent the afternoon listening to Dvorak in preparation for my entry into Theme and Variations, my other blog. A stack of CD's arrived in the mail with lots of music. It's going to be fun going through those.

So where is all this going? I fought the urge to shut down today by getting off my rear end and getting a few things done. It's a good strategy for fighting the blues, and luckily my pain level wasn't so high it was impossible to get out and about.

Sorry for the plain entry. Hopefully my next entry will be how Bush (no, not Dubya) saved science and technology in the US after World War II.

Music in my head: Various bits of Dvorak's music.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Reflections on a flower

More Jakusho Kwong:

Does it make sense to you that when you see a flower, or when you see beauty, at that very moment you must be beauty? I hope so, because it means that beauty is not outside of yourself; you are beauty, and you are truth. We can appreciate the beauty of a flower because we also feel its impermanence as our own. We can say we know that roses and thorns are as inseparable as night and day because it is no different with us. It
is us. Therefore, beholding the flower, or carefully holding the rose, we can treasure our own beauty and appreciate the evanescence of this fleeting life.

Music in my head: Come Back, K.T. Oslin (I think)

Friday, August 27, 2004

Sitting in Shadow

In his book No Beginning, No End Jakusho Kwong recounts the following passage, as told to him by Hoitsu Suzuki-roshi, the son of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi:

When the sun first comes up and shines on you,...your shadow is big behind you. But as you continue to sit, your shadow gets smaller and smaller, until finally it's just Buddha sitting there. Just the sitting Buddha. You are exactly the same as the sitting Buddha.

This is the kind of passage that draws me to Zen. It has so many levels, yet it is stated so simply.

Music in my head: Just the ringing in my ears, which is always there, but is especially noticeable when things are very quiet. Imagine a soprano cricket, and you've got it.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Karmic thoughts

I've been wondering a lot lately about karma.

What's got me wondering has to do with the chronic migraines I've been having for a few years. In some ways, I can kind of understand it. The headaches are not new. I've had them since I was a kid, and as I got older they have gotten worse. At the same time, I turned myself professionally into someone that thrived on chaos. I loved being sent into a situation where the company's best interests were on the line, where the problems had been intractable and a lot of hopes were put on me to set things right. At the same time I identified with the company, so when customers were unhappy with the company, I took it personally. This gave me an added incentive to get things right.

While all this was happening, I was desperately seeking some sort of peace of mind. It took someone much wiser than me to point out that my actions and my desires were not compatible. Once I saw that I had this addiction to chaos, I found such situations very distasteful.

By then, though, the headaches were in full force, but youth and brute force allowed me to trudge on anyway.

So, in some ways I'm not surprised that my body finally told me, "Enough!" What I don't understand is why it keeps telling me that.

Then, too, in my youth I wasn't the easiest person to get along with. I thought I knew more than everyone around me, but even worse I had a strong faith in my own infallibility. I ruined a few friendships playing the role of the intellectual alpha male. Maybe not just a few.

I think everyone has past deeds that prove him or her to be less than angelic. Furthermore, I may have a past with a higher count of despicable acts than most. But I find it hard to believe that it all adds up to the daily pain I have now.

What seems most unfair about it is how it affects my relationships, particularly with my wife. If a marriage is the act of two people coming together as one, I'm bringing a lot of pain to this symbiosis. It is robbing us of having a family, it is robbing us of our plans and preparations for the future, and it is robbing us of the day-to-day joy and intimacy two people have who are really in love.

I can almost understand why I am in such straits, but what did she do to deserve this?

I suppose there would have been a time when I would have thought I was being punished by "God", but I don't believe that now. But in my latest incarnation of spirituality I have this idea of karma which might explain the current state of affairs. It is even possible I am dealing with transgressions of a former life. I guess it's universal that, "Life is not fair."

No, instead I am having a bit of a crises of faith. I don't believe I am being punished. It's not, as Willie Nelson sang, "A little ol' fashioned karma comin' down." I don't think there is a causal relationship with the way I've lived in the past and the way my body feels now. I'm of the opinion that if I'd been nice in school, married my first girlfriend, studied hard in college, got a good, steady job, and cherished my friends through the years, I would still be entering middle age with a splitting headache. It's just the way I'm wired and no amount of karmic restitution is going to change that.

