17 June 2007

Pax Sinica

In the 1970’s, IBM dominated the world’s computer industry, wielding monopolistic power.  They manufactured mainframe computers for banks, corporations, and research.  Their profit margins were ample, and they provided software and service for their customers at no extra charge.  

What IBM management didn’t realize (or more likely, they knew but lacked the vision and the courage to adjust their course) was that the unit price of their products was dropping exponentially year after year, while the costs of software – still quite modest at the time – were increasing exponentially.   

When IBM set the new world standard for personal computers in 1982, they outsourced the software to a team of bright, irresponsible kids at a startup shop headed by a Harvard dropout.  Over the next few years, the price of the hardware they manufactured continued to plummet, while the price of software continued to skyrocket.  IBM remained in the most lucrative monopoly of the 1970’s, and handed off the most lucrative monopoly of the 1990’s to Microsoft.  

The inspiration in the story is that it’s sometimes important to pay less attention to the state of the world, and more attention to the direction in which the world is headed.   

…which brings me to the subject of this essay:   The US is freer, less repressive, more prosperous, cleaner and more democratic than China.  But with each passing year, the US becomes more repressive and falls deeper in debt, while China becomes more democratic, as its middle class expands and its government amasses international capital.  The horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution have settled into China’s past, and no one advocates a return to this heavy-handed oppression.  Even in the area of environmental stewardship, all the trends are in China’s favor.  US laws go unenforced, as the EPA is packed with ideologues who believe that corporations shouldn’t be shackled with government regulations.  China has banned the burning of coal in its cities, and is beginning to invest resources attacking the massive pollution problems that its newfound prosperity has engendered.  

China spends one hundredth as much on health care as the US spends per capita, but its health statistics are not far behind.  Infant mortality and life expectancy in the city of Beijing already beat the US average, despite choking air quality.  

If the trends continue, China will pass America over the next few decades to become economic leader of the world.  With their ascendance will come enormous cultural and political influence.  

China has a culture based on thousands of years of wisdom.  Living together peacefully, cooperatively, and contentedly is the subject of their Confucian heritage.  Whether or not it derives from their Buddhist history, the Chinese people have a remarkable ability to endure hardship without falling into despair, and to find joy in everyday living without luxuries, entertainments or distractions.  

Most important:  The US meddles in the internal affairs of countries around the world, uses its military supremacy to plunder resources of other lands, and shamelessly bullies other countries in ‘negotiated’ treaties and trade agreements.  Unlike the US, China has little history of imperial aspirations.   

The arguable exception is Tibet.  The Chinese have forcefully repressed dissent in Tibet, and shown little sensitivity for the region’s rich Buddhist heritage.  On the other hand, they have invested in the region to build schools and hospitals, and have brought electric power and tractors to the area.  We may hope that China will come to respect Tibetan sovereignty, or that they may continue to govern Tibet by invitation.  

China’s ascendance as an international superpower is predictable.  We have grounds for optimism that China will rule the world of the 21st Century with restraint, maturity and compassion.

– Josh Mitteldorf

16 June 2007

“Children pay little attention to their parents’ teachings, but reproduce their characters faithfully.”

Mason Cooley

15 June 2007

The Universe wants to play

This is the Day we discovered the Door
that was open to all from the Start
this is the Day we traded in War
in exchange for a wide-open Heart
This is the birthday
of Love and of Light and the Child
the Day when we took off our diapers
and entangled our lives with the Wild.

“Science has succeeded (perhaps too well) in taming Nature; now it’s time to learn how to woo Her, seeing Her not as a collection of dead parts but approaching Nature as the very Body of the Beloved. And this neither as metaphor nor mysticism but as a suitably extended physics. Few conventional scientists will have much interest or ability for this sort of research. To carry out this new work (and this new play) quantum tantra will call forth new kinds of geniuses, male and female Scientist/Lovers of the Cosmos, daring athletes of the heart and mind.”

Nick Herbert more than anyone in the world has succeeded in conveying the transformative strangeness of quantum physics in his writings.  The way the world works is not what we commonly suppose.

14 June 2007

W.H. Auden was the son of a physicist, 
and although the thoughts in this poem stand on their own, 
it is an interesting historical note that it was written
at a time when creation and deployment of the atomic bomb were
fresh in his mind.

This passion of our kind
For the process of finding out
Is a fact one can hardly doubt,
But I would rejoice in it more
If I knew more clearly what
We wanted the knowledge for,
Felt certain still that the mind
Is free to know or not.

It has chosen once, it seems,
And whether our concern
For magnitude's extremes
Really become a creature
Who comes in a median size,
Or politicizing Nature
Be altogether wise,
Is something we shall learn.

~ W. H. Auden

Listen to Auden read this poem:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/poetry/outloud/realmedia/auden_physics.ram

13 June 2007

If you think, I breathe, the I is extra… What we call I is just a swinging door that moves when we inhale and when we exhale… 

You means to be aware of the universe in the form of you, and I means to be aware of it in the form of I.  You and I are just swinging doors.  This kind of understanding is necessary.  This should not even be called understanding; it is actually the true experience of life…

Shunru Suzuki,  from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

12 June 2007

Blocking chemical receptors in the body is what pharmaceutical companies know how to do best.  There are drugs that block pain receptors, block the brain’s receptors that take serotonin out of commission, and block the action of catecholamines (beta blockers). 

What if it turns out that aging is just something the body does to itself?  Aging looks in some ways like ‘wearing out’ of body parts, but that’s an illusion:  the body is able to repair itself just as good as new, but chooses not to as we get older.

This raises the possibility that drugs could be developed that target the aging program, and turn it off.  Last week, biochemists at University of Southern California announced their success in slowing aging in fruitflies with just such an approach.  Link at Scienceblog

The first such anti-aging supplements for humans may already be available.  Link on resveratrol

Link to my page on how to live a long time.

11 June 2007

Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and youll help them to become what they are capable of becoming.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749-1832