Good Intentions

This is a fascinating article I found online recently about the history of Afghanistan and the US in the 1950′s. At this time, America wanted to help modernize Afghanistan to prevent Communism, but also to gain an ally in an important part of Asia. American engineers came to Helmand Province in Afghanistan, lived there, and helped build dams, roads, libraries, buildings, etc. People (American and Afghani) were optomistic and excited about the changes, and it seemed like things would succeed.

However, as the article shows, the plan was a huge failure. The dams worked too well, and the ground became flooded and too salty (which are great conditions for growing poppy plants, as in “opium”), and the attempts to educate nomadic Afghani people how to farm resulted in riots.

A long time ago, I read a book called Seeing like a State which talked about this same subject: good ideas and well-intentioned projects often have unexpected consequences.  Examples like Communist collective-farms, managed forests in Germany, “planned” cities, etc all show that ideas look really good on paper, but in reality they often encounter unexpected problems and fail, or look very different from the original plan.  Professor Scott isn’t discouraging projects, but warns people that good intentions often have consequences.  The story of Afghanistan in the 1950′s helps demonstrate this: American engineers sincerely wanted to help, but they underestimated things and the project had failures that still affect Afghanistan today.

Anyhow, I don’t want to say too much.  Read the article, it’s very fascinating.

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

Finding Religious Communities in America

A while back, I read a fascinating article in Tricycle Magazine about religious communities in the US. The article talks about how religious communities are changing in America so that instead of social “communities” they are becoming “lifestyle enclaves”.

The difference between the two is important. As Professor Strand explains, in a traditional social community people in the group might come from different backgrounds, but they have something in common (religion, ethnicity, neighborhood, etc) that brings them together, and the religion helps keep them together during good times and bad. So, he uses the example of old ladies who bake casseroles1 for a family where someone has died. The emphasis is on community which means that they help each other out. This was my experience at a certain Japanese-American (日系, nikkei) Jodo Shinshu temple here in Seattle that my family and I attended for years. I was impressed how people worked together to keep the temple running for 100+ years.

The newer “lifestyle enclave” is more like “shopping for a religion”. You’re concerned about the religion first, and the community second. This has an advantage because you can find people who think and act like you, but the disadvantage is that there’s no real sense of community because the religion is the only thing bringing people together. People are there first and foremost to learn something or maybe to get answers for some questions. Because they’re “shopping”, they’re concerned with their own needs first. You’re not there because of the other people. It gives you a greater sense of freedom because you can pick and choose what temple or what group you want to attend, but you also don’t feel close as to anybody. When I visited a certain Buddhist “meditation centre” in Ireland,2 and some temples in the US, this is feeling I got. People were polite and friendly, but not really connected. Usually, it felt like a room of individuals, not a community.

Anyhow, the article is a good read. I don’t really have a solution myself. In fact, I am just as guilty of “shopping” for religion too. I believe that this change is a natural part of the modern countries experience, not just in religion, but it is kind of sad to see genuine communities going away. I think we’re now struggling to find a good replacement.

P.S. I believe this same trend is happening in Japan too based on my limited experience: older “communities” are being replaced with newer “enclaves”, so it’s not just the US and Western countries. It’s a problem of modern life: people can take care of themselves more easily, so they don’t need to depend on one another as much.

1 Funny story, but my wife, who is from Japan, never had them since Japanese food is different. Howeer, one of her favorite foods in American culture is a green-bean casserole, which is something I never liked. I still don’t really like them.

2 I thought I wrote a post about it, but I can’t find it anymore. I might have removed it, or I chose not to write about it, as the experience wasn’t very positive.

Posted in Buddhism, Religion | Leave a comment

The Problem Is Not Them, It’s You

XKCD comic number 1386

(alt text: To everyone who responds to everything by saying they’ve ‘lost their faith in humanity’: Thanks–I’ll let humanity know. I’m sure they’ll be crushed.)

I read the online comic XKCD regularly each week for years and Wednesday’s is one of the best I’ve read in a long time. It sums up my own attitude toward a lot of smart and condescending people I work with in the IT industry.

People tend to have a self-centered view of how the world should be. We all do it. We all have our own particular viewpoint. We all think that people should do things our way, be more like us, etc. But when life doesn’t match our expectations, we get offended or assume the problem is somewhere else (or someone else). The problem is you. You have unrealistic expectations that don’t match reality. You can’t blame reality.

One of my favorite quotes from Frank Herbert’s novel Children of Dune is this one (also mentioned here):

The universe is just there; that’s the only way a Fedaykin can view it and remain the master of his senses. The universe neither threatens nor promises. It holds things beyond our sway: the fall of a meteor, the eruption of a spiceblow, growing old and dying. These are the realities of this universe and they must be faced regardless of how you feel about them. You cannot fend off such realities with words.

If you think life is good, you’re ignoring the painful, ugly parts of life. If you believe life is bad, you are blind to the beautiful things in life. If you think people are stupid, you do not understand other people. If you think people are smarter than you, you do not understand yourself.

The Universe is just there. Life just is.

Posted in Buddhism, Dune, Literature | 6 Comments

Final Fantasy: Then and Now

This is a video the original Final Fantasy game for the Nintendo system, which was released in the US in 1990, and which I often played as a kid:

And this is the trailer for Final Fantasy XIII, released in the US in 2010, and which I started playing recently on the PS3:1

Amazing how much has changed in 20 years! I am an “old-school” gamer (I even own the shirt), but I really do appreciate how much games have improved in that time. FFXIII is pretty different than the D&D-style games I used to play as a kid, but many of the changes have been positive. Characters are better-developed now, stories are more complex, the music is very professional, etc.