But I'm keeping an open mind. I'm willing to offer the universe a blank check apology. I'm not going to wash dirty laundry in a weblog, and I doubt Blogger would allow me that much storage space to list it all anyway.

So, to all of you I have harmed or slighted in any way (and you know who you are), I'm sorry.

Music in my head: Now I've got Willie's song in my head.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Practice Reset Button

After slacking off during various recent travels, I'm trying to get my practice going again.

I know, I know: Don't try, do!

Starting the day with some mindful stretching exercises as done at Thay Hanh's Plum Village. Then just sitting. Karen is doing both with me. It is a lot easier to build and maintain momentum when you practice with someone else, particularly a loved one.

Having not sat regularly for awhile, I'm hesitant to go to the Zen Center for evening or Sunday zazen. I'm just not sure I can sit for that long. In addition, I've been in this rather nasty stretch of constant pain, and haven't learned how to sit with pain for any reasonable amount of time (what's reasonable?).

I need to learn some tricks for maintaining my practice. I try to be sure to do it first thing in the morning, but I simply forget.

Today I got an e-mail from Katherine of DatingGod, who challenged me to write an entry on a "particularly frisky" cosmic wingding. I swear I don't know what that is, or, at least, I don't know it by that name. I did a Google search but it didn't turn up anything helpful, and a search on the exact term brought up nothing at all. You can see her entry where she used the term here, and I would appreciate any clarification you can send my way.

Music in my head: Dvorak's New World symphony

Tuesday, August 24, 2004


This afternoon I finished the Teaching Company course Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution. The course is taught by a Professor Richard Wolfson of Middlebury College.

I had studied relativity and modern physics during a five credit hour class Physics for Engineers during my undergraduate work at Texas A&I. What I remember from the course are the equations behind relativity, but I don't recall the ideas behind them (which is unusual, for me it is usually the other way around). In this course, I came to understand relativity a little better, and had it described for me this way: The laws of physics are the same for all frameworks in uniform motion. This is what Einstein said in a paper published in 1905. According to Maxwell's equations (this link might be a little more clear) the propagation of an electromagnetic wave (including light) travels at a constant speed c (the "c" in the E=mc(squared) equation of general relativity). Due to this, time does some funny things when an object is moving at speeds approaching the speed of light relative to another object that is not moving. Not only time, but distances as well change. Now, things do not change according to the travelling object, but for the object at rest observing space in the framework of the moving object times and distances are shorter. The course did not give a proof of special relativity, but did show how a person could derive the equations if so motivated.

The course also provided an introduction to quantum theory, which was pretty interesting, too. It ended with the best overview of string theory I had yet heard.

Next I will be taking Science in the 20th Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey (which I got when it was on sale) and am considering getting Particle Physics for Non-Physicists: A Tour of the Microcosmos.

This gives you an idea of how I spend my time - feeding the left side of my brain. The right side gets fed, too - listening to music, reading poetry and books, and, of course, reading weblogs.

Music in my head: Temptation, Diana Krall.

Monday, August 23, 2004

More wisdom

Another, randomly selected page from HH The Dalai Lama's book The Dalai Lama's Little Book of Inner Peace:

If you assume a humble attitude, your own good qualities will increase, whereas when you are full of pride there is no way to be happy. You will become jealous of others, angry with them, and look down on them, due to which an unpleasant atmosphere will be created and unhappiness in society will increase.

Karen says I am one person who will never have self-esteem problems. But I'm working on it. Let me tell you how bad I used to be.

If I would go someplace and need to park my car, and the lot was nearly full, I would first be annoyed that there were so many people around. This would progress to the point where I would get indignant that there were no good parking spaces close to where I wanted to go. I had it in my head that I deserved a good parking space, and these people did not acknowledge my superior claim. One day I explained this to Karen, and she laughed so hard I got embarrassed.

So now I park further away. I seriously need the exercise.

Music in my head: Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G Minor

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Pain relief on sale

Browsing through the Sounds True online catalog I see that the Shinzen Young audio program Break Through Pain is on sale. If you have concerns about taking meds for the occasional headache or muscle strain, or you have bouts of chronic pain, you may find this program very useful.

The program consists of three cassettes, one of which is an overview of using meditation in pain relief, and using pain as a device for transformation. The other two tapes have guided meditations that address experiencing the pain itself.

I have found these meditations very useful in treating my migraines. In most cases I have been able to reduce the pain I was feeling by listening to and following the tapes. You don't have to have a regular meditation practice for these to be effective.

On since now they are on sale, you can get them at a bargain price!

(Standard disclaimer apply - I am not associated with Sounds True beyond being the occasional customer and get no compensation for touting their products. If you find the program helps you, that's a big reward for me!)

Music in my head: The Subway restaurant jingle. Ick.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Western Civilization

Looking for inspiration for a blog entry today, I picked up The Dalai Lama's Little Book of Inner Peace. I opened the book to a random page, and this is what it said:

Western civilization is very advanced on the material level. If it were as fertile in developing techniques for inner development as it is in developing technology, it would be at the forefront of the modern world. But when man forgets to cultivate his inner life, he turns himself into a machine and becomes a slave to material things. Then he is a human being only in name.

Music in my head: Do It All, K.T. Oslin

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Heart of summer

Though we are in the heart of summer, there are already signs that the season is on its way out in Vermont.

Out my window the apples are getting bigger. Some are falling of the trees and I hear them bounce! bounce! bounce! on the roof before they roll off into the yard.

And it's a little early, but the trees that aren't in the best of health are throwing in the towel early and their leaves are turning. While in Essex Junction the other day I saw a few maples which had scattered color in their yards, looking like bits and pieces of red and gold cloth that had been eaten and shredded by a lawnmower. "Oh, slow down!" I thought, "August isn't even half over!"

But it's starting to get dark earlier, and light later.

It's a big time if you are a sweet corn fan; there are road-side stands and produce stands with fresh ears up for sale, along with all kinds of vegetables. In our village of Richmond the signs have been up for the Owl's Head Blueberry Farm, and it looks like the harvest is about over ("thinning out" they say on their web site). Karen spent the afternoon with a friend and her daughter buying school clothes.

As I write this the sky outside is in the deep purple of evening, streaked with bits of cotton-candy pink. The cool air seeps in through the window with the fragrance of green and falling sunshine; good sleeping weather.

Music in my head: Sweet Words, Norah Jones.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Some changes

Along with creating a new blog (see below) I've also made some changes to the layout of this one. I think the formatting works a little better, and the single sidebar means less scrolling to read entries, especially long ones. Please let me know how you like it.

Mike Thomas and I have started a new blog dedicated to music. The new blog, Theme and Variations, will cover our experiences and explorations of great music, notably jazz and classical music. I don't suspect it will be updated as often as this blog is, though we are planning to have at least an entry each per week. Of course, I will continue to write here, too.

So, I'd appreciate it if you were to give it a look, and tell all your friends about it, and generate some traffic.

Music in my head: Rachmaninov's Second Symphony

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Coming home today from an errand I passed by a horse pasture with three horses, all of them wearing a covering over their heads which keeps them from seeing. They had their heads down and were munching grass. As best as I could tell, they were able to look down their noses, but nowhere else.

It got me wondering about how useful it would be to have blinders on all the time, being only able to see straight ahead and not being disturbed by things in the peripheral vision. I thought about how it would keep me from seeing the first few leaves of some of the maples already turning from green to red, with the promise/threat of impending autumn, which is the overture to winter.

I thought of Siona's question, "What sort of accomplishment is it to run a gauntlet of one's own making?" Is it easier to run the gauntlet when all you can see is the end of it? To be struck by unseen forces, knowing only the pain and the light at the end?

Well, I don't have to wonder. In this, the Information Age, electronic media provide plenty of opportunity to just look down my nose at my feet. I think of those people in Florida whose homes have been destroyed (or worse, their lives). I just keep munching away.

It isn't just natural disasters. Gaze around and you can find misery wherever you look. We are born in pain, we burn like tinder, grow old, feeble, sick.

But if you stop looking around, you miss things like neighbors banding together to clean up from weather's fury. You miss rivers that now run clean that were once no more than open sewers. You miss the little, gold-haired girl who won't know the ravages of smallpox or polio. You deny yourself watching former mortal enemies coming together in common cause to fight injustice.

It's just an analogy, after all. Isn't it?

Music in my head: That's the Way Love Goes, Johnny Rodriquez.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

I learned an excellent resolution to Zeno's Paradox today, and because it has (perhaps tenuous) Zen connections, I thought I would share it with you.