Although nostalgia is nice, it’s also nice to see new and better things. We can’t always live in the past. :)

P.S. Speaking of FF1, this is a funnier video that someone did where they played through with just a single character (the other three members of the party are left for dead).

P.P.S. On my upcoming trip to Japan, I have a feeling I’ll be hanging out in Akihabara district buying up Final Fantasy memorabilia.

1 I prefer buying games and new consoles long after they come out, so they’re much cheaper. I don’t need to have the latest and greatest. Some really good games are also very old ones. So although the PS3 is 4 years old, I finally purchased one for very cheap, and enjoying every minute of FFXIII. Truly an awesome game. Plus, I love the fact that the main character, Lightning, is a female.

Posted in Technology | Tagged | Leave a comment

Taking Time Off

This post is just to let readers know I will be taking a kind of “retreat”1 at home for a week or two. I will still be working and taking care of family but I will turn off Twitter, Blog and News and focus on non-technical things.

It’s a good opportunity to get some more rest, relax a bit, and maybe find some inspiration.

See you soon!

1 Kind of ironic after this last post. ;-)

Posted in Buddhism, Health, Religion | 1 Comment

A Bandage-Fix

The IT industry can be pretty stressful. When I was younger I thought I could manage the stress better if I meditated often. I was new to Buddhism and was eager to meditate so at work I would find an empty office and meditate maybe 15 minutes or so. Sometimes I chanted something too.

When I was done, I felt great. I was peaceful, my mind was alert, and problems at work didn’t bother. This feeling lasted an hour, at most.

Looking back, I realize that I wasn’t really fixing the real problem. I was trying to compensate for the real problem. In the IT culture we sometimes call this a “bandaid fix” or a “bandage fix”: you’re covering the problem up, but you’re not really fixing it.

The real problem is that I work in a demanding job. I didn’t have stomach-problems/gastritis until this job. Co-workers told me the same thing: they got stomach problems too after working jobs like this. Meditation hasn’t fixed the gastritis either.

I realize now that meditation will never really fix this. Vacations won’t fix this, retreats won’t fix this, therapy won’t fix this, etc, etc. It is a different kind of problem. It’s a lifestyle problem. It’s a problem of environment. As Robert Buswell wrote, the reason why Buddhist monks can make good progress is because they live in a healthy, wholesome, structured environment. The Buddha stressed the importance of being in a healthy community, with helpful people over a particular kind of practice.

Meditation and such are important, but it just won’t always fix the problem if it’s the wrong kind of problem.

So I have to face the fact that if I truly want to fix my stress, I have to get out of a stressful environment. But if I do that, I may have to give up other things too. I’m not ready not to do that right now, but I shouldn’t fool myself either. As long as I want to continue to live the life that I live, I have to accept that this is the price I will pay.

As the Buddha said:

371. …..Heedless, do not swallow a red-hot iron ball, lest you cry when burning, “O this is painful!”

In other words, know what you are getting into and know the consequences. That is real insight.

Posted in Buddhism, Health, Religion | 1 Comment

Dune in Japanese 砂の惑星

「ここにあるのはあんたに使う新しいもの、ゴム・ジャバール。これは動物のみ殺すのだよ。」誇りがポウルの恐怖にうちなった。「公爵の息子が動物だというのか?」「まああんたは人間かもしれねぬということにしておこう。。。静かに!」

“…here’s a new one for you: the gom jabbar. It kills only animals.” Pride overcame Paul’s fear. “You dare suggest a Duke’s son is an animal?” he demanded. “Let us say, I suggest you may be human,” she said, “steady!”

Because I am a huge nerd, I thought it would be fun to try to read one of my favorite books in a foreign language, Japanese. I found a copy of Dune online at Amazon JP. In Japanese the title is either 砂の惑星 (suna no wakusei “Sand Planet”) or just デゥーン which is a transliteration of “Dune”.

Cover of Dune in Japanese

This book belongs to a science-fiction series called the Hayakawa Series (ハヤカワ文庫), which includes many other English-language science-fiction books translated into Japanese. I was surprised to see most1 Roger Zelazny books translated into Japanese and sold by Hayakawa too! I might buy some of those next. It seems like something I might do on my trip to Japan soon. ;-)

Anyhow, like most Japanese books, it’s much smaller than American-printed books. This makes it easy to carry on trains and such I assume. I’ve been reading it on the bus, which is helpful because the bus gets very crowded. In fact, this book is only the first part of the novel. There are at least two other parts. I believe that if they published it as a single novel, it would be too thick for Japanese-style books, so they decided to break it up.

Also, the book features scenes from the 1984 movie Dune, including the cover above. The cover photo is the same scene I quoted above, which you can also see here on Youtube:

There are other scenes inside the book too from the movie, usually one per chapter or so. Some in color, but most are black and white.

So, you might ask: is it difficult to read?

Oh yes, it is difficult, but it’s still very interesting to me. Dune is difficult to read in English, so reading in Japanese is even harder. However, it’s a story I like very much, plus I already know the story, so even though there are many difficult words, I can still follow along. Plus, I learn many new words in the process like 老婆 (old woman, crone), 領土 (territory, dominion), 公爵 (Duke), 視線 (gaze, glance), 香料 (spice) etc. :)

I’m only on page 25, but it’s a good start for only 2 days.

1 I am unable to find Zelazny’s Isle of the Dead in Japanese so far which is unfortunate. That’s one of my favorites too.

Posted in Dune, Japanese, Language, Literature, Zelazny | 1 Comment