There are several ways to state Zeno's Paradox, so I will use the one I heard first. The paradox is as follows:

A dropped object should never hit the floor. After a certain amount of time, the object is halfway to the ground. After a little bit longer, the remaining distance is halved. Then, that distance is halved. Because there are an infinite number of halves between the object and the floor, the object will keep getting closer and closer to the floor, but never actually reach it.

I've also heard this expressed as Zeno's Arrow. An arrow shot at you could not harm you, as it keeps getting half the distance to you, but never all the way.

Now for a little math. There are certain fractions that cannot be given as a decimal point number. One example is 1/9, which, in it's decimal representation, is 0.111...,
where the "..." indicates that there are an infinite number of 1's to follow. Check out this little bit of algebra:

Let n=0.111.... If you multiply n by 10 you get 10n = 1.111.... Now subtract n from both sides:


and thus, n = 1/9.

Now, consider the number n = 0.999..., and do the same math

and thus, n=1.0!!! How about that!

This shows that there is more than one way to represent the number 1. What this expresses is the continuity of real numbers. Numbers flow from one value to the next, and eventually they merge. Hence, an object dropped hits the ground. A flying arrow can really hurt you. Paradox resolved.

(I won't go into irrational numbers, like the square root of 2, which cannot be represented by a fraction. If you are interested in where they fit check out this page on Dedekind cuts, but I warn you it is explained in mathspeak).

This can serve as an analogy of the spaces between us. It may seem sometimes that we can't get close to others, particularly enemies, but we all belong to the continuous spaces around us. What we perceive as distance may be just a different representation of the same self, of the same positions. (OK, maybe it's a bit of a stretch of an analogy, but, hey, it's a way of looking at things.)

Music in my head: Popsicle Toes, Diana Krall

Friday, August 13, 2004

Got some kind of insomnia thing going, I hope it doesn't last all night. Maybe it's because it's Friday the 13th.

Karen and I both had trouble falling asleep. She suggested I put on some music, and chose Rachmaninov's Second Symphony, my favorite piece of music. It didn't help me sleep, but it sure brought back memories.

I'm not sure where I heard the symphony first, but it must have been in college when I was teaching myself how to listen to classical music. It was one of the first classical albums I bought, and last time I listened to it it was scratchy from so much play. I have a CD version of it now.

Something about that symphony just (pardon the pun) struck a chord with me. I used to lay down on the floor of my first apartment, and put the stereo speakers on each side of my head, and play the piece at night. I would let it grab ahold of my emotions and send them all over the place. A lot of things I was feeling at that time were expressed so well, particularly in the third movement.

While living in Dallas, the DSO had the 2nd symphony on the bill for one evening, and I had to go to hear it live. In the row in front of me and one seat to the right was a guy there with his significant other who had apparently dragged him to the concert. It was pretty plain he didn't want to be there. By the time the music ended, the guy had tears in his eyes, as did a significant portion of the audience, including me. It's just that kind of music.

Well, I've got the yawns, so maybe the sandman will show up tonight after all.

Music in my head: you mean you can't guess?

Thursday, August 12, 2004

If you like poetry, check out grapez. Some really nice poems over there.

I have been reviewing and renewing my calculus skills, through a course through the Teaching Company entitled Change and Motion: Calculus Made Clear.. Why would I do this? I wish I could remember half of what I understood of calculus and the world when I graduated with my Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering. I understood electromagnetism, and saw all kinds of natural phenomena and the form of the equations which would represent them. But nearly twenty years of little use of these skill has made them fade. In any event, one of the lectures given today was on Buffon's Needle (the link will take you to a Yahoo search of the subject; there's a lot of explanation and some applets which with you can experiment). It turns out that the results of this experiment can be explained through the use of an integral (if you don't know what that means, don't worry about it; it is just a detail and not important to the post).

The point is, it makes me wonder what goes through the mind of people who devise these kinds of experiments. An earlier lecture showed how Archimedes was able to determine the volume of a sphere using a sphere, a cone, a cylinder, and a lever. A lever? And indeed he did, and provided a foreshadow of calculus which was not to be defined for nearly 1500 years.

I've also been refreshing my knowledge of the Java programming language. I recently came into the possession of a modern book on artificial intelligence, and plan to implement the algorithms in Java. (Maybe I'll create a few applets and share them with you.)

Sometimes what happens when I mention learning artificial intelligence, I get asked, did I see the movie The Matrix? Indeed I have...But the science is nowhere near that sophisticated yet. So, not to worry, I won't be unleashing any Frankenstein monsters in the near future.

Music in my head: Parts of one of Bach's Brandenburg Concerti

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

It's like syrup is seeping down the inside of my skull, down over the eyes and temples, and down the back of my head and down into my neck. It flows down my spine and collects in the lower back. Some of it, however, is leaking into my thighs and knees. It's pain, my friends, my constant companion.

It would be so easy to take it away; just swallow a couple of pills for a few hours of relief, but then it would just start all over again in a few hours. That tantalizing possibility of release is harder to bear than the pain itself. It would be so easy, it would feel so good, and it would be so false.

No, like it or not, I have this unwelcome live-in and it's time to work out some sort of arrangement. There's no negotiating with it; it's going to hurt and that's all there is to it. No, if there's going to be compromise, if there's going to be change, I'm going to have to do it.

It's a bad analogy, though, to portray pain as this "other" being. The pain is me and I am the pain. There is no "we". Someday I may even get to the point of truly understanding there is no "me" either, but I'm not there yet, beyond a superficial intellectual understanding of that. Nevertheless, it seems like a part of me, trying to tell me something I just can't feel or understand. Slowly I am coming to the conclusion that it isn't telling me anything. Like a person who is homosexual, it is just the way I'm wired, a characteristic that makes me somewhat exceptional (hooray for me!).

It is the obstacle to mindfulness, the price to pay for living in the now. It is so easy to enjoy the moments of ease, tentative as they are. The relief is a lesson in impermanence. The pain is the antithesis. See? It always comes back. It's like breath; you have it until you die. It's like my body wants to challenge what little I understand of Zen. But it was pain that brought me to Zen. What little practice I have integrated has been transformational to a very great degree. It's pain that puts the doubt and other viewpoints up front. The possibilities are open. Pain keeps me in my Beginner's Mind; don't get too attached to your viewpoints, there are endless contradictions.

Maybe pain is my practice. Maybe time spent butt-on-zafu is the fake and superficial, the ceremony that leads somewhere I'm already living. Hey look, I'm alive...I know it because I hurt. Maybe awareness of breath is not necessary, I have my own built-in awareness vehicle and it is in my head all the time. Maybe I've been caught up in the words of Zen and missing the meaning of Zen. OK, it's not breath, it's pain that brings me to the here and now. Maybe I've already taken steps in the Way and just haven't noticed it yet. Maybe it's been just too obvious to notice.

I'm starting to feel it; a little bit of appreciation for the pain. How nice, to have your practice built-in. I'm lucky (hooray for me!).

Music in my head: Such a Lovely Summer Night, Bill Morrissey.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Hello all. I've been away from the computer again, this time in Long Island, New York visiting with in-laws.

It has been interesting to take two long trips in such a short time. I have noticed a big difference in the actions of people and their driving habits, between New York and Tennessee. In Tennessee, people were friendly and courteous, and would often wave as they went by you on the road. In a long line of cars, they would let you get in line ahead of them. In New York, it was Dog-Eat-Dog, frequently cutting you off in order to advance twenty feet. There was rarely a thank-you for letting them pass, and more tail-gating than I was comfortable with.

I wonder if some of this had to do with financial class. Most of the Tennessee people with which I came into contact were middle or lower class folks, while the bulk of the Long Islanders were upper crust people. (There is a middle class in Long Island who are natives, born and raised there, and are far and away good people. Sadly, they are outnumbered by the wealthy, at least in the summer.)

I don't want to paint broad strokes here. There were friendly upper class people on the island, and surly ones in Tennessee. But you notice trends.

But we had a good time. We went to see the Montauk lighthouse at the tip of Long Island, and had lunch at the famous "Lunch" diner. We went to a big lobster fest on Friday evening, complete with hay rides and live music, and of course there was lots of visiting with relatives not seen in a long time. While there, I read The DaVinci Code, a very good read with a modern twist on the search for the Holy Grail.

We stopped in Newfane to visit friends and went to the big Newfane Sundays-only flea market, and found some neat finds. But we were glad to get home; those long drives can be wearing.

Music in my head: Still seem to have Beethoven in my head for some reason.